Everyone experiences sexual attraction differently. It’s totally normal to only feel attraction to those who share your gender identity, or to those who don’t; you’re also in good company if you only experience sexual attraction after forming a close bond with a partner. And if you never feel those tingly twinges of desire for anyone—even those you want to date, or celebrities you find objectively beautiful—you’re not alone, either. You might just be asexual.
In short, asexuality is “a sexual orientation for individuals who may experience romantic attraction, but not sexual attraction,” says Shawntres A. Parks, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and co-founder of Parks & Powers Psychotherapy. It isn’t characterized by a lack of interest in sex, or low libido—it’s a sexual orientation just like bisexuality, for example, or heterosexuality.
While the word “asexuality” really became mainstream in the 2000s, people have been using it since the 1970s, says Pragati Singh, a leading asexual educator, founder of IndianAces, and Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) board member. It’s estimated that somewhere between 1 and 5 percent of the population is asexual, or ace, she adds—a stat backed up by studies and texts including Anthony F. Bogaert’s groundbreaking book Understanding Asexuality.
That might sound like a low number, but it's likely that you know at least one or two people who fall on the ace spectrum. Maybe you even resonate with the label yourself.
Meet the Experts:
Shawntres A. Parks, PhD is a licensed marriage and family therapist and co-founder of Parks & Powers Psychotherapy.
Pragati Singh is a leading asexual educator, founder of IndianAces, and Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) board member.
Kristen Lilla, LCSW is a certified sex therapist and sexual educator in Nebraska.
Still, with so many misconceptions and myths around asexuality, it's understandable to have a few questions about this sexual identity. Ahead, sex therapists, along with sexuality and asexuality experts, break down everything to know about what it means to be asexual, how it might impact your dating life, and what to do if your friend or S.O. is on the ace spectrum.
What does it mean to be asexual?
If you’re asexual, you don’t experience sexual attraction to other people, according to an official definition from AVEN. You can have feelings for individuals, but you are likely not drawn to them sexually, and you have no desire to act upon those feelings sexually.
Beyond that, though, asexual people can all have varying relationships with sex, their own sex drives, and dating. “Though asexual folks may not experience sexual attraction, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are repulsed by sex,” Parks says. “[Instead], they may feel neutral about it, or possibly even enjoy it but be disinterested.”
Asexuality is often confused with having a low libido, which is a clinical diagnosis that could be caused by a variety of medical reasons. (For example, depression could totally tank your sex drive for a few months or even years.) But asexuality “actually characterizes your lack of sexual attraction, which might or might not have anything to do with your sex drive,” says Singh. “Asexuality isn’t a choice, like abstinence,” adds Parks.
Unlike having a low libido, asexuality is not a medical condition—and is in no way a “disorder” that could or should be treated, adds Kristen Lilla, LCSW, a certified sex therapist and sexuality educator in Nebraska.
What is the ace spectrum?
If all of the above kind of sounds like you, you might fall under the asexual umbrella, or spectrum. The ace spectrum “describes the range of different ways asexual people may or may not experience sexual attraction or desire,” Rachel Klechevsky, LMSW, a New York-based sex and relationship therapist, previously told Women’s Health.
It ranges from asexuality, or a complete lack of sexual attraction, to graysexuality, which is slightly more fluid. Graysexuals “experience infrequent sexual attraction and often under very specific circumstances,” says Parks.
Here are a few of the different ways people on the ace spectrum might self-identify:
- Asexual: someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction to others
- Graysexual: someone who experiences sexual attraction very infrequently
- Demisexual: someone who only experiences sexual attraction to others after they’ve formed an emotional bond
- Fraysexual: someone who only experiences sexual attraction to others before they've formed an emotional bond
Can asexual people have crushes?
Yes! Sexual attraction is different from romantic attraction. Someone might be asexual and biromantic—a.k.a., romantically attracted to people of multiple genders. You could also identify as gay, queer, straight, or panromantic.
If someone doesn’t ever develop romantic feelings and has no desire for a romantic relationship, they might be aromantic. Of course, it’s possible to be asexual and aromantic, but they don’t always go hand-in-hand.
So, do asexual people never have sex?
It varies. Asexual people often still experience arousal, stresses Singh. This means they might still masturbate or have a sex drive. In fact, some might have, want, and enjoy sex with partners! The main difference is that allosexual people—that is, those who aren’t on the asexual spectrum—will often feel sexual desire for specific people (whether that’s their long-term partner, a casual hookup, or even that celebrity crush they imagine during solo sex). If an asexual person has sex, though, it’s probably not because they feel sexually drawn to their partner.
