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Theoretical Issues in the Study of Asexuality

Abstract

Academic interest in asexual people is new and researchers are beginning to discuss how to proceed methodologically and conceptually with the study of asexuality. This article explores several of the theoretical issues related to the study of asexuality. Researchers have tended to treat asexuality either as a distinct sexual orientation or as a lack of sexual orientation. Difficulties arise when asexual participants are inconsistent in their self-identification as asexual. Distinguishing between sexual and romantic attraction resolves this confusion, while simultaneously calling into question conceptualizations of the asexual population as a single homogenous group. Arguments are considered in favor of exploring diversity within the asexual population, particularly with respect to gender and romantic orientation, proposing that the categorical constructs employed in (a)sexuality research be replaced with continuous ones. Furthermore, given the recently noted bias toward including only self-identified asexuals, as opposed to non-self-identified asexuals or “potential-asexuals,” in research about asexuality, the nature and meaning of asexual self-identification are discussed. Particular attention is paid to the theoretical importance of acknowledging asexual self-identification or lack thereof in future research into asexuality. This article discusses what these current theoretical issues mean for the study of asexuality and sexuality more generally, including a brief consideration of ethical implications for research with asexual participants. Finally, directions for future research are suggested.

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Notes

  1. David Jay recounted the events leading up to his creation of AVEN in Episode 5 of his podcast, Love From the Asexual Underground, available here: http://asexualunderground.blogspot.com/2006/08/5-history-lesson.html. This includes a brief explanation of why an attraction-based definition was more inclusive than a desire-based definition at the time of AVEN’s inception, in the context of the budding asexual community.

  2. Bogaert (2006) addressed asexuality as theoretically distinct from hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), but did not explore more general theoretical issues relevant to asexuality research, many of which have only taken shape since his article’s publication.

  3. This model does not acknowledge the existence of people who are intersex.

  4. Bogaert (2006) addressed arguments speculating that so-called asexual people may in fact be subject to physiologically defined sexual attraction (i.e., respond physiologically to sexual stimuli) but may either lack subjective awareness of this or may wish to conceal their awareness.

  5. Scherrer (2010a, 2010b) has recently published both a book chapter and a journal article referring to the same data set as her 2008 article, discussing respectively what asexuality can contribute to thinking about polyamory (i.e., responsible non-monogamy) and the same-sex marriage debate.

  6. Brotto and Yule noted that this pattern of arousal matches the target non-specific physiological sexual responses consistently documented in the literature, as reviewed by Chivers, Seto, Lalumiere, Laan, and Grimbos (2010).

  7. This includes a lexicon accessible at http://www.asexuality.org/wiki/index.php?title=Lexicon.

  8. Recent Canadian governmental data indicate that 1.3% and 0.6% of men are willing to reveal themselves on a public health survey to be homosexual and bisexual respectively (Statistics Canada, 2004). Given that more than 95 percent of men self-identified as heterosexual, interpreting the distribution as bimodal instead of unimodal is a choice based more on analyst sensibilities and/or politics than on the numbers themselves. Moreover, note that even a bimodal distribution of sexual orientation would be consistent with a continuous spectrum that happens to be unevenly populated: bimodal distributions do not require discrete categories of traits.

  9. Based on the available literature, Chivers et al. (2010) calculated these average correlations for non-clinical samples of men (r = 0.61) and women (r = 0.23). They computed these correlations in several ways, both including and excluding participants from clinical samples: they found consistently similar gender differences.

  10. These estimates were based on r 2 for men (38% from r = 0.61) and women (5% from r = 0.23), as a positively biased heuristic gauging the percentage of variability in one variable (i.e., psychological sexual arousal) that was accounted for by the variability of a second, correlated variable (i.e., physiological genital arousal).

  11. Heteronormativity is the cultural, social, and ideological bias that normalizes heterosexuality as a universal “default” way of being, and which positions heterosexuality as an often-invisible reference against which all other ways of being are compared. Heteronormativity represents the privileging of two distinct genders held in opposition to each other, and the prescribed relationship between men and women which is afforded special legal protection and social recognition. Examples of heteronormativity include the presumption that people are heterosexual unless otherwise specified, and the conceptual paradigm in which heterosexuality and heterosexual people (obviously) do not need to be explained or accounted for, but lesbian, gay and bisexual people, relationships and behaviors do.

  12. Analogous to heteronormativity which positions heterosexuality as the universal and privileged way of being, normalized and socially supported, sexualnormativity positions sexuality as the universal and privileged way of being, which is both normalized and socially supported. Sexualnormativity includes the assumption that people are sexual unless otherwise specified, in addition to the ideological paradigm in which asexuality needs to be explained and possibly treated clinically, while sexuality is merely and often invisibly presumed to be normal.

  13. The “Down Low” refers to “presumably ‘secretive’ homosexuality among married Black men” (Sandfort & Dodge, 2008, p. 675). Men on the Down Low typically do not consider themselves to be “homo” or “gay.”

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Acknowledgment

I would like to thank my doctoral supervisor Charlene Senn for her guidance, particularly as I tried to nagivate safely through my first substantive encounter with the peer-review process.

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Correspondence to CJ DeLuzio Chasin.

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DeLuzio Chasin, C. Theoretical Issues in the Study of Asexuality. Arch Sex Behav 40, 713–723 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-011-9757-x

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Keywords

  • Asexuality
  • Sexual orientation
  • Sexual desire
  • Romantic attraction
  • Sexuality