Causes, How to Know, Asexuality Spectrum

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An expert explains the misconceptions about asexuality.

You may know that the A in LGBTQIA stands for asexual. But what does that mean, exactly? As the queer community gains visibility in media, politics, and public life, asexuals — who are more casually known as “aces” (in the same way we might say “gay” rather than “homosexual”) are very rarely mentioned. There are a few exceptions, like when Todd, a 20-something man in the animated Netflix series Bojack Horseman, comes out as asexual. As he grapples with what this means, a fellow ace tells him: “Asexual just means you’re not interested in sex. Some asexuals are also aromantic, but others have relationships like anyone else.”

If you’re still wrapping your head around what all of this means, you’re not alone, so we asked an expert to provide some clarity. Angela Chen, who identifies as asexual, is the author of Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex. She spoke to us about some of the common misconceptions about aces (did you know some asexuals still enjoy sex?), the difference between sexuality and sex drive, and why the definition of asexuality is still evolving.

What is asexuality?

According to Chen, the most common definition of asexuality is someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction or experiences very little sexual attraction. Many people realize they’re ace later in life because they want romantic relationships, but they don’t enjoy sex.

“Another way to think about it is no matter your sexual orientation, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is sexually attracted to everyone,” Chen says. “So just imagine someone that you’re not sexually attracted to and generalize that thought.”

But some aces still have sex. 

“Most people — not just aces — have sex for a lot of reasons besides sexual desire,” Chen says. “You might have sex because you’re bored, or because it makes you feel better about your body, or because you want to feel closer to your partner. Many aces who do have sex will do so for reasons other than sexual attraction.”

What is the difference between sexual attraction and sex drive?

“If you think about it for other orientations, you can be heterosexual and you can have a high sex drive, or you can be heterosexual and you can have a low sex drive,” Chen says. “Libido or sex drive is that feeling in your body when you want sexual gratification — or to put it more bluntly, when you’re feeling horny. There are aces who have a sex drive and maybe they do experience a desire for sex or orgasm, but that’s not necessarily the same as consistently experiencing sexual attraction toward a certain gender. One ace compared it to having a mosquito bite on your arm. She said, ‘it would just never occur to me to have someone come over and scratch the itch for me. I can do that myself.’”

Do asexual people want romantic relationships? 

Many people think that people who are asexual don’t want romantic relationships, but that’s not true of all aces. “Some people who are asexual are aromantic, which means they don’t want romantic relationships. Some people do, and they identify as heteroromantic (meaning they are romantically interested in the opposite sex) or homoromantic (meaning they are romantically interested in the same sex) and so on.”

Some might think that’s just a friendship. “Asexuality and aromanticism challenge the borders between platonic and romantic attraction because most people think that romantic attraction must include a sexual component,” Chen says. “The experience of aces shows that that doesn’t have to be true because some aces experience romantic attraction without a sexual component.” According to Chen, the differentiation often lies in social roles: Are you married? Do you live together? What do you call each other? How do you think about each other? “There are plenty of examples of people who are not asexual but are in romantic relationships where they potentially just don’t engage sexually anymore,” she explains. “That doesn’t make them any less devoted to each other.”

Are there any causes of asexuality?

Another huge misconception is that asexuality is always a result of health issues, trauma, or repression. “This is simply not true,” Chen says, “and many people try to explain away asexuality by labeling it as something else.”

A third misconception is that asexuality is an “internet orientation,” meaning that younger people made it up and it’s not actually real. According to Chen, “It’s true that a lot of ace discourse originated with younger generations, and that’s because there had been so little written about it. A lot of what’s written now is on the internet because that’s where most people find information. In the course of my reporting, I’ve met aces who are much older, who are divorced and have children, and who are from all countries. Many aces just don’t have the language to identify what they are.”

Chen says there’s shame attached to asexuality, but more so among ace men because there’s such a stereotype that “real men” have high sex drives. “That’s when you may start thinking, am I not trying hard enough? Sexual desire and sexual attraction are affected by so many forces that are biological and psychological and social,” she says. “I think we need to move beyond the idea that sexuality looks the same for everyone. There’s so much variation in human beings, so why wouldn’t there be variation when it comes to sexual attraction?”

How aces date

Aces can date people who are sexual, but that can require a lot of communication and work. “I know ace folks who are in open relationships, and I know ace folks who are monogamous with non-aces. To make those kinds of relationships work, there needs to be a lot of emotional intelligence and trust, and willingness to not be defensive on either side.”

If you think about it, sexual imbalance in a relationship is pretty common. “There’s an idea that in a relationship, the higher-desire partner is normal, and the lower-desire partner is not normal. We put pressure on the lower desire partner to change — to try sex toys or go to therapy. The framing is often ‘you need to fix yourself,’” Chen points out. “I don’t think it’s fair to ask the lower desire partner to work harder to have sex, or to ask the higher desire partner to be celibate.”

She continues, “Within a relationship, you ideally want people’s desires and people’s moral values to be equal. It shouldn’t be that one person’s desire should have more weight than the other person’s desire.” She says this can provoke productive conversations about deconstructing sex. What is the role of sex? Why do you want to have sex? What works for you? “Of course a lot of times people want to have sex because it feels good, but other times it’s about feeling close to someone, or feeling attractive, or a whole host of other reasons. I think aces are forced to have a lot of conversations that any couple would benefit from.”

How to you know if you’re asexual and how to share that with a partner or a potential partner 

“I don’t think it’s helpful to get hung up on definitions, because they’re often clinical and exist in a vacuum,” Chen says. “When it comes to figuring out whether you’re ace, I suggest reading about the experiences of other ace people. See if those resonate with you and fit with experiences that you’ve had.”

In terms of addressing this within a relationship, Chen says, “If you’re bringing this to a partner, I would hope that you already have some trust there.” She adds, “I think it’s helpful to be specific about what you’re feeling, because you don’t want your partner to assume anything. You might have a conversation about how you want to adjust your sex life, or you might end up having sex just as frequently as you did before, but your partner will understand your experience of it differently.” She concludes, “If both people are happy and fulfilled in the relationship, that’s all that really matters.”

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