Sexual orientation runs a lengthy gamut. From hetero to bi to homo, with appetites for anything from plain old missionary, to leather and whips, to tastes less commonplace, the reality is that behind closed doors, no sexual identity perfectly fits onto a label.
“Asexuality” adds yet another dimension to this diverse nomenclature. Identifying as asexual means that feeling no sexual urges is the norm, and is defined by Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) as an orientation, not a choice.
A community of “Aces” – self-identified asexuals – is emerging on the sexual orientation spectrum and the vocabulary is presenting itself more often in mainstream discussion. Although Aces describe a disconnect when it comes to sex, they are still capable of forming emotionally romantic relationships that may or may not involve sexual acts.
Executive Director of Asexuality Awareness Week and asexual activist Sara Beth Brooks says, “I’ve had romantic partners that I’ve been OK kissing. It’s not my favorite thing in the world to do, but it’s something that shows a sign of affection and love. I’ve made the choice that I’m willing to engage in that behavior.”
While searching Google for wedding ideas five years ago, Brooks discovered asexuality. At the time, she was engaged to a man and taking hormones to boost her sex drive. Until that point, the specter of a low libido haunted her relationships.
“For me, I’ve always wanted to be close to someone, but I don’t have any interest in having sex,” said the 28-year-old Californian, who mentioned that her sexual apathy was confusing and stressful for both her and her ex-fiancé.
After finally finding the words to express her feelings, Brooks says she felt huge relief.
“I found a name for an experience that I’d had all throughout my teenage years and early twenties,” she explained. Finally, she was able to disregard doctors who prescribed drugs for sexual dysfunction, and chose to accept her Ace orientation.
Other asexuals say they also had a hard time finding words to describe their mindset, leading to confusion and frustration.
Nicole Brown, a 25-year-old web developer in Vancouver, struggled with her sexual orientation throughout her teen years. In high school, peers were discovering the world of sex, experiencing crushes, and discussing new urges.
Brown felt as though she could not participate, and often felt adrift. Hopeful that she could find something for her, she pursued both men and women in sexual relationships – nothing quite fit.
Upon discovering asexuality via the Internet, Brown says, “It was like a ‘welcome home’ kind of moment. It felt like I finally had something that fit, like a great pair of shoes that I could wear and be confident in, and that I just didn’t have to worry anymore.”
Since identifying as asexual, both Brooks and Brown have tapped into a burgeoning Ace network, finding others whose views reflect their own. Now, both are working from California and Vancouver, respectively, to spread awareness and build support.
“When I was trying to find out what was going on with me, none of my doctors knew. … There are a lot of asexual people who can’t get information about asexuality or asexual health from their doctors,” said Brooks.
One element of the education process is illustrating that like sexuality, asexuality exists on a spectrum: some asexuals are indifferent to sex, while others are repulsed by the notion.
For example, Brown describes herself as being indifferent, and says she has “an equal dissatisfaction with both men and women.” However, in the past, she has compromised with her partners, engaging in intercourse and sex acts for her partner’s benefit.
“I don’t desire sex, but I don’t hate it. It’s not the worst thing in the world but it’s not something I actively seek out. It was important to him that he had sex with his romantic partner … So I was willing to compromise,” she explained.
On the other hand, Brooks will not engage in sexual activity and ultimately finds other ways to establish and cultivate intimacy. For example, with one romantic partner, she would play mini-golf, but the relationship was never physical.
“What it comes down to, is it’s not sexual intimacy but it’s different than friendship,” Brooks said.
Aside from navigating relationship challenges, asexuals often face shaming and bullying. Some report similar instances of rejection from their families and friends faced by those in the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community, illustrating how deviation from “the norm” can lead to exclusion.
Sarah Beth Brooks says that there’s “bullying, especially among teenagers in high school. They are automatically assumed to be gay because they’re not partnering up with a hetero-normative partner.”
Beyond social segregation, Brooks says there’s a growing problem with the threat of corrective rape as a proposed remedy for asexuality. Individuals who are unable to comprehend asexuality believe sex – even forced – can serve as an antidote.
“People who are outwardly visible about their asexuality have gotten rape threats in the past. … Some people want to cure them: ‘If you had me, you wouldn’t be asexual anymore,’” explained Brooks.
Many asexuals feel depressed and/or suicidal because they perceive themselves as sexual outliers. Compounding the problem, doctors have been slow to catch on to the idea of asexuality, prescribing hormones instead mentioning what many are beginning to identify as an alternative sexual orientation.
“When you feel broken and alone—because you feel like you’re the only one—that has its own set of internalizing and shaming issues,” says Brooks.
Brown agrees, saying, “I wished I had the information [about asexuality] presented to me earlier in life, so that I had a clear understanding of my own sexuality.”
Both concur that there is work to be done in spreading awareness about asexuality to provide support to those in need, and to stop discrimination by those unable to comprehend unconventional sexual orientations.
“Is intimacy just sex? Or is intimacy a whole bunch of other things, too? It’s tapping into other things – building a friendship and a romantic relationship over a couple of things,” says Brooks.
Given the breadth of diversity in sexual and gender orientations, it’s unsurprising that sexual desires run from extremely high to very low, to the point where some may identify as asexual.
Perhaps what can be learned from asexual relationships is that closeness to another person can take many forms, and may not always result from traditional pairings. And at the end of the day, how someone chooses to be intimate within a relationship should never be basis for discrimination.