Insider fact: Asexuality is also known as Ace for short. But just like a deck of playing cards, the rules can vary depending on the game. Sexual attraction and desire can be highly subjective and intimacy can take a variety of forms.  Here’s what to know about asexuality.

What is Asexuality?

“Asexuality (ace for short) refers to the absence of sexual attraction to others,” says Margaret Nichols, PhD, president of Nichols Counseling and Psychotherapy in New Jersey and founder/president emeritus of the Institute for Personal Growth. What’s key, however, is that asexuality exists on a spectrum. “Some are one hundred percent without sexual attraction; some feel it weakly or very occasionally,” she says.

Because it’s not black and white and can shift over time, asexuality is recognized by researchers as an orientation that’s often misunderstood—despite being classified in the DSM-5 as a disorder. While being asexual in and of itself is not a disorder when it causes someone distress, mental health experts view it in the context of a disorder. What it doesn’t mean, is that those who identify as such are celibate monks living on a mountain top; it’s not a pledge of abstinence, and it’s not a choice, either.

Asexuality is not:

  • A vow of celibacy or chastity
  • Any type of behavior
  • A disorder
  • A symptom of trauma
  • A decision
  • “Saving yourself”
  • A statement of purity
  • A moral stance
  • A promise
  • A phase

One thing researchers have learned about all of us while studying asexuality is that for some people, whether they are sexual or asexual, sex and romance are not necessarily connected. Some asexual people may have romantic feelings, or be attracted to other people for nonsexual reasons, and may form intimate partnerships (emotional connection through deep conversations, for example) that simply do not have sex as a culmination of their feelings (just as some sexual people do not develop romantic feelings for their sexual partners). Others, while not enjoying or desiring sexual activity, may have some types of intimate partner contact.

How to Know If You’re Asexual

Asexuality, like gender, is an identity (remember gender identity is separate from assigned gender, the gender you have at birth). There isn’t a test to determine it, rather, it’s what a person feels at their very core. Asexuality may first become apparent in adolescence when a teenager’s peers are experiencing sexual desire and they aren’t, Nichols says. “Usually this is followed by a period of time when the person thinks it ‘just hasn’t happened yet’ or ‘the right person hasn’t come along,’ etc.” But, keep in mind, an asexual identity has only been a cultural ‘thing’ for about 20 years or so. “Before that people just felt ashamed and kept it to themselves usually,” she adds.

Some people, on the other hand, don’t realize it until they are older because they didn’t know it was even an option, says Austin Texas-based clinical psychologist Jo Eckler, PsyD, RYT, author of I Can’t Fix You—Because You’re Not Broken, who goes by the pronouns they/them. “They may have spent years feeling like there was something wrong with them.”

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Coming to the conclusion you are asexual often takes introspection. Part of the equation for figuring it out involves taking a long hard look at how you’ve generally felt about sex, how you’ve responded to sexual activity (if you have had any), how you feel when other people talk about sex, or how you see sexual content on TV/movies, Eckler says.

While it’s estimated that between 1% and 4% of the population are asexual, higher rates are more often found in surveys of younger people, Eckler adds. “It’s not clear, however, if that is simply because younger generations have been able to learn that asexuality is a valid option if they’re just more comfortable disclosing their preferences, or if something else is causing that difference.”

What’s important to note is if you have previously enjoyed sex and now you’ve lost interest, it could be due to many factors, including medication side effects, health issues, stress, an unsafe relationship, body dysmorphia, gender dysphoria, hormonal changes, trauma, and so on—it does not mean you are necessarily asexual, Eckler says. “You also do not have to have tried sex to know that you’re asexual, just like you don’t have to have had sex to know that you’re straight, etc.”

The Asexuality Spectrum

The thing about asexuality is it doesn’t exist in absolutes—you either experience sexual attraction or you don’t. “Definitions can vary from person to person, and they can shift with time,” Eckler explains. What’s more, asexual people can also be gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, etc. since they can still have romantic and other types of attractions to people.

Not only that, but asexual people can also fall in love, though the experience is without a sexual component, Nichols says. And there are also aromantics, those who don’t feel the need for romantic relationships or a partnered life and are fine with friendship and singledom.

Research suggests that between 16% and 25.9% of asexuals identify as aromantic, which is believed to be an indication of the connection between sexual attraction and romantic love. “Someone can be aromantic but not asexual, asexual but not aromantic, or asexual and aromantic,” she says. Confusing, we know.

There are also other not-so-specific categories that exist on the spectrum of asexuality, such as greysexuals, who experience sexual attraction infrequently and fall somewhere between asexuality and sexuality, and demisexuals, who experience sexual attraction only after forming an emotional bond with someone else.

