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Sex: The No-Libido Credo

Asexuals are complicating the traditional narrative of romantic love.

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David Jay's romantic movie moment happened in 2011. "We connected really strongly and stayed up walking around and talking until about four in the morning," he says, remembering the night he met the woman who is now his partner. "I realized this connection might be something I had been looking for in my life for a long time."

Sex was not part of the equation that night — or any other night. While many people are capable of feeling such a connection without thinking about sex, for Jay, a web entrepreneur, it's the rule, not the exception: He can experience love, passion, and deep admiration, but has no sex drive to speak of and never has.

Jay and his partner identify as asexuals, a group estimated to make up roughly 1 percent of the population. "We've always believed that romantic attraction and sexual attraction happen at the same time," says Lori Brotto, director of the University of British Columbia's Sexual Health Laboratory. "What we're learning from asexuals is that they seem to be two different processes." Romance, it turns out, can flower even when sex is out of the picture, and the emerging understanding of asexuality may well broaden everyone's romantic imagination.

Asexuality is defined by a natural lack of sexual attraction to others, and some asexuals identify as "aromantic," lacking the drive to forge amorous connections as well. Still, many report having romantic feelings, dating, and forming relationships. Unlike people with low libido, asexuals — who often self-identify as "ace" — generally grow up without ever experiencing the desire to have sex with anyone. The most recent edition of psychiatry's diagnostic guide, DSM-5, is the first to explicitly distinguish asexuality from the low-desire disorders that trouble those who actually are, or once were, interested in sex.

What, then, is attractive to someone with no sexual urges? Many of the same things that lure the rest of us: a shining intellect, an infectious sense of humor, and even a lovely face — though there's no sexual impulse provoked by it.

Asexual people may also like being physically close to partners, hugging, cuddling, and kissing. Some engage in and even enjoy behavior that is generally perceived as explicitly sexual, but for them, the experience is markedly different. Research suggests that male asexuals masturbate just as much as non-asexuals because it feels good, reduces anxiety, or as some researchers and asexuals put it, "cleans out the plumbing." Asexuals may have a "health-oriented, utilitarian motive behind masturbation," says psychologist Anthony Bogaert, author of Understanding Asexuality. Like other intimate activities, it's disconnected from any desire to have intercourse; an asexual who masturbates regularly may still find interpersonal sex acts off-putting or just baffling.

Asexy and I Know It

Asexuality is emerging as a distinct orientation in large part because of the Internet. It has allowed the previously marginalized to find each other and define themselves. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), a group founded in 2001 by Jay, has become an important venue that serves as a meeting point for geographically scattered asexuals, a one-stop shop for information and support and a key resource for researchers.

One AVEN survey found that most asexuals report an inclination toward romantic relationships, and in AVEN's forums and the emerging scholarly research, many asexual people identify romantic orientations— a preference for dating men, women, or anyone, regardless of gender — that are analogous to sexual orientations. Among asexuals, says Jay, "there are still a lot of people worrying about how they're going to find someone."

Asexuals pair off not only with other asexual people but with sexual people, too. "Mixed" couples often refrain from sex, but they may also give it a try, depending in part on the asexual person's comfort level. "Most aces are sex-neutral," Jay says. "Given a good reason, it can be a thing that we can learn to enjoy, even if we're not enjoying it in the same way as our partner is."

Choose Your Own Adventure

Asexuality raises a long list of questions for asexuals — and for everybody else, too: What does attraction mean? How are relationships defined? What connections do you need to be happy?

"The study of asexuality allows us to really understand sexuality [in general] more," notes Bogaert. "There's an important distinction between someone's arousal and his or her attractions." Someone can have a primal arousal response — an erection or lubrication — without actually experiencing attraction. Thinking from an asexual perspective also sheds light on "the madness of sex," he adds. Studying a sex-neutral subculture brings into sharp relief the sexual longing, jealousy, and obsession that pervade the mainstream.

When sex is not a factor in a relationship, other conventions often go out the window, too — and that can be freeing.

When Jay and his current partner met, he remembers, both had been working to define intimacy from scratch, in a way that sexual people he knew were not. "There was this real sort of joy in getting to think about what a relationship was going to look like," he says, "getting to rewrite the script together."