The A stands for Asexual

Today is a more personal post: I want to talk about asexuality.

The idea of asexuality is still quite a new one for a lot of people. Many people haven’t even heard of it, and among those who have, there are still some common misunderstandings and mistakes. Compared to other orientations, asexuality doesn’t get much time in the spotlight.

I’ve identified as asexual for the last couple of years, and so for this year’s Asexual Awareness Week, I’d like to give you a brief introduction to my orientation. (I spent a lot of time worrying over whether to post this, so much so that I missed the end of AAW. Oh well, better late than never.)

What is asexuality?

The OED defines the word asexual as follows:

A person who has no sexual feelings or desires.

I think that’s a good definition, if somewhat short. I prefer this longer version:

A person who does not experience sexual feelings for people of any gender, and who does not actively desire to do so.

The name of this orientation is asexuality, sometimes shortened to “ace”. At its core, that’s all asexuality is really about – an absence of sexual feelings. Within that community, there’s a lot of diversity, but it all rests on this same idea.

What asexuality isn’t

When you say that you’re asexual, people often make assumptions about what it means. You get jokes about being a plant or a robot or an amoeba (haha, you’re so original and funny), and it can miss what being asexuality is really about. Let’s go through a few things that asexuality isn’t:

  • Asexuality isn’t a choice. You can choose not to have sex, but you can’t choose not to want to have sex. The latter is where asexuality occurs.

  • Asexuality isn’t the same as abstinence or celibacy. Somebody who’s taken an abstinence pledge or who’s celibate is choosing not to have sex, regardless of their sexual orientation. Somebody who’s asexual doesn’t want to have sex. Being celibate is a choice, being asexual is an orientation.

  • Asexuality isn’t a gender or gender identity. Asexuality is a sexual orientation, and it is orthogonal to your gender identity. There are asexual people who are cis, trans, non-binary and genderqueer – one doesn’t influence the other.

  • Asexuality isn’t caused by childhood trauma. People have the idea that asexuals were “broken” by sexual abuse as a child, or mental health issues, and their feelings can be “fixed”. Not only is this grossly offensive, it’s also untrue.

    Of course, there are asexuals who have mental health issues, or a history of abuse, but that’s true of any cross-sample of the population. There’s no proven connection between these issues and being asexual, and plenty of asexuals have no history of trauma. You should never assume you know the “reasons” for somebody’s orientation, or that it was caused by a particular set of events.

Why should I care about asexuality?

A lot of the LGBTQUIAP community experience outright hatred or vitriol. Because asexuality is relatively unknown, it tends to avoid the worst of this, but being ignored comes with a different set of problems. Asexuals can be overlooked or forgotten when discussing these issues, and the “A” is often misinterpreted as “Ally”.

There are lots of asexual people who don’t know their orientation is valid, because they’ve never heard the word “asexuality”. If everybody around you is having sexual feelings, and you don’t, you feel like the odd one out. At best, that leads to confusion or self-doubt; at worst, it feels like you’re broken or defective. Better knowledge and awareness of asexuality can make this process easier.

I didn’t discover asexuality until I was in my late teens, and until then, I felt like there was something wrong with me. Even after I knew about it, I felt uncomfortable telling people I was ace because nobody ever knew what I was talking about. Plenty of other asexuals have gone through similar experiences, and it’s miserable.

This is why we need people to be aware that asexuality exists, and that it’s a real, valid orientation.

Writing this post is my small contribution to that goal; yours is reading it.

Interlude: my experience

A week ago, I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I wanted to write for Awareness Week. Then this tweet crossed my feed on Tuesday, and that’s what got me started:

WE ARE GOING TO LIST OUR ROMANTIC PREFERENCE THEN OUR SEXUAL PREFERENCE THEN EXPLAIN A LIL BIT FOR ASEXUAL AWARENESS WEEK

As I read the responses to this tweet, I felt a rush of ace positivity. It’s always nice to be reminded that there are other people like you! I chipped in with a brief response, which grew into writing this entire post. And since the medium of blogging gives me more than 140 characters, I’d like to elaborate a bit on my original answer.

I’m heteroromantic: that means I’m romantically attracted to people of a different gender to me. I tend to have quite strong romantic feelings when I’m in a relationship, and I’m very sappy about the romantic lives of my friends and of fictional characters.

On the sexual side, I say that I’m asexual. I almost never experience any sexual attraction, or have any real desire to have sex. Recently, I’ve had a bit of self-doubt over whether I’m full-on asexual, or just grey-ace (somewhere between sexual and asexual), but I’m not too fussed about the exact label. Feelings come first, labels later. I’m definitely somewhere on the ace spectrum, and that’s enough for me to know for now.

