A whirlwind history of asexual communities

I’ve seen plenty of people lament the lack of ace history. But in theory, “we” know plenty about ace history, it’s just that that knowledge doesn’t seem to propagate widely. There are some ace history buffs, especially sennkestra, coyote, Ace Owl, and to a lesser degree myself, but not everyone pays attention to us nerds, nor should they have to. It’s also far too easy to get lost, because a good history requires more detail and care than the average person has time for.

So this here is an informal whirlwind tour of (primarily) online English-speaking ace community history since 1997. I hope the informality of this history makes it more accessible, while also enabling me to discuss the subjective and yet important political aspects.

Asexual prehistory (1896-1997)

Events prior to 1997 are beyond the scope of this history, but I feel it’s necessary to set the stage. There’s a cliff in ace history past 1997, and it’s not because ace communities forgot what they once knew. There was a real historical discontinuity. Modern ace communities were effectively created from scratch. It’s very exciting to rediscover asexual prehistory, but let us not forget that modern ace communities are legitimately new.

Presumably people have had asexual-like experiences since forever, but may not have always identified the pattern, or conceptualized it like we do. Two major landmarks we think about today are Magnus Hirschfeld’s writings from 1896 (which don’t use the word, but suggest the concept), and “The Asexual Manifesto” from 1972. This is hardly the whole story, of course, they are just two examples of asexuality as conceptualized in medical and political contexts.

What’s notable is that these two landmarks were only recently rediscovered in 2008 and 2018 respectively. Early ace communities would not have been aware of these historical landmarks, and were not using them as a foundation, at least not directly. If you want to know what early ace communities were aware of, Nat Titman’s “Asexuality BC” is an invaluable document, mentioning prior usage of asexuality in Doctor Who fandoms, and for a talk show guest from 1989.

The early ace communities (1997-2003)

Modern ace communities had their start in the comment section of an article titled “My life as a Human Amoeba” by Zoe O’Reilly in 1997. From this community formed the Haven for the Human Amoeba (HHA) Yahoo group in 2000. Then in 2001, David Jay founded AVEN, and in 2002 Nat Titman founded the Asexuality LiveJournal Community.

Both David Jay and Nat Titman took a broad view of what asexuality could mean, and conceptualized it as a sexual orientation with politics that were resonant with LGBT politics. AVEN adopted a clear, brief definition of asexuality (“A person who does not experience sexual attraction”) on its front page, but this definition didn’t necessarily have consensus. The front page definition was accepted as a tool for outreach while members of the community could use whatever definitions they liked. Asexuality Livejournal didn’t adopt any specific definition. Nat Titman and David Jay were collaborators, for instance Titman wrote the original AVEN FAQ.

There are two other communities that we tend to remember, mythologized as representatives of ideas rejected by ace communities. The Asexuals We Are LiveJournal community represented antisexuality. It originally described itself as “above” sexuality, and Nat Titman formed the Asexuality LiveJournal community in direct response to that. The Official Asexual Society, later renamed to The Official Nonlibidoist Society, represented asexual elitism. It was a closed group active from 2003 to 2006. It infamously required people to fill out a questionnaire, which the founder would personally scrutinize to block anyone who didn’t fit her narrow definition of asexuality.

There are some additional details that should complicate our history. The communities and websites mentioned above were far from the only ones, they’re just the ones that we tend to remember. Of these, I would also highlight the Russian antisexual community, which actually dates back to 1995–noting that “antisexual” did not mean the same thing that it meant in English ace communities.

This is the period when romantic orientation emerged as a concept, but it didn’t appear all at once. According to a survey of the HHA archives, people initially used romantic and sexual interchangeably. Then people discussed the possibility of romantic relationships without sex or sexual attraction, and the possibility of asexuals who might want such relationships. Later, there is mention of a separation of romantic and sexual attraction (although initially termed “romantic drive” and “sex drive”). During this time, there was already a lot of discussion of labels that could be potentially combined with “asexual”, and words like “aromantic” were among these. However, it would take a while for consensus to form and for people to describe it as romantic orientation.

By the way, I know it’s common today to retroactively label anything resembling romantic orientation as “the split attraction model” or “the SAM”, but I think it’s a misleading way to describe a living conglomerate of different ideas that the history shows had been developed piece by piece.

