Gay people are often asked by the curious straight: “When did you first realize you were gay?” In my case, I remember undressing my Superman doll — and being terribly disappointed at the result — as well as being motivated to befriend the more attractive boys in third grade. But hormonally speaking, it wasn’t until I was about 14 that I first looked in the mirror and thought to myself, ah, that’s what I am all right, it all makes perfect sense now.
It wasn’t that much of a mystery. After all, lust isn’t exactly a subtle thing. Back then, I derived as much pleasure from making out with my “girlfriend” as I might have from scraping the plaque from my dog’s teeth. In contrast, barely touching legs with a boy I had a crush on sparked an electric, ineffable ecstasy. In the locker room after high school gym class, I forced myself to picture naked girls in my head (particularly my girlfriend) as a sort of cognitive cold shower, a preemptive strike against an otherwise embarrassing physical response. I could go on, but you get the idea: whether or not we like, hide, or accept what we are, our true identities — gay, straight, bisexual — consciously dawn on each of us at some point in our lives, usually by adolescence. We all have a natural “orientation” toward sexual contact with others, and for the most part we’re just hopeless pawns, ineffectual onlookers, to our body’s desires.
At least, that’s what most people tend to think. But some scientists believe that there may be another sexual orientation in our species, one characterized by the absence of desire and no sexual interest in males or females, only a complete and lifelong lacuna of sexual attraction toward any human being (or non-human being). Such people are regarded as asexuals. Unlike bisexuals, who are attracted to both males and females, asexuals are equally indifferent to and uninterested in having sex with either gender. So imagine being a teenager waiting for your sexual identity to express itself, waiting patiently for some intoxicating spurt of lasciviousness to render you as dumbly carnal as your peers, and it just doesn’t happen. These individuals aren’t simply celibate, which is a lifestyle choice. Rather, sex to them is just so... boring.
In one study from 2007, a group of self-described adult asexuals was asked how they came to be aware they were different. One woman responded:
"I would say I’ve never had a dream or a fantasy, a sexual fantasy, for example, about being with another woman. So I can pretty much say that I have no lesbian sort of tendencies whatsoever. You would think that by my age I would have some fantasy or dream or something, wouldn’t you? ...But I’ve never had a dream or a sexual fantasy about having sex with a man, either. That I can ever, ever remember."
In another study, an 18-year-old woman put it this way:
"I just don’t feel sexual attraction to people. I love the human form and can regard individuals as works of art and find people aesthetically pleasing, but I don’t ever want to come into sexual contact with even the most beautiful of people."
According to the psychologist Anthony Bogaert, there may be more genuine asexuals out there than we realize. In 2004, Bogaert analyzed survey data from more than 18,000 British residents and found that the number of people (185, or about 1%) in this population who described themselves as “never having a sexual attraction to anyone” was just slightly lower than those who identified as being attracted to the same sex (3%). Since this discovery, a handful of academic researchers have been trying to determine whether asexuality is a true biological phenomenon or, alternatively, a slippery social label that for various reasons some people may prefer to adopt and embrace.