But as it becomes more accepted to be attracted to men, women, genderqueer people, or all of the above, we're still only starting to talk about "none of the above," or asexuality.
Put simply, asexuality is a lack of sexual attraction to anyone. Asexual people can experience romantic attraction (or not), have high or low libidos, and identify as any gender. Though very little research on the subject exists at this point, one large-scale study estimated that 1 percent of people are asexual. That equates to about 70 million people worldwide, all essentially invisible in pop culture and discussions of sexuality.
Erin is a 26-year-old asexual woman who was gracious enough to share some of her experiences and perceptions with The Stranger, along with some misconceptions she'd like to clear up. She grew up in a liberal area, with parents and a community who she knew would support her if she were gay, but for a long time she had no idea there were any other possibilities. "I had been trying to fit into the norm of being a teen, dating and figuring out whether I fit into the two categories that were generally accepted at the time (straight or gay)," Erin wrote in an email. "Any romantic relationships I had felt pretend, and the few times I actually dated, I was left feeling upset, depressed, and generally gross. I didn't enjoy kissing or talking about boys or girls."
As her peers became increasingly preoccupied with sex and dating, Erin started to worry that something was wrong with her. A friend's offhand joke was her first introduction to the term "asexual," and she immediately started researching it. She soon found the website AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network), and things started to make sense. "Finding out that I was not broken or 'just a late bloomer' was a big deal for me," she says. "Right now, society is more likely to tell you that you just haven't found the right person or that you are gay and in denial, or ask you if you had a horrible past sexual experience, rather than accept what you are."
Experiences like Erin's will be familiar to a lot of queer people: expecting your life to follow a certain "normal" narrative, worrying something is wrong with you when it doesn't, feeling alienated from friends to whom it comes naturally. Whether asexuals are part of the queer community has been a topic of disagreement, but more people are starting to say yes.
In a 2013 Huffington Post article, AVEN founder David Jay was optimistic about the progress toward asexual inclusion, saying: "We've been getting really powerful support from [the LGBT community]. As movements, we really have a lot to contribute to one another."
An important part of increasing asexual visibility and acceptance is clearing up some common misconceptions:
Asexuality is the same as celibacy. Nope! Asexuality is an orientation, while celibacy is a behavior, and not all asexuals are celibate.
It's probably a hormone problem or other physical malady. False! The available research indicates that asexuals go through normal puberty, their hormone levels are healthy, and even their physical arousal responses are similar to those of sexual people.
Asexuals are just immature or scared of sex. Insulting! There are asexuals of all ages, including many who (surprise!) have had sex or are in happily sexual relationships, and dismissing their orientation as immaturity is deeply disrespectful. Erin says, "People seem to think that because I do not experience sexual attraction, I am somehow innocent or simple, like a child." She's frustrated by having to struggle to be taken seriously.
As we start to talk more about asexuality, it's important to remember that just like any other orientation or gender identity, you don't have to understand it to respect it. Even if it doesn't make sense to you, remember the thousands of people with stories like Erin's who've been through years of pain and confusion suddenly clarified by learning about asexuality.
I asked Erin what she would say to any young person who's wondering if they might be asexual. "Coming out as asexual is difficult because it is so underrepresented and misunderstood," she says.
"People have a hard time understanding that someone can just not be interested in sex, because it has been thought of as a natural part of being human. I would like to tell my younger self not to worry, you don't need to be stressed out about not understanding when others talk about crushes or who is hot. I would like to tell anyone questioning their sexuality not to worry about labeling yourself unless it feels right... You are the only person who knows how you feel. Don't ever feel pressured into coming out no matter your orientation. If someone comes out to you as any orientation, please understand that they have shown lots of courage to do so, and be respectful if you don't understand or have questions."