Ninqi Stratton knew she was different when she and her friends hit puberty.
Her friends emerged with strong sexual identities. Stratton felt nothing. Not straight. Not gay. Not bisexual.
Even now, at 18, she doesn't go weak at the knees to her boyfriend's touch.
She is not sexual. She is asexual.
"When children grow up, usually around the age of 12 they experience this 'aha' moment where they know they like boys or they know they like girls," she said. "Myself and a lot of other asexuals never had that. We always felt like maybe something's wrong."
Stratton, a Temple University neuroscience major, is part of an estimated one percent of the world that identifies as asexual, according to studies published the past decade.
Researchers define the term, whose users often shorten to the nickname "aces," as a lack of sexual desire or attraction. But there simply hasn't been enough medical and psychological research conducted on asexuals to say much more.
"When you find the label 'asexual' fits you, you feel like you finally found your place," said Stratton, who created the "Aces of Philadelphia" Facebook and meetup group last year. The group has 37 members who meet for outings to the movies or mall.
While asexuals are nothing new, they have remained largely isolated. Now, through social networks, they are weaving together communities and a growing number of people appear to connect with the term asexual.
Stratton has found she is not alone.
'Before, you had to really search for them'
Lara Landis, a Milton, Pa., native who founded the Asexual News website, remembers the time before those questioning could put a name to their feelings with only a few mouse clicks.
"I've run across an old Ann Landers column that mentioned us from the 1980s, but before, you had to really search for them," Landis said. "Now, you can type words into a search engine and you basically have something like a modern version of the Library of Alexandria at your fingertips."
"It was kind of hard for us to coalesce before," Landis said. "The Internet basically brings people you would never meet in real life together in ways you would never expect."
Sex is generally assumed to be a central part of people's lives, asexuals interviewed for this story point out. Those who don't feel such desire are often labeled chaste, dull or frigid.
"I think the most common thing people run across is, really, a mental block," Landis said. "Some people just cannot get the idea you just do not have a need for engaging in sexual activity with someone else."
Landis identifies as "aromantic," neither feeling the need to have sex nor engage in romantic relationships.
Krystian Jaramillo, 21, agrees. Sort of. The University of Pennsylvania student founded the 15-member PennAces campus group. Jaramillo identifies as "demisexual."
"Sometimes people feel like they have to have sex to be part of a community or society in general," Jaramillo said. "I would put myself at risk when I was younger because I thought it was something I had to do. And I was so confused about it because I didn't think it was an option not to."
Even advocacy groups that cater to LGBT youths sometimes alienate the "asexy," according to Jaramillo.
"Before, when it was really a huge issue, the gay and lesbian community used sex as a form of power, this tool to show they are who they are," Jaramillo said. "And so it's kind of difficult to get that same community to say, 'Okay, maybe you don't have to use this tool all the time.' "
"I can be comfortable with sex, if it's on an emotional level with someone I'm in a relationship with, but I still identify as asexual because it's not a physical thing for me," Jaramillo said. "That's something we really want to make people understand, that it's not something that's completely a choice. It's something you're born with or might have grown into, but it is a sexual orientation."
It's difficult to discern whether it's an orientation whose membership is on the rise or whether the identity movement is simply becoming more visible.
Jaramillo has noticed encouraging signs that awareness of asexuality is growing, including stories of those "coming out" as asexual in middle school.
Seated in a crowded coffee shop near Temple, Ninqi Stratton recounts her experiences. At first, she figured she was simply a late bloomer. As the years went on, she thought, "maybe I'm just a robot."
By the time junior year of high school rolled around, Stratton figured out that those urges that seemed to set everyone else ablaze never formed in her. She now considers herself "hetero-romantic" and enjoys relationships with men.
"Just because I don't experience sexual attraction doesn't mean I can't engage in sexual activity, if that's an issue," she said. "I still have the same body parts and the same amount of nerve endings as anyone else."
