Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC
I was at a therapy workshop about LGBT-affirmative counseling about a year ago, and an audience member asked, “I have a client who told me she is asexual. What does that mean?”
“Well,” said the presenter, “You know how some people are attracted to men and some people are attracted to women? Well, asexuality is when you’re attracted to both.”
My jaw dropped. My hand shot up into the air and before I could stop myself, I blurted out, “That’s bisexual! Asexual is, for the sake of brevity, a word that describes a person who does not feel sexual attraction to others.” The questioner nodded thoughtfully, and wrote the definition down. The presenter looked embarrassed.
At the break, several of the therapists in attendance came up to me and thanked me for my definition. They had never heard that term, they told me, or they didn’t really know what it meant.
A few months later, there was a post on a message board I follow where a therapist was asking for advice about a couple she was seeing where one person identified as asexual and the other did not. The responses to this thread were horrifying: They ranged from “well the asexual person should just have sex anyway” to “you should probably refer to a hypnotherapist who can uncover the trauma at the root of the asexual person’s lack of sexuality” to “the sexual person should really just leave”.
Most people who read my blog belong to a “general public” audience, and I think it’s important for everyone to know what asexuality is. But beyond that, here’s my call to action, both to fellow therapists, and to fellow LGBT allies: We have got to do better than this. It’s damaging to the people who seek our support.
When I talk to fellow allies – that is, heterosexual, cisgender, sexual, monogamous, vanilla folks who support those who are not – about gender, sexual, and relationship minorities, most people can understand gay, lesbian, and even transgender people. Compassion and understanding for bisexual people is, sadly, a little bit harder to come by, but most people still understand what it is. But asexuality? That’s what leaves people stammering and saying, “I… I just don’t understand.”
So without further ado, I give you…
4 things that you should know about asexuality:
1. A lot of people are asexual.
1 out of 100, by some estimates… which begs the question – how are we not more aware of and sensitive to this?
I think the answer is that 99% is still an overwhelming majority, and for those 99 out of every 100 people, so many facets of the world are viewed through a lens of sexuality.
But these statistics are important, because here’s what they mean: If you’re asexual, you are not alone. If you’re in a full 400 seat movie theater, there are probably 3 other people in that room (depending, I suppose, on what kind of movie you’re seeing) who can relate to your asexuality. They may not have a name for their experience, and they may just be silently wondering what’s “wrong” with them, but they’re there.
The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) is a great resource if you’re looking for people to relate to about this. There are also local meetups for “aces,” as many asexual folks call themselves. The one in Los Angeles is called Ace Los Angeles. They host two meetups a month, and you can learn more about them here.
2. Like other facets of sexuality, asexuality is a spectrum.
For some people who identify as asexual, this means that they absolutely, positively do not ever want to have sex. Some people are disgusted or repulsed by the idea, and others just find it uninteresting.
Other asexual folks will engage in consensual sexual activities because their partner enjoys them, but don’t really have a strong desire for sex themselves. Think about how you might go on hikes or play board games because they’re things your partner really likes, even though you feel sort of neutrally towards them and would never suggest them yourself.
Some asexual people will say that sex isn’t what they look for in a partner, but it is a way they might connect once they also feel connected in other ways. Others will say that it’s just not something they ever have any interest in doing.
Some asexual people masturbate, but consider their sexuality to be a solitary activity.
And then there’s graysexuality or gray-asexuality, which just means someone who experiences significantly less sexual attraction than average.
And also demi-sexuality, which is when a person who doesn’t usually experience sexual attraction develops a romantic relationship and then is surprised to find that they may have some feelings of sexual attraction to their partner.
In other words, asexuality is nuanced. Just because someone identifies as asexual does not mean that you know any of these things about them. And just because their sexuality is something unfamiliar to you, don’t assume that you have the right to ask invasive questions unless you’re invited to do so.
3. Asexual people vary in their desire (or lack thereof) for a romantic relationship.
Asexuality is related to, but not the same as aromanticism. Aromantic, in short, means someone who doesn’t pursue romantic attraction. These two things are a Venn diagram: Some people want a romantic partner but not sex; others want sex, but not a romantic partner; still others want neither sex nor a romantic relationship.
Again, just because someone identifies as asexual, don’t make assumptions about whether or not someone desires a relationship.
4. Asexuality is not necessarily linked to sexual trauma.
This is one of the biggest misconceptions I have heard about asexuality. Because most people are sexual (see #1) and have trouble understanding what it must be like to walk through life without sexual attraction, the question that pops up for a lot of people upon learning about someone’s asexuality is “goodness, what happened to them?”
However, the data consistently shows very little if any relationship between trauma or mental illness and asexuality. Many people assume that asexual people must have latent mental illness or have repressed memories of sexual trauma, but it’s just not true. While some people who identify as asexual do have a history of sexual trauma, these numbers are similar to the percentage of people in the general population.
Assuming these things is pathologizing, and this is a huge problem in the way we discuss asexuality. An asexual person needs acceptance, not judgment and assumptions. Asexuality is a legitimate sexual orientation, and should be respected as such.
***Disclaimer: I am not a member of the asexual community; rather, I am an ally and psychotherapist specializing in gender, sexual, and relationship minorities. If you want to know more about asexuality, consider reaching out to someone in your life who identifies this way, or reading the FAQ on AVEN.
Jennie Steinberg, a psychotherapist in private practice in Downtown LA, thrives on helping clients on their identity journeys! Visit her website for more blog articles and practice information at http://www.jenniesteinberg.com.