Q: My teenage daughter came out to me as “asexual,” and when I tried to research it online I just got confused. Can you point me somewhere that will actually explain what she means?
A: It’s Ace Awareness Week! What’s Ace, some may ask? It’s asexuality! And that’s why this week’s question is about asexuality.
The short answer to your question is: the person who can explain what she means is your daughter. There are reliable resources like AcesandAros.org or TAAAP.org, but all the general information in the world can’t tell you what your daughter can. Bring your enthusiasm and your curiosity, and ask her what it means for her. It’s even reasonable to say, “I tried to do some research, but it seems like asexual people vary so much from each other I’ll only ever get to know what it means to you by asking you!” Because asexual folks do vary a lot.
And don’t think I can possibly write a full asexuality “explainer” that’s shorter than book-length, because it is diverse, from people who experience no sexual desire for anyone or anything, to people who can do sex in the right context to people who are actively repulsed by all things sexual. Asexual, greysexual, demisexual, alloromantic asexual (totes falling in love, without sexual attraction), aromantic asexual (neither romance nor sexual attraction) these are all shades on the asexual spectrum.
Cool, right? People vary!
Folks on the asexuality spectrum make up roughly 1% of the population. They’re more likely to be nonbinary, to be on the Autism spectrum, and nope, nobody has a solid, empirically grounded theory about why any of these things might be true. The science is young. The inclusion of asexuality in the rainbow of LGBTQIA2+ pride is new, despite two generations of asexual folks fighting for visibility and inclusion.
We talked for 90 minutes, we could not stop talking, it was an amazing conversation, and I wish I could just tell you the whole thing. But instead I’ll give you the three most important points Aubri clarified for me, which I think you (and everyone reading this) may find helpful:
1. Asexual orientation is about attraction. If you’re gay or lesbian, you’re sexually attracted to people of your same gender. If you’re straight, you’re sexually attracted to people of a different gender. If you’re asexual, you’re sexually attracted to… nobody.
Now, not being attracted to anyone sexually doesn’t mean you don’t experience or enjoy sexual pleasure on your own. It also doesn’t mean you don’t experience and enjoy sex with other people. When Aubri and I discussed the brakes and accelerator, she said, “For an asexual person, the gas pedal may be revvin’ it’s just not pointed anywhere, it’s not connected to a steering wheel.” Hence some asexual folks masturbate, some don’t, they’re all normal, and basically masturbation has nothing to do with asexuality because asexual orientation is about attraction.
And partnered sex? Well, for asexuals, as Aubri put it, “Interpersonal sex is like Disneyland. It can be a lot of fun, but also it’s exhausting. Some people want to go back the next day, and some people want a year in between before they do it again.”
But also, some asexual folks are not just not sexually attracted to anyone, they’re actively aversive to sexual sensations, behaviors, smells, etc. People vary.
And not being sexually attracted to anyone doesn’t mean you’re not romantically attracted to people. There are aromantic asexuals and alloromantic asexuals. Did I mention people vary?
With all this variety within the asexual community, what does identifying as asexual actually mean? That brings us to the second important point.
2. The purpose of a label is “to communicate your needs and boundaries, and to find community.” There’s a lot of gatekeeping around all labels of sexual identities, by people within the community and people outside the community, and it’s allllllll bullshit, because the purpose of a label isn’t to categorize a human like a taxonomist categorizing a species of insect, it’s to communicate needs and boundaries and to find community. So, when someone tells you their label, they’re communicating their needs and boundaries, and they’re seeking community.
So here are some questions you may be inclined to ask, that you can just skip: “Are you sure?” (They would not be coming out to you if they hadn’t thought about it a lot. Also, when they tell you a label, they’re communicating their needs and boundaries; if you explained your needs and boundaries to someone and they said, “Are you sure?” would that feel amazing? No.) “What if you just haven’t met the right person yet?” (Sexual identity can change over time, but again, a label is about a person’s needs and boundaries, so this question is just saying, “I think you’re wrong about your needs and boundaries.” Eep.) And any variation on “Don’t you think you’re just accepting a cultural narrative that says sex is bad and dangerous and if you could free yourself from that you’d find out you want and like sex after all?” (Again: needs and boundaries.)
And don’t worry about someone getting “stuck in a label.” The person is not worried about that. Very often, when a person finds a label that describes their experience, so they have a word that validates their needs and boundaries and provides them a doorway to community, it doesn’t feel like getting stuck, it feels liberating.
And y’all, there are so many fun labels! Fraysexual. Aegosexual. Polyamical quadricule.
The labels are fun partly just because they’re so fun to say. I mean: polyamical quadricule! But they’re also fun because these are names people give to their own identity as they explore and process what’s true about their own sexuality, liberated from the monoculture narrative of cisgender compulsive hetero- and allo-sexuality, with monogamous nuclear families. I love the asexual community because they create a community where people are welcome to explore and to define themselves on their own terms. To choose a label that communicates their needs and boundaries and helps them find community.
Which brings me to the third important point:
3. A lot of “introductory” articles about asexuality are full of “mythbusting” and trying to define what asexuality is and what it isn’t, and all that does is pit people against each other. It pits allosexual folks against asexual folks, and it pits asexual folks against each other, trying to defend their own identity by keeping some people “out,” so that the identity stays “pure.”
And that’s not what we do here, at the Confidence & Joy Bulletin.
A great place to start is, as Aubri puts it, “Shut up and listen.” The asexual person in your life can tell you a lot, if you listen with curiosity and without doubt. It’s not up to you to doubt their internal experience.
Ace awareness week is a time to celebrate diversity, to believe people when they tell you their internal experience, to honor the complexity and subtlety of how sexuality manifests (or doesn’t) in our bodies and our lives.
We live in a culture that centers sex and romance, but even if we look around at our own lives, we see there is so much beyond that, to value and enjoy. A sole romantic and sexual relationship does not have to be the center of our lives. Who says it should be? What if it weren’t?
What if the scariest thing about asexuality isn’t the worry that your loved one would be alone forever, but the possibility that nobody has to be alone forever, no matter who they’re sexually attracted to or not attracted to, no matter whether they feel romantic love or not? What if all of us are “normal,” no matter how we vary from each other? What if we all belong in the human family?
EMILY NAGOSKI is the award-winning author of the New York Times bestselling Come As You Are and The Come As You Are Workbook, and coauthor, with her sister, Amelia, of New York Times bestseller Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. She earned an M.S. in counseling and a Ph.D. in health behavior, both from Indiana University, with clinical and research training at the Kinsey Institute. Now she combines sex education and stress education to teach women to live with confidence and joy inside their bodies. She lives in Massachusetts with two dogs, a cat, and a cartoonist.