It leaves you tired, sweaty, and smelly – when one stops to think about it, sex is not very sexy. Yet sex appears to be one of humanity’s favourite activities, reflected in our more-than-positive population growth-rate. For a segment of our society, however, sex holds little appeal. These people, whose sexual behaviour has only in recent years begun to be studied seriously in recent years, may identify as asexual.
The precise definition of asexuality itself is somewhat a subject of debate. The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), a prominent advocacy and support group founded by David Jay in 2001, defines asexuality as a lack of sexual attraction to another person. Although the AVEN definition has found wide acceptance within the community, the exact meaning of asexuality is something defined by those who identify with the term.
A study conducted in 2008 by Kristin S. Scherrer of the University of Michigan asked 160 participants, recruited through an ad on the AVEN website, to answer an online questionnaire. Although it found that a plurality of people identified with the AVEN definition of asexuality, the rest of the participants fell into smaller groups with slightly different definitions. “Of the 89 participants who responded to the question ‘What does this identity mean to you?,’ 39 of participants (44 per cent) said that their asexual identity means that they do not experience sexual attraction or sexual desire,” writes Scherrer. “The most common description of asexuality used the same language as the AVEN website, however the remaining 50 participants (56 per cent) put forth alternative understandings of their asexual identity.”
A lack of sexual attraction toward other people does not mean that asexual people are incapable of forming interpersonal relationships. Rather, asexuality complicates the picture, creating relationships of many different varieties.
Some asexual people form romantic relationships, which may be celibate, or, in the case where at least one of the partners is sexual, include an agreed upon amount of sexual contact as a compromise. Asexual individuals tend to exhibit certain patterns in their dating behaviour, whether it is a preference for opposite-sex partners, same-sex partners, or gender-blind dating.
Although some asexual people develop romantic relationships, this is not true of everyone who identifies as asexual. Instead, many asexual people prefer to build committed networks of platonic friendships, whether such an arrangement takes form mainly with a primary partner or with a greater number of individuals. Whether a person has or lacks a “romantic drive” is in itself not a marker of asexuality.
“In the sexual world there is a sense that romantic relationships kind of stand above other kinds of intimacy. That when you talk about intimacy, if you’re not in a romantic relationship, then you’re not really doing it – which is why words like single exist – whereas in the asexual community the definition is more fluid,” argues Jay. “There’s less of a sense you need to be in a romantic relationship to be happy.”
One misconception about asexuality is that those who identify as asexual do not enjoy any type of sexual activity. The more nuanced reality is that asexual individuals dislike sex with other people – some enjoy masturbation.
“The distinction between sexual and asexual people is that, if asexuals think about other people during masturbation (many asexuals don’t think about anything specifically sexual), it is only as fantasy. If they were actually given the opportunity to be sexual with that person there would be no attraction, or the drive would be so low as to be completely ignorable,” explains the AVEN website.
In 2007, Nicole Prause and Cynthia Graham, two researchers at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, published a study in the journal Archives of Sex Research that touched on the apparent dissonance between masturbation and asexuality. For the study, the authors sampled a number of individuals, both sexual and asexual. “The interviews…suggested that asexual individuals interpret fewer behaviours as sexual, as compared to non-asexual individuals, possibly due to the lack of pleasure associated with them,” argue the authors. The report also observes that “asexuals reported significantly less desire for sex with a partner, lower sexual arousability, and lower sexual excitation, but did not differ consistently from non-asexuals in their sexual inhibition scores or their desire to masturbate.”
One of the main goals of the asexual movement is to build awareness of asexuality in mainstream society. When thinking of asexuality as a part of the realm of sexual orientation, it may be helpful to think of people as being on a gradient between sexual and asexual, rather than grouping asexuality as an alternative to heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, or any other sexual identification. Unlike these forms of queer sexuality, whose movements have aimed at combatting governmental and societal persecution, the biggest challenge currently faced by asexual people is becoming part of the public consciousness.
“The biggest issue facing the asexual community is invisibility. Historically, it is not that we’ve been told that we’re bad and evil. We’re told that we don’t exist,” explains Jay.
In the pursuit of that goal, the asexual community considers universities as one of the key battlegrounds to attain visibility. Academic research on asexuality, which had been met with tepid interest until very recently, is seen as a means to promote understanding of asexual people. “Universities are really, really powerful places to build a discussion about the fact that asexual people exist,” asserts Jay. “The more people who research asexuality and write papers on us, the more we become part of the mainstream dialogue about how sexuality works.”
Another valuable aspect of university campuses, according to Jay, is the prevalence of queer student support and awareness groups. Such a group, if inclusive of the asexual individuals at the school, can benefit the larger asexual community by helping to build awareness. Whether asexuality should be classified as “queer” is a subject of much debate within the asexual community, as some asexuals feel excluded by queer organizations.
“Most university LGBT groups are extremely sex-positive, and that’s good because most asexual people are extremely sex-positive. However, groups that are really sex-positive can be weirded out by the fact that people feel empowered by not having sex,” says Jay. “That is unfortunate because it makes an unsafe space for asexual people. In some ways, it makes a space that is limiting for everyone else. You have a safe space to celebrate enjoying sexuality at the expense of a safe space to celebrate things other than sexuality, meaning certain kinds of non-sexual intimacy.”
Jay finds some of the changes he has observed in U.S. universities in recent years encouraging, however. As more asexual people take ownership of the queer identity, they also have become more prominent within queer organizations.
“One of the cool things that’s happening on college campuses around the country is that, as asexual people are getting involved on campus LBGT groups, the groups are talking about non-sexual connections in the same way they talked about sexual connections in the past. They are starting to queer non-sexual intimacy, in the way that they’ve been queering sexuality,” says Jay.
The advent of the internet and AVEN, along with the increase in societal inclusion of marginalized sexualities, has benefitted the cause of asexual acceptance and visibility. It’s likely that a better understanding of asexuality will produce a more tolerant and nuanced conception of interpersonal relations, sexual and otherwise.