Prevalence and Associated Factors in a National Probability Sample
By: Anthony F. Bogaert
Date: August 2004
Source: Bogaert, Anthony F., "Aesexuality: Prevalence and Associated Factors in a National Probability Sample". Journal of Sex Research (August 2004).
About the Author: Anthony F. Bogaert is a professor of psychology at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. Bogaert's primary focus of research is human sexuality, including sexual orientation and what determines it, risky sexual behavior, sex offenses, and pornography. He is the author of numerous articles and academic papers on the subject.
Asexuality is a sexual orientation, and unlike celibacy, is considered no more a matter of choice than heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality. People who are asexual share the same emotions and needs for relationships as other people but do not have the same need for sexual intimacy and have been known to forgo the sexual aspects of a relationship entirely. The characteristics of asexuality vary from person to person, similar to variance in sex drive for other orientations. As a percentage of the overall population, asexuality appears to manifest itself in approximately the same numbers as homosexuality, but according to the study quoted, the effect of this orientation on lifestyle appears to be noticeably different. Yet, despite the number of people calling themselves asexual, this orientation receives far less attention and study than other sexual lifestyles.
Of the participants, 195 or 1.05% reported being asexual. (1) This rate is very similar to the rate of same-sex attraction (both exclusive same-sex and bisexuality combined; 207 or 1.11%). However, binomial tests indicated that there were more gay and bisexual men than asexual men (p < .001) and more asexual women than lesbian and bisexual women (p < .001). (2)
As shown in Table 1, relative to sexual people, asexual people had fewer sexual partners, had a later onset of sexual activity (if it occurred), and had less frequent sexual activity with a partner currently. Overall, then, asexual people had less sexual experience with sexual partners, and this fact provides some validation of the concept of asexuality.
As also shown in Table 1, some significant relationships occurred between asexuality and the demographics. Contrary to prediction, asexual people were not younger than sexual people; in fact, they were somewhat older. However, as predicted, more women than men reported being asexual. Not surprisingly, there were fewer asexual people than sexual people currently in (or having had) a long-term relationship. On the other hand, a significant minority of the asexual people, 85 of the 195 (44%), were currently in or had had long-term cohabiting or marital relationships, with 64 (33%) currently married or cohabitating (see Diamond, 2003, for a distinction between romantic and sexual desire/attraction). Asexual individuals were also more likely than sexual individuals to come from lower socioeconomic conditions. A higher percentage (13%) of asexual individuals were also non-White relative to the sexual individuals (4%). Finally, asexual individuals were less well educated than the sexual individuals.
Health, Physical Development, and Religiosity
Asexual people were more likely to have adverse health, and the asexual women had a later onset of menarche relative to the sexual women. Asexual people were also shorter and weighed less than the sexual people. Finally, there was some evidence that asexual people were more religious than sexual people, at least with regard to attendance at religious services….
This study investigated asexuality, defined as a lack of sexual attraction for either sex, in a national probability sample. A significant minority (1.05%) of people reported that they had never felt sexual attraction to anyone at all. This rate of asexuality was similar to the rate of same-sex attraction. It is interesting to speculate why asexual people have been overlooked when discussions of sexual variability are presented. Perhaps this group is relatively invisible because their inclinations do not lead to overt sociosexual activities that would bring attention to their activities. The absence of sexual activities and the inclinations that induce this absence are not likely to bring public attention or scrutiny, either positive or negative. Neither, of course, has it been illegal or perceived as morally wrong to have such inclinations. Therefore, unlike other sexual minorities (e.g., gay people), asexual individuals would not have had to face public scrutiny from the press, religious institutions, or the legal system. (This is not to say, of course, that in their private and family lives asexual people have not felt pressure to take on traditional sexual and reproductive roles.) In addition, until recently sexual surveys using national probability samples were not conducted, so the vast majority of sexual studies using convenience samples of volunteers probably did not include many asexual people. Research shows, for example, that those who choose to participate in a sexual study have more sexual experience (e.g., more partners) and are more interested in sexual activity than those who do not participate (Bogaert, 1996; Morokoff, 1986; Saunders, Fisher, Hewitt, & Clayton, 1985). Indeed, it is interesting to speculate about whether the rate of asexuality is actually higher than reported here given that some of the participants who declined to participate in this survey (about 30%) could also be asexual.
This study provided a preliminary examination of some of the factors associated with asexuality. A variety of demographic (gender, social class, education, and race-ethnicity), physical development (height and menarche onset), health, and religiosity variables predicted asexuality. It is interesting that many of these variables independently predicted asexuality. This suggests that there may be a number of independent developmental pathways, perhaps both biological and psychosocial, leading to asexuality.
Even the physical development and health variables—late menarche, a shorter stature, and health problems in women and a shorter stature and health problems in men—independently predicted asexuality. This suggests that physical development factors that are independent of general debilitating illnesses (which may lower sex drive or interest) may affect growth and development mechanisms related to sexual orientation (e.g., anterior hypothalamus; see LeVay, 1991). These findings also add to a growing body of literature showing that the development of sexual attraction to adult men and women along with some atypical sexual proclivities may be partly biologically based and determined prior to birth (e.g., Bogaert, 2001; Bogaert, 2003a; Ellis & Ames, 1987; Lalumiere, Blanchard, & Zucker, 2000; Williams et al., 2000).
