Asexuality 101, annotated

This article is being cross-posted to my personal blog, A Trivial Knot.

Some people may have seen the Asexuality 101 page linked on the side bar of A Trivial Knot. I originally wrote that article in 2011, and transported it from blog to blog, occasionally making updates.

Since the beginning, the purpose of the article was to “get it over with”. I had a lot of non-ace readers, but didn’t want to explain the basics over and over again. So the idea was to silently educate readers before they left ignorant comments, saving me energy and saving them embarrassment. These days, awareness of asexuality is so much higher, which leaves me wondering whether the page is necessary, but it sure doesn’t hurt to leave it there.

You can still see older versions preserved on my previous blogs and in the wayback machine if you’re really interested. The article reflects shifting conventional wisdom in how we do asexuality 101, as well as some idiosyncratic choices on my part. Here’s a point by point discussion of why I wrote it that way.

Facts about Asexuality:

This article begins with a series of facts. This contrasts with, for example, swankivy’s Asexuality Top Ten (which has existed in some form since 1998!) which is structured as a series of misconceptions. The reason is that I was involved in skepticism, and skeptics were keenly aware of the “backfire effect”. According to research (or so I hear), if you want to debunk something, it’s better to open with a statement of the truth rather than a restatement of the myth. If you restate the myth, sometimes people only remember the restatement and forget the debunking that follows.

Of course, if all you do is state misconceptions with “not”s sprinkled in, it can come across as weird. So when countering misconceptions, I try to state the general principle that makes it wrong, without directly saying what the misconception was in the first place.

1. An asexual is a person who experiences little or no sexual attraction. A person may also identify as asexual if they lack sexual desire or a sex drive.

In the earliest version of this article, this said “An asexual is a person who does not experience sexual attraction”, an exact reproduction of the definition on the front page of AVEN. At the time, this definition was a sort of dogma. I was aware of alternative views, but most alternatives were even more specific, and more theory-laden, and I really didn’t need that.

Later on, I saw discussions favoring a looser definition. If someone experiences just a little sexual attraction, or they don’t experience sexual desire (whatever that means to them), then we share a lot in common, and it just doesn’t make sense for them to build an independent community around a distinct label. That’s just making redundant work for activists. Also, those people have been in the community forever anyways, it’s their community too.

And well sure, if someone experiences sexual attraction but not sexual desire, they don’t need to identify as asexual, they could identify as gray or allo or whatever.  But the same is true of someone who experiences sexual desire but not sexual attraction, or some other combination.

I added “little or no” in 2015, and now in 2022, AVEN is considering adding that to their front page definition. They sure are behind the times!

2. Asexuality does not mean lacking sexuality. “Sexuality” is a fraught term that could refer to any number of things. Asexuals may or may not have traits that you consider “sexual”. For example, an asexual may lack sexual attraction while still having a sex drive.

This is one of my idiosyncratic points. My theory was that several misconceptions about asexuality stemmed from the same source, the belief that asexuals don’t have any sexuality. For instance, “How can you be asexual if you masturbate?” or “If you’re asexual, why do you wear lipstick?” Now obviously lipstick isn’t necessarily sexual, that’s wrong on multiple levels. Masturbation though? I’ve heard some aces say that they didn’t think masturbation was necessarily sexual, but that seems kind of a hard sell to me. Better to pre-empt the question by explaining why it doesn’t matter whether it’s sexual or not.

3. Asexuality is a sexual orientation, not a behavior. A few asexuals are sexually active, and most abstinent people are not asexual.

When I first wrote this, one of the very first things people would explain in educational materials, was how asexuality is not celibacy. I was trying to make the same point here, but I was very deliberate about not using the word “celibacy”. At the time, another ace blogger, Andrew Hinderliter, wrote a (no longer public) linguistic analysis of celibacy, and after that I felt it was kind of a can of worms!

One of the problems is that when you say that asexuality is not the same as celibacy, that could either be an assertion that they are distinct sets, or that they are disjoint sets. Even among aces there isn’t consensus on which way to go, so aces have a variety of relationships to the word “celibacy”. I framed this point in a way that makes it clear that the sets are distinct, not disjoint, and then I dodged the question about whether celibacy is disjoint by avoiding that word.

There’s also a more context-specific problem with the word “celibacy”. I was an atheist blogger, and in that context, celibacy was the subject of suspicion and mockery. If I were to contrast asexuality with celibacy, it would come across as “asexuality good, celibacy bad”. I am not comfortable with this, because fundamentally I advocate the right of all people to not have sex, and that includes people who call it celibacy.

4. There are various kinds of nonsexual attraction. Some common examples are “sensual”, “aesthetic”, “platonic”, and “romantic”. Romantic attraction is particularly commonly discussed, and asexuals often identify with various romantic orientations (e.g. heteroromantic, biromantic, aromantic). The proper approach to these concepts is that you may take them or leave them. Not all asexuals identify with a romantic orientation. Non-asexuals are also welcome to use these concepts if they wish.

