|The Asexual Pride Flag|
Asexuality is distinct from abstention from sexual activity and from celibacy, which are behavioral and generally motivated by factors such as an individual's personal or religious beliefs; sexual orientation, unlike sexual behavior, is believed to be "enduring". Some asexual people do engage in sexual activity despite lacking a desire for sex or sexual attraction, due to a variety of reasons, such as a desire to please romantic partners or a desire to have children.
Only recently has asexuality started to become accepted as a sexual orientation and a field of scientific research, and a growing body of research from both sociological and psychological perspectives has begun to coalesce. While some researchers assert that asexuality is a sexual orientation, others disagree, and various asexual communities have started to form since the advent of the Internet and social media. The most prolific and well-known of these communities has been the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), which was founded in 2001.
Romantic relationships and identity
Asexuals, while lacking in sexual desire for any gender, may engage in purely emotional romantic relationships. Terms concerning this are:
- aromantic: lack of romantic attraction towards anyone
- biromantic: romantic attraction that is both heteroromantic and homoromantic (but not necessarily at the same time) – the romantic aspect of bisexuality
- heteroromantic: romantic attraction towards person(s) of a different gender – the romantic aspect of heterosexuality
- homoromantic: romantic attraction towards person(s) of the same gender – the romantic aspect of homosexuality
- panromantic: romantic attraction towards person(s) of every gender – the romantic aspect of pansexuality
- transromantic: romantic attraction towards person(s) of intersex or transgender – the romantic aspect of transsexuality
The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) defines an asexual as "someone who does not experience sexual attraction" and stated, "[a]nother small minority will think of themselves as asexual for a brief period of time while exploring and questioning their own sexuality" and that "[t]here is no litmus test to determine if someone is asexual. Asexuality is like any other identity – at its core, it’s just a word that people use to help figure themselves out. If at any point someone finds the word asexual useful to describe themselves, we encourage them to use it for as long as it makes sense to do so".
Researchers have varied in their attempts to define asexuality, but the term is usually defined to mean the lack or absence of sexual attraction or sexual interest. This may be defined as having little sexual attraction or desire, no sexual attraction or desire, or a combination thereof with or without the characteristic of behavior, as researchers have used the term "to refer to individuals with low or absent sexual desire or attractions, low or absent sexual behaviors, exclusively romantic non-sexual partnerships, or a combination of both absent sexual desires and behaviors".
As an emerging identity with a broad definition, there is an enormous amount of variation among people who identify as asexual; for example, asexual-identified individuals who report that they feel sexual attraction but not the inclination to act on it because they have no true desire or need to engage in sexual or even non-sexual activity (cuddling, hand-holding, etc.). Some asexuals participate in sexual activity out of curiosity. Some may masturbate as a solitary form of release, while others do not feel a need to do so. The need or desire for masturbation is commonly referred to as a "sex drive" and is disassociated from sexual attraction and being sexual; asexuals who masturbate generally consider it to be a normal product of the human body and not a sign of latent sexuality, and may not even find it pleasurable. Some asexual men are completely unable to get an erection and sexual activity is completely impossible for them. Asexuals also differ in their feelings towards performing sex acts: some are indifferent and may even have sex for the benefit of a romantic partner, while others are more strongly averse to the idea even though they do not necessarily dislike other people for having sex as long as it does not involve them.
Sexual orientation and etiology
There is significant debate over whether asexuality is a sexual orientation or not. It is most comparable to hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), in the sense that both imply a general lack of sexual attraction to anyone, but asexuality is generally not considered a disorder (such as anorgasmia, anhedonia, etc.) or a sexual dysfunction because asexuality does not necessarily define someone as having a medical problem or problems relating to others socially. It also does not necessarily imply that lacking sexual attraction causes anxiety; it is considered the lack or absence of sexual attraction as a life-enduring characteristic. Some scholars, however, opine that asexuality is not a meaningful category to add to the continuum of sexual orientations, and say that it is instead the lack of a sexual orientation or sexuality. Others state that it is the denial of one's natural sexuality, and that it is a disorder caused by shame of sexuality or anxiety, sometimes basing this belief on asexuals who masturbate or occasionally engage in sexual activity simply to please a romantic partner.
Various other scholars assert that asexuality is a sexual orientation, as some asexuals are unable to masturbate even though they reportedly have a "normal" sex drive, and that there are variations of sexual preferences, arguing that asexuality ought to be included as well. They stress that asexuals do not choose to have no sexual desire, and generally start to find out their "differences" in sexual behaviors around adolescence. Because of these facts coming to light, it is argued that asexuality is much more than a behavioral choice, and is not something that can be "cured" like a disorder.
Etiology in this context is without implication of disease, disorder, or abnormality. Research on the etiology of sexual orientation when applied to asexuality has the definitional problem that sexual orientation is not consistently defined by all researchers as including asexuality. Asexuality may be considered a sexual orientation, which is defined as "enduring" and resistant to change, proving to be generally impervious to interventions intended to change it. However, while heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality are usually but not always determined during the early years of preadolescent life, it is not known when asexuality is determined. "It is unclear whether these characteristics [viz., "lacking interest in or desire for sex"] are thought to be lifelong, or if they may be acquired."
Non-measurement in some areas of sexual orientation is accepted by the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Association of Social Workers: "[S]imply to document that a phenomenon occurs, case studies and non-probability samples are often adequate. . . . Some groups are sufficiently few in number – relative to the entire population – that locating them with probability sampling is extremely expensive or practically impossible. In the latter cases, the use of non-probability samples is often appropriate." In determining etiologies, when asexuals are a small percentage of a large society, asexuals with a given etiology will compose an even smaller percentage, so that etiological information is available only from some individuals, generally not randomly selected.
A community of self-identified asexuals coalesced in the early 21st century, aided by the popularity of online communities. Dr. Elizabeth Abbot, author of A History of Celibacy, acknowledges a difference between asexuality and celibacy and posits that there has always been an asexual element in the population but that asexual people kept a low profile. While failure to consummate marriage was seen as "an insult to the sacrament of marriage" in medieval Europe, asexuality, unlike homosexuality, has never been illegal, and asexual people have been able to "fly under the radar". However, in the 21st century, the anonymity of online communication and general popularity of social networking online has facilitated the formation of a community built around a common asexual identity.