Sex doesn’t make us whole: Why misconceptions about the ace spectrum matter

This article explores how misconceptions surrounding the ace spectrum community have the potential to actively harm the physical and mental wellbeing of its members.

By Elli Fowler 24th October 2021

Photo by Igor Alecsander

Author image

Elli Fowler

Mental Health Research Analyst


To the general population it may seem that the LGBTQ+ community is a constant source of new identities, names and concepts to learn and understand. It may appear a daunting task, and so, many do not bother, assuming that any misconceptions they may possess are completely harmless. This is not the case however, misconceptions around people’s identity have the potential to do significant damage. 

A community about which there remains significant misconception is the asexuality spectrum community, owing to the fact that to many it is still a relatively novel concept. Novelty is no excuse however, and it must be recognised that these are lived experiences of actual people, and the lack of awareness and understanding impacts their day to day lives. The National LGBT Survey conducted by the UK government in 2018 revealed that asexual respondants reported one of the lowest life satisfactions and highest levels of fear of openness of any cis group within the community [1]. Another study found that asexuality was associated with increased prevalence of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, psychoticism, suicidality and interpersonal problems [2]. At Helsa, we surveyed 77 people who identify on the ace spectrum about misconceptions regarding their sexuality, and have used their responses to inform the writing of this article. 


Photo by Katie Rainbow via Pexels

As awareness of asexuality has increased over recent years, the shallow level of understanding has produced a number of mistaken beliefs. The first being the assumption that “asexuality” and the “ace spectrum” are one and the same. Asexuality is, in simple terms, a lack of sexual attraction [3]. However, this is not an all or nothing concept. There are people who experience very minimal or sporadic sexual attraction who may identify as asexual, greysexual or more generally on the ace spectrum. There is then demisexuality, which specifically denotes only experiencing sexual attraction when a strong emotional connection is already present. However, demisexual identifying Lara, wishes people understood that demisexuality is not a moral choice fueled by sexual conservatism nor equivalent to following societal norms of waiting to have sex until the third date. Asexuality, greysexuality and demisexuality are sexual orientations like any other, not a choice, not a lifestyle, but an integral part of an individual’s identity.

The second major misconception that afflicts ace spectrum individuals is the presumption that lack of or minimal sexual attraction equals a lack of interest in either relationships or sex. This is categorically not true. There is an important distinction to be noted between different types of attraction. Sexual attraction denotes an attraction on the basis of sexual desire, whilst romantic attraction is attraction on the basis of romance outside of sex. Whilst for many sexual and romantic attractions will exist in tandem, for others it does not. As Sarah, a 23 year old lesbian asexual cis woman puts it “asexual doesn’t mean aromantic, I’m a very romantic person”. Therefore, a person who experiences no sexual attraction may still experience romantic attraction and desire a romantic relationship. 


Photo by Alessandrobiascioli

With regards to sex, for some ace spectrum individuals, it is not something they ever wish to partake in, however others may have sex both within relationships and outside of them. As eloquently described by one of our survey respondents, SJ, 24 who identifies as asexual and agender, “It’s about attraction not action”, meaning sexual actions are not necessarily dictated by sexual attraction or lack thereof. In our survey, a number of respondents reported the harmful impact of these presumptions around sex. Lisa, a 34 year old cisgender woman described to us how the social expectation of sex can cause significant anxiety when starting a new relationship. This is something that is intensified by experiences of some ace people of it being forced upon them to prove a point. Even for ace individuals in established relationships, they can face completely inappropriate conduct from others. For Danielle, a 22 year old non-binary person, this ranged from being told they are selfish for not having sex with their partner to it being suggested that their partner will get their sexual needs met elsewhere. These statements can be recognised as wildly inappropriate to say to anyone, and yet they seem to be commonplace in the lived experiences of ace spectrum people. This is why these misconceptions matter, because the results are not only ignorant, cruel comments, but they potentially put ace people in harm's way of physical violence. 

It’s about attraction not action.

The apparent acceptability of such comments is due to the fact that asexuality is a widely infantilised sexual orientation. In the same vein of parents telling a child to try a new food, there is a lack of understanding of how one “could not like sex if they’ve never tried it”. It is assumed that asexual people are actually just sexually naive or childish, hence the belief that having sex would somehow change their mind. This is not only a highly dangerous belief but it is simply incorrect. As mentioned, a lack of sexual attraction is distinct from a lack of desire to engage in sexual activity, and for those ace individuals who do hold negative feelings towards sex, it still doesn’t indicate childishness, but rather stems from a component of their sexual orientation. As a result, a number of people who responded to our survey felt pressured to prove themselves. Either through being told they could possibly know if they are asexual because they haven’t had sex with the right person, as was the case for Melanie (36) or that they couldn’t possibly be asexual because they have sex, but as Tom, early 20s, describes “you can have sex and be ace, you can enjoy sex and be ace”. Fundamentally, asexual people do not owe anyone proof of their identity and should be able to exist and feel supported. 

You can have sex and be ace, you can enjoy sex and be ace.

Whilst these misconceptions existing in the general population can have extremely harmful effects on people on the ace spectrum, unfortunately they also persist with vigour within the medical field. Due to the preconceptions already discussed, such as the conflation of sexual attraction and desire, and the inherent dismissal of asexuality as a product of sexual naivety, there remains an association of asexuality with pathology. Michael, a 34 year old cisgenger man, describes being told “that a good trip to the doctors would sort it”, whilst Helen, a 42 year old cisgender woman, wishes people knew that her asexuality is not the result of a “hormone imbalance or psychological problem”. Whilst it is true that there are a number of mental and physical diseases that are associated with decrease in sexual drive, such as clinical depression [4], this does not mean that asexuality is also a byproduct of a medical condition. However, the assumption that it is can present a number of problems for ace people who seek medical help for other issues. For example, their asexuality being counted as a “symptom” can lead to medical professionals overlooking actual symptoms and even lead to misdiagnosis [5]. This without doubt can be incredibly dangerous for both physical and mental health, and should not be discounted as harmless traditional medical thinking. The sexualities on the ace spectrum cannot and need not be cured, but are mediums of self identification. 


Image by Grustock

There are many forms of attraction, of which sexual attraction is only one. Happy, successful relationships can be built on a whole range of foundations and dynamics, both with and without sex. It is summed up best by one of our survey respondents Kelly (32), “Just because someone does not find happiness in the same way that you do does not mean they are not happy”. People on the ace spectrum live happy lives, enjoy fulfilling relationships and are proud to be ace. They do not need to be belittled and constantly questioned about their identity. Representation of the ace community should endeavour to quash many of the misconceptions mentioned and diversify the landscape of ace inclusion. Whilst lack of education on these issues may well have no malice within it, it is the uncomfortable truth that as long as misconceptions around asexuality persist, they will compromise the wellbeing of the ace spectrum community, and therefore we must endeavour to create the space for change.