5 Ways to Better Understand Asexuality

The triangle is widely used in the asexual community as a symbol of asexuality.

Asexuality is a mysterious thing to those of us who do not happen to be asexual, and it’s not even well understood among sex researchers, argues Anthony F. Bogaert, who is himself a sex researcher at Brock University. And, really, this makes sense: It’s a lot easier to study an observable behavior than the absence of one. But in a new review of the scientific literature on asexuality, published in the Journal of Sex Research, Bogaert argues that more sex researchers should start paying closer attention to asexuality, because you can’t attempt to understand the broad spectrum of human sexual desire unless you also understand those who never experience it. 

Bogaert’s paper is a fascinating peek into the current research on asexuality. Here are some of the highlights: 

The scientific study of asexuality is barely a decade old. Bogaert himself published one of the first substantial academic inquiries into the subject in 2004, in the Journal of Sex Research. But in the years since, academics and nonacademics alike have taken on the subject, resulting in both popular and scholarly works on asexuality, including The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality, an exploration intended for a general audience published last fall and written by Julie Sondra Decker.

About one percent of the general population is estimated to be asexual. Give or take. There are a lot of numbers floating out there in the research space, largely because asexuality still lacks a clear and concise definition in the research community. (Bogaert prefers a simple, straightforward one: “never having felt sexual attraction to others.”) The one percent comes from the best available data, culled from a national sample of British adults in 2004 from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles.” At any rate, Bogaert writes, one percent is a solid “working figure.” 

It’s not a disorder. Whether or not asexuality should be considered a kind of sexual disorder — akin to hypoactive sexual desire disorder, for example — is something sex researchers have debated. But in this paper (and in others before it), Bogaert argues against the idea. For one, he writes, just because it’s rare doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a disorder. For another, to pathologize asexuality would imply that it is distressful in some way to those who have it, he argues — and yet the evidence suggests that those who identify as asexual aren’t bothered by their own asexuality. (By definition, a disorder must be something that causes the individual distress, disability, or something that poses a risk to their health.) 

In fact, the evidence suggests it’s a distinct sexual orientation. Think of the way other sexual orientations — heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality — are defined. Sexual attraction is the key way, if not the only, way of drawing these distinctions. By that logic, a lack of sexual attraction should mean that “asexuality is construable as a separate, unique category within a sexual orientation framework,” he writes. 

There’s nothing wrong with asexual people’s, ah, parts. Once, sex researchers theorized that asexual people’s lack of sexual desire must mean there was something physiologically wrong with them. But research by Lori Brotto of the University of British Columbia has found that, in fact, asexual people are just as physically capable of erections or vaginal lubrication as anyone else. In the words of one asexual person, quoted in a different Brotto-led study from 2010: “I did, you know, test the equipment … and everything works fine, pleasurable and all; it’s just not actually attracted to anything.” 

5 Ways to Better Understand Asexuality