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Asexuality isn’t celibacy or abstinence. Here’s what it is — and isn’t

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Being asexual in a culture where sex permeates nearly everything can be challenging.

Many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around how anyone could possibly not be interested in sex. Are they repressed? Are they scared of intimacy? Have they just not met the right person yet?

But as any asexual person would tell you, it’s none of the above.

Here’s what asexuality is and what it isn’t, based on resources from Aces and Aros, The Asexual Visibility & Education Network and The Trevor Project.

Asexuality is a sexual orientation

For most adolescents and adults, feeling sexually attracted to another person — whether someone of the same sex, opposite sex or outside of the gender binary — is a fact of life.

But not everyone relates to that feeling. Enter asexuality.

Asexuality is a sexual orientation in which a person experiences little or no sexual attraction to another person and/or no desire for sexual contact, according to Aces & Aros.

There are some people who might experience sexual attraction under certain circumstances but feel that their experiences align more with asexuality than other orientations. People who fit under that umbrella are called “aces” for short, and can identify as asexual, gray-asexual or demisexual.

Someone who is gray-asexual, or graysexual, experiences sexual attraction rarely or only in specific circumstances or they might experience sexual attraction without the accompanying sex drive. Graysexuals also refer to people who fluctuate between periods of experiencing and not experiencing sexual attraction.

Someone who is demisexual only experiences sexual attraction if there’s a strong emotional bond.

It’s not celibacy or abstinence

Because asexuality is a sexual orientation, it’s not a choice.

That makes asexual people different from those who choose not to have sex for religious reasons or to avoid pregnancy. It doesn’t mean that aces have intimacy issues.

Many people on the asexuality spectrum are romantically attracted to others and might want a deep emotional relationship. They might want to fall in love and cuddle or hold hands, or they might want a platonic relationship that goes beyond traditional friendship.

In other words, for many aces, Netflix and chill really does mean Netflix and chill.

It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong

Aces are often told that they just haven’t found the right person yet.

Some medical and mental health professional may still misunderstand asexual identity. As a result, asexual people may be told that their lack of sexual desire is due to a mental illness or a disability.

“The idea that asexuality is the result of something being wrong or somehow being broken is incorrect,” Brian Langevin, executive director for Ace Week, told CNN.

Because many asexual people are transgender or non-binary, some professionals may attribute their lack of sexual attraction to hormone therapy, medications or other causes. While those things can influence sex drive, Langevin says, it doesn’t make that person’s asexual identity any less valid.

“Regardless of any specific reason that someone might be identifying as asexual, their identity is valid,” Langevin said. “They probably put a lot of time and thought into that decision, so it’s best to take that at face value and recognize that they understand their identity better than you do.”

Some aces might still have sex

Asexuality is typically defined as a lack of sexual attraction to another person. But sexual attraction is different than sex drive, the body’s physiological response to sexual stimulus.

Many aces still experience a libido — it just isn’t directed at a specific person. Some aces might masturbate or choose to engage in sexual activity in certain instances, but for the most part, aces have no desire for sex.

Aces often have other identities

It’s hard to say how many people identify as asexual, but the most widely cited figure is that asexual people make up about 1% of the population, according to the Asexual Visibility & Education Network.

Aces often identify as LGBTQ+, Aces & Aros notes, possibly because they view asexuality as an LGBTQ+ identity or because they have another identity that falls under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. More than one in 10 people in the ace community are transgender, and 3 in 10 are non-binary, according to data from community surveys.

Ace communities are made up of mostly women, and survey respondents are disproportionately white and non-Hispanic. Aces & Aros notes that this is likely because people of color may be less likely to participate in asexual communities and surveys and have access to online resources about asexuality.

Many aces are disabled or have a mental illness, according to the community survey data.

There’s still a long way to go

Asexuality has made some strides in the mainstream consciousness in recent years.

In 2014, “Game of Thrones” confirmed that the character Lord Varys was asexual, according to Vox. The Netflix show “BoJack Horseman” began exploring character Todd Chavez’s asexual identity in 2016. A year later, Freeform drama Shadowhunters depicted asexuality through its character Raphael Santiago.

But most people remain unfamiliar with asexuality, and some might not even realize that asexual is a term they can use to describe themselves.

One of the most common signs that might indicate someone is asexual, Langevin says, is not being able to relate to peers when the talk about who they find “hot” or attractive. Another is finding portrayals of sex in film or television disgusting or off-putting.

Ultimately though, it’s up to that person to decide whether the asexual label makes sense for them. Langevin says a good way to explore this identity is through online resources about asexuality and talking to others who identify as asexual.

Specifically, they recommend the Asexual Visibility & Education Network, which contains a large archive of information as well as forums to talk to others and read about their experiences. Aces & Aros also has a list of community groups that hold meetups in cities across the country.

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