Since the works of Freud and Kinsey, mainstream awareness of sexuality’s spectrum has grown with every generation. We realize more now than ever that there are various shades of gray in a person’s sexuality and sexual orientation. We are learning new terminology every day. New terminology is being created every day. And with so many ideas evolving, changing, overturning, it can be hard to fully understand some of the newer ideas coming forward. Asexuality is one of those sexual identities that many people are still unfamiliar with. People still aren’t sure what asexuality can mean for a person. If you’re asexual, does that mean that person still wants a relationship? How can that person still want a relationship? But surprisingly, many asexuals don’t just want relationships—they want families. And they are finding creative ways to resolve their sexual identities with their parental desires.
To begin, most people are probably still unsure what asexuality means in regards to a person. Asexuality as an orientation means that while asexual people may have a desire to connect with other people, asexuals have no desire to connect with them sexually. And it’s important to note that asexual people are not the same as celibate people. Celibacy implies an intentional or purposeful choice while asexuality means there is simply no interest. But within asexuality, there are many varying shades of gray. Just as within homosexuality or heterosexuality, there are now much more elaborate slices of identity within a giant umbrella term. You can see that in our recognition of non-binary identities, our usage of the term ‘fluidity’, or our better understanding of bisexuality. Within the asexual umbrella are people who identify as antisexual (people who believe that sexuality is wrong and should be avoided), demi-sexual (only experiencing sexual attraction after an emotional bond has been made), or gray-A (people who identify somewhere between asexual and sexual identity). You’ll most likely hear asexuals use the term ‘ace,’ another word for asexual. Hearing all these terms, it’s easy to think that the asexual world is just brimming with its own longstanding language and history but really, asexuality as it’s known now only came into being once the internet became more commonplace. Only through widespread technology did people get to connect with other like-minded individuals and begin to truly understand their sexual identities. According to the Williams Institute, roughly 1% of the world’s population identifies as asexual. Studies also found that women and genderqueer people were more likely to identify as asexual. 91% of asexuals also skew young in age (ages 18-27) but this will likely change as asexuality is only recently becoming a more mainstream identity. As more people become aware of asexuality, the numbers may even out across age ranges.
So if a person is asexual, how does that person navigate the world? Are they anti-social? Do they have relationships? Like with any sexual identity, it can vary from person to person. But there are many asexuals who can form long lasting relationships, even romantic ones. And in fact, that is something that many asexuals seek. In college, David Jay, the founder of Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), the largest and most well known asexual education platforms, wrote his senior thesis on the question of what differentiates sexual relationships from nonsexual ones—besides the obvious point of sex. He concluded that the main notable difference between the two relationships was the idea of permanence or at least the expectation of it. When a relationship becomes sexual and it becomes romantic, there is a suggestion of a future. There is an implication of some kind of long-lasting, defining future in that partner and in that relationship that isn’t found in platonic friendships. And that kind of differentiation is what platforms like AVEN and advocators like David Jay have been trying to redefine. Asexuals, whether they choose to participate in sex or not, would like to have those same deep, long-lasting relationships with a partner as well. Being asexual does not mean being anti-social. And being asexual does not mean being anti-romantic. There are many advocates that find just the idea of asexuality spreading in the mainstream arena to be something as a benefit to all peoples, whether asexual or not. Ela Przybylo, a sexual cultures researcher at York University in Canada, has pointed out, “Asexuality draws attention to the complete fixation we have on sex and really brings it to the surface for all to see.” She argues that if we were to reimagine sex and the implication of sex to romance, it could possibly redefine all of our personal relationships for the better. If we widen our deep emotional scope from just the person we share bodily fluids with to the friends, acquaintances, colleagues in our lives, our communities would grow stronger. Our links and our capacity to feel connected would deepen. And we would be able to let go of all the cultural baggage so many carry around regarding how much, how little, or how often we are having sex.
