Asexuality, often defined as “a lack of sexual attraction,” was mostly ignored in popular culture, the media, and scientific research until about a decade ago. Early opinions were largely dismissive or stigmatizing. Now, however, 10 years of research is available, including large-scale studies. University of British Columbia researchers Lori Bratto and Morag Yule critically reviewed the evidence in an article that will soon be published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior (currently available online). They conclude that asexuality does not appear to be a psychiatric condition, a symptom of a psychiatric condition, or a disorder of sexual desire. Instead, it seems to meet most of the criteria for classification as a distinct sexual orientation.
Who Counts as Asexual?
The defining characteristic of asexuality is never feeling sexually attracted to anyone, but asexuals vary in other ways. Romantic attraction, for example, is distinct from sexual attraction, and asexuals vary in the degree to which they experience it. Some asexuals engage in sexual relations, probably because they have a romantic partner who wishes to do so. Asexuals also differ in the frequency with which they masturbate, and in the accompanying fantasies. There are even some qualifications to the key characteristic of never feeling sexually attracted to anyone. “Demi-sexuals” identify as asexual “until they form a strong emotional connection with someone” and “gray-sexuals” are those “who fall somewhere in the spectrum between asexual and sexual.”
How Common Is It?
Up to 3.3 percent of Finnish women report that they never feel sexually attracted to anyone, as do close to 2 percent of New Zealand high school students, and between 0.4 percent and 1 percent of adults in large national samples from Great Britain.
How Does Asexuality Qualify as a Sexual Orientation?
Several lines of evidence led Brotto and Yule to conclude that asexuality is likely to be a distinct sexual orientation.
1. They always felt that way.
When asked about their lack of sexual attraction, asexuals report that they always felt that way. Lifelong feelings suggest an innate disposition. Although not a definitive indication of a sexual orientation, a lifelong pattern would be inconsistent with suggestions that asexuality is instead a response to aversive sexual experiences or other traumas.
2. Biomarkers are associated with certain sexual orientations, and asexuals have biomarkers that set them apart from others, statistically.
Examples include handedness and fraternal birth order.
3. Asexuality is evident early in life.
Among the criteria proposed for determining whether something like asexuality qualifies as a sexual orientation is early onset. Because asexuals report that their lack of sexual attraction is something they’ve always experienced, asexuality appears to meet the “early onset” criterion.
4. Asexuals’ relative infrequency of sexual behavior parallels their lack of sexual attraction.
One proposed test of a sexual orientation is “whom a person would choose in a hypothetical situation where they could freely have sex, without negative consequences.” Although some asexuals have sex when they are in a relationship with a partner who wishes to be sexual, “there is relative consistency in their lack of motivation for sex.”
5. Stability over time of lack of sexual attraction.
In one study of adolescents, 25 reported a lack of sexual attraction at one point in time, but there was only weak consistency of that lack of sexual attraction at a later point in time. Brotto and Yule suggest caution in over-interpreting findings from adolescents. They also note that a pattern of weak consistency might indicate that asexuality is fluid—just as sexuality can be—and does not in and of itself disqualify asexuality as a sexual orientation. Nonetheless, the evidence for this criterion is weaker than the evidence for the other criteria.
Why Asexuality Is Not a Mental Disorder: The Evidence
In some studies, asexuals report higher rates of distress and symptoms such as anxiety. The available evidence seems to suggest that those feelings are a result of prejudice and discrimination against asexuals (which has been documented in research) and not an indication of any underlying psychological disturbance.
The available research does not support other negative accounts of asexuality, either. For example, asexuality does not seem to be linked to trauma. Also, asexuals do not typically respond with extreme aversion or disgust when viewing genitals.
There are some indications that asexual women are somewhat more likely to meet the criteria for an autism spectrum disorder (17 percent, compared to 14.7 percent in the general population) so any anxiety or distress could also be linked to that condition rather than to asexuality. However, that research was based on a cross-sectional design, so the connection between asexuality and the autism spectrum is only suggestive.
Why Asexuality Is Not a Sexual Dysfunction: The Evidence
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) recognizes several sexual dysfunctions, such as Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) and Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (FSIAD). Both are relevant to a lack of interest in sex. The key difference between such sexual dysfunctions and asexuality is that people with disorders experience significant personal distress because of their lack of sexual attraction. Asexuals do not. They aren’t worried about their asexuality (except for the disapproval it can bring from other people) and they are uninterested in seeking professional help to deal with it.
Do Asexuals Experience Atypical Sexual Attractions?
Some people experience sexual attractions that are atypical. These “paraphilias” are not, on their own, indicative of dysfunction. To qualify as a disorder, they need to cause significant personal distress to the person experiencing the attractions or to someone else, or involve an unwilling partner.
Asexuals do masturbate, though less often than other people do, and when they do, some of their fantasies could be considered atypical. For example, their fantasies sometimes do not include themselves as the protagonists. Instead, they might fantasize about a romantic scene or about a fictional character. About 11 percent of their fantasies do not include any humans at all, which is a higher rate than the 0.5 percent found in comparison groups. Some asexuals report that they masturbate not for sexual pleasure but to relieve tension, and that is atypical, too.
The authors note that “a substantial proportion of sexual individuals also engage in fantasies that might be considered paraphilic.” Most important, there does not seem to be any evidence that asexuals’ atypical fantasies cause particular distress to themselves or others—necessary criteria for classifying a paraphilia as a disorder.
The authors wrap up their article this way:
“We conclude that there is modest support for asexuality’s placement as a unique sexual orientation. There is, however, likely as much variability among asexual individuals’ lack of sexual attraction (and whether it also extends to lack of romantic attraction) as there is among sexual individuals’ presence of sexual attraction.”
Research on asexuality owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), an online community with more than 120,000 members around the world. AVEN, created by David Jay in 2001, is host to many lively discussions and provides valuable educational resources. The members have long pushed back against stereotyping and discrimination and encouraged careful scientific research and accurate information. It is unusual for a non-scientific community to play such a significant role in inspiring scientific advances.