There have been times when I’ve had sexual feelings, but they’re few and far between. If they come back, I guess I’ll roll with it, but I’m not too fussed if they don’t. I have no problem with other people having sex – and indeed, I try to maintain a sex positive attitude when talking to friends about their sex lives – it’s just not something I care about doing myself.

For a long time, I just felt awkward and weird and like something was wrong with me. I heard people talking about sex, and I never had the interest in it that they seemed to have. I didn’t realise that asexuality was a thing, or that there were other people who felt like me. I thought that a part of me was broken. When I discovered asexuality, and realised that’s what I was, a lot of latent stress and confusion began to clear.

I’m very lucky to have reached the point where I’m comfortable talking about this. Part of writing this post is to remind myself of that. But really, I’m writing about my experience because I hope it will help somebody else, and give them something they can relate to. Basically, I’m trying to write the post that I would like to have read when I was a teenager.

It’s not all black and white

Human sexuality is big and complicated, and asexuality is no different. It isn’t one size fits all. There’s a lot of variation among people who identify as asexual. For example:

  • There are different degrees of asexuality.

    Some people describe themselves as being “almost asexual”: they experience sexual feelings on a rare basis. Still far less than the general population, but more than “never”. This is often referred to as being grey-asexual. Others are only able to experience sexual feelings once they have a significant emotional bond with somebody: demisexual.

    You may also hear people talk about the asexual spectrum, which covers the variation within asexuality. This includes being grey-ace and demisexual.

  • Asexuals have different types of romantic attraction.

    Along with sexual orientation, you have a romantic orientation – the sort of people you’re romantically attracted to. For many people, their romantic and sexual orientations are aligned, so they don’t distinguish between the two. But it’s possible for the two to be distinct, and so you get asexual people who also experience romantic attraction.

    There are corresponding romantic orientations for every sexual orientation – for example, heteroromantic (romantic attraction to the other genders), homoromantic (attraction to the same gender), biromantic, panromantic, and so on. Many asexuals identify as aromantic, shortened “aro”, meaning they don’t experience any romantic attraction.

    An asexual person can have any sort of romantic orientation, and an associated desire to have a romantic relationship.

  • Some asexuals have a sex life.

    Asexuality is characterised by a lack of desire to have sex, but that doesn’t mean that asexuals never have sex.

    There are some asexuals who are repulsed by the idea of having sex, some who are indifferent, and others who are willing to do it, even if they don’t actively seek it out. For example, an asexual person might have sex so they can have a child, or to please their allosexual partner, or because they enjoy the physical sensation.

  • More generally, different asexuals have different lives.

    Asexuality is a sexual orientation, not a lifestyle. What matters is how somebody feels, not what they do. There are asexuals who have sex, who masturbate, who experience arousal or orgasms, who date or get married, who fall in love – and plenty of others who don’t. All of these are completely compatible with being asexual – any of them can be done without the motivation of sexual attraction.

Am I asexual?

Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question for you: only you can say how you feel.

On the face of it, the litmus test seems simple: have you ever experienced sexual attraction? If not, or only rarely, then you’re probably somewhere on the asexual spectrum. But in practice, that’s a really difficult question to answer. It’s hard to describe what “sexual attraction” feels like, and if you’re not sure what it feels like, how can you know if you’ve ever felt it?

A slightly easier test is to ask whether you’re generally disinterested in sex, or you feel left out when people talk about it. If so, that’s not a guarantee that you’re asexual, but it’s a strong indicator.

For Awareness Week, a lot of asexuals have been writing about their experiences. I’ve been following the #aceweek and #asexualityawarenessweek hashtags on Twitter, and have a big queue of new posts to read through. If you think you might be asexual, read some of them, and see if you recognise yourself in what’s being described – that’s another good indicator.

So what next?

I hope you come away from this post with a better understanding of asexuality. This is just a very brief introduction to the topic, and there’s plenty more to learn if you’re interested. I can only give you one person’s view, so I’d encourage reading around – there are lots of other good perspectives on asexuality. A few from my most recent bookmarks:

  • There’s the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (aka AVEN), and their website has lots more detail about asexuality. It can also act as a support network for people who identify as asexual.
  • There’s Asexuality 101 on the Awareness Week website.
  • I quite like these interviews, which cover a broad range of topics in a relatively short space.

Asexuality is routinely overlooked and forgotten. If you take nothing else from this post, please just remember that it exists, and it’s a real sexual orientation.

If you have questions or corrections, please get in touch.

Happy Ace Week, everyone!