Cake Is Better Than Sex: The Case of Asexuality
Recently, a “new” sexual orientation has started getting attention in the media, asexuality (or nonsexuality) (e.g., see recent article on the Metro)
But what is asexuality? No, we are not talking about the asexual reproduction of invertebrates and other lower-level vertebrates. Unfortunately, there is only a limited number of studies on asexuality. In fact, some psychologists still doubt its existence or see it as sexual dysfunction. In the UK about 1% of the population self-identify as asexual (Bogaert, 2004). A few definitions have been given for asexuality: Storms (1980) defines asexuality as the absence of sexual orientation. This is similar to the definition given by Bogaert (2004), who describes asexuality as the lack of basic attraction towards others. The definition adopted by the largest international online community of asexual individuals, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) is broader than the ones mentioned above. AVEN defines asexuality as the lack of sexual attraction. A quick look at the forums at AVEN reveals that there is a great level of variability between individuals who self-identify as asexuals. Some are characterised by a lack of romantic orientation, as well as sexual attraction. Other, however, experience romantic attraction and identify as hetero-romantic (romantically attracted to people from the opposite sex), homo-romantic asexuals (romantically attracted to people from the same sex), or bi-romantic asexuals (attracted to individuals from both sexes).
Orientation or… disorder?
Could some of the people who self-identify as asexual individuals have some hormonal imbalance or a disorder behind their lack of sexual attraction?
Some initial findings show that asexuality is not associated with higher rates of psychopathology (Brotto et al., 2010). However, a subset might fit the criteria for Schizoid Personality Disorder. Asexuality seems to be more common among adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (Gilmour et al., 2012).
A recent study by Brotto & Yule (2011) challenged the view that asexuality should be characterised as a sexual dysfunction. They did this by comparing genital (vaginal pulse amplitude; VPA) and subjective sexual arousal in asexual and non-asexual women.
Thirty-eight women between the ages of 19 and 55 years (10 heterosexual, 10 bisexual, 11 homosexual, and 7 asexual) viewed neutral and erotic audiovisual stimuli while VPA and self-reported sexual arousal and affect were measured. There were no significant group differences in the increased VPA and self-reported sexual arousal response to the erotic film between the groups. Asexuals showed significantly less positive affect, sensuality-sexual attraction, and self-reported autonomic arousal to the erotic film compared to the other groups; however, there were no group differences in negative affect or anxiety. Genital-subjective sexual arousal concordance was significantly positive for the asexual women and non-significant for the other three groups, suggesting higher levels of interoceptive awareness among asexuals. Taken together, the findings suggest normal subjective and physiological sexual arousal capacity in asexual women and challenge the view that asexuality should be characterized as a sexual dysfunction. (Brotto & Yule, 2011)
Is asexuality a new orientation?
In a sex obsessed society the idea of individuals who don’t experience sexual attraction sounds alien. However, there is evidence from early studies by Kinsey (1948) that a small percentage of the population, a category he called “X” exhibited behaviour consistent with modern definitions of asexuality. The first known publication focused on asexuality was by Johnson in 1977. So, the answer is probably no. It was probably always around but it was the internet that gave asexual individuals the chance to meet others like them from all over the world.
Some theories suggest that asexuality is a product of modern society. In particular, Przybylo (2011) views asexuality as:
“both a product of and reaction against our sexusocial, disoriented postmodern here and now. This article also addresses the question of whether or not, and on what terms, asexuality may be considered a resistance against sexusociety”
Bogaert A.F. (2004) Asexuality: Its Prevalence and Associated Factors in a National Probability Sample. Journal of Sex Research, 41, 279-287
Brotto, L. A., Knudson, G., Inskip, J., Rhodes, K., & Erskine, Y. (2010). Asexuality: A mixed methods approach. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 599-618.
Brotto, L. A., & Yule, M. A. (2011). Physiological and Subjective Sexual Arousal in Self-Identified Asexual Women, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 699-712
Gilmour, L., Schalomon, P. M., and Smith, V. (2012). Sexuality in a community based sample of adults with autism spectrum disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(1):313-318.
Johnson, M. T. (1977). Asexual and Autoerotic Women: Two invisible groups. in ed. Gorchros H.L. and Gochros J.S. The Sexually Oppressed. New York: Associated Press.
Kinsey, Alfred C. (1948). Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. W.B. Saunders.
Przybylo, E. (2011) Crisis and safety: The asexual in sexusociety. Sexualities, 14, 444-461.
Storms, M. D. (1980). Theories of sexual orientation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 783–792.