The Asexuality Movement Is Gaining Traction

Asexuality is a sexual orientation, not a choice.

This summer will likely mark two important milestones in the evolution of sexuality in the United States. The Supreme Court is expected to declare gay marriage legal in all 50 states by the end of the month, and a long-awaited drug for boosting women's libido is on its way to FDA approval.

The controversial pharmaceutical, flibanserin, is meant to whet the sexual appetite of women diagnosed with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder. But while they may feel troubled by their lack of interest in sex and would very much like to change that, there's another non-sexual type of person who is more likely to be content with the absence of sexual desire for either gender: asexuals.

Now recognized as a sexual orientation in its own right, asexuality is widely misunderstood, often mistakenly viewed as a sexual problem or just celibacy, something any sexual orientation can choose. Asexuals meanwhile are not making a choice to abstain from sex. It's who they are. 

David Jay, founder of The Asexual Visibility and Education Network, in 2005.
David Jay, founder of The Asexual Visibility and Education Network, in 2005. David Jay via Flickr/Creative Commons

Estimated at roughly 1 percent of the population, according to a UK survey from a decade ago, in recent years this group has formed a vibrant online community whose hub is The Asexual Visibility and Education Network, or AVEN. Founded in 2001 by David Jay, a college student who wanted other asexuals like him to realize that they are okay just as they are, the group now boasts over 80,000 registered members, and has the goals of "creating public acceptance and discussion of asexuality and facilitating the growth of an asexual community."

Awareness is spreading and more people are identifying as asexual, but understanding still lags. So Julie Sondra Decker, an author and asexual awareness activist who along with David Jay has been a major voice in the asexual community, wrote "The Invisible Orientation." Published last year, it's the first book geared toward the general public that covers the basics of the asexual experience from an insider's perspective. The media attention it garnered has helped spread the word.

Courtesy Skyhorse Publishing
Courtesy Skyhorse Publishing

"The book needed to exist because there was a void," says Decker. "It's definitely reaching people that it wouldn't have otherwise." An online group like AVEN has been "a great starting point for a lot of people," she goes on, but the book widens the reach even more, especially for those not active on the Internet, and lends an air of legitimacy to the young movement, which some gleefully scoff at.

And then there are the folks who are well-intentioned but simply ignorant, including healthcare practitioners who may be too quick to diagnose a patient's lack of sexual interest as a disorder. The problem, says Decker, is that "people who don't know any better will be listening to these authority figures and assuming something must be wrong with them."

Although the most recent edition of the DSM does note that asexuality is an exception to certain sexual disorders, Decker feels it doesn't go far enough in helping doctors and patients distinguish between a sexual disorder and asexuality. While distress about lack of interest in sex could indicate a disorder, some asexuals, aware of their orientation or not, may feel profoundly troubled simply because of all the grief coming their way. "It's hard to parse out which parts of the distress are intrinsic and which parts are instilled by negative interactions with people who value sex," Decker says.

Even though asexuals still sometimes have to defend the validity of their existence when dealing with skeptics in mainstream hetero culture as well as inside the LGBT community, whose umbrella they now fall under as they march in Pride parades, acceptance has been growing. "It's definitely a different world from five years ago," says Decker, recalling when the mention of her asexuality was met with unsympathetic reactions. "More recently, so many people that I mention it to have heard of it before or they know someone else who identifies that way."

The asexual flag: black stands for asexuality, gray for gray asexuality, white denotes non-asexual partners and allies, and purple represents community.
The asexual flag: black stands for asexuality, gray for gray asexuality, white denotes non-asexual partners and allies, and purple represents community. Wikimedia

One thing that can be especially challenging for people to grasp is the broad continuum among asexuals, some of whom experience no sexual attraction, while others do but lack sexual desire or have a low level of it if they do.

Antonia, a 45-year-old asexual woman living in Brooklyn who didn't share her last name for privacy's sake, falls into the latter group, known as "gray-A," though she prefers "semi-sexual" or "semi-asexual," which are among a host of subcategories. She can feel attracted to men, and has had a few boyfriends over the years whom she kissed and had sex with, albeit rarely. "But it's like, I could be doing something else," she says with a good-natured laugh. "Sex doesn't do anything for me."

Antonia didn't learn about asexuality until her late 30s when she was filling out an online dating profile. Trying to be as honest as possible, she wrote that she was "naturally celibate." Then she got the idea to see if there might be a pool of celibate guys to date. A few taps at the keyboard led her to an asexual dating site. "I was like, oh that's a thing!" she says.

Antonia on a recent evening in Central Park.
Antonia on a recent evening in Central Park. Daniel Krieger

This new understanding led her to discover that two of her close friends are also asexual. It's also been helpful with dating, which remains a low priority for her. "It was a big relief," she says.

Soft-spoken and with an air of serenity, Antonia seems at peace with herself. The biggest challenge for her when it comes to her asexuality is finding a community where she can fit in. She has gone to local events for asexuals like Meetup groups, but to her the scene seems to skew pretty young and is focused largely on talking about asexuality and what it all means. "I'm kind of over it," she says. "I just want to be around other people who happen to be asexual and do regular stuff." Many of the celibacy groups are religiously oriented, which she is not, though she does practice an eclectic mix of shamanic and mystical traditions.

As far as people's lack of understanding goes, it does occur sometimes. She recalls a man she'd had a dalliance with some years ago for whom it didn't compute. "He couldn't believe it," she says. 

But as more people learn about asexuality through articles, books, online groups, documentaries, and asexuals coming out to their friends and family, there's bound to be a day in the not-too-distant future when saying you're asexual is as ordinary as saying you're gay, bi, trans, or straight.

(Wondering if you might be asexual? Take this quiz.)

Cover photo of the Toronto Pride Parade 2011 by David Alan Barker via Flickr/Creative Commons

Update : In an historic 5-4 decision the Supreme Court of the United States legalized same-sex marriage.  -6/26/15