Understanding Asexuality

What is asexuality?

Sexual attraction — an attraction to another person that involves a sexual interest towards them — is a typical part of many non-asexual people’s lives. For asexual people, this concept can be completely foreign. Asexuality is a sexual orientation where a person experiences little to no sexual attraction to anyone and/or does not experience desire for sexual contact.

The asexual umbrella

There are some people who may not fit the strictest definition of the word asexual but feel their experience aligns more with asexuality than with other sexual orientations. Several identities have emerged to express this experience, including the following:

  • Gray-asexual (or graysexual): an orientation where a person finds that asexuality describes a lot of their experiences, but that it still doesn’t fit perfectly. For example, someone who is gray-asexual might experience sexual attraction rarely, only under specific circumstances, or without any accompanying sex drive. Alternatively, they might not be able to tell whether or not they are experiencing sexual attraction.

  • Demisexual: an orientation where a person can only experience sexual attraction if a strong emotional bond is present. Although this bond is required for attraction, it is not a guarantee that attraction will occur. Demisexuality is often considered a type of gray-asexuality.

The term asexual umbrella (also referred to as the asexual spectrum) encompases all of the identities related to asexuality, including asexuality itself, demisexuality, and gray-asexuality. The word ace is a shorthand for the identities that fit within the asexual umbrella, and can also be used to refer to a person who identifies with the asexual umbrella. As an example, an ace person might identify as asexual, gray-asexual, or demisexual.

About romantic orientations

Many ace people want to form romantic relationships with people who they are not sexually attracted to. This desire is called romantic attraction. Romantic attraction is distinct from sexual attraction, as it does not inherently involve a desire to engage in sexual activity with another person. Although it is commonly assumed that romantic and sexual attraction are always experienced together, the two can be separate experiences. When someone has a desire to have sex with a person that they long to form a romantic relationship with, this is a case where the two types of attraction overlap.

Romantic orientations in a nutshell

People often experience sexual attraction to specific genders, and romantic attraction can follow similar patterns based on gender. Some people choose to identify with a romantic orientation to explain their patterns of romantic attraction. This is especially common for those whose patterns of romantic and sexual attraction do not align, such as an asexual person who is romantically attracted to women. Because romantic orientations describe attraction to others based on gender, there is a corresponding romantic orientation for each sexual orientation. Examples include:

  • Aromantic: experiencing little to no romantic attraction regardless of gender, and/or having no desire to form romantic relationships.

  • Biromantic: experiencing romantic attraction to two or more genders.

  • Heteroromantic: experiencing romantic attraction exclusively to another gender.

  • Homoromantic: experiencing romantic attraction exclusively to the same gender.

  • Panromantic: experiencing romantic attraction to all genders, or experiencing romantic attraction regardless of gender.

People who identify as homoromantic often prefer to use terms like gay or lesbian to describe themselves, and others may use different terms (such as bi or pan) to describe their romantic orientation.

Aromanticism

While you do not need to be ace to identify as aromantic, a large percentage of the ace community identifies as being somewhere on the aromantic spectrum.

Much like asexuality, aromanticism exists on a spectrum which includes a range of identities characterized by varying levels of romantic attraction, such as grayromantic and demiromantic. The term aro can be used to refer to any identity in the aromantic spectrum or to any person who identifies with an aromantic spectrum identity.

In addition, an ace person who also identifies as aro (often referred to as aroace) may view their personal ace and aro identities as inextricable from each other or may choose to prioritize one identity over the other.

Relationships and Sexual Activity

A person’s asexuality often significantly impacts how they approach relationships and sex. Some ace people enjoy being in romantic relationships while others have no desire for partnership. Still others choose to pursue relationships that defy traditional categories. Similarly, each ace person’s feelings about sex are highly personal.

Ace people in romantic relationships

Many ace people experience romantic attraction and desire romantic relationships, and the relationships they form can take shape in many different ways. Like with any other relationship, those that ace people form may be brief, lifelong, or anything in between.

While some aces date other aces, it can be difficult, though not impossible, for ace people to find partners who are also ace and who have a compatible personality. Often, ace people will form romantic relationships with people who do not identify as ace, and these relationships can be incredibly successful and fulfilling.

Regardless of the sexual orientations involved, all relationships require some level of communication and negotiation. For ace people dating non-ace people, there may be an added conversation about sexual activity, but this extra facet does not necessarily make these relationships more challenging. Ace people may choose to have sex with their partners or may choose not to; this decision is ultimately dependent on their comfort level with sex and their level of desire for sexual activity.

Ace people in platonic partnerships

In our society, there is an underlying assumption that everyone is searching for “the one” — a single romantic partner to spend the rest of their lives with. This, however, is not always the case. Many people aren’t interested in traditional lifelong romantic partnership, and aces who are also aro are often among them.

Sometimes, an aro person may choose to be in a committed relationship that is entirely platonic in nature. For aro people in these relationships, commitment might include raising children together, sharing living expenses, or living together long term. An aro person might specifically seek out an aro partner who will have similar expectations for the relationship; however, aro people may also form platonic partnerships with people who do not identify as aro themselves.

