Nege says her friends and family always knew something about her was "different."
"I never got into regular relationships and I never took a partner home to meet my family," says the 33-year-old Canadian.
A few years ago, she started considering her inclinations—or lack thereof—more closely. Why was she thoroughly disinterested in sex and relationships? She had a few theories, from low self-esteem, body negativity and embarrassment, to setting "unreasonably high" standards for her partners. "People told me that none of those excuses were valid, that I'm desirable and they desire me," she says.
Figuring there must be an underlying reason, Nege dwelled on this for a year before discovering information online about asexuality. Soon after, she started identifying as asexual. She began sharing this fact with her friends, and though she received a few shrugs and blank faces, she was largely supported by those closest to her.
As soon as I realised it was a thing, I knew that was me.
"They were maybe confused about the concept, but not at all shocked or hurt about the reality. They had already accepted me for who I am," she says.
Since those initial conversations, Nege's asexuality hasn't come up again. "That's an advantage to being an 'a' orientation: The issue doesn't resurface frequently because I don't have a partner to represent my orientation in a social setting. I've been assertive about being single—as I'm also aromantic [a person who experiences little or no romantic attraction to others].
"My stubborn independence and spinsterhood is a part of me that my friends and family have come to love and accept."
But the process of "coming out" isn't always so straightforward for asexuals—or "aces," as they are also known. Many people, particularly teens and young adults, are told their identity is "just a phase," or that that they "just need to find the right person," Nege says, adding that this simply isn't the case, because "asexuality is a valid orientation that remains constant in many people's long and happy lives."
"It's like chocolate cake," explains Chelsea, a university student from New Zealand. "I don't like chocolate cake. I can see a slice and think that looks good, but I know if I bite into it, I'm not going to enjoy it."
At 24, Chelsea's experience of asexuality is such that she can find people aesthetically appealing, and feel attracted to their personality, but never physically want to have sex with them. Studying literature and pop culture, she initially had preconceptions about asexuality, based on film and TV characters like The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper. "Like, 'Germophobe! Don't touch me!'" she mimics. "But that's just never been me."
Nonetheless, in 2012 Chelsea started toying with the term, jokingly dropping it into conversation with her family. "They didn't really react because they didn't have any real understanding of what it meant," she recalls, guessing in hindsight that they thought it would pass.
"I spent quite a few years going in circles: meeting someone, getting to know them, waiting for an attraction to grow. Of course, it never did," she says. "There was a night where I was meant to go on a date, and I was just not looking forward to it. I was struggling with depression and anxiety at the time. I was sobbing in my mum's arms going, 'I don't want to go on this date. I'm not attracted to the guy at all.'
"She said [to me], 'Maybe you need to find someone else?'
"I said, 'No, I'm just not attracted to guys.'
"She said, 'Oh, are you attracted to girls?'
"I said, 'No, I would have let you know that long ago!'" Chelsea recalls.
Early last year, Chelsea was at lunch with her mum and sister when her mom asked, "So… you really think you're asexual?" The floodgates opened. "We had a really intense conversation," says Chelsea. "They were curious and accepting, which was lovely. They still perhaps don't quite understand it, but that's because it's not their experience of life. It's not based on any negative emotion.
"People have this idea of ace identities as a very singular thing [but] being asexual can encompass a multitude of identities. You can be gay and ace. You can be straight and ace. You can be bi, you can be pan—because not all attraction is sexual. That's definitely something that needs to be touched on more, particularly in terms of representation."
"The way a lot of people found out was when I did my show," says Nikki, 40. "People saw the title, Asexual Healing, but thought it was just a pun on the song. They didn't realise it was actually about my sexuality."
An actor, writer and critic from Australia, Nikki devised the show as a way to avoid the awkwardness of heart-to-heart discourse. "If you're coming to the show, you expect me to talk for an hour. That's the deal," she laughs.
Nikki first heard the word "asexual" in an interview with comedian and activist Janeane Garofalo. A quick Google search revealed a plethora of relevant websites and blogs. In her mid-thirties at the time, Nikki's asexuality was something she'd always been conscious of but never had the word for. "As soon as I realised it was a thing," she says today, "I knew that was me."
Once they know this personal thing about you, they always know it.
Previously, she'd been in a long-term relationship. After separating from her partner, Nikki didn't date again. She carried a lot of guilt about that. "There was a feeling I should be doing something, although I didn't want to," Nikki recalls. "You know when there's something you need to do? Like an unpaid bill, or an essay you need to write. That's how it felt: I haven't had sex with anyone in a couple of years. Isn't that something I should be doing?
"When I found the word 'asexual,' it threw the guilt out. I could just be happy the way I was."
She first discussed her new identification with other ace people on tumblr, then her housemates. "There's something big about coming out to the people closest to you," she says. "Once they know this personal thing about you, they always know it. It was a big revelation for my ex-partner; a good but an emotional one. She understood more about our relationship once she knew. She said it was actually a bigger revelation than me coming out as trans." Realising that she had no need for sex or affection completed the jigsaw of their once fragmented relationship. Now, they're better friends than ever.
Nikki doesn't regret having tried sex or coupling, likening it to "when you've read a book and you don't need to pick it up again. At least I know what's in there." And engaging with the ace community both online and in her lived life has been a positive experience. She marched in Melbourne's Midsumma pride parade this year within the ace contingent. "Doing that stuff is good for me," Nikki says. "It's one step toward owning everything you are.
"I've had three coming-outs: as bi, as trans, and as ace, which were all very different experiences. I knew about trans [identities] when I was a kid, but never told anyone. Ace I just never knew about. When I knew, I was out in a flash. Bang!"