When asexual activist David Jay went on the Montel Williams Show in 2007 to explain his lack of sexual attraction, he was given the third degree.
Had he been sexually abused as a child?
“Nope,” said Jay.
Did people just not want to have sex with him?
“I’ve had plenty of offers, don’t worry.”
But surely if a girl came “strolling out of the room in a teddy or in some nice lingerie,” he’d change his mind, Williams suggested.
“It would probably come up before then,” Jay joked.
Almost a decade later, a new review in Archives of Sexual Behavior reiterates what many asexual people like David Jay have been saying to doubters like Montel Williams all along: Asexuality is not a disorder but rather “a heterogeneous entity that likely meets conditions for a sexual orientation.”
But even after years of increasing asexual visibility, that’s still a difficult assertion for many straight, gay, and bisexual people to accept.
“I think [asexuality] really challenges many of our societal beliefs,” lead author Dr. Lori Brotto, a clinical psychologist and sex researcher at the University of British Columbia, told The Daily Beast. “We see sexual attraction as being inherently human, as a core aspect of what differentiates humans from other animals, and we see it as being a necessary part of our development.”
So when an asexual person says they’re simply not interested in sex—or that they’re interested in romance without sex—those of us who do want to do the deed can get confused. But Dr. Brotto’s review suggests that, no matter how perplexing people may find asexuality, there’s no reason to question its legitimacy or its normality.
For one, Brotto has previously found that there’s a fairly stark difference between asexuality and true forms of sexual dysfunction.
Through a series of questionnaires, she and a research team discovered that people who met the diagnostic criteria hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD)—a disorder characterized by a lack of desire that the individual finds distressing—were “significantly more likely than asexuals to be in a relationship, to masturbate, and to have engaged in kissing and petting behaviors.”
By a margin of over 60 percent, individuals with HSDD were also much more likely to have had sexual intercourse than asexual people. That doesn’t mean that asexual people don’t do any of these things—some of them do—but it does suggest, as Brotto and her co-author note, that “asexuality is not likely to fit under the sexual dysfunction umbrella.”
For example, whereas someone diagnosed with HSDD may genuinely wish to feel more sexual desire, previous research has shown that many asexual people are “not worried about their level of sexual desire, nor [do] they wish to speak to a health professional about their lack of attraction.” And, as of 2013, the DSM-V lists being asexual as an exclusionary criterion for being diagnosed with HSDD.
That hasn’t stopped people from insisting that their asexual friends and acquaintances should ask their doctor why they lack sexual desire. Montel Williams, for instance, asked David Jay if he had his “hormones checked”—a question asexual people field so frequently that it’s on the FAQ of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), an online resource that Jay founded in 2001.
The underlying assumption behind the frequent “hormones” question—that there must be something wrong with asexual people—is one that Brotto says is simply not supported by the evidence.
“Asexuality is common,” she told The Daily Beast. “It reflects one of the normal variations in sexual attraction and, in the vast majority of individuals, it’s not due to a choice, or a wish, or celibacy, or the result of trauma, or some other kind of psychological dysfunction or disability.”
It may be true, as Brotto and her co-author note in the review, that asexual people have “higher rates of psychiatric symptoms,” but there are also well-recognized mental health disparities between LGBT people and the general population that have been attributed to the effects of prejudice and discrimination. That’s likely the case with asexual people, too; a 2012 study of bias among college students, for example, found that asexuals were “viewed as less human, and less valued as contact partners, relative to heterosexuals and other sexual minorities.” Not being seen as fully human can be a damaging experience, as members of several minorities can attest.
“[I]t is likely that the distress and psychological symptoms experienced by asexual individuals is secondary to their experience of prejudice and discrimination, rather than asexuality being the result of an underlying psychological disturbance,” the study notes.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that asexuality is a sexual orientation, including the fact that most asexual people “have been asexual for their entire lives,” as the AVEN Wiki notes and several qualitative studies have confirmed. The existence of AVEN itself—or, as Brotto and her co-author put it, the use of “networking to create identity-based communities”—is another indicator of an orientation. And there are also early studies examining possible links between asexuality and certain innate biological factors.
But the question of how to define sexual orientation in the first place is still open. For instance, is asexuality best conceptualized as a sexual orientation or as the absence of a sexual orientation? (The latter is a possibility that Brotto and her co-author say has been “inadequately explored by the existing science,” although members of AVEN have debated it multiple times). And what does the existence of asexuality mean for more traditional definitions of sexual orientation?
“As researchers are learning more about the neural underpinnings of attractions and the diversity of attractions, it’s leading them to think much more about what makes a sexual orientation,” Brotto told The Daily Beast. “What we do know is that it extends beyond the conventional categories of same sex-attracted, opposite sex-attracted, or attracted to both.”
Literature from the American Psychological Association, for example, defines sexual orientation as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes” but that doesn’t account for an enduring pattern of having no attraction to anyone. And, for some asexual people, a lack of sexual attraction can coexist with a romantic attraction to one or multiple genders. For that reason, AVEN users have coined terms like “heteroromantic” and “homoromantic” to account for the distinction between romantic attraction and sexual attraction.
It’s clear, as Brotto’s review notes, that there is “likely as much variability among asexual individuals’ lack of sexual attraction… as there is among sexual individuals’ presence of sexual attraction” and that there’s much more for people who aren’t asexual to understand not just about asexuality, but about themselves.
“The fact that an individual can develop a romantic attraction and not develop a simultaneous sexual attraction really challenges many of our societal and, I would argue, romantic beliefs about what is human and what is normal,” said Brotto. “I think it shakes up our thinking and causes us to question our own lives and beliefs.”
Whatever your orientation, that’s probably a good thing.