Researchers aren’t quite sure exactly what asexuality is. On paper, the concept is clear — asexual people simply don’t experience sexual attraction — but since scientists are so early on in their attempts to understand the phenomenon, they’re not quite sure about many of the specifics. There are a bunch of interesting, obvious questions touching on facets of sexuality that don’t entail getting together with another person: To take two, how often do asexual people masturbate? Do they have sexual fantasies?
To better understand this group, a trio of University of British Columbia researchers, Morag Yule, Lori Brotto, and Boris Gorzalka, conducted a survey in which they asked 739 people, 351 of them asexual (as defined by an inventory of questions designed to capture asexuality), about their sexual experiences and fantasies. The results, just published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, strongly suggest that the “asexual” label could be capturing too broad a group, and that it might be time to get a bit more fine-grained.
Here’s the key bit from the paper’s conclusion:
While there are a number of differences between asexual and sexual groups in terms of patterns of masturbation and sexual fantasy, as well as in contents of sexual fantasy, the similarity between the groups on several of these measures is striking. For example, nearly half of asexual women and three quarters of asexual men reported both experiencing sexual fantasy and masturbating, despite reporting a lack of sexual attraction to other people and identifying as asexual. Further, there was significant overlap in the sexual fantasies experienced by participants, regardless of their asexual or sexual status. Sexual fantasies have long been thought to reveal an individual’s innermost desires. However, the current data suggest that if this is true, individuals do not necessarily act on these desires. An asexual individual may not experience sexual attraction, but may nonetheless engage in sexual fantasy, perhaps to facilitate physiological sexual arousal and masturbation. The sexual fantasies may not be reflections of innate sexual wants or desires. More research will be needed to ascertain whether this is because the individual cannot act on these desires (in the case of being attracted to fictional characters), because social constraints prohibit them from doing so, or because there is a disconnect between their subjective sense of self in relation to sexual targets. Further, these findings suggest that sexual fantasies are not, in fact, ubiquitous, as previous writings have suggested. What makes one individual have sexual fantasies, and whether they appear spontaneously or deliberately, versus another individual not having fantasies, is a fascinating area of inquiry that may also inform the debate on whether lack of sexual fantasies should be a marker of a sexual desire disorder. [emphasis mine]
The key takeaway, again, is that when it came to fantasies and masturbation, there was simply less of a difference between the sexual and asexual groups than one might expect.
Another really interesting aspect of the paper dealt specifically with asexual people’s fantasies, which were elicited by open-ended questions on the survey. Oftentimes, they fantasized in a third-person sort of way, with both asexual men and women far more likely than their sexual counterparts to fantasize about situations not involving them.
A few examples from asexual respondents:
I do have sexual fantasies but most of the time they do not involve me or any real person. I sexually fantasize about fictional male couples and their romantic and sexual relationships and events. They are all monogamous relationships where they are faithful to one another (no affairs). With fictional male couples, my sexual fantasies can involve many and varying sexual preferences and fetishes. […] (female, 19 years old)
I don’t put myself into my fantasies. That is thoroughly unappealing to me. Instead, I imagine other people in sexual situations, and focus on their thoughts and feelings for a sort of vicarious arousal. I don’t want to do anything sexual with any of the people I imagine, and by themselves, they don’t turn me on. I think it’s because I’m not capable of feeling sexual attraction or lust, so I mentally conjure up people who are and empathize with them (though my ideas of how they experience lust are, since I’m asexual, awfully vague in some ways and probably way off base in others) (female, 32 years old)
I enjoy watching other people enjoy their sexuality. I like the role of being strictly a voyeur but I love being the cause of them enjoying their sexuality. Although I am very excited by these situations I wouldn’t call it sexual excitement. Although my body is clearly aroused by it, I have no desire to attend to that arousal. I very much enjoy being the one who does not physically engage in sexual behavior while being the one who provokes it in others. I like to see my romantic partner endure unpleasant situations that I’ve created because I feel that his willingness to sacrifice his comfort is an expression of his devotion to me. I like to see a partner insensible with excitement or pleasure because of my interaction with them. This makes me feel very emotionally enticed and engaged but sexually I feel disengaged and disinterested even though my body is aroused (female, 35 years old)
Now, there was still a healthy proportion of asexual people who reported having never had a sexual fantasy — about 20 percent for men and 35 percent for women, with the equivalent percentages for sexual men and women close to zero. But it’s still interesting that so many people who qualify as asexual the way we currently define the term have fantasies about sex. It suggests there’s a lot more unpacking and research to be done before researchers fully understand asexuality.