December 23, 2014

Beyond Kinsey X: How Sex Scientists Define Asexuality

Guest Blogger Jessica Hille presents the latest thought on asexuality as a variation of sexuality

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The Kinsey Heterosexual-Homosexual Scale

The Kinsey Heterosexual-Homosexual Scale

The past decade has seen a rapid growth in awareness of and interest in asexuality as a category of sexual orientation/identity. According to the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), a prominent online resource and forum for the asexual community, an asexual is a “person who does not experience sexual attraction.” Asexuality exists on a spectrum that ranges from asexual to sexual, including people who are graysexual (only rarely experiencing sexual attraction) or demisexual (only experiencing sexual attraction after an emotional connection).  In 2013, the Huffington Post ran a series on asexuality, discussing what it means to be asexual, how asexual communities like AVEN work for asexual inclusion, and how people who identify as asexual negotiate relationships and understand their place in a sexual world.

Asexuality as a disorder, or an orientation?

The interest in asexuality has also reached academic circles, particularly in sexology, gender, and sexuality studies. A lot of the academic/scientific research on asexuality so far has focused on defining asexuality and/or differentiating it from sexual dysfunctions like hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). Prominent researchers in asexuality have concluded that asexuality should be considered a sexual orientation rather than a disorder. People who identify as asexual can and do experience physical arousal, masturbate, and even engage in sexual activity with partners. It is important to remember that asexuality is based on a lack of sexual attraction, not on factors like physical capabilities or virginity.

In a recent study, Lori Brotto, Morag Yule, and Boris A. Gorzalka found that

40% of asexual participants reported never having had a sexual fantasy compared to between 1% and 8% of participants in the sexual groups. Eleven percent of asexual individuals reported that their sexual fantasies did not involve other people, compared to 1.5% of all sexual individuals. Taken together, these findings suggest that there are notable differences in patterns of sexual fantasy between asexual individuals and sexual individuals with and without low sexual desire.

This research further supports the understanding of asexuality as a distinct sexual orientation/identity rather than a “disorder” or lack of a “real” sexuality.

The Kinsey X

There have also been attempts to locate asexuals in history as a way to demonstrate that asexuality has always existed and is therefore “legitimate.” One prominent example is the Kinsey Xs, a category used for people who do not fit on the standard 0 (strictly heterosexual) to 6 (strictly homosexual) Kinsey scale. According to AVEN, the Kinsey Xs constitute the group of asexuals from the Kinsey interviews. A closer examination of the data and the original researchers’ understanding of the Kinsey classifications, however, reveals that the X=asexual equation is not accurate. Because Kinsey’s scale was based on behavior and current understandings of asexuality depend on attraction, equating the Kinsey Xs with modern asexuals is misleading.

As awareness of asexuality grows, it will be interesting to see how members of the asexual community, the public at large, and researchers continue to grapple with various experiences and understandings of sex, sexuality, and identity.

Jessica Hille is a doctoral student in the Department of Gender Studies at Indiana University and a 2014 John Money Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. Her research focuses on asexuality as an identity category and an opportunity to interrogate concepts of sexuality, intimacy, and pleasure.