What are relationships like when you bat for neither team?
Sex makes the world go round. Right? Well, not for everyone. In fact, for asexuals, it’s almost entirely off the table, which makes them largely misunderstood and all too often victimised within our over-sexualised society. We’re not promising we’ve got all the answers on asexuality (far from it, if we’re completely honest), but it’s a topic we all need to start talking more about. So dive on in...
Some things are tricky to get your head around. For most of us, the subject of asexuality falls into this bracket; a quick poll of the Women’s Health office fails to find a single person who feels confident that they know what being asexual actually means. But in an age where we talk more openly and assuredly about sexual flexibility and gender fluidity than ever before, why is it that asexuality feels like the last taboo? To date, asexuality has largely been acknowledged according to misconceptions held by mainstream society. There’s the notion that to be asexual is simply a case of having a low libido, or not having worked out what really gets you off. ‘A lot of people believe that everyone has to be sexual,’ says Anthony Bogaert, professor of psychology at Brock University in Canada and author of Understanding Asexuality. ‘So we make an assumption that asexual people will grow out of it or they haven’t met the right person yet.’ Other experts argue that we all too easily buy into the theory that pathologises asexuality, seeing it as a dysfunction rather than the bona fide sexual identity it is. In fact, it was this entrenched view that led Dr Lori Brotto, psychologist and head of the University of British Columbia’s Sexual Health Laboratory, to research the subject in the first place. ‘I was seeing people reporting no interest in sex and I hypothesised that asexuality was simply a severe form of low sexual desire,’ she explains. Safe to say, since studying the matter more closely, her view has changed. ‘Having spoken with many asexuals, most tell me that they’re in no way distressed by their lack of sexual attraction to others, and if they were offered a chance to change their sexual orientation, they wouldn’t take it,’ she says. ‘So, clearly, we’re not talking about sexual dysfunction.’
Sadly, these misconceptions of what asexuality is, or what asexuals feel, has led to a lot of stigma and discrimination within larger society. Professor Bogaert says that research shows the general public holds a more negative attitude towards asexuals than towards any other sexuality. And, unfortunately, it’s evident that discrimination follows. Dr Brotto refers to studies showing that landlords are less likely to rent a home to someone who is asexual, as well as cases where university LGBT pride groups have explicitly excluded asexual students, forbidding them from joining groups or walking in parades. This lack of solidarity and empathy shown by heterosexuals and the LGBT community leaves asexuals cast out with nowhere to turn. Is it any wonder large numbers of them report low self-esteem and feelings of isolation? Indeed, psychologists have found that when asexual people suffer anxiety and distress, it’s more often as a result of enduring this kind of stigma, rather than anything to do with their lack of attraction to others. For Alice Fleming, 24, it was her own family who reacted most negatively when she came out as asexual five years ago. ‘They thought I was attention-seeking, and accused me of lying because I didn’t want to admit I was bisexual and face the stigma of that sexual orientation,’ she says. ‘It’s incredibly frustrating because heterosexuality still seems to be the default setting, and anyone who deviates from it is accused of making a statement.’ So how does she deal with it? ‘I bombard them with links to legit scientific articles that prove the validity of asexuality as an orientation. That and roll my eyes so hard I get a headache.’ But her family’s acceptance remains elusive – she asked that her name be changed to avoid any backlash. When Dr Liz Mcdonnell, a research fellow at the University of Sussex, interviewed 50 asexual people in a study exploring identity, asexuality and intimacy, she found that for most, simply having the term ‘asexual’ to identify with was a relief. ‘Not being able to define the complex and diverse ways you feel can be really difficult – if you find an idea or a word for who you are, it can help legitimise those feelings,’ she says.
