It’s Friday afternoon during finals week, and two undergrads at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville are lounging together on a battered couch in the student center, watching cartoons. They’ve only met twice before, but they’re all over each other. Rae, a tiny pixie of a sophomore wearing a newsboy cap, nuzzles up against Sean, a handsome freshman. He’s got his arm draped across her. They giggle and tease each other, and she sprawls into his lap. Their friend Genevieve, perched on the arm of the couch, smiles and rolls her eyes.
It looks like a standard collegiate prelude to a one-night stand. But there will be no kissing, no fondling, and definitely no Saturday morning walk of shame. Sean and Rae do not have the hots for each other—or anyone else, for that matter. In fact, they’re here hanging out at the campus outreach center, a haven for all who question their sexuality and gender identity, because they’re exploring an unconventional idea: life without sex. Or mostly without sex. They’re pioneers of an emerging sexual identity, one with its own nomenclature and subcategories of romance and desire, all revolving around the novel concept that having little to no interest in sex is itself a valid sexual orientation. Rae tells me she’s an aromantic asexual, Sean identifies as a heteroromantic demisexual, and Genevieve sees herself as a panromantic gray-asexual.
Not sure what these terms mean? You’re not alone. The definitions are still in flux, but most people who describe themselves as demisexual say they only rarely feel desire, and only in the context of a close relationship. Gray-asexuals (or gray-aces) roam the gray area between absolute asexuality and a more typical level of interest. Then there are the host of qualifiers that describe how much romantic attraction you might feel toward other people: Genevieve says she could theoretically develop a nonsexual crush on just about any type of person, so she is “panromantic”; Sean is drawn to women, so he calls himself “heteroromantic.”
“WHEN MY HEART DECIDED HE WAS MY SOUL MATE, MY BODY DECIDED SO TOO.”
If the taxonomy seems loose and even confusing, it’s because the terms were created almost wholly online, arising on gaming-site forums and a nest of interrelated Tumblrs, blogs, and subreddits. They don’t necessarily describe fixed identities but serve more as beacons for people to locate each other online. While the rest of the world was using the web to invent and gratify new pervy thrills, these people used it as a wormhole out of a relentlessly sexual culture. It might be the only corner of the Internet that is not laced with porn.
So although labels are a big part of it, demisexuals and gray-aces don’t get too caught up in the lingo. They tend to be pretty comfortable with the idea they might change. A few months after that Friday at the outreach center, Genevieve realized she is more of an asexual than a gray-ace, and Sean now isn’t sure if he’s demi or ace. “Every single asexual I’ve met embraces fluidity—I might be gray or asexual or demisexual,” says Claudia, a 24-year-old student from Las Vegas. “Us aces are like: whatevs.”
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Friends and family often find such identities flat-out strange and assume that it’s all some kind of postadolescent phase or that something is seriously wrong. They might wonder if it’s really just a stop on the way to homosexuality or maybe the result of trauma or a hormone imbalance. But to those who embrace this approach to sex, it’s just how they are. Sex is “fascinating from a clinical point of view, but personally? No,” Rae says. “I have better things to do with my time.”
The conventional wisdom today is that lust and gratification are natural and healthy, a nonnegotiable aspect of being human. We presume that freedom of sexuality is a fundamental human right. But the idea of freedom from sexuality is still radical. It is an all-new front of the sexual revolution.
Asexuality has slowly been coming out of the closet for more than a decade. In 2001, a Wesleyan University student named David Jay created a website called the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. It started as a repository of information about all things asexual. When forums were added a year later, members started trickling in. By 2004 there were a thousand. Today there are some 80,000 registered users.
But for some people, the idea of being completely and entirely asexual still didn’t quite fit. The word demisexual seems to have come into being on an AVEN forum on February 8, 2006. It was coined by somebody who was trying to explain what it was like to be mostly, but not entirely, asexual. The term caught on only in the last few years, and now most people who are demisexual say their desire arises rarely and only from a deep emotional connection. For a demisexual, there is no moment of glimpsing a stranger across the room and being hit with a wave of lust. “I’ve only ever been sexually attracted to three people in my whole life,” wrote one self-described demisexual, Olivia, a few years ago. “My partner is sexually attracted to that many people during particularly sexy bus rides.”
Beyond that, there’s a lot of variability. Some demis and gray-aces have occasional flare-ups of desire, some say they’re indifferent to sex, and others find the thought of it repellent. Some masturbate. Others, like Claudia, even write erotica. “It has no relationship to your actual desire to have sex with someone in real life,” she says.
Some demisexuals say they have strong sexual urges that just don’t connect to anyone in particular. “I want to have lots of crazy, kinky sex, just not with anyone,” says Mike, a 27-year-old Canadian who works in a factory. “If someone tried to initiate something, I’d throw my hands in the air and run out of the room screaming.”
There is little research on asexuality or its variations, so there’s not much in the way of reliable data—on how many people consider themselves asexual or who they are. One 2004 survey in the UK estimated that 1 percent of the population fell somewhere under the asexual umbrella; other estimates range from 0.6 to 5.5 percent. But the few psychologists who have explored asexuality concur: People who don’t want to have sex aren’t necessarily suffering from a disorder. “It’s a concept that is so foreign to most people that they believe there must be some pathological explanation,” says Lori Brotto, a psychologist and associate professor of gynecology at the University of British Columbia. Although there’s no definitive proof that hormones have nothing to do with it, most asexuals go through puberty normally and don’t seem to have hormonal or physiological problems. In one of Brotto’s studies, asexual women’s physical arousal responses were no different from other women’s.