The conventional wisdom in ace educational content is to explain romantic orientation, but I chose to de-emphasize it in favor of a larger pool of concepts about attraction. Romantic orientation is definitely the most popular of these, but I didn’t want readers to be blindsided if I mentioned any of the others.

There have been various cosmetic edits to this one, but even in 2011, I felt it was important to highlight that romantic orientation is fundamentally an optional concept. And that was before we had empirical data demonstrating that a significant number of aces don’t identify with a romantic orientation. Many asexual resources still don’t highlight this; they need to get with the program already.

The biggest change I made was in 2016–I explicitly stated that non-asexuals are welcome to use these attraction concepts. I originally took this for granted, but as allosexual folks became more aware of concepts like romantic orientation, it became clear that not everyone was on the same page. Folks on Tumblr had demonstrated some strange views about the ownership of words, believing that by default, words ought to be confined to the communities that created them. That’s true of some words but more often not.

5. “Ace” is commonly used to refer to people on the asexual spectrum. Example usage: “Aces are awesome!” The spectrum includes “gray-asexual” (or “gray-A”) people, who are in the gray area between asexual and non-asexual. It also includes “demisexual” people, who do not experience sexual attraction unless they have some strong connection with a person already. In order to refer to people not on the asexual spectrum, common terms are “non-asexual”, “allosexual”, or simply “allo”.

Originally, I just said that asexuality was a spectrum, and didn’t even mention gray-asexuality, despite me identifying as gray-asexual. How selfless of me. I wanted to avoid getting in the weeds, and perhaps I was too conservative, but it also reflects how much “in the weeds” gray-asexuality and demisexuality were at the time.

In its current version, it’s framed as explaining some common terminology. It’s alright if people don’t remember all the terminology though, it’s more about attitude than knowledge of specific facts.

6. There is a significant ace community. Ace communities exist both online and offline. They have a rich history and political discourse since the early 2000s. Of course, not all aces participate in a community.

Although it’s just an introductory article, I feel it’s good to provide some context to show, it’s not just me. This point is interesting because I kept on changing it. Here are a few different versions:

6. There is a small but growing asexual community. Currently, the community is dominated by AVEN and its forums, which were founded in 2001.

6. There is a small but growing asexual community. For some time, the community was dominated by AVEN, which was founded in 2001. Recent years have seen the growth of other communities, including Tumblr, blogs, and offline groups.

6. There is a growing asexual community. Primarily online, but also offline, there is a strong community with a well-developed discourse.

There you have it, a brief span of ace community history, as told by contemporaneous edits to an asexuality 101 article.

7. Aces fight erasure and other problems. Many aces grew up in a context where asexuality was not a possibility, and as a result may have believed themselves to be broken or freaks. This is improving over time, but it is still the case that aces may face misconceptions, disbelief, or even hostility. They may also suffer from health and mental health disparities.

I felt it was important not just to establish the “what” of asexuality, but also the stakes. My earliest workshops on asexuality were titled “What is asexuality and why should you care?” and this is the why you should care part.

Originally this point was “Asexuals fight invisibility and erasure,” but later on many ace activists were worried about overemphasizing visibility at the expense of other activist goals. And you know, there’s plenty of precedent for social movements having difficulty pivoting, like when we get marriage equality, and people think gay rights are finished or something. So I rewrote it to be a little broader, although now it feels simultaneously too vague and too specific.

Common Responses:

In this section, I wanted to counter more specific misconceptions. This section was originally titled “Inappropriate Responses”, but I changed it because commenters are skittish enough about possibly saying something wrong, without me suggesting the existence of a hidden set of rules they must follow. It’s really the attitude that matters, not a specific list of rules.

“Do you masturbate?” Some asexuals do and some don’t. See point #2 above. Note, it’s usually rude to ask a person if they masturbate.

I think this continues to be the number one question that people ask about asexuality, and even aces who are more open about their personal habits get annoyed by how common it is. So I feel it’s important to include, even if I feel I already stated the general principle in #2 (“Asexuality does not mean lacking sexuality”). It’s also important to tell people to avoid asking again.

In the original version, I pointed out that masturbation is not the same as sexual attraction. After I broadened the definition of asexuality so that it wasn’t strictly about sexual attraction, that seemed like it didn’t fit anymore. And I’m sure there are people out there who don’t really understand what sexual attraction is, but the one thing they know for sure is they feel no drive to masturbate–and that seems as good a reason as any to identify as asexual.

“Are you sure your asexuality isn’t caused by hormones/immaturity/abuse/anxiety/prudishness/autism/etc?” This is a rude question, because it’s usually asked as a way of invalidating asexuality. And the argument doesn’t even make sense–even if asexuality is “caused”, it still exists. But to answer the question, asexuality probably has a very large number of different causes, with each cause applying to a different subset of asexuals.