THE BARE BONES
Clearly, there’s a pressing need to dispel these myths around asexuality. Professor Bogaert suggests that it be defined as the fourth sexual orientation. Just as heterosexuality refers to sexual attraction towards the opposite gender, homosexuality involves sexual attraction towards the same gender and bisexuality covers both; asexuality refers to an absence of sexual attraction towards any gender. Interestingly, of the 1% of the population who fit into this category, about 70% are women, according to research by Professor Bogaert. Why? Experts haven’t yet worked that out. But they are making headway in other areas. Dr Brotto conducted an experiment in which female participants were shown erotic films while researchers measured their genital response using tampon-shaped devices that monitored the blood flow to vaginal tissue. Her team found that there was no difference between the results for sexual and asexual women (a recent study, yet to be published, recorded similar findings for men). Say what now? Yep, it confirms many asexuals do get the horn in biological terms, that is to say the act of sex can elicit arousal, they just don’t get turned on by people. While the findings prove asexuality isn’t a ‘plumbing problem’, as many might assume, they throw open a host of other questions. What exactly within the films got the asexuals’ biology going? Was it the male or female stars that elicited this reaction? Is it this same arousal response that drives some asexuals to masturbate?
‘ASEXUALITY IS LIKELY AN INNATE, POSSIBLY GENETIC, PHENOMENON’
Dr Brotto is keen to take the science of asexuality further, and is currently conducting brain imaging studies to investigate if there may be a difference between the brain make-up or function of asexual and sexual people. ‘To date, no one has so much as looked into this, so we have no idea what we might discover,’ she says. Other research indicates that asexual people are more likely to be left-handed and have older brothers. This is interesting, why? ‘Because it suggests that these prenatal events, determined before birth, might contribute to asexuality,’ says Dr Brotto. ‘Everything until now has been entirely speculative, but interviews with asexuals indicate their lack of attraction has been lifelong, which suggests that asexuality is likely an innate, possibly genetic, hardwired phenomenon.’
WHAT’S YOUR TYPE?
What can make the topic of asexuality seem even more complex is that, like every sexuality, it comes in many flavours and is something of a sliding scale. You might be ‘asexual aromantic’ – feeling no sexual or romantic attraction to others; or ‘asexual romantic’ – feeling no sexual attraction, but still desiring a relationship with a partner (usually of either gender). Then there are demisexuals – those who only experience sexual attraction after an emotional bond has been formed; and grey-asexuals – those who identify as somewhere in-between asexual and sexual, perhaps feeling sexual attraction only very rarely, or very faintly. Professor Bogaert says some asexuals find the very idea of sex repugnant, while others feel sexual desire and masturbate – but without feeling attraction to others. Take 22-year-old George Norman, an asexual who describes himself as ‘a very romantic person’. ‘People ask how being in a relationship without sex is any different from having a best friend, but isn’t that belittling intimacy and everything else that goes into loving a partner?’ he says. ‘Romantic asexuals can foster intimacy in many of the same ways as sexual people – holding hands, sharing experiences, cuddling on the sofa – to a level where they’re far more physically and emotionally close than they are with friends and family.’ And does gender play a part in who asexuals might enter into a relationship with? For George, yes. ‘I’m only romantically interested in men, which can be difficult for people to get their head around. Why not women, too? But are gay men only gay because they like certain genitalia? No, they’re romantically attracted to men because they generally feel a stronger connection with that gender.’ Given that such a tiny proportion of the population consider themselves asexuals, the dating pool is understandably limited, which is why some asexuals enter into relationships with people who identify as sexual. For Alice, who’s currently in a twoyear relationship with a heterosexual man, this has meant setting boundaries. ‘Sex is a big part of how he feels connected to a partner, whereas I show love by caring about what he places importance on,’ she says. ‘We enjoy sexual intimacy up to a point I’m happy with, and he’s okay with that.’ Some asexuals go one further, engaging in sex as a gesture of love towards their partners, while not desiring it themselves. ‘It’s a unique challenge, and a difficult one for both partners,’ explains Dr Brotto. ‘Some couples find an arrangement that’s satisfactory to them and make it work – and others can’t.’ For Dr Mcdonnell, the research has been enlightening, and she’s now working on resources for trainee doctors and teachers to try to spread awareness and understanding of asexuality. What she’s learned has also changed her as a mother: ‘If one of my kids came to me and said, “Mum, everyone at school fancies someone and I just don’t know what they’re talking about,” I would tell them that not everyone has those sexual feelings. I’d explain that for some people they come later, and for some they don’t come at all – and that,’ she stresses, ‘is OK.’