This Is What It Feels Like To Lack Sexual Attraction To Other People

Understatement of the century: Sexuality is complicated. If we’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s that the notion of binary sexuality is not only limiting; it totally disregards reality. But while we’ve opened up our minds about the space between "gay" and "straight" labels, it seems that people often forget about another orientation that may not fit as neatly onto that spectrum: asexuality.

Defined simply, asexuality and aromanticism refer to people who lack the desire to have sexual and romantic relationships with other people. Historically, there has been very little research dedicated to understanding the asexual/aromantic community (also known as the ace/aro community), in large part because it undermines what many psychoanalysts have been telling us for so long: that sex is the most essential of human desires. (How's it going, Freud?)

Thanks to the growth of online ace/aro communities on Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit in recent years, local meetups and national organizations have formed at an unprecedented rate. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), the largest and most established of these organizations, estimates that approximately 1% of the world’s population identifies as asexual based on a 2004 survey of 195 people. Of that population, roughly a third also identifies as trans, non-binary, or gender non-conforming.

Of course, since sexual and gender identity can be a charged topic, it’s hard to get an accurate estimate of how many people out there don’t identify as "gay," "straight," or anything in between. But it’s safe to say that there are plenty of people whose stories are often absent from the public narrative on sexuality.

So we decided to speak to a few people from the ace/aro community to get a deeper understanding. If we’ve been told that so much of the human experience is influenced by a motivation for sex and romantic love, what does life look like when this motivation isn’t there?

Ahead, five people explain what being asexual in your 20s and 30s is really like.
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Sophie, 22

Where do you fall on the ace/aro spectrum and what does that mean to you?
"I identify as gray asexual (gray ace) and gray aromantic (gray aro). ‘Gray’ means that I fall between the two poles of a spectrum: I don't completely lack sexual and romantic attraction, but their occurrence is rare enough that I feel I fall under the asexual and aromantic umbrellas.

"A lot of aces, including me, identify as autochorrissexual, which means that I feel a disconnect between myself and the people who arouse me. I may watch porn or have sexual fantasies, but I don’t have any desire to participate in the actual activities."

Can you tell me a little bit about when you first told friends and family about your asexuality and how they reacted?
"I have a memory of being in the car with my mom and sister and telling them I thought I was asexual. My mom responded with, ‘You're just a late bloomer,’ and my sister said, ‘You just haven't met the right guy yet.’ They meant to comfort me, so I guess they heard asexual as a bad thing. That type of response is typical for aces trying to come out. Pretty invalidating, like hearing, ‘Don't worry, you're a Normal Heterosexual for sure!’ It's hard, because I still struggle with a tiny part of me that says that exact thing. We're so conditioned by the media and our culture to think in terms of that relationship structure that people who identify outside of it grapple with self-doubt."

What are some of the most common misconceptions of asexuality?
"I revealed a few already: we're late bloomers, we haven't met the right person yet, we've suffered trauma, we have something wrong physiologically, we're lying, we're repressed, we just need a good lay, we're emotionless/unfeeling, we're a weird pro-celibacy group, we're sex-negative (sex-repulsion is personal, so it doesn't count in the first place)."

How is your perspective different from someone who might identify with the dominant narrative of sexual and romantic relationships?
"There's an idea that we just don't get how attractions work, that we know nothing of sex and love. This is false. We are probably more aware of the cultural templates surrounding sex and romance. We don't fit snugly, if at all, so we're in a spot to observe and learn patterns from the margins. Just, these learnings can't fully be tied back to personal experience. Stories of sex and love aren't lost on us. Finding them captivating is a reflection of our culture's fascination."
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Bauer, 27

Where do you fall on the Ace/Aro spectrum and what does that mean to you?
"I’m asexual; I’m potentially a little bit gray. That means that I’m not sexually attracted to people, I have no need, and I’m really excited that I never have to have sex again."

Can you tell me a little bit about when you first told friends and family about your asexuality and how they reacted?
"My mom told me that sex wasn’t terrible always, which I thought was hilarious. It was the first time I ever talked about sex with my mom, so it was like the opposite of most sex conversations. And my sister kind of held out hope that I wouldn’t be [asexual] for a while, until I started dating, because she didn’t want me to end up by myself."

What are some of the most common misconceptions of asexuality?
"Some of the people I’ve been with in a sexual relationship, even when I tell them that I’m asexual, I can tell they’re like ‘Okay, that’s cool,’ but there’s this hope that I’m gonna grow to be more excited about it. I’m like, ‘I’m literally here for you and no other reason — that’s why I’m participating in this activity.’ But that sometimes doesn’t cut it for other people, because wanting to please your partner is a really big part of sex. I didn’t know how big a part it was until I, like, needed to pretend to be very excited. And so it sort of felt like this expectation of maybe someday I’ll gradually ease into it — and I just never did."

How is your perspective different from someone who might identify with the dominant narrative of sexual and romantic relationships?
"There are a lot of things I don’t notice, [things] that just go over my head. I have to remind myself to look for these things, because other people see it as sexual when I don’t.

"I forget that my body is a sexual thing for other people, and then I am reminded all the time. I don’t see that, because I don’t want to, and there’s not much I can do about it. So yeah, the rude awakening of remembering that your body is a sexual object to other people is irritating. But that might be irritating regardless."
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Julia, 24

Where do you fall on the ace/aro spectrum and what does that mean to you?
"I am pretty much completely asexual. No sexual attraction. Also pretty much no sex drive at all. That’s not always an ace thing, but that’s definitely a me thing.