I think this is a common question in general, but also particularly common in the context of atheist/skeptical blogging, because people have that scientific curiosity about mechanisms and causes. I think most people who ask this question aren’t trying to be rude, but other people are trying to be rude, and I can’t tell which group you’re in. So this is meant to be a nudge saying, hey, this comes across as rude, so if you’re genuinely curious, please be unambiguous.

In the earliest version, I was pretty harsh about it, and strongly stated that there was no evidence. But the truth is, we don’t know the causes of asexuality, just as we don’t know the causes of a lot of ordinary things, because fundamentally, reality is very hard to explain. The one thing I feel confident in saying is that it probably isn’t just one cause; I mean, most things don’t have just one cause. I don’t know about the “subset” claim, maybe I should remove that part.

The more standard answer to this question, is that there is no cause, and asexuality just is. The problem is that I just don’t think it would fly among atheoskeptics. Asexuality, like most things that exist, obviously has causes. I think it’s weird to try to legitimize something by declaring that it transcends the very idea of causality. Also there are some aces who believe their own asexuality may have been caused by something in particular–trauma being especially common–and I don’t think our asexuality 101 should be premised on the assumption that they are experiencing false consciousness.

“Why do asexuals feel the need to talk about what they’re not doing?” Aces may discuss how they interact with society, how they form relationships, or any number of other topics. There are also many aces who don’t feel the need to talk about it.

Heh, so back when I was involved in atheist activism, I would get this question about atheism too. And the reality is, you get some of these people in a room and they just talk and talk and talk for hours on end. I don’t know why people even ask this one, like we need an excuse to talk about things.

Okay, but I’m betting most aces actually don’t talk about it that much, and that’s cool too. I was thinking about the toupee fallacy, which is the idea that you can always recognize a toupee when you see one. Well, you just don’t know about the times when you failed to recognize toupees, do you? And if you were surrounded by aces who don’t talk about it at all, you’d never know.

“You must have so much extra time! I wish I could rise above the need for sex!” Although I appreciate the effort to give a positive response to asexuality, it’s best to avoid the implication that asexuality is a superior state of being, or that non-asexuality is a lesser state of being.

At this point we’re getting to the less popular responses, and I’m just guessing based on small sample sizes. I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me in quite that way, but I’ve seen a few people express admiration for asexuals like we’ve achieved a higher state of being. And, I don’t even know what to say to that one. In the original version, I said that it was insulting to aces who are gray or who have had sex. And really what I wanted to say was that I personally felt insulted.

Tangentially, there’s a mention of asexuality in the SCUM Manifesto, a 1967 essay that is credited with catalyzing radical feminism, but asexuality is used in the sense of “rising above sex”. It’s no wonder that the ace community has never been particularly enthusiastic about canonizing the SCUM Manifesto as an important part of asexual history.

“Do you believe rest of us are just obsessed with sex?” No, lots of people aren’t super into sex, even though they aren’t asexual, and that’s okay. And if a person is super into sex, that’s okay too.

I’m not sure this one is very common, but maybe once or twice I’ve encountered people who assumed I was making assumptions about how hypersexual they must be. And to be fair, it’s human nature to make unfair assumptions. But even if it’s not a common reaction, I felt it was a good opportunity to affirm my support for people who just aren’t into sex. It doesn’t need to be part of your identity in order for it to be okay.

In the earliest version, I had a completely different item in this slot:

“Ah, so you chose your orientation!” I got this response a few times because I changed my identity from straight to queer relatively late in life. In actuality, I had been queer all along, and all I chose was to acknowledge it and to live my life in a way that would make me happier. File this one under, “Don’t make assumptions.”

I got a few responses of this variety early on, people acting like it was a gotcha. Yeah those people were just jerks. I changed it later because I decided this wasn’t actually that common, and I didn’t want it to just be a list of the most illogical things that I had personally heard.

At the end of the article, I include a bunch of links to other pages, but it’s mostly afterthought, and probably dated. The original version linked to AVEN 4 times, and yeah, I wouldn’t recommend that today. If I were to recommend just one resource, it would be Asexuality Archive. But, if someone’s going that many links deep, they’re probably not one of the ones I have to worry about.

Are there improvements I could make to the article, or different choices I could have made?  Sure.  The big thing missing is any sort of personal narratives.  You can state general facts all day, but many people won’t really get it until they’re presented with some examples of personal experiences.  Personal narratives are especially important if a reader is trying to figure out whether they’re ace themselves.  But for this context, I was going for something relatively quick.

So that’s how I think about asexuality 101. As I’ve said, it’s the attitude that counts, and I don’t mind if people miss some of the finer details. But, as the person writing educational content, I do feel it is important for me to pay attention to the details. So I made a lot of conscious decisions based on community conversations, my own critical thinking, and suitability to the present context.

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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