AVEN dominance (2004-2011)

For a while AVEN served as the point of first contact for many aces–which means they internalized the rigid front page definition, even if it wasn’t originally intended to be so rigid. AVEN’s growth was catalyzed by countless media appearances, such as David Jay’s appearance on the talk show The View in 2006. Linguistic history suggests that during this period AVEN was dominant in terms of word count, but first-hand accounts also emphasize the importance of the LJ communities, which served as a second, more socially-focused space.

In 2009, I made my own entrance to ace communities, and so I’m going to start mixing in my own first-hand account.

I largely missed the periods where LJ was most active, but I did see a swarm of asexual sites. There were many alternative forums, such as Apositive, Asexual Lesbians, Aromantic Asexuals, Demi Grace, Transyada. Some of these split off to make a space that was more focused on a specific intersection, but interpersonal grievances in the AVEN forums were a common inciting factor. For example, Apositive launched after the closure of The Official Nonlibidoist Society, whose former users moved to AVEN and brought elitist attitudes with them. Transyada started as an infinite thread, but left AVEN because of dissatisfaction with moderators’ handling of transphobia. I personally participated in AVEN, Apositive, as well as the lesser-known Knights of the Shaded Triangle. These communities primarily relied on AVEN as a source of new members, and struggled to persist as independent communities (Transyada excepted).

This was also the period when ace blogs exploded in growth. The first was David Jay’s own “Love from the Asexual Underground” started in 2006, followed by Ily’s “Asexy Beast” in 2007. As of 2011, the AVENwiki listed 35 blogs, 8 inactive blogs, as well as 4 Youtube collaborative vlogging channels. These blogs and vlogs featured personal narratives, media analysis, social critique, and plain rants. I myself had a blog that started in 2007, and which incorporated ace topics starting in 2009. For me it was an important space to share long-form thoughts with an audience that I had personally cultivated, instead of a crowd of readers I didn’t really know on AVEN. The Asexual Agenda is also proud part of the ace blogging tradition, but it was founded during a later era.

Another parallel set of events, is the formation of regular in-person meetup groups. Initially, most of these groups organized meetups through the AVEN forums, but they later moved to other platforms. I won’t discuss meetup groups much, but throughout the rest of this history they are growing in the background.

One of the significant linguistic shifts during this time was the introduction of terms for gray-asexuality and demisexuality. These were both coined and popularized on AVEN circa 2006. It would be incorrect to say that gray-As or demisexuals were unwelcome in ace communities prior to this point. However, the explicit naming of these groups may have brought greater attention and legitimacy to people with experiences that departed from the most common ace community narratives.

I’m not sure when “asexual spectrum” became a term of art, but by the time I arrived, it was commonly used to refer to the umbrella that included asexuals, gray-As, and demisexuals. Starting in 2011, there was a deliberate effort to use “ace”–a previously uncommon word–to refer the asexual spectrum. Thus, “ace communities” by default include the whole spectrum–and the only reason I used “asexual” in the title instead of “ace” was for SEO.

The AVEN diaspora (2010-2013)

Although there were many alternative communities to AVEN, the first to really break free was the Tumblr ace community. Tumblr is a microblogging social platform, similar to blogging but with a more accessible structure that pushes informality, networking, and virality. Like so many other alternative communities, Tumblr initially began with a high density of people with grievances with AVEN’s forums. But the Tumblr ace community grew exponentially, and took on a life of its own.

During this time, the AVEN and Tumblr communities were extremely aware of each other, and had many bitter disagreements. Tumblr was the more social-justice oriented community, frequently complaining about transphobia, homophobia, racism, and asexual elitism on AVEN. Furthermore, they charged that AVEN’s leadership and moderators were insufficiently responsive, or even complicit.

But the ace Tumblr community had other problems on its hands. It was the center of rapid and viral growth, all occurring middle of a social network which was full of communities unrelated to asexuality (especially fandom, queer, feminist, and social justice communities). This required a great deal of adjustments in approach, as the community had to interface with other groups with different discourses, and also deal with bad-faith actors. Thus began the perpetual flame war (sometimes referred to as the Great Ace-Hate or simply The Discourse, and a variety of other names) that still burns today. One notable early adjustment was the adoption of “allosexual” in place of “sexual” (a word that persisted much longer on AVEN). Another early argument was about the concept of “allosexual privilege”, which was briefly floated, and then abandoned.

