Amy* didn’t have much experience with sex in high school. But she thought that college would be different. Once she began going to parties at Penn and witnessing hook–up culture firsthand, though, she didn’t feel a stirring of sexual attraction like she thought she would.
“I would go to freshman year parties and I would notice people pairing off, like, immediately,” she remembered. “And obviously I thought, I guess this is a thing I should be doing or I should want to do, but I didn’t. And it didn’t matter how many people I talked to—boys, girls, whatever—it didn’t happen.”
As the weeks of her freshman year ticked by, doubts about sex would occasionally crowd her mind. Am I just scared? Am I holding myself back? Finally, Amy settled on one conclusion: “I literally just didn’t want to.”
Asexuality is a lack of sexual attraction for any person, regardless of their gender. Exact numbers are hazy, but one 2004 study estimated that 1 in every 100 adults is asexual. However, their numbers are belied by the lack of representation that asexual people have in the media, pop culture and mainstream LGBTQ discourse.
Amy started identifying as asexual during her freshman year at Penn. Although she has always been asexual, it wasn’t until college that she began using the label, poking around on online forums like AVEN (Asexual Visibility & Education Network) and wearing a black ring on her right middle finger, a common identifier in the ace community. About three months after she began calling herself asexual, Amy told her parents over Skype. Although they hadn't heard of asexuality, they became supportive after doing some Internet research.
Like other sexualities, asexuality exists on a spectrum and encompasses a range of experiences. Certain asexual people are comfortable compromising their disinterest in sex with a sex–inclined partner, while others are entirely sex–repulsed. However, outside the community, many people are unaware asexuality exists as an orientation, and others are unconvinced of its legitimacy.
“If I go to a party or something, the go–to line is usually some terrible joke along the lines of, ‘You’re asexual, does that mean you split in half to reproduce or something?’” Amy said.
However, reactions aren’t always humorous. When Amy explains to people she’s asexual, most people haven't heard of it, and guys sometimes take it as a challenge or a rejection. One person even asked her if she had a traumatic event in her past that made her uninterested in having sex (hint: she doesn't).
Although asexual people do not experience sexual attraction, they still may experience romantic feelings for another person. Amy describes herself as biromantic: she can have romantic feelings for both men and women. The emotions she experiences around someone she’s interested in are the same fluttery feelings that are mythologized in romance narratives and Valentine’s cards—just minus the sexual component.
“Sharing a part of yourself intellectually, or some sort of emotion—to me, that’s more intimate than any sort of physical thing you could do,” she said. “Things that you wouldn’t even share with your closest friends.”
However, some asexual people don’t have romantic feelings for anyone. Jenny Xu (C ’17) is the current President of PennAces, a club for asexual students at Penn, and identifies as asexual and borderline aromantic. She first thought she might be asexual in middle school but originally chalked it up to being a late bloomer.
“I didn’t really know that asexuality was actually a thing, but I knew I wasn’t sexually attracted to other people, which apparently everyone else was experiencing,” she said.
Some of Jenny's high school friends had a difficult time understanding how someone could have no desire to be sexually or romantically active. They would wonder out loud how she could not love another human being and declare they could never live like that. Jenny would have to clarify being asexual is not synonymous with an emotionless robot—that she is in fact an empathetic person and can love other people.
“Surprisingly, you can get a lot of pushback from it,” Jenny said. “People will be like ‘No, you’re not,’ just straight out, ‘No, you’re not’...You can’t tell someone that the way they’re feeling at the moment is not valid.”
However, coming to Penn meant finding a more open–minded community. Jenny calls herself an “ace magnet” because she has made several other asexual friends since high school. The PennAces group was passed down to her from one of her ace friends who has since graduated.
“It makes me really happy how accepting people are here,” Jenny said. “It makes me feel like the high school stuff didn’t even happen.”
At Penn, PennAces is not a part of the Lambda Alliance, the queer umbrella organization that includes campus groups like Penn Non–Cis and the Queer Student Alliance. Although joining the Lambda Alliance does ensure greater campus visibility, it would be difficult for representatives from PennAces to attend the mandatory biweekly GBMs because their group is quite small.
“In general, we don’t really talk about the asexual community that much at Penn, either in the larger community or in the LGBT community,” Chloe Cheng (C ’19), Lambda’s vice chair of internal affairs, said. Although she is not a spokesperson for the organization, she thought that Lambda would be welcoming if PennAces ever wanted to become a member.
Jenny has found the LGBT community at Penn to be very welcoming toward asexual students, but she recognizes that the issue can sometimes cause a rift. Amy agreed that their place can be ambiguous.
“Sometimes we don’t really feel accepted in the LGBT community, which is understandable, because we’re not technically gay,” Amy said. “But we’re also not straight, so it’s kinda hard to fit in anywhere.”
At Penn, asexual students can find that their preferences conflict with a sex–focused social culture. When Amy came to Penn, she acted straight by default because DFMOing in frats was the easiest expression of sexuality. However, when she didn't want things to progress beyond a quick makeout, things would sour. Although Amy recognized it was not the fault of her dance floor partner, both would become frustrated.
"I felt obligated to try, but I didn't really want to," she explained. "It was a 'Oh, that person's attractive, I should be attracted to them,' not 'Oh, that person's attractive, I am attracted to them.'"
*Name has been changed.