Asexuals can thrive in romantic relationships


Though an estimated 1% of people identify as asexual – a sexual orientation most commonly defined as lacking sexual attraction – asexual people remain relatively invisible and are rarely researched. For these reasons, they’re frequently subjected to discrimination and stereotyping.

For example, it’s often assumed that all people who are asexual are also “aromantic” – that they aren’t interested in being in romantic relationships or aren’t capable of doing so.

However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Asexuality exists on a spectrum, and there is a wide range in how the members of this group experience sexuality and romance.

In a recently published study that I conducted with several Michigan State faculty members and other research associates, we surveyed people on the asexual spectrum who were currently in romantic relationships.

We wanted to learn more about how asexuals experience romantic relationships and bring attention to their experiences – many of which, it turns out, aren’t all that different from those of people who aren’t on the asexual spectrum.

Defining asexuality
Asexuality is defined as a sexual orientation characterized variably as a lack of sexual attraction [1, 2]. Prevalence estimates for asexuality in the general population range from 0.4% to 1% [1, 3, 4]. A more recent study found 3.3% of women and 1.5% of men from a Finnish population had not experienced sexual attraction within the past year [5].

Many asexual individuals report a longstanding disinterest in sex, and for some, identification as asexual occurs after a period of confusion or feeling markedly “different” than allosexual peers (i.e., people who experience sexual attraction) [6]. Other asexual individuals adopt this sexual identity after subsequent education about the asexual label and community.

Research suggests that significant heterogeneity exists within the asexual community [2, 7, 8]. Asexuality exists on a spectrum, and asexual persons use a variety of terms to describe their position on this “ace” spectrum [8]. While approximately two-thirds of ace individuals identify specifically as asexual, just over 10% refer to themselves as “gray-asexual”, experiencing occasional attraction in isolation or with specific partners, to varying levels [8]. Other members of the ace community identify as “demisexual” (approximately 10%), only experiencing sexual attraction when an emotional bond is formed [8].

Asexual individuals also describe a variety of romantic orientations, including but not limited to biromanticism and heteroromanticism [7, 8]. In fact, diversity of romantic experiences within the asexual community has prompted researchers to examine differences between aromantic asexual persons (do not experience romantic attraction to others) and romantic asexual persons, and have found dissimilarities between these groups on variables such as number of romantic and sexual partners, self-reported desire, and personality traits like warmth and nurturance [7]. Additionally, asexual individuals identify as transgender or gender nonbinary at a higher rate (between 12.6% and 25%) than allosexual individuals, indicating considerable gender diversity within the community [7, 8]. The variation observed in the community is not a surprise, as a range of preferences, experiences, and chosen labels also exists amongst other sexual minorities [9].

Defining Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (SIAD)
Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (SIAD), a disorder defined by the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), is a sexual dysfunction wherein individuals experience reduced or absent sexual interest and/or arousal, coupled with significant personal distress [10]. Though there is variability in symptom presentation, women must have at least three of the following symptoms for six months to obtain a diagnosis: decreased or absent sexual interest, decreased sexual thoughts or fantasies, a decreased desire to initiate sex or respond to a partner’s initiations, decreased physiological sensations during sexual activity, decreased feelings of sexual pleasure or excitement, and decreased sexual interest/arousal in response to sexual cues [10]. There are two subtypes of SIAD based on symptom duration: (1) lifelong SIAD: symptoms since becoming sexually active; and (2) acquired SIAD: symptoms beginning after a period of satisfactory sexual desire and/or arousal levels [10].