"I’m possibly somewhere on the aromantic spectrum, but I can’t figure that out right now… It’s very confusing, because defining what romance even is is difficult, especially when you’re not sure if you’ve ever felt it."

Can you tell me a little bit about when you first told friends and family about your asexuality and how they reacted?
"I’ve been really lucky in that most of the [friends] I’ve come out to already knew what it was, so there haven’t been many awkward conversations where I’ve have to teach them everything about what asexuality is, because that gets tiring really fast. That’s exactly why I haven’t told my parents yet, because I’m probably going to have to explain everything to them, and that’s not really a conversation I want to have.

"I did have one weird reaction. I mentioned it to my roommate in passing, and she said something like, ‘I wish I could be asexual.' And I was just like, ‘That’s a weird thing to say. I don’t think you actually want that.’ That’s not how that works. You do not actually want to have the problems that I have."

What are some of the most common misconceptions of asexuality?
"People just think we’re making it up for the attention. I don’t even think those people are thinking about the words coming out of their mouths, because the kind of attention that we get is: 'Oh, that type of person doesn’t exist' or 'Oh, you’re just making it up.' Who wants that kind of attention? It just makes no sense to me that people think that that would be a reason. And there’s other people who say 'Oh, that just means you’re an unfeeling robot.'"

How is your perspective different from someone who might identify with the dominant narrative of sexual and romantic relationships?
"I’ve definitely been flirted with and totally didn’t recognize it at the time. Like, I’ll be talking to somebody, and then I’ll get home hours later and be like, Wait a minute — was that guy hitting on me? I think he was hitting on me. Goddamnit. I don’t notice these things!

"And when there’s romantic tension in movies, I can’t see it. I have a really hard time seeing it. I’ve gotten a little bit better about it over time, but that’s just a factor of noticing what other people say about markers of romantic tension, and then being like, Oh, these characters are staring into each other’s eyes. That means they like each other. Okay, I see it now. But it’s not something instinctive to me. I had to learn it."
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Kristin, 21

Where do you fall on the ace/aro spectrum and what does that mean to you?
"I’m demi-romantic and demi-sexual, which means that I very, very rarely experience sexual or romantic attraction, and then only if I’m very, very emotionally close to the person already."

Can you tell me a little bit about when you first told friends and family about your sexuality and how they reacted?
"I had a very not-fun experience when I came out to a close friend of mine whom I was romantically and sexually attracted to. This person knew that, and he decided he wanted to have sex with me just so that I would know that sex wasn’t bad. But he didn’t tell me this until afterward. We didn’t end up actually having sex, but we hooked up and afterward he was like, 'I just wanted to show you that sex didn’t have to be a negative thing.' And I was like, 'I fucking know that sex doesn’t have to be a negative thing. I didn’t need you to show me.'"

What are some of the most common misconceptions of asexuality?
"You get weird reactions where some people think that, because you’ve not had a good experience with sex, or any experience with sex, it’s just that you don’t know what you’re missing. And then, sometimes, they take it into their own hands and think it’s okay to try and figure that out for themselves."

How is your perspective different from someone who might identify with the dominant narrative of sexual and romantic relationships?
"I enjoy fashion and makeup, but it’s an intensely personal thing to me. It’s not about other people. So like, I’ve never put on a face of makeup or tried on a dress and been like, Mmm yeah, I’m gonna attract a lot of people with this. It’s about me, and not about what other people will think about how I look. And actually, sometimes, I get that intense awareness, because I’ll dress however I dress, and then I’ll walk outside and I’ll see people looking at me and I’ll be like, Do I have something in my teeth? [The way I dress] is not tied to making someone else look at me differently or think I’m pretty. That’s not on my radar."
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Lina, 30

Where do you fall on the ace/aro spectrum and what does that mean to you?
"I consider myself falling around the gray area of the ace spectrum, since although I have never experienced sexual desire or attraction, I'm not sex-averse or repulsed. So, while I haven't felt that sexual aspect in my past relationships, I'm still open to the possibility that I could feel that way towards someone."

Can you tell me a little bit about when you first told friends and family about your sexuality and how they reacted?
"It's been a bit of a mixed bag, and I haven't told many people, mostly because I feel like what I do or don't do in the bedroom is no one's business.

"One family friend, who does not know my orientation, but the topic came up in conversation, said she doesn't believe asexuality — any parts of its spectrum — is a real thing. I feel more comfortable talking about my sexuality with online friends, many of whom identify somewhere on the ace spectrum or as queer."

What are some of the most common misconceptions of asexuality?
"That being ace means you never have sex or are sex-repulsed/averse. That there's something wrong with an ace person, or that they can be ‘fixed.’ I've also seen some attitudes within the ace community that you're not ace if you have sex — an all-or-nothing mindset — or that ace people are more virtuous, since they don't experience something as base or carnal as sexual desire."

How is your perspective different from someone who might identify with the dominant narrative of sexual and romantic relationships?
"I'm not sure if it's more due to my personality or to my sexuality, but pursuing a relationship has never really been a priority for me. I've dated, I've had crushes, and have fallen in love, and while having a committed partner would be nice for companionship, I've never really been in a rush to get there. This has raised concerns for my family, which values the traditional narrative of getting married and having children. I feel like I'm becoming that weird person in the family — the aunt/cousin who is unwed and never brings a partner home.

"When it comes down to labels, since sex isn't a huge component of my identity, I don't feel like I completely fit in with the queer community."
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