We’ve come a long way since the late 40s, when Kinsey report shocked the world with its frank discussion of the many varieties of sexual intimacy. And thanks to the sexual revolution, the gay rights movement and years of public awareness-raising, people these days feel comfortable identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
But recently another community has come to the fore, claiming that our culture's obsession with sex has kept them in the shadows.
As reported this month in The Atlantic, approximately 1 percent of the population self-identifies as asexual – that is, feeling no sexual attraction to others.
According to the website of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), there are many degrees and definitions of asexuality. Some feel they are “born this way,” while others experience intermittent periods of asexuality for various reasons.
AVEN founder David Jay says asexuality is part of the sexual spectrum – a portion that's been overlooked in our sex-obsessed culture. He says he tells community members not to regard the term as a label that defines them, but as a tool.
"This word is a tool and not a label," says Jay. "The word 'asexual' is something you use to figure yourself out, not a sticker that sticks on you forever that tells you how you're supposed to be."
Jay says many asexual people are in romantic relationships, some have never kissed or even dated. But advocates want to raise awareness that asexuality is a difference, not a defect. Sexual intimacy, they argue, is not the only way to define a loving relationship; being single doesn’t necessarily mean being lonely.
"Overall in the asexual community there isn't a correlation with any kind of pathology," says Jay, citing research from the University of British Columbia and the Kinsey Institute. "So most asexual people don't have some sort of causal factor like a hormonal problem or traumatic history that underlines our asexual identity, according to the little research that has been done."
But while many asexuals lead full, rich lives, others feel marginalized by society’s obsession with sexual imagery and romantic ideals. Not living up to those expectations has them feeling confused, ashamed or “broken.” They feel uncomfortable sharing their feelings with family and close friends.
CSU, Long Beach Associate Professor Shira Tarrant agrees that the term can be empowering to those who feel marginalized, but cautions that there's very little research on asexuality, and that embracing an asexual self can be a cover for deeper personal problems.
"There could be underlying issues going on," she says. "There could be hormonal issues. There could be medical issues. There could be PTSD trauma, that sort of thing."
The danger, she says, is when the identity becomes limiting.
"It's great that the term 'asexuality' is bringing comfort and acceptance to a wider variety of our experiences and comfort and desires," says Tarrant. "But it can be very limiting because it implies a static kind of identity, when what we're talking about is fluidity."
Is asexuality a choice, a lifestyle or a condition? Is it “unnatural” to not feel sexual? If you identify as asexual, are you comfortable being one, or do you feel there’s something missing from your life?
David Jay, founder of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network
Shira Tarrant, associate professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach