Many societies are largely heteronormative. This means that most people expect other people’s biological sex to correlate with their gender identity, and that most people also view being “straight,” or attracted to people of the opposite sex, as normal. These expectations happen because people assume that their own beliefs and desires are typical of the entire group. Until proven otherwise, most people assume that others are heterosexual, or straight, individuals looking for intimate partners. Terms such as “straight” and “gay” (being attracted to people of one’s own sex) are often used to label people’s sexuality. However, sexuality exists not within a dichotomy, but along a continuum. For example, someone might identify as straight but have slight homosexual tendencies. Thus, there are many different ways in which people can express and experience sexuality. One such measure of sexuality is referred to as “asexuality.”
The asexuality flag
What is Asexuality?
Asexuality is a sexual identity that is defined as the lack of attraction either emotionally or erotically to persons of either gender, or any other entity. Recently the general public has increasingly accepted asexuality, and it has been able to gain a position within the spectrum of sexuality that contains more commonly recognized labels such as straight and gay.1 Asexuality affects 0.6% of females and 0.9% of males in the United States.2 It is difficult to determine the exact prevalence, however, because sexuality can be defined in terms of either behavior or identity. One may consider themselves to be an asexual person, but still engage in sexual activities due to factors such as societal pressure or curiosity.2 Much of one’s sexual identity comes from how they define themselves as an individual, even if their behavior sometimes contradicts that definition.
Asexual people can be considered as a population with differing characteristics from those who do experience sexual attraction and desires. They commonly have fewer sexual partners and engage in less sexual activity; many practice celibacy.2 The asexual population counters the expectation that every person desires sexual intimacy. However, for decades the LGBTQ population, which encompasses those of all sexual orientations, including asexual people, has been fighting against these assumptions. They have argued for more inclusive ideals on sexuality, and have worked to clarify what it means to identify as an asexual person. Two forms of sexuality categorized under the broader concept of asexuality are demisexuality and grey-A. A demisexual person does not experience sexual attraction unless they form a strong emotional connection with someone.3
People who identify as being grey-A may experience the following:
- Do not normally experience sexual attraction, but may experience it sometimes
- Experience sexual attraction but a low sex drive
- Experience sexual attraction and drive, but not strongly enough to want to act upon them
- Enjoy and desire sex, but only under very limited and specific circumstances3
- May experience sexual fantasies, but not about themselves— perhaps with unknown characters4
Asexuality can be placed within the broader continuum of sexuality, but the term itself can be categorized as containing varying degrees of sexuality. The ambiguity of the term itself and the lack of public knowledge about the topic have led to many misconceptions about asexuality.
- Asexuality is a sexual dysfunction
Before the 1960s’ sexual revolution, some doctors and psychiatrists would incorrectly identify asexual people as having sexual aversion disorder. However, in order to be diagnosed with sexual aversion disorder, a person must experience "significant distress" when in contact with a sexual situation.5 Asexuals do not generally suffer from anxiety. Simply stated, they are just not that interested in sex! While an asexual person may lack attraction or desire for sex, their physiological sexual response is often not of concern. One may feel pleasure while masturbating, but not due to psychological causes.
- Asexuality is the same as celibacy
Celibacy, or refraining from sex, is a choice, while asexuality is a sexual orientation.2 People who choose to be celibate still experience sexual desire for their preferred sex but they choose to refrain from pursuing that desire. Asexuals often don’t explicitly choose to refrain from sex; rather, they do not feel the desire commonly associated with sexual attraction.
- Asexuality is the same as homosexuality
Although some asexual people wish to form a companionship with the same sex, asexuality and homosexuality are two separate sexual orientations. Homosexual people are romantically and sexually attracted to the same gender. In contrast, asexual people lack the desire to engage sexually with either sex.
Although asexual people may not fantasize about sex, many still form intimate relationships with other people. Asexuality, just like any other sexuality, exists on a spectrum. People who identify as asexual may therefore separate love and sex. A demisexual person, for example, may be able to emotionally connect with others without desiring to have sex. Asexual people will sometimes still form relationships, depending upon where they fall along the continuum of asexuality and traditional sexuality. Some asexual people prefer only to date each other, but it is also possible for asexual people and non-asexual people to have healthy, loving relationships.
