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ASEXUALS: Who Are They and Why Are They Important?

We have so much more to learn about asexuality.

Asexuality poses a challenge to some of our most fundamental beliefs about humans and their feelings. Yet, on this topic, we are mostly ignoramuses. Many Americans regard the prevailing assumptions about sex and sexuality as universal. They don't appreciate the ways that these ideas have changed over the course of history. Even within the scientific community, the study of asexuality as an orientation is starkly underdeveloped.

Recently, I asked for suggestions for updates for the 40th anniversary edition of that classic book, Our Bodies, Ourselves. Kris suggested a new section on asexuality, and pointed readers to asexuality.org, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. I checked it out - it is a terrific resource - and also started searching for academic papers.

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The first thing I learned is that there is a startlingly small number of serious studies of asexuality. Type "asexual" into a database such as PsycInfo, and what spills out are mostly discussions of whether old people are sexual beings.

Only a few more comprehensive articles pop up. For example, a 2004 study in the Journal of Sex Research reported the results of a national sample of more than 18,000 British residents. About 1% described themselves as asexual.

For this topic, though, what should come first is some basic understanding of what the term asexual means. The best source I found on that, and the one I will refer to most often throughout the rest of this post, is a 2008 article by Kristin Scherrer published in the journal Sexualities. In addition to her thoughtful conceptual analysis of asexuality, Scherrer contributes some empirical grounding. With the help of asexuality.org, she recruited 102 asexuals who were willing to answer open-ended questions about their asexuality and how that related to the rest of their lives.

Here are some of the basics of what I've learned so far from Scherrer and others. I want to note, though, that our understandings may change as research and writing on this topic grows.

What ASEXUALITY Is

On its homepage, Asexuality.org defines an asexual as "a person who does not experience sexual attraction." This is a definition about desire - how you feel, and not about sexual behavior - how you act.

Beyond the dimensions of feelings and behaviors is something broader - an asexual identity. There a process of self-examination involved in identifying as asexual. Importantly, though, an identity is not just personal - it is also social, cultural, and interpersonal. Asexuals who come together on asexuality.org to share experiences are building a community. They have the potential to engage in consciousness-raising and collective action, too. Health and mental health professionals, for instance, may be a little less quick to pathologize asexuality (see below) if there is a defined group of asexuals keeping the opinion leaders on their toes.

When the 102 asexuals in Scherrer's study discussed the meaning of their own asexuality, they most often pointed to desires: They said they did not experience sexual attraction or desire. One of the participants, Jenn, said this:

• "I just don't feel sexual attraction to people. I love the human form and can regard individuals as works of art and find people aesthetically pleasing, but I don't ever want to come into sexual contact with even the most beautiful of people."

Others, though, said they did feel sexual attraction but not the inclination to act on it. Sarah said this to the researcher:

• "I am sexually attracted to men but have no desire or need to engage in sexual or even non-sexual activity (cuddling, hand-holding, etc.)."

What asexuality Is NOT

1. Asexuality is not the same as sexual dysfunction.

If you are different from the norm, or what is perceived as the norm, you can count on the labeling police - and even some medical professionals - to tag you as dysfunctional. One of the great contributions of the web, and sites like asexuality.org, is that people can find others like them more readily than they ever could before. Comparing notes and experiences, they can find that aspects of their lives are shared, and - contrary to the conventional wisdom - are not at all undermining of their health or well-being.

Psychiatrists and psychologists sometimes see a lack of sexual desire as a symptom of an official disorder. Here, for example, is a description of Sexual Aversion Disorder: "Persistent or recurring aversion to or avoidance of sexual activity. The aversion must result in significant distress for the individual and is not better accounted for by another disorder or physical diagnosis. When presented with a sexual opportunity, the individual may experience panic attacks or extreme anxiety." The important point here is that to count as a disorder, the experience must result in "significant distress."

There is a problem in leaping from the fact of a lack of sexual desire to a label of a sexual disorder: You need to stop along the way to ask how asexuality is experienced in an individual's life. If you are okay with it, then everyone else should back off and keep their pathological labels locked in their file cabinets.

2. Asexuality is not the same as celibacy.

From asexuality.org: "Unlike celibacy, which is a choice, asexuality is a sexual orientation. Asexual people have the same emotional needs as everybody else and are just as capable of forming intimate relationships."

3. A disinterest in cuddling or other forms of physical affection is not a necessary part of asexuality.

Sarah (quoted above) said she had no interest in any kind of physical affection, not even hand-holding or cuddling. Others, though, do like those kinds of interactions. For instance, when asked to describe her ideal relationship, Rita said this:

• "The same as a ‘normal' relationship, without the sex. We would be best friends, companions, biggest fans of each other, partners in financial, work, and social areas of our lives. I am very physical. I would like to be able to tackle my lover (as in, ‘I love him', not as in ‘person I am currently having sex with') to the ground, roll around until I pin him, then plant a kiss on his nose, snuggle into the crook of his arm, and talk about some random topic... without him getting an erection or entertaining hopes that this will lead to the removal of clothing or a march to the bedroom."

4. A disinterest in romance is not a necessary part of asexuality.

Rita, the asexual person quoted just above, described an ideal relationship that was in many ways a romantic one. Other asexuals are uninterested in romance. Kisha, for instance, said this in response to the question about her ideal relationship:

• "I've already got a friendship that feels a lot like my ideal relationship. We have a ton of common interests...We laugh, we think the same, we never fight or cause any burdens to each other...That's all I want, just great friendships. I don't need attraction or anything physical."

Asexuals who are romantic often identify as heterosexual, gay or lesbian, or bisexual. For those who are "aromantic," those distinctions seem irrelevant. Noting that the gender of the other person was unimportant to her, Nora said, "I am attracted to personality." Mona added, "The things I find attractive, I find attractive in both sexes."

5. A lack of pleasure from your own body is not a necessary part of asexuality.

Some asexuals consider masturbation a sexual act and are uninterested in it. Others, such as Gloria, have a different perspective:

• "I do not have any desire to have sex with another person. I masturbate at times but I don't connect it with anything sexual. I know it sounds like a contradiction but it's just something I do every now and then."

Why Asexuality is Important

Taking asexuality seriously is a very big deal. To document a sizable number of people who do not experience sexual attraction is to challenge one of the most fundamental assumptions of contemporary society - that sexuality is pervasive, a given, an essential part of what it is to be human.

When I wrote previously about Sex and the Single Person, I emphasized how important it is to take the long view of sex and sexuality and appreciate how our assumptions have changed over the course of history. In contemporary Western societies, sexual experiences (and lots of them) are believed to be a defining feature of the good life. That's great for people who love having sex and can readily find partners. Others, though, such as the involuntarily celibate, or the happily asexual, are likely to feel marginalized.

[Happy holidays, everyone! I'm going to try to turn off my computer for a few days.]

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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