Asexuality (and related concepts) 101 overview
version 1.1 (updated Sep 7, 2015)
This is meant to be an introductory, but comprehensive overview of asexuality, and the concepts mainly covered in asexual discourse.
Statistics come from the 2011 Asexual Awareness Week Community Census, and from the preliminary report of the 2014 AVEN Community Census. The statistics from the AVEN 2014 survey, unless otherwise specified, refer to asexuals, gray-asexuals, and demisexuals combined.
Asexuality (in English) has two basic definitions that are usually used:
- A person who does not experience sexual attraction.
- A person who does not experience an intrinsic desire for partnered sex.
The first definition is the most widely used. “Sexual attraction” is usually defined as that feeling of desiring to have sex with a specific person. The second definition is sometimes used, because not everyone understands what “sexual attraction” is supposed to mean, and finds the definition for it either unclear, or not meaningful to them personally.
Some people find the second definition more clear. There are also allosexuals (people who aren’t asexual nor gray-asexual) who say that they don’t experience “sexual attraction” as the asexual community defines it, but identify as allosexual, because they desire sex. A comparison that has been used, is that someone who is allosexual will still have desires for sex, even if they lived their life in complete isolation.
There is the added issue that some define asexuality as lacking sexual attraction and/or the intrinsic desire for partnered sex, drawing a clear line between what “sexual attraction” is, and the “intrinsic desire for partnered sex”.
There are other asexual people who feel like the first definition fits their experiences, but the second one doesn’t. These reasons are why a combined definition of “Doesn’t experience sexual attraction and/or an intrinsic desire for partnered sex” has grown in popularity.
An expanded definition
“Asexuality is an orientation where an individual does not experience sexual attraction. However, asexuals may have romantic, or other attractions. The lack of sexual attraction does not imply that they is always no sex drive. Asexuals can have ranging libidos.” (Credit to Stained Glass from AVEN for suggesting this expanded definition.)
Is it considered a sexuality, or the lack of?
Asexuality has become increasingly recognized as being a sexuality, though this isn’t unanimous, even in the asexual community.
This question was asked in the 2014 AVEN Community Census; 58% of the respondents (from the combined asexual, gray-asexual and demisexual groups) said that they consider themselves to have a sexuality, one marked by the limited degree of, or the lack of sexual attraction, though 26.8% said they’re unsure, and 15.2% consider themselves to have no sexuality.
Emphasis on self-identification
In the asexual community, there is a strong emphasis on self-identification. The reasons are mainly two-fold:
- When someone is questioning their orientation, they know themselves more than anyone else. Imposing a label right away (i.e: “you are _____” or “you aren’t ____”), deters the possibility of finding another label that may be more accurate for the questioning individual, and denies them self-determination. Labels can be suggested by others based off the information given, but it is up to that person to figure out which label fits their experiences the best, if they want to use one.
- Although someone may fit the definition(s) for asexuality, they might not want to identify with the label for different reasons, so it is considered unethical to impose it on them.
Asexuals are a diverse group
Some asexuals experience romantic attraction, others don’t (approximately 20% are aromantic), and some don’t distinguish romantic from platonic feelings. See the “Romantic orientation” section for more information.
Some asexuals are repulsed by sex, while others are indifferent to it, and some may enjoy it, or are favorable to the idea of it. See the “Personal attitudes towards sex” section for more information.
Asexuality isn’t celibacy or sexual abstinence, though many asexuals happen to be celibate, and can be for different reasons. Likewise, others are sexually active, and can be for different reasons.
Some asexuals can experience sexual fantasies, but don’t experience any desire to be a participant in the acts fantasized; there is a disconnect between oneself, and the acts. This is known as anegosexuality, and while not all anegosexuals are asexual, it’s most common in asexuals.
Asexuality as a spectrum
The asexual spectrum is a collective term referring to asexuals and gray-asexuals; asexuality is the point of the spectrum defined by never experiencing sexual attraction and/or the desire for partnered sex. Gray-asexuality encompasses people who experience a limited degree of sexual attraction and/or desire, but find the concept of asexuality useful to their experiences.
This gray area makes the continuum from asexual to allosexual multi-dimensional; it isn’t only about the frequency of sexual attraction, or only the intensity of it.
“Gray-A” for short. Sometimes also known as graysexuality. An umbrella term for people who aren’t asexual, but aren’t allosexual either. Gray-asexuality is described as being in a “gray area” in between asexual and allosexual, but their experiences are generally more in line with those of asexual people.
Gray-asexuals are also a diverse group who identify with the label for different reasons, but usually experience sexual attraction, or a desire for sex only to a limited degree. Reasons for identifying as gray-asexual include, but aren’t limited to the following:
- Experiencing it only very rarely, noticeably less frequently than the general population.
- Experiencing it only at a low intensity, rarely, if ever strong enough to desire acting on it.
- People who experience sexual attraction, but with low, no libido, may also be considered gray-asexual.
- Being fuzzy on what sexual attraction is, and whether the individual feels it or not.
- Fluidity between feeling asexual and allosexual.
