by Justin Lehmiller
Asexuality is a term that different people define in somewhat different ways. Most often, however, asexuals tend to be characterized as persons who do not experience sexual attraction. This definition doesn’t entirely capture all of the diversity that exists within the asexual community, though.
You can think of asexuality as running on a spectrum, with asexual at one end and allosexual on the other, where “allosexual” refers to persons who do experience sexual attraction. In between are a number of identities that vary in the degree to which an individual experiences attraction.
For example, these identities include graysexual (someone who only experiences sexual attraction on rare occasions) and demisexual (someone who only experiences sexual attraction when they have a strong emotional bond with a partner). Given how much variability there is in this community, “ace” has emerged as term aimed at being more inclusive of other identities on this spectrum.
There is a growing body of research on ace identities; to date, however, it hasn’t really explored how these individuals personally define sex and the circumstances under which they might be willing to have it. A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research led by Kinsey Institute researchers aimed to address these questions .
This study consisted of 1,093 adults who identified as being on the ace spectrum. Most identified as asexual (69%), graysexual (16%), or demisexual (14%). On average, participants were 26 years old, most identified as women (56%) or as having multiple genders (23%), and the majority were currently single (68%).
Participants completed a survey in which they were given a list of 22 different sexual behaviors and asked to report which ones counted as having “had sex.” They were also asked which sexual behaviors they had previously engaged in, which behaviors they were open to engaging in, and their reasons for or against engaging in these behaviors.
When it came to the definition of sex, more than 70% of participants of each identity reported that all genital behaviors “counted” as sex, including oral-genital stimulation, mutual masturbation, vaginal and anal intercourse, and genital stimulation with sex toys.
It’s worth noting that allosexual people appear to define sex quite differently. For example, when you look at studies conducted outside of the ace community, a majority of participants do not “count” things like oral sex and mutual masturbation . Instead, they tend to view vaginal and anal intercourse as the main activities that constitute sex.
When it came to sexual history, 98% of asexuals and graysexuals and 100% of demisexuals said they had previously engaged in a behavior that they personally counted as having had sex. However, when looking at specific sexual behaviors they had participated in, there was a lot of variability across groups.
For example, among asexuals, 33% had received oral sex, 28% had engaged in penile-vaginal intercourse, and 10% had engaged in penile-anal intercourse. The corresponding numbers for graysexuals were about twice as high and, for demisexuals were almost three times as high.
Despite almost everyone in the study reported that they’ve had sex in some form or another, most reported that they weren’t interested in engaging in sex in the future. In fact, just 4% of asexuals and graysexuals and 11.5% of demisexuals reported interest.
There was only one behavior on the list that a majority of persons of all identities (>70%) said they were interested in doing in the future: cuddling. However, this is probably because cuddling is a behavior that very few people of any identity actually classified as “having sex.”
That said, graysexuals and demisexuals reported more willingness to engage in genital sexual behaviors in the future compared to asexuals. In other words, despite not having a lot of interest in sexual activity, many people on the ace spectrum still reported a willingness or openness to having sex under certain circumstances.
What are those circumstances? Overall, 37% of participants said they would be willing to have sex in the future if they felt an emotional connection to a partner. However, demisexuals (69%) were much more likely to report this motivation compared to graysexuals (40%) and asexuals (30%).
Similarly, 31% said they would be willing to have sex in the future if it was something their partner wanted. This included the desire to please a partner, even if engaging in the activity wasn’t something they personally wanted. Asexuals, graysexuals, and demisexuals were about equally likely to report this motive.
Lastly, 34% of participants said they were unlikely to engage in any sexual behaviors in the future due to disinterest or disgust. However, asexuals (42%) were more likely to say this than were graysexuals (19%) and demisexuals (10%).
While this research is not representative of the ace community, the results tell us a few important things. First, most people on the ace spectrum seem to agree about what constitutes sex, and they define it as any genital-based activity. This appears to be quite different from how allosexuals think of sex. Further, most aces say they’ve engaged in at least one such activity before, despite the fact that they aren’t interested in sex.
This points to an important distinction between one’s willingness to have sex versus the degree to which one wants sex. Many people on the ace spectrum consent to sexual activity despite a lack of desire for it.
As always, more research is needed because a number of important questions remain unanswered, such as why persons on the ace spectrum defined sex they way they did in this study—and why allosexuals seem to define sex in quite different ways. Further, what are the implications of this for the way that ace and allosexual persons define constructs like virginity?
Expanding sex research to be more inclusive of the ace spectrum has the potential to further enhance our understanding of the complexity and vast diversity that exists in the world of human sexuality.
 Hille, J. J., Simmons, M. K., & Sanders, S. A. (2019). “Sex” and the Ace Spectrum: Definitions of Sex, Behavioral Histories, and Future Interest for Individuals Who Identify as Asexual, Graysexual, or Demisexual. The Journal of Sex Research.
 Sewell, K. K., & Strassberg, D. S. (2015). How do heterosexual undergraduate students define having sex? A new approach to an old question. Journal of sex research, 52(5), 507-516.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award-winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. In addition to publishing articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, he has written two textbooks and produces the popular blog Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research addresses topics including casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller or facebook.com/psychologyofsex.