As a kid, Julie Sondra Decker filled her days with reading, writing, singing and drawing — usually opting for creative pursuits over social ones. So when she started noticing her middle and high school peers asking each other out, it suited that she wasn’t interested in joining them. “I was kind of used to people thinking I was weird,” says Decker, now a 37-year-old writer in Tampa, Florida. Although she did date a few people in high school, no one gave her butterflies. “I didn’t find anything I was looking for,” she says.
It wasn’t until Decker reached college that she realized her sexual indifference toward others wasn’t going anywhere. “I’m past being a teenager,” she thought. “I’m coming into my identity, and [sexual attraction] still isn’t part of it.”
Today, Decker has a name for it: asexuality, which describes people who don’t “experience sexual attraction,” according to the Asexual Visibility & Education Network. Decker credits the organization, which launched in 2001, for naming and raising awareness of what she’d been experiencing all along.
“If I came out as asexual to someone, almost every time there would be a 30 to 40 minute education session of what that is and why I’m not lying or faking or confused or sick,” she says. “And now, sometimes I’ll say, ‘I’m asexual,’ and I’m not the first person the person has heard of or met.”
The Other ‘1 Percent’
About 1 percent of the population is asexual, according to research by Anthony Bogaert, a psychology professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. In comparison, 1.6 percent of Americans identify as gay or lesbian and 0.7 percent identify as bisexual, according to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of adults 18 and older.
Sexual orientation is different from gender identity, or the gender a person feels he or she is. In other words, you can be an asexual man, an asexual woman or an asexual transgender person. Sexual orientation is also different from sexual behavior. So, just as a straight woman can kiss or even have sex with another woman without being a lesbian, a person can abstain from sex temporarily or permanently without being asexual.
Like all sexual orientations, asexuality is a spectrum: “[It’s] a heterogeneous group – it’s not just one group of individuals who all express or feel their lack of attraction in the same way,” says Lori Brotto, an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of the District of Columbia who studies sexual health and treats patients with sex-related problems.
For instance, some people consider themselves asexual but have sex out of curiosity or for pleasure, while for others, just the thought of sex is repulsive. Some asexuals see their sexuality as a lifelong characteristic, while others view it more fluidly. Some asexuals seek romantic relationships, while others, like Decker, aren’t interested.
“My life still involves relationships, I just don’t consider myself to have a primary partner,” says Decker, whose book “The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality” was published last year. “I feel like everybody chases their passions, so what I’m doing instead [of being in a relationship] is chasing my own passions.”
Low Desire or Asexuality?
When one of Brotto’s colleagues first approached her about asexuality around 2006, she had never heard of the term – in humans, that is. “You mean like amoebas?” Brotto remembers saying. Now Brotto is one of the most prolific researchers on the topic.
“I started out because I was skeptical that this was a bona fide stage that was not some kind of mental illness or depression,” she says. Now, Brotto says, “I’m convinced by the emerging science … which suggests this is probably best categorized as a sexual orientation – not as a dysfunction, not as a disorder.”
One of her studies published last year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found links between asexuality and certain biological characteristics. For example, asexuals were about 2.5 times less likely to be right-handed than heterosexuals. The team also found that, when compared to heterosexuals, asexual men were more likely to have older siblings and asexual women were more likely to have younger siblings. Past research has strongly tied those traits to being gay or lesbian, Brotto says. “It’s not that those [biomarkers] cause the state, but it’s rather that something in utero – while the fetus is developing – gives rise to both,” Brotto says.
In another study out this year in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, Brotto and a team of colleagues compared asexual people to sexual people with varying levels of desire. Among the differences, they found that asexuals were less likely to experience sex-related distress than people who met criteria for psychiatric diagnoses for arousal or desire dysfunctions. In other words, asexuality is not a sexual dysfunction and doesn’t require medical treatment.
“If you’re an individual who doesn’t have clinically significant distress and you’re very comfortable with this, and your life is going pretty well except for the fact that it may not be the norm, that’s fine,” says Dr. Kenneth Rosenberg, a psychotherapist in New York and associate professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. “There’s no reason for a psychiatrist or anyone to tell you that what you’re doing or what you’re feeling or what you’re experiencing is wrong.”
Asexual in a Sexual World
By the time Decker turned 20, she had compiled a “top 10” list of assumptions she was sick of hearing in response to her sexuality. Among them: “You must have just gotten out of a bad relationship.” “You haven’t found the right person yet.” “You’ll grow out of it.” “You must have been abused a kid.” “You hate men.” “You should experiment more.”
“It’s almost like asexuality is considered to be this last resort diagnosis that [people] would like us to try to make sure we’re everything and anything but this before we give up and say that we are asexual,” Decker says. “I would like it to be processed as something that is a reasonable possibility right from the beginning.”
Such reactions can have mental health implications: Asexuality is associated with a higher prevalence of mental health and relationship problems, according to one of Brotto’s studies. So while a mental health issue like depression or a history of trauma doesn’t seem to cause someone to be asexual – as is often presumed – being asexual in a highly sexualized world might cause someone to have mental health problems.
“I’ve met so many people in the [asexual] community who felt like they had a lot of unlearning to do and a lot of damage to heal by the time that they found out asexuality exists,” Decker says.
In those cases, people who are asexual can benefit from therapy that helps them be more comfortable with who they are, Rosenberg says. It’s also worth seeking help if your level of sexual desire – which can be influenced by anything from medications to weight gain to age – has dipped or surged. “Should someone be checked out if there’s a marked change? Absolutely,” Rosenberg says. “But should someone be shamed into accepting the norm? No, they should embrace their uniqueness.”