Just the Basics, Ace: An Asexuality Primer
Many of us were taught to believe that the desire to be sexual independently or with others is automatic, a given— that everyone wants to have sex and even if you wait a little longer than most people you know, you will eventually want to have sex too, whether alone or with a partner. But it's certainly not automatic for most people, and it's not a given for some people, very much including asexual people.
I’ll never forget how I felt when, at sixteen, I was searching online and found an LGBTQIA+ Tumblr blog—one of the first of its kind—where people could submit anonymous secrets on designed graphics for others to read. It was the first place I learned more about asexuality and the asexual spectrum, and realized that I might not be completely alone. After finding that, I became more connected with the asexual community and with LGBTQIA+ online spaces, and realized that there are plenty of other people who, like me, are queer and gray-asexual.
Asexuality is an orientation usually defined by a focus on romantic, aesthetic, spiritual, or physical intimacy, or on non-sexual friendship, rather than on sexual attraction or sexual intimacy. The asexual community is diverse and asexual people have a wide variety of experiences, but what most have in common is prioritizing other types of attraction and relationships over sexual ones.
Maybe you’re wondering if you might be asexual, or a friend or romantic partner just came out to you. Maybe you’re curious to learn a little more about asexuality in case it comes up with someone you care about. Either way, I'd like to carve out a space where you can feel like you're not alone, too.
If you came here wondering if you might be asexual, it might be helpful to read about the experiences of other asexual people and see if they match your own. Only you can decide if you want to use the word asexual as part of your identity.
You might start by reading the Frequently Asked Questions on AVEN or checking out their Tumblr. If you’re comfortable and able, meet up with an established group for asexual (and questioning) people in your area, just to see if you feel like you fit in and would like to join the community. Find a safe space, and safe people, where you can talk about what you’re feeling and explore your emotions without judgment or shame.
What are some of the ways people experience asexuality?
As with other orientations, there's an entire spectrum of asexual identity, and individuals experience it differently. Some people who identify as asexual choose to have sex and enjoy it, while others never have sex and are completely happy. While asexuality, just like other orientations, is extremely individual, the Asexuality Archive Glossary is a helpful guide.
Here are some common asexuality concepts and what they often mean:
- Attraction: a strong feeling of physical or emotional interest in something or someone. You can be emotionally attracted to someone, physically or aesthetically attracted to them (thinking they’re beautiful/handsome/pretty or that they have a great sense of style), and/or sexually attracted to them, amongst other ways of experiencing attraction.
- Demisexual people don’t feel sexual attraction unless they have developed a deep emotional bond with a person.
- Gray-asexual people typically experience sexual attraction only infrequently or rarely, or have a very low sexual desires. Gray-asexuality is usually defined by an individual person, but a lot of gray asexual people have low sexual desire for both partnered and solo sex, while some people have a desire for solo sex and masturbation but not for partnered sexual acts.
- Romantic attraction is what some people call it when they feel a crush or romantic love. What is romantic love? It's hard to say, since a lot of different people define it and experience it a lot of different ways, but it's what people are often talking about when they talk about falling in love. In an asexual framework, it is also diverse, but just usually without the sexual component most people include in their idea of what romantic means. What separates friendship from romantic attraction is open to individual definition, but romance often involves cuddling, kissing, and physical and emotional intimacy; the things a lot of people think of as couple-stuff.
- Aromantic people experience little to no romantic attraction to others. Not all asexual people are aromantic, and not all aromantic people are asexual. Aromantic people may or may not choose to have devoted partnerships similar to the ones between romantic partners.
- Biromantic people are attracted to people of the same gender as they are, and people who are not the same gender as they are. It’s important to note that you can identify as asexual no matter what your romantic attraction is, or what the gender(s) are of people you have dated or would be interested in dating.
All of these terms can be loosely defined and often vary from one person to the next.
Do asexual people have sex?
Some do, and some don’t. It’s an individual choice.
Some asexual people experience limited sexual arousal and attraction, and choose to act on it. Some asexual people don’t masturbate, while others do—just like some asexual people have partnered sex, and others do not. Asexual people can choose to have sex for any number of reasons, just like sexual people can. This includes solo sex (also known as masturbation), which is another personal choice. Many non-asexual (or allosexual) people don’t masturbate, and it’s up to an asexual person whether they enjoy masturbating sometimes, under certain conditions, or not at all.
