We are slowly beginning to understand that the absence of sexual attraction to another person is not a ‘disorder’—but an orientation like homosexuality or heterosexuality. But there is still a lot of confusion about what it means to be asexual—because there is no single answer to that question.
Researched by: Aarthi Ramnath & Anannya Parekh
First, a wander down history lane
We’ve long known about asexuality—even if we did not entirely understand it.
- In the late 1860s, Hungarian journalist Karl Maria Kertbeny first coined four terms to describe sexual experiences: heterosexual, homosexual, heterogenit (bestiality) and monosexual—the last to describe people who do not have sex with other people.
- In a pamphlet published in 1896, German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld first described people who do not experience sexual desire—a state he unflatteringly called “anesthesia sexualis.”
- The word ‘asexual’ emerged as early as 1907—when gay rights activist Reverend Carl Schlegel demanded the “same laws” for “the homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals [and] asexuals.”
- In the 1940s, the world’s most famous sexologist Alfred Kinsey acknowledged “exceptions” to the rule in his pioneering survey. Around 1.5% of his male respondents “unexpectedly reported no sociosexual contacts or reactions.”
- In 1972, Lisa Orlando published ‘The Asexual Manifesto’—describing it as being “not the last word on asexuality, but only the beginning.”
- In 2001, David Jay created Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN)—which properly defined asexuality for the very first time.
- This is also when asexual people begin to build a shared language—and calling themselves “aces.”
From ‘disorder’ to orientation: Until 2013, the American Psychiatric Association's official manual framed asexuality as a disorder:
If someone reported being distressed by their low sexual desire, a doctor could diagnose them with hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). A person could also qualify for the diagnosis if their partner was upset by their low sexual desire—even if they themselves were fine with it. In other words, the person in a couple “who didn't like sex enough had the disorder,” explains David Jay.
Thanks to a grassroots campaign led by AVEN, the APA changed their definition of HSDD—to specifically note that someone who identifies as asexual should not be diagnosed as suffering from the disease. It is the first official acknowledgement of asexuality as an ‘orientation’.
Big point to note: We are nowhere close to embracing asexuality—either in mainstream culture or medical practice. According to a 2020 survey, up to 50% of respondents who disclosed their orientation to a doctor or therapist were diagnosed as having a “health condition”:
The proposed diagnoses included anxiety, depression and, in one case, a personality disorder. “You don't know what's going to happen when you disclose your sexual orientation,” Wren says. “And for a lot of people, that stops them from talking about things that could be relevant to their health care.”
[I]t is not sufficient representation as the characters themselves do not acknowledge their sexual identity. In the context of their individual stories, their wit, quirkiness, strength and responsibility supplement the lack of sexual partners or desire that they seem to exhibit on screen and in the narratives. Not to mention, these characters have major trust issues and are depicted as anti-social.
In these enlightened days, a character is more likely to come out as gay, lesbian or bi—than asexual. We’re still not comfortable with the idea of humans who are not sexually attracted to other humans.
Defining and redefining asexuality
To put it simply: an asexual person does not feel sexual attraction to another person. People can be asexual or allosexual—who feel sexual attraction to others. Asexuality is no more a ‘choice’ than heterosexuality or any other kind of orientation: “To be bisexual is to be sexually attracted to both men and women; to be asexual is to be sexually attracted to no one.” And it is not something that needs to be “fixed.” But acknowledging some human beings are asexual isn’t as straight-forward as it sounds. And here’s why.
Unpacking the terms: We tend to lump all sexual feelings and experiences together. Sexual desire is the desire to experience sexual pleasure—but not necessarily with another person. Sexual arousal is what your body feels in anticipation of that pleasure. Sexual activity is the stuff you do to experience that pleasure—again not necessarily with another person. An asexual person can experience any or all of the above—except none of it is directed toward another person.
Asexual does not equal celibate: Some asexual people have sex, others do not. Some enjoy sex while others find it “repulsive.” That may sound confusing—but only if we define pleasure solely as the fulfilment of sexual attraction to a person. An asexual person can find a different kind of pleasure in having sex. Example:
Assuming I was in a committed relationship with a sexual person—not an asexual but someone who is sexual—I would be doing it largely to appease them and to give them what they want. But not in a begrudging way. Doing something for them, not just doing it because they want it and also because of the symbolic unity thing.
Or consider this useful analogy:
Mary might take great pleasure in attending a dinner at the opening of a luxury restaurant, despite being no foodie and having no interest in the intricacies of modern cuisine, but simply because her daughter is the chef. The dinner brings Mary joy through pride and sociability, but her joy is not gastronomic joy. To our ears, it still makes good sense to say that Mary wants to go to the dinner and that she enjoys it.
Romance does not equal sex: In all popular constructs of sexuality, we equate romantic feelings with experiencing sexual desire for someone. But that’s not always the case. Asexuals can be romantic, aromantic or even ‘grey’:
People who identify as “grey” oftentimes go between being aromantic and romantic, depending on the situation and the person they are with, and other asexuals are able to develop a romantic attachment to a partner after developing an emotional connection.
An asexual person can experience romantic feelings for a person—without experiencing sexual attraction. This is often termed the split attraction model or SAM:
According to the split-attraction model, sexual attraction and romantic attraction are separate feelings that may or may not align. Some asexual people experience romantic attraction, go on dates and form relationships with people of the same or different genders. They may value companionship and strongly desire a partner or partners. Other asexual people are aromantic and find fulfilment outside of sex and romance. Instead they may prioritise other aspects of life such as friends, family, work, hobbies and personal values and beliefs.
And here’s an example of how an asexual person may experience romance:
I’ve been in love before. She invaded my dreams. She monopolised my thoughts. I’d talk to her for hours every day. I’d smile whenever I saw anything that reminded me of her. I’d laugh about something she said days after she said it. I wanted to spend every moment with her. I wanted to share my life with her. There were no secrets. I saw her face when I closed my eyes, I felt her touch after she was gone, I smelled her hair on the breeze, I heard her voice in the silence. She was everything to me. I just wasn’t all that interested in sleeping with her.
Embracing the spectrum: Beyond the simple definition—of not wanting to have sex with a particular person—there are all sorts of ways of being asexual. See this widely shared grid, for example:
The bottomline: Embracing asexuality is not just about inclusion or diversity. Asexual people offer a powerful critique of a culture centred entirely around sex. As Rohitha Naraharisetty writes:
Take, for instance, the adage that sex sells. It oversaturates media and consumption – such that sex is commodified and transactional, changing how people view their own bodies and by extension, senses of self. It’s based on the assumption that everyone is fundamentally interested in sex – having it, watching it, getting influenced by it. It’s an interest that’s been dialed up and turned against us on an industrial scale. Mainstreaming an asexual consciousness wouldn’t just subvert this – it would help reclaim sexuality to be as self-contained, diverse, and fluid as individuals want them to be.
Aeon has a fantastic essay on the rigid norms surrounding sex and romance. Big Think, Huffington Post and CNN have good overviews on asexuality—while Slate traces the history of the movement. Scientific American is excellent on the medical stigma faced by asexual individuals and The Swaddle explores a more theoretical outlook of asexuality. Vox explains how TV is making room for more asexual representation while Aarthi Ramnath in Feminism in India explores the imperfect ace representation in pop culture. You can head to the AVEN website for a wide range of resources on asexuality.