The results regarding the demographic variables suggest that one pathway to asexuality may relate to an environment different from a traditional middle-class or upper-middle-class White home (e.g., one with fewer resources). I found large differences between asexual and sexual people in education and social class, with asexual people tending to score lower on these demographic variables. This suggests that the educational system and the home environment play fundamental roles in typical sexual development, and that alterations of these circumstances can have a profound effect on basic sexual attraction processes. Moreover, the fact that the social class-asexuality and education-asexuality relationships remained significant when I controlled for general physical health suggests that these relationships do not occur merely because people with serious health problems, which may contribute to asexuality, are less likely to be able to attain a higher education or improve their life circumstances. Rather, these results suggest that the health problems of some asexual people may be the result of disadvantaged economic and social conditions. It is difficult to know what aspects of the educational and home environments may contribute to asexuality. As mentioned earlier, perhaps processes related to exposure to and familiarity with peers (see Bem, 1996; Storms, 1981) are altered when the home and educational environment are atypical. It is also important to point out that an atypical home environment for asexual people may have occurred prior to childhood during gestation, as might be expected if an altered prenatal milieu (e.g., altered prenatal hormones) partly underlies asexuality and other atypical sexual inclinations (e.g., Bogaert, 2001; Ellis & Ames, 1987; Lalumiere et al., 2000; Williams et al., 2000).
Gender was also an important predictor of asexuality. More women than men reported being asexual. This difference may be a reflection of gender roles and/or sexual strategies in which men are or at least are expected to be more sexual than women. If so, perhaps some women have internalized to an extreme degree, and hence "overadapted" to, these feminine roles or strategies (e.g., Mazur, 1986). Some research has also suggested that women's sexuality (or at least their sex drive) is more "plastic" than men's sexuality (e.g., Baumeister, 2000). Thus, cultural influences may have a more profound effect on women's sexuality than on men's; as a result, more women than men may become asexual if life circumstances are atypical. A related explanation is that women relative to men may be less likely to label males or females as salient sexual objects and hence may report themselves as having no attraction to either sex because they may not be as aware of their own sexual arousal as men are, even under conditions when genital responses are occurring (e.g., Heimen, 1977; Laan et al., 1994). A third possibility is that women may have fewer conditioning experiences (e.g., masturbation) relevant to sexual orientation development and this may lead to an increased likelihood of asexuality, along with other conditions….
Contrary to prediction, a younger age was not related to asexuality. In fact, asexual people were slightly older than sexual people. This result does not give support to the idea that many asexual individuals are "presexual" or in an early developmental stage prior to adult-oriented sexual attraction. Thus, although adolescents and some young adults probably vary in their awareness or experience of first sexual attraction (with a variety of social and psychological circumstances and biological aspects contributing to such awareness or experience), it would seem that most of the asexual individuals in this sample probably had had enough time to encounter the necessary circumstances to initiate sexual attraction experiences. Either they did not want to enter into such circumstances because of their asexual natures, or they had passed a critical age window beyond which these social and psychological circumstances were no longer sufficient to initiate sexual attraction to others.
Asexual individuals appear to have been affected by physical and genetic predetermining factors as well as culture and environment. A tendency toward late onset of puberty, shorter stature, and various health problems marked both men and women who were asexual, suggesting that the development of a more typical sex drive might have been affected by the same traits that caused these other characteristics. A greater percentage of women than men reported being asexual, which might have been due to cultural expectations placed on men to be sexual aggressors, or on women to deny experiencing sexual arousal or interest. However, the study also implies that asexuality is a condition that may stem from a lack of something in the individual, a failure to develop a physical and emotional interest in sexual intimacy. Despite this, many asexual individuals enjoy friendships and close relationships that are fulfilling, even though they do not need to express that closeness in a sexual way. In many cases, they are capable of having a sexual relationship but do not feel driven to do so.
Various labels and characteristics are attached to asexual individuals in the study, including older, lighter, and more religious, but these only indicate into what demographic those asexual individuals happened to fall. They are not conclusive predictors of asexuality. More informative are the types and numbers of relationships that asexual individuals had compared to those participants that labeled themselves as sexual.
Fewer asexual individuals were in long-term committed relationships such as marriage and on the whole they had had fewer close relationships in general, statistics that are natural given their lack of interest in sexual intimacy. Yet most asexual people do not consider themselves to have a problem despite their lack of sexual interest. Instead, they consider their orientation a valid sexual persuasion and have built up a support network through associations both in person and on-line that provide education and camaraderie. Some asexual individuals, in fact, refer to themselves as nonsexual, believing that asexual sounds like a term used to refer to single-celled organisms, such as amoebas.
There can be many causes for a reduced sex drive, such as stress, illness, or emotional detachment. However, asexuality, like other sexual orientations, is not something that a person either gets over or suddenly develops. It is not a gradual loss of interest in sexual intimacy, but lifelong lack of physical attraction to either sex. Although asexuality has only come into public discussion in recent years, it most likely always existed as a sexual orientation, but remained unexplored due to a combination of factors, including people's reluctance to discuss it; the lack of an obvious, physical behavior that would have brought it to society's attention; and the refusal of others to recognize and accept the existence of asexuality as a factor beyond individual choice. In light of modern acceptance of sexual preferences, it is logical that asexuality should receive greater attention, study, and acceptance.
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