Many people believe that embedded in parts of the human psyche is the innate desire to breed; breeding is how organisms spread their genetics, so it may make sense that a creature’s primary goal is to reproduce. Because of this, humans are sexual creatures as well, and having children is the life goal of many. Asexuality challenges this notion, however. Asexuality is defined as the lack of sexual desire or disinterest in having sex. It can be evaluated through three different means: sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and identity (Brotto, Knudson, Inskip, Rhodes, & Erskine, 2010). Approximately 1% of the world identifies as asexual, making it one of the smallest sexual identities (Bogaert, 2004). Due to the belief that humans should naturally have sex, asexuality has been negatively stigmatized, believed to either be a physical or psychological disorder. This literature review will be reviewing the following question: Is asexuality a disability? What makes the two distinct?
Defining the characteristics of asexuality has both biological and social benefits. Much of the research behind asexuality seeks to characterize it as a biological dysfunction or psychological disorder. Under this view, asexuality is seen as a disorder that needs to be treated, such as through hormone therapy or therapy–such as with hyposexual desire disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). However, if many asexuals do not experience distress or damaged interpersonal relations, should it still be classified as a disorder? If not a disorder, should asexuality even be treated? A deeper understanding of the origins of asexuality can save valuable resources for those who really do feel distress about their condition. On top of that, defining asexual characteristics and the science behind it can reduce the negative social stigma attached to not having sexual desires. Much of this discrimination also stems from the queer community’s long history with discrimination and institutionalization (Conrad & Schneider, 1994). Having an identity allows one to connect with their community and face everyday struggles with a supportive group behind them.
There is very little research regarding asexuality. This may be due, I believe, to the fact that the concept of asexuality as a sexual orientation has only recently become a topic of discussion. In the past, the fact that some rarely felt sexual attraction was of little note; instead, these feelings were associated with a sense of inadequacy or of “being broken.” Because the asexual label has only recently started to become more mainstream, very few people may not even be aware that asexuality exists in the first place. Another reason why there may be so little research is that self-identified asexuals make up such a small portion of the population, only about 1% (Bogaert, 2004). This provides fewer opportunities for asexual subjects and interviews, as they are harder to come across. Most of the research that I have come across pertaining to asexuality have had small sample sizes, especially with samples of self-identified asexuals. Instead, many studies have resorted to using online questionnaires, tapping into known asexual communities such as The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). Founded in 2001 by David Jay, the website states its goals as “creating public acceptance and discussion of asexuality and facilitating the growth of an asexual community” (“AVEN”). AVEN seeks to provide information not only to questioning asexuals, but to their families and community as well. Studies have shown that asexual-identified individuals are very open to working with researchers in order to progress its scientific understanding (Brotto, Knudson, Inskip, Rhodes, & Erskine, 2010).
The paper “Asexuality: Classification and Characterization” by Prause and Graham (2007) created an online questionnaire taken by 1,146 individuals (N = 41 self-identified asexuals). This questionnaire asked questions regarding sexual history, sexual excitation and inhibition, sexual desire, and an open-response section regarding asexuality. Asexuals reported less sexual history with partners, less sexual excitation, and less arousability or desire. Surprisingly, they did not substantially differ from non-asexuals in regards to sexual inhibition or desire to masturbate. This indicates that the primary feature of asexuality is lack of sexual desire. While this paper does focus on the differences between sexuals and asexuals, it primarily focuses on this concept alone and fails to discuss the impact asexality has on the self-identified asexuals’ lives.
Asexuality may often at times be confused with other similar psychological or biological disorders. Among these conditions are hypoactive sexual desire disorder and sexual aversion disorder. Hypoactive sexual desire disorder, or inhibited sexual desire, was a sexual dysfunction defined by the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) as a lack of desire for sexual activities for six months or longer. In the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-V) the disorder was erased and replaced with male hypoactive sexual desire disorder and female sexual interest/arousal disorder. It is important to note that to be marked as a disorder, it must cause extreme distress for the individual or interpersonal difficulties. There has been much protest as to the inclusion of these disorders into the DSM-V, primarily from asexual activists who believe that this condition is similar to the inclusion of homosexuality in the DSM until 1973.
