What is asexuality?
Asexuality is a sexual orientation where a person doesn't experience sexual attraction towards anyone [1–3], which current estimates say applies approximately 1–4% of the population [4–10].1 Asexuality is also an umbrella term for people that fall between asexuality and other orientations.
This page discusses what asexuality means in a wider social context, and is intended mainly to help non-asexuals understand their asexual peers more fully. For discussion that may help you decide if you yourself are asexual see The a-spectra or Am I asexual? – although there's of course no harm in reading this page as well.
Being written from an 'outside perspective' this page makes use of terms like 'sexual attraction' in a loose way. While for the most part there is little harm in reading these words without thinking, it should be noted that many of these terms have a relatively precise meaning when used in the asexuality community, and indeed in the rest of this website. The meanings of the most common terms are explored in The a-spectra. We also have a glossary for quick reference.
What defines asexuality
At its heart, asexuality has a very simple definition – asexuality is a sexual orientation where a person doesn't feel sexual attraction towards anyone. This is in just the same way that other orientations are defined in terms of which people the person might be attracted to: a heterosexual can be attracted to the opposite gender, a homosexual can be attracted to the same gender, a bi/pansexual can be attracted to both/all genders. Asexuality is the logically necessary fourth category: those that aren't attracted to anyone.
The 'two-dimensional model' makes clear that there's a space in which asexuals live. It places the level of opposite-sex attraction that a person experiences on the x-axis and the level of same-sex attraction on the y-axis, and is shown in diagram below.
Although this is an overly simplified way of looking at sexuality (and gender) it emphasises two concepts central to asexuality. The first is that homosexuality and heterosexuality are separate variables – it's not that a bisexual person is between homosexual and heterosexual, they are both homosexual and heterosexual. The second is that asexuality isn't binary: a person can be more or less asexual, and there is somewhat of a grey area around how near the bottom-left corner of this diagram a person needs to be before they are considered 'asexual'. The space between asexual and non-asexual is further discussed in Grey-asexuality.
One way of turning this model on its head is to instead consider who a person is not attracted to. That is, a heterosexual is someone who isn't attracted to the same gender, a homosexual is someone who isn't attraction to the opposite gender, and an asexual isn't attracted to anyone. Thinking about orientation this way around can help with understanding asexuality, since most people have experience with not being attracted to someone – even for bi/pansexuals it's rare to be attracted to literally everyone.
Unfortunately, there are several reasons why this simple model doesn't give the entire picture when it comes to asexuality.2 On top of that, most non-asexuals will have many implicit assumptions about sexuality and relationships that can create a false impression about asexuality given just the definition. While many of these beliefs may be useful and true in a lot of contexts, they are usually not when considering asexuality. The rest of this section explores further aspects of what asexuality is and isn't, in the hopes that it will help do away with such assumptions.
Asexuality is not a choice
As with other orientations, asexuality is understood to be an intrinsic part of who a person is, rather than a choice they have made. Asexuality is defined by the feelings (or lack thereof) that a person has, which ultimately they have no control over.
For example, unlike celibacy an asexual who doesn't have sex is not choosing to do so despite an intrinsic desire to participate, but rather they are lacking any such desire in the first place. On the other end, an asexual might choose to have sex, but that behaviour does not determine whether they experienced attraction.
Asexuality is not aromanticism
Another common assumption about asexuals is that they aren't interested in romantic relationships. However, around half of asexuals [11, p.20] report some kind of interest in romance. It is common in the asexuality community to consider sexual attraction to be just one of several related phenomena (see The a-spectra), with the most prominent being the concept of 'romantic attraction'. Many asexuals report feeling romantic attraction – that is, an urge to form a romantic relationship with a specific person – without any sexual feelings attached.
Asexuals may form romantic relationships with other asexuals, but it's also common for asexuals to get into relationships with non-asexuals. Asexuals in such relationships may or may not have sex with their partner. In forming such relationships, asexuals affirm that sex, even in the context of a romance, is just another ordinary part of life. It might be important to some people some of the time, but it not every relationship needs it, and it can be subject to compromise like any other mismatch between partners.
Asexuality is not sex-negativity
In the past asexuality has been conflated or confused with various anti-sex movements.3 However, in the same way that a homosexual person isn't defined by a belief that heterosexual sex is morally wrong, asexuality is not a belief that sex is bad for society or that other people should not have sex. Asexuality, like any other orientation, is not in-and-of itself a political opinion – it simply describes a person's presence or lack of a certain experience.
