- Asexual people live among us, but many don't feel visible
- Asexuality is defined by a lack of sexual attraction to others
- Online community has made many asexuals feel less alone
- "I do not need to be fixed or cured, I am asexual and that's OK."
(CNN)It's not just a phase.
They're not frigid, sick, repressed or broken.
Meeting the so-called "right one" isn't going to change anything.
But for people like Sandra Mellott, the questions just keep on rolling in from friends, family and loved ones who may mean well but don't understand what it's like to identify as asexual.
In a society historically centered around romantic pairings and increasingly bombarded by raunchy imagery, people who don't experience sexual attraction can often feel isolated, invisible and misunderstood. But now a growing number of asexual people are banding together in solidarity and support, finding like-hearted souls in a culture where "happily (and hornily) ever after" is the end goal.
Most people likely haven't heard the word "asexual" since their high school biology class, where it was used to describe plants that reproduce without a second parent. When it comes to people, however, the term can encompass a vast array of experiences.
At its root, asexuality is an orientation defined by the lack of sexual attraction to other people. But humans are complicated creatures, and it only branches out from there. This is not about self-imposed celibacy. Asexual people can identify as gay, straight, bisexual or none of the above.
Some, like Mellott, are aromantic to varying degrees and have little to no emotionally romantic attraction to other people. They may still experience and desire intense friendship bonds, crushes, or "squishes" -- which Asexuality.org defines as the platonic equivalent of a romantic crush.
Some have romantic feelings, but are satisfied with cuddling, hand-holding and proximity. Still others experience waxing and waning degrees and frequency of sexual attraction, drive and pleasure, thus finding themselves on what's called the "gray-A" spectrum, depending upon the circumstances and parties involved.
An ongoing meme in online asexual circles is that even if someone isn't interested in sex, there's always cake, and who doesn't like that? Images of cake are often used to welcome new members or reward them for various life victories online and off.
The community is not without a strong sense of humor and warmth -- but it's not always met with a tremendous degree of understanding from people wired since birth to believe that pair bonding is the end-all, be-all.
Mellott, a writer and victim advocate at a Montana shelter, has always known that she was asexual and aromantic, but has often struggled to get the people around her to accept it as fact. At age 5 she got her first boyfriend, and promptly forgot, neglecting to write the love poem they had agreed to exchange the next day. At 10, she braced herself for questions from adults wondering if she had a boyfriend yet, rehearsing the answer, "I don't want one; I'm just not interested."
At 13, a quick Internet search for "asexual" confirmed to her that she wasn't alone. At 18, she casually came out to a female classmate who thought it was "the coolest thing ever," and at 21, to a male classmate who tried to "help" her by suggesting masturbation.
At 25, she came out to her family, confirming what she thought they probably knew, and letting them know she was at peace with it. "This is a permanent part of who I am, and I'm proud and confident about it."
Mellott says her mother was loving and supportive -- and entirely baffled.
"She understands what I'm saying but just can't comprehend how it's possible herself," Mellott says. "So she asks these 'really, not ever?' kind of questions that aren't malicious but get tiring, mostly because they're coming from someone who I love and want to just accept and understand me without all this extra effort."
And then there are the men who treat her as a potential sexual conquest. "Sometimes I think they take my orientation as some kind of personal attack and they can get really hostile about it," she says.
Megan Allen, who works as a health care professional in a town outside of Seattle, has known all her 21 years that sexual attraction just wasn't in the cards for her. She identifies as a repulsed asexual -- a person for whom the idea of sexual contact is simply disgusting.
"All of those bodily fluids and being in such a vulnerable position, and the diseases it could cause, and just... eww," she says.
It's not a prudishness on her part; she's done her due diligence on the matter, even to the point of being involved in a nudist colony. There was an "actual psych test to join that proves you're not there to be a pervert," she says. "So I've seen it all."
But she, too, knew from an early age that some activities simply aren't an option for her, and that it might limit her prospects for partnership. "Because of my complete unwillingness to compromise on sex, I'm sort of limited on my dating options," she realizes.
Other asexuals, the impotent, people willing to confine their sexual encounters to either self-gratification or a mistress Allen approves would be the only viable solutions, she says. "Obviously, the last two would put quite a strain on any relationship."
But she's more open about herself these days than she was in the past -- even placing a bet with several family members who don't believe that her orientation is set in stone. "I tried to discuss this with my sister once, and with my parents," Allen says.
"Both proceeded to make bets with me that I would change my mind someday. I put it in writing both times, they're in my dad's safe. In about nine years, it'll be fun to collect the hundred dollars."
