Asexuality and Celibacy: What’s the difference, anyway?

I have a friend that hasn’t had sex in a while. Does that mean they’re asexual?

No. Not having sex makes that person celibate. It doesn’t make them asexual.

But isn’t “Asexuality” just a fancy-sounding word for “Celibacy”?

No, not at all. Celibacy and asexuality are two different concepts. Celibacy means someone doesn’t have sex. Asexuality means someone doesn’t have sexual attraction.

I still don’t see how those are any different. They both mean that person isn’t getting any.

Not necessarily. Asexuality describes an orientation, not behavior. Heterosexuals are attracted to the opposite sex, homosexuals are attracted to the same sex, and asexuals aren’t attracted to any sex. However, it’s possible for someone to have sex with someone they’re not sexually attracted to. Someone can be asexual and still have sex. It’s not like we’re going to kick them out of the club or anything.

So… What is the difference, then?

Here’s a handy-dandy cheat sheet for you:

  • Celibacy: Not having sex for some reason. (“I don’t have sex because __________.”)
  • Abstinence: Choosing not to have sex for some reason. (“I don’t have sex because I choose not to.”)
  • Asexuality: Not having sexual attraction. May or may not have sex. (“Sex? What’s that? Please pass the cake.”)

A lot of people try to explain the difference between asexuality and celibacy by saying something like “Celibacy is a choice. Asexuality is not.” I don’t agree with that characterization.

First of all, it implies that celibacy and asexuality are nearly equivalent concepts, where one is voluntary and the other is involuntary. This is not correct. Asexuality describes an orientation, not a behavior, while celibacy is only talking about behavior. Someone who is celibate is not having sex by definition, while someone who is asexual doesn’t experience sexual attraction, but they may or may not be having sex. It is possible for a person to have sex multiple times a day, yet still be asexual.

Secondly, the claim that celibacy is a choice is not always correct. A celibate person is a person who is not having sex, but the reason for them not having sex could be beyond their control. For example, someone could be in a situation where there are no partners available, such as being locked up in prison or on the International Space Station for a few months. In that case, it’s not a choice to be celibate, it’s a product of their environment. Likewise, someone could be celibate because they simply don’t have a partner at the moment for whatever reason. Those people may want sex and would have sex if it were available, but circumstances have forced them to be celibate. Abstinence is the choice not to have sex.

Now I’m confused. Does that mean that an asexual cannot be celibate or abstinent?

No. Asexuality and celibacy are separate concepts, however, they may overlap in an individual. Many asexuals are celibate and some are also abstinent. Filling in the blank from the definition of celibacy above, a celibate asexual is likely to say “I don’t have sex because I’m asexual and do not experience sexual attraction, therefore sex isn’t all that interesting for me.” An asexual person may or may not be celibate. An asexual person may or may not be abstinent. A person who is abstinent is also celibate by definition, but a person who is celibate may not be abstinent, because they may not have made a deliberate choice to not have sex. Someone who is celibate or abstinent is not necessarily asexual, in fact, most people who are celibate or abstinent are not asexual.

It is important to note that while a person may have religious or social reasons for being abstinent, a person does not have religious or social reasons for being asexual. It can be considered offensive to assume that an asexual is “planning to wait until marriage” or wishes to “remain pure”. Asexuality is not a choice, so there is no motive there. An asexual is asexual because they’re asexual, not because they want to be and not because they’re striving for a higher purpose. Of course, it is possible for an asexual to be practicing abstinence because of a religious or social reason, but it is the abstinence that is for the religious or social reason, not the asexuality.

In my case, I am a celibate asexual. I have not had sex in nearly nine years. I do not consider myself to be practicing abstinence because I have not made a deliberate choice to not have sex. I also do not identify as involuntarily celibate, because I’m perfectly fine not having sex. I just don’t have sex because I don’t have a partner and I’m not terribly interested in finding a partner. If I were to end up in a relationship with someone and they wanted to have sex, then I imagine that I would be willing to do so. (After all, that happened before.)

“Don’t you all hate sex?”

All asexual people think the same way about sex, right? Don’t you all hate sex?

Not at all, actually. The opinions on sex among asexuals are just as wide and varied as the opinions of non-asexuals on sex. Some like it, some hate it, and some don’t care at all. Asexuality is only the lack of sexual attraction. Beyond that, anything goes.

Well, how do you feel about sex?

