bts cakeAmid the many conversations about defining or discerning sexual orientation, one overlooked group is those who identify as asexual: those who profess no clear sexual attraction to either men or women.  Asexual Americans comprise only about 1% of the population and so studying them is a rather challenging thing to do, which is why most news reports on asexuals rely on anecdotal evidence rather than data-based analyses.  The New Family Structures Study (NFSS) provides a limited but fascinating data-based means of studying asexuals.  Given the small sample size, results should be considered tentative, and yet the numbers are so striking as to be informative in shaping future research questions into asexuality.

Asexuality and celibacy are hardly synonymous. Of the sample of respondents (ages 18-39) who identified as being asexual only 30% had never participated in any form of partnered sexual activity. Of the 70% who reported having had sex, half reported having had sex in the past two weeks. Although their frequency of recent sex is a little under half that for those reporting sexual attraction, it is simply not the case that asexuals do not have sex, but rather that they report no obvious sexual attraction. Indeed in other accounts many report having sex to please romantic partners, while they may not have much of a drive to do so.  [1]

Asexuals also differ (from those expressing a clear sexual attraction) in the gender composition of their sexual partners. Half of asexuals with previous sexual experience reported engaging in partnered sexual activity with both men and women—a rate over 4 times that of those reporting sexual attraction. One might surmise that asexuals have a lower sex drive. This hypothesis is borne out when we look at masturbation data as well as satisfaction with the amount of sex respondents report having. Among asexuals 57% report having never masturbated while the same is true of only 20% of the rest of respondents. Likewise, 22% of asexuals report a desire for more sex than they currently are having, while 43% of those reporting a sexual orientation said the same. Taken together these results suggest that asexuals tend to be less interested in sexual activity than the average person, and that many have inclusive or flexible sexual preferences. It is also plausible that some asexuals engage in sexual activity to please their partners and to become more intimate with them. However, 30% of asexuals reported viewing pornographic material at least weekly while only 14% of the rest of the population said the same. While this could provide evidence against the hypothesis that asexuals have a lower sex drive, it is also possible that given the nature of pornography as a substitute for sex, that for some pornography has created a disinterest in sexual activity.

Asexual respondents also differ significantly from the population in their likelihood of having experiencing sexual trauma. One in four asexual respondents in the NFSS said that they had been physically forced to have sex against their will. By comparison only 16% of those who reported any sexual orientation reported ever having experienced forcible sexual contact. Likewise, asexual persons were also more likely to say they had been touched sexually by an adult caregiver or parent while they were growing up, and if they reported any experience with sex they tended to do so on average at a younger age than their peers who stated a sexual preference.

Such experiences cannot account for asexuality, since in nearly three of four cases no previous sexual trauma was reported. Yet the fact remains that a disproportionate share of asexual respondents reported experiencing sexual trauma leading us to believe that for them, this sexual trauma may have triggered a disinterest in partnered sex. The supposition that previous sexual abuse is associated with lower sex drive, lower sexual satisfaction, fear of sex, and confusion about sexual identity is consistent with numerous studies on sexual abuse.