CW: mentions of sexual assault
Something that comes up again and again among those who are questioning whether or not they’re asexual are I-can’t-be-ace-because arguments in their own heads.
“I can’t be ace, because I like having sex with my partner!”
“I can’t be ace, because I masturbate sometimes!”
“I can’t be ace, because sex scenes in movies don’t gross me out!”
Those people may or may not be right about not being ace, but those arguments show a slight but important misunderstanding of what asexuality is. Asexuality is a spectrum of little-to-no feelings of sexual attraction, not a lack of sexual arousal, sex drive, or sexual interest.
What’s the difference? Let’s talk about it.
This one’s the most straightforward, so let’s start here. Sexual arousal is just that — your ability to get sexually aroused.
But hang on! As many of you know, especially those of who went through puberty with a penis, arousal doesn’t always come from sex. It can be a fear response, or even happen for no reason at all.
We’ll talk a bit more about the ins and outs (heh) of arousal later on, but for now, just remember that sexual arousal is a physical response to stimuli, and nothing more. Think of it like a light switch — generally, it’s either turned on or turned off with no middle ground, and can be flipped either with purpose or on accident.
Hope you like similes, cause we’re just getting started.
Let’s continue with your sex drive. Your libido. Your mojo, if you will.
Your sex drive is how often you want to have sex and/or masturbate. Obviously, this varies from person to person. Some people start feeling depressed if it’s been three days, while others can go years without it and feel completely fine. A person’s sex drive can also change naturally throughout their life, or suddenly due to various illnesses, conditions, medications, or life events.
Also notice the and/or above. Some people have a high sex drive, but can appease it just fine by themselves if a partner isn’t available, while others still find themselves in a funk unless they can groove with someone else. Sorry, Austin’s staring at me as I write this and I think he’s actually hypnotizing me.
Sex drive is like one of those old glass thermometers: it has a range, it can go up and down with time, and everyone falls on it to some extent even if they’re at absolute zero.
I know it might seem straightforward, but I want to make sure we’re all working with the same definitions before we talk about how they intersect. With that in mind, sexual interest is how interested you are in sex.
This isn’t to be confused with sex drive. Sexual interest is even more subjective. It has to do with your general opinion about sex. Not just how you feel about having sex, but how you feel about others having sex, how much you want to see it, and what acts you consider sexual. Again, this can and does change over time, but is the most subjective and least subconscious of the four we’ll be talking about.
Think of it like your thermostat. You set the temperature yourself, it gives a clear readout, and changing it usually requires direct action on your part.
Finally, let’s talk about sexual attraction. Again, might seem straightforward, but just to recap, sexual attraction is when you feel sexually drawn to a certain person. Basically, when you look at someone else and want to do this:
Sexual attraction, then, is always directed at a person, rather than being a general feeling like the other two. It doesn’t always happen at first sight, contrary to popular belief, and is not the same as romantic or even sensual attraction (wanting to touch and be physically close to someone). It is, in no uncertain terms, wanting to shag someone.
Think of it like a metal detector. It only lights up in certain circumstances, though some are more sensitive to it than others, and though you have control over where you can detect it, you can still find something in the most unlikely of places.
All Together Now
Now that we have the definitions, let’s talk about how these four concepts interact with each other, because none of them are an island.
As you can imagine, someone with a high sex drive can be more likely to feel sexual arousal and attraction. They want to have sex a lot, so they have a lot of sexual interest, which makes them think about it a lot, which makes it more likely for them to be aroused with less external stimuli, which makes it more likely that seeing an attractive person would spark that feeling in them. The opposite can be true for those with a low sex drive.
But while they’re related, they can also be separated from each other. Think about people who have any number of sexual arousal disorders, but still very much like sex. They have high interest and drive, despite not being able to get physically aroused.
On a related note, this is why arguments like “they got wet/had a boner/orgasmed, so it’s not sexual assault” don’t hold any real water. As we said before, sexual arousal doesn’t always happen as a result of sexual interest or attraction, and can be a fear response. Arousal is a lot more basic and reflexive than we’d like to think it is. Remember, it’s a light switch, it doesn’t require too much finesse to turn it on. But turning on the lights doesn’t automatically change the temperature on your thermostat, or make your metal detector start beeping, and turning on someone’s lights when they were just trying to sleep off those tequila shots is still a crap thing to do.
But getting back to the question, a person can be very easily aroused, have a high sex drive, and be very interested in sex…while still being asexual.
To answer that, let’s switch similes a bit and talk about food.
You ever have those moments when you’re completely starving, but despite that, nothing sounds good? Pizza, spaghetti, pad thai, tacos, scrambled goddamn eggs — you run through it all in your mind, and even though you’re ravenous, nothing jumps out at you. Nothing lights you up and makes you say, “Ah, yes! Perfect! That’s what I want for dinner tonight!” Frustrating, right?
Now, switch out “starving” for “horny”, and the names of food with names of people, and put out of our minds any ideas of cannibalism, and you’ll have an idea of what it’s like to be an asexual who scores high in everything else.
So with that in mind, let’s run through those scenarios from the beginning one by one.
Let’s consider the person who enjoys sex with their partner, but not in any other context. Can that fit into our food metaphor above? Absolutely!
Suppose you’re in the same predicament — hungry, but don’t feel up for anything. But you come home, and see that your partner has surprised you with some homemade chicken parmesan. You may not have been feeling chicken parmesan before, but holy shit, your partner TOOK TIME OUT OF THEIR DAY to get all the ingredients and MAKE you chicken parmesan. God, do you love them, and you’re going to eat the hell out of that chicken parmesan.
So to speak.
Moving on to the person who’s worried masturbating cancels out asexuality. Again, see the difference between sex drive and sexual attraction. Some aces and even non-aces have a high sex drive, but feel absolutely no need to satisfy those desires with another person. They’re just as happy flying solo as they are with a co-pilot.
But let’s stick to our food metaphor. Sometimes you run through all the food options, and just end up exhausted, so you just grab whatever’s closest or easiest and go with that. Maybe it works just fine, or maybe it’s not amazing but it gets the job done. Either way, problem solved. Same thing here.
Finally, the one who isn’t grossed out by sex scenes. While there are some ace people who are completely sex-repulsed, and don’t want anything that has to do with sex near them, which is fair, it’s actually not very common among ace people. As much as we in America are sexually repressed, we’re also a bit sexually obsessed. Sex is used to sell us products, most movies have a romance element, and almost anything can be interpreted as a metaphor for sex or genitalia.
It’s really not that hard to become so accustomed to it that you don’t even care anymore. To use the food one more time, when you’re in that nothing-sounds-good mood, does seeing pizza commercials make you angry or uncomfortable? Probably not, because you’ve already considered pizza and don’t feel like it, so why would you care? It doesn’t change your situation any.
In conclusion, if you don’t feel sexual attraction, then you’re asexual. Period. If the label helps you make sense of your own relationship to sex, and explain yourself better to future partners, use it.
Basically, if it fits, come sit.