While many people prefer discussions about sex be entirely private, some intrepid scientists struggle to illuminate this essential life mystery by counting the copulations of laboratory rats and constructing elaborate statistical models — a strangely unsexy business, most of us would say. One important arm of that research is learning more about the approximate one percent of the population who lack sexual attraction to anyone or anything — asexuals.

“If you want to understand sexual motivation, to really claim to understand it, you need to understand the whole spectrum,” Dr. Nicole Prause, principal investigator at the Sexual Psychophysiology and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, told Medical Daily, explaining how this search “goes all the way back to Kinsey.” She is referring to the biologist, professor of entomology and zoology, and founder of the Institute for Sex Research, whose goal, as Prause noted, was “primarily about documenting variability.”

However, in our highly sexualized world, the variable known as asexuality — which scientists conceptualize as an orientation — may be the most difficult to understand of all. And so Medical Daily describes the asexual persepective.

Orientation

What is sexual orientation? The American Psychological Association defines orientation as the “enduring pattern” of your attraction to men, women, or both sexes. If the erotic resides at the intersection of body, mind, and spirit, then attraction and ultimately orientation includes a variety of emotional, romantic, and physical aspects.

“There are subjective components, yet also some objective components. There are at least three dimensions and possibly more,” Prause, told Medical Daily, explaining that in essence sexual orientation comes down to “behaviors, emotions, and cognitions.” Prause gives the example of someone who says, “I have fantasies about being with a woman, but I’ve never been with a woman, and I can’t imagine it.” What significance do you give this when you examine someone’s identity? More importantly, how do you gather this information?

“There’re lots of challenges to asking these questions,” Prause explained, adding “the science around this has been stigmatized for so long.” And so sexuality, which is part of our biology and so intrinsic to our lives, remains difficult to grasp, describe, and quantify.

Meanwhile, the scientific community evolves in its understanding of what is normal. The 1980 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, for instance, included a disorder referred to as “inhibited sexual desire” and renamed, two decades later, “hypoactive sexual desire disorder.” This pathology — which is based on the assumption that some level of sexual desire is normal — was defined as a deficiency or absence of sexual fantasies and desire, which causes distress or interpersonal difficulty.  

While a decrease in sexual desire can signal physiological (hypothyroidism, for example) or psychological (depression, anxiety) conditions, is low or absent sexual desire necessarily a disorder? More importantly, is asexuality simply low sexual desire?

Hunting Biomarkers

Dr. Lori Brotto, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, says asexuality and low libido are two separate things.

In a 2014 study, she looked for biological markers of asexuality. Her study included a total of 325 asexuals (60 men and 265 women), 690 heterosexuals (190 men and 500 women), and 268 non-heterosexuals (64 men and 204 women homosexuals and bisexuals). Asexual men and women, Brotto found, were 2.4 and 2.5 times, respectively, more likely to be non-right-handed than their heterosexual counterparts. Asexual and non-heterosexual men were more likely to be later-born than heterosexual men, while asexual women were more likely to be earlier-born than non-heterosexual women.

“This is one of the first studies to test and provide preliminary empirical support for an underlying neurodevelopmental basis to account for the lack of sexual attraction characteristic of asexuality,” Brotto and her co-authors noted at the conclusion of their study.

Brotto has also compared sexual arousal in asexual and non-asexual women. She and her co-researchers measured both subjective and genital (vaginal pulse amplitude) arousal in 38 women between the ages of 19 and 55 years (10 heterosexual, 10 bisexual, 11 homosexual, and seven asexual) while they viewed both neutral and erotic movies. Here, she found “normal subjective and physiological sexual arousal capacity in asexual women” and for this reason, she would not characterize this as a sexual dysfunction.

And here, for many laypeople, lies the key point of confusion.

Not a Label

Men and women asexuals can become sexually aroused. "I have always had a very high libido, but I was never interested in acting on that with anyone else," Dallas Bryson, a self-described "ace" who currently studies at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, told Medical Daily. She explains that “orientation and orgasmic capacity and capacity for arousal are different,” and to make her point she gives the example of someone whose sexual feelings may not line up with their romantic feelings.

“Sexual attraction and romantic attraction are not always the same,” she said, though she recognizes for many they do align.

In a videotaped discussion of research comparing low desire and asexuality, Brotto points to the fact that asexual people feel no distress for the condition, whereas those who suffer from a physiological condition causing them to lose their libido do feel distress. She also states “there’s no reparative therapy” for asexual people.

"In my experience, the predominant view among sex therapists is that [asexuality] is a manifestation of some extreme aversion to sexuality," Brotto said to Medical Daily. "After all, the capacity for sexual attraction is so innate, our reproduction depends on this, so this must be some kind of pathology." Interestingly, she says, she herself shared that view, before she started doing research on this issue. (In fact, this is the reason why she began this research.) "We and others have looked at, tested, and ruled out most other explanations, including sexual disorders, religiosity, celibacy, others. Skepticism drives our research agenda."

“Asexuality is not a choice,” Dr. Debra Laino tells Medical Daily. A therapist and professor at Philadelphia and Wilmington Universities, she also maintains a private practice. “Anyone can make a choice to be celibate, say… but asexual people feel as though they’re not making a choice, it’s who they are. That’s the deciding factor.”

Discussing the line between asexuality and low libido, Laino said, “Someone who is asexual, well, they’ve never really had a desire for sex, whereas someone with a hypoactive sexual desire disorder [low libido] may have medication issues, stress, diabetes, hormonal disruptions.” In her practice, intake for most clients would include physiological tests and only if all the results are normal would someone “potentially fall into that category of asexuality.”

However, Laino conceded, “Women are famous for not having a strong desire, but once they get started, they’re OK.”

Mostly Similar?

In fact, female sexual desire may be primarily responsive in nature, suggests Dr. Rosemary Basson, of the University of British Columbia. She theorizes that women don't experience male-style desire, a spontaneous stirring of libido, but instead women are roused by love-making. Basson even goes so far as to suggest a woman’s motivation for having sex is not inherently sexual (in the man's sense), but may be more about wanting to please or feel close to her partner.

If, as Bryson says, some asexuals willingly have sex with their non-asexual partners, how do they differ from sexual women?

“Asexual is a tool and not a label,” David Jay, who in 2001 created the Asexual Visi­bility and Education Network (AVEN), told Medical Daily. “You pick it up to understand yourself more deeply. You never need to make a statement about yourself. You can make a statement about the best understanding you have now and build on that.” AVEN, global in reach, now includes 100,000 members who participate in forums and also gain access to a repository of information, including the many ways asexual people express their orientation.

As a community, asexuals encourage language creation, Bryson explains, so lots of different terms and explanations abound. Demisexual people, Jay explains, experience sexual attraction only in the context of close relationship, while gray people are somewhere between asexual and sexual. Some in the community find themselves to be asexual yet still romantically inclined toward same sex partners, while others describe themselves as asexual and aromantic.

According to Jay, this is some of the essential work being done by this community. Asexuals necessarily address and explore some really deep and interesting questions about self-respect, intimacy, and relationships: “What does it mean to live without sexuality, how can I form relationships I want, how can I be happy with myself, how do I think of myself as desirable and attractive in a non-sexual sense?”

“We would call it moving your psychological anchors,” Prause told Medical Daily, explaining how sexual research is about understanding the full spectrum of human experience in order to gain perspective on our own daily lives. Getting more information about the margins, helps you understand variability in the middle, and in practical terms helps you to understand differences between your own and your partner’s libido... and overall feelings and desires.

Ultimately, she said, the research is really about “helping you gain empathy and understanding.”