While most of the queer community has come a long way in the public consciousness, asexual people—those who experience little to no sexual attraction—are still largely in the shadows. Though asexual people account for around one percent of the world’s population, asexuality is one of the most misunderstood sexual orientations. It is an identity that is often contested as it attempts to reframe the way people understand intimacy and attraction.
According to KJ Cerankowski, a gender studies professor at Oberlin College, the internet has greatly shaped the asexual movement. But this does not mean that asexuality is a recent phenomenon. Asexual people have existed throughout history; the internet simply gave them a way to form a coherent public identity.
For years, the word “asexual” chiefly referred to a type of reproduction in single-celled organisms. The early 2000s saw Yahoo forums welcoming the first people who anonymously shared their mixed feelings about sex. It also marked a time when people began to outline what asexuality was: not the suppression of sexual desire, which is celibacy, but the absence of it.
Asexual identities fall under a spectrum: at one end is the absence of sexual attraction and at the other is the presence of sexual attraction. Some people may even be graysexual, a term that covers the fluid area between asexuality and sexuality. Others, particularly demisexuals, can only feel sexual attraction once a strong emotional bond has been established.
It is also important to note that sexual and romantic attraction are distinct, which means that asexual people can still desire a romantic partner or partners. They may also be aromantic or somewhere in between and have no desire to pursue a romantic relationship.
Although these terms cannot capture the experiences of every individual, Cerankowski believes that they reflect the complex climate of modern relationships. “The beauty of individuality is that self-expression, including our sexual and romantic preferences, can manifest in a multitude of ways,” he states.
Layers of exclusion
Despite this progress, activist Julie Sondra Decker says that asexual advocacy has not always translated to adequate research. In fact, there had been little to no studies on asexuality until 2004.
Much like how same-sex attraction was treated as a disease in the past, asexuality was also initially—and is sometimes still—conflated with a sexual-desire disorder. It was only recently acknowledged as a sexual orientation in 2013 by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. While this is a step in the right direction, it is far from perfect. To avoid being diagnosed with a sexual disorder, the patient must now self-identify as asexual, which can be difficult.
A popular but harmful myth about asexual people is that people with disabilities are asexual because they are physically incapable of engaging in sexual intimacy. While a person can be both disabled and asexual, Decker believes that generalizations should be avoided. To claim that asexuality is merely a result of a disability is to delegitimize it as an identity. Similarly, assuming that people with certain disabilities must be asexual is a form of dehumanization.
These misconceptions stem from the assumption that everyone experiences sexual attraction. As society shifts from a culture that values sexual restraint to one that champions free expression, sex has become a popular topic—as a health issue, a relationship issue, and an identity issue. All of this can make asexual people feel as if their existence is lacking in the most fundamental of ways.
Finding a place
Violet* only recently came to terms with her asexuality in December of 2021. The idea of romance and physical touch as a love language—often coming in the form of hugs or holding hands—has always appealed to her. However, the sexual intimacy that is so often associated with romantic relationships was never something she felt comfortable with.
“To me, touching or even seeing other people’s private parts, no matter how close we were, felt like a violation of their privacy,” she says. “It was only later on I realized that it felt like a violation of privacy because that was what sex felt like to me—it would be a violation of my own privacy.”
Religious beliefs also made it difficult for her to come to terms with her sexuality. As a Catholic, she was raised on the idea that sex is the reward that comes after marriage. But, to her, sexual abstinence is not a struggle nor is the act of sex something she has to resist. “If anything, having sex felt like the thing I was resisting from in such a weirdly sex-focused world.”
One of the things that helped her understand and accept her asexuality is seeing asexual representation in media. “Having fictional characters in media who identify as asexual and yet still express desire for romantic relationships has been important to me,” she says.
Despite great leaps in recent years, asexual representation in media has not been perfect. For instance, Ceranowski mentions that there was a House, M.D. episode that portrayed asexuality with the implication that asexual people are either sick, dead, or lying about their sexuality.
This is not the case for most asexuals, which is what makes misrepresentations like these so harmful. It can affect the way that asexual people are viewed by society and it perpetuates the idea that asexuality is something that can or should be cured.
To break away from this stigma, Decker points out that more positive media, education, and exposure are necessary. While she agrees that positive representation in fictional media is a step in the right direction, it is not the only thing that matters, either. Having asexual voices be heard and seeing asexual people simply existing in the public spotlight also helps in normalizing asexuality.
According to Decker, “If it’s always part of the background conversation anywhere sexuality is relevant, it will be easier going forward to understand that asexuality isn’t a weird exception.”
*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms.