As a teenager, Julie Sondra Decker spent a lot of time in the garage with her boyfriend. Her mother, understandably, was suspicious. "She accused me of having 'necking sessions,' when we really were just playing Ping-Pong," says Julie, now 27 and a bookstore worker and writer in Gainesville, Fla. "I explained how I didn't really even think kissing was fun. I remember her asking, 'Doesn't it stir anything in you?' I told her it did nothing for me and was actually quite gross. Before I went to college she actually took me to the doctor to complain that I wasn't expressing 'normal' interest in the opposite sex. The doctors told her it wasn't anything to worry about," says Julie. "I think she still wonders if I'm a closet lesbian."
Today, Julie has an active social life, a large circle of friends -- and still no interest in kissing, or anything it might lead to. "Most of my friends are men," she says. "I just don't really want them near me that way."
Has Julie, like her mother, ever worried about what was going on? "No. this is just how I feel, just like 'I like the color yellow.' There can't be anything wrong with it because it's how I feel," she says matter-of-factly. On her Web site, she is even more defiant: "I know I'm not normal and I simply don't care," she writes. Julie has labeled herself "non-sexual," she says, "because 'asexual' sounds like an amoeba and 'anti-sexual' sounds like I'm against sex in general, which I'm not. Sex is fine as long as it does not involve me."
Whether they call themselves a-, non- or anti-sexual (or even "amoebas"), a growing number of people, like Julie, consider their indifference toward sex not a problem, not a pathology, but rather, like gay or bi, an "orientation" of its own -- complete with coming-out stories, slogans, online communities, an ad hoc manifesto, merchandise and no small amount of pride. The micro-movement, with an unofficial online headquarters at the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), has gained both visibility and adherents since last fall, when an article published in the Journal of Sex Research reexamined existing British data to find that 1 percent of people report never having felt any sexual attraction.
"I think it's positive to say that for some individuals asexuality is a valid sexual orientation -- as opposed to calling it a health problem -- because that suggests that it's one of the different variations humans can have with regard to sexuality," says the study's author, Anthony Bogaert, professor of community health sciences and psychology at Brock University in St. Catherine's, Ontario, whose particular research interest is the origins of sexual orientation. It's a win-win for everyone, he notes, adding: "If you say a wide range of sexual expression exists in society, and some people are asexual and contented, then even sexual people may have less pressure on them to be super-sexual beings. Because they'll go, 'You know what, this guy never has sex, and he seems happy enough -- maybe if I'm having sex only three times a month then maybe I'm OK, too.'"
But some experts see a potentially damaging downside to the asexual pride welcome mat and are concerned that freshly "validated" asexuals, rushing headlong into acceptance, may be so quick (and relieved) to call their condition an "orientation" that they'll buy the T-shirt before they've fully explored how they might have gotten that way.
"I don't think that masses of people -- who might be confused about sexuality, or afraid about sexuality, or who have not yet experienced sexual attraction and sexual pleasure, or who have experienced sexual trauma -- should be encouraged to define themselves as 'asexual,'" says Aline Zoldbrod, a Boston-area psychologist and sex therapist and author of "Sex Smart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It." "I worry about boys and girls, men and women, finding an 'asexual' Web site and accepting their asexuality as an identity without even trying to understand its genesis. Some of these people need help."
What does it mean, exactly, to be "asexual"? If you're a sea anemone, it means you reproduce without the union of male and female gametes. If you're human, it means, essentially, that you experience no sexual attraction to either males or females. Generally, you're not so much freaked out by sex as you are entirely neutral to it, if not a little puzzled by what all the fuss is about. "When someone brings up sex, I start thinking, 'I need to replace that light fixture, or I could take a nice hot bath, make myself a sandwich and pop "The Way We Were" into the VCR; I haven't watched that in a long time,'" says Debbie, 47, a self-described asexual who works in sales in northern Wisconsin and preferred not to use her last name to protect her privacy. "Sex is just not high on my list of priorities."