Some asexuals find that sex is a disgusting concept to them personally, but this should not be taken to imply that they believe other people should abstain from sex. In the asexuality community the term 'sex-aversion' is used to describe this form of disgust / repulsion, in contrast to 'sex-negativity' which is a political stance.
Asexuality is not a lack of libido
Although on average asexuals tend to report a lower libido than non-asexuals, most asexuals do report having some libido. This is possible because libido doesn't necessarily need to be directed towards any particular person. Asexuals might satisfy their libido with masturbation or sex with a partner they aren't attracted to.
One of the classic ways to illustrate the difference between libido and sexual attraction is by analogy to the difference between hunger and craving a particular food. A person might crave, say, a doughnut, which means they experience a desire to eat directed specifically at that kind of food – this mirrors how sexual attraction is an urge for sex with a particular person. In contrast, it's possible for someone to be hungry without craving anything in particular, which is similar to the way libido can be undirected.
Asexuality is not a dislike of sex
Asexuality is an orientation, which means it is defined by the pattern of attraction that a person feels (or doesn't feel), not whether they enjoy sex. While many asexuals do dislike sex or have an aversion to it, it's not uncommon for asexuals to have or even enjoy sex for a number of reasons. For example, an asexual might choose to have sex because:
- they want to have children,
- they want to experience physical pleasure,
- they desire emotional closeness,
- they want to please their partner / show affection,
- they are in a relationship involving compromise.
The thing that separates asexuals that have sex from non-asexuals, is that asexuals lack intrinsic motivation for sex with another person. They may still have extrinsic motivation to do so.
A person does not grow out of asexuality
Orientations – asexuality included – are in some part defined by being life-long conditions [12,13]. Of course, it’s possible for a person’s sexuality to be fluid and changing, but this is relatively rare. Most people who identify as asexual at some point continue to do so for the rest of their life.
This is at odds with the popular-culture view of people that don't experience attraction, which is that it's a sign of immaturity, a phase, or something that a person will eventually give up. This disconnect comes from the fact that asexuality is distinct from the 'presexuality' that most people experience. While a disinterest in sex can no doubt be temporary or changing for a lot of people (especially during adolescence) people that identify with asexuality do so with the understanding that their feelings are unlikely to change. In fact, it's common for asexual people to identify their sexuality relatively late in life compared to other orientations (e.g. over the age of 18).
As is common on the topic of asexuality, this is a case of cultural overgeneralising of the experience of sexuality. Because most people do have a phase in life similar to asexuality which ends at some point, they may assume that others have the same experience as them. This view is never challenged because asexuality is rarely talked about, but that doesn't make it true.
Asexuality doesn't require an explanation
When a person identifies as asexual they are making a statement (perhaps just to themselves) about what kinds of things they experience, and that that experience doesn't need to be 'fixed' in some way. While there might be some identifiable cause of this condition, there doesn't need to be. In most contexts, what matters is a how a person feels and what their preferences are, rather than abstract and unprovable notions of causality.
Undoubtedly a person's life experience can have an affect on their attitude towards sex – as indeed genetic factors do – but to date there is no evidence that asexuality is 'caused' by trauma, religious upbringing, or anything like that. Asexuality, just like other orientations, is more complex and unpredictable than that.
Asexuality isn't new
While asexuality has been becoming more culturally prominent in recent years, this shouldn't be mistaken for indicating that asexuality itself is somehow new. Just like any other orientation, it's likely that people who don't experience sexual attraction have been around as long as humanity has. For example, published descriptions very similar to some forms of asexuality can be found as far back as 1886 .
But more than that, asexuality has been recognised as a queer identity alongside, e.g. homosexuality, for as long as the LGBT+ community have existed. The term 'asexual' itself has been used in the sense of 'lacking sexual attraction' from as early as the 1860s . References to asexuality as an orientation, and as a part of the LGBT+ community, can also be found from 1907, as well as in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, and in photographs from as early as 1973. (See Are asexual people LGBT? for more information.)
Asexuality as a social movement
In a broader context, the asexuality community can be seen as a group promoting the awareness and acceptance of certain marginalised experiences. One of the primary goals of asexuality as a movement is that a lack of sexual attraction (and indeed, sex-drive, romantic feelings, etc.) be considered just another part of the normal, healthy, human variation, and that as a society we should broaden our understanding of human relationships beyond an overly simplified sexual/non-sexual dichotomy.
Certain common cultural beliefs about sex and relationships are in many cases generalisations, that while true in some cases for a lot or even most people, are varying degrees of untrue (and therefore harmful) for others. Asexuality activism is concerned with breaking down and refuting these beliefs, including the following.
- That everyone wants sex, or wants to want sex, or should want it even if they may not realise it.
