Low sexual desire is considered a psychological disorder in the US, but aces argue asexuality is no more a mental health issue than homosexuality is. We dig deeper…

“You may kiss the bride” is an iconic pronouncement, enshrined in popular culture as the beginning of happily-ever-after. Rachel* wanted the happily-ever-after, just not for the ceremony to end with a smack on the lips. One night while searching the internet for alternative ideas (“maybe we could fist bump instead?”), she came across the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). “It changed my life,” she said. “It opened me up to understanding different sexualities and relationships. I was up all night crying.” For the first time, she had found others like she did. 

Rachel had come out as bisexual in her teens and was engaged by her early 20s. But she didn’t want to have sex with her then-fianceé, a situation that landed her in therapy and taking hormones to increase her sex drive. The hormones didn’t work and, like so many other asexuals (or “aces”, as they’re also known), Rachel felt broken, until her search for alternative wedding kiss ideas presented a new path.

AVEN, the first and most well-known resource on asexuality, has been around since the early 2000s, but its goal of raising awareness is far from completed. Visibility and education are still sorely needed because, as Rachel noted, most people still only understand the word “asexual” in terms of plant and animal reproduction.

Asexuality is so poorly understood that most descriptions begin via negativa, or by explaining what it is not. It is not the same as celibacy, not the same as hating sex, and not the same as not wanting relationships. Like homosexuality and heterosexuality, asexuality is a sexual orientation. Aces aren’t attracted to people of any gender. Instead, they use a so-called “romantic orientation” to denote the gender of the person they’re romantically interested in, whether that be homoromantic, heteroromantic, panromantic, or so on.

That doesn’t mean that aces never have sex, though. Celibacy is about behavior, while sexual orientation is about attraction. Anyone of any orientation can be celibate, and anyone of any orientation can sleep with someone they’re not attracted to. Many aces are sex-repulsed, but some are not. In some cases, aces are personally indifferent to sex, but want to compromise with romantic partners who are allosexual (not asexual). Others want sex for emotional—not physical—reasons, to feel close to someone they love.

To the greater world, aces like Rachel are often seen as unhealthy, abnormal and possibly even sick. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the “bible” of psychological disorders in the US, includes low (or hypoactive) sexual desire as a psychiatric disorder and companies like Valeant Pharmaceuticals have tried to cash in by offering dubious libido-enhancing drugs.

To aces, however, their experiences are simply part of human variation, and it is as natural to have a high sex drive as it is to have a low one, or none at all. From the ace perspective, having a low sex drive isn’t a psychiatric disorder any more than being gay is (homosexuality was also in the DSM until the 1970s).

Experts like Lori Brotto, a sexual health researcher at the University of British Columbia in Canada, agree that it’s naturally. She’s studied aces and found that, in general, there is nothing wrong from a medical perspective. The problem is not with sexual desire or lack thereof, but with compulsory sexuality, or the cultural pressures that tells people there is one normal way to be and that has to include having sex, even if you don’t want to. Compulsory sexuality affects everyone—it’s just that aces experience it more keenly and see it more clearly.

Take the story of a British couple, Brian and Allison, who haven’t had sex in decades. Their marriage is happy and they’re perfectly fine with not having sex. “It did worry me that I didn’t want anything more than kisses and cuddles,” Allison told The Guardian. “Apart from feeling we had to do it on honeymoon, after that it was just to have another baby. But I don’t want other people to know because sex seems to be such a big thing to everyone else. “I don’t have to justify our marriage to other people, but it’s almost like I have to justify it to myself.”

In the end, the goal of asexuality is to one day eradicate compulsory sexuality, so that we can live in a world where there is no shame for wanting a lot of sex—or not wanting any at all.

*name has been changed to protect privacy

Angela Chen is a journalist and essayist in New York. Her first book, ACE: Understanding Asexuality and Culture, is forthcoming from Beacon Press.