The asexual community is growing. Find out how you can be a better ally.

Asexuality is an identity as complex and nuanced as any other. But it’s often overlooked in comparison to the larger communities represented under the LGBTQIA umbrella. Contributing to this lack of visibility is the fact that hardly any large-scale studies have been conducted on asexuality, and the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t collect data on asexuals.

But the few studies that do exist indicate that the asexual community (also called ACE) is growing. According to ELLE, when the Asexuality Visibility Education Network (AVEN) was founded in 2001, 1,500 people joined; 16 years later, that number has increased by more than 8,000 percent to 125,000, making it the largest asexual community online. In 2004, Anthony F. Bogaert, a sex researcher at Brock University in Canada, found that of 18,000 British subjects, one percent of them self-identified as asexual. That means that, even by a conservative estimate, there are some 70 million asexual people around the world today.

Let’s take a look at what asexuality really means, the ways in which it’s commonly misunderstood, and how to be a conscious ally to the asexual community.

What Does Asexuality Mean?

Someone who identifies as asexual does not experience sexual attraction and does not have an interest in having sex. As with any community, there is considerable diversity and a spectrum of identities within the asexual label. For example, some asexual people date, engage in romantic relationships, or feel deep emotional attraction. Some are happier on their own. What asexuality is not is a problem to be solved, and it should not be written off as disinterest in relationships, a “phase,” or a misunderstanding of one’s own feelings. It may be challenging to determine whether you are asexual or not, but with time, introspection, and possibly working with a therapist to discuss your experience, you can embrace your true self fully.

Read More: Reclaiming Queer: A Move Toward Inclusivity

Three Major Misconceptions

  • Asexual = Aromantic: One of the biggest misconceptions about asexuality is that asexual persons are incapable of love or romantic connection. In fact, many asexual individuals can and do have romantic feelings and crave emotional intimacy. Asexual people experience attraction and may date, but do not necessarily feel compelled to act on those feelings in a sexual way. Rather, asexual individuals often prefer to get to know people and communicate emotionally.
  • Asexual People Never Have Sex: Asexuality manifests in a number of different ways and there is an ever-expanding asexuality spectrum. Some asexual individuals may be disgusted by the idea of having sex, while others are simply indifferent, meaning they don’t mind having sex despite experiencing no sexual attraction. The same variation exists in the non-asexual population: some sexual people are quite happy to have sex with someone they are not sexually attracted to, but for others this idea is unthinkable.
  • Asexuality Is A Choice: Another misconception is that asexuality is a choice, like celibacy or abstinence. It’s not. The difference is that someone who is celibate or abstinent may have sexual feelings, but is choosing not to act on them, while an asexual person does not have those feelings at all.

Becoming an Asexual Ally

In a world where sex and relationships are everywhere, life for someone who has no instinct for those things can be extremely isolating. Here are four ways you can support and recognize the ACE community:

  • Stay Informed: It’s important that asexual individuals’ family members, peers, and colleagues understand and recognize asexual identities. Make time to research asexuality on your own, and don’t treat your asexual friend or family member like an asexuality encyclopedia.
  • Validate Asexual Experiences: People who identify as asexual should be validated — not made to feel as if asexuality is a novelty or phase (“you just haven’t met the right person yet!”), or that engaging in sexual relationships is essential to living a fulfilled life.
  • Listen: If you’re unsure about something, ask an asexual friend or family member if they would be comfortable answering a question about their asexuality. Be supportive, be respectful, and don’t ask questions that fetishize or alienate (do you really need to know if this person masturbates?). Once you ask, be prepared to listen. Don’t psychoanalyze or dismiss.
  • Don’t Minimize: Similarly, do not minimize asexual individuals by implying that their lives must be easier without the complications that sex often brings. Like everyone else, asexual individuals lead complex and busy lives comprised of multifaceted relationships that, while not sexual, still require communication, time, and energy.

Read More: Is Monosexuality Dead?

Self-Care In a Sex-Saturated Culture

For anyone who is exploring whether they might be asexual, one of the most confusing feelings can be the concern that a lack of interest in sex is a problem. Teens who see their peers becoming interested in dating and sex but don’t feel the same way might feel confused, and wonder if there’s something wrong with them. In a culture that’s obsessed with sex, it can be challenging to identify your authentic feelings in relationship to sex and sexuality.

That’s why it’s especially critical for medical and mental health professionals to understand asexuality and asexual erasure in order to provide the best possible care to asexual patients. A 2013 study found that those who identify as asexual may have higher rates of depression and anxiety. However, not everyone who isn’t interested in sex is depressed, and depression and anxiety should not be interpreted as a side effect of asexuality. Rather, these may be a response to the widespread misconceptions of asexuality in our culture.

Additionally, asexual people should not assume that, because they are not engaging in sexual behavior, they should not disclose their asexual identity to medical professionals. It’s important to see your healthcare provider regularly and have open conversations about your lifestyle, including sexual behaviors or lack thereof, in order to receive holistic care.

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