June 7th, 2016
Lack of sexual interest in a highly sexualised Western society: how does that work? Interest in this topic has sky-rocketed in the past decade, yet we still know very little about it. Once thought to be a psychological or biological disorder, asexuality is slowly being accepted as a normal orientation separate from sexual orientations such as heterosexuality and homosexuality.
Yet another Valentine’s Day has come and gone. The majority of us associate this day with romance and sex. Asexsuals, however, are oriented differently and do not feel the same. Professor Anthony Bogaert, based at BrockUniversity in Canada, defined asexuality as experiencing a lack of sexual attraction and found that 1.05% of the British adult population fall into this category.
Sexuality and asexuality are not black and white. They lie at the ends of a wide spectrum of sexuality where demi-sexuality and grey-(a)sexuality govern the grey area. Various distinctions of asexuality can be made including romantic, aromantic, sex-positive, sex-neutral or even sex-averse. So for romantic asexuals in relationships, Valentine’s Day may be about emotional intimacy and mutual trust rather than sex whilst aromantics may feel altogether indifferent.
Renewed awareness of asexuality
Researchers have long argued that asexuality is just a subtype of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). The majority of asexual individuals report a lack or absence of sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activities, but only a minority report that they experience distress as a result of this. Thus, asexuality cannot be labelled as a sexual dysfunction. HSDD sufferers do not have the desire to act upon any sexual attraction they feel, but some of the asexual individuals who report sexual desire, arousal or activity can enjoy it without the need to direct these feelings towards another person.
The launch of the online forum Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) in 2001 sparked the renewed interest and awareness of asexuality. A recent study conducted at the University of Leuven in Belgium recruited 9 asexual women ranging from 20 to 42 years old. Information obtained from one-to-one interviews were analysed and split into 3 themes.
1. Identifying yourself as asexual
The participants claim to have felt different from their peers from as early as childhood. It was only when they searched for answers via the Internet or AVEN that they discovered and accepted an identity that corroborated how they felt. Half of the women received negative reactions when they “came out”, such as being told it is just a phase or they have not yet found the right person.
2. Experiencing physical intimacy and sexuality
The physical intimacy experienced by the participants ranges from nothing, cuddling, kissing to sex. Four of the women stated that sex feels strange and they would rather not experience it at all. Emily (20 years old, in a relationship with an asexual man) described her experiences of sex as “completely void of feelings, not even a sensation, no romantic feelings whatsoever, just… I don’t know. Never again (laughs)”. Three women were completely averse to the idea of sex. For the participants who are able to experience sexual arousal, they do not connect this drive to anyone. Some may not even feel a drive but enjoy the act. It’s akin to not having an appetite for ice-cream but once you have had a taste it’s enjoyable.
With regards to masturbation, Jessica (30 years old, single) summed up how the majority of the participants feel: “Well, sometimes after a long and busy day, just relaxing. Hmm, it doesn’t really start with a thought, it just starts: oh well, let’s just do it again”.
3. Experiencing love and relationships
It is common conception that sex plays a key role in a healthy relationship. The participants of the current study admit to difficulties in finding a non-asexual partner who accepts their asexuality. Sara (31 years old, in a relationship with a non-asexual man) explains the difficulties, “At times, I do feel the impact of it, like once a month or so, at a certain moment or so, there is a conflict, because he says that it’s been way too long, and I have the feeling that we just did it”.
Emily (who is mentioned before) explained how her romantic relationship does not need sex to work: “I think that my image of love and relationships is different than a sexual person’s image. For my boyfriend and me, it’s more about talking, searching solutions and communicating. Maybe it’s because I’m asexual, for me love is the most important part, sex has always come last in my priorities.” The remaining 7 participants were single and not at all bothered by their status; 2 of them were even deliberately single.
Describe vs. define
The asexual community seems to show as much variation as the sexual community. Some asexual women engage in sexual and/or relational experiences, some masturbate while others do not, and some engage in romantic relationships whilst others are aromantic.
As AVEN rightly states, “Labels and categories do not define you, they describe you”. We are all on the asexuality/sexuality spectrum; no orientation is more right or wrong than another.
Asexuality is widening the scope of research in sexuality and will inevitably challenge our long-standing conception that sex is a vital component in relationships.
VVan Houdenhove E, Gijs L, T’sjoen G, & Enzlin P (2013). Asexuality: Few Facts, Many Questions. Journal of sex & marital therapy PMID: 24134401
Van Houdenhove, E., Gijs, L., T’Sjoen, G. And Enzlin (2014). Stories about asexuality: A qualitative study in asexual women Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2014.889053
asexuality, romance, taboo