Asexuality as a Human Sexual Orientation
Asexuality as a Human Sexual Orientation
Only in the past few years has the public in general accepted homosexuality and bisexuality as genuine sexual orientations (although debates over cause, morality, and status in society continue), but now another orientation is being proposed: asexuality. What is it, and is it really a sexual orientation, determined before birth like heterosexuality or homosexuality are now theorized to be? Traditionally, "asexual" referred to the reproduction of simplistic organisms (amoebas, primitive worms, fungi, etc.) or in humans to a lack of sexual organs or an inability to feel/act sexually due to disability or other condition. However, the new proposed definition for "asexual" presents it as a (human) sexual orientation, following that if heterosexuality is attraction to the opposite sex, homosexuality is attraction to the same sex, bisexuality is attraction to both, asexuality is attraction to neither sex. An exact definition has not been officially set, so most "experts" in the area reference AVEN (Asexuality Visibility and Education Network): "a person who does not experience sexual attraction." This is not to be confused with chastity, which is a choice to not act upon sexual urges (for asexuality to be an orientation it must be innate, not a choice). Even this definition is slightly incomplete; AVEN implicitly indicates asexuality only refers to lack of sexual attraction to another person. (1) The reason I cite a non-academic website (AVEN is actually an online community for asexuals devoted to providing opportunities for these previously isolated individuals to interact and promote awareness about asexuality) and put "experts" in quotes is that the subject of human asexuality has received almost no academic attention, nor in literature, nor by society, and only in the past few months has it become a hot topic in the media. In just the end of March/beginning of April 2006 segments on asexuality were featured on CNN, 20/20, MSNBC, and even Fox News. This recent interest has sparked some notice from researchers, but asexuality isn't as clear-cut as the other three "recognized" orientations.
Turns out, there are many shades of asexuality. Initially, AVEN used a system of classification with the letters A, B, C, and D. Type A has a sex drive (a drive for all but sex, such as kissing and stroking), but no romantic attraction, type B has romantic attraction but no sex drive, type C has both, and type D has neither. They no longer use this system as it became too limiting, but it does highlight the possible differences between any two asexuals. There are some who are thoroughly repulsed by sex (having it, watching it in a movie, thinking about it, even mention of it), while there are also individuals who just find it unappealing or boring (like washing dishes—if it has to be done you put up with it, but it's something you'd rather not spend your time doing). There are those who have no interest in dating or forming anything beyond friendship, while some asexuals date, fall in love, and even marry. Often, these "romantic asexuals" do engage in activities such as kissing, cuddling, and petting. Asexuals even date and marry sexuals who are willing to abstain from sex, have less sex, or have it with another sexual. Most asexuals still have emotional needs and form relationships to satisfy these, contradicting their stereotype of being frigid or misanthropic. Often romantic asexuals will describe themselves as being asexual-heterosexual, asexual-homosexual, asexual-bisexual, or asexual-asexual indicating their romantic orientation (which gender they're non-sexually attracted to).
Many asexuals appear to be in fine physical condition, indicating abnormal hormone levels or dysfunctional gonads are not the primary cause for the orientation. The idea is that asexuals may still experience physical arousal but perhaps their brains somehow do not connect it to the act of sex. Because of this, some asexuals masturbate in lieu of sex with another person (although their experience of masturbation may be different from that of sexuals); this can also be classified as being autosexual. However, there are also some asexuals who do not have a defined gender, due to physical deformities or discrepancies between their "physical gender" and their "mental gender." Although the title "asexuality" is fairly broad, it usually does not include bestiality, paraphilia, and other so-called "fetishes."
Why this sudden emergence of asexuality? During the Victorian era, marriage was generally expected and strongly encouraged, but with the belief that abstinence would be upheld in the relationship except with the explicit purpose of procreation. These ideals continued at least in part into the 20th century until they were abruptly disrupted by the sexual revolutions of the 60s and 70s. This period of presumed purity worked fairly well for asexuals, especially for those seeking a romantic partner, since even women were (sometimes) socially permitted to refuse their husband's requests for sex. However, any sexual activities or preferences deemed "unnatural" were stiffly condemned (in England homosexuality was punishable by hanging, imprisonment, or as in Oscar Wilde's case years of hard labor), so any individuals fitting the definition of asexual would not try to bring attention to their "problem." In the time between the introduction of liberal views on sex in the 60s to modern day the world seems obsessed with sex. To go one day in America without running into sex would require sealing oneself in a room containing only the Winnie the Pooh book series, and that is under the assumption that the individual would not think of sex spontaneously. When nearly every television show, movie, magazine, newspaper, novel, most songs, and even academic texts contain mention of sex, dating, or some other form of sexual attraction, asexuals feel extremely isolated from the rest of humanity. Only recently have asexuals (in addition to people with sexual "abnormalities," "fetishes" etc.) been able to find others like them and form communities over the Internet—there are many older individuals on asexuality.org who married and/or had sex out of social obligation and just assumed there was something wrong with them when they didn't enjoy it.
