CHICAGO — Looking back, Allison McCorkle can laugh at all the signs she missed: There was that time in sixth grade when the cool boy her friends were swooning over called to ask her out. Not only was McCorkle uninterested, but she was also puzzled as to why anyone would feel otherwise.
“We’re too young to be doing that,” she told her flustered suitor.
A few years later, when McCorkle’s best friend gushed over a man coming out of a store — “Oh my God! He’s so hot! What do you think?” — McCorkle’s response was much the same: a confused shrug of the “beats me” variety.
“I had no concept of what ‘hot’ was,” she said.
McCorkle, 39, of Downers Grove, Illinois, is one of the estimated 1 in 100 adults who are asexual, or feel no sexual attraction to others. Largely ignored in a culture where sex sells everything from beer to pop songs to reality TV, they face stigma even among college students, who, according to one key study, view asexuals more negatively than either heterosexuals or homosexuals.
Dismissive responses such as “You need to have your hormones checked” or “You just haven’t met the right person,” remain common, according to British asexual activist Yasmin Benoit.
And under the cloak of anonymity afforded by social media, some critics feel free to express outright hate.
But in the past five years asexuals, who often refer to themselves as aces, have seen hard-won progress, with both experts and ordinary people pointing to signs of increased visibility.
The first International Asexuality Day, co-founded by Benoit, was held in April, the popular TV shows “BoJack Horseman” and “Sex Education” have featured affirming storylines, publishers have offered young adult books with asexual characters, and social media has become more inclusive, with the arrival of voices such as TikTok’s Ace Dad, a married playwright in his 40s who offers hope and reassurance to teens.
Ace flags are showing up in Target, local asexuals say, and Ikea Canada recently offered a “bisexual sofa” in the colors of the ace flag.
“We have a foot in the door. We didn’t before,” said McCorkle, an administrator of the 580-member AVEN Chicago Meetups Facebook group for local asexuals.
For asexuals, the stakes are high.
“The word that comes up again and again when I hear other ace people talk about their experiences is feeling ‘broken,” said TikTok’s Ace Dad, Cody Daigle-Orians.
“When you look out at the world and you don’t see anything that looks like your experience or sounds like your experience, the world is like a funhouse mirror. It’s reflecting a distorted version of what’s true, so you feel like a broken version of yourself.”
Asexuals made up 1% of the population in an influential analysis of survey results from more than 18,000 British people that was published in the Journal of Sex Research in 2004.
The aces who spoke to the Tribune in the vignettes below are a diverse group, as are asexuals overall.
The ace spectrum includes people who avoid sex entirely, who are willing to have sex in relationships for the sake of their partners, or who enjoy it when they have it, even if they don’t feel sexually drawn to anyone. Some have strong romantic feelings, while others do not.
What they share is a perspective that’s rarely heard in a culture saturated with sexual images and innuendo — a perspective, some say, that holds lessons for everyone.
Angela Chen, author of Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex (Beacon Press, 2020) says that asexuals like herself are pushing back against a culture of “compulsory sexuality,” where frequent, passionate sex is embraced as the ideal — and anything else is seen as suspect.
“I wish we lived in a world where it didn’t matter (how sexual you were) because whatever you wanted was fine; it was about what helped you flourish,” said Chen.
“I think being ace gives people permission, but I wish people felt like they had that permission, regardless.”
Dan Hauswald, 33, Mundelein, Illinois
Asexual and sex favorable
Dan Hauswald is searching for the right metaphor. And then, there it is: backpacking.
Hiking and camping in the wilderness require a lot of trust, he said. Your backpacking companion has to know what she needs, carry it on her back and bring her own set of vital outdoor skills, from starting a fire to pitching a tent in the rain.
He wants a backpacking companion who can handle adversity, he said. One who won’t judge him when he’s struggling.
“I don’t walk around and see someone and say, ‘I want to go backpacking with them,’” Hauswald said with a laugh.
Similarly, Hauswald said, he isn’t tempted to have sex with utter strangers.
Sex is an activity he enjoys with someone he knows, likes and trusts.