If you’re confused, just remember that there are tons of reasons someone might enjoy sex. Maybe they want to feel close to their partner, or maybe orgasms help them relieve stress. “Someone who identifies as asexual might not experience sexual attraction, but they might still want to be intimate with a partner as a physical release or to be close and intimate with someone physically,” Lilla explains. “Depending on the person, they might not want to be physical but may choose to pleasure their partner even though they don't want to be pleasured.”
That said, Singh notes that a lot of asexual people might not want to have sex at all, or might not want to have sex “with the same frequency or the same intensity” as an allosexual person. Like most things in life, it all depends on the individual.
How do I know if I’m asexual?
A lot of people start to notice their asexuality in their teenage years, but might not label themselves until later on. “Typically, it manifests at the same time everyone else begins to realize and acknowledge their sexuality, during early adolescent years,” Lilla explains. “However, people who are asexual often don't have the language to describe their sexuality until adulthood.”
If you’re asexual, you might try to date people and be intimate with them, but something just isn't clicking. Maybe you’ve had romantic crushes or even serious partners, people you know you’ve liked—but you just never look at them and feel the urge to hook up.
When someone realizes they're asexual, “there is a huge amount of relief, because they finally understand why they've never experienced sexual attraction,” says Lilla.
As stated above, it’s also totally valid to be asexual and still have a physical response to sex—i.e., get turned on when someone touches you in a sensitive area, or have orgasms when you masturbate. If you feel like you have a sex drive but might still be asexual, Singh recommends asking yourself how you experience sexual attraction, outside of how you experience arousal.
But it’s also fine if you don’t want to get too bogged down in the granular details. If the label feels right, then it is right. “Many people who don’t fit into the technical definition will still use the word ‘asexual’ for themselves,” Singh says. If you just don’t have an interest in sex—or you’re still trying to figure out where you fit on the ace spectrum—describing yourself as ‘asexual’ can help you communicate your boundaries and desires, she adds.
If I’m asexual, what does that mean for my dating life?
One of the biggest misconceptions about asexual people isn’t that they can’t date and fall in love. They can, and they do! “Many asexual people still seek companionship, partnership, commitment, and love,” says Singh. “And many of them actually have that kind of partnership.”
If you’re ace, you might choose to date someone who’s also on the asexual spectrum. “I would say that most ace people find themselves feeling more at ease with other ace people when it comes to partnerships and companionships,” Singh says, but she also acknowledges that it’s a small community.
It’s possible to be asexual and date an allosexual person, but it will require a lot of ongoing communication about sex and intimacy. These conversations and differences can start to weigh on couples over time, cautions Singh. That said, “I know of couples that are ace plus allo that have been successful in the long-term,” she adds. Both partners just have to be willing to work through their differences and find ways to fulfill both of their respective needs.
What should I do if my partner realizes they’re ace?
What it means to be asexual can vary from person to person, so it’s never a bad idea to ask your partner questions about their identity, desires, and relationship with sex. One of the biggest things to remember, though, is that this is an ongoing conversation.
“That conversation, those boundaries, those limits, those desires—you need to keep negotiating them. So it’s a lot of active work to be put in,” Singh says. Of course, this is an important dialogue in every relationship, but it’s particularly crucial in a relationship where one partner is asexual and the other is allosexual. “The negotiation becomes harder, because one person is coming in with a very ‘default’ understanding of what [the relationship] is going to be or supposed to be,” adds Singh. “And it has to be unlearned actively.”
If you’re struggling to have these conversations but interested in making the relationship work, you can also find an LGBTQIA+-affirming couples therapist. Just make sure they have experience with, and an understanding of, asexual clients. “The right therapist should help you explore and process [your/your partner’s identity], and meet you where you are at right now,” Singh says.
How can I support an asexual friend or family member after they come out to me?
“My suggestion would be to just create a space for them to explore or process their identity,” Singh says. Also, don’t get too caught up with their label: If your friend first comes out to you as graysexual and later realizes they’re asexual, or vice versa, that’s totally normal.
It’s also natural to have questions about their sexuality, but make sure not to interrogate your loved one—especially since they might still be on a journey of figuring out what their identity means to them, too, Singh adds. Don’t forget: Labels help, but everyone’s experience with attraction is a little different.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer who lives by the beach. She has big hopes to own a teacup pig and taco truck one day.
Lydia Wang is the love & life editor at Women’s Health, where she writes and edits articles about sex, relationships, identity, and pop culture. She lives in New York and spends way too much of her free time reading romance novels in coffee shops and tweeting about her favorite dating shows.