Monday, October 12, 2009

Asexuality: What Is It?

Nicole Prause and Cynthia Graham conducted a research project a few years ago seeking to develop a reliable means of classifying asexuality in humans. Their research methodology, results and conclusion appeared in their article Asexuality: Classification and Clarification, published in the journal Archives of Sexual Research (2007) 36:341-356. For readers interested in consulting this article but who lack access to a library that subscribes to it, it can be accessed through the ProQuest Central periodicals database as a PDF file. Your local Public Library should have information on accessing the ProQuest databases.

This article acknowledges a significant problem that needs to be addressed by academia: the extant published research literature on asexuality is scant. Prause and Graham accurately describe the situation in their conclusion, where they refer to the “paucity of research concerning asexuality.” As a result, reliably accurate information on asexuality is difficult to find. Why is this so?

Well, for openers, asexuals are invisible within the general society within which they live. One generally accepted estimate places the proportion of asexuals as about 1% of the total population. Social science research dollars rarely are spent on studies focusing on populations that are this small. Thus few people outside the asexual community know very much about it, which strikes me as unfortunate and sad.

At the outset, the question asked in this post’s title needs to be addressed. One problem with developing a description of asexuality is that there is no one commonly accepted definition of the term. To some, it describes a total lack of interest in, or desire for, sexual relations with another human being. To others, it describes a lack of pleasure in sex, or a lack of a feeling of enjoyment in sexual relations. This is where it becomes confusing and, frankly, murky.

Is asexuality the same as celibacy? No, because celibacy is a conscious decision to completely abstain from sex, often for religious reasons. Asexuality, on the other hand, is more a subconscious behavioral trait. Even that comparative description leaves a lot to be desired because of the wide variation in human beings.

So if asexuality is so difficult to define or wrap one’s mind around, what, exactly, does the term say about a person who so identifies? Some would say that the person is admitting that she is an abnormal freak, and undoubtedly using it to deny their underlying homosexuality. This view is simply wrong because there is no connection between the two orientations.

Others, perhaps most others, would respond along the lines of “huh? What?”

At this point I wish to move from taking a stab a developing a clinical-sounding description to embedding a personal essay in this post. Bear with me for the two are intimately connected. This topic is of definite interest to me for I, myself, am asexual. No, I am not embarrassed, or ashamed, to admit it.

For me, being asexual feels blissful because it takes all of the pressure off of my life that sexuals (i.e. non-asexuals) feel. When I am cruising around my local grocery store, for example, I notice that other shoppers – especially those younger than middle age – tend to focus primarily on the other shoppers while obsessing about buying the “right” foods. By not feeling that constant need to “score” I am free to stretch my food budget as far as possible by focusing on sales and other favorable priced alternatives. By not feeling pressured to focus on the other shoppers AND the shopping, like most shoppers, it looks to me like I experience grocery shopping as far less stressful than others.

At a more subtle level, asexuality is advantageous in another direction. To make a long autobiographical story short, my desire for bringing the next generation into the world has always been nonexistent. Running through the generations on both sides of my family tree are a number of hereditary conditions, some mild, others potentially life threatening. I developed the perspective years ago that the best legacy I could leave for future generations is to not have kids, thereby allowing my weak portion of the human genome to die out. By being asexual, this barrenness does not bother me at all. Instead, to me, it is a relief.

A valid question is: how far back in my life can my asexuality be traced? Surprisingly far. It is possible that my asexuality has been with me since puberty, or possibly a little after. In high school I noticed that the sexual innuendo and jokes quite commonly floating around the student body (not to mention the constant flirting) actually disgusted me. Did I feel driven to try to “score” at least once during high school? No, it simply never occurred to me.

In college, I lived in a co-ed dorm for the last five regular semesters of my stay. Good ‘ol Morrison Hall was built in the early 1950's. its residents were arranged in 8 person suites, with six of us living in single rooms. Around campus we had a reputation as “oh, that dorm. We’re not too sure about them.” Anyway, the entire time I lived there I never once felt the desire to “do it.” At the time I chalked this up to the problems from within my family I was perpetually wrestling with, but now, I wonder. Do I regret never sleeping with anyone in college? Not at all.

