50 Shades of Attraction: Understanding the Asexual Spectrum

A team huddles up on a cold, cloudy day.According to research published in 2004, about 1% of British respondents identify as asexual. Other studies from the early 2000s estimate similar rates of asexuality in the United States. As asexuality becomes more visible, however, the number of people who identify as asexual may grow.

Asexuality is a spectrum, not a single homogeneous identity. People on the asexuality spectrum often refer to themselves as “ace.” Asexuality is not a fear of sex. While some asexual people have trauma histories, sexual trauma does not cause asexuality. The right sexual experience or partner will not change someone’s asexual orientation.

Therapy can help people better understand their sexual orientation, deal with stigma and discrimination, and communicate across differences in sexual desire and orientation. Begin your search for a therapist here.

What’s the Difference Between Romantic Attraction and Sexual Attraction?

For sexual people, romantic and sexual attraction tend to co-occur. So separating romantic and sexual attraction can seem foreign or even impossible. But both sexuality and romantic feelings exist on a continuum.

Asexuals may experience romantic attraction but little or no sexual desire. Or they may experience neither romantic or sexual attraction. Many asexuals use the term “aromantic” to denote a person who has no romantic interest.

A 2011 survey estimates at least 55% of asexuals have some romantic feelings.

  • 22% identified as heteroromantic (having romantic feelings for the opposite gender).
  • Another 22% identified as bi/panromantic (having romantic feelings for men and women).
  • 6% identifying as homoromantic (having romantic feelings for the same gender).
  • 5% identified as androgynoromantic (having romantic feelings for only non-binary people) or other monoromantic (meaning they were non-binary people who were attracted to either men or women).

Many asexuals have happy, successful romantic relationships. Some become involved with other asexuals. Others date sexual people and find ways to navigate differences in desire.

Celibacy is not the same as asexuality. Though many asexuals choose to avoid sex, not all celibate people are asexual. For example, some clergy choose a celibate lifestyle despite strong sexual feelings. Likewise, not all asexual people are celibate. Some asexuals experience limited sexual desire in certain situations. Others choose to have sex to preserve relationships with sexual partners.

Sexuality as a Spectrum

Sexuality is a continuum and a spectrum. Just as there is significant variety in other identities and orientations, there is significant variability in asexual identities. A person’s asexual identity may also shift with time. Some common asexual identities include:

  • Demisexual: Demisexuals are people on the asexuality spectrum who only experience sexual attraction in the context of a strong relationship with another person. For many sexual people, sexual attraction precedes a romantic relationship. For demisexuals, attraction can only occur in the context of a close intimate relationship.
  • Gray asexuality: Sometimes called gray-ace, gray asexuality has a fluid definition that means different things to different people. Some see gray asexuality as a state between asexuality and sexuality. Others describe it as having sexual attraction but no desire to act on that attraction.

Asexual people’s views on sexuality vary. Some identify as sex-positive, which means that they see sex as a potentially positive thing that they simply do not desire. Others are antisexual, which means they see sex as a negative thing. As with sexual people, an asexual person’s views on sex can be influenced by many factors—religion, the larger culture, experience with sex and relationships, and more. Sexual beliefs about the utility and value of sex are not the same as sexual orientation.

Many asexual people experience sexual desire alone and simply wish to avoid sex with a partner. A 2010 analysis found similar rates of masturbation between asexual and sexual men.

How Asexual People Face Discrimination

Cultural norms and discussions of sexuality often leave asexuals out of the discussion. Many people have never even heard of asexuality. Others believe that only those with a history of sexual abuse could possibly be uninterested in sex. Consequently, many believe that asexuals are not “real.” They may question an asexual’s orientation, seeing it as a sign of trauma or negative beliefs about sex.

For many asexuals, asexuality is an important part of their identity. Having that identity called into question can feel condescending and dehumanizing. For example, an asexual seeking medical care for a sexual health issue might face skepticism from a doctor about their orientation. They may experience gaslighting as the doctor tries to “fix” their asexuality instead of the health issue at hand.

