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Asexuality: A New Sexual Orientation

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      & Consumer Protection
      for Spiritual Seekers"


      Thursday, October 14, 2004
      Current Members: 1239

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      By Sylvia Pagan Westphal
      New Scientist
      October 14, 2004

      It is an impossibly hot summer evening in St Louis, a city in the American
      Midwest best known for barbecues and blues music, and I'm driving around the
      streets of the town's Central West End wondering if this will be known one
      day as the place where the revolution began.

      In less than an hour I am to meet its leader, a young man whose face I have
      never seen though we've been talking for months. I know I shouldn't be this
      eager to greet him in person, to finally see what he looks like, but then
      again it's not every day you meet a young healthy man who is 100%
      uninterested in sex.

      In a world where lust can be bought in a pill and skin is the marketing tool
      du jour, being David Jay cannot be easy. At the age of 22 he has never had
      sex. He has never experienced sexual attraction towards another person and
      does not believe it will ever happen.

      There are many others who have similar stories to tell. They talk about
      growing up not being able to understand why everyone else seemed so
      interested in dating, kissing and touching; in experiencing the ritual of

      Common label

      Until recently these people felt isolated, never suspecting others felt the
      same. But now, thanks in great part to an online forum founded by Jay, they
      are finding each other and identifying themselves with a common label. They
      call themselves asexual, and are coming out to parents and loved ones,
      declaring their asexuality to be as valid an orientation as being straight
      or gay.

      They are printing T-shirts and pamphlets, and discussing the concept of
      "A-pride" and what it means to be "A-sexy". They are, essentially,
      announcing to the world that they are not broken or defective, or sexually
      dysfunctional. Instead they have a bona fide sexual identity that must no
      longer be ignored.

      A few months ago it might have been easy to dismiss these individuals as
      outsiders whose coming together in the era of the search engine has given
      them an inflated sense of community. However, little-publicised studies of
      rodents and sheep suggest that asexual behaviour in mammals is not so
      uncommon. And this August, a researcher in human sexuality published the
      first tentative figures for the number of asexual people in the population,
      which suggested that there might be almost as many asexual people as there
      are gay individuals.

      The figure raises the intriguing spectre of a repressed, underground
      minority on the verge of bubbling up into the mainstream. Are we about to
      witness the birth of the asexual revolution?

      Coming out

      Discovering our sexuality, we are told, is a perfectly normal process that
      must be celebrated. We might wish to tame it perhaps, but never negate it.
      Even concepts such as celibacy or abstinence work on the implicit assumption
      that we are deliberately rejecting sexuality. Doctors tell us that if we
      lose interest in sex we must seek help with the problem.

      Unsurprisingly, one of the hardest things about being asexual is convincing
      other people that there is nothing wrong with you. Tell someone on the
      street that you are asexual and they'll stare at you in disbelief, says Jay.
      The immediate supposition is that you're just a late bloomer, he adds.

      A powerful example of how people react to the idea appears in an article
      titled "Eight myths about religious life," which appeared in Vision 2002, an
      annual magazine from the National Religious Vocation Conference in the US.
      It states: "Question: what do you call a person who is asexual? Answer: Not
      a person. Asexual people do not exist. Sexuality is a gift from God and thus
      a fundamental part of our human identity."

      But now, people outside the asexual community are starting to question these
      assumptions. Elizabeth Abbott, Dean of Women at Trinity College, University
      of Toronto, Canada, is one of the few academics who are aware of the issue
      and believes it is a real phenomenon. Soon after her book A History of
      Celibacy was released in 1999, letters started pouring in from people who
      told her that, like celibates, they didn't have sex. Only in their case, it
      was not a question of choice -- they simply didn't want to.

      That's when she realised that asexual people actually existed. "The asexual
      can be somebody's husband or wife," says Abbott. But societal pressures keep
      most asexuals in the closet, she adds. "They have to hide themselves because
      we are in a highly sexed society. Imagine someone who doesn't even want it
      and who isn't having a problem if they're not getting it. There's not really
      anyone for them to talk to."

