Asexuals Among Us
BY Jesse Bering
July 24 2012 6:00 AM ET
Thus, on the one hand, there seems to be a sociological issue of people of a marginalized sexual identity gathering steam and beginning to form an identifiable community (and in the process attracting significant media attention, including coverage on The Montel Williams Show and The View and a feature story in New Scientist). On the other hand, there remains — to me — the more intriguing biological issue of asexual essentialism; that is to say, is it really possible to develop “normally” without ever experiencing sexual desire, even a niggling little blip on the arousability radar, toward any other human being on the face of the earth? I have little doubt that there are self-identified asexuals who would fail to meet this essentialist criterion, but if even a sliver of the asexual community has truly never experienced arousal, then this would pose fascinating questions for our understanding of human sexuality and evolutionary processes.
Scientists have just scratched the surface in studying human asexuality. You can count the number of studies on the subject on one hand. So questions remain. Does asexuality, like homosexuality, have heritable components? Certainly that’s plausible. After all, historically, at least female asexuals, who wouldn’t need to orgasm to conceive, would have probably had offspring with their male sexual partners, thus ensuring continuity of the genetic bases of asexuality. (Although Bogaert’s original findings suggested that asexuality was somewhat more common among women, more recent research by Prause and Graham found no such gender difference in their college-aged sample of self-reported asexuals.) If some asexuals masturbate in the absence of sexual fantasy or porn, then what exactly is it that’s getting them physically aroused? (And how does one achieve orgasm — as some asexuals apparently do — without experiencing pleasure?) Also, if you’re on board theoretically with evolutionary psychology, almost all of human cognition and social behavior somehow boils down to sexual competition. So what would the evolutionary psychologist make of asexuality? If sex is nature’s feel-good ruse to get our genes out there, is there actually a natural category of people that is immune to evolution’s greatest gag?
I have to say the only good way to solve the riddle is also a bit unsavory. But unless psychological scientists ever gather a group of willing, self-identified asexuals and, systematically and under controlled conditions, expose them to an array of erotic stimuli while measuring their physical arousal (penile erection or vaginal lubrication), the truth of the matter will lie forever hidden away in the asexual’s pants.
Excerpted from Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? …And Other Reflections on Being Human by Jesse Bering, published by Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Jesse Bering. All rights reserved.
Jesse’s Bering’s new book, Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? is published by Scientific American / FSG. An audiobook narrated by Bering is also available. To read more from Jesse Bering, please visit jessebering.com.