Some asexuals are targeted for “corrective rape.” This is a form of rape designed to “correct” the person’s sexual orientation. For example, a romantic partner may refuse to accept a person’s asexual identity and rape them to convince them they should like sex. Corrective rape, like other forms of rape, is extremely traumatic. The threat of corrective rape and other forms of violence may cause some asexuals not to tell people about their orientation. This contributes to asexual invisibility.

Myths About Asexuality

Limited awareness, social norms suggesting that everyone wants sex, and other cultural factors support numerous myths about asexuality. Some of the most common include:

  • Myth: Asexuals have simply had bad sexual experiences.
    • Truth: Asexuality is an orientation, not avoidance of sex because of previous bad sex.
  • Myth: Asexuals fear relationships or intimacy.
    • Truth: Many asexuals have very close relationships. Others choose to abstain from romantic relationships. Avoiding romantic relationships is a personal and valid choice, not a psychological problem.
  • Myth: The right person can change an asexual’s orientation.
    • Truth: This is no more true with asexuals than it is with people of any other sexual orientation.

Is Asexuality a Mental Health Diagnosis?

Asexuality is not a mental health diagnosis. Notions to the contrary undermine acceptance of asexuals and contribute to discrimination. A 2010 analysis found people who identify as asexual have typical levels of interpersonal functioning. They are no more likely than other groups to have mental health conditions.

Hypoactive sexual desire and sexual aversion, meanwhile, are considered mental health issues. These conditions can cause a person to have an unusually low sex drive and to experience distress in sexual situations. These conditions can also affect the physiological response to sex. However, these issues are not the same thing as asexuality. Most asexual people have a typical physiological response to sex and don’t normally feel anxious about sex. They are just uninterested.

How Therapy Can Help Asexual Individuals

Asexuality is not a mental health condition. Therapy, however, can help people who identify as asexual lead more fulfilling lives. Discrimination and social norms about sexuality can cause some asexuals to feel depressed or anxious. Experiences of sexual trauma, especially corrective rape, can lead to posttraumatic stress (PTSD). Therapy offers a safe space to process these emotions and set goals for self-care.

A psychotherapist can help asexuals who struggle with social rejection, loneliness, and isolation stemming from their identity. Therapy can also help asexuals better understand their location on the asexuality spectrum. In therapy, an asexual person may learn to advocate for their sexual and romantic needs, while abandoning internalized shame, self-loathing, and self-doubt.

Couples counseling can help asexual couples identify and communicate their needs. When there is an imbalance in sexual desire—such as when one partner is sexual and the other partner is asexual—therapy supports healthy communication and negotiation. It can help partners identify strategies to help both parties get what they need without sacrificing their well-being.

References:

  1. Antisexual. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://wiki.asexuality.org/Antisexual
    Asexuality. (2017, March 13). Retrieved from http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/sexinfo/article/asexuality
  2. Bogaert, A. F. (2004). Asexuality: Prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample. The Journal of Sex Research, 41(3), 279-287. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00224490409552235
  3. Brotto, L. A., Knudson, G., Inskip, J., Rhodes, K., & Erskine, Y. (2010). Asexuality: A mixed-methods approach. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(3), 599-618. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-008-9434-x
  4. Chasin, C. D. (2011). Theoretical issues in the study of asexuality. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(4), 713-723. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-011-9757-x
  5. Miller, T. (n.d.). Analysis of the 2011 Asexual Awareness Week community census [PDF]. Retrieved from http://asexualawarenessweek.com/docs/SiggyAnalysis-AAWCensus.pdf
  6. Poston, D. L., & Baumle, A. K. (2010). Patterns of asexuality in the United States. Demographic Research, 23(1), 509-530. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/26349603?seq=3#metadata_info
  7. 10 things you need to know about asexuality. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://lgbt.williams.edu/homepage/10-things-you-need-to-know-about-asexuality

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  • Frederick

    Frederick

    November 22nd, 2018 at 10:01 AM

    A very interesting topic considering that today the issue of sexuality is still tabu in some families, but fortunately I think that this has been changing, because in the end the only way to know more about this is with sex education. A topic that I would like to share with my university classmates
    Thanks for sharing!

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