Sex Question Friday: What Do We Know About Asexuality?

Symbol for asexuality: Upside down purple triangle

Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who wanted to know more about asexuals, or persons who lack interest in partnered sexual activity.

What is the science behind asexuality, and why is it not considered a sexuality option?

Unfortunately, we do not know all that much about asexuality from a scientific standpoint because there are some inherent biases in the way sexuality is typically studied by scientists. For example, when research participants are asked about their sexual orientation, they are usually given one of two types of questions. The first and most common question asks participants to select their sexual identity from a preset list of categories. More often than not, just three categories appear: heterosexual/straight, homosexual/gay, and bisexual. More often than note, asexuality is left off entirely, as are a number of other identities, such as pansexual and queer. The end result is that persons with alternative identities are forced to pick an inaccurate label or skip such questions entirely. Occasionally, these categorical questions will give participants the option of selecting “other,” but everyone who selects that category is usually treated as a single group in the resulting journal articles, which has the effect of making certain identities invisible. This is problematic because alternative identities are not as rare as you might suspect—just consider that, among visitors to this website who have filled out the Reader Survey, 7% reported identities other than heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. In addition, some national surveys have found that as many as 4% of men and women report alternative identities beyond the standard three.

The other type of question scientists might administer involves a sexuality continuum, such as the 7-point Kinsey Scale, in which participants are asked to select the number that best describes them on a scale ranging from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual), with 3 representing equal degrees of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Personally, I am a fan of the continuum approach because it allows for more variability in responding and acknowledges the fact that people do not fit neatly into categories; however, the continuum method has a bias in that it presumes at least some degree of sexual interest in everyone. There isn’t really an option on this scale for someone who is asexual. Thus, the main reason we don’t know much about asexuality is because so many researchers don’t even bother to capture it when they conduct research. In order for asexuality to start being considered a viable sexual orientation, scientists have to start treating it as one, because that is what will ultimately help to increase public awareness and knowledge.

That said, let me tell you what we do know about asexuality. First, it is not the same as celibacy—asexuality is a sexual orientation, whereas celibacy is a conscious decision to refrain from being sexually active for a period of time. Persons who are celibate still have a desire for partnered sex, they just choose not to act upon it. Second, being asexual is not a form of sexual dysfunction, nor does it mean a complete inability to experience sexual arousal and response.  For example, consider a study in which asexual and non-asexual women were shown a series of erotic films [1]. While watching these films, participants reported how aroused they felt and had their levels of genital arousal recorded. It turned out that there were no differences in psychological or genital arousal between the two groups. Thus, asexual persons still have functional genitalia and are responsive to erotic stimuli. Related to this, other research has found that some (but not all) asexuals practice masturbation [2], which means that asexuality does not imply a lack of desire for all forms of sexual activity. Self-stimulation is apparently seen differently by some asexuals. Third, being asexual does not necessarily mean being forever single or lacking desire for romance. Asexual persons usually still desire social connection and relationships, and many of them want non-sexual, physical intimacy (e.g., cuddling). Lastly, asexuality is indeed rare, but it is not unheard of. Population based studies have found that about 1% of respondents are asexual [3].

There remains much that we do not yet know about asexuality, but more and more researchers are beginning to inquire about it, which gives me hope that we will slowly but surely fill in the gaps and continue to expand our notions about what sexual orientation is and the different forms it can take.

For past Sex Question Friday posts, see here. Want to learn more about The Psychology of Human Sexuality? Click here for a complete list of articles or like the Facebook page to get articles delivered to your newsfeed.

[1] Brotto, L. A., & Yule, M. A. (2011). Physiological and subjective sexual arousal in self-identified asexual women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 699-712.

[2] Prause, N., & Graham, C. A. (2007). Asexuality: Classification and characterization. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 341-356.

[3] Bogaert, A. F. (2004). Asexuality: Prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample. Journal of Sex Research, 41, 279-287.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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