For people suffering from hypoactive sexual desire disorder—loss of libido—the condition is disturbing because they remember and keenly miss that feeling, says Brotto, who contributed to the criteria for female sexual arousal disorder. By contrast, most asexuals never felt strong sexual desire to begin with, so they’re fine with it.
Friends and family, not so much. Brotto’s study of 806 men and women, published in 2013 in the journal Psychology & Sexuality, found mental health issues were more common among asexuals—perhaps as a result of stigma and isolation. “Everyone is pressuring you: ‘Why aren’t you dating? You need to get laid. Why aren’t you paying attention to these women?’” Mike says. In general, asexuals aren’t persecuted so much as shunned and mocked. “We’re not demonized—we’re laughed at,” Genevieve says. In one recent small survey conducted by two psychologists at Canada’s Brock University, asexuals were rated negatively. Asexuals just seem less than human, people said.
It’s not that she’s a prude, or too shy, or timid, or just hasn’t met the right guy. Genevieve is endearingly nerdy, but she’s also a bit badass, the kind of person who loves bugs and science but also cracks dirty jokes and looks good in a leather jacket. She’s 26, tall and pretty, with long golden hair. (She has taken periodic breaks from school to work and play music.) And—surprise!—she’s married to a man she calls the love of her life, a rugged Tennessee country guy named James.
As a kid, Genevieve had a few crushes on both boys and girls, but it was always romantic, not sexual: She dreamed about holding hands or talking for hours on the phone. “The idea of it becoming more than hand-holding was really weird,” she says. In high school, life got harder. Other kids started calling her android and cold fish and generally made her feel like a freak. She began to worry there was something wrong with her. She even went to a doctor, but he laughed it off: You’re so pretty, you’re young, don’t worry about it. “There was no knowledge, there was nothing,” she says. “It was a black hole.”
So she dedicated herself to music, her true love. By the time she was 17 her band had a small but devoted following, and they were opening for big-time acts and hanging around backstage with bona fide rock stars. But despite being a teenager let loose in a raunchy, libertine world of groupies and stars and promiscuity, she wasn’t interested. It wasn’t that she was antisex in principle or morally opposed to what she saw. That part of the scene just didn’t appeal to her, and she knew she’d soon be expected to play along by making her image sexier, wearing her skirts shorter and her tops tighter. Disillusioned, she quit the world of rock and roll: “I thought it was about art, and they were just going backstage and fucking people.”
Around that time, she met James online. After months of close friendship, they dated for a year long-distance, and then she moved to Tennessee to be nearer to him. “I knew we didn’t line up in terms of sex drive, but he didn’t hold it against me,” she says. He was patient—very patient. It would be three years after they met that she felt the pull of desire for the first time and their relationship became sexual. “I think when I knew him so well that my heart decided he was my soul mate, my body decided so too,” she wrote on her Tumblr.
Figuring out how to be happy together required a lot of talking, given the gap between their natural levels of desire. But just like any couple, they’ve figured out how to compromise. They got married last spring, and they seem to still be in honeymoon mode.
She didn’t know there was a word for how she felt until last fall, when she got into a deep conversation with a grad student at the outreach center. He suggested she might be demisexual, and after many hours of Googling and Tumblring, a light went on and she realized she finally had a home. “I found others who had a word for it—a culture, a family,” she says. “When I realized I could just be myself, and there was actually a word for it and there were others like me and it was OK, it was a hugeweight lifted off of me.”
Over curries at a Thai restaurant near campus, Genevieve, Sean, and Rae lament the almost complete invisibility of asexuality and its variations in mainstream culture. Last summer, an asexual woman, Julie Sondra Decker, published a primer on the subject, The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality. And there have been a few pop culture glimmers, such as the recent flurry over Daryl Dixon, a character on the zombie show The Walking Dead. A fan fave, Dixon is a mysterious, brooding hero who’s never been involved in any romantic or sexual scenarios. Responding to speculation that the character was gay, creator Robert Kirkman recently described Dixon as “somewhat asexual” during an episode recap. “Tumblrexploded,” Genevieve says. “Yeah, it’s just a television show … but this just doesn’t happen.”
If nothing else, demisexuals and their related subgroups show the rest of us, regardless of sexual orientation, that our version of love and relationships is still very limited, very 1.0. Even the most progressive definition of normal sexuality, and the social expectations that go along with it, may still be far too narrow. If demisexuals and gray-aces can connect and form new types of relationships, ones that mix and match elements of lust, intimacy, domestic life, romance, and passion, perhaps others can too. Maybe there are more surprises in store, new positions along the sexual spectrum that are yet unnamed and still looking for a voice and recognition.
Back at the restaurant, the rhythm of a college-town Friday evening is kicking in. Despite the drizzle, clusters of young women in sparkly skirts and too-high heels drift by, suited up for a night of partying and no-strings-attached lust. The people sitting at the next table are clearly eavesdropping, and they seem half scandalized and half bewildered by our talk about asexuality. Genevieve, Sean, and Rae don’t even notice the stares. For them, the feeling of liberation is still new and thrilling. “I spent 15 years being embarrassed about everything, and I’m not doing that anymore,” Rae says. If it’s not quite asexual pride, it’s something very close.