Hear experts share what it means to be asexual, how it's different than celibacy, and why everyone could use some clarification.

By Alex Shea
November 18, 2020
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Did you know Spongebob was an asexual character? It was never explicitly said in the show — and I doubt many children watching would have known what "asexual" meant anyway — but the creator clarified in 2005 that he considered Spongebob to be "almost asexual." That little sponge is far from the only one: As many more characters in recent films, TV shows, and books identify as asexual, the times are gone when asexuality hid behind the corner, afraid of not being like everyone else.

Whether you're here because you want to understand this term to be a better ally or whether you're here because your personal experience has led you to consider this as a label for yourself, it's important to understand all the nuanced aspects of asexuality.

Let's dive into asexuality with the help of the director of public training at The Trevor Project Chris Bright, certified sex therapist Joe Kort, and activist and creator of #ThisIsWhatAsexualLooksLike Yasmin Benoit. Asexuality is real and valid. Here's what else you should know.

What Does Asexual Mean?

"Someone who is asexual experiences little to no sexual attraction," says Bright. Sexual attraction is the feeling of arousal you get from someone you find sexually desirable.

This doesn't mean an asexual person is choosing to not have sex. And it doesn't mean they have no emotions or can't express their feelings. Many (but not all) asexual people enjoy showing affection in ways that aren't sexual in nature. And they live lives that are equally as fulfilling as someone who identifies with any other sexual orientation.

People on the asexuality spectrum may also refer to themselves as "ace," in the same way bisexual people might use "bi." Ace is "both a shortened way of saying 'asexual' and an umbrella term for everyone within the community who might not identify as being 'entirely asexual,' so to speak," says Benoit.

If someone identifies as asexual, "it's always best to ask them what they mean by it, as people use the term for a variety of reasons," says Kort. Like gender and sexuality in general, asexuality exists on a spectrum. A good way to think of the asexuality spectrum is to split sexual attraction/orientation and romantic attraction/orientation into two columns, according to GLAAD; you can experience varying levels and intensities of either attraction, and they aren't always intertwined. (More on this below.)

"While not everyone who is asexual wishes to be part of the LGBTQ community, LGBTQ youth who are asexual are an often-overlooked group," says Bright. There are asexual activists, like Benoit, who use their platform to spread awareness of the ace community and provide representation for asexuality in places it hasn't been.

More people are becoming aware of what asexuality means so there's hope for dismantling the misconceptions about asexuality. A recent survey done by The Trevor Project found that "of over 40,000 LGBTQ youths (ages 13-24), 10 percent identified as asexual or ace spectrum," says Bright. That means one in every hundred people may identify as asexual now, according to GLAAD. There's room for that number to grow as visibility and education increase.

Asexuality and Sex Drive

Asexuality is a sexual orientation, not a decrease in sexual desire. Low sex drive (aka libido or sexual desire) is often linked to a hormonal imbalance of some kind, medications (including hormonal birth control), stress, body image issues, and other factors. While it's true that you can remedy low libido, you can't — and don't need to — treat asexuality.

On that note, asexuality doesn't always mean you have zero sex drive. Depending on where you are on the spectrum, you can experience varying degrees of a sex drive without necessarily experiencing sexual attraction. Clarifier: Sexual attraction is wanting to engage in sexual activities with another person, whereas sex drive is innate arousal. (Related: Understanding These 2 Types of Sexual Desire Will Help You Feel In Control of Your Libido)

Asexual-identifying people still have functional bodies that get aroused — but what they're feeling doesn't always lead to having sex with another person. Some asexual people still enjoy sexual fantasies, masturbation, intimate moments, or any combination of the above without feeling sexual attraction toward someone else. And some asexual people enjoy sex without the presence of sexual attraction, according to GLAAD.

So, no, asexuality isn't the same as celibacy or abstinence, either, says Benoit. Choosing not to have sex is one thing. Not feeling sexual attraction for someone else is another. You can be celibate and still find the girl at the coffee shop attractive. But you shouldn't say you're asexual because you're choosing to practice celibacy.

Remember: Asexuality is a sexual orientation. It's about what you feel, not what you do.

Asexual vs. Aromantic

Despite how many times your keyboard wants to autocorrect "aromantic" to "a romantic," know that aromantic is very much a real term. Aromantic is the lack of romantic feelings for other people. Remember that separation of sexual attraction/orientation and romantic attraction/orientation referenced above? In those two columns, aromantic is parallel to asexual, but from a romantic relationship standpoint versus a sexual standpoint.

"Many asexual people desire romantic relationships, while others do not and may consider themselves to be aromantic," says Bright. "Romantic orientations are a way for aces to communicate who they prefer to date or form relationships with, beyond sexual contact."

You don't need to be asexual to be aromantic; aromanticism, like asexuality, exists on a spectrum. Someone who's asexual but not aromantic may want to emotionally connect with someone but not sexually connect. Having any type of romantic feelings doesn't invalidate asexuality. (Related: What Being In an Asexual Relationship Is Really Like)

How Do I Know If I'm Asexual?

First, "you want to explore other reasons you have no sexual desire," says Kort. Could it be from childhood trauma, medication, or a hormonal imbalance? If none of those reasons sound right, then you could be on the asexual spectrum.

Like any other self-identifier, there's no sure-fire way to come to the conclusion that you're asexual. You discover it for yourself simply when you discover it.

However, "if you find yourself consistently not experiencing sexual desire or sexual attraction toward other people to the extent that you can't relate to feeling like you're straight, or gay, or bi, or any orientation that's geared toward a section of the population based on their characteristics, then you're probably on the asexual spectrum somewhere," says Benoit. (Related: How Do I Know If I'm Bisexual?)

A Few More Myths to Dispell...

All of the following are misconceptions about being asexual, according to Benoit and OULGBTQ, the LGBTQ student society at Oxford University.

  • Asexuality doesn't influence your emotional capacity.
  • Asexuality isn't a side-effect of veganism. (This is a real myth out there, people.)
  • Asexuality isn't an anti-sex agenda for population control.
  • Asexuality isn't a perversion, a cover-up, or a phase.
  • Asexual people can have sex. Enjoy sex. And some do.
  • Asexual people can have families.
  • Asexual people don't need "the right person" to fix them.
  • Asexual people don't have a particular ~look~.

"There's this strange idea that if you aren't sexually attracted to anyone then you need to be sexually unattractive," says Benoit. It's as if being asexual means you don't care about the way you look. That's not the case at all, and thinking this way is harmful. "The idea that your self-expression has to be dependent on attracting other people is damaging in general," continues Benoit, for asexual people who have to deal with people poking holes in their identity and for society as a whole.

How to Explore Your Possible Asexuality

Seek out asexual voices. Asexual activists and advocates like David Jay and Yasmin Benoit identify as asexual themselves, and they're great to connect with and learn from. You can find and follow people who identify on the asexual spectrum on social media: @SliceOfAce, @asexualACES, @Kayla_Kas, and @Sam_Borley.

Connect with other people exploring asexuality. Or connect with other people talking about their sexuality via forums on the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, Reddit, or Tumblr.

Listen to relevant podcasts. You can listen to podcasts dedicated to asexuality, like Sounds Fake But Okay and A OK to hear stories and insight as well. Whatever path you take to explore your sexuality, go at your own pace.

"There isn't a fool-proof asexual question or exercise, it's not like trying to learn how to do the splits or long division," says Benoit. Everyone explores and experiences asexuality in their own way.

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