How the internet created the asexual movement


A decade ago, when Bauer was a high school junior, she felt left out as all of her friends became engulfed in the throws of teenage lust. A sex-obsessed maniac, Bauer was not. She had crushes on people, but had never experienced that sexual pull. A friend described wanting to sleep with an ex who she no longer loved and Bauer was puzzled. Desiring someone for sex alone made no sense. She didn’t get it.

A friend suggested that she might be asexual.

“I was like, ‘I’m not a plant!” said Bauer, now 27, who preferred to use only her first name in this piece. “I had only heard the word ‘asexual’ in biology.”

For years, people had been telling her that she just hadn’t met the right person, and she thought that seemed like a reasonable explanation. But then she entered the term ‘asexual’ into Google. The first relevant hit was for a website called AVEN—”The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network.” The landing page greeted her with a definition that seemed to describe who she was.

“Unlike celibacy, which is a choice, asexuality is a sexual orientation,” it read. “Asexual people have the same emotional needs as everybody else and are just as capable of forming intimate relationships.”

The website had launched in 2001, and had approximately 10,000 registered members. It led her to sign up for an asexual dating site, but she found only one other person in the entire state of Connecticut. “I was really concerned that I would be alone for ever,” she told me. She decided to go to NYU for college, assuming the asexual community would be bigger there. It wasn’t.

“The internet was really the only place where you could have a community,” she said.

The community seemed small to Bauer, but it was there. She was not alone. She had something in common with at least 10,000 other people on the web.

If there is a single great success of the internet, it is the triumph of connecting isolated people in far-flung places with like-minded souls. By now the idea that there is an online community for every strange subculture is a tired cliché. But while the internet has lent strength and numbers to gay communities, trans communities and communities of people with fetishes like BDSM, asexuality is unique in that it didn’t really exist as a community at all until the internet came along.

In 2001, when AVEN founder David Jay was a freshman at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, there was still really not much of an online community to speak of. He’d search the word asexual—a word he’d arrived at as a teen to describe himself—and the searches would return webpage after webpage of papers about plant biology.

“I had never talked to another asexual person and really, really wanted to. I was looking everywhere for evidence that there was someone else like me, and I could find nothing,” Jay told me. “I didn’t think I was alone, but I didn’t know.”

Over winter break, Jay was visiting a friend at Stanford University, who suggested that he expand his search with a new thing called Google. It brought up one hit, a blog post by someone talking about being asexual.

“It was really unbelievably emotional,” Jay recalled. “I’d held all of this uncertainty about whether I was allowed to be the thing that I felt I was.”

Jay knew some basic HTML and in March 2001 launched a website on his university webpage to try and find others like him. He called it the Human Asexual Visibility and Education Network, or HAVEN. (He later dropped the ‘H.’) The first iteration consisted of little more than a definition of asexuality and a request for those who identified as asexual to email him. Emails began trickling in.

“As I started getting in touch with more people,” Jay told me, “there was this sense that we were finding the community for the first time.”

There were a few other places where small numbers of asexual people had begun to gather online, though none seemed to have the reach of AVEN. The first internet asexual community, according to University of Illinois sociolinguist Andrew Hinderliter, was the comments section of an article titled “My life as an amoeba” published by StarNet Dispatches in 1997. Then in early 2001, a small Yahoo email group called the Haven for the Human Amoeba began trading messages. Jay eventually joined the Yahoo group, and it inspired him to take AVEN even bigger.

In March 2002, he bought the domain, and added a forum where people could meet and share their own stories about discovering they were asexual. Like Jay, most of them had never encountered another asexual person before.

“In the same way that I had invented this word, there were thousands and thousands of other people that had done the same thing,” Jay said. “They had independently pulled the word asexual out of thin air to describe themselves, typed it into Google and then found our community. Our first 2,000 members came in that way.”

It’s not that history had never acknowledged the existence of asexuality before. In the mid-twentieth century, when Alfred Kinsey developed the Kinsey scale ranking individuals from 0 to 6 according to their sexual orientation from heterosexual to homosexual, he included another category, “X,” for individuals with “no socio-sexual contacts or reactions.”

But despite this, asexuality remained largely unstudied and absent from conversations about sexuality in popular culture or anywhere else. When AVEN launched, it filled a gaping void.

“It allowed people to a have friendly resource and provided a real face (albeit virtual) to asexual people,” said Anthony Bogaert, a sex researcher at Canada’s Brock University and the author of Understanding Sexuality. “AVEN has been very important in forging asexual identities.”

In 2004, Bogaert published a widely-circulated paper in the Journal of Sex Research, that placed the number of asexuals in the U.K at just over one percent. The New Scientist followed the study with a feature story, declared that “asexuality is indeed a form of sexual orientation.” Stories in The New York Times and New York Magazine were soon to follow. Jay, just out of college, was making the media rounds everywhere from The View, to MTV, to France 24. Fashion critic Tim Gunn even came out as asexual.

With this increased attention, the definition of asexuality became refined and expanded to encompass a spectrum of romantic and sexual preferences, too. Those who are aromantic don’t experience romantic attraction, in addition to not feeling sexual attraction. Panromantic people experience romantic attraction for all genders, but not a sexual pull. People who identify as demiromatic or demisexual fall somewhere on a gray scale in between. Many asexual people simply refer to themselves as “Ace,” a pop culture-friendly phonetic shortening of the word asexual.

“There are lots of people trying to nail down a definition for who is or isn’t asexual,” said Jay. “But I like to think of asexual as a tool rather than a label. If it’s useful to you, use it. If it’s no longer useful anymore, you can put it down.”

Since Jay first put up a webpage asking whether there was anybody else out there, the asexual community has exploded, both online and off. There are asexual dating websites and Meetup groups, an Asexual Awareness week and an asexual flag. It is a growing research field. It’s even a box you can check to describe your sexuality on OkCupid.

The primary function of the online community, though, is still answering the call of those sending out questions into the internet void. On Tumblr and Twitter there are now vast networks that exist, essentially, to answer questions about asexuality and assure identity-seekers that no, it’s not that weird. Places like the Tumblr page and YouTube channel Aces Wild offer advice and support, with videos tackling basics such as the “differences between arousal, drive, attraction, and desire” and answers to questions like, “if i don’t get aroused when i see people naked or like don’t really think much of it, does it make me an ace?”

On Twitter, users congregate using the hashtag #asexual.

The internet, of course, did not create asexuality, but in a sense it did give it a name and a face.

Various academics have varying theories about why it took so long for the asexual identity to fuse: perhaps there wasn’t a sticky-enough unifying term or an oppressor forcing asexual people to seek strength in numbers.

Whichever way you spin it, the story of the asexual community is the story of the power of the web to radically redefine not just the world, but ourselves. There is no mainstream in the corners of the internet. There are only infinite cracks and crevices waiting to be filled by a new niche.

Fifteen years ago, a college kid entered a word into a Google search bar. Today the word is an identity embraced by thousands of people.

Last year, when 19-year-old Jaysen started as a freshmen at NYU, there was not only an Ace club in the city, but one on campus. Jaysen stumbled upon the term asexual at 16, after following someone on Tumblr who identified as asexual. A Google search revealed a host of resources, and an answer to describe an identity they could never quite find the words to describe.

“There’s this idea that college students are supposed to be sexually active and experience sexual exploration, so it’s important to find other people like you,” Jaysen told me. “If it weren’t for the internet, I wouldn’t have found a word for this feeling. Some people don’t like labels, but for me it makes me feel like me.”

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