I am a “sex-positive” asexual. That may sound contradictory, but it does not mean that I want to have sex. What it means is that I’m fine with sex. I don’t hate sex, I’m not repulsed by it, I don’t look down on other people for having it, I’m not ashamed about the fact that I even had sex, once upon a time. I recognize that sex may be important to other people and I do not have a problem with that. I find sex and sexuality strangely fascinating, and I always have. I have a sort of detached anthropological scientific interest in the subject. Although I don’t really have any desire to take part in most of the activities and practices I’ve heard about, I still think it’s good for me to know about them, and I like learning about them. If you saw my bookshelf, you would likely not believe that I’m ace. I’ve got sex encyclopedias, sex manuals, books on masturbation, fellatio, and cunnilingus, even a book that describes 365 different ways to have sex, so you can do it differently every night of the year (Except during a leap year, apparently). I know about things some of my non-asexual friends have never heard of.

(Please note that “Sex-positive” doesn’t mean that I think that all sex is automatically good. There are certainly some aspects of sex which are terrible.)

However, wanting to learn about sex does not mean that I actually want to have sex. When it comes to having sex with a partner, I’m largely indifferent. I don’t actively seek it out. I’ve done it before and wasn’t all that impressed, but I wouldn’t necessarily be against doing it again in the right situation.

Okay, so some asexuals are fine with sex. What about the rest of them?

Not every asexual is sex-positive. Many asexuals are repulsed by sex. Repulsion goes beyond simple disinterest. A repulsed person is generally disgusted by the thought of sex or of sexual things. There are many variations of repulsion among asexuals. Some think that all sex, anywhere, by anyone, is “icky”. Others are only repulsed when it comes to any form of sexual situations involving their own bodies, but are fine with other people having sex. Some repulsed people may be fine with their own bodies and may masturbate, but find the thought of doing anything with someone else disgusting. In some cases, the mere mention of an anatomical word is enough to cause someone to feel sick to their stomach.

Being sex-positive and repulsed are not mutually exclusive.  It’s possible for someone to believe that pretty much whatever goes on between consenting adults is fine and dandy, but at the same time be repulsed about the thought of engaging in sexual activity themselves.  Part of sex-positivity is a sense of “to each their own”, which means respect for how much or how little sex a person chooses to have, whether it’s five times a day or zero times in a lifetime.  There are no “sluts” and there are no “prudes”.

Repulsion, by itself, is not necessarily an indicator of asexuality. Many non-asexuals are also repulsed by the thought of sex. They’ll experience sexual attraction, but once their thoughts turn toward the act of having sex, their thoughts will be blotted out by the ickiness of the fluids and the body parts and other goings on. Some people may even mistake repulsion for asexuality, thinking that because they find sex disgusting, that must mean that they do not find anyone sexually attractive, which is not the case.

Some people have reported some measure of success in overcoming repulsion by engaging in exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is the process in which a person attempts to overcome a fear by gradual and repeated exposure to the thing that causes the fear. For instance, someone who is arachnophobic would be shown pictures of spiders in an attempt to desensitize the person to spiders. For someone who is sexually repulsed, they might try looking at pornographic images or videos, reading about sexual acts, or examining their own bodies as a way to minimize their repulsion. (Of course, your mileage may vary. I’m not a psychologist or therapist and I’ve never been sexually repulsed, so I might just be completely off base here. I would strongly suggest that you find someone who actually knows what they’re talking about before attempting any therapy of this sort. Don’t just listen to me. Also, don’t blame me if you end up scarred for life after you see some of the things out there on the Internet…) It’s also important to note that exposure therapy should only be attempted by those who actually want to change how they feel about sex. If you’re repulsed by sex and don’t really have a problem with it, then don’t worry about trying to “fix” youself, because you’re not broken.

Why do I always hear about asexuals that hate sex and everyone who has sex?

I believe you’re confusing asexuality with anti-sexuality. They are not the same thing. Anti-sexuals believe that sex is bad or wrong, either because of a religious objection, or because they believe that sex is at the root of many of the world’s problems. While it is possible for someone to be both asexual and anti-sexual, one does not have to be asexual to be anti-sexual, and not all asexuals are anti-sexual. (In fact, the majority of them are not.)

So, do all asexuals fit perfectly into one of these groups you’ve mentioned?