Considering the word about asexuality has gotten out to the general public only in the past few weeks, most of the population doesn't understand and some don't believe in asexuality. One female asexual compiled a list of things people have said to her when she told them she's asexual, including: "you hate men," "you have a hormone problem (why don't you just fix it?)," "you are afraid of getting into a relationship," "you were sexually abused as a child," "you are a lesbian," "you just haven't met the right guy," "did you just get out of a bad relationship?" She thoroughly refutes all of these (no, she's not a lesbian, she was treated just fine as a kid, it has nothing to do with previous guys or not meeting "Mr. Right"), but clearly portrays the stubbornness many asexuals find in others who aren't willing to believe he/she has no libido. (2) Although "coming out of the closet" is arguably much safer for asexuals than for homosexuals (it's unlikely they'll be fired, discriminated against, or tied to a fence and beaten to death), female asexuals do face an increased threat of rape. Sexual males often tell them (jokingly or seriously) that they just "haven't had me in bed" or see asexual females as "challenges," and sometimes forcefully try to prove their point. However, most asexuals say their friends and family are supportive (or at least have let up on pressuring them to date/marry).
Asexuality also finds critics in psychologists, sexual therapists, and even the religious (who are usually fairly accepting of asexuality due to its similarity with chastity, which is revered or at least respected in many religions). The psychoanalysts Hansen de Almeida and Brajterman Lernen state that "there is no such thing as asexuality, which is only an omnipotent fantasy to have both sexes." (3) Dr. Joy Davidson, a certified sex therapist featured on 20/20's segment on asexuality, believes asexuality is predisposed by physiological, psychological or experiential factors leading to asexuals' "shutting down the possibility of being sexually engaged." She also expresses worry that asexuals are labeling themselves "sexually neutered," resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy. (4) The specialist chosen for CNN's piece, Dr. Laura Berman, was a little more accepting of the idea of asexuality, but warns that it shouldn't be confused with intimacy or relationship issues. Since many asexuals are self-diagnosing themselves from information gathered from the Internet, it is certainly possible that a large portion of asexuals are not truly asexual, but rather have other issues with symptoms similar to asexuality. (5) A variety of diseases and physical ailments can result in reduced sexual drive, including spinal chord injuries, pituitary disorder, schizophrenia, and other neurological conditions. (6) If misdiagnosed as asexuality, warnings such as a non-existent or low sex-drive might be missed and underlying conditions left untreated. AVEN recommends newcomers as a general rule of thumb having at least hormone levels checked, just in case, but especially for those who used to have a sex drive. Finally, Nantais and Opperman write in the Christian magazine Vision that "Question: What do you call a person who is asexual? Answer: Not a person. Asexual people do not exist. Sexuality is a gift from God and thus a fundamental part of our human identity. Those who repress their sexuality are not living as God created them to be: fully alive and well." (7) Here, they clearly assume asexuality is sexual repression, rather than an inherent and complete lack of sexual desire.
Most of what is known about asexuality is really an educated guess or supposition; otherwise there would be some way to respond to the skeptics. So what research has been done on asexuality? There are several recorded instances of animals that refuse to mate, such as lab rats. A study on Mongolian gerbils showed that part of a population of male gerbil fetuses that developed between two female fetuses refused to mate, but instead spent almost 50% more time taking care of the young than male gerbils who as fetuses were positioned between two other males. They were also about 30% more likely to stay with a nest when the mother had left. This suggests that, although not perpetuating their own genes, they helped perpetuate their sisters' genes, which has evolution benefits for at least half that family's genes. These "asexual" male gerbils had on average half the level of circulating testosterone and 50% smaller bulbocavernosus muscles compared to the gerbils who had been between two males as fetuses. As male gerbils become violent when placed together, there was no way to tell if these asexual gerbils weren't actually homosexual instead, but the study still indicates that there are mammals that refuse to reproduce due to natal conditions. (8) Another study done on rams showed that besides the population of rams readily willing to mate with females, there was also a subset of rams who mounted other rams, and another subset that refused to mate at all. The asexual rams had testosterone levels comparable with those of the heterosexual rams, exogenous testosterone treatments did not prompt them to mate, and so the researchers concluded neither hypogonadism nor basal androgen concentrations caused the rams to exhibit asexual behaviors. However, when anesthetized, the homosexual and asexual rams had higher levels of cortisol concentration than the heterosexual ones. The researchers noted, "the endocrine response to anesthesia is most likely mediated through the central nervous system, the present results indicate that functional differences exist between the brains of rams that differ in sexual behavior expression and partner preference." (9) Since scientists have already noted that the brain of homosexual men is structurally different from that of heterosexual men (cell structure of gay mens' hypothalamus more closely resembles that of a heterosexual female's), that the asexual brain may too be structurally different should not be too easily dismissed. The existence of animal displays of asexuality run contradictory any suggestions that asexuality is a problem caused by psychological issues such as fear of commitment, or conscious/unconscious repression of sexuality, as animals are presumed to be incapable of both, although this rests upon the assumption that asexuality has the same cause in humans and animals.
