Last week, I further explored gender identities. This week, I’m doing the same with sexual orientations. My series years ago didn’t mention some of the sexual orientations that are rapidly gaining recognition and descriptive language, and that anyone involved in a teen’s life has a good chance of hearing about; if not in relation to their teen, in relation to a peer. The two most common sexual orientations that I am hearing teens increasingly identify as are asexual and pansexual.

Asexual: If you took biology, “asexual” probably makes you think of spores or plants. However, in humans, asexual describes someone who is not interested in sexual intercourse. This does not necessarily mean that someone who is asexual does not want a partner; many asexual people are not “a-romantic”, and desire romantic partners to share life’s journey with. Someone who is asexual  may be romantically attracted to any or all genders.

A key part of asexuality is that an asexual person- while possibly frustrated at our hypersexual media and expectations for teenagers- does not feel intrinsically uncomfortable with their asexuality. It feels like a part of them, even if it’s a part of them that isn’t being recognized or discussed. If someone does not desire sex, and it’s causing them distress and feels wrong, they may have hypoactive sexual desire disorder (which is not a commonly diagnosed disorder in teens, but is an important distinction.)

Anyone can be asexual, but if someone has gone through sexual abuse or similar trauma in childhood, a lack of sexual desire may indicate other problems. Any teen who has suffered through that type of abuse needs an experienced mental health provider (provided they are willing to see one) to help them sort out the aftereffects of sexual trauma, learn coping strategies, and plan for their adult life.

I should also add that an asexual teen is not immune from problems that can come from sexual intercourse, from strong emotions to sexually transmitted infections. Asexual teens may experiment with sexual activity to please a partner, experiment, or try to fit in. If your teen identifies as asexual, they still need to hear messages about pregnancy prevention and safer sex. It is respectful, though, to preface the information with a recognition of their identification as asexual, but an encouragement to know this information “just in case.”  If nothing else, they can be a resource for their sexually active friends.

Pansexual: Someone who is pansexual is attracted to all genders. It’s similar to bisexual in this way: someone who is bisexual is attracted to people with a male or female gender identity.  Someone who is pansexual includes more genders, such as genderqueer and agender. As teens increasingly identify as non-binary genders, teens also are increasingly reporting attraction to non-binary genders.

Pansexual is also called omnisexual, and someone who is polysexual is attracted to more than just males and females, but not all genders (for example, they may be attracted to a genderqueer person, but not an agender person.)

Given that teens like to try on and discard identities, it can be easy to assign the “newer” sexual orientations to the “just a phase” category. However, there are many adults who identify as asexual or pansexual, as well as other terms that you and I (or anyone!) may not have heard yet. It’s important not to belittle or disregard a teen’s coming out to you as any sexual orientation, as you may be belittling or disregarding a core part of their identity that will stay with them lifelong. Respond with respect, and open-ended questions to try and better understand what your teen is thinking and feeling. As always, if you’re concerned, seek help from an expert in teens and/ or mental health that you and your teen agree on.

Intergenerational conversations about sexual orientation are rarely relaxing or easy. However, they can bring families closer together, and help you gain knowledge of who your teen is, as well as who they are becoming.