What is asexuality, and what are the social causes of asexuality?
Asexuality is usually defined as ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’, though it’s important to recognise that not everyone accepts this definition and some extend it to include a low or fluctuating experience of sexual attraction. This is distinct from celibacy, in the sense that this is understood as a choice (i.e. experiencing sexual attraction but refraining from acting on it) while asexuality is involuntary. One of the difficulties involved in ‘defining’ asexuality however is the diverse range of experiences which tend to be subsumed under this one word – to say that asexuality involves the absent experience of sexual attraction does not necessarily entail an absence of attraction as such, it’s just that we often fail to distinguish between the different forms that attraction can take (e.g. romantic, aesthetic, intellectual) because for those of us who are not asexual these forms of attraction are often, though not always, bundled together.
It’s also more difficult than it might initially seem to talk about what ’causes’ asexuality. As a qualitative sociologist, I’ve investigated how people come to identify as ‘asexual’. In this sense, it’s a cultural label with an identifiable history – clearly emerging in its present form on the internet in the early years of the millennium but having a complex existence prior to this – which can be investigated. It’s when we start to look at why people find this label useful, indeed why many find it life changing, that we begin to see the importance of questions about what underlies this cultural movement. As I said, there’s clearly a range of different experiences which lead people to use the label ‘asexuality’ to give an account of themselves but there are many common features to them – most of which I’d argue stem from a shared experience of having their orientation towards sex and intimacy made to feel highly problematic by others in their lives. One common way this is experienced is in terms of a sense of feeling ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ – in coming to find the asexual community, this experience of being made to feel different and wrong comes to be replaced by a sense of there being other people like them, who are just part of the diverse spectrum of human difference.
This is how I’d approach the question of the social causes of asexual identification. The process I just described is hugely important in many people’s lives (not all) but it’s clear there’s something more going on ‘beneath’ this – for instance some people talk of asexuality as the fourth sexual orientation. In this sense, I think it’s meaningful to ask about the causes of asexuality (i.e. as this underlying orientation) because I think it clearly extends further then the social causes I’ve looked at in my work (encompassing things like the internet which allowed people who were previously dispersed and relatively isolated to connect with one another. It does worry me a bit though on a political level. Should we ask what causes homosexuality? Should we ask what causes heterosexuality? Given that most asexual people have experienced a lot of distress at times because of how widespread the view is that there ‘must be something wrong with them’, I find research into ‘what causes them to be this way’ somewhat problematic. In one sense, I can accept its scientific legitimacy but in another sense, as someone who has tried to be an ally to the asexual community, I can see that it causes problems and, if it’s going to be pursued, researchers should be sensitive to the unavoidably political dimension of the questions they’re asking.
60 years ago having an asexual behaviour was not a problem for anybody. What has happened?
I feel it’s important to clarify that this is a claim that needs further historical work to substantiate it. However I think there are strong grounds to believe this is the case. One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had with someone asexual, which for a variety of reasons I was unable to incorporate into my academic work, was with an octogenarian woman who described the pressures she was subject to when younger as someone who didn’t experience sexual attraction – these were different pressures but they were still pressures. We need to be careful that recognising that something does seem to have changed about the expectations society has in relation to sexuality doesn’t lead us to romanticise the past as somehow more liberated. Particularly when we think in terms of gender, this manifestly wasn’t true. But on the other hand, it does seem there was more space to not experience sexual attraction, given that sexual intimacy was much less visible in a cultural sense than is now the case (though of course it was far from invisible).
I think this question ultimately comes down to that of how difficult contemporary culture – as a short hand for social norms, interpersonal expectations and media representations – makes it for people who don’t experience sexual attraction. Or perhaps we can usefully rephrase this as people who don’t experience enough sexual attraction, as well as those who experience too much, to acknowledge that social pressures relating to sexuality (the growing view that something has gone wrong if people experience ‘too much’ or ‘too little’) has implications for the lives of quite a wide range of people. An awful lot of anxiety and confusion comes attached to the sense of what is ‘normal’ in sexual matters – I find asexuality research so interesting both because of its inherent value as a research topic but also as a frame through which we can look differently upon these broader questions about sexual culture. If you’re not asexual, coming to understand the experience of people who are can increase your awareness about many of the assumptions we tend to make about sexuality and how these shape the way in which we approach our lives. This has certainly been my own experience and I’m curious about the broader cultural changes that might emerge as a result of the growing visibility and recognition of asexuality.