The topic of ‘asexuality’ greatly intrigued me after reflecting on a guest lecture in my Sociology of Sexualities class (SOCI 369) about anti-homophobia and sex education in schools; the speaker mentioned that because sex and sexual desires are emphasized as the norm in sex education, discourse around asexuality (valuing romantic but not sexual relationships) is often ignored. I was interested in learning more about asexuality, a term that I ignorantly thought meant ‘having only one sex’ before the guest lecture. Thus, I decided to research on asexuality for my SOCI 369 paper (although upon my search for articles, I came to realize that academic research on the topic is still relatively new and sparse). Nonetheless, I believe the study and discourse of asexuality is important as asexuality is a distinct form of identity that questions the above assumptions about sexuality and therefore, deserves further research.
According to the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), a website created in 2001 by David Jay that offers information and facilitates discussion on asexuality, the basic definition of an asexual is “someone who does not experience sexual attraction.” However, “the term ‘asexual’ has been defined in many different ways” but “has received little research attention” (Prause & Graham, 2007: 341). Similarly, Carrigan contends that although asexuality is becoming more widely known, sociology has paid relatively little attention to it (2011: 462).
A pervasive assumption about sexuality is that all humans have sexual desire, which suggests that sexual identity is biological (Scherrer, 2008: 621, as cited in Foucault, 1978; Weeks, 1986) or “natural”. Consequently, in the clinical setting, asexuality is defined as different from “normal” levels of sexual desire and thus, has been classified under the third edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM; American Psychiatric Association, 1980) as hypoactive sexual desire disorder, due to a lack of sexual desire which “causes marked distress or interpersonal difficulty” (Prause & Graham, 2007: 341) that “requires health intervention” such as hormone therapy (Scherrer, 2008: 622). However, this categorization of sex disorder in the DSM has recently been criticized (Prause & Graham, 2007: 341). Another assumption concerning asexuality is that only disabled people are asexual (Scherrer, 2008: 623, as cited in Milligan & Neufeldt, 2001). What is sad is that unlike other marginalized sexualities, asexuality has not been largely acknowledged by legal institutions, perhaps partly because of its lack of desire and behaviour (Scherrer, 2008: 637).
It is important to note that asexuals make the idea of romance an explicit dimension of their identity where they may feel romantically and/or emotionally but not sexually attracted to someone. Others find attraction to be solely aesthetic (Carrigan, 2011: 468). Undoubtedly, asexuals have heterogeneous experiences and identities. The findings from Carrigan’s study show that one asexual female respondent has never had sexual attraction for someone and no desire for sex, believing that she may just be a ‘late bloomer’ (she has not found the right person yet); obliging willingly only if her partner insists on having sex; and having physical but non-sexual attraction to males (and thus, not necessarily desiring sex with women) (2011: 467). In addition, the same respondent found the idea of sex repugnant.
In addition, in Sherrer’s study, it was found that some participants enjoyed non-sexual physical activities (cuddling, holding hands, etc.) while others did not. Interestingly, although some of the respondents experienced sexual desire or attraction to others, they did not desire or engage in sexual or non-sexual behaviour with them. What is more, the respondents’ level of engagement with masturbation varied. Some masturbated (including aromantics–those who lack interest in pursuing romantic relationships) while others did not. The finding that some aromantics and asexuals in general masturbate (and do not consider it sexual) challenges the assumed association of masturbation with sexuality.
Because I assumed asexuals held the belief that their identity is more socially and historically constructed, I was somewhat surprised to learn that a paradox exists within the asexual community: while asexuals challenge essentialist understandings of sexuality as natural, they also stress the importance of validating asexuality as biological or essential. Although not every asexual participant in Sherrer’s study shared the same sentiment that asexual identity is particularly important to them, for others, sexual essentialism has helped to explain their identity (2008: 630). Asexuality, then, is not a choice like celibacy (a personal commitment to avoid all kinds of romantic and sexual relations because of religious reasons, among other reasons).
Before familiarizing myself with the literature on asexuality, I initially held the notion that all humans (including myself) are sexual beings. This belief may have stemmed in part from the saturation of discourse on sex and sexualities but not on asexuality, and perhaps from my constant exposure to (hyper)sexual images in the media and elsewhere. Although I contend that humans may be sexual to differing degrees, saying that all humans are sexual beings is a generalization. And the growing discourse of asexuality disproves this assumption. After my research on asexuality, I have learned since that asexuals are challenging and working toward re-writing discourses of sex, sexuality, and physical intimacy (Sherrer, 2008: 629) by considering individual, social, and cultural factors to understand what constitutes as sexual behaviour and varying degrees of romantic and sex attitudes.
Image Description: The girl is atop the asexual flag, adopted in 2010. The black represents ‘asexuality’, the grey represents ‘grey-aces’ (those who fall in the grey area of asexual and sexual) and ‘demisexuality’ (feeling sexually attracted only in an emotionally romantic relationship with someone), the white represents ‘asexuals’ (mostly allies), and the purple ‘community’.
Carrigan, M. (2011). There’s more to life than sex? Difference and commonality within the asexual community. Sexualities, 14(4), 462-478. doi:10.1177/1363460711406462
Foucault, Michel. (1978). The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Milligan, Maureen and Neufeldt, Aldred. (2001). The Myth of Asexuality: A Survey of Social and Empirical Evidence. Sexuality and Disability, 19(2), 91–109.
Prause, N., & Graham, C. (2007). Asexuality: Classification and characterization. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36(3), 341-356. doi:10.1007/s10508-006-9142-3
Scherrer, K. (2008). Coming to an asexual identity: Negotiating identity, negotiating desire. Sexualities, 11(5), 621-641. doi:10.1177/1363460708094269
Weeks, Jeffrey. (1986). Sexuality. New York: Routledge.