Dating has been easier, said Hauswald, an exhibit designer for trade shows, since he’s become open about not feeling sexual attraction, either within relationships or outside them. That narrows his dating pool, he said, but only by eliminating people who wouldn’t really be interested anyway.
On OkCupid, where he lists asexual as his orientation and then mentions it again in the first paragraph of his self-description, he’s gotten messages such as “I love how open and honest you are.”
His dates need to know that he’s not going to tell them “You’re so sexy,” because that wouldn’t be honest.
But he does experience aesthetic attraction — say, being drawn to the way someone dresses or presents themselves.
“Once I’m in a relationship, it doesn’t really affect things, but it really affects how I form relationships,” he said.
Hauswald came upon the word asexual during his senior year in college, by way of a podcast that presented asexuality very negatively. At the time, he didn’t think the term really fit him, but later, when internet definitions broadened, he changed his mind.
Three years ago he started going to local asexual meetups. Last year, when a popular Dungeons & Dragons character was revealed to be asexual, Hauswald came out to his two D & D groups, with good results in both cases.
For a long time, he said, he wanted to feel sexual attraction but coming out as asexual has helped him move on.
“I don’t need to be fixed because I’m not broken,” Hauswald said. “You’re just who you are, and you need to figure out how to be that true version of yourself.”
Allison McCorkle, 39, Downers Grove, Illinois
Asexual and aromantic (not romantically attracted to people)
At about age 14, Allison McCorkle went shopping for a black skirt for her band concert. The best fitting option had leg slits, which wasn’t necessarily a problem, but then the salesperson swooped in to clinch the deal: “Look, leg slits! How sexy!”
McCorkle turned to her mom, mortified: “No! I don’t want that because I don’t want to be sexy!”
Frank and funny, with little wire-rimmed glasses and long hair pulled back in a ponytail, McCorkle laughs when she tells these stories. But at the time, her friends and classmates seemed to be operating from a different playbook — one no one had bothered to share with her.
“What’s wrong with me?” McCorkle would wonder.
McCorkle, who is nonbinary and uses both they/them and she/her pronouns, finally decided to give dating a try in her early 20s, but the results weren’t good.
Looking for answers, McCorkle turned to the burgeoning internet, where she discovered the word asexual. But this was in the early 2000s when definitions of asexual were often very strict and narrow, and McCorkle decided that, ultimately, she didn’t qualify.
McCorkle struggled to understand their asexuality for five more years, before finding a more modern definition at the Asexual Visibility and Education Network website.
One of McCorkle’s goals in helping to organize the local asexual community is to make sure the next generation of asexual teens have an easier time finding information and support.
McCorkle also hopes to see a world where friendship is taken more seriously, both legally and culturally.
In the absence of such recognition, McCorkle and her best friend, Vash Strandboe, who is married, sometimes refer to each other as sisters.
“Sisters” is not a perfect description of their 20-year friendship. It doesn’t quite explain why Strandboe wanted McCorkle to be in the birthing room when Strandboe’s 2-year-old was born, or the emotion in McCorkle’s voice when she says she has been there for Strandboe in the past and will be there in the future.
But at least “sisters” opens hospital doors and answers basic questions.
“Relationships between romantic couples are important,” said McCorkle. “But they are not inherently more important, nor are other relationships less necessary.”
Jenny Johnson, 32, Forest Park, Illinois
When it comes to dating, Jenny Johnson has a lot of questions for the allosexuals, or those who experience sexual attraction.
“How did you know your partner was yours?” she asks her allosexual friends. “How’d you know you wanted a second date?”
The answer, inevitably, comes down to something along the lines of, “Oh, I wondered what he’d look like without his clothes,” which is interesting to Johnson, but not particularly helpful.
“I would never think like that,” Johnson said, laughing.
Polished but approachable, in a sleek navy dress with a bright zigzag pattern, Johnson, an analyst at an advertising agency, said that she put off dating until her mid-20s, hoping that everything that didn’t make sense to her would finally click.
That’s not what happened.
“It was very confusing,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on. Things that I thought I should like I didn’t.”
An avid reader of fan fiction, in which readers spin new tales about their favorite characters, she eventually came upon an account of an asexual relationship. Inspired, she plunged into online research and discovered that she was ace.