      Something different

      According to Jay, one of the biggest battles is convincing other people that
      being this way is what feels right. Many asexuals discovered their
      orientation in their early teens and refer to their asexuality as something
      that has always been with them. One example is 17-year-old Aspen (name
      changed), a mild-mannered girl with big blue eyes who lives in Worcester,

      One summer afternoon over lunch she told me that she had looked up the word
      asexual in the dictionary at age 15, hoping to find a definition for how she
      saw herself. None of the explanations fitted, so she wrote in her journal:
      "What am I? Like I said before I'm not anything; not anything there's a word
      for, at leastŠIf there were a word for what I'm starting to think I am it
      wouldn't -- unlike the word homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, transsexual
      -- have the word sex in it. I'm something different."

      When I asked Kate Goldfield, a 20-year-old college student from Maine, to
      describe her feelings, she offered an analogy. "It's almost as foreign to me
      as someone saying 'You know, when you're 18 we're going to take you on a
      space shuttle and we're going to go to Mars'." Angela (name changed), a
      lively 40-year-old writer from Massachusetts, explains it this way: "I have
      never had interest in sex all my life, at all. It's like algebra. I
      understand the concept, but have no interest. I don't have the strong
      feeling about it that the rest of the world has," she says.

      Loving variety I finally meet Jay face-to-face at the lobby of my hotel. He
      flashes a confident smile and firmly shakes my hand as if he had known a
      part of me was secretly expecting a weirdo and he was glad to set me
      straight. Jay is no Calvin Klein model, but not unattractive either; in
      fact, he's kind of got the air of a young JFK Junior, tall and slender, with
      warm, dark eyes, and the mouth of a Greek god I can imagine young girls
      dying to kiss.

      More intimate

      He is living proof that it is absolutely wrong to assume asexuals shun sex
      simply because they can't get any. I ask him if anyone has ever tried to
      convert him into the realm of the sexual. "Yes, that's definitely happened,"
      he replies. "That's actually the time that I made out with [snogged]
      someone." It didn't do anything for him but he ended up having a
      relationship with the girl -- a sexless one, of course. "We had a physical
      relationship, more intimate in a lot of ways. We hugged each other a lot."

      That Jay "likes" girls is one of several intriguing facts I learn about
      asexual people as they discuss some of the most intimate details of their
      lives with me. There are asexuals, for example, who have never felt the need
      to get close to other people, not even in a non-sexual way, and describe
      themselves as loners. But others, like Jay, want to connect with males or
      females -- some people would define it as an orientation -- only it seems to
      be purely emotional.

      Their desire is to find a "mate" with whom they can share interests and
      spend time with but not have any form of sexual relationship with. (Jay once
      worried he could never feel love, but now knows he can. Indeed, unencumbered
      by sexual feelings, he believes his is a more powerful, unconditional form
      of love.) In addition, some asexuals are capable of experiencing bodily
      arousal. They get erections and some masturbate, although even while
      experiencing the physical cues of arousal there never is an impulse to do
      anything sexual with another person. A number of asexuals told me that
      watching porn or looking at erotic pictures were awkward experiences that
      they couldn't relate to.

      "I get the feelingsŠbut my body never made the mental connection to what I
      would do about it," explains Pete (name changed), a high-school student who
      is in a non-sexual relationship with a girl. "I get the arousal but when it
      happens it gets annoying because to me there is really no purpose to it,
      there is nothing I can do about it," he says.

      No definition

      The amazing degree of variation in the experiences of asexual people
      suggests that the underlying causes of their lack of sexual attraction are
      very different. Some asexuals might simply have extremely low sex drives in
      spite of an innate orientation towards males or females. Other asexuals
      might form a fourth category of sexual orientation in addition to the
      hetero-, homo- and bi-sexual ones, namely people who are attracted to
      neither gender, even if they have normal sex drives.

      There is no official definition for asexuality yet, but it probably needs to
      take all these variations into account, says Anthony Bogaert, a psychologist
      and human-sexuality expert studying asexuality at Brock University in St.
      Catherines, Canada. "The place where we draw the line is the desire to
      interact sexually with other people," says Brian (name changed), a navy
      veteran from Virginia. When it comes to having children, some asexuals say
      they would like to have a baby, but most would use IVF to avoid having to
      have sex.

      Much of the sense of community that emerges when Brian and others talk about
      their collective status as asexuals comes from the fact that they have found
      a virtual neighbourhood where they constantly interact. "It's made it a
      whole lot easier for us to find each other," Brian says.