This raises the pertinent question of causation. What precipitated the genesis of my asexuality? I cannot point to any one event as its trigger. In the minimal amount of scholarly research I have been able to unearth on asexuality, one probable cause that turns up is religiosity. It is true that my childhood environment was steeped in bedrock Christianity of a rather rigid style. In addition, my dad’s entire life was adversely affected by traumatic events from his childhood. These traumas left him with a negative attitude toward sex, even within the bonds of marriage. In retrospect, occasionally I wonder if he was actually asexual but couldn’t express it.

Now just a minute, I can hear some of you saying. First you say that an asexual is someone who sees sex as “just not important”. Then you speculate about your own father. Which is it? The answer is complex because some asexuals actually do engage in sexual relations. However, those who do usually do so because it is seen as expected of them. Put another way: they do it because they feel they have to do it, not because they necessarily want to.

There is one complicating aspect to my asexuality that I am omitting from this discussion because it is its own extended discussion, and it complicates the picture. This is my parallel transsexuality, which I was, in fact, born with.

At the outset of this post, I mentioned the dearth of scholarly research on asexuality. This is a hole that needs to be filled in, provided the research is balanced and open minded. In particularly, there appears to be no existing research on root causes of asexuality. In particular, I see early childhood influences and family religious activity as very pertinant areas to explore. Likewise, whether it is a permanent aspect of the person’s being, or whether it can be temporary, appears to have not been examined by researchers.

There are three questions that inevitably will come up, so I will conclude by addressing them here. First, are asexuals gay? Not necessarily. The two states of being independently assort, as do heterosexuality and asexuality. This means that there are multiple possible orientation combinations. (Thus asexuality shares this characteristic with transsexuality.)

Second, are asexuals transgendered? No, because the two conditions are completely unrelated. Transgender is strictly connected to one’s gender identity and does not directly address sexuality, sex drives or related aspects of being human. Asexuality refers only to one’s disinclination toward maintaining a strong sexual urge, and does not address matters of gender at all.

Third, are asexuals mentally ill? NO!!! It is generally asserted that some condition qualifies as a mental illness only if it causes the person distress or hinders normal daily function in some way. Since asexuals generally do not feel distressed by the condition, and it does not interfere with the person’s ability to hold down employment, maintain an apartment, keep their bills paid, etc, clearly it does not qualify as a mental illness.

Finally, are there any reliable sources of information about asexuality on the Internet? Fortunately, there are. Easily the best source of more information on asexuality is AVEN, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network. I am a registered member of this site, and I have found it to be very helpful and loaded with accurate, useful information. For anyone looking for accurate information on asexuality (or, especially, anyone who is wondering about themselves), this is the best place to turn to. For those warped individuals who might be looking for an opportunity to troll for people to criticize, harass or threaten: do us all a favor and go elsewhere. Yes, AVEN has a very active forum posting community. However, these forums are moderated, and trolls are NOT welcome.

1 comment:

Samantha said...

Great post, and something I've often wondered about myself. I may have to investigate further. Short story, I didn't have sexual contact until I was an adult, and then only because the other person made an issue about it. I can and have gone for years, decades even, without sex and never really had a reason to think about it. Genetically, yeah there's enough stuff in my gene pool that's much better left unexpressed. I've been lucky so far and missed the bulk of it, but most of the rest of my direct blood relatives are already dead or dying and they are younger than I am. Or were. While I'd love to be a Mom, I don't have this pressing need to be directly related by blood, adoption for me is a great idea, one day down the road.

My late husband was kinda obsessed with sex, and his Mom obsessed with children, I thank GOD every day that never came to pass. Honestly had it, when things got really bad, I'd have become the next Susan Smith who killed herself and her children. Why? To protect them from my in-laws of course. They killed my husband, and would have destroyed our children had we actually had any.

Anyway, what an eye opening post. Thank you,

Sam