I’m kind of a complicated girl, and I have a lot of different facets to my identity. I’m binary trans. I’m lesbian/super-super-gay. I’m queer. I’m “assigned Jewish at birth”. And I’m also asexual. At least to a degree. So, I take up a few letters in the LGBTQIA+ acronym. Although these days people have some level of understanding of what trans means, asexuality often remains a particularly difficult concept.
But: all it means is that, as someone who is asexual, I don’t experience sexual attraction to other people. The problem is that very few of us know what sexual attraction is, or what separates it from a bunch of other concepts that we just kind of think are all part of the same thing. So this is asexuality 101:
Firstly, not every two aces are alike: asexuality is a spectrum
(Ace is shorthand for an asexual person). Asexuality is best thought of as a spectrum – on one end, you have the complete absence of sexual attraction, and on the other end, you have sexual attraction that is conditional or perhaps sporadic.
Some people never experience sexual attraction. Some do, but not to the same extent as allosexual (that’s fancy-speak for “not ace”) people do. You can’t make assumptions about anyone – even if you know someone identifies as asexual, it could mean a whole range of different things.
I’m what is usually called “Gray A”, or “graysexual”. It’s a vague term that means I’m largely asexual, but I do sometimes experience attraction. More specifically, I’m demisexual. It means that, in the context of a really strong emotional bond, I might find someone sexually attractive. Not always, though.
We have to decouple romantic attraction from sexual attraction
This one sounds trickier than it is. A lot of people assume that the two go hand in hand. But: a one-night stand is about sexual attraction, not romantic attraction.
So you can experience sexual attraction in the absence of romantic attraction… and the reverse is true, too.
Of course, some people are aromantic, as well as asexual. Or aromantic, without being asexual. Do you get where I’m going with this?
Terminology 101: attraction, desire, orientation, behaviour
Right. Here’s where we get technical. Bear with me.
Sexual attraction: *rowr*. I want you.
Romantic attraction: I want to hold hands and go to movies and adopt kittens with you!
Sexual desire: Oh my, I am horny! (Not directed towards someone; this is just the state of being “worked up”!)
Sexual orientation: Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual – it’s how you identify in terms of who you’re sexually attracted to. Or, it’s the kind of people that you’re okay having sex with, if you don’t have attraction.
Romantic orientation: Homoromantic, heteroromantic, biromantic, panromantic – it’s how you identify in terms of who you’re romantically attracted to. The people you want to hold hands and adopt kitties with.
Sexual behaviour: The physical stuff that we do. Alone, or with someone else. Masturbation, oral sex, penetration, whatevs.
Now, being asexual affects only one of the above: sexual attraction.
How it works: (The FAQs section)
Do asexual people have an orientation?
Like me, for example. I’m asexual. But also, I’m lesbian. Totally and utterly. If I’m getting into a relationship with someone, it’s not going to be with anyone who isn’t a woman. Because I’m lesbian.
Do asexual people get turned on?
If you don’t have sexual attraction, can you still get turned on? Sure, maybe you can. Many of us have moments of desire, or libido, or horniness.
If you don’t have sexual attraction, can you still have sex?
Sure you can: asexual people can have sex, and they can enjoy it. Or not. Just like many people, if they are honest with themselves, have had sex at one or another time in the absence of sexual attraction. For a variety of different reasons!
And, if you don’t have sexual attraction, can you still enjoy sex?
Sure you can. You might not always, but it’s definitely possible. Sexual pleasure, and orgasms too, are all chemical reactions mediated by nerve cells. It’s physics and chemistry, nothing else. Same way a foot rub feels good, it activates the centres in the brain responsible for feeling pleasure. That doesn’t mean you have to have attraction for it to feel good.
So, if you’re asexual, you might choose to have sex, or you might not. And that decision might be based on various things. You might be doing it because your partner wants to, and you don’t mind. You might just be struggling to fall asleep and know that the oxytocin release after you masturbate to orgasm will help you drift off. You might just want to “clean out the plumbing”. Or you might think sex is icky and just not ever want to do it at all. They’re all totally valid options.
But the point is, that if someone is asexual, and they have sex, or they masturbate, they are still asexual. Even if they enjoy it. Even if they want to do it again.
Asexuality and me
So I’ve given you the breakdown, at least as I generally understand it, and as I explain it to others when I do sexuality education.
Now, there is a caveat to my story. I was a young, closeted trans kid, and I didn’t even have the tools or the context then to understand that I was trans. I was going through the wrong puberty, and the kids that I was supposed to regard as my “peers” really weren’t my peers because they were the wrong gender. So yeah, that made a difference. I felt super out of place, and I didn’t know why.
It wasn’t until later in life that I’d understand the two processes that were going on – that I was trans, and that I was ace.
The truth is that, when it comes to the past, I still don’t know.
But I am definitely demisexual. I know this, because now I have experienced sexual attraction. And it happened within the context of a strong emotional bond. And it was unmistakeable.
It means that sometimes it’s easier to just think of sex as something that “doesn’t matter to me”. Sure, the suppressed libido makes that easier. But it’s a barrier to intimacy and connection nonetheless.
Anastacia Tomson is a medical doctor, activist and author.