An Asexual’s Guide To Love, Intimacy and Sex
We live in a world that has sex on the brain. You can’t escape sexualised images and, if you force yourself to stop and think about it, sex drives a scary amount of our day-to-day behaviour – from shopping to social media to that punishing pre-breakfast HIIT session. It’s exhausting.
But what if you were immune to all that?
Around 1% of the population is asexual, according to the latest available research. Asexual people don’t have sex on the brain. Not at all, in fact. Characterised by one’s lack of sexual attraction to other people, asexuality is rare and poorly understood. If modern culture is an all-you-can-gorge buffet of sexuality, we’re malnourished on the subject of people who aren’t interested in sex at all.
It got us thinking: what can we learn about relationships and intimacy from people who aren’t motivated by sex or physical attraction? We spoke to Brian Langevin, a 20-year-old non-binary asexual from Kamloops in Canada, to find out what we could learn from them about how asexual relationships work.
Brian works as the executive director of Asexual Outreach, and leads a team of volunteers to build a national advocacy movement for people on the asexual spectrum, referred to as aces. Here, Brian gives us his perspective on life, love and relationships as an asexual person.
First up, how would you describe asexuality?
Asexuality is a sexual orientation that generally describes a lack of sexual attraction to others. This means that as an asexual person, no matter who I look at, I won’t (and indeed, can’t) desire to have any kind of sexual contact with them, regardless of how conventionally attractive they may be. Some aces, like me, have a strong desire to form romantic relationships with others. Other aces may be interested in building significant friendships with other people, or forming relationships that aren’t romantic or sexual in nature but that may be more committed or significant than a friendship.
How old were you when you realised you were asexual?
Although I knew something was different about me since early adolescence, I first discovered the term ‘asexual’ when I was 16. A friend came out to me as ace one night when we were discussing sexual orientation, and I immediately latched onto the label.
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What was that realisation like, how did you feel about it?
Until I discovered asexuality, I didn’t have any reference point to describe what I was experiencing, which made social norms and environments rather confusing for me, but which also left me feeling broken and like I would never be able to form any kind of significant relationship in my life. Sometimes, people can find the word ‘asexual’ and instantly connect to it, as was the case for me. For a lot of other aces though, coming to terms with an ace identity can be challenging and take a significant amount of time.
How is asexuality different from celibacy?
While some people do choose to abstain from sex, asexuality is not a choice. For many aces, their asexuality seems just as innate as being gay might be. For others, they may come to an ace identity as their sexual orientation shifted over time, or they may come to an ace identity in connection with disability, mental health, or trauma. Either way, all of these cases are equally valid, and are not the result of a person making an active choice to abstain from sex.
For many, sex simply isn’t something that interests them. For others, sex may be something they are indifferent about or repulsed by, while some aces are interested in having sex. Asexuality is a sexual orientation because it is not something a person chooses, whereas celibacy and sexual intercourse are sexual behaviours because they are usually the result of a choice. A person can be asexual and celibate just the same as they can be asexual and regularly having sex.
You be asexual and still have sex?
Although most aces are either indifferent to or repulsed by sex, there is definitely a subset of aces who enjoy sex and seek it out. An ace person’s asexuality does not mean that they won’t ever have sex.
Can you be asexual and polyamorous?
Because asexuality is little more than a sexual orientation, aces can and do choose to form relationships in a variety of different ways. For some aces, polyamory works exceptionally well because they can form significant relationships with non-ace people and can have their intimacy needs met without pressure to have sex (while partners with sexual needs can fulfil those with others). Beyond that, many aces may be polyamorous simply because it’s a relationship style that works for them.
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Can you have a partner despite being asexual?
Aces definitely can and do have partners, and these partnerships can be just as significant as anyone else’s even without a sexual component to their relationship. Some aces are in relationships with non-ace people, which can lead to challenges around how much they choose to have sex, if at all. As long as any and all sex is entirely consensual, it can be a component of that relationship. Any person’s desire not to have sex must be respected, regardless of the reason. Otherwise, that sex quickly becomes sexual assault.
Can you describe the emotions in a typical asexual relationship?
Some ace relationships are deeply intimate and romantic, some are purely platonic, while others may be a mix of the two. While friendships can be the sole relationships an ace person has in their lives, many aces pursue relationships that are beyond or fall outside of a traditional friendship. Even for aces who are strictly platonic with partners, there may be a deep sense of commitment and dependency that may not exist in a typical friendship.
Even though you don’t have sex, are you still intimate in other ways?
