New York City is famous for its motley sex life, illuminated, celebrated, and exploited in countless ways – but hidden within the predominantly sexually active culture is a budding population of people looking for relationships offering anything but sex. They identify as asexuals, or people who do not experience sexual attraction.
At least twice a month, a group called Aces NYC (ace being short for asexual) meets up to socialize and discuss ace-related topics, with the overarching goal of building a stronger local community for asexuals. Among the dozen or so members at the latest meetup, the group was roughly half female and half male, with several members identifying as non-binary, and mostly mid-twenties with one man in his sixties. The majority was white. Membership in the group has exploded from a handful of people to almost 600 members since its first meetup in November 2012.
Only 1 percent of the world population identifies as asexual in one of the few studies published on the topic by Dr. Anthony Bogaert, a psychology professor at Brock University in Canada. So far, the directory of meetup groups for asexuals and inclusive queer-friendly organizations found across the United States is thin. Aces is the only organized network in New York.
“When I first thought about [asexuality], I didn’t identify that way,” said Aces NYC member Tamara Deutsch, 24, whose rouge lips complemented boyish ginger locks and a red flannel shirt. “It was Sherlock fandom where I heard about it actually, and I was like, this is interesting. Then I started looking more into it and realized that what I thought was sexual attraction was aesthetic attraction. Like, I don’t wanna sleep with any of these people, I just think they’re pretty to look at.”
Deutsch self-identified as an asexual only after she had gotten over some of the issues surrounding the kind of lessons about sex that she received at her Catholic high school, where she recalled teachers telling students that sexual attraction was bad and sex should be avoided. At the time, the notion of even having sexual thoughts about a person confused Deutsch. “When I look back on it, I’m like, oh that’s why it didn’t make sense to me, because I was asexual’,” said Deutsch, who moved to New York in search of a community of people who could help her define herself.
Bauer McClave, 27, founder of Aces NYC, similarly moved to New York with high hopes of finding an asexual community in the big city. At the time, the LGBTQ student center at her school, New York University, was the closest thing to an asexual organization available in the city, hardly close enough to her liking. So McClave decided to wait for the community to develop, but a few years went by and still at most she only saw a few sporadic events for asexuals advertised on forums. Once McClave began to realize that asexuality really was a thing and that that thing needed a community, she decided to take on the role of forming one through weekly meetups and started Aces NYC.
McClave and her partner, Levi Back, 20, a pre-med student at New York University, sat down to eat with members after an earlier to the Natural History Museum last month. “I need snuggles or I’ll die,” said Back. “I’m a snuggle monster.”
“Our friends think we’re gross and overly, disgustingly cute,” McClave added, without skipping a beat.
It’s McClave’s first time dating another asexual, a chance she said she “jumped at”, eager for freedom from the pressure to be anyone’s sole source of sexual satisfaction. Previously, she had tried having a relationship with a sexual partner. McClave said she came out as an asexual from the get-go and laid it on thick, but liked the guy enough to give in to sex a few times for his sake. Inevitably though came the realization that having acquiesced a few times already would only make the slew of coming rejections more hurtful to her partner. The experience led to McClave’s firm new zero-sex policy for her future relationships.
“If I could commit to like two times a year, like sure,” said McClave. “But that’s probably not going to cut it.”
According to the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, not experiencing sexual attraction is separate from the desire for affection, love, or partnership in other terms. Even if sensations of arousal arise, the lack of desire or drive to act on it is the asexual’s unique response. The vastness of this spectrum can be confusing even to sex therapists.
“When I was in school, we were just beginning to understand asexuality as a sexual orientation so it just wasn’t discussed, and sexuality in general wasn’t discussed enough, which is why I went and got a second master’s degree in human sexuality,” said sex therapist Rachel Klechevsky, 31, who specializes in non-heteronormative orientations, identities, and behaviors like asexuality. “Up until asexuality was considered an identity, it was often just diagnosed as a mental illness of hyposexuality and people would get put on some sort of medication or whatever. It was always conflated with a bunch of other mental health diagnoses. That’s sort of been the struggle for anyone who’s not heterosexual.”
Klechevsky stressed the need for society to start considering romantic orientation as something separate from sexual orientation. She described one of her most fascinating clients as a man who loves having relationships with other men but hates having sex with men, and loves having sex with women but hates having relationships with them. Klechevsky suggested to him that he was perhaps romantically inclined towards men but sexually inclined towards women. “It worked out really well for him because he happened to find an asexual guy who he clicked with,” said Klechevsky.
In a society that puts so much emphasis on sex, a visible network for asexuals to find each other is invaluable. It is after all how McClave and Back met. But McClave clarifies that Aces NYC is not meant to be a hookup site. Despite the cerulean blue of her hair and the bright yellow polka dot-flower patterns around the neck of her black hoodie, McClave’s leveled tone and eyes speak with gravity, as if she never forgets she is representing a small but growing community that remains a vague or suspicious concept to the mostly sexual world that surrounds them.