This is the beginning of an attempt to make the research on asexuality more accessible. I’ll be going through the relatively small body of literature on human asexuality and summarizing the papers, pulling out what I think are the most important and interesting points. It is not my intention to thoroughly critically analyze every paper, but to present thought-provoking and informative material. Bogaert’s 2004 paper identifying the 1.05% seemed like a good place to start.
A note about statistics: “significance” is a technical term meaning that, for a certain level of probability, it is unlikely that the results can be attributable to random chance. The significance level is often set to give a 5% or 1% probability that the results could be produced by chance. The “p-value” is what is tested against the significance level to determine this. For example, a p-value of 0.001, as is common in this paper, roughly indicates that there is a 0.1% chance that random chance could produce identical results. Therefore, saying “this distinction is significant” does not necessarily mean the distinction is important; it means that the distinction is very unlikely to have occurred by chance.
Title: Asexuality: Prevalence and Associated Factors in a National Probability Sample.
Author(s): Anthony F. Bogaert
Citation:The Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 41, No. 3 (August 2004), pp. 279-87.
Abstract: “I used data from a national probability sample (N > 18,000) of British residents to investigate asexuality, defined as having no sexual attraction to a partner of either sex. Approximately 1% (n = 195) of the sample indicated they were asexual. A number of factors were related to asexuality, including gender (i.e., more women than men), religiosity, short stature, low education, low socioeconomic status, and poor health. Asexual women also had a later onset of menarche relative to sexual women. The results suggest that a number of pathways, both biological and psychosocial, contribute to the development of asexuality.”
- 18,876 participants between the ages of 16 and 59 were surveyed, in or slightly before 1994. One quarter of them responded to a long form questionnaire, and the rest to a short form questionnaire. 10,632 women and 7,989 men responded to the question about sexual attraction. This excludes 195 people whose answers were removed because they were deemed not to have understood the questionnaire, and 101 people who did not answer the question about sexual attraction.
- The question about sexual attraction was framed by the opening, “I have felt sexually attracted to…” Respondents were given six choices:
- “only females, never to males”
- “more often to females, and at least once to a male”
- “about equally often to males and females”
- “more often to males, and at least once to a female”
- “only males, never to females”
- “I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all”
- The survey asked for age of first sexual experience, total partners, and sexual frequency.
- A variety of demographic data was also collected.
- The participation rate was 71.5%, which is considered acceptable.
- 57 men (0.71% of responding men) and 138 women (1.3% of responding women) said that they had never felt sexual attraction to anyone at all, for a total of 195 responses or 1.05% of the sample. Statistical analysis showed that there were more gay and bisexual men than asexual men responding, and more asexual women than lesbian and bisexual women responding. The categories considered “bisexual” for this analysis were not specified.
- 44% of the asexual people were currently in or had had long-term cohabiting or marital relationships; this is less than the number of non-asexuals who responded as such, but that number is not given. 33% of asexuals were currently married or cohabiting.
- The average age at first sex was 16.78 for asexuals, as compared to 14.82 for non-asexuals (standard deviations 3.36 and 2.99 respectively). The average total number of sex partners was 0.94 for asexuals and 2.65 for non-asexuals (SD=1.20 and 1.61). The average frequency of sex in the last 7 days was 0.20 for asexuals and 1.16 for non-asexuals (SD=0.71 and 1.59). All these differences were significant (p < 0.001).
- The average age at first sex is not actually the average age at first sex. This is the wording: “How old were you when you first had any type of experience of a sexual kind– for example, kissing, cuddling, petting– with someone of the [opposite/same] sex?”
- It’s not clear how the “average age at first sex” category accounted for those who had never had sex.
- For total number of sex partners, intercourse was defined as vaginal, oral, or anal.
- The average age of asexual respondents was 38.36. The average age of non-asexual respondents was 36.31 (SD=14.29, 11.71). This difference was significant (p=0.015).
- 86.01% of the asexual respondents were white. 95.51% of the non-asexual respondents were white. This difference was highly significant (p < 0.001).