In fact, some people are surprised she doesn't pick up on her boyfriend's emotional cues. But when he goes in for a hug, Stratton doesn't feel the giddy tingle of butterflies alighting in her stomach, she said.
"My friends ask, 'How do you not notice that he's being all feely?' " Stratton said. "And I'm just like, 'Oh, I didn't know that meant sex was coming up.' It doesn't compute for me.
"Sex doesn't cross my mind, unless someone brings it up," Stratton said, raising her voice over the throbbing bass of indie rock. Though the cafe is crammed with students, she doesn't appear self-conscious about the topic of conversation.
Most boys and girls in their pre-teens start making decisions about liking boys or girls, but that never happened for Stratton.
"I was just like, 'I want to study. I don't even know what that is,' " she said, raking a hand through her curly black hair, before adjusting her square-framed glasses and leaning in with a grin.
One common scenario Stratton faces when trying to articulate her sexuality to others are extremely personal questions.
"One of the biggest is, 'Oh, you're asexual? Do you masturbate?'" she said, having learned to shrug off the rudeness. "I have heard other people have gotten way worse, have been attacked, threatened or just written off as if they're a liar."
An invisible group
Kristin Scherrer, a researcher and assistant professor at the Rutgers University School of Social Work, said asexuality is just starting to gain ground as an identity but "remains really misunderstood and really invisible."
Alfred Kinsey recognized asexuality, which he called 'X', as far back as the 1950s and estimated 1.5 percent of males as X. But he never really researched it separately. Other studies have suggested the rate of asexuality among men and women may be much higher.
Asexuality is not the same as celibacy or abstinence. And it's not labeled as an illness. It is distinct from clinical diagnoses like hypoactive sexual desire disorder, a dysfunction that's included in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
That's because the DSM diagnoses are based on the notion that those with low sex drives are unhappy with how they feel and in need of treatment to resolve it, according to Scherrer.
"[The diagnoses] assume an individual is in distress about their low sex drive, where for many asexual people, according to my research, this is not a source of distress in and of itself," Scherrer said. "The stigma of identifying as asexual and the challenges of coming out to family members, maybe those are distressing situations. But the lack of sexual drive or desire itself is not what causes distress."
Similarly, there's no evidence to suggest asexuality is caused by any biological irregularity.
"There is no current research that tells us there is a biological or genetic dimension to being LGBT, or asexual, or for heterosexuality, for that matter," Scherrer said. "Fewer people are measuring that, though, for some reason."
Researchers and members of the asexual community alike assert asexuality is a distinct sexual identity, just like being gay, straight or bisexual.
Scherrer said the growing visibility of asexuality will likely add to a "burgeoning" body of academic research on the topic. Her newest research will focus on how medical and mental health practices can be best equipped to competently serve asexual patients.
"I'm excited to be part of a group that's trying to get more information out about asexuality," she said.
Growing comfort level
Stratton once participated in an exercise at Temple's Queer Student Union. A moderator scrawled on a whiteboard the acronym "LGBTQIA," which usually stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and / or questioning, intersex and asexual and / or ally.
Students were asked to respond. Some put questions marks underneath the 'A' as if to ask: "What's this?" It showed Stratton there was a lack of understanding within the broader LGBT community. And it demonstrated to her that asexuals were largely on their own.
It's part of the reason Stratton is now working with Aces of Philadelphia to enter an asexual float into this year's PrideDay parade. She hopes that, with increased visibility, more of those questioning will also find their place and that the LGBT community will find acceptance.
Stratton is surprised at how difficult it is for some to accept her feelings as genuine. She sighed: "You get a lot of confusion about what being asexual really means."
As the sun started to move lower in the sky, Stratton gathered up the debris of her scholastic pursuits and zipped her coat tight around her waist. She wound her scarf tightly around her neck and stood up, preparing to head into the cold.
"I guess it's up to the aces to get the information out there," she said with a smile.