So asexual people do want romantic relationships. But how can they have families? How would that work? Well, just as being asexual does not mean you are anti-social or anti-romantic, it also means that you are not anti-family. Many asexuals feel the same urge as sexual people to have children and to become a parent. So what are the mechanics? How would they go about doing that? As mentioned previously, there are some asexual couples that do have sex, if infrequently. Some asexual couples will have sex solely for the purpose of creating a child. Then there are other, more creative ways to start a family that preclude the need for sex. David Jay, the founder of AVEN, is probably the most well-known asexual and is also a father. He is part of a tri-parent household with a married couple, each legally sharing custody over their daughter. This may sound dizzyingly odd and unusual but actually, three-parent adoption has legal precedence and is recognized in California (where Jay and his family reside), Maine, Washington, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Jay lives with married couple Avary Kent and Zeke Hausfather. The couple and Jay do not have a sexual relationship. Jay simply had a strong emotional bond with the couple and when the couple were ready to start a family, they knew Jay was also very seriously interested in becoming a father and they asked him to join them as a parent.
Three-parent families are not new. Many of them exist because of low-income parents who cobble together child care by bringing in relatives or friends as informal co-parents. Or divorced parents that remarry will create blended families and stepfamilies. But Jay and many other queer-identifying parents are redefining what the three-parent family looks like. There are already many three-parent families in lesbian and gay families with the sperm or egg donor usually playing the third parent. And this kind of change in non-traditional family structure is on the rise. According to the Pew Research center, fewer than half of American kids lived in a so-called traditional family environment. Jay and other asexuals like him are simply expanding the definition of what a three-parent household can look like. Many who are unfamiliar with such ideas may wonder how this kind of family structure may impact the child but people like Jay argue that this structure works just as well as a two-parent household, if not better. There are three pairs of hands, there are three pairs of eyes, and there are three incomes. There are less gendered expectations of a parent’s role since there are three parents. A woman may feel less expected to be the one to sacrifice her career or to stay home all day when there are two other partners to help with the load. And with three different people to watch over the child, this means there’s always someone to give the child attention. Pamela Braboy Jackson, an Indiana University sociologist says, “All of our research points to the fact that it’s the quality of the relationships that matter, and the handling of the communication and conflict, and the number of people in the household is not really the key. Just because family structure is different doesn’t the family operates any differently.”
Thanks to the internet, our understanding of the world and ourselves is growing and changing at breakneck speed. Something new seems to be coming out of the woodwork every day. While that can feel overwhelming at times, it is also an exciting prospect. We are learning something new about our bodies, brains, and feelings every day and we are learning how to better treat ourselves and our needs. The more we delve into understanding identities like asexuality, the more we realize that the differences are far out-shadowed by many of the similarities we still share as human beings. There may be a million different shades of gray out there but in the end, we are all standing on the same one spectrum.
If you’re interested in learning more about the nuances of what asexuality is and looks like, you can check out The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) www.asexuality.org, the largest platform and learning resource for all things related to asexuality. You can also read the report referenced by the Williams Institute to understand more of the statistics for US asexual populations, here.
Asexual: someone who does not experience sexual attraction or an intrinsic desire to have sexual relationships
Demisexual: someone who can only experience sexual attraction or desire after an emotional bond has been formed
Gray-asexual or gray-sexual: someone who identifies with the area between sexuality and asexuality. For example, they may experience sexual attraction very rarely, only under specific circumstances, or of an intensity so low that is ignorable and not a necessity in relationships
Ace: An informal label for asexuals or people under the asexual umbrella
Attraction: A mental or emotional force that draws people together. This can be broken down into types, such as sexual, romantic, aesthetic, or sensual. This can be towards specific people, specific types of people, or a general personal feeling. Asexuals do not experience sexual attraction, but some feel other types of attraction
Allosexual: Someone who does experience sexual attraction or an intrinsic desire to have sexual relationships (or the adjective describing a person as such). This category is also often simply referred to as “sexual”