      One such web forum, called AVEN (for Asexual Visibility and Education
      Network at <http://www.asexuality.org>) was founded by Jay in 2001 and
      provides extensive information about asexuality along with discussion
      forums. It began with fewer than 50 members but now boasts more than 1200.
      People from all over the world have visited the site: from Saudi Arabia,
      Japan and Cuba.

      Convincing the sceptics

      Discussion of asexuality in academic circles is virtually non-existent, save
      for its occurrence in plants, worms and other lowly critters. "It has not
      been out there, there is nothing written about it," says Nicole Prause, a
      graduate student at Indiana University in Bloomington, who has done one of
      the very first studies on the subject.

      One reason is that the bulk of research on human sexuality has been driven
      by the problems sexual activity creates, such as sexually transmitted
      diseases and teenage pregnancy. "Concern about those problems is what
      produces money to do research," says John DeLamater, a human-sexuality
      expert from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

      And even when researchers do study people who are not having sex, it is
      always on the understanding that sexual inactivity is a problem that needs
      fixing. "Hypoactive sexual desire" is listed in the Diagnostic and
      Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) -- the bible of
      psychologists and psychiatrists. The manual says this can happen during
      adolescence and persist throughout a person's life. It is considered a
      disorder if it causes the person distress.

      But the hypoactive sexual desire label fails to acknowledge people who are
      happy and healthy but have a lifelong aversion to sex and feel no attraction
      towards men or women. It is this subset of the population whose true sexual
      identity has not been recognised, argues Jay.

      Below the radar

      "This is a category that has socially not been manufactured yet. It's below
      the radar," says sociologist Edward Laumann from the University of Chicago
      in Illinois, one of the world's top experts on human sexuality. "You have to
      have someone who is prepared to accept asexuality as a way someone is born,
      like [having] blue eyes," says Abbott.

      This might be a novel view but it's not unreasonable, adds DeLamater.
      "Motivation to engage in sexual intimacy is a dimension that runs basically
      from zero to extremely high, and there are probably some people at that zero
      end," he says.

      The question is whether that zero end represents a tiny sliver of the
      sexuality bell curve or a substantial slice. The limited research on asexual
      mammals suggests that asexual behaviour is actually not that rare. For
      example, studies in rats and gerbils done as early as the 1980s have
      demonstrated that up to 12% of the males in the population are not
      interested in females.

      Named "duds," these animals are described as asexual in the literature. But
      because males are so aggressive, it had not been possible to put one of
      these individuals in a cage with another male to test whether their lack of
      interest in females was had to do with attraction to males.

      Sheep studies

      In the 1990s, however, three separate teams from the US Sheep Experiment
      Station in Dubois, Idaho, Oregon State University in Corvallis and the
      Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, tackled this question. In
      one study, young but sexually mature rams were put in a pen with females on
      18 different occasions to assess their partner preference.

      As expected, the majority of rams mated vigorously with the ewes, but around
      10% did not mount the females or show any interest. Those rams were then put
      in a pen beside either two males or two females and behavioural tests
      measured the number of times the animals showed "interest" (kicks,
      vocalisations, sniffs, mount attempts) towards members of either sex.

      Some of the rams -- between 5% and 7% of the population -- tried to mount,
      sniff and sexually interact with other rams. Intriguingly, another group --
      some 2% to 3% of the population -- showed no interest towards either males
      or females. "They have no interest whatsoever in mating," says Fredrick
      Stormshak from the Oregon team. "They appear to be 100% asexual."

      This asexual preference still held when the tests were performed one year
      later. Stormshak believes these asexual rams could offer a good model for
      understanding the basis of asexual behaviour in mammals. They could be used,
      for example, to see if the hormone levels in these animals are different.

      Not having sex

      Although such studies might offer insights into asexuality in people,
      comparisons between such different creatures as humans and sheep are
      controversial and should be made very cautiously. The closest we have got to
      understanding human asexuals comes from studies--- mostly surveys -- of
      people who report not having sex.

      Obviously this category not only includes people who see themselves as
      asexual but also people who are simply unable to have sex because of old age
      or ill-health. Nonetheless, these surveys offer some interesting clues.
      Laumann published one of the best-known sexuality surveys in 1994 (The
      social organization of sexuality: sexual practices in the United States, by
      Laumann and others, The University of Chicago Press) based on very detailed
      responses from almost 3500 Americans from all over the country and all walks
      of life.