And she hopes that by that point, the public's attitudes toward asexual people will have changed. "I wish the public knew that we exist and we aren't 'sick' or 'wrong'" she says. "I also wish the LGBTQ community would just get over themselves and accept us ... we're awfully isolated and little-known."
They're also not putting up with being pathologized. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network hosts a large online asexual community and resource site, and acts as a force for social acceptance and change.
When criteria for the most recent updates to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was being considered, an AVEN DSM Task Force presented the American Psychiatric Association's committee with a 75-page document containing academic research concluding that asexuals should not be included under the diagnosis of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder. Instead, they argued, asexuality should be considered an identity rather than a dysfunction.
It worked. In the DSM-5, an absent or diminished sex drive is considered a disorder or dysfunction only if it's caused significant distress to the person -- not if they have self-identified as asexual.
This may not seem like much to the general public, but it means the world to people who may have spent their lives feeling marginalized and ashamed for not experiencing the feelings that are central to so many societal customs.
Gray, a 29-year-old Oregon man who identifies as "grey-A or greysexual," always knew that he didn't quite fit into the dating roles he saw acted out around him. While he considered himself heterosexual and had romantic, sexual relationship with women, after one particular breakup, he just felt "different."
"My ex proudly claimed she 'broke' me," Gray says. "And some of my so-called-friends silently agreed."
Unwilling to settle for that diagnosis (and confident he wasn't gay, as some around him suggested) he looked for answers. He found them in the form of a YouTube video on asexuality that appeared by chance in his feed. He contacted the uploader who answered all his questions, and counseled him that "sexuality is something that's fluid, and can change over time."
This validation and acceptance comes in handy in challenging times, such as when people are trying to convince him that he's in denial or confused.
"One woman I came out to tried to convince me that I'm not actually asexual, but I'm actually a magical psychic who isn't attracted to anyone because I was subconsciously searching for the woman I'm meant to be with," says Gray. "This is essentially what many others have tried to tell me: 'You're not asexual, you just haven't met the right person yet.' Only this woman was also making me out to be Harry Potter."
Ellie Carlin, a 20-year-old Ohio resident who identifies as a hetero-romantic asexual, sees the Internet as a catalyst for this change. She considers herself lucky for stumbling across AVEN at age 17 and finding that she wasn't alone, but she realizes that older asexuals didn't have the benefit of this information and communication when they were coming of age.
"Before the advancement of technology I believe many who now identify as asexual knew they were somehow different from their peers but never truly understood themselves," Carlin says. "However since the founding of AVEN and its website, many asexuals have gathered to better understand themselves. It was finally a place where you realized you weren't alone, nor were you a freak."
"There are older asexuals as well in the community. I've found that they themselves had not realized they were asexuals until the existence of the Internet. Many of them had sexual experiences, and even had children. They seemed to think there was either something wrong with them medically, or they just figured sex wasn't as good as it was hyped to be," Carlin says.
Older asexuals say they have begun to find self-acceptance and share their experiences with younger people who are just beginning to understand their sexual identity.
For 32-year-old Arkansas resident Heather Runyan, seeing her experiences mirrored in other people's -- even those she will never meet -- has gone a long way toward making her feel normal. At age 30, she typed "asexual" into a search engine on whim and found AVEN. It was a turning point for her.
"For a long time I thought I was a late bloomer," Runyan says. "I thought that I should feel attraction, but I didn't, so I felt like I was broken. When people asked, I just told them I was happy single and didn't feel the need to date. In my head, I often referred to myself as asexual, but I didn't realize that it was a valid orientation." She now identifies as aromantic asexual.
Runyan counts herself lucky to have the support of her family, especially her mother. And once she told her friends about her orientation, they left the topic alone.
"No one has ever tried to set me up on a date or even insinuated that there is something wrong with my desire to be single," says Runyan. "I feel very fortunate because I know that many people face pressure to date and get married."
Still, she believes the public could stand to be more educated about the asexuals who live among them.
"We exist. That may sound simple, but too often when someone says they are asexual, the first response from others is to deny or question it," Runyan says. "It also sends the message that there is something wrong with us. I do not need to be fixed or cured, I am asexual and that's OK."
Mellott agrees. So far as she is concerned, it doesn't matter whether other people totally understand, as long as they show some respect.
As she put it in a 2013 Tumblr post: "The point is, don't make assumptions, and don't challenge people when they don't behave how you expect. Actually, there's a nice asexual T-shirt that sums this up: 'When you say I'm confused about my sexuality, what you mean is you're confused about my sexuality.' And really, that goes for all sexualities. Thoughts to ponder."
For asexuals all over the spectrum, that kind of respect would really take the cake.