- 32.82% of asexual respondents were non-single (defined as married, cohabiting, widowed, divorced, or separated). 63.65% of non-asexual respondents were non-single. This difference was highly significant (p < 0.001).
- There was a significant difference between both education level and socioeconomic status of asexuals and non-asexuals. Education level was evaluated from 1 to 5 as follows: 1 = none/no exams passed; 2 = other/foreign; 3 = 0 level or equivalent; 4 = higher education, but below degree level; 5 = degree. Asexuals averaged 2.03 on this scale, and non-asexuals averaged 2.94. Socioeconomic status was evaluated from 1 to 7 as follows: 1 = other, 2 = unskilled, 3 = part-skilled, 4 = skilled manual, 5 = skilled non-manual, 6 = intermediate, and 7 = professional. Asexuals averaged 3.27 on this scale, while non-asexuals averaged 4.51.
- There was a non-significant difference (p=0.398) between the proportion of asexuals who reported a religious affiliation (60.00%) and the proportion of non-asexuals who reported a religious affiliation (56.99%). There was a significant difference (p = 0.006) between frequency of attending religious services; on a scale that ranged from 0 (never) to 7 (once a week or more), asexuals scored 2.24 (SD=2.92) and non-asexuals scored 1.67 (SD=2.47).
- Average age at menarche was 13.54 for asexual women, and 12.93 for non-asexual women (SD= 1.95, 1.56, p = 0.001). Asexual respondents were significantly shorter and weighed less than non-asexual respondents, and reported significantly more health problems.
- He speculates at the length about the various possibilities for the relationship between health, education, socioeconomic status, and asexuality, and concludes 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”
- Gender, social class, education, race-ethnicity, height, menarche onset, health, and religiosity predicted asexuality.
- He speculates that the gender proportion in asexuality may be due to “gender roles and/or sexual strategies in which men are or at least are expected to be more sexual than women”; that “cultural influences may have a more profound effect on women’s sexuality than on men’s… more women than men may become asexual if life circumstances are atypical”; that “women… 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”; 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” [he later discards this view based on the average age of asexuals]; and that women may have a less “target-oriented” view of “sexual response and arousal,” and instead be more likely to “become aroused upon encountering certain sexual circumstances.” As evidence for this, he asserts that research indicates women do not experience arousal in a sex-specific pattern like men do, but instead are “physiologically aroused [by] both male and female stimuli.”
- I’m going to excerpt this paragraph in its entirety: “Some researchers may also have concerns about the measure of asexuality used in this survey. As mentioned, a sexual attraction measure of this kind, relative to measures of sexual behavior and sexual self-identification, is often the preferred method for assessing sexual orientation (e.g., Bailey et al., 2000; Bogaert, 2003b; Money, 1988; Zucker & Bradley,1995). However,to increase reliability of measurement and to expand this research, a number of components of attraction(e.g., fantasy, arousal) along with a self-identification of asexuality should be included in future research. It is possible that the results may differ in future research when individuals are categorized as asexual based on self-identification. Moreover, future research could include measures of affectional bonding to or romantic desire for males or females, which may still occur in asexual people even though sexual attraction to males or females may be low or nonexistent (c.f. Diamond, 2003).”
- Bogaert explains the correlation between religiosity and asexuality as one or more of the following factors: a.) religion increases repression, which leads to asexuality; b.) religious environments, with their emphasis on abstinence, are welcoming for asexuals; c.) an unknown factor is correlated with both.
- Bogaert speculates that the rates of both asexuality and homo/bisexuality were underreported because of the social stigma against reporting experiences outside the norm.
- He postulates using “psychophysical measures” to directly study the arousal and attraction of asexual people: “Using psychophysical (e.g., phallometry) measures, future research could evaluate the physiological arousal and attraction patterns of asexual people. Similar to the evidence presented here that asexual people have limited sexual experience, an investigation of this kind would provide validation of the concept of asexuality if asexual people showed little or no sexual response to sexual stimuli involving (potential) partners of either sex. In addition, such research may be able to investigate whether some people’s asexuality is best described as a “perceived”or “reported” lack of attraction rather than a true lack of physiological attraction to a partner of either sex. In other words, there may be a group of so-called “true”asexual people (defined as those who lack sexual attraction for partners of either sex) who show no physiological response to stimuli with males or females as sexual targets and another group of individuals who show typical attraction and arousal patterns and yet report, label, or perceive themselves as being asexual for various reasons (e.g., not aware of own arousal; deny arousal).”