- Experiencing it only under specific, limited circumstances.
Some of these patterns of experiencing sexual attraction only under specific, limited circumstances have names for them:
- Demisexual: A close emotional bond with someone is the only condition in which experiencing sexual attraction is possible. This emotional bond doesn’t have to be romantic. Demisexuality isn’t the same as someone not wanting to not act on sexual attraction, unless they have an emotional bond with that person.
- Lithsexual/Akoisexual: Only experiences sexual attraction with no desire for it to be reciprocated; sexual feelings disappear with reciprocation.
Other reasons for identifying as gray-asexual aren’t about the limited frequency, intensity, or conditions that sexual attraction can be experienced, but about fluidity, and uncertainty over whether it is experienced.
(allo- “other” –> “sexual attraction to other people”) People not on the asexual spectrum, or people who are not asexual nor gray-asexual. They experience sexual attraction, or the desire for partnered sex in a consistent manner, and this attraction is usually closely tied to other forms of attraction they experience. More commonly known as “sexual” people in some spaces.
There’s just as much variation among allosexuals as there is variation among asexuals and gray-asexuals:
- Allosexuals can experience sexual attraction at different frequencies and intensities from each other, have varying sex drives, and have different attitudes towards sex.
- They can also value, and prioritize sex differently in their lives, ranging from those who feel that sex is a must-have, a to those who never want sex, and rejected it for life.
- Just because someone experiences sexual attraction consistently, it doesn’t say anything about how much they want sex. Someone could be repulsed by it, and be allosexual.
- Some allosexuals have a different a romantic orientation that doesn’t match their sexual orientations.
Other forms of attraction
Aside from sexual attraction, there are other types of attraction, including romantic, aesthetic, and sensual.
- Romantic: The desire to form a romantic bond with someone. People who don’t experience romantic attraction are known as aromantics, and some are asexual, others aren’t. For more information on romantic orientation, see the “Romantic orientation” section.
- Aesthetic: Finding someone aesthetically attractive, strongly drawn to their looks, in a non-sexual way.
- Sensual: The desire for sensual, but non-sexual contact with others. Not everyone can neatly separate sensual attraction from sexual attraction, and for many allosexuals, they may be closely linked. For some asexuals who experience romantic attraction, sensual attraction is closely tied to their romantic attraction.
Asexuals just don’t experience sexual attraction (going by the “sexual attraction” definition), but could experience any of the other forms of attraction, and describe their other attractions as being inherently disconnected from anything sexual.
“Squishes” are intense feelings, and are the desires to form a platonic relationship with someone. Aromantic people don’t experience “crushes”, which are romantic, but may experience “squishes”.
Libidoism and nonlibidoism
Asexuals with a libido often describe it as having a libido that isn’t directed at anything, and can be satisfied with self-stimulation. Nonlibidoists are people without libido, and have no physical need for self-stimulation. Arousal is separate from libido, and some, but not all nonlibidoists can be physically aroused. Those that can, and could feel physical pleasure, just have no physical drive for it.
21.6% of asexual spectrum people are estimated to be nonlibidoist. (2014 AVEN Community Census)
Attitudes towards sex
How someone feels about having sex is separate from whether they’re asexual or not. Asexual and gray-asexual people’s attitudes towards the idea of themselves having sex, and towards sex/sexuality in general, are as diverse as allosexual people’s viewpoints.
Personal attitudes towards sex
The three terms usually used in the asexual community to describe how someone personally feels about sex, or the idea of sex involving them, are sex-repulsed, indifferent, and favorable.
Repulsed (or “sex-repulsed”) individuals strongly dislike the idea of themselves having sex, under most, or all circumstances. They may feel physically or mentally grossed out by it. There are different degrees of sex-repulsion, ranging from someone who is completely repulsed by anything sexual, and doesn’t want to talk about it, to those who like the idea of sex in theory, but are repulsed by the thought of actual sex involving themselves.
Sex-repulsion isn’t itself a sign of being asexual, but more than half of asexuals, and a substantial portion of gray-asexuals and demisexuals, are sex-repulsed. This is notable, because in portions of the asexual community, it can seem like the opposite is true. It can be easy to forget that such a large part of the asexual community is repulsed, when there are a lot of discussions about sex in asexual spaces.
Some sex-repulsed individuals feel that their repulsion does have a cause, including trauma, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way. Sex-repulsion may or may not have a cause, but neither possibility is any less valid.
Indifferent (or “sex-indifferent”) individuals are indifferent towards the idea of themselves having sex. They often describe their attitude towards sex as “take it or leave it”, or “might not mind having sex under some circumstances, but would be perfectly content to never have it”. Some are willing to have sex, even if they might get little, or nothing out of the act itself, such as if they have an allosexual partner who wants sex, and the want to make their partner happy. Not all these relationships are sexual, for different reasons.
For indifferent individuals who don’t want sex, it’s not that they find it repulsive, but rather, they feel like it may not be worth it for them from a cost-benefits perspective: They feel that they don’t get much of anything out of sex, but it takes a lot of their time and energy, and has risks. Who’d want to invest in something that yields little for them in return?