Differentiating asexuality from SIAD
Some debate has existed in the academic community as to whether asexuality is better understood as a sexual dysfunction [11]. Asexual individuals are sometimes compared to individuals with sexual desire disorders, since both groups display a lack of interest in sexual activity [12]. Despite these commonalities, important factors distinguishing these groups have led researchers to conclude that they are distinct [12]. A key differentiating factor is the presence of significant distress in women with a diagnosis of SIAD. Though asexual individuals may experience distress related to a lack of widespread social acceptance of their asexual identification, they are unlikely to seek treatment to try and “fix” their lack of desire [12]. Conversely, women with SIAD may seek psychological and/or pharmacological treatment to improve their desire levels [13]. As well, asexual individuals are more likely to endorse a consistent, lifelong lack of interest in sex and absence of attraction, whereas most women with a sexual desire disorder, whether in empirical studies or presenting for clinical treatment, report a marked reduction in their sexual arousal as compared to another time in their lives [12, 13]. One study comparing asexual individuals and women with sexual desire disorders found that asexual participants were less likely to be in a relationship, have sexual fantasies, or masturbate, and were more likely to have never participated in sexual intercourse [12]. Importantly, though SIAD symptomology in women can present with some variation [13, 14], in-group diversity is unlikely to be as high as those who identify on the asexual spectrum, by nature of such specific diagnostic criteria. These differences, among others, are supportive of an argument to distinguish between the two groups.

The role of attention in sexual response
According to Janssen and colleagues’ information processing model of sexual function [15], automatic and voluntary attention play key but distinct roles in the facilitation of sexual response; stimulating an automatic physiological response and a subjective sense of arousal, respectively. Scholars have distinguished between these automatic and controlled processes as having differing impacts on motivations for sex, sexual arousal, and response [15, 16]. Initial (i.e., automatic) attention refers to an unconscious recognition of and engagement with relevant stimuli, prior to any conscious decision to focus on those stimuli [17]. In the context of sexual response, initial attention to sexual stimuli involves an automatic appraisal of a target as sexually relevant and is hypothesized to initiate an automatic genital response [15, 16]. This physiological reaction, according to the cognitive-motivational model, can encourage controlled (deliberate) attention to that stimulus, which, if followed by positive appraisal, can precipitate further physical and subjective arousal, and may lead to engagement in sexual activity [16]. Initial attention, then, may play an important role in the process of sexual response, and may provide crucial insight into group and individual differences in sexual desire.

Eye-tracking can be used to evaluate both initial and controlled attention patterns. Initial attention can be assessed using three indices: time to first fixation, duration of first fixation, and proportion of first fixations to different categories of stimuli. Although there are other parameters of eye-tracking that have been studied (e.g., controlled attention), we have elected to focus on initial attention because it has not been studied before in these groups and because it can reveal an automatic (rather than voluntary) attentional bias.

Prior research indicates that attentional preferences to erotic stimuli differ based on sexual orientation. Dawson and Chivers [18] used eye-tracking technology to study differences in initial attention between gynephilic (attracted to women) men and androphilic (attracted to men) women. They found that while gynephilic men’s initial attention patterns were focused on sexually preferred stimuli (i.e., women), androphilic women’s initial attention patterns were gender-nonspecific. Simply, men were faster to fixate on erotic images of women, their preferred sexual targets, while women did not show a gender-specific preference, exhibited by minimal differences in time to first fixation for erotic images of men and women. Researchers have also found that gynephilic men and ambiphilic (attracted to both men and women) women displayed initial orienting preferences towards sexual images of female targets, fixating more quickly on them relative to male targets [19]. Meanwhile, androphilic women, again, demonstrated gender-nonspecific patterns in their initial attention patterns, fixating similarly quickly to erotic images of male and female targets. This research indicates that sexual orientation seems to impact initial attention patterns towards sexual stimuli. Though these differences in initial attention have been found between different sexual orientation groups [18, 19], no research has compared initial attention patterns of asexual and allosexual individuals, representing a gap in the literature.

Research has revealed that women with sexual difficulties exhibit gaze behavior towards sexual stimuli that differs from their symptom-free counterparts, such that their attention is less easily captured and held by erotic stimuli [20, 21]. An eye-tracking study found that women with arousal/desire difficulties attended less to the genital area of images depicting a man and woman engaging in vaginal intercourse, relative to a group of asymptomatic women, in one measure of initial attention [21]. The sexual dysfunction group displayed shorter initial fixations to the genital area. These findings suggest that initial attention may play a role in women’s sexual concerns. Whether these differences are related to avoidance, distraction, negative associations with erotic cues, or another explanation is unknown.

