Biased Against Asexuals? Let Me Count the Ways
Asexuals may experience derogatory judgments and even discrimination.
Posted May 14, 2020
Yes, there are people who experience no sexual attraction. They are called asexuals. When I first wrote about asexuality here at Psychology Today in 2009, my post generated lots of interest but also some skepticism, even from mental health professionals. Maybe the people I’m calling asexual, they suggested, are just temporarily uninterested in sex because they are depressed, or they are on medication. Maybe they are avoiding sex because they have had painful experiences in the past, and not because they are genuinely uninterested.
That professional skepticism has mostly been buried by the weight of the ensuing evidence. Sure, people’s interest in sex can be suppressed for a time for all sorts of reasons. But that’s not what asexuality is. Asexuality is a sexual orientation, not a sexual dysfunction. It starts early in life and shows some stability over time.
Asexuals are not distressed by their lack of sexual attraction to other people – except for the negative reactions they might get from other people because of it.
Is there really a bias against asexuals? Do other people judge them more harshly? Are they less interested in talking to them? Would they discriminate against them – for example, in hiring?
In a way, bigotry against asexuals seems silly. People who are uninterested in sex are not hurting anyone. They are not disrupting anyone’s life. They don’t engage in the kinds of sexual behaviors that some people consider taboo.
And yet, they are different from heterosexuals, the people who are typically held up as the standard against whom others are judged. Differences can be just that – neutral ways people differ from one another. But as with so many other differences, such as those based on gender or race or marital status, differences are too often viewed as deficits. It is entirely possible that asexuals are seen not just as different, but inferior.
The conventional wisdom about sexual attraction has changed considerably over time. Most people, though, are not well-versed in social history and they accept the prevailing beliefs as true. Today, it is a truism that sexual desire is part of human nature. Different people might have different kinds of desires, or desires of different intensities, but everyone – it is assumed – experiences some kind of sexual attraction.
Asexuals challenge that very fundamental assumption about human nature. People don’t like having their worldviews threatened. That’s an important reason why asexuals may come in for some derogatory judgments and even discrimination.
In two studies, one with college students and the other with a more diverse sample of community members, Cara C. MacInnis and Gordon Hodson assessed biases against asexuals. They included only heterosexuals in their research, which was published in Group Processes and Intergroup Relations in 2012.
In both studies, the researchers compared perceptions of asexuals to perceptions of heterosexuals as well as other sexual minorities – homosexuals and bisexuals. They assessed overall judgments, tendencies to dehumanize asexuals, and inclinations to avoid them and maybe even discriminate against them. They also tried to determine the kinds of people particularly likely to be prejudiced against asexuals, and they tried to understand the basis for the biases they documented.
Participants were given definitions for all of the groups they evaluated. Here’s what they were told about asexuals:
Asexuals: People who have no sexual attraction to either sex (and never have), and typically do not engage in sexual activity with others (e.g., a man who has no sexual attraction to men or women; a woman who has no sexual attraction to men or women).
Prejudice and Discrimination Against Asexuals
Are asexuals judged more harshly?
Participants were shown a thermometer with temperatures ranging from very cold to very warm. They indicated on the thermometer how they felt about each of the groups. Both the college students and the community members rated the heterosexuals much more warmly than everyone else. They rated the asexuals least warmly. (The homosexuals and bisexuals were in between.)
Are asexuals seen as less uniquely human?
It seems extreme, but stigmatized groups of humans are sometimes regarded as not fully human. Because sexual attraction is currently seen as an essential part of human nature, asexuals may be at risk of being dehumanized.
MacInnis and Hodson tried to get at dehumanization by asking participants to rate the groups on traits and emotions that are considered more uniquely human than animalistic – for example, broadmindedness, humility, rudeness, and optimism. Participants also rated the groups on traits that distinguish humans from machines – for example, curiosity and impatience.
On just about all of the measures, both the college students and the community members rated the asexuals as lower in these characteristics than anyone else. Heterosexuals were rated as higher on these measures than asexuals, and to a similar extent, so were the bisexuals and homosexuals. The key distinction was between asexuals and everyone else.
Do people want to avoid talking to asexuals?
Participants used rating scales to indicate their interest in conversing with members of each group and the likelihood that they would have such conversations in the future. Both the college students and the community members were most interested in having future conversations with heterosexuals. They were least interested in future interactions with asexuals or bisexuals. (The homosexuals were in between.)
Are people more inclined to discriminate against asexuals?
Participants were asked to indicate their comfort with hiring members of each of the groups, as well as their comfort with renting to them. Both the college students and the community members felt significantly less comfortable hiring asexuals than heterosexuals, and significantly less comfortable renting to asexuals. They were equally uncomfortable hiring or renting to the other sexual minorities – bisexuals and homosexuals. The key distinction was between heterosexuals and everyone else.