Some asexual people, particularly those who identify as gray-asexual or demisexual, do experience sexual attraction or enjoy sex, either for their own reasons or because they like the mutual expression of physical intimacy with a partner.
The important thing when it comes to asexuality and sex is enthusiastic consent. Any people who are involved in partnered sex should be active participants who are choosing to engage in sexual acts, and no one should feel pressured to perform sexual acts because their partner wants them to do so.
I’m definitely asexual. Do I need to come out?
Coming out is always a deeply personal experience, and it’s your choice alone. You shouldn’t feel pressured to come out to anyone as asexual unless you genuinely want to.
You could ask yourself some questions to decide if you’re ready and want to come out to someone:
- Why do I want to share my asexual identity with this person?
- How do I think this person will receive my asexuality? Will I be met with support and love?
- How has this person supported my journey or identity in the past?
- What questions can I expect after coming out? Am I comfortable answering those questions? (Remember that you don’t owe anyone the answers to their questions, even if they ask.)
- When would I want to come out to this person?
- Do I have any emotional support I might need to deal with this person’s reaction, whether it is positive or negative?
- How will I tell this person? Am I planning to talk to them face-to-face, over the phone, via social media, using text messages or chat features, over a video call, or another way?
- Have I shared personal identity information with this person before, and how did they receive it?
- Is there a reason for me to share this with this person in a particular moment, or could I comfortably and safely bring it up if it happens naturally in conversation? Which approach would I prefer?
Coming out is ultimately a very individual process. If you do decide to come out, you’ll likely have different approaches for different people in your life, and you may find that you have to continue to come out throughout your life—to new friends, family, romantic partners, colleagues, and more. It’s all about what makes you feel 100 percent comfortable and safe.
Someone I know just came out to me as asexual. How can I support them?
How people prefer to be supported generally varies from one individual to another, so if you’re not sure, it’s okay to ask! You can say, “I’m honored that you chose to share this with me, I want to make sure I’m being a good friend/partner to you. What’s the best way for me to support you right now? Some things people might find helpful are me just listening to you share how you feel, offering advice if you'd like it, giving you a hug, telling you what’s great about you, helping you think of how you might tell others, working out your emotions with you and acting as a sounding board, or reading something you wrote about your thoughts and feelings.” Keep the lines of communication open so this person knows you’re willing to be flexible if they need a different type of support in the future.
In general, it’s helpful if you try not to make assumptions about someone’s orientation. Ask them questions if they’re open to it, but don’t expect them to answer; there might be things they aren’t sure how to answer or aren’t comfortable answering. Let them know that you love them unconditionally and that this doesn’t change your opinion of them at all. Tell them that you hear them, you’re willing to listen and learn, and you will always do your best.
Read up on asexuality on your own (you’re here, so that’s a good start!) so that you’re not coming to them as your constant resource for Asexuality Education 101. Read blogs by other asexual people, watch their videos and YouTube series, listen to their podcasts. You might check out The Asexuality Blog, The Asexual Journal, Asexual Artists, AVEN on Twitter, and the Scarleteen boards. Get familiar with the terminology and what this person in your life might be experiencing so you can be an empathetic ear.
Living as a sexual minority
In Western society, most people are assumed not to be asexual, which makes asexual folks sexual minorities. Like gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer people, ace people often find that they’re expected to continue to come out over the course of their lives (particularly to any romantic partners they may have, or to friends who ask probing questions about their sex lives). This is a big reason why the asexual community exists, and one of the many reasons why asexuals are part of the LGBTQ+ community. It can be freeing and wonderful to connect with others who share your experience in a space where you don’t have to explain or prove yourself constantly.
Asexuality is a valid and very individual orientation, and it’s an identity that people experience differently—two ace people may not agree on how they define romantic or sexual attraction, for example. It’s most important not to make assumptions (about yourself or others) and be open to learning more.
Alaina Leary is an editor, social media manager, and activist living in Boston, Massachusetts. She is a social media assistant for We Need Diverse Books. Her work has been published in Washington Post, Boston Globe Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, Chicago Tribune, Seventeen, Marie Claire, and more. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @alainaskeys.