A growing group of “out” asexual men and women are challenging the notion that lack of sexual desire is a disorder or symptom of emotional problems, says a Rutgers researcher.
Therapists have traditionally regarded lack of libido as cause for concern and treatment. But many people who consider themselves asexual say they feel comfortable as they are and regard asexuality as part of their identity, much like LGBT community members, says Kristin Scherrer, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Rutgers University.
“Asexual individuals often think of themselves as born this way: ‘This is who I am,’” says Scherrer, who has studied the identities of asexual people. “It looks like asexual people do not necessarily experience stress because of their asexuality, but more often because of other people’s lack of understanding, including in counseling relationships.’’
Since Scherrer, one of a handful of researchers who has focused on asexuality, began her study five years ago, she has seen a rise in the number of people who consider themselves asexual and are working to raise awareness about asexuality.
“It seems like the visibility of asexual identity is parallel in many ways with LGBT movements,’‘ said Scherrer.
”Asexual individuals want people to understand who they are and increase awareness and visibility for others who may also feel different.’’
According to Scherrer, the Internet has fueled an increase in online asexual communities such as AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network) and A-Sylum. “People are able to find each other and construct community.’’ The movement has its own flag (stripes of black, grey, white and purple) and self-identifying slang term for asexuality (“ace”).
On the AVEN site, asexuality is defined as different from celibacy, which is a choice not to have sex. Although there is no one definition of asexuality, many of the asexual people in her research described not feeling sexual attraction toward others and not desiring sex in intimate relationships, Scherrer said.
For her research, Scherrer gathered data from 102 self-identified asexual people who volunteered to answer questions. She began the study after encountering asexual individuals as a therapist. Her results were published in the journal Sexualities in 2008.
“Among other things, I was interested in how they negotiate their intimate relationships. I learned that some prefer to be in relationships with other asexual people, while others might come to their identities later in life when they’re already married,’’ she said. Some seek romantic partners but are not interested in sex, while others may engage in sexual activity to please a partner. Some may masturbate but don’t feel sexual attraction to other people. Others have multiple close relationships but don’t engage in sex. Many enjoy affectionate cuddling that has nothing to do with sexual desire.
Often, when people who are asexual tell others about their orientation, their confession is treated as confusing or unimportant, says Scherrer. “They say, ‘So what? You’ll grow out of it.’ There’s a lot of minimizing of that identity as not a big deal or a developmental stage.’’
Scherrer is currently exploring asexual people’s experiences with mental health practitioners. In a 2010 paper published in the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services, she also examined how public policy can support intimate, non-sexual relationships.
According to Scherrer, organizational policies should move beyond recognizing civil unions and domestic partners and allow employees to designate “other qualified adult’’ as a potential benefits recipient. “It would enable someone to designate the important person in their life without opting into relationship categories that are predicated on the assumption of sexual intimacy,‘‘ she said.
Openness about such relationships among couples, as well as marriages, seems to be increasing, she said.
"I couldn't say how common they are because there’s not demographic research,’’ said Scherrer. “But I heard through my research that there were some openly asexual folks who were getting married to one another. It seems clear that they are finding a lot of creative ways to identify or define their relationships, and that includes traditional marriage-like relations.’’
Media Contact: Carrie Stetler