Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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.


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?


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 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.’

words MOYA SARNER pho­tog­ra­phy PAVEL DORNAK

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