Asexuals Among Us
BY Jesse Bering
July 24 2012 5:00 AM ET
Left: Jesse Bering
Sexual desire may wax and wane over the course of a life or — as many people on antidepressants have experienced — become virtually nonexistent due to medications or disease. There are also chromosomal abnormalities, such as Turner’s syndrome, often associated with an absence of sexual desire. Traumatic events in childhood, such as sexual abuse, can factor into an aversion to sex too. But if it exists as a distinct orientation, true asexuality would be due neither to genetic anomaly nor to environmental assault. And indeed, although little is known about its etiology (Bogaert believes it may be traced to prenatal alterations of the hypothalamus), most asexuals are normal, healthy, hormonally balanced, and sexually mature adults. For still uncertain reasons, they’ve just simply always found sex to be one big, bland yawn. Asexuality would therefore be like other sexual orientations in the sense that it is not “acquired” or “situational” but rather an essential part of one’s biological makeup. Just as a straight man or a lesbian can’t wake up one day and decide to become attracted to men, neither could a person — in principle, anyway — “become” asexual. Sexual dysfunctions such as hypoactive sexual desire disorder can also be ruled out if a “preference” toward a gender does not awaken in response to clinical intervention such as hormonal treatment. As Bogaert notes, even those with object fetishes or paraphilias usually display a gender-based attraction, such as men who have a thing for women’s shoes or necrophiliacs who have sex with dead women’s (but not men’s) bodies.
But the story of asexuality is very complicated. For example, as discussion on the AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network) website forums demonstrate, there is tremendous variation in the sexual inclinations of those who consider themselves asexual. Some masturbate; some don’t. Some are interested in nonsexual, romantic relationships (including cuddling and kissing but no genital contact), while others aren’t. Some consider themselves to be “hetero-asexual” (having a nonsexual aesthetic or romantic preference for those of the opposite sex), while others see themselves as “homo-” or “bi-asexuals.” There’s even a matchmaking website for sexless love called Asexual Pals. Yet many asexuals are also perfectly willing to have sex if it satisfies their sexual partners; it’s not awkward or painful for them, but rather, like making toast or emptying the trash, they just don’t personally derive any pleasure from the act. As the researchers Nicole Prause and Cynthia Graham found in their interviews with self-identified asexuals, “They were not particularly sexually fearful… they had a lower excitatory drive.” Others insist on being in completely sexless relationships, ideally with other asexuals. Thus, while many asexuals are virgins, others are ironically even more experienced than your traditionally sexual friends. Some want children through artificial means such as in vitro fertilization; others are willing to have them the old-fashioned way or don’t want children at all.