Exploring asexuality: how research and awareness benefit each other for this minority identity

Image credit: Kruthika Sundaram

Today is the start of Ace Week, a global effort for awareness and education about asexuality. This underrepresented identity is still not as widely known, let alone understood, as it should be, in the general public or in scientific circles. Research into asexuality is, therefore, faced with an enormous task, of which we are still in the early stages. Simultaneously, activism continues striving to spread the message that asexuality is not something to look down upon or be ashamed of in any way.

Asexuality is an orientation that involves a lack of sexual attraction. While this definition is short and sweet, the term “asexuality” covers a spectrum of how much or how little attraction is experienced and includes a huge range of sub-groups. It also forces us to define what exactly sexual attraction and sexuality are in the first place, making the study of it relevant to all of human sexuality.

On 6th September this year, the first ever online UK Asexuality Conference hosted panels covering many facets of asexuality. Experts, activists, and interested members of the public from around the world attended, living proof of the diversity of asexuals and their life experiences. One of the panellists talking about research into asexuality was Dr Megan Carroll, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University San Bernardino. 

“Asexualities are an interesting research topic to me because they embody so much that has changed about sexual identity in the last several decades: sexual identity has become more fluid, more complicated, and more specific,” Dr Carroll said via email. Within the wide spectrum of asexuality, sub-identities include gray-asexuality – in which sexual attraction is rarely experienced – and demisexuality – sexual attraction is only experienced after forming a strong emotional bond. 

Closely related to asexual orientations is aromanticism, defined as the lack of romantic attraction. A concept called the split attraction model, named by the asexual community between 2000 and 2005, recognises that a person can experience romantic and sexual attraction independently. Thus, someone may experience both types of attraction (and would be described as allosexual and alloromantic), neither (asexual aromantic), only one, or fall anywhere in-between. This allows a multitude of combinations of orientation to be defined, taking into account the gender(s) a person is attracted to sexually or romantically. Someone could be asexual and homoromantic, for example.

Dr Carroll wrote a chapter titled “Asexuality and Its Implications for LGBTQ-Parent Families” in the recently published textbook LGBTQ-Parent Families. In it she gives the reader an overview of what research into asexuality is looking at and where it stumbles. 

The most commonly shared statistic states that about 1% of the population is asexual, taken from a probability sample in 2004 (Bogaert, 2004). However, this study used a flawed definition of asexual, counting only those who experience no sexual attraction, so it seems likely that the true proportion of people on the asexuality spectrum is higher. Another study in 2013 estimated the percentage to be 0.4% (Aicken et al 2013); on the other end of the scale, a 1983 study of students suggested 5% of men and 10% of women were asexual (Nurius, 1983). Evidently, the true prevalence of asexuality is difficult to discover.

As Dr Carroll points out in her chapter, studies show a higher prevalence in asexuality among cisgender women than in cisgender men, and a higher proportion of transgender individuals than among allosexuals. The gender and asexuality overlap may be affected by societal pressures on men to be sexual, however, making men less likely to come out as asexual. As for the large number of transgender asexuals, few hypotheses exist that can explain this link.

Furthermore, the intersection of race with asexualities is yet another area where more research is needed. So far, results of studies have been inconsistent: the 2004 sample that gave the population estimate suggested that asexual people are less likely to be Caucasian, whereas samples from online communities are mostly white.

An interesting study published last year was a topic of discussion by the Research panel at this year’s UK Asexual Conference. It explored alcohol and tobacco consumption in people identifying as asexual, and sought explanations for any patterns discovered. The researchers found that the asexual and gray-asexual participants drank considerably less alcohol than allosexuals and were more likely to not drink altogether. The data on tobacco consumption showed a similar trend, although less clear-cut. A variety of reasons against drinking was taken from interviews with participants, some stating that the overly sexualised atmosphere of bars and clubs steered them away from social drinking.

Asexuality has a complex relationship with disability and neurodivergence. Harmful stereotypes of adults with disabilities assume asexuality, which in turn is seen negatively as something dehumanising. In reality, there is nothing ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ with either. However, attempts to unlink asexuality from disability can exclude people who do fit the stereotype. A similar stereotype exists for adults with autism spectrum disorders, who have been found by various studies to have a higher rate of asexuality occurrence, although the majority are allosexual. In instances such as these, countering ableism and acephobia simultaneously can be difficult – neither disability nor asexuality should be portrayed as something less desirable when a stereotype lumps the two together. 

Like other LGBTQ+ identities throughout history, asexuality has been pathologized and labelled as a sexual disorder in need of “treatment”. Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder appeared in the 1987 revision of the DSM-III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), with the original criteria for diagnosis being simply a lack of sexual desire. Although many asexuals do experience desire, there are many who do not, and so would have previously been classified as having HSDD.

As a result of activism, increased awareness and changing attitudes, the DSM-5 (currently in use) explicitly excludes individuals who identify as asexual from the sexual desire disorders it lists. Diagnosis now requires the person to experience distress from lacking desire – which is not true for asexuals who have no sexual desire. Most likely, the distress that asexuals may feel is caused by societal expectations about sexuality. 

In spite of this, asexuals still experience marginalization from medical professionals who lack an understanding of asexuality. Personal stories often involve individuals feeling that something is wrong with them, before discovering the asexuality community and “the relief that comes from having a term to describe yourself,” as Dr Carroll said. 

“There is so much that we don’t know about asexualities,” says Dr Carroll. Research on this subject is not straightforward, however. Collecting data on asexual individuals is challenging since “too many people still don’t know what it is,” according to Dr Carroll. “We’re not studying who asexual people are as a whole, we’re studying the types of asexual people that would use an asexual communication hub, ” like AVEN, one of the largest online communities for people who identify as being on the asexual or aromantic spectrum.

Fortunately, communities like these are expanding and reaching out for visibility in the wider world. Ace Week, previously called Asexual Awareness Week, is one example which aims to educate about and celebrate asexuality worldwide. This year is the tenth anniversary of the event, so a special focus will be put on the history – Asexual History Day was on the 12th October – which no doubt will show how much has changed for the better. Thanks to the community’s efforts, five states of the United States have officially recognised Ace Week as a week for promoting awareness and education. More information and stories can be found on the organisers’ website

As Dr Carroll says about research like that she works on, “every project is responding to an important need within the community and will benefit society by offering more information on asexualities.” With increased openness to asexuality outside LGBTQ+ circles as well as within them, the number of people identifying as asexual will increase as they learn the word that describes how they have been all along. Openness and acceptance of asexuality is crucial for both science and society in order for us to advance our understanding of it.

Written by Catriona Roy and edited by Ailie McWhinnie.

Catriona’s thoughts… As the asexual community is still predominantly an online one, the route I took to discovering my identity – through LGBTQ+ social media groups – seems to be the most common story. Through attending the UK Asexual Conference and joining in discussions, it feels fantastic to be surrounded (albeit virtually) by people like me. As a teenager, it took me a while to accept that I am asexual and aromantic (abbreviated as aroace). Most of that process came from reading validating things online – it made my experiences and self-perception feel more legitimate when I saw them as the subjects of news articles and videos. Without a doubt, the more we widen the circles in which people recognise asexuality, the better.

Find me on… Twitter @RoyCatriona and LinkedIn @Catriona Roy.

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