- That everyone likes sex, or wants to like sex, or should like it even if they may not realise it.
- That it's bad for a person's well-being not to want or to have sex.
- That a disinterest in sex should be treated or is always treatable.
- That sex and / or sexual desire is part of what it means to be human – i.e. having emotions, or being enlightened.
- That there must be some identifiable cause for disinterest in sex or romance (e.g. trauma).
- That a claimed disinterest in sex must indicate that sexual feelings have been suppressed or otherwise removed.
- That someone who isn't interested in sex will at some point change their mind (e.g. meeting 'the right person').
- That a disinterest in sex is a choice and not an orientation.
- That everyone wants romance, or wants to want romance, or should want it even if they may not realise it.
- That everyone likes romance, or wants to like romance, or should like it even if they may not realise it.
- That it's bad for a person's well-being not to want or to have a romantic relationship.
- That sex is a requisite for a romantic relationship – i.e. if there's no sex then the relationship is indistinguishable from friendship.
- That a romantic relationship is a requisite for 'the right kind of sex'.
- That romantic feelings imply (or should imply) a sexual element.
- That a relationship involving mismatched sexual needs is doomed to failure (more so than any other incompatibility), or that the partner that wants less sex is being selfish.
- That desiring and thinking about sex makes a person more mature / not being interested in sex is childish.
- That it's selfish not to want to have children or that everyone wants to have children even if they don't realise it.
- That platonic relationships cannot be as meaningful or as important as romantic ones.
- That non-romantic and/or non-sexual relationships are uninteresting and/or not worthy of exploration or discussion (e.g. in media).
- That romantic relationships are more worthy of celebration and recognition than platonic ones (e.g. marriage).
- That people only care about their appearance as a means to achieving romantic or sexual ends.
- That physiological arousal (e.g. an erection) means there must be a desire for sex.
- That psychological arousal means there must be a desire for partnered sex.
- That a desire for sex is the same thing as sexual attraction.
- That a sexual fantasy (or indeed, any fantasy) implies a desire to be participant in said fantasy.
- That a person who masturbates must be interested in partnered sex.
- That a person cannot consent to sex that they aren't inherently interested in / where they aren't attracted to their partner.
Challenging these assumptions helps everyone – asexual, non-asexual, and people in-between – because it emphasises and reinforces a fundamental truth. We can't always understand each other. Our emotions and bodies can be confusing. But that's ok – there isn't any one right way to feel.
- For further information on the prevalence of asexuality see Demographics. Briefly: the 1% figure includes only 'strict' asexuals – for this and other reasons it's likely to be an underestimate of the actual rate of asexuality. The 4% figure includes anyone between 'strictly' asexual and non-asexual.
- For example, the model makes no distinction between sexual, romantic, and other forms of attraction. It also doesn't make a distinction between sexual attraction and arousal, or between behaviour and orientation. These distinctions come into sharp focus when discussing asexuality.
- This is even true in LGBT+ and especially feminist spaces. For example, a prominent document in the history of asexuality, The Asexual Manifesto c. 1973, describes some aspects of asexuality as we know it today but it makes no distinction between the orientation of asexuality and women's rejection of sexual relationships with the political aim of undermining patriarchy.
-  Julie Sondra Decker (2015). The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781510700642
-  Asexuality (2019). Wikipedia.
-  AVEN home page (2019). The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network.
-  Wellings, K. (1994). Sexual Behaviour in Britain: The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. Penguin Books.
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-  Bogaert, Anthony F. (2013). The Demography of Asexuality. International Handbook on the Demography of Sexuality. Springer Netherlands: 275–288. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-5512-3_15.
-  Accelerating Acceptance 2017. Harris Poll survey of Americans conducted on behalf of GLAAD.
-  Caroline Bauer et al (2018). 2016 Asexual Community Survey Summary Report. Asexual Community Survey Team.
-  Brotto, Lori A.; Yule, Morag (19 August 2016). Asexuality: Sexual Orientation, Paraphilia, Sexual Dysfunction, or None of the Above?. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 46 (3): 619–627. doi:10.1007/s10508-016-0802-7.
-  Bella DePaulo (2016). Asexuality Is a Sexual Orientation, Not a Sexual Dysfunction. Psychology Today.
-  Richard Krafft-Ebing (1886). Psychopathia sexualis, p. 61–67. Rebman.
-  "By the 1860s, asexual moved into the realm of human sexuality as a term for lacking sexual feelings or attraction to someone" from Dictionary.com entry here. 'Asexual' as a term applied to humans from 1896 attested in Points of View: An Entertaining Look at Words and Meanings, by Robert Burchfield.