Deepa* grew up in western India, and when she was 19, she fell in love for the first time—with her college teacher. That Deepa’s love for an older woman went unrequited wasn’t very surprising. More unusual was that unlike most crushes, Deepa felt no sexual desire. At all. In fact, the idea of her teacher’s body made Deepa cringe. And yet she loved her: her mind, her ideas, the reassuring beep of occasionally returned text messages.
It’s not like Deepa never felt any desire, though. There were other women she frequently masturbated to: basketball teammates fervently kissing; Finnish ice hockey players warming one another on cold nights; women masturbating at home, bodies bathed in late-afternoon sunlight. Most of them had slightly masculine figures. Several were athletes. And all of them lived on Literotica.com—considered by some to be the internet’s largest repository of erotica.
When people first began to use the term asexuality in the mid-20th century, it was widely seen as a complete lack of sexual desire. But as more people began to claim the identity for themselves in the late 90s, its definitions broadened to include a whole breadth of experiences.
“I feel sexual arousal, but I have not felt sexual attraction for anyone to date,” said Deepa, now 23. “I am more inclined to have romantic attractions toward women, but I see attraction in terms of ideas, intellect, and emotional attachment. ‘Body’ is something I cannot think of.”
Her arousal manifests as the suggestion of a thigh, rather than its taught, muscular presence. Or a description of a basketball player, rather than an IRL encounter with her soaked jersey. For Deepa, sexual arousal is reserved for women made up of words, not bodies. And she’s not alone.
Autochorrisexuality is a subset of asexuality in which asexuals, often known as “aces,” experience arousal and fantasies, but no desire to take part in them. As with most labels describing minority sexualities, for most aces, the term autochorrisexuality arrived way later in their journey to self-discovery, if it has at all.
Ayala*, a writer and actress who lives in Kenya, says she grew up feeling confused. “I was never sexually attracted to people, but I have a high libido,” she said. “I like nonsexual contact, yet I don’t really want sex. So it took me a long time to figure out I was an ace.”
As she stumbled through two uncomfortable sexual interactions and several unvoiced feelings, the one place she felt truly at home was in online erotic fan fiction. “I get aroused not because I want to be doing those things, but because reading about others doing those things is exciting for me,” she explained. “It’s detached, so I can be a kind of outsider looking in.”
For Ayala, reading is the only way she can masturbate without feeling “weird.” “It took me a while to learn that you can masturbate without having sexual feelings for another person, and that female masturbation itself is not wrong or bad,” she said.
Ayala rarely feels desire toward women she meets, but TV characters are another matter. When the character Maggie Sawyer steps out of Supergirl‘sscript and into the world of erotic fan fiction, Ayala feels a stab of desire. Who, after all, has not felt the electric pull of a fictional character—Buffy Summers’s one-liners, Brienne of Tarth’s strength, Omar Little’s swag?
They inspire us to borrow their worlds and try them on for size, leading some people to write fan fiction that sustains these characters beyond the screen. For many aces who fall into the category of autochorissexual, this can be lifesaving.
Some Disassembly Required is a comic by 34-year-old Sarah*, an asexual artist from Oregon. In it, we meet android technician Charlie, who becomes exasperated when an angry customer returns a supposedly defective robot. The android, named Jun, has a history of repairs, and when Charlie begins taking Jun apart at the leaking seams, he realizes why: Jun gets off on being disassembled. With each dismemberment, Jun moans in pleasure, black system fluid oozing everywhere, and Charlie realizes he’s turned on, too.
Sarah’s comics, drawn under the pseudonym Spacefuture, bring together themes of asexuality and desire. Growing up, it didn’t occur to Sarah that she was asexual, because she enjoyed masturbation. “I thought I was just broken, as many of us do,” she said.
A homeschooled child, Sarah had unlimited access to public libraries, where she discovered sexy sci-fi novels. “Pretty early on, I developed an interest in fictional sex,” she said. Sarah made the transition from words to drawings with an interest in manga. When she discovered yaoi, or gay Japanese “boyslove” comics, she said, “I knew that this was it. To date, I only fantasize about fictional, cartoon men.”
Sarah began drawing her own comics to express both her fantasies and “how scary and sad sex is when you don’t know why you don’t want it, but you still want to be part of it somehow.” Sarah’s comics always feature “cute gay boys” because, as she explained, “I’ve found this need for a level of separation between myself and the sexual activity I’m imagining.”
Vinay* from South India agrees. He discovered porn when he was 15 but quickly transitioned from its fleshy offerings to Literotica’s wordy landscape. Drawn to superhero comics and parodies, Vinay said, “I am aroused by the scenarios. I like the build up… the implication that there’s something sexual to follow is enough. I ejaculate before stories get to hardcore sexual acts.”
That “build up” is also what draws Sarah to yaoi, where story and character take precedence over body and sex. “Western comics and fan fic have a lot about who has what body, and those physical details make me really sick.”
In his book about sexual desires and deviancies, Perv, Jesse Bering suggests that if we look closely enough, all sex acts are a bit gross. Between sticky sweat, mixing saliva and unverifiable fluids, sex requires a certain willful blindness to visceral realities of the human body, and we walk a fine line between desire and disgust.
For asexual-identified people, the body is almost always something that goes too far. And for those seeking less fleshy forms of sexual expression, erotica, fan fiction, and comics provide safe, sexy spaces to feel out the boundaries of their own desires.
As Deepa said, “As far as I find my own body desirable, and as far as I can pleasure myself, I don’t need anybody else… This is enough.”
*Names changed at the request of those interviewed.
This piece originally appeared on VICE