Kate Eggleston, 25, of Falls Church knew that she was different by the end of elementary school. When she finally met other asexuals, “it was a relief,” she says. (April Greer/For The Washington Post)

On a table in a Chinatown pizza place sat a toy birthday cake.

It was a symbol to newcomers looking for the Asexuals of the Mid-Atlantic Meetup that they had found the right group. Because after all, what’s better than sex? Cake.

Six people in their 20s and 30s showed up that night. They talked about books and previous gatherings and what other members of the group were up to. And they talked about classic “ace moments.”

“Ace” is the nickname for asexuals — people who aren’t sexually attracted to either gender, to anyone at all.

A pretty dark-haired woman who’d recently moved from Boston to Washington had just had an ace moment that week. Her new co-workers were asking about “her type” of guy.

Roger Fox, 31, of Bethesda arranges get-togethers for the MidAtlantic Asexual Meetup. “We’re not pushing for specific rights,” he says, “except awareness.” (April Greer/For The Washington Post)

“I’m not really that into people,” she responded.

And what she got in return, mostly, were blank stares.

It’s the blank stares — and reactions that are sometimes much worse — that a growing number of asexuality awareness advocates are trying to reduce. They want people to know that sometimes boys like girls and girls like boys. Sometimes boys like boys and girls like girls. And sometimes some people don’t like either — not in a sexual sense, anyway — and that is perfectly okay, too.

Roger Fox, one of three young men at the Chinatown meetup, has always known that he was different. He was bullied pretty badly as a kid in suburban Baltimore, in part because he was quiet and studious and half-Japanese. By high school, he’d learned to protect himself by going off on his own.

“I thought I was just socially different,” says Fox, now 31. “I didn’t know it had anything to do with sex until I was old enough to where people were talking about it all the time. Then I was like, ‘Oooohh, that’s why I’m different.’ ” Fox had no interest in sex at all.

Life got easier at the University of Maryland, where he found new groups of friends. Privately, he began to think of himself as “non-sexual.” A few times, girls expressed interest in him, but the physical intimacy thing always came up quickly, and the connections fizzled.

In 2008, he moved to Washington for an accounting job and began to look online for interesting Meetup groups that might allow him to establish a community. He went to a hiking meetup and one for German-language speakers. And then, fatefully, the Meetup Web site suggested that he might be interested in the asexuals meetup.

“I didn’t know it was an actual thing that other people experienced,” he says. “For me at that moment, when I realized there were other people, it was really kind of a joyful moment.”

Part of the narrative

Like others who discover the term asexual — and think that it applies to them — Fox soon discovered the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN).

David Jay, the de facto spokesperson for the asexuality community, founded AVEN as a freshman at Wesleyan University in 2001. “The first thing I felt, before I understood anything else about myself, was that there was this expectation of sexuality that was being put on me by society, and I knew it wasn’t there,” he says. “Once I came to terms with who I was, I wanted to reach out and find other people like me. I didn’t want other people to go through the same struggle.”

Within two months, AVEN’s Web site had 100 members, many of whom e-mailed Jay to tell him their story. When he opened up a forum so members could talk to each other, personal tales began pouring in. Today, AVEN has almost 80,000 registered members.

The most commonly used figure to account for the number of asexuals in society comes from a 2004 British study of 18,000 people. One percent of respondents reported that they felt no sexual attraction to either men or women. That number may seem small, but 1 percent of the entire U.S. population is 3.16 million people.

And there are increased efforts at gaining societal acceptance. The fourth annual Asexuality Awareness Week took place last month. Campus groups are popping up all over the country, including Ace Space at the University of Maryland. And this fall saw the publication of “The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality,” by Julie Sondra Decker.

“I want it to get into sex ed and sexual counselors,” Decker, a writer and an asexual, says of the book. “So that it will work into the common knowledge and common narrative about what sexuality is.”

‘That’s a thing?’

That would have been a godsend for Kate Eggleston. “If somebody had told me at 15 that that was a normal thing — if we had just gone down the line [of possibilities] and said, ‘Also, there are some people who like nobody,’ I would’ve gone, ‘Boom! Done! That’s a thing? I’m going to be that thing,’ ” she recalls. “I think it would’ve saved me and a handful of other people a whole lot of frustration if I had known it was a valid choice.”

Eggleston, now 25, knew that she was different by the end of elementary school. “All the fifth- and sixth-grade girls kind of start on the, ‘Oh my God, who do you like? Who do you have a crush on?’ ” she says.