There have been a handful of studies seeking to research the psychological characteristics of asexuality, and what separates it apart from a psychological disorder. One highly regarded study surrounding asexuality is Bogaert’s (2004) “Asexuality: Prevalence and Associated Factors in a National Probability Sample”. In this study, the author seeks to explore some of the shared characteristics between a sample of 18,000 British asexuals. Bogaert found that some of the common characteristics include gender (being a woman), short stature, low economic status, low religiosity, a later menarche, low education, and poor health. This study suggests that that there are, in fact, a number of psychosocial and biological factors that can contribute to one being asexual. However, in his paper Bogart (2004) exclusively refers to asexuality as those who have never felt sexual attraction before, excluding important components such as sexual behavior and identity from his operational definition focusing on desire alone.
Two years later, Bogaert (2006) went on to write “Toward a Conceptual Understanding of Asexuality”. This paper focuses on some of the concepts behind asexuality, discussing the similarities and differences between the sexuality and disorders such as hypoactive sexual desire disorder or sexual aversion disorder. Bogaert (2006) concludes that asexuality should not necessarily be correlated with a psychological or biological disorder.
In the paper “Asexuality: a mixed-methods approach” by Brotto, Knudson, Inskip, Rhodes, & Erskine (2010), two studies were conducted to further understand asexuality. The first study examined relationship characteristics, sexual difficulties and distress, psychopathology, frequency of sexual behaviors, interpersonal functioning, and alexithymia in 187 self-reported asexuals from AVEN in an online questionnaire. Results found that their sexual responses were not deemed as distressing and that masturbation rates for asexual men were similar to reports from sexual men. Social withdrawal was the most elevated personality scale, but interpersonal interaction was average. The second study delved deeper into these results by interviewing fifteen asexuals via telephone. Results found that there were not higher rates of psychopathology amongst asexuals and that the individuals interviewed were strongly against asexuality being viewed as a sexual desire disorder. A limitation of this study was that only individuals from AVEN were questioned. Because these individuals have seemingly acknowledged their asexuality, there may have been instances of selection bias.
A lack of sexual desire has not only been suggested as a psychological disorder, but as a biological condition as well. Milligan and Neufeldt (2001) in “The Myth of Asexuality: A Survey of Social and Empirical Evidence” discusses the connection between people with disabilities and asexuality, referencing the concern many authors and advocacy groups feel about them being seen as asexual beings and thus unsuitable to be romantic partners. The authors discuss the findings behind why people with disabilities are associated with asexuality and how much more work is needed in the field to further our understanding of the lives of people with disabilities and asexuality. While it is argued that ascribing asexuality to disabled people is problematic, much of this arises from the cultural belief that asexuality is negative or a disorder in itself.
Brotto and Yule (2010) also approached the idea of sexual dysfunction in asexuals in their paper “Physiological and subjective sexual arousal in self-identified asexual women”. In this study, the authors sought whether or not asexual women experienced psychophysiological sexual responses, measuring arousal in both sexual and asexual women in regards to erotic and nonerotic videos. Results found that there was normal subjective and physiological arousal capacity in the asexual women. For this reason, the authors chose not to identify asexuality as a sexual dysfunction. However, it should be noted that this study pertained only to female subjects; male sexual and asexual subjects were not tested for arousability, leaving room for further research to be done.
Overall, research is suggesting that asexuality is neither a psychological disorder nor a sexual dysfunction. While asexuals tend to often share common characteristics including being female and a later menarche, Anthony Bogaert suggests that there are not enough features to uniquely describe asexualiy as a disorder (Bogaert, 2004, 2006). Studies also indicate that asexuals do not feel extreme amounts of distress over their lack of sexuality, nor is there a trend of psychopathology amongst them (Brotto, Knudson, Inskip, Rhodes, & Erskine, 2010). As per the biological side, Milligan and Neufeldt (2001) have argued that asexuality as an orientation is different from the lack of sexual behaviors exhibited by those with disabilities, citing the incorrect correlation people often draw between the two. Finally, Brotto and Yule (2010) chose not to characterize asexuality as a sexual dysfunction due to the fact that asexual women have the normal subjective and physiological capacity to be aroused by erotic content. Although a decrease in libido can be a sign of physiological distress (such as with hypothyroidism) or psychological distress (as with mood-hampering disorders such as depression), there seems to be a clear distinction between outside factors affecting sexual desire and asexuality. Conditions such as hypoactive sexual desire disorder are marked by extreme amounts of distress. It should be noted, however, that asexual-identified individuals do not feel this distress upon coming to terms with their sexuality (Brotto, Knudson, Inskip, Rhodes, & Erskine, 2010). There is still much research to be done in regards to asexuality as a sexual orientation, but its recent emergence on the internet will hopefully attract more attention to this little understood label.