- Asexual people live among us, but many don't feel visible
- Asexuality is defined by a lack of sexual attraction to others
- Online community has made many asexuals feel less alone
- "I do not need to be fixed or cured, I am asexual and that's OK."
(CNN)It's not just a phase.
They're not frigid, sick, repressed or broken.
Meeting the so-called "right one" isn't going to change anything.
But for people like Sandra Mellott, the questions just keep on rolling in from friends, family and loved ones who may mean well but don't understand what it's like to identify as asexual.
In a society historically centered around romantic pairings and increasingly bombarded by raunchy imagery, people who don't experience sexual attraction can often feel isolated, invisible and misunderstood. But now a growing number of asexual people are banding together in solidarity and support, finding like-hearted souls in a culture where "happily (and hornily) ever after" is the end goal.
Most people likely haven't heard the word "asexual" since their high school biology class, where it was used to describe plants that reproduce without a second parent. When it comes to people, however, the term can encompass a vast array of experiences.
At its root, asexuality is an orientation defined by the lack of sexual attraction to other people. But humans are complicated creatures, and it only branches out from there. This is not about self-imposed celibacy. Asexual people can identify as gay, straight, bisexual or none of the above.
Some, like Mellott, are aromantic to varying degrees and have little to no emotionally romantic attraction to other people. They may still experience and desire intense friendship bonds, crushes, or "squishes" -- which Asexuality.org defines as the platonic equivalent of a romantic crush.
Some have romantic feelings, but are satisfied with cuddling, hand-holding and proximity. Still others experience waxing and waning degrees and frequency of sexual attraction, drive and pleasure, thus finding themselves on what's called the "gray-A" spectrum, depending upon the circumstances and parties involved.
An ongoing meme in online asexual circles is that even if someone isn't interested in sex, there's always cake, and who doesn't like that? Images of cake are often used to welcome new members or reward them for various life victories online and off.
The community is not without a strong sense of humor and warmth -- but it's not always met with a tremendous degree of understanding from people wired since birth to believe that pair bonding is the end-all, be-all.
Mellott, a writer and victim advocate at a Montana shelter, has always known that she was asexual and aromantic, but has often struggled to get the people around her to accept it as fact. At age 5 she got her first boyfriend, and promptly forgot, neglecting to write the love poem they had agreed to exchange the next day. At 10, she braced herself for questions from adults wondering if she had a boyfriend yet, rehearsing the answer, "I don't want one; I'm just not interested."
At 13, a quick Internet search for "asexual" confirmed to her that she wasn't alone. At 18, she casually came out to a female classmate who thought it was "the coolest thing ever," and at 21, to a male classmate who tried to "help" her by suggesting masturbation.
At 25, she came out to her family, confirming what she thought they probably knew, and letting them know she was at peace with it. "This is a permanent part of who I am, and I'm proud and confident about it."
Mellott says her mother was loving and supportive -- and entirely baffled.
"She understands what I'm saying but just can't comprehend how it's possible herself," Mellott says. "So she asks these 'really, not ever?' kind of questions that aren't malicious but get tiring, mostly because they're coming from someone who I love and want to just accept and understand me without all this extra effort."
And then there are the men who treat her as a potential sexual conquest. "Sometimes I think they take my orientation as some kind of personal attack and they can get really hostile about it," she says.
Megan Allen, who works as a health care professional in a town outside of Seattle, has known all her 21 years that sexual attraction just wasn't in the cards for her. She identifies as a repulsed asexual -- a person for whom the idea of sexual contact is simply disgusting.
"All of those bodily fluids and being in such a vulnerable position, and the diseases it could cause, and just... eww," she says.
It's not a prudishness on her part; she's done her due diligence on the matter, even to the point of being involved in a nudist colony. There was an "actual psych test to join that proves you're not there to be a pervert," she says. "So I've seen it all."
But she, too, knew from an early age that some activities simply aren't an option for her, and that it might limit her prospects for partnership. "Because of my complete unwillingness to compromise on sex, I'm sort of limited on my dating options," she realizes.
Other asexuals, the impotent, people willing to confine their sexual encounters to either self-gratification or a mistress Allen approves would be the only viable solutions, she says. "Obviously, the last two would put quite a strain on any relationship."
But she's more open about herself these days than she was in the past -- even placing a bet with several family members who don't believe that her orientation is set in stone. "I tried to discuss this with my sister once, and with my parents," Allen says.
"Both proceeded to make bets with me that I would change my mind someday. I put it in writing both times, they're in my dad's safe. In about nine years, it'll be fun to collect the hundred dollars."