Who Is Most Biased Against Asexuals?
Are the people most prejudiced against asexuals the same people who are most prejudiced against other sexual minorities?
In both studies, people who felt coldly toward asexuals also tended to feel coldly toward bisexuals and homosexuals. In fact, prejudices against all three groups formed a cluster – people who were biased against one were also biased against the others.
Are the people most prejudiced against asexuals the same people who are prejudiced against other kinds of devalued groups?
Psychologists have identified people who are particularly likely to harbor other kinds of prejudices, such as racism and sexism. They include people with a “social dominance orientation” as well as right-wing authoritarians.
People with a social dominance orientation prefer hierarchies of people over equality among groups. They agree with statements such as “It’s OK if some groups have more of a chance in life than others” and “In getting what you want, it is sometimes necessary to use force against other groups.”
Right-wing authoritarians are submissive toward authority figures and aggressive against outgroups. They like to uphold traditions and norms and dislike groups that challenge conventional ways of thinking and behaving.
For both the college students and the community members, the more they endorsed authoritarian and social dominance beliefs, the more biased they were against asexuals (as measured by their thermometer ratings). The people who were most authoritarian and most supportive of social dominance were also most biased against bisexuals and homosexuals.
Participants’ religious fundamentalism and in-group identification (feeling commonality with, and attachment to, people who share their heterosexuality) were also assessed. Those characteristics were also correlated with prejudice against asexuals. But religious fundamentalism and in-group identification seemed to explain less of what anti-asexual bias is all about than authoritarianism or preferences for group dominance.
Is the Bias Against Asexuals About Something Other Than Their Lack of Sexual Attraction?
Is the bias against asexuals really just a bias against single people?
Because asexuals do not experience sexual attraction, they are less likely to have romantic partners than people who do (although a lack of interest in romance, aromanticism, is different from a lack of interest in sex). Maybe, then, any bias against them is more about singlism, the bias against single people, than a bias against just those people who experience no sexual attraction.
Singlism was assessed using Monica Pignotti and Neil Abell’s “Negative Stereotyping of Single Persons” scale. People who score higher on singlism are more likely to agree with statements such as “People who do not marry can never be truly fulfilled,” “Being single results in not being close to anyone,” and “People are single because they are immature.”
Prejudice against single people, as measured by the Negative Stereotyping of Single Persons scale, was only slightly correlated with prejudice against asexuals. More singlist people did rate asexuals a bit more harshly, but not by much.
Authoritarianism and social dominance mattered more. Even when singlism was taken into account statistically, people who were more authoritarian and who had stronger social dominance orientations were still more biased against asexuals.
Are people biased against asexuals only because they are unfamiliar with them?
Many people have never even heard of asexuals, and that even includes some people in the helping professions. People sometimes feel unnerved by the unfamiliar. Maybe, then, the bias against asexuals has little to do with their lack of sexual attraction and is mostly just about how unfamiliar they are.
To test this, the authors included another even more unfamiliar group in their study involving the people from the community. That group was sapiosexuals. In the study, the participants read this description:
Sapiosexuals: People who are sexually attracted to the human mind. They engage in sexual activity but find intelligence to be the most arousing quality of their sexual partners.
Participants said they were even less familiar with sapiosexuals than with asexuals. They were less knowledgeable about them and less likely to have heard of them before. Unsurprisingly, they were most familiar with heterosexuals, and next most familiar with homosexuals and then bisexuals.
Even though the participants were less familiar with the sapiosexuals than the asexuals, they were still more biased against the asexuals.
Also, when familiarity with asexuals was taken into account statistically, other patterns remained mostly the same. For example, people who were more authoritarian and more enamored of social dominance were still more prejudiced against asexuals. Those personal characteristics were not just capturing a lack of familiarity with asexuals.
What I Still Want to Know
Only heterosexuals were included in this research. I would like to know how the other groups would respond. Are members of other sexual minority groups less prejudiced against asexuals? After all, they know what it is like to be the targets of bigotry. And what about asexuals? We can’t just assume that they will be free of bias. I learned that the hard way in my studies of singlism. Even (some) single people rate single people less positively than married people.
I also wonder whether prejudice against asexuals will soften over time, as the concept of asexuality gets more attention and people start to realize that they know other people who are asexual. More will come to recognize their own asexuality.
Increased familiarity may not be enough. As the authors showed, just being unfamiliar with asexuals did not account for the bias against them. It is possible to hear more about a particular group, yet find that most of what you are hearing is demeaning. Fortunately, the reverse seems to have happened over the past years. Asexuals have not just become more visible; they have also been portrayed in affirming and humanizing ways. Respectful stories in the media, as well as the efforts of groups such as AVEN (the Asexual Visibility and Education Network), have contributed to that progress. Asexuals have also been telling their own stories, and that has helped, too.