Is Asexuality a Sexual Orientation?

In a forthcoming issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, a special section will be devoted to articles that address “the puzzle of sexual orientation.” I’ve been able to read a few of the articles so far, and it’s shaping up to be nothing short of fascinating! As such, I plan to cover at least a few of the articles here on Sex & Psychology. In fact, I’ve already covered one of them, which focused on the link between men’s height and their sexual orientation (read it here).

Today, I’m covering an article that addresses asexuality. This paper, co-authored by Drs. Lori Brotto and Morag Yule, was designed to explore the controversy over the nature of asexuality. This is something people have been debating for years. Some have argued that it’s a mental disorder, others have called it a sexual dysfunction, some think of it as a paraphilia (i.e., an unusual sexual interest), and yet others consider it a sexual orientation. So what does the research say? Let’s take a look.

Is it a mental disorder? According to the accumulated evidence, no. It is neither a disorder, nor is it a symptom of another disorder. That said, research has found a link between asexuality and reporting more psychiatric symptoms; however, it is thought that this linkage can be attributed to the fact that asexuality is a stigmatized social status. In other words, to the extent that asexual persons have higher rates of psychological distress, it’s probably because they lack social acceptance and support—not because they are mentally ill.

Is it a sexual dysfunction? Again, according to the accumulated evidence, no. Research has found that sexual arousal is not impaired in asexual persons (at least this is true for asexual women—no studies looking at arousal among asexual men have been published yet). In addition, research finds that asexuals don’t feel distressed about their lack of sexual desire, which makes them quite distinct from people who have sexual desire disorders.

Is it a paraphilia? The evidence here is a little more mixed and suggests that, for at least some people who identify as asexual, they might be best categorized as having a paraphilia (i.e., an unusual sexual interest). Research has found that many self-identified asexuals masturbate and, further, that many of them have sexual fantasies, too. However, the content of asexuals’ fantasies are different from those of sexual persons in some ways. For instance, asexuals are less likely to include themselves in their fantasies, they are more likely to fantasize about fictional characters, and they are more likely to feel disconnected from what is taking place in their fantasies. In short, it doesn’t make sense to say that asexuality as a whole is a paraphilia—however, for a small subset of self-identified asexuals, it seems possible that they might simply have some unusual or uncommon sexual interests.

Is it a sexual orientation? The answer to this question depends, in part, upon whose definition of “sexual orientation” you use—but, yes, there is a fair amount of support for the idea that asexuality is a unique sexual orientation. For instance, research has found that many of the same biological characteristics linked to homosexuality are also linked to asexuality, such as handedness and birth order (learn more about this research here), suggesting that asexuality may be an innate characteristic.

Other research has found that asexuality meets certain criteria that have been described for what constitutes a sexual orientation, such as an early age of onset. It doesn’t meet all of the proposed criteria, though. For instance, some have argued that sexual orientations typically involve some degree of stability in sexual attraction patterns over time, but the (very limited) longitudinal research available on asexuality hasn’t necessarily supported this. In one study that featured a small sample of asexuals, most people who reported a lack sexual attraction eventually went on to say that they experienced sexual attraction.

However, perhaps this is evidence that asexuals have some degree of sexual fluidity, just like people of other sexualities. This lack of stability might also just be a reflection of the fact that the asexuality umbrella includes gray-sexuals, or persons who are somewhere in between those who are completely asexual and those who are sexual (case in point: demisexuals, or people who are asexual but can develop sexual attractions to persons with whom they have a very strong emotional bond).

The bottom line: Asexuality is neither a mental disorder nor a sexual dysfunction. Instead, the research we have to date suggests that it’s most likely a unique sexual orientation, but that a small subgroup of self-identified asexuals might be appropriately categorized as having a paraphilia.

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To learn more about this research, see: Brotto, L.A., & Yule, M. (2016). Asexuality: Sexual Orientation, Paraphilia, Sexual Dysfunction, or None of the Above? Archives of Sexual Behavior.

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