Adam Henry is a tall and fit former skater boy who likes to hit the San Francisco club scene. Over his years of partying, he's been in relationships with women and men. But now that he's 29, Henry says he knows one thing for certain: "I don't like sex."
Henry is asexual — a term used to describe a person who has no desire for sex. According to a study published in The Journal of Sex Research in 2004, it's not as rare as you might think: One in every 100 respondents said they had never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all.
Unlike those who choose to abstain by choice — because of, say, religious reasons — the "asexy" claim they have no say in the matter. They're simply not hardwired to want sex. "I can walk down the street and say, 'Oh yeah, she's really pretty,' or, 'Oh yeah, he's really cute.' But that doesn't mean, 'Oh yeah, I've got to go get some of that,' " Henry said, laughing. "It's totally not on that level."
The heart of the asexual community is the Asexual Visibility and Education Network at Asexuality.org. AVEN was founded by David Jay, now 24 and working for a nonprofit in San Francisco. When he was as young as 14, Jay said he "didn't know why everyone else was making such a big deal about kissing people and having sex with people."
By the time he was a senior in high school, Jay decided to label himself "asexual" — even though, at the time, a Google search for that word only produced scientific studies about amoeba reproduction (" 'Human amoeba' became a slang term for talking about asexual people," Jay said).
"It's not a choice," Jay said. "This is the way I was born. It's not a problem. There's no reason this should limit my life."
In 2001, while in college, Jay decided to reach out and create an online HQ for people like him. Since forming AVEN, Jay — still a virgin and intensely dedicated to the community — has seen the membership grow to include more than 10,000 members in the United States alone. (There are also 12 foreign-language sites, the most active of which is based in Germany.) Users have notably "asexy" handles like littlefuzzy, Goonie and FelineFanatic and often sport overtly youthful icons like snowmen, Shamu, Curious George and Emma Watson from the "Harry Potter" movies. AVEN sells merch ranging from a teddy bear T-shirt that reads "The Only One I Sleep With" to Jay's favorite item, the "No Sex Please" thong.
With sex out of the picture, dating obviously becomes a challenge. Some asexuals are happy having a strong network of friends — Henry lives with a married gay couple and a straight woman who he says are "just like family" — while some seek out "romantic" relationships. But what does an asexual romantic relationship look like?
"You can take the sex out of relationships and they can have just as much power," Jay insisted. "Because sex isn't just about sex. Sex is about power. It's about people feeling validated. It's about having fun. ... And those are all things that I still do and I still want in my life. ... To me, intimacy is something that happens in almost all my relationships."
Jay is convinced that a relationship based on trust, common hobbies "or the fact that you both like to cook" can bring two people "really, really close without sex ever being a serious issue."
And there might still be some physical contact. Many asexuals have "cuddle buddies," or friends they may hug and kiss or share a bed with. An asexual who has several cuddle buddies is called a "snuggle slut" — which is how Jay labels himself. "I'm a total asexual slut," he said. "Really the distinction between friends and 'more than friends' is an arbitrary social one. ... Rather than figure out which one person I'm going to call my 'partner,' I've been making charts just to keep track of who are all the people that matter in my life and why they matter."
But in dating, how does an asexual come out of the closet? While Henry has no problem revealing his no-sex rule "on the second or third date," some AVEN-ites are truly intimidated about sharing their sexual identity. "One guy I told refused to believe me and could not accept it and accused me of talking a load of bullsh--," Shortass Lady posted. More painfully, Nick007 revealed, "Sometimes I think it would be easier to explain to people if I had lost my penis in some kind of accident instead of telling them that I'm asexual."
"Everybody knows inside of himself or herself, 'There's a core of someone who I am, and I deserve respect for that,' " said Anne Stockwell, editor of gay magazine The Advocate. "I think that is an extension of our civil rights. ... If there's one thing gay people have heard it's, 'Well, you just haven't met the right guy yet,' or, 'You haven't met the right girl yet.' "
There are marked differences between the gay-rights movement and asexuality, of course. While the very term "asexual" is only a few years old and still controversial, the gay community has been fighting for its rights for decades, facing professional discrimination and physical violence along the way. But much of the language AVEN uses to describe the movement for asexual "visibility" comes straight out of the gay-rights playbook.
Jay himself says he "learned to be an activist" working with the gay community as a teen. "We don't have people who are physically attacking us the way that gay people have for a long time, thankfully," he says. "We just have people that are telling us that asexuality doesn't exist."
A low sex drive can also have medical causes — including low testosterone in men — and can even be linked to a history of sexual abuse. "For someone in their 20s who thinks they might be asexual, it's really important for them to ask themselves a lot of tough questions," said Los Angeles sex therapist Alex Katehakis. "Like, 'Why do I want to be asexual?' And conversely, 'What scares me about being sexual?' "
AVEN counsels members to "definitely see a doctor" — especially if someone's experienced a sudden lack of lust.
But the point of AVEN, Jay maintains, is to offer people a different way of defining themselves, free from society's focus on our sex lives. "We don't make you sign a pledge that says you'll identify as asexual for your entire life," Jay said. " 'Asexuality' is a word that you use to describe yourself. If it fits today, then use it. If it doesn't fit next week, then stop using it."