Asexuality is just beginning to be the subject of scientific research. The basic definition of an asexual is someone who doesn't experience sexual attraction or desire, but that doesn't mean they don't fantasize. In fact, a recent study of 351 people who identify as asexual found that nearly half of women and three-quarters of men reported having sexual fantasies and masturbating. We spoke to young people who identify as asexual—also known as "ace"—from around the country.
Daina, 20, Ohio
When did you first realize you identified as asexual?
About two years ago. For the longest time, I thought I was just uncomfortable about sex and whatnot because I was a virgin, but then I realized sex is a bigger part of people's lives than I thought, and that I don't experience things like sexual attraction like most people do. If I'll be honest, I still don't even know what sexual attraction really is.
What was that process like?
That not-knowing is also what had me stressed in my teenage years. I'd go back and forth a lot trying to decide if I was straight, a lesbian, or bi/pan-sexual. I'd find people cute, had plenty of crushes, but was never turned on by a man or woman and never thought about doing sexual things with them. If I tried, I'd get no reaction anyway, kinda like watching a boring movie.
I've been in a polyamorous relationship with my partner for a little over a year and a half. So far, she's the only person that I've been with sexually. I have the freedom to date outside of our relationship, but I have no interest in having sex with other people. I have a strong emotional attachment to her. I'm unsure if I'll remain sexually active if we are ever done for good.
What do you fantasize about?
My partner introduced me to BDSM, so if I'm fantasizing, it's usually something like her and I in a scene, or us being kind of playfully sensual towards each other. Rarely do any of my fantasies include someone other than her, but it does happen. I also happen to be a huge masochist, so I very much enjoy receiving—and sometimes giving—pain. Fantasizing is like a little escape from reality for me sometimes, where I can imagine myself feeling good and having lots of fun and bonding time with someone I feel especially close to.
Do you masturbate?
Yes, though it's mostly for a type of physical release. I naturally have a high libido. My body seems to want sex more than I do. So, I'll do it to let go of some of that tension. Plus, it feels good. Also, BDSM is not exclusively sexual. You can have a scene without any sex involved.
Kirstin, 26, Portland, OR
What's the most frustrating question you frequently have to answer about asexuality?
Needing to explain the difference between asexuality and celibacy. Someone who is celibate experiences sexual attraction but chooses not to have sex—often for religious reasons, though not exclusively. A lot of people have told me that I can't be asexual because I sometimes do have sex. That's simply not true.
Have you ever been in a sexual relationship?
I'm an asexual romantic person; I do experience romantic attraction to people, even though I don't experience sexual attraction. Sometimes the idea of sex makes me feel nauseous, but other times it's just a boring neutral. When I'm feeling neutral about sex instead of averse, my partner and I will often have sex since that's when we're closest to feeling the same about it.
How does he handle it?
We're open and honest about it, and we have an arrangement that if he ever reaches a point where he feels our sex life is no longer working for him, we'll renegotiate opening up the relationship. Honesty is key.
What do you fantasize about when you masturbate?
I masturbate because it's really great at helping me treat tension headaches without having to take medication. I actually find it to be a generally boring activity and usually I'm just thinking about what I need to get done that day.
I don't have sexual fantasies, so I fantasize about my future with my partner: having a house of our own, living somewhere we really want to be, achieving a certain level of success in our respective careers, getting out of debt. Oh, and cake. Don't forget about cake.
Mark, 21, Pittsburgh, PA
Any misconceptions about asexuality that you'd like to clear up?
I feel like people need to know we exist before there can be misconceptions. Most of the people I know have only a vague idea of what asexuality entails. I know that there are probably quite a few aces who have been blown off as "repressed straight people" or something, but most of the time, I'm just trying to stay visible.
Have you ever had sex?
The one time that I was in a situation that could have become sexual, it was a profoundly uncomfortable experience, and I left pretty quickly. I'm a virgin.
What do you fantasize about?
Most of my fantasies are either romantic ones or your run-of-the-mill daydreams of flying, or having boatloads of money, or how I'd want my dream house put together, or what I hope my future career turns out to be. It's pretty boring stuff, but it gets me through a bus ride well enough.
That factors into masturbatory habits, too; most of the time I do think about some sort of story, but more in the context of what you'd find in an erotic novel or other piece of fiction. The qualifier there is that it doesn't involve me. Any fantasy there is specifically involving fictional characters, even if I'm writing them.
What is it about that fantasy that feels fulfilling to you?
When I'm separated from the sexual content, it turns into more of a thought exercise or a game-esque experience. Who's doing what? What are the environmental factors? What history could these people have, and how does that factor into the relationship? How is this going to resolve? Most of the fun comes out of writing or thinking through those kinds of details, even if there's a through-line of sexuality involved. It's fun, and at the end of the day, I can leave it in a Word doc or push it to the back of my mind and go make some chicken strips.
How did the people around you react when you came out as asexual?
I was that lucky in coming out, the vast majority of those I've talked it out with have been wholeheartedly supportive. But doesn't mean everyone is. I'm a cis white male. If I'm not having sex, it's a mildly interesting footnote, but if you change just one of those descriptors, the whole game changes. Intersectionality is vital when thinking about asexuality.
Miller, 20, Sarasota, FL
What's something people get wrong about asexuals?
Asexuality is a real orientation. I am not part plant, nor do I reproduce asexually, although I'd be totally cool with that if it were the case. I don't have a hormone imbalance, nor was I sexually abused. I'm also not "secretly gay."
Have you ever been in a relationship?
Never. I just didn't feel the need to be with someone. It seemed like a lot of extra effort and drama. I don't see myself being in a relationship in the near future, because it's extremely difficult to find someone who is willing to commit to you without the possibility of ever satisfying their sexual desire.
