Some notes for a basic understanding of asexuality

This will be a long post, a classical tl;dr kind of post. I read something this morning, I read this post about asexuality and the show Sherlock. It made me think, and given that asexuality was a topic on which I discussed sometimes, but that I never thought with proper attention, I decide to educate myself. I searched for scientific articles on this matter, and I found only 10 of them. This post is almost entirely based on Bogaert’s ‘Toward a Conceptual Understanding of Asexuality’ (2006). If you don’t get too bored and read this throughout, in the end I will say something on the other articles I found.

This post is about what I learned reading about asexuality, and contains some personal opinion, but contrary to my normal posts, this is for me just like it’s for you, because sometimes I need to write things down to make them clear.

Ok, let’s start.

How we define asexuality?

Storms (1980) proposed a model of sexual orientation that includes asexuality. In his model, heterosexuals are those who score high on attraction for members of the opposite sex; homosexuals are those who score high on attraction for members of the same sex; bisexual are those who score high on attraction for both sexes; and asexual those who score low on attraction for both sexes.

In this model asexuality is defined by the lack of sexual attraction, not by the lack of sexual behavior. This fact implies that these individuals don’t necessarily have no desire for sexual stimulation (for instance: do not masturbate) or that they are incapable of experience sexual arousal or to engage in romantic attraction to others and therefore don’t have the desire to form a romantic relationship.

Bogaert (2006) defines asexuality in more general terms:

anyone who does not have sexual attraction toward people, objects, and so forth is defined as asexual.”

Of course this definition involves some problem:

”[…] a deficiency or absence of sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity. […] Low sexual desire […] There is little motivation to seek stimuli […] Persistently or recurrently deficient (or absent) sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity. 

These fragments of definition are not so different from the one above, and yet, they are defining Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, a Sexual Dysfunctions included in the DSM-IV-R.

It’s easy to see how these two definition somehow overlap, but expert argue that there are also important distinctions: 

I have to admit that I have some problem with these two distinctions. Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that asexuality is a mental disorder, I’m saying that I don’t see any differences between the definitions of “generalized lifelong HSDD” and asexuality, so, or there is something wrong in the DSM-IV-R definition that must be corrected adding better criteria, or “generalized lifelong HSDD” is just asexuality and therefore we better take it off from the DSM.

Once we have defined asexuality we should ask: should asexuality be considered a  sexual orientation?

Some argue that it should not, because people who describe themselves as asexual exhibit pattern of sexual attractions/arousal similar to sexual people when the arousal in measured in laboratory. It is argued that if these people perceive a lack of sexual desire but show a physical arousal, their psychological experience is different from the physiological one, and therefore these people have a traditional underlying sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, etc).

Others claim that people who report very low sexual desire or attraction have an underlying sexual orientation and that in fact their sexual desire could be boosted with interventions such administering testosterone.

While the first objection underline an aspect of the issue that I think it’s important, the second one seems to me pretty stupid, you can administer to me testosterone and boost my sexual desire and my aggression, but this doesn’t mean that I’m actually that way.

Let me say something more about the first objection: it’s interesting that a person can have a subjective perception of lack of sexual attraction and yet exhibit sexual arousal, and it makes me think about alexithymia (in which a person can’t perceived his own emotions but those emotions show up if measured by physiological correlates) or the avoidant attachment style of children (in which children that are separated for small periods from their mothers don’t exhibit manifest discomfort -like crying- but their level of stress measured through physiological correlates is very high, higher than the one of children who cry). However, I would not say that these people have an underlying traditional sexual orientation, I quote Bogaert:

[…] the view that many cases of asexuality should not be viewed as having a unique sexual orientation because there is an underlying sexual orientation toward others (or some object) seems to assume a strong “essentialist” position with regard to sexual orientation. In other words, this view assumes there is an underlying, presumably biologically determined (e.g., prenatal organization of anterior hypothalamus of the brain) sexual orientation toward others that all people have before adolescence and that will reveal itself in adulthood under adequate social and hormonal circumstances.

I think that this “essentialist” position is the same position held by those who say that homosexuality is a disease, I think this position is wrong, because it implies that asexual people are wrong, broken or sick.


I decided to not cite empirical findings here, like the percentage of people who describe themselves as asexual, or other things like that, because I looked at the researches (of the 10 articles I found, 5 were empirical researches): all the researches but one used internet surveys on subjects recruited on websites for people who identify themselves as asexual (in fact, just one website: AVEN). I have many doubts on this kind of survey. The one research that used a face-to-face interview, had only 4 subjects, not exactly a representative sample. Anyway, if you want to take a look at some data, you can read this presentation by Brotto and Knudson: ‘Understanding Asexuality’.

Considered that, I think there is a lack of research on this topic.

Did I learned something about asexuality reading all this stuff? Yes, of course. While I continue not to agree with many of the things I happen to read on tumblr, I think I have acquired a more complex vision of the issue.