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What Is Asexuality? A Community's Coming Of Age

06/17/2013 09:49 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

This is the first part of a six-part series on asexuality, in which we explore the history of the asexual movement, uncover current research on asexuality, debunk common misconceptions and discuss the challenges the asexual community faces.

It was 2002. David Jay was a freshman at Wesleyan University. Confused and alone, he had long grappled with questions about his sexuality and sexual identity.

"I started using the word 'asexual' when I was about 13 or 14. ... Everyone around me was experiencing things that I wasn't, and it was scary and disorienting," said Jay, now 31, as he sipped coffee at a Brooklyn cafe on a rainy afternoon. "I assumed there was something wrong with me. Something broken."

At the time, asexuality, beyond a purely biological definition, was almost completely unheard of -- not just to Jay, but to most of the world. Without an asexual community to draw support from, adolescent Jay had to discover his asexuality on his own terms.

During his first year of college, Jay happened upon an article online that would change the course of his life -- and the lives of thousands around the world. It was an article about asexuality, the first he'd ever seen. He was stunned.

"The comments section was filled with people like me who were looking for a community," he recalled.

That year, Jay founded the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, arguably the first group of its kind. AVEN started small but quickly ballooned, creating what would become a tight-knit online community and kickstarting a conversation about asexuality and its implications for the wider world.

asexuality david jay

AVEN founder David Jay. (Photo credit: Laura Jay)

A catch-all definition found on the AVEN website characterizes an asexual as "someone who does not experience sexual attraction." The AVEN definition continues:

Unlike celibacy, which people choose, asexuality is an intrinsic part of who we are. Asexuality does not make our lives any worse or any better, we just face a different set of challenges than most sexual people. There is considerable diversity among the asexual community; each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction and arousal somewhat differently.

Creating such a broad definition was an important part in the establishment of the AVEN community, says Jay, whose eyes still light up with excitement when he talks about the birth and growth of the asexual community so many years later.

"I knew the word 'asexual' was really powerful and validating, but [I wanted] to avoid creating a culture of telling people who they needed to be to be part of this community. I started talking about how identity is a tool and not a label -- an idea that you should be able pick it up if it's useful to you and put it down if it's not, and one that you can redefine for yourself," he said.

Today, AVEN, with an international membership of almost 70,000, is the largest asexuality organization in the world. Described by its members as a safe space for asexuals to discuss their experiences with others, as well as an organization that works to raise public awareness of asexuality, AVEN has been a crucial resource and online gathering place for the asexual community.

“We know that asexual people have been looking for each other for a long time, but it wasn’t until the Internet that we found each other,” Jay said.

For many, the asexual coming-of-age narrative is a shared one with common themes, one that begins with isolation and leads to the unexpected discovery of an identity and a much-needed community.

We spoke with numerous asexuals (or “aces,” as they colloquially refer to themselves) who said they felt confusion and frustration in their early teen years, when their friends, as one asexual put it, began to go "gaga over sex." Some said this confusion was coupled with shame and self-doubt. Almost none had ever heard of asexuality before their late teens, and almost all remember asking themselves whether something was fundamentally wrong with them.

Eric P., a 22-year-old line cook who lives in Florida, compared his discovery of the asexual community online at the end of 2011 to hearing a “chorus of angels.”

"There was so much relief,” said Eric, who did not want his full name revealed because he fears discrimination from his peers. “For me, sexual attraction has simply never been there. I see no reason nor have I desire to have sex. And I say that having been in four relationships -- two guys, two girls -- having sex and falling apart wondering what was wrong with me.”

Discovering the word "asexuality" and the asexual community was a lucky fluke for many aces.

For some, it was a friend in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community who offered the term; while for others, it involved a random search online for a word that had long felt right, though they couldn't understand why. (One ace even said this Imgur photograph triggered the revelation.)

From that initial discovery, it was AVEN or, more recently, an asexuality sub-section on Reddit that opened their eyes to a whole other world -- and a growing ace community that is now starting to find its feet. Today, Jay says, AVEN welcomes about 35 new members daily.

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Transgender ace blogger and activist Micah R. (Photo credit: Micah R.)

"I had used the term 'asexuality' jokingly for years to describe myself," said Micah R., a 26-year-old transgender blogger and advocate for Gender and Sexual Minorities, who also identifies as asexual. "But one day when I was 18, I decided by chance to Google it, and I found AVEN. It was like, 'This is me. Oh my god, I'm not the only one.' I never questioned my sexuality again. It was the answer I had been looking for."

As the asexual community continues to forge a shared identity, Jay says he’s hopeful that future generations will not have to wander blindly and unaided through the murky realm of (a)sexual discovery.

“The community has really grown around this experience of realizing that you're not alone,” he said. “It seems like things are moving forward much more quickly than in the past. I’m very hopeful that we'll soon get to a place where a majority of people know about asexuality, and aces can grow in it together.”

This story appears in Issue 63 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, August 23.

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