There also emerged the question of whether aces are queer, a question that has seen many iterations over the years. As later iterations would make clear, it’s not centrally about the definition of queer, it’s more about whether aces have the right to associate ourselves with LGBT groups. This “debate” could be contrasted with earlier debates on AVEN, which were chiefly about whether it was beneficial to aces to associate with LGBT groups.

Much of AVEN’s growth came from outreach to the general population, thus to some extent, AVEN suffered from leanings towards respectability politics. Ace Tumblr wasn’t focused on outreach, but as a center of massive growth, it was effectively doing outreach, albeit towards a more social-justice-oriented audience. Tumblr suffered from something that we wouldn’t normally call respectability politics, but which was functionally similar: a million tiny decisions pushing away some aspects and emphasizing others, in order to better appeal to a frequently hostile audience. This came to a head as it became clear that ace tumblr was vastly exaggerating the proportion of aces who wanted sex, and systematically concealing or shaming aces who were sex-averse/repulsed.

Relatedly, in 2012, Talia coined the term “sex-favorable“. This turned the prior sex-averse/sex-indifferent dichotomy into an averse/indifferent/favorable trichotomy, giving name to the oft-ignored (but not unknown!) minority of aces who may be interested in or want sex. It truly says something about our conflicting hangups about sex, that in one space, sex-favorable aces were so obscure that no name gained a foothold until 2012, and in another space, sex-favorable aces were portrayed as more common than sex-averse aces. This discussion would continue throughout later years.

In 2012, I founded The Asexual Agenda as a third space, a way to connect and highlight the ace blogging community. While I have more affinity with Tumblr politics than AVEN politics, I was not fond of the structure of Tumblr, where any lengthy discussion would turn into cumbersome reblog threads, possibly involving viral spread among hostiles. The Asexual Agenda has historically been a group blog, although I mostly hold the fort on my own these days.

Tumblr dominance (2013-2019)

AVEN has never really gone away, and is surely bigger now than it was in 2010. However, the AVEN forums have subjectively faded in cultural significance, with its forum community often feeling out of step with everywhere else. For example, in 2021, AVEN had a kerfuffle because its leadership wanted to broaden the front-page definition to “someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction”, and its forum community balked. To people outside AVEN, this seems like a non-issue, and the expressions of essentialism coming out of the AVEN forums were shocking. It’s a testament to how much of a bubble the AVEN forums have been, even though it’s attached to a powerful non-profit organization. I always tell people not to underestimate AVEN, but most people seem to get by while ignoring it, including, hypocritically enough, myself.

In AVEN’s place, ace Tumblr took the seat of power. AVEN forgotten, Tumblrites could spend their full time drowning in flames. There’s certainly a lot to say about the particulars of the flame wars, but it calls for a separate dedicated history, and I didn’t personally get into the weeds. To someone only distantly involved in the flame wars, it felt like it was repeating the same stuff year after year, with aces becoming increasingly defensive and avoidant, while the ace-antagonistic faction has hardened into what I think of as a hate group that largely overlaps with TERFs.

While the flame wars hog a lot of our attention, it’s easy to overlook another trend during this period: the rise of ace advocacy organizations. Ace Week, Asexual Outreach, and TAAAP all rose to importance during this period, and AVEN became a non-profit as well. A lot of early activism was focused on getting a seat at the table in LGBT activism. For example, Ace Week initially began with the specific purpose of getting the attention of the National LGBTQ task force, so that they would accept a workshop in the Creating Change conference. While the flame wars were perpetually arguing whether aces should associate with LGBT groups, ace activists just went and did it anyway, with immense success. Prior to this period, the A in LGBTQIA primarily stood for “Ally”, and we changed that.

