Even as people gain more awareness of LGBTQ+ identities, asexuality remains poorly understood by many. Here's what you should understand about being asexual, sometimes called "ace" for short.
What does asexual mean?
Until recently, lots of people assumed that everyone was sexually attracted to someone or another. But in fact, some people don't experience sexual attraction at all. That is, they have no interest in sex in general, no matter who it's with. That's where the concept of asexuality comes in.
According to the National LGBTQ Task Force, asexuality is a sexual orientation where a person experiences little or no sexual attraction or desire. The term is expansive though, and it may hold a different meaning to different people who identify with it in different ways. For some, it's more about a lack of sexual desire in general, while for others, it's just a lack of desire for anyone in particular.
In general though, being asexual is about how someone experiences sexual desire and/or attraction, and it doesn't necessarily mean anything in particular about a person's sexual behavior. Some asexual people feel neutral about engaging in sexual activity, while others are actively put off by the idea of it. Some asexual people do have sex and even enjoy it; they simply don't experience desire for it.
The asexuality spectrum.
Asexuality exists on a spectrum that ranges from "no sexual interest or feelings at all" to "maybe sex under very specific circumstances," explains Good Vibrations staff sexologist Carol Queen, Ph.D. Some people may feel more comfortable saying that they're on the asexual spectrum than classifying themselves as asexual since it leaves wiggle room for different gradations of the identity.
Signs you may be asexual.
Here are some signs you could be asexual—but remember, asexuality can mean different things for different people, and not all of these will apply to all asexual people.
You're not interested in sex.
You may not have ever had much interest in engaging in sexual activity, or you may have tried to be intimate with someone but not gotten aroused, says Queen.
Other people don't turn you on.
Some asexual people actually do experience sexual desire and masturbate. But most asexual people won't get turned on in response to other people. "You may feel that someone is attractive but not be attracted to them," Shane explains.
You don't relate to other people's sexuality.
Asexual people often feel alienated when the people around them talk about their desire for sex or feelings of sexual attraction, says Queen. "They really don't get why the people around them seem so motivated by sex."
The label resonates with you.
Ultimately, there's no test that will tell you if you're asexual—it all comes down to how you feel.
"People who are not ace spectrum might still not always enjoy sex or not be super motivated to have it because there is ample variation within sexuality, too," says Queen. "But when someone discovers asexuality as a potential self-identity and really feels like 'that's it, that explains it,' they're probably ace."
Two identities that are often considered on the asexual spectrum or related to asexuality are demisexuality and graysexuality:
Some people use the term graysexual to refer to being somewhere in between asexual and sexual. "If you're graysexual, you sometimes feel sexual attraction but not always," says Queen.
According to multi-certified sex and relationships educator Anne Hodder-Shipp, graysexuality can be further broken down into a few different types:
Asexual vs. aromantic.
Some people find it helpful to separate sexual orientation from romantic orientation. So, an aromantic person is someone who isn't interested in romantic relationships, though they may still be interested in sexual relationships. "They might be put off by the idea of [romantic partnerships] or just experience little or no desire or interest," says Queen.
For a different example, take pansexual vs. panromantic. A pansexual person is someone who can be attracted to people of all genders. A panromantic person is someone who is open to romantic relationships with any gender, though they may or may not experience sexual attraction.
These identities can also be used in conjunction. So, someone could be biromantic asexual, for example, or aromantic asexual. Or somewhere in between!
Can asexual people fall in love?
One popular misconception is that asexual people can't fall in love—but they absolutely can.
"Sex does not equal love," says LGBTQ+ expert and dual-licensed social worker Kryss Shane. Someone who doesn't tend to fall in love would more likely designate themselves as aromantic, Queen adds. Some asexual people get into romantic relationships, and some have sexual relationships with their partners.
Can you become asexual?
Just like it's not really clear what makes someone heterosexual, we don't know what makes someone asexual, says Darnell. Some people feel they were always that way, while others may become asexual because they feel that societal conventions around how people have sex don't work for them, says Queen.
Where you are on the asexual spectrum may change throughout your life. For example, some women begin identifying as asexual due to hormonal shifts around menopause, says Queen. Some young people might begin to identify as asexual after having sex and realizing they don't enjoy it. "But very often, if someone 'comes out' as asexual, it basically acknowledges what they have felt all along," Queen says.
No sex drive whatsoever: Am I asexual?
You might wonder if you're asexual if you've been experiencing a lower libido than usual or in comparison to others. Even among allosexual people (aka people who are not on the asexual spectrum), it's common to not want sex sometimes.
The key difference between being asexual and having a lower libido is whether you feel this lack of interest in sex is at the core of who you are or merely a challenge you are facing. Feeling like you can't get turned on (even though you want to) is often linked to a psychological, physiological, or relational problem that people can fix, whereas asexuality is an intrinsic trait that you probably can't change and wouldn't necessarily want to, Shane explains.
"A person with low libido likely still feels interest or attraction, but there's not much fuel in the engine, so to speak—no, or a very limited, sense of urge," says Queen. "They might be really dissatisfied with this, and very much want to get their 'oomph' back. An asexual person, once they are comfortable with themselves as they are, probably won't feel this way."
The bottom line.
"Being asexual is normal, and there is nothing wrong with being asexual," Shane says. "Some never feel the need to seek out trying to increase their desire for sexual intimacy. If this is you, awesome! Own it! Just be sure you are clear with any romantic partner so that expectations on all sides are clear."
Suzannah Weiss is a certified sexologist, sex educator, sex and love coach, and trained birth doula. She has degrees in cognitive neuroscience, modern culture and media, and gender and sexuality studies from Brown University and certifications from Everyone Deserves Sex Ed and the American College of Sexologists. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York magazine, and elsewhere, as well as on television shows like The Today Show and The View and in anthologies including Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World and The Big Book of Orgasms.