An introduction to asexuality

In this article for LGBT History Month, Katie Lewis introduces us to asexuality and offers some helpful tips on being an ally.

It’s estimated that approximately 1% of the population is asexual: not a large number by any stretch of the imagination but neither is it incredibly small.

Despite this, asexuality has no place in the Equality Act 2010, and its name more commonly brings to mind the blissful division of amoebas. And the question most people have upon hearing it is: what is it?

In brief, asexuality is a sexual orientation defined by a person’s lack of sexual attraction to anyone else. In other words, an asexual person (often known as ‘ace’) has no inherent desire to have sex with another person and is not drawn sexually to others.

Despite popular belief, asexuality is different from celibacy, which is where a person chooses not to have sex, and is very different from anti-sexuality, which is where a person is opposed or hostile towards sexual behaviour and sexuality.

What often confuses people when thinking about asexuality is its interaction with romantic relationships.

Many people assume that an asexual person must naturally have no interest in pursuing romantic relationships – after all, what is a relationship without sex? And it’s indeed true that some people, known as aromantic or aro, do not experience romantic attraction at all.

However, current surveys suggest that only about a third to a fifth of the asexual population is aromantic; and some non-aces are also known to identify as aromantic (the term, in fact, appears to have been first used by a non-ace who identified as aromantic).

That means the remainder of the asexual population does experience romantic attraction – that is, they are drawn romantically to, and desire romantic relationships with, some people, but do not regard sex as a key element.

Like non-aces, aces who experience romantic attraction can experience that attraction to one gender only or to more than one gender. Many aces therefore tend to define their orientation by sexual attraction (asexual) and then by romantic attraction (or lack thereof).

An asexual man who is only romantically attracted to women would be heteroromantic, for example, while an asexual man who is only romantically attracted to men would be homoromantic.

The asexual umbrella

You may have heard people say they are “grey” or “demi” and wondered how they differ from people who identify as ace or, indeed, why they don’t simply identify as non-asexual.

The answer is that some people who experience sexual attraction, experience it on such infrequent bases to the majority of the population that they identify better with the asexual community than the non-asexual community. Demisexuality and grey-sexuality fall into these categories and thus help make up the asexual umbrella (sometimes called the ace spectrum).

A demisexual person does not experience sexual attraction until they have formed a strong emotional bond with the other person.

Aside from the need for a strong emotional bond, what often makes the experience of a demisexual person different to most people’s is that the bond in question often (though not always) takes a very long time to form – think closer to years than weeks.

A grey-sexual person on the other hand, generally experiences sexual attraction very infrequently, or only in very rare circumstances such that they are functionally asexual for most of the time.

Similar to aromanticism, some people identify as grey-romantic or demiromantic, meaning they may not experience romantic attraction without a strong emotional bond, or only in rare circumstances.

Tips for being a good ally

If you’ve read the above, you may be wondering how to (or not to) react if someone comes out as ace to you, and how you could best support them.

Never fear – a few high-level tips are below:

Check your language

If someone tells you they are asexual, don’t respond with “you’ve just not met the right person”, “are you sure it’s not medical/abuse related?” or “stop trying to be special”. Definitely don’t say you can “convert” them.

Many asexual/aromantic people grow up thinking they are broken; coming out therefore requires a lot of courage. Instead, listen and try to offer acceptance.

If you find it confusing, that’s OK – you can always read up on it later or ask the other person a few questions about their experience if they’re happy to discuss. But...

Don’t ask intrusive questions about their sex life

Asexual/aromantic people are often asked about their masturbatory or sexual activities (some ace/aro people do engage in sex – often with partners who are not ace – to make said partner happy).

Unless the person you’re speaking to has said they’re happy to discuss their sex life, please assume it’s private to them, in the same way you would with anyone else.

Call out acephobia/erasure

A lot of society is fixated on sex and romance, and it’s easy for aces/aros to be designated as the villains in media, or to be removed entirely (or magically ‘cured’).

It’s also common for people to make derogatory comments about ace/aro people, calling them ugly, attention-seeking, unfeeling, robotic etc.

Not only does calling this out make things more comfortable for the ace/aro population but may make those who are not ace or aro and have their own reasons for not wanting sex or relationships more comfortable – it’s a win-win for everyone.


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