Is that difficult to come to terms with at all?
I actually see being asexual as an advantage. I don't make poor choices due to being aroused at a particular moment—you know, thinking with your groin instead of your head kind of thing. I feel like I always have a clear mind, with no primitive sexual instincts distracting me.
Do you fantasize at all?
I fantasize about having a nice house, a bunch of ducks in the backyard, and being in a career that I love. Occasionally I wonder what it would be like to live on Mars, or run the country. Nothing sexual ever crosses my mind.
Do you ever masturbate?
I do not masturbate, but I understand that some asexuals do. I gave it a shot once or twice, but it felt totally pointless and a complete waste of time. I don't understand how people get pleasure from such things. I get more enjoyment from reading a book, or petting one of my cats.
Has it been suggested that you might have a hormonal deficiency of some kind?
I take testosterone, and have been for nearly five years now. One of the side effects is a two- or three-fold increase in your libido. That may be true for non-asexuals, but for me zero times three is still zero. You can't double or triple something you don't have to begin with. If I could get rid of my genitals and all secondary sex characteristics, and become completely nullo, I would love that. I don't see the point of having them if I never plan on using them. They just get in the way.
Samantha, 18, Houston, TX
How old were you when you realized you were asexual?
Around the end of middle school. It was really hard because people began talking about having sex and feeling this desire to have it. I didn't get that feeling, and I thought I was broken for a long time. I was afraid that I was never going to fall in love or have the life I wanted because I was different than everyone else.
What do you fantasize about?
Doing romantic things like cuddling, kissing, or even doing couple things like reading to each other or going on dates. I have masturbated just to try, but it's just weird and gross, so I don't do it anymore.
Is there anything you do want from another person?
I think a lot of people want companionship. I am neither sexually active nor in a relationship. However, I am looking for a relationship. It is a bit difficult to date as an asexual. I am hopeful that in the future I'll find someone. I like to think that despite being asexual, I'll be able to find love like anyone else.
What was the reaction from your parents like?
My mom was very supportive and told me to "tell her something she didn't know." Which was nice, because I knew it wasn't a surprise. My siblings had questions, but they were supportive. My dad didn't want me to tell other people, mainly because he was afraid of what would happen. He's grown to accept me more and I couldn't ask for better support.
What do you wish the world knew about your community?
Asexuals come from a wide variety of backgrounds. It's not 'just being straight' or just a 'special snowflake' syndrome. I want conversations to start and keep going about asexuality. Asexuals go through a lot, similar to LGBT people, some of them are even on the LGBT spectrum. So to just shut us out like we don't exist, it hurts.
Shannon, 23, Nashua, NH
Do you experience any sexual desire?
I don't feel sexual attraction whatsoever. That isn't to say that I'm sex-repulsed, however. I can talk about it with certain friends and I can tolerate it in the media. I don't have strong romantic feelings, but they do pop up once in a while, so I identify as gray-aromantic.
Do you masturbate?
I do masturbate, usually with a vibrator. I've found that penetrative masturbation doesn't do it for me and stimulation is enough. I don't so much fantasize as much as I focus on how my body is feeling and listen to music and create a space for me to enjoy my body.
What is it that you fantasize about, and does that feel fulfilling?
It's more about taking the time to relax. It isn't spontaneous; I plan when to have my sessions. It's a time to let my body and mind unwind and not focus on anything else other than the little bubble I have for myself.
Are there subsets of asexuality you feel are important to distinguish?
Some people experience occasional sexual attraction (gray-asexual), some people don't experience sexual attraction until a bond is formed (demisexual), some people feel sexual attraction but don't want it reciprocated (lithosexual). There's a huge spectrum of asexuality and we cannot be pinned down.
Rebecca, 22, Boca Raton, FL
Do you identify as asexual?
Yes, although people are set with the idea that asexuals are completely sex-repulsed and don't have sex. While many of us don't, many of us do. But even within the ace community, everything is about how we don't have sex. I've been sexually active since I was 18.
And yet, you still identify as asexual?
I thought that since I enjoyed having sex, I couldn't possibly be ace. Then, a few people explained to me that many ace people can still have a libido and enjoy sexual activity. After that, it took me quite a while of talking with my boyfriend about what sexual attraction feels like before I realized that I had felt it before. I've felt sexual attraction to three people in my life. Two of them are celebrities and one of them is my boyfriend. He's very understanding of my sexuality. We do it when it feels right.
What exactly is gray-asexual?
It kind of covers all of the asexual spectrum that doesn't fall strictly into asexuality. People who only experience it sometimes, or very weakly are gray-asexual. I also feel that gray-ace covers demisexual as well. I feel as if the label is for anyone sort of "between" asexual and allosexual.
What do you fantasize about?
I almost always fantasize about my partner and things we've done sexually that I enjoyed. I do masturbate but not very frequently. My partner is one of the most important people in my life and he's the only one who's ever made me feel both sexually and romantically fulfilled, so I can't imagine successfully fantasizing about much else.
How did your family react when you told them?
My mom struggled a bit when I came out to her, but I think at this point she's just figured out to say okay and let me say I am whatever I feel I am. We had a lot more trouble when I came out as bisexual when I was younger.
What sorts of challenges do you face on a daily basis?
Being gray-ace in a sexual relationship, I often feel alienated by the asexual community. All of the jokes are about not having or wanting sex and it can feel very unwelcoming for those of us under the ace umbrella who do feel sexual attraction or do take part in sexual activity. It's a lot easier for me to relate to the bisexual community, but even then, being in a different-sex relationship, I still feel a little out of the loop. It's been hard to find my community.