As a sex researcher, I’ve found myself sometimes forgetting that not everyone’s life revolves around sex. Pop culture would have you believe the opposite, and when that’s not the case, that those uninterested in sex are just shy or sexually inexperienced, such as Jim Parson’s Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory or the Doctor on Doctor Who. According to new research in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, however, about 1% of the world’s population has never felt sexually attracted to anyone, otherwise known as asexuality. That includes more than 70 million people. Recently, research has unleashed a new frontier in our understanding of human sexuality, including asexuality, and I’m excited to see where it goes and what it reveals, especially since misunderstanding, judgment and generalization tend to weigh down non-normative behaviors.
As with homosexuality and transgenderism, sexuality is not a choice. Asexual people, who also go by the term “Aces,” say they’ve been that way for as long as they can remember, reaching as far back as grade school, when their classmates were feeling the advent of schoolyard crushes. Studies have also shown that asexuals are more likely to be left-handed or ambidextrous. This is a known biomarker for sexual orientation, as in a sign that the brain is wired differently and sex preferences—or lack of them—are here to stay. As us sex researchers, and the world, begin to learn more about asexuality, here are two key personality traits to remember about this sizeable community.
ASEXUALS DO HAVE SEX
Some asexuals do have sex if they’re dating a sexual person as a necessary compromise in a relationship. Asexuality isn’t the same as having low sex drive (or hypoactive sexual desire disorder). People with low sex drives were once interested in sex and are bothered by the change. Asexuals, on the other hand, have never wanted sex with anyone and are perfectly okay with it.
One important study shows that asexual and sexual women are no different when it comes to vaginal responses; in other words, the plumbing downstairs works just fine. This makes sexual neuroscientists like myself bet money that the root cause of asexuality are differences in the brain. And as I write this, teams of researchers in the United States and Canada are figuring out whether the same is true for asexual men.
ASEXUALS CAN FALL IN LOVE
Most of us have learned, through trial and error, how love and sex are totally different creatures. Asexuals aren’t into sex, but they can have romantic feelings for other people. It’s like having a bromance with your buddy, wherein you have intimacy, but not the sexual kind.
We’ve all witnessed how sexual jealousy can make a relatively sane person go off the deep end. (I once got to watch an ex-boyfriend try to flush my Ray-Bans down the toilet.) But having a lack of interest in carnal desire doesn’t mean life and love is a breezy walk in the park, primarily because it can be hard to relate to other people in a time when sex is such a huge part of being human. And the stigma asexuals face can lead to mental health problems. In one study, college students rated asexuals as the least “human” when compared to other sexual minority groups.
My biggest takeaway? Much like how gay people can’t (and shouldn’t) be turned straight, if someone is asexual, they can’t become interested in sex, even with medication, therapy or doing the deed. And really, why should they change? At the end of the day, as a sex writer, I hope we can to a place where being gay, straight, bi, kinky, vanilla or Ace doesn’t even matter. Because regardless of whatever you’re into—or not into—there’s plenty of room in the world for it all.
If you or someone you know might be asexual, I’d recommend checking out the online support group the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, and Understanding Asexuality, a book by Dr. Anthony Bogaert, who is an international expert on this research.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto, where she specializes in the fMRI of paraphilias (or sexual kinks). Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.