People with sexual aversion disorder, in contrast, might have anxiety or panic attacks in a sexual situation. People with hypoactive sexual desire disorder have low or no interest in sex or sexual fantasies, with no outside explanation (such as use of anti-depressants, which can diminish sex drive) for the condition. (In both cases, the patient's -- or the patient's partner's -- being bothered by the situation is essential to the "disorder" diagnosis.) For sufferers of both disorders, there's usually a before and after: They had a libido, and now it's gone, or in hiding.
Asexuals also distinguish themselves from celibates, as celibacy is considered voluntary. "Asexuality is not a choice," says AVEN founder David Jay, 22, who works for an educational nonprofit in San Francisco. "I never sat down and decided that I would be asexual."
What Jay did decide, when he "came out" as asexual, was that he was not going to just wait around for his sex drive to show up. "I'm still open to the idea that it could change; I just don't expect it to," he says. Jay, who started calling himself "asexual" when he was in high school, says he has many close friends, develops crushes on both men and women (more of an urge to see them 24/7 than to see them naked), and enjoys watching "Sex and the City" with friends anthropologically, as a way of observing how the other 99 percent lives. While Jay has never had intercourse ("I don't like the term 'virgin,'" he says, "because it implies that I'm innocent and that I haven't had sex yet, neither of which is true"), he has masturbated on occasion, and has also done his share of making out. "I've sort of had a mixed reaction to it, 'cause I like cuddling, and in a lot of ways, kissing is similar -- but it's not necessarily more appealing," he says.
Those who identify as asexual (or who, like Julie, use one of its cousin terms) report a variety of social and even sexual -- experiences. Some, like Julie, have plenty of friends, but no interest in more-thans; some are into cuddling, others not wild about touch at all. Some experience romantic attraction and seek intimate, though non-physical attachments. Some masturbate, but have no interest in sharing the love. Some identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bi (as in, "If I had sex, it would be with ..."). Still others have sexual experiences in spite of themselves (say, in an effort to please a partner). In fact, a recent study at Indiana University (though preliminary, and based on limited data) suggested that asexuals are defined more by their lack of interest in sex than by their lack of experience with it. (In less scientific terms, these are not people who just can't get laid.) Many asexuals even get married, though not always with great results. "I did go along with whatever sexual expectations my husband had," says Debbie. "But the only time I ever actively participated or wanted to was when my biological clock went off and I decided I wanted to have a baby." Debbie says the sexual disconnect was not the only reason her marriage ended, but it was up there.
It was Debbie's grown daughter who found information about asexuality online and introduced her mom to Haven for the Human Amoeba. Though Debbie says she's not shy, has many friends (who are aware of her orientation), and is even "out" to her co-workers, participating on the site has made a difference for her. "It's nice to know you're not alone," she says. "That you're not the one candle burning in the wind."
David Jay launched AVEN -- which now has about 100 active members as well as many more lurkers and drop-ins, he says -- in 2002 to offer asexuals a similar "I belong" experience. "We here at AVEN get along just fine without sex," he says. "In a world that places a high premium on sexuality it's easy to feel like you need sex to be happy. You don't. Asexuality is not a dysfunction, and there is no need to find a 'cause' or a 'cure.'" Because of that if-it-ain't-broke message, he says, "there are lot of people for whom finding the site was a really powerful experience. They were looking for a way to say, 'I'm not interested in sex and that's OK, I don't have to force myself or cut myself off from others entirely.' It's a place where people can find validation."
There are experts who think it's possible that at least some asexuals are hard-wired that way -- that when it came to the distribution of desire, biology simply dropped them at the lowest end of the bell curve. But not everyone is quite as charitable. "To me, to say that someone is 'asexual' is tantamount to saying that they're not a human being," says Barnaby Barratt, a sex therapist in Detroit and president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. "I would be profoundly critical of the idea that 'asexuality' is an 'orientation' or that it's somehow the inevitable way that some people are born. The basic building blocks of sexual patterning are there in everyone. The real question about what you're describing as 'asexual' is: What sort of history could make someone wind up being that closed down?"