Presently, no studies have examined initial attention patterns in asexual individuals. Sexual orientation does seem to influence automatic gaze behavior to sexual targets [18, 19] and increased levels of desire tend to correspond with greater attention to erotic stimuli [21–23]. Since asexual individuals generally describe a lifelong lack of desire or interest in sex, have fewer sexual experiences, and, if engaged in a romantic relationship, are less likely to engage in sexual activity within that relationship [2], it follows that for asexual individuals initial visual attention would not be preferentially allocated towards sexual stimuli.

Meanwhile, while women with low desire seem to display less initial attention to erotic areas of imagery than their asymptomatic counterparts [21], research suggests that they are still more likely to have sexual fantasies, a greater number of sexual experiences and partners, and memories of a stronger desire for sex than asexual individuals [12]. It follows, then, that sexual cues may be more salient to them relative to their asexual counterparts, leading to our prediction that women with SIAD would display a greater initial attention preference towards sexual stimuli (vs. non-sexual stimuli), with quicker initial fixations, longer initial fixation durations, and more frequent initial fixations to sexual imagery.

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The invisible sexuality

Outside of my work as a psychology researcher, I am a member of the asexual community.

Specifically, I am a heteroromantic gray-asexual: I am someone who feels romantic attraction to people of other sexes or genders, but experiences fluctuating or limited sexual attractions.

Yet in existing research, I found few examples of people like me. Most studies seem to focus on people who are completely asexual, not in the gray area.

In popular media, asexuals rarely even appear at all. When they do, they’re often portrayed as weird, robotic and incapable of love. In mainstream culture, there’s also an element of denialism, with many people believing that asexuality is impossible – that those who identify as asexual must have something wrong with them, such as hormonal issues. Perhaps they simply “haven’t found the right person” or need to “try harder.”

So this study was born out of my experiences as a person on the asexual spectrum, which is why it was so important for me to address all the different asexuals out there and give a voice to my own community.

Many asexual people choose to be in relationships; they just may go about the process differently. Some might participate in non-monogamous relationships. Others might be forced to disclose their identities and preferences in different ways, wondering when – if ever – they should open up about it to potential partners, fearing that the reactions could be less than positive and lead to relationship difficulties.

However, many asexuals relate to the Split Attraction Model, which is a theory that shows how romantic and sexual attraction are two distinct experiences, and therefore, one can experience sex without love and love without sex. With this in mind, it is possible for asexuals to identify with a romantic orientation and pursue romantic relationships, since these are different experiences.

Relationships centered on romance

For our study, we looked exactly at this split and surveyed 485 people who self-identified as being on the asexual spectrum and were currently in a romantic relationship.

The participants identified as heteroromantic, biromantic, homoromantic, panromantic and more, showing significant diversity among the romantic interests of this group. We then asked them about their relationship satisfaction, their level of investment in the relationship and how they viewed the quality of alternatives to their relationship.

Additionally, we explored their attachment orientation. This is defined as the way in which people approach their close relationships. It’s usually formed in childhood and is a pattern that continues into adulthood.

People tend to either exhibit an “anxious attachment style,” which is often characterized by feeling worried about abandonment and being anxious about losing the relationship; an “avoidant attachment style,” which means someone may push people away or fear emotional intimacy; or a “secure attachment style,” which is when people feel secure in their emotions and can maintain long-lasting relationships.

Ultimately, our results were generally consistent with previous work on relationships in all of their forms. As with those relationships, we found that asexual people who were more satisfied and more invested were more committed in their relationships. When they weren’t pining for other people or didn’t see being alone as a better alternative, their relationships tended to flourish.

Attachment orientation patterns were also generally consistent with past research on other sexuality groups. Much like work done on other relationships, avoidant asexual individuals were also less committed, satisfied and invested in their relationships, as one would expect.

However, there were also some inconsistencies with past research. For example, among asexual people, an anxious attachment style actually correlated to higher commitment and satisfaction. The opposite tends to occur in other types of relationships.

Nonetheless, I hope this research will help normalize the idea that asexuals can thrive in romantic relationships. It turns out that asexuals can experience romantic love as much as other sexual orientations do: with the same opportunities for joy and growth, the same challenges of navigating conflict and compromise, and the same possibility of a lifelong commitment.

Source: The Conversation


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