Asexuals Push for Greater Recognition

Those with no interest in sex push for greater awareness of their orientation.

January 15, 2009, 2:58 PM

Jan. 16, 2009— -- In a society obsessed with sex, David Jay wants no part of it.

Jay, a 26-year-old graduate student at the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco, acknowledges that his lack of interest in sex may seem unusual to many who view intercourse as the epitome of intimacy.

But research suggests that about 1 percent of the population may share Jay's view on sex. And he said that for many of these people, coming to terms with their feelings about sex can be a major challenge.

"When I was younger, the message I would always hear is that you need sex to be happy," he said. "I realized probably around the age of 14 or 15 that all of my friends were actively talking about sex. I just couldn't relate to it; I had no interest at all."

Jay said that it took him about four years of struggling to adjust to the fact that he simply did not view sex in the same way as most other people.

"It was really scary, really frightening," Jay said. "I think that throughout the asexual community, there are a lot of people who really start in that place of being isolated and confused."

Jay says it's his choice not to engage in sex. To be sure, there are millions of other people who have no interest in sex or are unable to perform sexually who are not at all happy to be members of this club. For them, a variety of psychiatric and medical procedures are available.

But asexuals like Jay are perfectly happy to take a pass on sex. Today, Jay is one of the most prominent voices in the asexuality community. In 2001, he started the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) with the aim of providing a community for people who identify themselves as asexual.

And he said that while one of the primary aims of the group is to foster a greater general understanding of asexuality, this does not mean that there should be less talk about sex. In fact, he believes more such talk is needed.

"The problem is not that there is too much discussion about sex; 99 percent of the world really, really likes sex, so it is something that should be talked about openly and honestly," Jay said. "But we need to have more discussion about how people can not have sex and still be happy."

Recently, Jay and others within AVEN began lobbying for greater understanding of asexuality among the psychological community as well. Their message is simple: they want increased recognition of asexuality among psychological professionals -- while ensuring that it is seen as a legitimate sexual orientation rather than diagnosed as a mental illness.

The group's current goal is to foster greater understanding among the architects of the new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is scheduled for release in 2012. The DSM, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association, provides diagnostic criteria for mental disorders.

Asexuality researcher Lori Brotto, assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of British Columbia, is one of the medical experts working with AVEN toward this goal. And she said it is little surprise that this confusion exists -- not only in the clinical realm, but among the general public as well.

"Because asexuality is a relatively new phenomenon that has been described -- not that it hasn't existed for many, many centuries -- people don't understand what it is," Brotto said. "Because most people can identify with the feeling of sexual attraction, the notion that someone would not have sexual attraction toward anyone seems bizarre."

Hints of the existence of asexuality have appeared in the scientific literature since the 1940s. But it was not until more than a half century later that Anthony Bogaert, professor and chair of the department of community health sciences at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, took a closer look at those who professed to have no sexual attraction whatsoever to either men or women.

Bogaert's 2004 study is viewed by some as the first solid toehold for asexuality in the spectrum of sexual orientation -- a group which until recently had been comprised only of three categories: heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality. In it, Bogaert looked at data from a survey of more than 18,000 British residents and examined their answers on a particular question on sexual attraction to others. While five of the possible answers to the question focused on varying levels of attraction to males or females, the sixth answer that respondents could choose read "I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all."

"About 1 percent of individuals reported having no sexual attraction to anyone at all," he said. "This was the missing fourth category of sexual orientation."

What followed this finding was much discussion over whether asexuality should be seen as a distinct sexual orientation or treated as a pathological condition -- a debate that largely persists until today.

Prior to this research, and even until today, asexual tendencies were generally assumed to be a sign of hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) -- in other words, a low sex drive. It is a distinction with which the psychological community still wrestles.

"It is very hard to distinguish between asexuality and insufficient capability for desire or arousal or both," said Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Perhaps the difference is how the person -- or their partner -- feels about it. The literature is certainly inadequate for differentiation between the two."

Bogaert said that a lack of widespread understanding about asexuality means that many of these individuals face many challenges -- particularly in a society that seems fixated on sex.

"A big part of our media and culture expects people to have romantic/sexual relationships with others," he said. "The norm is for someone to form romantic sexual relationships with other people."

This norm, Bogaert noted, often poses problems for asexuals, who may be interested in romance and intimacy, but not in sex.

"[Asexuals] may want to pair-bond with another individual, and most likely they will be pair-bonding with someone who's sexual," he said. "So then you often have pressure placed on the asexual person to have sex within the relationship, even if he or she really doesn't want to have sex."

Eli Coleman, professor and director of the program in human sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said that this clash of expectations could lead to serious relationship stress.

"The biggest challenge would be the pressure to become sexual," Coleman said. "Asexuality has been assumed to be abnormal. Sexual drive is a basic and fundamental appetitive drive and would be the expected norm."

Jay agreed that the subject of relationships is complex when asexuality enters the picture. "I think it's a very tricky issue," said Jay, who has himself never had sex but has been in relationships in which he engaged in a certain degree of sexual activity.

"There are plenty of people in the asexual community who have relationships with sexual people and have those relationships work," he said. "The sense that I have is that if sex is something that one person in the relationship wants, that's one thing. If that is the only way that they can communicate intimacy, then that's another issue."

Another option, of course, is for those who are asexual to form relationships with each other. Jay said that there is an emerging asexual dating scene, and some online dating services geared toward asexuals have appeared.

What is an asexual relationship like? Jay likened it to an intimate partnering of "very, very close best friends."

Advocates say there is much to be gained from a greater awareness within the psychological community of asexuality, particularly when it comes to ensuring that the DSM does not treat asexuality as a disorder that must be treated.

"The fear is that with a new definition, asexuality would somehow make its way into the DSM and be considered a psychological illness," Brotto said.

For something to be considered a psychological illness, Brotto said, "a person needs to be distressed or bothered by the condition. Asexual people are not. Their only distress is distress over the idea that they will not be accepted by society."

"This is certainly not a sexual dysfunction, and it is certainly not a mental disorder."

But not all psychologists agree.

"Given that I believe our sexuality is a great emotional and physical asset, it is hard for me to think asexuality is appropriate to declassify," Schwartz said. "On the other hand, we certainly do not want to oppress someone who is happily asexual and does not have a deprived partner."

Still, Jay said that he believes AVEN is making significant progress with those behind the DSM. And he said that he is hopeful that greater understanding among the public in general will follow.

"The take-home point should really be a question they ask themselves," he said. "That question is: Why does sex matter so much?"

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