I like to consider myself something of a cuddle slut, so I’m definitely intimate in other ways. I’m personally not a particular fan of kissing – I don’t really get the whole smushing your faces together while swapping saliva thing – but some aces definitely are.
Does the love between two asexuals feel somewhat more pure without the sex being involved?
Unless sex is somehow ‘impure’, I don’t see how a lack of sexual activity gives a relationship any more purity than the alternative. I think that ace relationships are pretty similar to any other relationship.
Do asexuals masturbate?
For some reason, aces often seem to be asked more about their personal sex lives than people who do regularly have sex. There’s this whole thing where strangers think it’s okay to ask someone whether or not they masturbate just because they identify as asexual… which is… weird. Just in case you are still curious: Yes, some aces masturbate. Some aces don’t masturbate. There’s never a universal rule we can apply to everyone, but generally, aces are less likely than non-ace people to regularly masturbate.
What do you really want people to know about asexuality?
Although aces often don’t face direct marginalisation simply because of their orientation, there are a whole range of other issues that they do face, and that can be deeply harmful. Many aces face isolation and a feeling of being ‘broken’ because they lack the words to describe and understand their experience, and because our society and media almost entirely lacks positive representations of ace people.
In addition, aces are at a heightened risk of being victim to sexual assault, especially if they are in a relationship with a non-ace partner, and don’t have the language to describe why they are not interested in having sex. They often also face pathologisation at the hands of doctors and other health-care professionals who may see their orientation as a problem to be fixed.
Young aces often face significant isolation in school, as well as harassment and bullying from peers because of their lack of sexual attraction and because they may not express interest in forming relationships – two things that become central points of discussion in early adolescence. Aces of colour may have difficulties because of the way society sexualises different races, while aces with disabilities may have difficulties gaining validation because our society so routinely desexualises disability. Also, because many aces experience romantic attraction to people of the same gender, and because many aces identify as transgender or non-binary, many face homophobia, transphobia and other issues common among LGBTQ+ folks.
How have potential partners taken it when you’ve told them you’re asexual? Do you tell them straight away?
I happen to be in the rather unique position where I can’t easily avoid telling people I’m asexual. The following is a typical introduction for me:
Me: “Hi, my name is Brian”
Other person: “Hi Brian, what do you do [for work]?”
Me: “I direct a nonprofit organisation that focuses on asexual advocacy.”
I think you get the picture! On the other hand, when prospective partners don’t find out that I’m asexual right away, but do ask to add me on Facebook, I rarely hear back from them after they find ace content across my profile. It can be a little disheartening, but a lot of aces will refrain from telling prospective partners about their orientation because they may fear that person won’t give them a chance. Others may not be in a position where they feel comfortable coming out, or they may not feel their asexuality is particularly relevant, so not everyone will come out to prospective partners straight away.
Is it possible for an asexual who has been with a partner a long time to develop sexual feelings out of a deep love and connection with that person?
Asexuality is just one end of a diverse spectrum of sexuality, so there are definitely a lot of people who won’t experience sexual attraction to someone they’ve just met, but who might begin developing sexual feelings for someone that they’ve formed a deeply intimate bond with. The word for this is “demisexual”. This isn’t something I’ve ever personally experienced (nor something I would expect to experience), but a number of aces do find sex to be satisfying. Many demisexuals will incorporate sex into their relationships after a certain point, simply because they do find it satisfying.
How do you feel about marriage and children?
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about marriage – that will definitely be something that depends on whichever partner I’ve gotten to that point in a relationship with. I certainly would like a single significant partner to spend the rest of my life with. Whether or not that falls under the marriage umbrella will likely depend on our political priorities, and on how much we want the legal and tax benefits.
I think that children can be quite wonderful, and wouldn’t be averse to raising kids. However, I’m also totally content with just having a dog or two, and working to support the ace youth who might need support.
Do you ever feel like you’re missing out on something?
I really don’t feel like I’m missing anything. Between a wonderful career and incredible friends, there really isn’t anything I’d need more of.
What do you think is the most important aspect of being an asexual in a relationship?
Like any relationship, I think that communication is absolutely essential, especially if two partners have differing sexual needs.
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How would you like to get the world better educated on the subject of asexuality?
My dream would be for every school across the country to include asexuality in its sexual-education curricula, so that young aces can grow up with language to describe their experiences, and so that everyone else can grow up understanding, and hopefully supporting them. We’ve got a long road ahead of us, but I truly believe we’ll get there.