“I don’t know the right answer to this,” she remembers thinking. “ ‘Um, no one?’ I just never had an answer.”

During high school in the Hampton Roads area, she had a boyfriend, but mostly because he seemed to like her and that was what was expected of her. He was really just a buddy who liked the same books and video games that she did. But when he started getting interested in having sex, the relationship hit a dead end.

Eggleston tried dating again in college, but the sex issue always got in the way. Finally she bowed to societal pressure and wound up in a sexual relationship with a boyfriend for six months.

“I’d never felt an inclination to, but the entire universe says that I should, so I’m going to try it,” she recalls. “And it sucked. It sucked. I hated it. I hated the whole thing. Not just the sex part, but the relationship, too. I wasn’t good at it.”

Eggleston spent the rest of college single. But when she moved to Washington to work as an office coordinator at the Pentagon two years ago, she decided to give dating another shot. Quickly she met a man who seemed ideal: He was handsome and interesting and well-read and liked good music and was really into her.

They went on three dates. “I wasn’t attracted to him because I don’t feel attraction,” she says. “And that’s when I called it. I was like, ‘I think I’m done with this for good.’ Because that was my best shot.”

She turned to the Internet for answers and found the AVEN Web site. “Honestly, it was a relief,” she says. “It was nice to have a word to assign to it other than ‘broken’ or ‘questioning’ or whatever it was.”

She told her friends, who were very accepting, and tried to explain it to her parents, though without using the word “asexual.”

“We’ve gotten to a place where I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m a 90-year-old cat lady!’ ” she says jokingly. “ ‘And I’m never getting married. Are you cool with that?’ My mom never asks, ‘So, are you dating?’ Because she knows I’m not.”

Her parents do worry about her being alone — last year she got a Taser for Christmas. “So right now I’m in the positive reinforcement stage. Like, ‘No, really, I’m happy. I’m happier than I’ve ever been before,’ ” she says. “Because I know what I’m about and I get it now.”

A broader understanding

There is great variation within the asexual community and some, like Eggleston, are not interested in sex or relationships. Others, like Roger Fox, still hope to find a partner in life.

Fox’s mom is also very interested in seeing that happen. “She gives me all sorts of examples of things where my parents will do something for each other and my mom will say, ‘See, only someone you’re married to will do that for you,’ ” he says.

Perhaps because Fox is an only child, the spotlight on him is intensified. His hope is that he will find someone compatible and even have children one day, perhaps through adoption. That may happen through the events he attends and helps to organize within the asexual community or, he says, he may meet someone from the general population.

“I think it’s really a spectrum,” he says. “It’s not like you’re a 0 or a 100 [in terms of sexual desire.] The idea is to find somebody close enough to you on the spectrum to be compatible.”

Fox knows that he has a greater dating challenge than the average guy, but he is focused primarily on making the most of life as it is. “I think the moment you start getting frustrated, you start getting desperate, and that’s when bad things happen,” he says. “The key is, you have to be happy with your life as it is before you can be ready to welcome somebody else into it.”

Most of the people who come to the events Fox helps organize are young. But sometimes they’ll get new members in their 50s or 60s who are just beginning to understand their experience. Once a man brought his wife of many years, members say, to show her that asexuality was a real thing — and that his lack of sexual desire was no reflection on her attractiveness.

Advocates hope that over time, their efforts to raise awareness will reach older people still grappling with their sexuality, as well as young people just starting to figure it out. “I think to some extent, self-awareness is really the only important thing,” says Fox. “We’re not really pushing for specific rights, except awareness.”

Jay hopes to create a broader understanding that will prevent people from feeling pressured into sexual situations or being bullied because of their differences.

“There are a lot of negative experiences,” he says. People often wrongly assume, he says, that because people are asexual, they are not capable of emotional intimacy. At other times, asexuals encounter the belief that “there is something wrong with us that needs to get fixed in order for our humanity to be expressed.”

Jay thinks that the community’s education efforts are beginning to pay off. “We’re becoming part of the dialogue in a more sustained way, and that’s a huge step,” he says. “More and more people are coming together. And that’s allowing it to be more accessible to more people.”

Jay’s hope is that anyone grappling with asexuality — whether their own or that of someone they love — will now have access to a great deal of information and support. And that they’ll be able to see it as just one component of a potentially full, rich, fulfilling life.

“I think we’ve made a really significant shift,” he says. “But I think there’s a long way to go.”