Sexual intercourse is only one component of relationships, and therefore it is definitely possible to form a strong, intimate relationship without sex. In fact, without the distraction of sex, many asexual people find that they get to know their partners on a deeper level, dedicating more time to participating in shared interests. It is entirely possible for asexual people to be in healthy relationships with a partner who is either also asexual or “straight.” Communication in these relationships is particularly important, because asexual individuals may choose to still practice sexual behaviors. They can physiologically engage in these behaviors despite feeling sexual attraction. However, some asexual people may simply not want to engage in these behaviors. They can choose to either be celibate and abstain from sex or practice sexual behavior even though they may not enjoy it. They may do this to conform to society’s own expectations or as a self evaluation to better understand their own sexuality. Asexual people may wonder why they are different from others who do experience attraction. They may try to engage in sexual behavior in order to evaluate their own lack of attraction.4 This experimentation may result in them being able to better place themselves along the continuum of sexuality and identify themselves within the realm of asexuality.
Identifying as an Asexual Person
Unfortunately, asexuality has traditionally been left out of the conversation on sexuality due to both discrimination and the general population’s lack of knowledge. Compared to homosexuality, most people do not understand asexuality very well. In fact, many people are unaware of its existence. It can be difficult for asexual people who are coming to terms with their sexuality to find their identity in a highly sexualized world. In order to support those who are realizing that they are asexual, it is important to be understanding of their confusion and struggles with their sexual identity. Helping them understand that there is nothing wrong with them and that sexuality can be expressed in many ways can allow them to feel more comfortable with themselves. One who is realizing their own asexuality should understand that although they may be confused or uncertain about what they’re feeling, they should not feel ashamed. It’s important to understand that every person has different and asexuality is just an orientation that may be separate from society’s expectation of heteronormativity. Some people may discriminate against those they do not understand, so one who is realizing that they identify with asexuality should make use of resources such as hotlines to give themselves an outlet and to feel accepted. While asexuality is not as well-known as other sexual orientations, due to recent activism and the increasing acceptance of other sexualities, asexual people have been better able to educate others on their unique sexuality. Because of activism and increased notoriety, those who identify as being asexual can feel better about expressing their own sexuality. Society’s increase in knowledge about this orientation will lead to eventual acceptance of this orientation as an essential part of the continuum of sexuality.
Asexuality and Mental Health
Asexuality challenges the perception that sex is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.5 Because of society’s tendency to assume that wanting to have sex is “normal,” it has been suggested that asexuality is caused by a mental disorder. Some have postulated that asexuality is a disorder that exists together with other mental disorders, such as depression, but there is no evidence that asexuality is either correlated with or caused by depression. The asexual population has been found to have a higher-than-average prevalence of disorders that cause social interaction difficulties, such as Asperger’s syndrome. Depression and anxiety can be common within the asexual community, but this may be due to the stigma, discrimination, and marginalizing often directed at those within sexual minority groups. Asexuality has been suggested as being an extreme facet of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, in which individuals who have experienced sexual attraction before become unable to and therefore feel distressed, asexuality is a sexual orientation, not a disorder. Because many asexual people experience a lifelong lack of sexual attraction, and are not distressed by their asexuality, it is not considered to be a disorder; it is simply an alternative attitude towards sex.4
Asexuality is a sexual orientation that fits within the same continuum as heterosexuality and homosexuality. However, its unique qualities make it a separate sexual identity. Individuals who experience asexuality may still lead full lives and even have relationships, because unlike sexual disorders, asexuality does not cause distress and is simply an alternate orientation. It is important to be educated on the varying degrees of sexuality, and asexual people’s activism has allowed them to slowly gain the recognition of the general public.
1. Bogaert, Anthony F.. "Understanding Asexuality. Lanham" Rowman & Littlefield.
2. Baumle, Amanda K. and Poston, Dudley L.. "Patterns of asexuality in the United States." Demographic Research..
3. Anonymous. "Gray-A / Grey-A." AVENwiki.
4. Lori A. Brotto PhD, Morag A. Yule M.A. and Boris B. Gorzalka PhD. "Asexuality: An Extreme Variant of Sexual Desire Disorder?." The Journal of Sexual Medicine.
5. DePaulo, Bella. "ASEXUALS: Who Are They and Why Are They Important?." Living Single.
6. Carrigan, Mark, Kristina Gupta, and Todd G. Morrison, eds. "Asexuality and Sexual Normativity: An Anthology." London and New York: Routledge.
Last updated March 7, 2016