It’s possible to be some mixture of the categories I’ve described above, and it’s also possible for someone to fall into a category I haven’t mentioned. However, just because someone is asexual, you can’t know which, if any, of these categories that person will be. You’ll need to talk to them to find out. It’s generally considered rude to assume that they’re a certain way. Furthermore, it should be noted that someone’s general impression of sex may not apply to every specific situation. For instance, just because an asexual is sex-positive, that doesn’t mean they’ll be willing to have sex with you or anyone else.  Just because an asexual is repulsed, that doesn’t mean they’ll flee the room in horror if the conversation turns to sex. Communication is the key to understanding the individual.


Okay, let’s get this thing started…

Hello.  I’m asexual.

(I’m also a nerd, but I’m not really here to talk about that.  I’ve already got a place to get my nerd on, a place I didn’t really want to fill up with all of this stuff.)

I discovered the word “asexuality” in April 2011, but I’d known that there was something a bit off for years.  I never had a girlfriend in high school or college.  When I finally did get a girlfriend after graduating, I didn’t exactly dive into the relationship and get swept away.  It took her months to get me agree to go out with her.  That relationship only lasted about nine months and I haven’t had another girlfriend since.

That was almost nine years ago.

I’ve never been interested in sex.  Actually, let me qualify that a bit…  I’ve always been interested in sex, in a subject of scientific curiosity kind of way.  But I’ve never been interested in having sex.  Sure, I wanted to experience it, because everyone said it was so great and amazing, but I never felt an urge to seek it out.

I have had sex.  Twice.  With that girlfriend I mentioned.  It was not great and amazing.  I mean, it wasn’t terrible.  It did feel good, but…  I honestly didn’t see what the big deal was.  It was an okay way to spend part of an evening, but so is watching reruns of ST:TNG.

That was almost nine years ago.  I haven’t had sex since.  I don’t miss it.

I used to think that I was “straight, but not good at it”.  I adopted that label because it seemed like the best option for me at the time.  I had a girlfriend, and there had been other women along the way that I’d had some level of interest in.  Men, however, had never caught my eye.  So I knew I wasn’t gay or bi, therefore I must be straight, because what else was there?  But I “wasn’t very good at it” because I didn’t feel the need to rack up conquests or anything like that.  I never thought, “She’s hot, I’d so hit that”.  (Not even with the girlfriend who was, by many accounts, rather “hot”.) Plus, I’d only had sex twice in the roughly 18 years since the onset of puberty, when it seemed like other guys were averaging sex twice a day over the same time period.

It didn’t really bother me until April of this year.  I was having a conversation about sex with a friend, and it suddenly struck me that I didn’t think about sex in the same way as ANYONE else I’d never known.  It always stuck me as a scientific topic, rather than an emotional one.  After seeing a sex scene in a TV show, I spent more time wondering about how the position the two characters were supposed to be in didn’t make any sense at all, rather than thinking about what they’d been doing just before the camera cut in.

I suddenly had the feeling that I was a puzzle that needed to be solved, and I like solving puzzles, so…

I decided to start by looking up “asexuality”.   Obviously, I thought, that can’t be me.  I’ve had sex.  I masturbate.  I might be something close to that, but I can’t be that.  But still, it’s a starting point.  I’d heard the word before, but didn’t know what it meant.

(Actually, I think I started by looking up “Low Testosterone”, which just gave me a bunch of ads for male enhancement pills.  I <3 INTERNET.)

And so I read descriptions and posts and watched videos and…  OMG THESE PEOPLE ARE ALL TALKING ABOUT MY LIFE.

My life completely rewrote itself in under a week.  It was like the twist at the end of a movie that changes everything you’ve just watched.  Moments in the past suddenly flipped over and started making sense.

I didn’t agonize over it.  I didn’t need a second opinion.  It was just so right.  It was me.

And so here we are now.

I’m mainly here out of a potentially misguided desire to raise visibility.  I mean, I went for all these years not even knowing that I was asexual, and I’ve been around the Internet and thought I was fairly well versed in the various sexual orientations, preferences, practices, variations and deviations, yet somehow, I never managed to catch on to what I was during that whole time.  I’m hoping that by writing a bit on the subject of asexuality, that maybe other people will discover themselves and it won’t take as long as it did for me.  Plus, I’m hoping to raise understanding and awareness among all the potential allies out there.

Aw, who am I kidding?  I’m only here for the cake.