Often, these kinds of committed relationships are called queerplatonic relationships, or QPRs. Having this dedicated word is helpful because it disrupts the belief that friendships are always lesser than romantic relationships. A committed platonic relationship may look vastly different from what most people think of when the word “friendship” is used. The word queerplatonic was created in order to describe relationships that don’t easily fit into either the “friendship” or “romance” categories.

Ace people who don’t want partnership

While some people desire partnership, others are entirely uninterested. Nonamory is when a person does not seek any form of committed relationship. A person who is nonamorous may be content with their existing familial relationships and friendships, or they may enjoy the independence that comes with being single.

Do ace people have sex?

Asexuality is typically based on a lack of sexual attraction rather than a lack of sexual activity, and while some ace people do have sex for various reasons, most ace people do not have sex and do not wish to have sex.

Different ace people have different feelings about themselves personally engaging in sex, and the following terms are often used to describe these feelings:

  • Sex-repulsed describes a person who is disgusted by the idea of themselves having sex or by being exposed to sexual content or situations.

  • Sex-averse describes someone who does not want to have sex.

  • Sex-indifferent describes someone who is not averse to having sex, but doesn’t find it to be personally beneficial or gratifying.

  • Sex-favorable describes someone who enjoys having sex in certain situations.

Typically, the attitude an ace person has about themselves participating in sexual activity does not extend to everyone else’s sexuality in general. Sex-positive refers to the belief that everyone should be able to engage in as much or as little consensual sex as they want. Many ace people share this belief, even if they themselves do not want to participate in sex.

Consent and asexuality

The relationship between consent and asexuality can be very complex. An ace person may agree to sex because they feel it is expected in a relationship even though they do not actually wish to engage in it. Some ace people may consent to sex before realizing they are asexual or before they realize that sex is not a requirement in romantic relationships. Ongoing consent, including repeatedly asking for consent, is important to help prevent cases where people feel pressured into sex.

Do ace people masturbate?

Like non-ace people, some ace people masturbate and some don’t. Many ace people still experience a libido – often called a “undirected sex drive,” as it isn’t accompanied by sexual attraction.

Issues aces face

Many people assume that everyone should and eventually will engage in sexual activity. In addition, many people believe that everyone should be seeking a romantic partner and that romantic relationships are more important than platonic ones. These widespread assumptions invalidate and erase ace experiences and perpetuate the idea that ace people are broken and should not exist.

Sexualization

Sexualization is when a person is seen to be especially sexual or is regarded as a sex object based on stereotypes about their race or other identities. When an ace person is sexualized because of their other marginalized identities, finding validation can be especially difficult because other people may be less likely to accept their asexuality as true.

On the other hand, some identities and groups are seen as inherently less sexual and are therefore desexualized. Ace people with these identities may worry about confirming stereotypes by not having sex, and they may be told that their asexuality is only a result of their desexualized identity.

Sexual violence

Sexual violence is any form of unwanted sexual contact or interaction and includes sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. When a person fails to conform to society’s expectations regarding sex, they are at a higher risk of experiencing sexual violence from those who might try to pressure or coerce them into participating in sexual activity.

Ace people are also susceptible to sexual violence that aims to correct or disprove their asexuality. Rape that occurs when the perpetrator is attempting to change another person’s sexuality is known as corrective rape.

Access to information

Many people don’t identify as ace because they aren’t familiar with asexuality. Most information on asexuality is online, which can be a detriment to those who have limited or no internet access.

Older ace people are impacted by the relative youth of the ace community. Because information on asexuality didn’t widely exist when they were young, older people often have a more difficult time discovering and coming to terms with an ace identity.

Coming out and invalidation

Coming out as ace is often accompanied by many of the same anxieties involved in coming out as another LGBTQ+ identity. An ace person might worry that they won’t be believed, or they might fear being rejected or discriminated against if they come out. Beyond these issues, ace people typically have to explain asexuality to the people they are coming out to, making the process even more difficult and stress-inducing.

Sometimes people don’t believe that asexuality is a real orientation or that the ace person who has just come out is correct in their identity. Along with potentially invalidating their identity, people might tell an ace person that their non-sexual romantic relationship isn’t a real relationship or might tell them that their committed platonic partner is “just a friend”.

Uninformed medical and mental health professionals

Many medical and mental health professionals still lack an understanding of the asexual umbrella, and major psychological texts often ignore asexuality and label experiences similar to asexuality as disordered. As a result, professionals may not know how to appropriately provide care to ace people, and they may unintentionally invalidate a person’s identity. In some cases, ace people can be diagnosed with a mental or physical illness in an attempt to explain their lack of sexual attraction or desire.

Medical professionals may refuse to accept a patient’s ace identity because they believe some attributable cause may be underlying their asexuality. Whether it be hormone therapy, mental health, medications, or past trauma, professionals may refuse to accept a person’s ace identity as valid. Health professionals may target these potential reasons with the intention of “curing” someone’s asexuality; this can be incredibly harmful to the patient and might cause the professional to inadequately address actual issues that person may have.