I’ve discussed notable linguistic shifts during each period, and the big one during the Tumblr period was so-called microlabels. Microlabels were coined in large quantities, often described specific experiences, and rarely garnered popularity. Of course, niche words have always been common in ace communities (and lots of other communities besides), and it’s probably unfair to say that microlabels are a distinct category, much less that they are distinctly bad. I observe that “demisexual” is often considered a microlabel by outsiders, but is considered very well-established within ace communities, and does not come from the same historical period. But there are definitely some period-specific patterns in Tumblr microlabels–they’re often attached to new flags, inserted into glossaries everywhere, retained in glossaries indefinitely without anyone even checking if they’re still extant. The Tumblr culture of microlabels was also shared by other communities, especially nonbinary and trans communities. Sometimes these microlabels are called “MOGAI”, although not by me. It became one of the most recognizable aspects of ace culture, and much maligned by outsiders.

Aro independence (2012-2019)

Another important ongoing trend was the push for spaces specifically for people on the aromantic-spectrum–regardless of whether they are asexual-spectrum. Notable examples include the AroPlane forum, formed in 2012, the Aromantic Aardvark Tumblr, started in 2011, and the Arocalypse forum, formed in 2016. Aromantic-specific communities got much more attention in 2019, the year AUREA was founded. This has led many advocacy groups and meetup groups to explicitly put aromanticism into their name alongside asexuality.

There has certainly been friction between ace and aro communities on multiple fronts. Part of the challenge is that aromantic-spectrum people constitute about half of ace communities, and were practically considered the default during certain points of history. When there is friction between ace and aro communities, it forces a great number of people to choose allegiance to one community or the other (or neither or both). There has also been a desire for not just independent communities, but also independent histories. But the histories cannot be completely separated.

Tumblr decline (2019-?)

I don’t think there’s much I can say about the current period, without the benefit of hindsight to guide me. But one thing I’m sure of, is that ace Tumblr is on the decline. This is likely due to the overall decline of Tumblr, which can be traced to Tumblr’s porn ban in 2018, under threats that Apple would remove them from the app store. It may seem ironic that a porn ban would decimate an ace community, but the porn ban was enforced by a notoriously unreliable algorithm, and there’s surely a network effect as fandom communities leave the platform. Ace Tumblr, of course, continues to live on, but then so does AVEN, and all the other communities I didn’t get around to mentioning.

To my knowledge, there is no single dominant community anymore. There are many important communities, including AVEN, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Tiktok, the many Facebook groups, the many meetup groups. But I think we are entering an age of fracture, where it will become increasingly difficult to track the history of the English-speaking ace communities. Instead, there will be many significant ace communities with their own distinct histories. If you participate in any of the ace communities today, and you appreciated this history, I hope you go on to preserve histories of your own.

Q&A

At the moment that you are reading this, is The Asexual Agenda a dead blog? No? Then there’s no need to treat me like I’m gone. If you have any burning questions about ace community history, you are welcome to ask, either in the comment section or checking out our contact page. I don’t know everything, but I know people who know things.

Thanks to Coyote, Sennkestra, and Ace Admiral for reviewing this article.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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5 Responses to A whirlwind history of asexual communities

  1. Coyote says:

    Oh, something I missed when suggesting links — the Asexuality Livejournal seems to have stated a definition, sort of. The profile page asserts that “This is a community for asexual people to discuss living without sexuality. We welcome anyone with no or very little sexual attraction to others, people with low or no libido, and their allies” and “This community is not anti-sexuality or anti-people-who-have-sex, it is simply populated by people with little or no sexual drive of their own.” Admittedly I don’t know how early that phrasing was there, but it goes back to at least 2011, and it sounds comparable to the wording in this 2002 welcome post: “I am asexual. I have no sex drive worth speaking of. My attractions to people are purely emotional or aesthetic.”

    • Siggy says:

      That arguably isn’t a definition though, it’s just some examples of people welcomed in the community, without directly saying that’s what asexuality means.

      ETA: Just wanted to add, the reason I say it doesn’t have a definition is that IIRC Nat Titman told me that. I thought it had a definition too until Nat Titman pointed out that it didn’t, and I looked more carefully.

  2. Andrew says:

    The Hirschfeld work was discussed on AVEN back in 2008: https://www.asexuality.org/en/topic/29655-the-einstein-of-sex/

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