What Causes Asexuality?

Asexuality is not a mental health condition. It doesn’t come with a list of symptoms and causes. Being asexual doesn’t mean you’re broken or dysfunctional. It is a valid sexual orientation. Asexual people haven’t necessarily been sexually assaulted as children or subjected to emotional trauma.

Lack of sexual desire for another person doesn’t mean you are doomed to a life of loneliness, either. Intimacy and closeness between two people can occur without sex through companionship and shared experiences. But if you feel unhappy, find yourself making choices to avoid acting on sexual urges, or feel like you are somehow neglecting some of your needs, you could investigate these challenging feelings with the help of a therapist or support group.

Arousal and Attraction

Many asexual people can experience fulfillment from relationships based on forms of attraction other than sexual. These include romantic, sensual, or even aesthetic. Romantic attraction means being romantically involved with another person (just not sexually involved). Aesthetic attraction is based on an appreciation for someone’s appearance, and sensual attraction is a desire for sensual activities like cuddling, hugging, or kissing.

For some asexual people, they do experience arousal, but not related to a partner. This may happen from hormonal fluctuations in a menstrual cycle or erections at certain times of the day. “Some asexual people still enjoy masturbation and might even enjoy thinking about sex, but they don’t necessarily want to engage in it,” Eckler says. Asexuals who experience little or no arousal are known as non-libidoist asexuals.

What makes someone asexual is that they chose to identify that way and that they do not want to have sex with other people. It does not mean that they cannot physically function sexually, and some asexual people who desire children can have them with partners they may not have sex with otherwise except for the purposes of conception and family building.

A benefit of the increased visibility of the asexual community online is that asexual people can find other asexuals they are compatible with, and many do and form long-term romantic relationships that simply do not have sex as the thing that bonds them together or is considered what makes them intimate partners.

Talking to Children and Teens About Asexuality

For parents, understanding how children develop sexually is that it is like any other kind of childhood and adolescent development. You want to be supportive of the child, but also not assume that what they say or feel about something one day is how they will always feel about it.

While other types of identity such as gender consciousness and gay sexual orientation have been shown to be vivid to some children early on in their development, there is no such data on asexuality, which is, by definition, an orientation that people arrive at after they reach sexual maturity.

There is no reason to assume that a child or teen who has expressed little or no interest in sex with other people may not develop one with maturity. Individual rates vary greatly—there is no standard chronological age for sexual maturity. Meaning some 13-year-olds are mature enough to develop strong feelings/crushes while other 13-year-olds aren’t.  On the other hand, some 16-year olds still haven’t reached sexual maturity and aren’t interested in romantic relationships either. Women, in particular, may discover and begin to understand their own sexual desire much later.

If your child says they are asexual, it’s important to be respectful and open-minded about it while continuing the conversation as they mature. As children get older and have new experiences, new feelings may or may not emerge. All children should be reminded that they are inherently lovable and will be loved, no matter what they come to learn about their sexual or asexual selves.

FAQS

What does asexual mean?

An asexual person is someone who does not experience sexual attraction. Like heterosexuality or homosexuality, asexuality is a sexual orientation and it doesn't exist in absolutes. Experts say it's important to note that definitions vary from person to person, and they can shift with time. What’s more, asexual people can also be gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, etc., since they can still have romantic and other types of attractions to people. It can also be a state of not wanting sex or feeling sexual attraction enough to seek it out with anyone else.

How common is asexuality?

While researchers don’t know for sure, they estimate between 1% and 4% of the population is asexual.

How do you know if you are asexual?

There isn’t a test to determine it, rather, it’s what you feel at your very core. It may first become apparent in adolescence, when a teenager’s peers are experiencing sexual desire and they aren’t. Yet some people don't realize it until they are older because they didn't know it was an option. Part of the equation for figuring it out involves taking a long hard look at how you’ve generally felt about sex, how you’ve responded to sexual activity (if you have had any), how you feel when other people talk about sex, or how you see sexual content on TV/movies

How should I explain asexuality?

There are many different types of sexuality and they exist on a spectrum. Asexuality is a sexual orientation just like being gay, lesbian, straight, or bisexual. And just because you may not engage in sex with another person doesn’t mean you can’t experience love. Many happy, healthy relationships don’t necessarily need to involve sex.

Helpful Resources

  • For support, resources and more information check out the Trevor Project.
  • For a comprehensive explanation about asexuality (in a pdf), see the Journal of Applied Philosophy,  What it Means to be Asexual (2020).
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Last Updated: Mar 1, 2021