Understanding Asexuality: A Cheat Sheet

I think the most sex positive thing I’ve ever done was naming that sex is something that just isn’t important to me!  

There’s no question that we live in a sex-obsessed culture. From movies to billboards to magazine advertisements that are gay, straight, or queer as a three dollar bill — sex sells. Confusingly, at the same time, those of us in the United States live in a strangely sexually conservative culture. When I first came out as queer in the early 2000s, I thought I knew everything about my identity, and while the identities that I came into then — queer, genderqueer, leather — would remain a core part of my identity over the last 20 years, I have also learned more about myself. In the last 10 years, I have also come to embrace asexuality as a part of my identity.  For me, asexuality isn’t about being uncomfortable about sex, it’s about finding language to name the way that for me sex is unimportant and not a fundamental part of how I want to experience intimacy in my relationship. 

What Is Asexual?

When I came out as queer, I had never heard of asexuality. The closest thing I knew about was the concept of “lesbian bed death” that people spoke about like a boogeyman. Although I hadn’t ever heard about asexuality as an identity, according to Dictionary.com, the term has actually been in use in one form or another since the 1700s — though asexuality as we contemporarily think of it didn’t gain popularity until the 2000s. The largest asexual-specific organization is AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network) ,which has been around since 2001. Since that time, many asexual people, especially those who feel otherwise connected to queer culture, have become a more active and vocal part of the LGBTQ+ community. And LGBTQ+ organizations have increasingly included asexuals and asexual specific issues to their work. However, even within queer culture there still remains a lot of confusion about what asexuality actually is and what the different asexual spectrum terms mean. 

Asexual Cheat Sheet: 

Asexual/Ace – Most generally can be defined as a low amount/lack of sexual attraction to other people or a low amount/lack of desire to participate in sexual activity.

Grey-Ace – Someone who identifies somewhere between asexual and sexual. 

Aromantic – Someone who does not experience a romantic attraction to people. 

Demisexual – People who are only sexually attracted to other people after forming a strong emotional connection 

Ace pride flag: Four horizontal stripes of (from top to bottom) black, grey, white, and purple. The purple stripe represents community, the white is for allies, the gray for gray asexuals, and the black stripe represents asexuality.

Not all people on an Ace spectrum identify as queer. Folks who are ace might identify as queer because of their asexuality or because they also identify as gay, bi, pan, or queer.  However, many Ace-identified people understand their asexuality as being part of the Queer spectrum of identities because asexuality doesn’t fit the cultural norms of sexuality, and asexuals are regularly discriminated against in medical situations and experience disbelief and social isolation. 

Finding Asexuality

When I first heard about asexuality, I didn’t think it could possibly have anything to do with me. Even though I wasn’t personally interested in sex, I had a hard time picturing myself as being under the asexual umbrella because of the stereotypes I had about the identity. Specifically, I was under the misconception that, because I had been sexually active, I couldn’t be on the asexual spectrum. Although some asexual people are sex-repulsed or very uncomfortable with sex, that hasn’t been my personal journey or experience. I am not shy about sex; I have written sexually explicit queer books and read stories from those books to audiences at bars, BDSM Dungeons, bookstores, and literary events from Berlin to New York to San Francisco. I am, to say the least, sexually experienced. In my late teens and early 20s, like many people, I had a lot of sexual experiences — great sexual experiences mostly because it was very normed in my peer group. I wasn’t coerced, I wasn’t uncomfortable — I was an enthusiastic participant. But over time, I came to understand that sex just wasn’t that important to me or the way that I wanted to prioritize intimacy in my life. So could I be asexual if I’d had a lot of sex? Yes!

The great thing about identities is that we claim them for ourselves — there are no hard and fast rules. I came to find out the more queer ace people I talked to that my queer experience of asexuality actually wasn’t that uncommon. For me, finding asexuality as an identity gave me a language to name my experience in a way that made me feel connected to a broader community, not broken. Similarly to claiming a straight-edge identity (against substance use and never having been drunk or high) gave me a language to talk about the way I chose pleasure without substances, asexuality gave me a way to frame the way I generally choose intimacy without sex. 

Sex Positivity

Too often, I hear queer folks make jokes about folks asexual suggesting that just haven’t found the right person to have sex with and/or that we are prude. Unfortunately, this is frequently wrapped up in ideas of sex-positivity. Sex positivity is a social-cultural movement often interconnected with queer culture that works to shift cultural attitudes and norms about sex and sexuality. Sex positivity is about recognizing that sexuality is natural and healthy and aims to reduce stigma around desire and consent. How silly then to weaponize  this idea to shame or dismiss asexual — and yet, it happens. In actuality, I think the most sex-positive thing I’ve ever done was naming that sex is something that just isn’t important to me!  

Queer Intimacy

One of the biggest misconceptions about folks who identify as being on the asexual spectrum is that we must be unlovable and lonely. For queer people who have been sexually repressed culturally, I completely understand the way that asexuality could make people uncomfortable. Similarly, because our culture is so sex-obsessed and has a lack of imagination, sex has become the only kind of intimacy depicted in movies or books between romantic partners.

That said, loneliness has certainly not been part of my experience or the experience of other asexual people who I know. My partner and I have been together for over 16 years. We have an incredibly close, intimate, and loving relationship, but sex has seldom been part of that. What I really appreciate about understanding asexuality from a queer perspective is the ways in which we get to define our own lives and relationships and what we want, need, and value. At the core, for me, that’s what it means to be queer: to build a life based around my desires and attractions, not conforming to any kind of heteronormative or homonormative framing for what a life or relationship should be or look like. I wish that I had known about asexuality as an identity earlier, and it’s my hope that, as visibility of asexuality increases within the queer community, we will see an increased level of understanding, acceptance, and normalization of the identity within our broader culture and community. 

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