There have been very few studies about asexuality in humans, most of which were about the stereotype that disabled people are made asexual as a result of their condition. One of the only studies that looks at asexuality as a possible orientation was actually a reexamination by Anthony F. Bogaert of a survey of 18,000 British about general sexuality and STDs. 1.05% of the respondents to the survey reported "I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all," very close to the 1.11% who responded they were homosexual or bisexual, although more women tended to be the former than the later, and more men tended to be the later than the former. Bogaert noted this asexual group to have poorer health, shorter stature, less body weight, higher attendance at religious services, lower socio-economic status, and asexual women had a later onset of menarche, all when compared to sexual people. Although these are only correlations, they may help form later hypothesis about the cause of asexuality, and whether asexuality is a valid orientation at all. Bogaert suggests some of his own. Perhaps the factors affecting height growth and weight gain also affected a region of the brain vital to sexuality, or education or other resources dependent on socio-economic status are somehow vital in sexual development, or maybe asexuals had fewer "sexual conditioning" experiences growing up (i.e. masturbation) which might also explain the high proportion of women and religious (both groups are less likely to masturbate). Youth, however, was not correlated with asexuality, indicating these individuals were not merely "late bloomers;" asexuals actually tended to be older. Major limitations to the study, besides being merely correlative and not actually about asexuality, include its high non-response bias (30%) and its face-to-face style of interviewing (which may have pressured individuals to alter their answers). However, the study does contain enough correlative evidence to warrant future research in the area. (6)
If asexuality is indeed determined to be a genuine sexual orientation, and even if it isn't, it greatly alters the way scientists and the public think about sex and sexual drive. On the social side, it shows that relationships do exist without sex and that love and sex may be mutually exclusive. It also changes the picture of the stereotypical "asexual." For women, this is a chaste, yet often motherly, figure of purity, such as the Christian Virgin Mary or the Greek goddess Artemis; or contradictorily the strong-minded and masculine woman who cannot admit her sexual or emotional attractions or lose her strength, such as Joan of Arc or Utena from the Japanese television series Shoujo Kakumei Utena. For men, this is a cold, calculating, overall emotionless or suppressed, yet often resourceful and intelligent individual, such as the Vulcan Spock from Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes (who keeps in character even in "Scandal in Bohemia" where he has his only "love affair" with a woman). (10) On the research side, future research projects may consider forming an additional "asexual" category when conducting studies relating to sex (Cott et all do this in their study on post-traumatic stress disorder and child sexual abuse and found significant differences between self-labeled asexual and sexual groups). (11) But perhaps most importantly, future research and consideration of asexuality may greatly upset the current one-dimensional continuum of sexuality, with exclusively homosexual on one end and exclusively heterosexual on the other end. Already psychologists are making this continuum two-dimensional, allowing for level of sex drive in addition. However, this too may become too limiting to describe the spectrum of human sexuality, requiring additions of third and even fourth dimensions (possible, although not particularly practical) to this continuum, perhaps recognizing need for sexual connection vs. need for emotional connection. In the meanwhile, until there is more biological and psychological information about asexuality, scientists and the public both might ease the use of limiting categories such as "gay" or "straight" and thus perhaps eliminate two categories upon which sexuality has traditionally hinged: right and wrong.
(1) Asexuality Visibility and Education Network
(2) Nonsexuality Rant
(3) Gender identity: Its importance in the psychoanalytic practice. A theoretical view / Identidade de genero: Sua importancia na pratica analitica. Uma visao teorica. Hansen de Almeida, Rui, Brajterman Lernen, Rosely C., Revista Brasileira de Psicanalise. Vol 33(3) 1999, 485-494.
(4) ABC's 20/20 – March 23, 2006
(5) CNN's Showbiz Tonight – April 5, 2006
(6) Asexuality: prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample
(7) Eight Myths about Religious Life
(8) Why some male Mongolian gerbils may help at the nest: testosterone, asexuality, and alloparenting
(9) Relationship of serum testosterone concentrations to mate preference in rams
10) Wikipedia entry on asexuality
11) Ethnicity and sexual orientation as PTSD mitigators in child sexual abuse survivors
Note: due to the lack of official literature on asexuality, much of the information about asexuals in this paper came from websites and forums such as AVEN's community board, Wikipedia (although I personally cross-referenced information gotten from there), comments mae by asexuals themselves, and speaking with a Bryn Mawr student who identifies herself as asexual, hence an overall lack of direct citations in the paper.
Additional Readings and Viewings:
Comments made prior to 2007
I just read the paper on asexuality by Jessica Engelman, and I must say it was very well done. I am asexual myself, and people are very ill-informed on this subject, so when I tell them I am asexual, they are mostly like "What does that mean?". I am only 15, so many people say,"Oh, you just haven't met the right man" (not woman: they don't even think I could possibly be lesbian). I say on those occasions, "Maybe you're right, I am pretty young, but I have never had a serious crush on anyone. Ever. In my whole life." Your article is very non-biased and professional. Thank you for doing such a fantastic job, and keep up the good work! ... Emma, 25 January 2007