5 Things You Need to Know About Being Asexual
This sexual orientation confuses a lot of people—here's what it means.
For most people, sexual attraction and desire are two of life's most powerful driving forces. But some people don't experience them that way—actually, they don't experience them at all. About 1% of the population is asexual, according to a 2004 study.
The term was once relegated to academic journals, but lately it's gained visibility, with asexual folks coming out and sharing their stories. The acronym LGBTQ is increasingly showing up with an A at the end, to include men and women who identify as asexual. Still, asexuality is puzzling to most of us, and it's not well understood by many experts, either. Here's what this sexual orientation means, and how to know if it might describe you.
What is asexuality?
Put simply, a person who is asexual does not experience sexual desire or attraction, according to the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). “Whereas heterosexuals are sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex, and homosexuals are attracted to folks of the same sex, asexuals are [sexually] attracted to nobody,” says Detroit-based sex therapist Stefani Goerlich.
Asexuality is often confused with celibacy or having a low libido. The difference is this: While asexuality is an orientation, celibacy is a choice someone of any sexual orientation may make. Also, low libido means that sexual attraction and desire exists, but in lower levels relative to other people. A low sex drive may be rooted in a medical disorder, says Goerlich, but asexuality is not. It's simply the way a person is.
What about romance and love?
Sexuality and romance are two distinct things. “Someone who is asexual might still form a romantic relationship with another person—they just don’t feel a need to express their romantic feelings through sexual intercourse or other sexual expressions," explains Goerlich.
Someone who doesn't need or desire a romantic or loving connection is called “aromantic,” not asexual. “Aromantics may love sex, they just don’t enjoy the romance component,” says Kryss Shane, a social worker and LGBT educator in New York. Adds Goerlich: Asexual and aromantic identities exist separately, and in rare instances, may overlap in an individual who feels neither sexual desire nor feelings of romantic love."
Unless they are also aromantic, nothing prevents someone who is asexual from having a crush or falling in love. “These feelings aren’t sexual; they are rooted in compatibility or other measures of closeness,” explains Jessica O'Reilly, PhD, Toronto-based sexologist and host of the podcast Sex With Dr. Jess.
Does that mean asexual people date?
Yep, some asexual folks date. “Just as some people experience sexual attraction to partners with whom they have no romantic involvement or interest in dating, people who are asexual may experience romantic attraction and want to date without the sexual element," says O'Reilly. There are a number of reasons we may choose to date someone, and the same is true for asexuals. The difference is that sexual compatibility or attraction won’t be on their checklist of crucial traits.
“Navigating the dating world can be one of the most challenging components of being asexual, because it may involve educating friends, family, and potential partners and dispelling common myths related to asexualty,” says O’Reilly. “But what it comes down to is that romance, intimacy, closeness, and love can be cultivated in a range of ways with or without sexual expression.”
Okay, so what about sex?
Despite having no desire for sex, people who are asexual might decide to have it anyway. “Relationships for asexuals can take many forms," says O'Reilly. "Some enter relationships and may rule out sex entirely, others may negotiate open relationships, and some opt to engage in sexual activities despite the absence of desire."
So why would someone who doesn't crave sex decide to have it? There are a number of reasons: they may want children, it could be a way to satisfy a partner who does feel sexual desire, or just to know what it’s like. "Asexual folks are not sexually dysfunctional. They can still have sex, feel pleasure, and even orgasm,” says Carlos Cavazos, a licensed psychotherapist and sex coach in Austin, Texas. “Some might even masturbate. But it’s much more of a physical urge than a sexual one,” meaning they do it to relieve period cramps or stress, for example, rather than as a sexual release.
Also, if an asexually person is sexually active, they are still asexual, says O’Reilly. Consider this: When a heterosexual person is in a sexual dry spell and not getting it on, they’re still heterosexual. No sexual orientation is defined by whether or not you currently have a partner or are sexually active.
How do I know if I'm asexual?
If you have no desire to engage in any type of sexual activity (solo or with a partner) and have never felt sexually attracted to another person, you might be. Still, it's a hard thing to know for sure, since even people who are asexual describe it differently. According to AVEN, people typically realize they are asexual when they and those around them are exploring or questioning their sexuality as adolescents.
“Some folks find a tremendous amount of relief when they realize that they’re asexual, and the label feels good,” says Shane. But for others, it feels suffocating. As with any sexual identity, whether or not you use the label is totally up to you. The most important thing to remember is that asexuality is a completely normal part of the sexual spectrum.
If you think you may be asexual, there are organizations you can reach out to for more information or to connect with others, such as asexuality.org and AVEN. Goerlich also suggests three books that offer a better understanding of asexuality as well: The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality by Julie Decker, Asexuality: A Brief Introduction by the Asexuality Archive, and Understanding Asexuality by Anthony Bogaert.
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