Brianna used to feel like she needed to overcompensate for not experiencing sexual attraction. Until her early 20s, the supermarket manager would go along with friends in conversation and agree that she thought someone was hot or that she was interested in having sex with them. Then in 2012, she discovered asexuality, an umbrella of orientations centred on experiencing little or no sexual attraction toward others. After posting on a message board called Gaia Online to get advice about how she was really feeling, she entered a new era.
“I was like, ‘Holy crap, that’s my people!’ I spent the whole week researching. It was the best thing I ever found, that something wasn’t wrong with me,” says Brianna, now 31, who asked us to use only her first name for privacy. “That brought me a lot of joy, just knowing that there’s not something wrong with me and it’s normal and there are other people out there who can relate.”
In Angela Chen’s 2020 book, Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, Julie Sondra Decker, a writer and source for the book, compares the definition of asexuality to that of a person who does not enjoy arts and crafts. For example, somebody who loves arts and crafts may refer to themselves as a crafter but somebody who doesn’t feel driven by crafts would never think to define themselves as a non-crafter. “We’re whole people who just lack that ‘driving force,’” Decker tells Chen in an interview. “It’s understandable in the same way that it’s understandable that someone doesn’t have ‘crafts’ as their driving force.” It is not important for her to identify as a “non-crafter,” she argues, but asexual people are inherently defined in relation to something they don’t experience: sexual attraction.
So what does it look like to celebrate asexuality and the self-discovery process for something it is, rather than something it isn’t?
Asexual joy, often stemming from the clarity that can accompany the realisation that one is ace (a shortened term for asexual identities), looks different for everybody. For some, like Marshall Blount, a 30-year-old ace activist, ace joy is baking cakes — a widespread symbol of the ace community online, based on the notion that the dessert is better than sex — with his mother and sharing them with the internet.
For Javay Fraser, a 25-year-old from Brooklyn, joy is welcoming other aces into the community at IRL events: “Encouraging someone who’s still trying to get into [asexuality], like a little bit of a baby ace, ‘Hey, come on, join us. This is your family, this is your home. Make yourself comfortable.’”
Finding community and adopting an ace-centric mentality in other areas of life, in respect to gender, romantic relationships and friendships, can be rewarding and eye-opening for many.
“Discovering asexuality as a framework can be really freeing because it shows you you’re not broken,” says Canton Winer, an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University who studies asexuality. “There are other people who are having experiences that are similar to yours. And you can own that as a positive of your life rather than something that’s deficient about you.”
That kind of framework is a focus of the 2023 book Sounds Fake but Okay: An Asexual and Aromantic Perspective on Love, Relationships, Sex, and Pretty Much Anything Else. Authors Sarah Costello and Kayla Kaszyca, who are both on the ace spectrum, host a podcast by the same name. Costello says coming out as aromantic and asexual after freshman year of college shifted the way she thought about her desires.
“I was able to push beyond the this is what you’re going to do because it’s expected,” says Costello, a 25-year-old in Los Angeles. “You’re going to get married. You’re going to have kids. You’re going to buy a house. I was able to kind of realise, ‘Okay, I can do those things if I want. But I don’t have to. There are other avenues.’”
Many feel that carving out an asexual identity can also lead to stronger relationships. Jessica Hille, the assistant director for education at the Kinsey Institute whose work focuses on ace-spectrum identities, explains, “My friends are some of the most important people in my life, and we know and support each other in ways that are very intimate, just without sex.”
Mariana da Costa, a 25-year-old journalist in Brazil, resonates with this sentiment. For her, ace joy was realising she feels whole exactly as she is. “I realised that this is who I am and I cannot change it. I was like, ‘Oh, wait, but maybe I don’t want to change it,’” she says. “I didn’t need a partner or I didn’t need to feel sexual attraction to someone to be complete or be whole.” Knowing herself has allowed her to expand her friendships, too — a man she came out to at a party (after he briefly flirted with her) is now her best friend.
Costello has felt similarly. Her prioritisation of friendships and familial ties in her life, because she is aromantic and doesn’t seek out romantic or sexual relationships, has been enlightening not only for herself but for those around her, she says. It’s a focus that Winer believes can be helpful for anyone.
“It can lead towards much more resilient communities. Rather than just relying on one single person, your sexual or romantic partner, to provide so many different things for you, you have a web of people who are providing you with all sorts of different things,” Winer says. “That’s, I think, much more resilient actually than a monogamous, traditional married relationship.”
Sometimes, asexual joy is simply about having more hours in the day. Maximilian Ximenez, 30, an agender literary agent in New York, says letting go of traditional expectations of going out to try to get laid changed his life. “I’ve got more time,” he says. “Literally, my schedule opened up once I started identifying as asexual. Ace joy is sleeping until 10 o’clock.”
Brianna also says she has more time and energy to focus on hobbies — in her case, reading, traveling and learning German — since realising she doesn’t need a relationship to be happy. She sometimes gets a kick out of reading subreddits like r/relationships and seeing the inevitable questions at the bottom of a post from the author about whether they should leave their partner.
“When I read stuff like that, I just feel, ‘Ah, thank god I don’t have to worry about stuff like that,’” she says. “Whenever I meet someone in the community, we have that nice little moment of ‘I can’t believe people think about sex all day’ or ‘I can’t believe people are so focused on finding a relationship and we’re just enjoying life.’”
Ace joy is so many things. It’s redefining relationships, it’s sleeping in, it’s baking cakes. But at its core, it’s a community celebrating themselves as whole people, exactly the way they are.