      The survey showed that about 13% of respondents had not had sex in a year.
      Forty per cent of those people considered themselves extremely or very happy
      in spite of this. The study also revealed, according to Laumann, that about
      2% of the entire adult population has never had a sexual experience. But
      that does not tell us whether these people would ever want to have sex.

      It is only recently that sexuality research has begun to focus less on
      behaviour and more on people's desires as a better measure of their sexual
      preference. Bogaert has just published the very first study estimating the
      prevalence of asexuality in the population using this notion and the results
      are intriguing (The Journal of Sex Research, vol 41, p 279).

      Same-sex attraction

      In his analysis, Bogaert looked at another study of sexual practices,
      published in 1994, that surveyed more than 18,000 people in the UK. Although
      it did not specifically target the issue of asexuality, it did include a
      section questioning respondents on sexual attraction. One option read: "I
      have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all." Bogaert saw that a
      surprisingly high 1% of respondents had chosen this last option -- close to
      the rate for same-sex attraction, now believed to be running at about 3%.

      Prause took a different approach in her -- as yet unpublished -- study of
      asexual people. Instead of looking at older data she decided to recruit
      asexuals via the internet and ask them questions about their sexual
      experience, their arousability and desire levels.

      What she found, though she stresses the results are very preliminary, is
      that people who describe themselves as asexuals (41 responded to the survey)
      seem to have similar levels of sexual behaviour to other respondents,
      suggesting that they are often having sex when they don't really want to.
      More importantly, says Prause, her study suggests that asexuality is not
      some kind of illness. "People are using it as their sexual orientation," she

      A pride

      If asexuality is indeed a form of sexual orientation, perhaps it will not be
      long before the issue of "A" pride starts attracting more attention. AVEN's
      online store sells items aimed at promoting awareness and acceptance: one
      T-shirt proclaims, "Asexuality: It's not just for amoebas anymore," and
      there's a thong that reads, "It's only underwear. Get over it."

      Jay has been working hard at raising awareness: giving talks, networking
      with other organisations and getting the issue of asexuality aired in the
      media. He thinks asexual activism is indeed beginning to coalesce into a
      real political movement. "It's interesting because we're in the shadow of
      the gay rights movement, so it's a very different process now because we
      have things to draw on.

      There is also a culture that is ready to accept sexual variation much more
      readily than it was before." After raising money through the AVEN website,
      Jay designed, printed and distributed 5000 educational pamphlets. The front
      panel reads: "not everybody is interested in sex".

      Positive identity

      DeLamater says he sees several parallels between this flurry of activity and
      the beginnings of the gay revolution in the 1970s. "In that sense they are
      very much like what happened in the gay and lesbian and transgender
      community; a group of people who originally were treated and thought of
      themselves as strange or deviant or not fitting somewhere who gradually come
      together and create a positive identity out of those characteristics," he

      One example of that transformation is the fact that people are coming out of
      the closet. "I was so excited about finally discovering myself that I just
      went out and told a few of my friends and it kind of spread," says Pete. By
      finding this positive identity and being open to loved ones about it, some
      asexuals, like 23-year-old Esther Dail from Colorado have even been able to
      fill "traditional" societal roles by getting married to sexual partners. "He
      doesn't push me," says Dail of her husband, with whom she doesn't have
      intercourse and whom she told about her asexuality when they were dating.

      Bogaert and other academics believe that while the idea of an asexual
      movement is not far-fetched, it is likely to have less impact and momentum
      than the gay revolution because the notion of asexuality is uncontroversial.
      "It doesn't repel, it just doesn't appeal," says Abbott. But who knows,
      maybe 10 years from now we will live in a world where it's totally cool to
      be "A" and being a "happy single" is no longer considered an oxymoron.



      The mission of NewHeavenNewEarth (NHNE) is to answer humankind's oldest,
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      and purpose of life? Instead of relying on ancient or contemporary wisdom,
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      We also believe that our planet is passing through a time of profound change
      and are seeking to create a global community of like-minded people that can
      safely pass through whatever changes may come our way and help give birth to
      a new way of life on our planet.


      David Sunfellow, Founder & Publisher
      NewHeavenNewEarth (NHNE)
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