It’s Friday afternoon during finals week, and two undergrads at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville are lounging together on a battered couch in the student center, watching cartoons. They’ve only met twice before, but they’re all over each other. Rae, a tiny pixie of a sophomore wearing a newsboy cap, nuzzles up against Sean, a handsome freshman. He’s got his arm draped across her. They giggle and tease each other, and she sprawls into his lap. Their friend Genevieve, perched on the arm of the couch, smiles and rolls her eyes.
It looks like a standard collegiate prelude to a one-night stand. But there will be no kissing, no fondling, and definitely no Saturday morning walk of shame. Sean and Rae do not have the hots for each other—or anyone else, for that matter. In fact, they’re here hanging out at the campus outreach center, a haven for all who question their sexuality and gender identity, because they’re exploring an unconventional idea: life without sex. Or mostly without sex. They’re pioneers of an emerging sexual identity, one with its own nomenclature and subcategories of romance and desire, all revolving around the novel concept that having little to no interest in sex is itself a valid sexual orientation. Rae tells me she’s an aromantic asexual, Sean identifies as a heteroromantic demisexual, and Genevieve sees herself as a panromantic gray-asexual.
Not sure what these terms mean? You’re not alone. The definitions are still in flux, but most people who describe themselves as demisexual say they only rarely feel desire, and only in the context of a close relationship. Gray-asexuals (or gray-aces) roam the gray area between absolute asexuality and a more typical level of interest. Then there are the host of qualifiers that describe how much romantic attraction you might feel toward other people: Genevieve says she could theoretically develop a nonsexual crush on just about any type of person, so she is “panromantic”; Sean is drawn to women, so he calls himself “heteroromantic.”
“WHEN MY HEART DECIDED HE WAS MY SOUL MATE,
MY BODY DECIDED SO TOO.”
If the taxonomy seems loose and even confusing, it’s because the terms were created almost wholly online, arising on gaming-site forums and a nest of interrelated Tumblrs, blogs, and subreddits. They don’t necessarily describe fixed identities but serve more as beacons for people to locate each other online. While the rest of the world was using the web to invent and gratify new pervy thrills, these people used it as a wormhole out of a relentlessly sexual culture. It might be the only corner of the Internet that is not laced with porn.
So although labels are a big part of it, demisexuals and gray-aces don’t get too caught up in the lingo. They tend to be pretty comfortable with the idea they might change. A few months after that Friday at the outreach center, Genevieve realized she is more of an asexual than a gray-ace, and Sean now isn’t sure if he’s demi or ace. “Every single…
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