Some ace people have a history of being a victim of sexual assault or rape, and in some cases, a person’s ace identity can be brought on by past sexual trauma. Mental health care professionals may attempt to change an ace person back to their previous sexual identity through therapy, which can be deeply harmful and invalidating.

Illnesses and medications impacting sex drive

Reduced sex drive can be a side effect of certain medications and is sometimes considered a symptom of various mental illnesses. Doctors who are uninformed about asexuality may mistake it for a symptom or side effect. This can result in inappropriate care, such as misdiagnosing an illness where none exists or refusing to prescribe certain medications.

Medically induced changes in hormones can alter a person’s sex drive and experience with sexual attraction. For trans ace people who are undergoing hormone therapy, any accompanying changes in sex drive can feel deeply invalidating. Some ace people may avoid hormone therapy out of fear that it will increase their sex drive or change their experience of sexuality, and some may experience significant anxiety when starting hormone therapy because of this. Those who identify as ace after a decrease in sex drive or sexual attraction due to hormone therapy may not find validation in their newfound ace identity, as others may believe this attributable cause undermines their identity.

Asexuality, aromanticism, and other identities

Ace communities tend to be disproportionately white, female, and young. Ace people who have identities that are underrepresented in ace communities may feel alienated from them. While they may find some comfort in interacting with other ace people, some aspects of their experience may still be misunderstood in those spaces. At the same time, they may feel alienated by other groups or cultures that they belong to because of their asexuality.

Inclusion within LGBTQ+ spaces

Early in the ace advocacy movement, LGBTQ+ communities and organizations were somewhat hesitant about ace inclusion; however, these groups are increasingly including ace people in their parades, community centers, and educational work. Although outright exclusion has become quite rare, ace people can still have difficulties accessing LGBTQ+ community spaces.

Because ace people often face homophobic and transphobic discrimination, access to LGBTQ+ communities can be crucial. This is especially important when no active ace community group exists near someone who is struggling. Ace people might need support as they come out, explore non-normative relationships, and navigate other challenges, especially if they are young. LGBTQ+ communities and organizations are perfectly positioned to play a supportive role, so their inclusion of ace people is critical.

Inadequate media representation

While ace awareness is increasing, little accurate or explicit ace representation exists in popular media. Ace characters are often written as stereotypes, perpetuating negative perceptions of ace people, and characters implied to be ace are often comic relief or are cured by the end of the plot.

In news media coverage, ace airtime is typically limited to an introduction to the basics of asexuality. Occasionally, media networks put out content without input from ace people, and this content is often inaccurate or misleading. Ace perspectives are not typically considered on public issues that might affect them, and more in-depth issues are usually ignored.

Across different forms of popular media, ace people are almost always white, male, cisgender, and nondisabled. This lack of diversity invalidates those who don’t see themselves represented.

Ace community demographics

Media depictions often portray ace communities as homogenous groups; however, ace people hold a variety of other identities that can significantly impact the issues they face and the ways they experience their orientation. Data from an annual ace community census demonstrates the diversity of ace communities, and highlights the need for a more complex understanding of ace issues.

Romantic orientations

Community survey data from recent years suggests that most aces identify with a non-hetero romantic orientation. Many respondents identify as biromantic, panromantic, or homoromantic, demonstrating significant overlap with other LGBTQ+ communities. Many others identify as aromantic, or identify with romantic orientations on the aromantic spectrum.

Gender identity

Ace communities tend to be mostly made up of women. Non-binary people also make up a significant portion of the community, with men making up the smallest group. More than one in ten people in the ace community are trans, and three in ten are non-binary, which demonstrates significant overlap between the ace community and the trans and non-binary communities.

Identification as LGBTQ+

Most aces identify as LGBTQ+, whether that be because they view asexuality as an LGBTQ+ identity itself, or because they have another identity that fits under the LGBTQ+ umbrella.

Race and ethnicity

Respondents to community census data are disproportionately white and non-Hispanic. This is likely due to a combination of factors; for example, people of color:

  • May feel less validated in their identity because media representation typically depicts white ace people

  • May be less likely to discover asexuality if they have less access to online ace resources

  • May be less likely to participate in communities, because they don’t feel included

  • May be less likely to participate in online surveys

Mental health and disability

While mental health and disability statistics are not currently being released by the annual ace census, a large portion of aces and aros identify as being disabled, being neurodivergent, or having a mental illness. Evidence from local community census data suggests that rates of disability and mental illness are in line with or slightly higher than the general population.

Age

According to the 2015 ace census, 87% of the respondents were 30 or younger. Because the ace community only began organizing around the year 2000 and most people discover asexuality through the internet, young people make up the majority in ace communities. Older ace people are significantly underrepresented because they did not have resources on asexuality when they were growing up and because they are less likely to discover asexuality on the internet.


This introduction is an abbreviated version of Understanding Asexuality and Aromanticism, available on acesandaros.org.