Sex-favorable individuals are those who are favorable towards the idea of themselves having sex under some circumstances.
note: This is a term that has only been used a lot in asexual discourse for only the past 1-2 years. Not everyone accepts this term, or distinguishes sex-favorable asexuals from the sex-indifferent, One distinction that’s used is that sex-favorable asexuals can enjoy sex itself, despite no desire for it, while indifferent asexuals who have sex, may not enjoy the act itself, but enjoy it for a secondary reason, like making their partner happy. Also note that someone could be sex-favorable, and still not want sex for other reasons.
Not everyone can neatly fit their experiences into these three labels. Some individuals may be unsure, or ambivalent towards the idea of themselves having sex, while others may feel like their experiences are a mix of the three, and can’t neatly be categorized. For example, individuals who like the idea of sex, except for when they’re involved in it, might identify as sex-repulsed, while others would say their feelings don’t neatly fit into any of the three labels.
Also, the descriptions I gave for each of these labels aren’t the only ones.
Desiring sex is separate from wanting it. Sex-favorable asexuals may want sex for the sake of it, despite not having any intrinsic desire for it, and there are sex-repulsed and averse allosexuals who never want sex despite having an intrinsic desire for it. However, someone who is sex-indifferent or favorable may have reasons for not wanting sex, and choose to not be open to it; assumptions shouldn’t be made.
Attitudes towards sex in general
How someone feels about personally having sex (repulsed, indifferent, favorable), is also separate from how they feel about others having sex, or how they feel towards sex in general. There are terms used for describing attitudes towards sex in general, but the definitions for each of them are widely disputed.
The AVEN 2014 Survey showed that most respondents don’t have any problem with consenting adults engaging in sex, but many of those same respondents also at least somewhat agreed with the statement “Our society has too much sex in it, and it would be better if it were diminished.”. Agreeing to both of those statements may not be contradictory, considering how sex is treated as compulsory by society as a whole, and there’s a lot of pressure to have it.
Romantic attraction is often defined as the desire to form a romantic bond with a specific person. If sexual orientation is the pattern of what gender(s) someone is sexually attracted to, which includes experiencing no sexual attraction, then romantic orientation is the pattern of what gender(s) someone is romantically attracted to, which includes experiencing no romantic attraction.
Romantic orientation labels use the same prefixes as the sexual orientation labels, including hetero-, homo-, bi- pan-, a-, demi-, gray-, lith-/akoi-.
When sexual and romantic orientation don’t match
Romantic and sexual orientation can happen in any combination. Many allosexuals whose sexual and romantic orientations don’t match, found the asexual community for support, because the asexual community may have been the first community they saw that distinguishes between romantic and sexual orientation. Many said that before they knew of this distinction, they felt lost or broken.
Aromanticism has a lot of overlap in people who are both asexual and aromantic, and aromantics face many of the same misconceptions that asexuals do.
A lot of care needs to be taken to acknowledge that while aromantic asexuals may be the most visible part of the asexual community (under the assumption that sexual and romantic orientation are the same), they aren’t the majority, and feel silenced by some common rhetoric in the asexual community.
Some aromantic asexuals identify more strongly with the asexual community, while others may identify more strongly with the aromantic community.
Aromanticism has its own spectrum. Gray-romantics experience romantic attraction only to a limited degree. Like with gray-asexuality, the reasons for identifying as gray-romantic include low intensity of romantic attraction, low frequency, only under limited conditions (i.e: demiromanticism, lith/akoiromanticism) or uncertainty.
When romantic orientation doesn’t seem to apply
Not everyone finds romantic orientation to be a meaningful concept for themselves. Sexuality is highly abstract and subjective, but romance is even more so. Two labels that people who feel this way use for themselves are WTFromantic and quoiromantic. WTF/quoiromantics feel like they don’t distinguish between romantic and platonic attractions, or are uncertain if they experience romantic attraction. Some people who identify with either of these labels consider themselves to be in the gray area between romanticism and aromanticism, while others consider themselves not on the continuum at all.
Relationships are often very difficult for asexuals to navigate, because societal expectations about relationships portray sex as a crucial part of a (romantic) relationship that everyone is “supposed” to want, and relationships without it are seen as less fulfilling, or less valid. This navigation is even more difficult for asexuals who are also sex-repulsed/averse.
With expectations of sex, and asexuals making up such a small percentage of the population, many who want a relationship without sex worry that they’ll never find one, and have to choose between being alone when they don’t want to, or having sex they don’t want just for the sake of having a relationship. It doesn’t have to be that way, and there are much better options than that!
This link by Pianycist lists several reasons why it is unethical: http://metapianycist.tumblr.com/post/110689245253/smash-the-idea-that-lack-of-sexual-attraction-is
 I don’t like using this definition, but just for simplicity’s sake, “celibacy” here refers to any long-term sexual inactivity, regardless of what label a sexually inactive person uses for their self, or the reasons.
 A limitation of the 2014 Census is that the libido question doesn’t have an “unsure” or “varies” option, and doesn’t account for those with a fluctuating libido.