Growing up, teens face a frustrating double standard.
On the one hand, the messages most of them get about sex from parents, other adults, and school is that sex is very bad and you shouldn’t do it (at least not until you’re an adult and married to someone of the “opposite” gender).
On the other hand, the way sex is presented in the media suggests that the desire for it is so overwhelming and overpowering that you can’t possibly control it – a dangerous message that feeds right into rape culture.
So what is sex? A terrible sin that good people should stay abstinent from, or an uncontrollable, animal urge that’s so euphoric and wonderful that we can’t live without it?
Any young person would get confused trying to sort these messages out. For an asexual young person, though, it can be even harder.
Asexual (or “ace”) kids and teens get all the same messages from our culture that allosexual kids and teens get, but they can rarely relate to them.
For them, sex might be pleasant, but not really a form of attraction or desire (watch out: those words mean slightly different things!). It might inspire curiosity, but not insatiable lust or that butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling. It might be something they don’t care about one way or the other, or it might be something they’re actively repulsed or horrified by.
Asexual people experience and imagine sex in a variety of ways, few of which are considered “normal” in our culture.
Indeed, our society privileges people who experience sexual attraction and desire, and this impacts asexual youth in a variety of ways.
For example, adults often tell asexual youth that they’ll “grow out of it,” which can be very invalidating. Even if your sexuality changes later in life, the one you’ve got right now is still quite real.
Adults may erase asexuality from sex education and from media depictions of sexuality and relationships. They may completely refuse to believe a young person who identifies as asexual because all teens are obsessed with sex, amirite?
This is a form of gaslighting, and it teaches young people not to trust their own perceptions of themselves and their desires.
All asexual people have to deal with comments like these, but they may especially impact young people who are just starting to think about their own sexuality and are less likely to have found supportive people and spaces that will affirm their identities.
So how can we be better at supporting asexual youth? Here are five ways to start.
1. Include Asexuality in Sex Education for Youth
There are so many issues with sex education in the United States that it would take multiple articles to get into them. Here, I’ll specifically focus on the fact that sex ed curricula almost never mention asexuality as a real and valid identity and experience.
Oh, sure, they mention not having sex. All the time. Many sex ed programs don’t seem to talk about anything besides not having sex. But abstinence isn’t the same as asexuality.
Abstinence is a decision not to act on sexual feelings that you have for reasons such as safety, religious values, wanting to focus on other aspects of your life, and so on. Asexuality is a lack of sexual desire.
Rather than explaining and affirming asexuality, many sex ed curricula begin from the premise that all teens desperately want sex because of their raging hormones and can barely keep themselves in check.
While that may very well be the experience of many (perhaps even most) teens, imagine how confused and broken an asexual young person would feel if this is all they ever hear about teen sexuality.
Many of us grew up wondering what was wrong with us and why we didn’t feel like teens are “supposed” to feel.
As it turns out, adults may fear and stigmatize teenage sexuality, but they simultaneously consider it so normal and expected that anything else is met with incredulous confusion. Which leads me right to my next point:
2. Recognize Youth’s Asexual Identities and Relationships
If a young person comes out to you as asexual, believe them. If a young person tells you they’re not into anyone “that way” or that they’re not interested in having sex, believe them.
For extra points, let them know that some people just aren’t into sex at all and that that’s a totally normal and healthy aspect of human sexual diversity.
If an asexual young person – say, your friend or child or relative – is in a romantic relationship, treat that relationship (and their partner) the same way you would if the person weren’t asexual.
If you would invite your allosexual relatives’ partners for Thanksgiving or Christmas, invite your asexual relatives’ partners. If you would find it important to meet your allosexual child’s boyfriend or girlfriend, you should find it important to meet your asexual child’s boyfriend or girlfriend.
Relationships are not defined by whether or not they include sex.
3. Understand That Sexuality Is Fluid
Yes, some asexual youth may develop sexual attraction or desire later in their developmental process. So can any asexual person, because shifts in sexual identity may actually be the norm rather than the exception for everyone, not just people on the ace spectrum.
