Coming out, loud and proud: Meet the people who say sex is an alien concept

While David Jay's teenage friends seemed to think of little else, the good-looking, dark-haired young man from St Louis was too ashamed to admit that he found even the idea of sex a turn-off.

While David Jay's teenage friends seemed to think of little else, the good-looking, dark-haired young man from St Louis was too ashamed to admit that he found even the idea of sex a turn-off.

He had a girlfriend but their first attempts at "making out" left him cold and he never allowed his relationship to develop physically. "It was more intimate in a lot of ways. We hugged each other a lot," he recalls. Today Mr Jay is one of a growing community of asexuals who are finding their voice.

According to a new study, their numbers could be approaching those of declared gay men and lesbians, and they are demanding that the world recognises their orientation in the same way. A T-shirt for sale on Mr Jay's burgeoning website, Asexual Visibility and Education (Aven), puts their case: "Asexuality: It's not just for amoebas anymore."

The sex-free cyber community he has fostered has risen in number to 1,200 and is becoming increasingly self- confident. A recent posting from Jeremy Adams is typical. "I just wanted to inform you all that I will no longer be using the name Xenius13 on this site. I've decided to use my real name because if anyone knows me comes to this site I want them to know it's me." The proclamation is greeted with respect. "That takes guts for sure my friend," remarks one anonymous contributor.

But Mr Jay believes that coming out is the way forward and that asexuals could become a significant political force, much in the same way that the gay and lesbian movement took off in the 1970s.

"It's interesting because we're in the shadow of the gay rights movement, so it's a very different process now because we have things to draw on. There is also a culture that is ready to accept sexual variation much more readily than it was before," he told New Scientist.

Evidence comes from Dr Anthony Bogaert, a psychologist at Brock University in St Catherine's, Canada, who has just published the first study on the prevalence of asexuality. Drawing on a 1994 survey of 18,000 adults in the UK, he found 1 per cent said they had never felt sexually attracted to anyone. Double that number have never had sex. The figure was not far behind the 3 per cent who reported feeling same-sex attraction.

But the true number of asexuals may be far higher. According to Nicole Prause, a PhD student at Indiana University in Bloomington, who questioned asexuals over the internet, many are having sex even though they don't want to. Crucially she says, her work dispels the myth that asexuality is some kind of illness, treatable by modern medicine. "People are using it as their sexual orientation," she said.

This view is supported by Elizabeth Abbott, Dean of Women at Trinity College, University of Toronto and author of A History of Celibacy. "The asexual can be somebody's husband or wife. They may have to hide themselves because we are in a highly sexed society," she said. "Imagine someone who doesn't even want it and who isn't having a problem if they're not getting it. There's not really anyone for them to talk to."

But declarations of asexuality are not without controversy. For some, the desire to have sex is considered a basic characteristic of life. Fundamentalist Christians have even accused asexuals of being non-human. A magazine published for the National Religious Vocation Conference in the United States stated: "Asexual people do not exist. Sexuality is a gift from God and thus a fundamental part of our human identity."

Research into asexuality has until now centred on the animal kingdom. Studies carried out in the 1980s demonstrated that up to 12 per cent of males in rat and gerbil populations are not interested in females. These "duds" are categorised in the scientific literature as asexual.

In a study of sheep about 10 per cent of young, sexually mature rams put in a pen with ewes showed no interest in mating. Those rams were then placed in a pen beside either two males or two females and tested for sexual interest.

Between 5 per cent and 7 per cent showed their gay colours by displaying signs of attraction towards other rams. But 2 per cent to 3 per cent displayed no interest towards either males or females. Among self-proclaimed human asexuals, there is wide variety of experience. Some admit to being capable of being aroused, while many have extremely low libidos. But they all find the physical act of sex completely alien.

Kate Goldfield,a 20-year-old college student from Maine, said: "It's almost as foreign to me as someone saying 'You know when you're 18 we're going to take you on a space shuttle and we're going to go to Mars'." Pete, a high school student who is in a non-sexual relationship with a girl said: "I get the arousal but when it happens it gets annoying because to me there is really no purpose to it."

Another, a 17-year-old girl from Worcester, Massachusetts, who declined to give her name, recalls trying to find a definition which best described her sexuality in the dictionary. She confided in her journal: "What am I? Like I said before, I'm not anything: not anything there's a word for at least... If there were a word for what I'm starting to think I am it wouldn't - unlike the word homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, transsexual - have the word sex in it. I'm something different."

What is an asexual?

There are no strict criteria for categorising someone as asexual. At its simplest, and in biology, asexuals are those who have absolutely no interest in sex with either males or females. Brian, an asexual navy veteran from Virginia, in the US, explains it like this: "The place where we draw the line is the desire to interact sexually with other people."

But according to the website for the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (www.asexuality.org) this underestimates the complexity of sexual experience. "Like all sexual orientations, asexuality is a concept that individuals are free to use and modify as they see fit." The rules of attraction also vary. Asexual people may find themselves attracted to other people, but while they may want to be intimate with that person, they will not choose to do so sexually. Though they are less likely to fall in love, they may still desire to establish a relationship. This may take the form of a life partnership, marriage, or just a date.

When it comes to arousal the rules are even more vague. Some asexuals may feel turned off often, others only occasionally.

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