The main concern among experts is not a debate over nature vs. nurture, however. Rather, it's the fear that those whose latent sexuality could be nurtured will chalk their asexuality up to "nature," and leave it at that. "If someone says, 'I'm fine the way I am and you have to leave me alone,' you have to respect that, even if there's a possibility that someday they could experience sexuality," says Seattle- and New York-based clinical psychologist and sex therapist Joy Davidson, author of "Fearless Sex." However, she says, "To lump everyone who says, 'I don't feel attraction,' into one easily normalizable category seems to me to be premature at best and irresponsible at worst."
"On the one hand, we are validating those people who may be hard-wired not to have attraction to others," says Dennis Sugrue, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and co-author of "Sex Matters for Women. "But the danger is that in doing so we may create a safe haven for some other folks with issues that could be addressed. We could discourage or prevent them from seeking help that could make a difference."
What kind of underlying problems might some asexuals have -- and what kind of "help" could they be missing out on? Well, no one's leaping to the conclusion that they need some sort of creepy reprogramming; nor is there -- yet -- some sort of quick-fix libido pill. And, of course, a given individual's asexuality may not have one single simple-to-identify cause. But there are some areas an expert would begin to investigate right way. For one thing, endocrine testing might, in some cases, reveal low levels of androgens (such as testosterone), which could diminish sex drive -- and could, in theory, be addressed with hormone replacement therapy. Some might have a chronic anxiety disorder that, in effect, causes so many thoughts to whirl in their heads that there's no room left for sex. (In this case, anxiety medication might be part of treatment, but that would be to lessen the distractions from sex, not to restore the drive itself.) Others might have mild or undiagnosed cases of syndromes such as Asperger's, which can make them uncomfortable with all manner of personal contact.
Sexual short circuits can also be caused by childhood trauma -- which, experts say, is often much more subtle than a specific experience of sexual abuse, or even, say, a parent's warning that masturbators go blind, then to hell. "Becoming a sexual human being is a long and subtle process and many things must go right in one's family of origin for the child to connect sexuality and love," says Aline Zoldbrod. "I have had several patients who came into treatment asexual, completely confused, because they came from 'good' families. But on closer examination, it turned out that certain necessary ingredients were missing: these patients got good care in practical ways -- they were fed, clothed, sent to school -- but they were not touched lovingly by their parents at all. They simply had never experienced physical pleasure in their bodies that they linked to the emotional pleasure of being in a relationship."
Therein, she says, lies her main criticism of the asexual-positive "movement." "It assumes that becoming sexual is simple and easy, and that if sexual feelings and urges don't come 'naturally' they weren't meant to be," she says. "But being sexual has to be learned," she says -- and many people who somehow missed out during their sexually formative years can indeed catch up in sex therapy, though certainly not overnight. Zoldbrod describes one woman who spent a year learning from scratch to enjoy touch: aside from frequent therapy visits both alone and with her husband, "her husband had to give up on intercourse and just touch her non-sexually for months and months, so that she could develop her own innate good feelings about touch and then connect them to her love of him -- and then, later, to sex," says Zoldbrod. "At the end, when she experienced sexual pleasure and sexual drive, she said, 'I can't believe this is my same body.' Her life was profoundly altered, for the better."
David Jay counters by questioning why sex itself is presumed to be the holy grail. "It's not a question of whether asexual people can be made sexual through therapy or drugs, it's a question of whether they want to and whether doing so will improve their lives," he says. "If someone just doesn't like sex then it may, or may not, be easier for them to just get along without it than to go through a long, expensive process of therapy. If, on the other hand, their issues with sex are tied to issues with things like intimacy and vulnerability, then those will play out just as much asexually as they would sexually, and they'll probably be just as likely to seek help. To me, it seems like giving people access to a healthy sex life isn't the issue -- it's giving people access to healthy relationships and then letting them decide where they want sex to fit."
That seems to be the road Debbie has taken -- and she plans to stay on it. "I could go along with the herd and lie to myself and the people around me, but I don't want to, because I've come to the point in my life where I have to be honest with myself, where just being me is OK," she says. "I figure someday I'll be a little old lady with a lot of cats, but it's going to be my choice."