While this may feel threatening or confusing to anyone who’s invested in their identity – queer or straight, trans or cis, ace, or allo – accepting this reality is the key to supporting people with marginalized sexualities, especially young people who are just beginning to discover themselves.
Why is it so important to acknowledge the fluidity of sexuality? Because that’s what enables you both to affirm someone’s current identity and to support them if their identity changes later.
If a young person you previously knew to be asexual discloses to you that their orientation is shifting, it doesn’t do any good to “support” their asexuality so much that you refuse to support their new identity.
Likewise, if a young person who was previously very interested in sexual relationships comes out to you as asexual, that doesn’t mean that they were “faking” that interest before (although they might’ve been, since it takes many asexual youth a while to figure out that everyone else isn’t faking too). It might mean that they’ve experienced a shift in their sexuality.
Not everyone who goes through these shifts goes from one end of the spectrum to the other, of course. An allosexual person might become gray-A; a completely asexual person might become demisexual. Their previous identities were just as valid as their current one.
4. Don’t Affirm Youth Asexuality for the Wrong Reasons
Some adults who understand and acknowledge asexuality in youth end up supporting it for the wrong reasons – that is, for sex-negative reasons.
“What a relief,” they might say. “At least we don’t have to worry about you dating/getting pregnant/getting someone pregnant/getting an STI.”
First of all, many of these remarks are actually based on a misunderstanding of what asexuality is. Some asexual youth might still have romantic feelings and might want to date. Some might still have sex under certain circumstances. Some, unfortunately, might be survivors of sexual assault, which means that avoiding pregnancy and STIs is not always under their control.
Second, comments like these can be hurtful because for some asexual youth, their orientation is anything but a relief. Dating is nerve-wracking enough for many teens; imagine trying to explain to your date that you’re just not into kissing.
They might worry about whether or not they’ll ever find a partner who wants to date an asexual person. Those that are also aromantic may worry that they’ll never get to experience the kinds of connections their friends do, because they only experience platonic love.
Finally, affirming asexuality because you believe that it’s wrong for teens to have sex isn’t actually that affirming.
Teenage sexuality is normal, healthy, and morally neutral, just like teenage asexuality.
Implying to asexual teens that their identity is a good thing because having sex is bad sends the wrong message and encourages anti-sex stigma.
5. Promote Ace Visibility in the Media
The movies, TV shows, books, comics, and other media that kids and teens consume are often their first introduction to non-normative identities and experiences.
When the character in question is themselves a kid or teen, it’s a sign that being the way you are is okay and normal; when the character is an adult, it’s a sign that you have a future as the type of person you are.
Unfortunately, representation of asexual people in the media is still pretty dismal.
Occasionally, we see fictional characters like Sherlock’s Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor from Doctor Who who don’t seem to have any interest in sex and/or romance, but these characters are never explicitly identified as asexual. Further, their asexuality is often presented as a quirk or as evidence of some deeper mental flaw, not as a normal part of human sexual variation.
Many young people who watch these shows have responded by creating fan depictions of these characters as asexual, which provides some much-needed representation and awareness of asexuality within their communities.
But creating media with canonically asexual characters whose asexuality isn’t presented as a flaw or a disorder would go a long way.
Ultimately, of course, supporting asexual youth means understanding asexuality.
True support always begins with open ears and ends with taking action – by updating sex education curricula, making more inclusive media, and creating a safe space for the youth in your life to be themselves with you. Eliminating oppression based on sexual identity must include asexual folks – and, by extension, asexual youth.
Miri Mogilevsky is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a recently graduated with a Masters in Social Work and is starting a career as a counselor in Columbus, Ohio. She loves reading, writing, and learning about psychology, social justice, and sexuality, and is working on her cat photography skills. Miri writes a blog called Brute Reason, rants on Tumblr, and occasionally even tweets @sondosia.