“I was really excited,” she said. “I immediately went out and got an ace ring. I was like, ‘Yes! This is my identity. I want to own it 100%.’”
Today, she has supportive friends, both asexual and allosexual, and a wide range of interests and hobbies. She takes archery lessons, writes fiction, runs an ace book group that draws readers from as far away as Fort Wayne, Indiana and Madison, Wisconsin, and co-leads a National Novel Writing Month initiative in the western suburbs.
She has grown more confident about being ace, she said, but she still bumps up against societal pressures and dismissive attitudes.
“One of my friends, she came out (as asexual) and her parents straight-up didn’t believe her,” Johnson said. “It’s been years and they still don’t believe her. Things like that still happen.”
On the dating front, Johnson has been giving some thought to what she wants from a relationship, and how to get it.
Her eyes bright, Johnson, who dates both men and women, talked about an idea pioneered in the LGBTQ community: the QPR, or queerplatonic relationship, which is based on cooperation and companionship, not sex or romance.
“Have you heard of a bromance?” said Johnson, referring to intense friendships between heterosexual men.
“They’re kind of similar. They are aboveboard platonic (relationships), usually between two queer partners, but the idea is, it comes down to pretty much shared domesticity. This is a person that you will always do things with.”
That kind of companionship appeals to her strongly, as does the mutual care and support she sees in older married couples facing sickness or surgery.
For the most part, though, Johnson said she is happy with her life as it is.
“I still imagine having a partner,” she said. “But if it happens or it doesn’t, I might feel the same either way.”
Kelsey O’Regan, 30, Edgewater
Asexual, queer and nonbinary
Kelsey O’Regan cried when they first saw the episode of Netflix’s “Sex Education” in which a sex therapist tells an asexual teen that there’s nothing wrong with her: “Sex doesn’t make us whole. And so, how could you ever be broken?”
A year later, O’Regan re-watched the episode and cried again.
“That was a big day for the ace community, and I think we’re still kind of reeling from it,” said O’Regan, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.
Representation matters to O’Regan, author of the original web series "BIFL," which features a range of queer characters. Now living in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, they grew up in small-town New Hampshire, watching TV shows such as "Pretty Little Liars," in which teens are presented as highly sexual.
“Our whole culture is so sex-saturated; you’re raised on that mindset that attractive people sleep together as soon as they decide they want to,” O’Regan said.
O’Regan learned the word asexual a couple of years ago, and started identifying as ace after making friends in the asexual community and attending meetups.
It’s been a long, difficult process of self-acceptance, they said, but also a very rewarding one.
“I was already an emotionally intelligent person, but it’s put the onus even more so on that side of me,” they said. “It’s kind of forced me to be a really good communicator; it’s really forced me to be more feelings oriented. I think it’s really contributed to my openness.”
O’Regan struggled with their asexuality in a previous relationship, but last winter they dated a woman who turned out to be a great communicator. O’Regan mentioned their asexuality on the first date. A couple of dates later, the woman brought up the topic again, and an honest talk ensued.
“What do you think this will look like?” they asked each other.
“What would you need in (this or) that situation?”
After that, they were able to have an intimate encounter in which both of them were very comfortable with O’Regan’s boundaries.
“It’s a feeling of, the pressure’s gone: just that moment of euphoria when you don’t have to justify yourselves. That was more important to me than the first time I ever had sex,” O’Regan said.
O’Regan, who moved to Chicago in 2017, is excited about their writing career; they’re working on revisions of Season 2 of "BIFL."
At the end of the interview, they recalled how on the Fourth of July, they decided to walk to the fireworks at Edgewater Beach.
“I just headed toward the buoys and I realized the whole beach was filled with people from the neighborhood and they were just doing fireworks right on the (darn) beach — I’ve never been so close to them. It was really a magical thing, just being alone in the dark with all these people and watching fireworks,” they said.
As the bright lights filled the sky, O’Regan started to feel emotional. Here they were, a year into therapy, living alone for the first time, and caring for their first solo pet, a cat named Stevie.
“I think I’m doing really well,” they told the Tribune. “I’ve been doing a lot of work, and forging my own path for once, and really trying to create, from bottom to top, the life that I want.”