This week is Asexual Awareness Week, something sorely needed even as awareness of trans, homosexual and bisexual experiences creeps into the mainstream. Despite all coming under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella (note the A right at the end there) asexuality is its own separate thing from the rest. Someone can be for example, trans, bisexual and asexual all at the same time. It covers a huge amount of ground, which is why it's so important that more people understand what asexuality is (and isn't).
What Asexuality Is
Asexuality at its most basic is a lack of, or lesser sexual attraction to others. However it is mostly used by the community as an umbrella term that covers a number of different sexual identities that differ from the norm, and the term can encompass a huge number of different experiences. The term is often shortened to "ace" by members of the community.
With sexuality often being held up as a cornerstone of the human experience (just look at any popular movie, TV show, book...), there's a lot of misconceptions about what asexuality is, and what asexual people experience. When I first started exploring the possibility that I could be asexual myself, even my psychologist was stumped by the turn of conversation. So here's what everyone should know.
To begin with, it's helpful to look at sexual attraction as a spectrum, with 'sexual' at one end and 'asexual' at the other. Someone at the high end of the spectrum could regularly meet people they are sexually attracted to, someone in the middle may only be sexually attracted to people very rarely, while someone at the low end isn't sexually attracted to anyone. People can sit anywhere on this spectrum, with a certain range of it considered 'normal'.
A lot of the low range is included under the 'asexual' umbrella, even though people included in this grouping may not be considered asexual by its purest meaning. Even those in the furthest asexual group differ in how their asexuality is expressed, with some people feeling apathetic towards sex, while another group describing themselves as 'sex-repulsed asexuals' have a far stronger aversion to sex. On the other side, sex-favourable asexuals enjoy the experience of sex, even though they don't experience sexual attraction.
Once you've got your head around that much, there's another concept to be added to the mix: the difference between aromanticism and asexuality. In some LGBT identity theory, people choose to break out romantic and sexual attraction into their own categories - for example someone can be bisexual but heteroromantic, meaning they're sexually attracted to people of any gender but only interested in romantic relationships with the opposite gender.
Likewise, people can be asexual but not aromantic, meaning they're interested in romantic relationships but not in sex. They can also be aromantic but not asexual, meaning they are interested in sex but not in romantic relationships, or they can be both asexual and aromantic. While aromanticism is a separate thing from asexuality, they are often classed together under the larger banner of asexuality.
Aromantic people often still engage in committed, non-romantic relationships that are known in queer communities as queer platonic relationships, where a partner is referred to as a Queer Platonic Partner or QPP.
What Asexuality Isn't
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what being 'asexual' actually means, and these only add to the confusion of people who are questioning whether they fit into that community.
Asexuality isn't the same as having a low sex drive, and it's an important distinction to make. Quora user Ben Robinson described the distinction well with this desert island analogy:
Lets say there is a straight guy called Jeff has a fairly high sex drive but is not sexually attracted to men at all. Jeff gets stranded on a desert island with a bunch of other men but no women. Jeff’s sex drive is unaffected, but there are only men in his current environment so he is not sexually attracted to any of them.
Asexual people can have a very high sex drive, but they just don't experience sexual attraction to other people. Asexual people can and do masturbate - and even masturbating regularly doesn't disqualify someone from being asexual.
Dating isn't a no-go for asexual people, who often date people both asexual and not. Some asexual people choose to have sex for the sake of their partners, even though they don't feel the same sexual attraction themselves.
Another important distinction to make is that asexuality isn't a medical condition. There are a number of medical conditions that can seem similar to asexuality: depression can cause a lack of interest in sex, while some medications can also cause sexual dysfunction - referring to problems that occur in the physical mechanisms rather than the initial stage of desire or attraction. Other conditions like sexual aversion disorder tend to manifest as intense fear or anxiety around sex, again something different to asexuality.
While it can be important for people who don't feel entirely comfortable 'asexual' label to explore whether medical issues might be the cause of their lack of sexual interest, asexuality exists on its own outside of any mental or physical illness.
Pictured: how not to depict asexuality in media.
Asexuality also isn't the same as celibacy. While celibate people make the choice not to engage in sexual activities for whatever reason that motivates them, asexuals simply aren't interested in the first place.
While you may have never (knowingly) met someone who identifies as asexual, they're more common than you would think. While the commonly accepted stat is 1% of the population, the same survey reported that the number of homosexual and bisexual people combined at around 1.1%. As far as this data can be trusted, it would at least suggest that asexuality could be as common as non-hetero sexual orientations.
Asexuality is far less known and understood, partly due to the lack of representation in popular media: in fact the first in-depth representation of an asexual character has popped up only recently, with Bojack Horseman's Todd experiencing this revelation about his identity at the end of Season 3 in 2016, and exploring what this means through subsequent seasons. The whole character arc has been well received by the ace community, with scenes like Todd's 'coming out' featuring the kind of empathetic representation that hasn't existed until this point.
There are a number of different identities that come under the ace umbrella, which all sit at different points of the spectrum. Many of them also live alongside other sexual identities such as homosexual or bisexual. Here are a few of the most common for those who don't identify solely as asexual:
Demisexual: Refers to people who only experience sexual attraction once they've formed a strong emotional bond to people.
Greysexual or grey-asexual: Refers to people who fall along the spectrum between sexual and asexual, who only experience sexual attraction to a small number of people.
Reciprosexual: Refers to people who only experience sexual attraction when that attraction is reciprocated by the other person.
Akoisexual: Refers to people who only experience sexual attraction when it's not reciprocated by the other person.
Aromantic identities are for the most part similar to their asexual equivalents, swapping out the sexual factor for the romantic. While most non-ace people's romantic attraction aligns with their sexual attraction, it can get a little more complicated for those under the asexual/aromantic spectrum.
Demiromantic: Refers to people who only experience romantic attraction once they've formed a strong emotional bond to people.
Greyromantic or grey-aromantic: Refers to people who fall along the spectrum between romantic and aromantic, who only experience romantic attraction to a small number of people.
Recipromantic: Refers to people who only experience romantic attraction when that attraction is reciprocated by the other person.
Akoiromantic: Refers to people who only experience romantic attraction when it's not reciprocated by the other person.
Are you exploring asexuality for the first time, or supporting someone who is? Check out the Asexual Visibility and Education Network for some handy resources about asexuality including user forums, or share your favourite resources in the comments.