Asexuality: when life isn't all about sex

Research suggests 1% of the population (more women than men) are asexual. But the majority of people may view asexuality more negatively than other sexual minorities, and it has been identified as a 'sexual disorder' in the past

Anthony Bogaert
Monday 20 July 2015 16:41 BST
Benedict Cumberbatch has enjoyed huge success as detective Sherlock Holmes
Benedict Cumberbatch has enjoyed huge success as detective Sherlock Holmes (BBC)

Though asexuality isn't something which is often discussed in the media, it is used in entertainment: think Sherlock Holmes eschewing of all things sexual and thus adding to the dramatic portrayal of the character’s single-minded pursuit of intellectual truth, or think Sheldon in Big Bang Theory brushing up against a sexualised world and thus ramping up the comedic tension in the sit-com.

In the modern, real-world incarnation of the no/low sex spectrum we find asexual people, a group increasingly interested in “coming out” and staking their claim on the social landscape. A defining feature of asexuality is little or no sexual attraction to other people - in short, no lustful lure for others.

Not surprisingly, many asexual people also exhibit very little sex drive or sexual interest whatsoever (including no masturbation), although some may still have some “solitary” desire. Thus, some asexual people may still evince some sexual drive but it is not connected to others.

Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory
Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory

Recent research has suggested that perhaps as many as one per cent of the population—with more women than men—are asexual. Research also suggests that the origins of asexuality, like traditional sexual orientations, are at least partly rooted in early development.

Researchers have also begun to examine a variety of issues related to asexuality, including how some asexual people are content to “fly under the radar,” socially speaking, while others may form a strong asexual identity and “come out” to others, and how asexual people may be the subject of prejudice and discrimination. In the latter case, recent research suggests that the sexual majority may view asexual people more negatively than other sexual minorities.

("WorldPride 2012 - 175" by Tom Morris. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Asexual people, particularly if they are comfortable with themselves, have also recently challenged health professionals, including writers of the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM), as to what it means to have a sexual disorder. For example, there is now a provision in the recent DSM that allows self-identified asexual people to avoid being diagnosed with having a sexual disorder.

As I suggest in my book, Understanding Asexuality, there are many reasons why those interested in sex—including sex researchers/educators—should try to understand asexual people and their view of the world. First, studying asexual people provides information on a relatively unstudied group, and knowledge of this minority may help asexual people understand themselves better and ease their negotiation through a complex and foreign sexual world.

("WorldPride 2012 - 175" by Tom Morris. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Studying asexuality also provides a unique window on sexuality and its mysteries, including its complex relationship to love and romance. For example, although some asexual people do not want romantic relationships—one person on AVEN, the most popular online forum for asexual people, writes succinctly “Never had a relationship, never want one” — many asexual people desire romantic relationships, even if they eschew sexual ones. Another AVEN participant writes: “I am now in a relationship with a heterosexual person, I don't know how it will work out but I am trying to be positive about it and keep the focus on what we have in common rather than what we don't have in common…”

Given that asexual people often want a romantic relationship (despite its challenges), they provide a model of how romantic love can be de-coupled from sex, and such a model also holds for sexual people. Indeed, the popularity of movies in the bromance genre—e.g. two (burly) straight men forming a deep bond— demonstrates the usefulness of the romance versus sex model of human attachment.

Examining asexuality also can afford a clear view on how deeply infused sex is in our society—from the pervasiveness of sex in the media to our enduring interest in gossip on the sex lives of others. We also may begin to see more clearly the strange and often mad complexity of sex, with its jealousies, obsessions, and distortions of reality. Sex is unquestionably part of the great story of human life—our means of reproduction and a deep source of passion and pleasure for many—but it is also a strange and mad world at times, and one that is better understood if we take a glimpse or two from the outside.

Anthony F. Bogaert, PhD, is a Professor at the Department of Health Sciences, and Department of Psychology, at Brock University, Canada. His latest book is Understanding Asexuality

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