Asexuality Is a Lifelong Lack of Sexual Attraction
Is asexuality a much-needed 'time-out' from our sexualized world?
Posted Jan 20, 2018
Given our constant bombardment with sexual imagery and innuendo, it can be hard for many to really grasp what the experience of asexuality might be like.
Asexuality is defined as a lifelong lack of sexual attraction, and is often considered to be a sexual orientation. It is not especially prevalent: Approximately 0.5 to 1 percent of the population report a lack of sexual attraction (Bogaert, 2004; Greaves et al., 2017), and many of those who experience no sexual attraction still might not self-identify as asexual, despite meeting this criterion. There is support for the biological underpinnings of asexuality (Yule, Brotto, & Gorzalka, 2013), and there has long been evidence of asexuality in non-human species (Perkins & Fitzgerald, 1997).
Maybe that’s me, you might think. I hardly ever want sex anymore, and the lust I feel for my totally gorgeous partner has circled the proverbial drain. No, not likely if you have experienced desire or attraction in the past and just don’t experience it now.
Maybe it’s just a much-need ‘time-out’ from the pressure to respond to a hypersexualized world? Nope; asexual individuals typically report never having experienced sexual attraction to another person (or thing, for that matter).
Most clinicians agree that asexuality should not be diagnosed as a desire disorder. Their lack of desire is not around sexual stimulation, per se, but a lack of desire for others — they are not attracted to others in a sexual way (Bogaert, 2015). Those with disorders did typically experience desire at some point, but then lost it (Brotto &Yule, 2011). In addition, those experiencing desire disorders must experience clinically significant personal distress about it to be diagnosed, but asexual individuals usually report no distress about their asexuality.
People who identify as asexual do occasionally report distress about their asexuality, but it typically revolves around society’s insistence that all people want sex, as well as finding themselves at times needing to be sexually active to please or appease a partner (Dawson, McDonnell, & Scott, 2016). Sex is a ticket to intimacy or romance — just as it often is for “allosexual” (not asexual) people.
Being asexual is not about an inability to function sexually or even to experience sexual pleasure. Experimental research shows that asexual women report no increased interest in sex or sensuality after viewing sexual films, but their genital response shows similar arousal and response as those of women identifying as heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual (Brotto & Yule, 2011). (We don’t know yet about how asexual men respond, but anecdotally they report little interest in the sex depicted.)
Asexual individuals are occasionally in sexual relationships, but frequently do so in their search for romance and intimacy, not sex. Some are also aromantic — that is, they experience no romantic attraction to others — but being both asexual and aromantic is far less common. Asexual individuals experience full and varied intimate relationships, including romantic relationships, friendships, and family relationships (Dawson et al., 2016). They do not eschew relationships or contact; they just are not sexually interested in others.
Asexual individuals typically report masturbating; asexual women had lower rates than sexual women, but asexual men had similar rates to sexual men (Yule, Brotto, & Grozalka, 2017). Of particular interest, however, their reasons for masturbating are less likely to be for sexual pleasure and more likely to be functional, such as to relieve tension or to help them fall asleep. Some report fantasies as well, but interviews and surveys reveal that their fantasies often do not feature themselves, or else feature romantic scenes with fictional characters (Yule et al., 2017).
In short, lack of sexual attraction, rather than biobehavioral markers such as sexual activity and masturbation, is considered the optimal metric of asexuality (Carvalho, Lemos & Nobre, 2017). For those many individuals who may feel truly alone in a world that assumes everyone experiences sexual attraction, there is a well-recognized online community of asexual individuals — the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network; AVEN. Many have reported that discovering online information and making connections with others has been validating and liberating, and a key to integrating their asexual identity (Robbins, Low & Query, 2016). This site also serves to make very clear the notable diversity in the experiences and identities of those who consider themselves to be asexual. The power of technology, folks.
An interesting argument has emerged about the study of asexuality: Once we understand and acknowledge those who never experience sexual attraction, perhaps we can all then feel less pressure to always experience sexual attraction.
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Bogaert, A. F. (2004). Asexuality: Prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample. Journal of Sex Research, 41, 279-287.
Bogaert, A. F. (2015). Asexuality: What it is and why it matters. Journal of Sex Research, 52, 362-379.
Brotto, L. A., & Yule, M. A. (2011). Physiological and subjective sexual arousal in self-identified asexual women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 699-712.
Carvalho, J., Lemos, D., & Nobre, P. J. (2017). Psychological features and sexual beliefs characterizing self-labeled asexual individuals. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 43, 517-528.
Dawson, M., McDonnell, L., & Scott, S. (2016). Negotiating the boundaries of intimacy: The personal lives of asexual people. The Sociological Review, 64, 349-365.
Greaves, L. M., Barlow, F. K., Lee, C. H. J., Matika, C. M., Wang, W., Lindsay, C. et al. (2017). The diversity and prevalence of sexual orientation self-labels in a New Zealand national sample. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46, 1325-1336.
Perkins, A., & Fitzgerald, J. A. (1997). Sexual orientation in domestic rams: Some biological and social correlates. In L. Ellis & L. Ebertz (Eds.), Sexual orientation: Toward biological understanding (pp. 107-127). Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Robbins, N. K., Low, K. G., & Query, A. N. (2016). A qualitative exploration of the “coming out” process for asexual individuals. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45, 751-760.
Yule, M. A., Brotto, L. A., & Gorzalka, B. B. (2013). Mental health and interpersonal functioning in self-identified asexual men and women. Psychology and Sexuality, 4, 136-151.
Yule, M. A., Brotto, L. A., & Gorzalka, B. B. (2017). Sexual fantasy and masturbation among asexual individuals: An in-depth exploration. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46, 311-328.