Q&A – Asexuality and Libido

Email question: 

Good evening!

I’ve heard you speak like a dozen times at different events and I (and pretty much everyone I know) think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread, so when I ran into a roadblock, I immediately thought to email you.

Essentially, my question is: What is the difference, if any, between having low libido and being asexual? (or more specifically, gray-sexual.)

Context:

I’ve been sexually active for 4 years, and have always identified as pansexual. But I’ve always also had incredibly low libido, but like, so low that I pretty much never wanted sex, but sometimes it was okay, like if you don’t like Mexican food but once a month you’ll eat a taco because it’s there and everyone else is eating it and you don’t really -hate- it. (Except I usually wound up having sex WAY more than that because I let partners make me feel bad about it, but that’s a different thing.)

So now, I’m finally living with a partner who’s incredibly sensitive to when I do and don’t want to have sex, and is deliberate about making sure to never make me feel bad about his sex drive being waay higher than mine. Which I thought meant we would have sex every once and awhile, but in reality we have sex maybe 10 times a year, because that’s about all I want, and even that I could honestly happily live without. And I’ve continued calling this low libido, mostly because I’ve been on birth control since before I was ever sexually active and I assumed, being that that’s a side effect, that that’s why I never wanted sex. (And also because, it felt weird to have had as many sex partners as I’ve had but call myself asexual.) I also enjoy pretty much every other form of physical affection, including foreplay. But recently I’ve been wondering if what it really boils down to is just being panromantic, but asexual.

The more research I did on it, I found I identified most with gray-asexual/gray-a definitions. But the definitions I’ve been reading are also the exact same definition as simply having very low libido. So, are they the same thing? I wouldn’t normally classify asexuality as being the lack of libido and sex drive, but maybe that’s exactly what it is? Is being asexual more about finding someone physically sexy, or more about wanting the actual act of sex?

Sorry for the information overload, but I figured you’d be able to at least point me in the right direction.

Thanks a bunch for your time!

-Charlie* 

My Response: 

 Charlie*, 

Thank you so much for the kind words, and for how openly and honestly you’ve shared with me. I’m so glad you reached out and I hope I can help.

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In very basic terms of distinction, think of libido/sex drive as something that, for folks who are not asexual, fluctuates throughout their lifespan in meaningful and easily discernable ways (even if those fluctuations are small). We all have a two systems that simultaneously process cues in our environment and interpret those cues as sexual or not. Your Sexual Inhibition System (SIS) is like a brake pedal and your Sexual Excitation System (SES) is like a gas pedal. (Thanks to Emily Nagoski for this amazing analogy — find her at http://www.thedirtynormal.com/ .) At all times information is being filtered through these systems like one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes. If  the foot on the brakes is heavier, you generally don’t feel physically aroused  or, in some cases, particularly interested in sex. If the foot on the gas is heavier, your brain sends signals to your body, your eyes dilate, blood rushes to your genitals and other erogenous zones, and you notice your sexual motor is running (your sexual response cycle/physiological response to sexual cues has kicked in). Everyone interprets their environment in different ways, so things that for one person are a real turn-on are, for others, a real cold bath. If you’re a person who has a real lead foot on the gas you may interpret this as a higher libido. These folks are often quickly, easily, and frequently aroused by all sorts of things and sometimes by nothing in particular. They experience what is known as spontaneous sexual desire or spontaneous sexual arousal. Some folks are more likely to be come aroused under special circumstances. These people have a heavy foot on the brakes and often need explicit sexual content (like genital stimulation, dirty talk, erotica, or porn), to become fully and satisfactorily aroused. This is called responsive desire/responsive arousal. Finally, we have folks who experience more dramatic fluctuations in what they’re used to – sometimes the foot on the gas is heavy, sometimes it seems like they can never get the car out of the driveway. This is called context dependent desire, or context dependent arousal. So, when we talk about libido and arousal, we are talking about what’s happening in your mind and body and the ways that you may interpret environmental cues as sexual or sensual.

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Sexual orientation is something different, though these concepts are certainly related. Sexual orientation labels are framed in terms of the target of your desire, categorically. So, if you are a cis female who is primarily attracted to other cis females, folks might assume you were a lesbian and you might agree with that assumption. When we talk about pansexuality, there’s some inherent fluidity to it that is often why folks who adopt this label like it so much. Pan- keeps your options open and honors the fluidity of your desires and who they’re aimed at. When we talk about asexuality, there is also some inherent fluidity – which is why it is often described on a gray spectrum. For the most part, folks on the spectrum can range from absolutely no desire for sex at all, to no desire for romance at all, to some mix of the two. For example, someone who is demisexual may more closely identify with gray spectrum communities than other LGBTQIA spaces. A person who is asexual often has an enduring sex drive that is characterized by a very low libido and/or very low arousal (as described above) – so, they rarely experience a desire for sexual experiences (low libido) or they may be interested in sex but their motor just never really purrs (low arousal). Someone with low libido can still engage in and experience very rewarding sexual encounters up to and including orgasm (their bodies will often respond when prompted properly), but it’s not something that they seek out or spend time thinking about, nor is it a requirement for having a satisfying, intimate romantic relationship. On the other foot, some folks who are asexual say that they have a fairly high sex drive but it’s not ever usually targeted at anything. These folks may really seek out, enjoy and prefer acts like masturbation, but find that they don’t experience the same kind of arousal in the context of relations with others. This variety in response and desire is why they call it a gray spectrum, but nearly all asexuality is characterized by a lack of sexual desire or a lack of a target for sexual desire when it occurs.

Also, low libido and asexuality are related, so of course it makes sense that you’re having a tough time teasing them apart. Sometimes folks with low libido or folks who struggle to become and stay aroused feel as though this is a problem and they seek solutions for it. Individuals who describe themselves as asexual seem to be, generally, pretty ok with the way they experience arousal and desire (or lack thereof) and this is another distinction. If you are happy with the frequency of your arousal or the enduring state of your libido, then awesome!!! If you’re not, ask yourself why and that’s another discussion.

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In my own understanding of things, sexual orientation can be clumsily explained like Hogwarts houses, in that to some extent it’s a huge, innate part of who you are, but also, the sorting hat cares what you think. So, the fact that you seem to be leaning heavily towards “panromantic, but asexual” as the best fit descriptor for you tells me that you’re probably leaning in the right direction.

I sincerely hoped this helped you out, but if you need more clarification or want to discuss this more, I’m happy to do that with you here or during my office hours.

Thanks again for reaching out,

Angel

*Charlie’s name has been changed along with any other identifying information. 

Are you on the gray spectrum? Would you like to add to this discussion in any way, or did you see anything you would’ve said differently? Comment below or send me an email using the Contact button! 

Do you have a question you’d like an answer to? Send me an email and I’ll be happy to help! 

For resources and other information on Ace/Asexuality go to http://www.asexuality.org/

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