Criticisms or problems:
- This survey only sampled residents of Britain.
- The proportions of self-identified lesbians are very low: out of 10,494 women, 28 answered that they had felt sexually attracted to “only females, never to males” (about 0.27%). Including all women who answered that they had ever felt sexually attracted to another woman brings the total to 478, about 4.6%. This may indicate sampling bias, though Bogaert also notes that respondents may have been reluctant to report stigmatized attractions.
- 42 out of 7,932 men, or about 0.52%, answered that they had felt sexually attracted to “only males, never to females.” Including all the men who answered that they had ever felt sexually attracted to another man brings the total to 450, about 5.7%.
- The survey operates strictly on a binary model of gender.
- Referring to all non-hetero sex as “atypical sexual proclivities” is, at best, very odd.
- The finding that the proportion of people of color in the asexual sample is three times that in the non-asexual sample is very striking.
- The religiosity finding indicates that our surveys of the community are likely to be significantly skewed as compared to the larger asexual population. Attending religious services was a significant predictor of asexuality in this survey, while our censuses have found that a large portion of the responding population is atheist or agnostic. We knew that the censuses were not reflecting asexuals as a whole, but this is further evidence.
- Both gender and marital/cohabitation status was excluded from the tests used to detect correlation between asexuality and the demographic, religious, health, and physical factors measured. The finding that low socioeconomic class is a predictor of asexuality may be due to a combination of the following factors: the proportion of the asexual respondents who were women was significantly larger than the proportion of the non-asexual respondents who were women, and poverty is sometimes correlated with being a woman; asexual respondents were more likely to be unmarried and had had fewer long-term relationships than non-asexual respondents, and marriage/cohabitation may be financially beneficial. However, this doesn’t explain the finding that low education is a predictor of asexuality.
- Asexuals had greater variation than non-asexuals in the average age of first sex, but less variation in the average number of total partners and in sex frequency.
- Bogaert speculates that the gender distinction may be due to women having more of a “receptive” sexual desire than a “proceptive” sexual desire, such that more women identify as asexual. However, the relatively small numbers of women who identify as asexual indicates that this would be a very marginal effect.
- Bogaert states in the results: “Overall, then, asexual people had less sexual experience with sexual partners, and this fact provides some validation of the concept of asexuality.” I think this is an important idea that needs to be unpacked. In asexuality discourse, we like to say that it is impossible to determine someone’s sexual orientation by observing their sexual behavior, and this is true; however, I think Bogaert’s point is valid. It’s difficult to imagine circumstances under which a sufficiently large sample of asexual people would report having sex at the same rate, and having as many sexual partners, as a sufficiently large sample of non-asexuals. The critical distinction is one of population-level behavior vs. individual behavior. One way to conceptualize this is by thinking of hair color and ethnicity: you could, theoretically, calculate the frequency with which various hair colors occurred in samples of particular ethnic groups, but you could not conclude from observing someone’s hair color what ethnic group they belong to.
- At the end, he suggests using arousal as a proxy for attraction; he discusses measuring attraction as well, but does not discuss how measuring arousal would be different from measuring attraction. However, he has already discussed, earlier in the article, that patterns of arousal do not necessarily line up with patterns of attraction, especially for women; additionally, people can and do become aroused in circumstances where they feel no sexual attraction. Arousal may correlate with attraction, and is almost certainly a significant predictor of attraction, so this line of research might be valuable, but would need to be very well-designed. (For example, how do you sort out the arousal response someone may have to sexual stimuli in general from the arousal response they may have in conjunction with sexual attraction?)
Crossposted at Confessions of an Ist.