Towards a Conceptual Understanding of Asexuality

Taking the papers chronologically, next we have another from Bogaert in 2006.

Title: Towards a Conceptual Understanding of Asexuality

Author(s): Anthony F. Bogaert

Citation: Review of General Psychology, Vol. 10, No. 3 (2006), pp. 241-250

Abstract: “Asexuality has been the subject of recent academic (A. F. Bogaert, 2004) and public (e.g., New Scientist; CNN) discourse. This has raised questions about the conceptualization and definition of asexuality. Here the author reviews some of these issues, discusses asexuality from a sexual orientation point of view (i.e., as a lack of sexual attraction), and reviews the similarities and differences between this definition and related phenomena (e.g., hypoactive sexual desire disorder). Finally, the author concludes that the term asexuality should not necessarily be used to describe a pathological of health-compromised state.”

Unlike the previous paper, this one presents no new empirical research. Instead, Bogaert focuses on the various ways in which asexuality can be defined, whether or not it should be considered a valid sexual orientation, and whether or not it should be considered a pathology.

Defining Asexuality

  • The conceptualization of asexuality as a sexual orientation dates back at least to 1980, to Storms’ model that conceptualized “heterosexuals [as] individuals who score high on attraction for members of the opposite sex (i.e., high on heteroeroticism); homosexuals [as] those individuals who are high on attraction for members of the same sex (i.e., high on homoeroticism); bisexuals [as] those individuals who are high on attraction for both sexes (i.e., high on both heteroeroticism and homoeroticism); and asexuals [as] those individuals who are low on attraction for both sexes (i.e., low on both heteroeroticism and homoeroticism).”
    • This 1980 model is conceptualized around a lack of sexual attraction, not around sexual behavior or self-identification as asexual. Bogaert’s interpretation of this model is that it does not exclude individuals with “desire for sexual stimulation… although, as discussed below, most of these individuals would, of course, likely have a very low interest in any kind of sexual stimulation.” Bogaert also interprets the model as not dependent on, or involving, capacity for physical arousal or “romantic/affectionate attraction for others”.
  • Bogaert’s working definition of sexual attraction is “eroticism and/or sexual fantasy directed toward others.”
  • He reiterates the data from 2004 indicating that some asexuals form long-term cohabiting relationships and some asexuals have sex, though both occur at significantly lower rates than among non-asexuals; he uses this as evidence for the importance of the distinction between sexual attraction, romantic attraction, and sexual behavior.
  • He gives a number of reasons for thinking that the number of asexuals in the earlier paper was not significantly inflated by non-asexuals with paraphilias: most paraphilias involve some human contact/attraction, and the asexual sample was majority female, a group which is underrepresented in the sample of people with paraphilias.
  • He then defines asexuality as “a lack of sexual attraction,” specifically excluding anyone who is sexually attracted to objects or concepts but not people.

Asexuality and Sexual Dysfunctions

  • Bogaert compares and contrasts asexuality and HSDD, using HSDD as a proxy for other sexual disorders as well:
    • He argues that “asexuality, defined as a lack of sexual attraction, likely encompasses forms/variations of HSDD and related disorders”; specifically, “people who have had a lifelong absence of sexual desire and are markedly distressed about this situation or have marked interpersonal difficulty (i.e., lifelong HSDD) would not likely have had any sexual attraction to anyone or anything”– in other words, a subset of people with HSDD, but not everyone with HSDD, would qualify as asexual.
    • He speculates about the possibility of “similar underlying causes affecting asexuality and lifelong HSDD,” such as:
      • “a lack of conditioning (e.g., lack of repeated association between genital stimulation and potential partners in adolescence, and/or few rewards within one’s prior sexual contexts)”
      • “a prenatal alteration of the anterior hypothalamus, thought to underlie traditional sexual orientation”
    • He makes the following distinctions between asexuality and HSDD:
      • “Some asexual people may still have some level of sexual desire, arousal, and/or activity, and they may even derive pleasure from it; however, they just do not direct or connect that desire/arousal/activity toward or with anyone or anything.”
      • An important difference is that HSDD is usually not lifelong. Most people with HSDD have experienced sexual attraction at some point in their life, probably on many occasions, and are not asexual.
      • Lifelong absence of sexual desire does not necessarily constitute HSDD if it does not involve distress.
      • “Thus, asexuality would likely encompass both lifelong HSDD and non-diagnosable forms of lifelong low/absent desire because the definition of asexuality does not necessarily assume that the individual is distressed or does not function adequately interpersonally.” In other words, some people with lifelong HSDD (who make up a small subset of all people with HSDD) may fall under the asexual label, but they are not the only people under the asexual label.

Asexuality and Sexual Orientation

  • Is it useful to consider asexuality a sexual orientation?
    • What is sexual orientation?
      • According to Bogaert, “one’s subjective sexual attraction to the sex of others.”
      • Under this model, it refers only to “sex or gender” of one’s preferred partners
      • It involves only sexual attraction, not sexual behavior or romantic/affectionate attachment
      • Refers only to subjective element, which he defines as “a perceived eroticism/fantasy directed toward others” and not necessarily to the “physical attraction/arousal or other aspects of sexuality that often accompany such subjective attraction”
      • Bogaert makes an interesting point in his defense of considering the subjective element more important than the measurable physical element: if the physical element is not perceptible to the person experiencing it, they are unlikely to act on it. This imperceptibility isn’t necessarily a case of being in denial; according to Bogaert, women’s genital arousal patterns tend to be equal for female targets and male targets, even though a “large majority” of the test subjects identify as heterosexual (and, by extension, it is unlikely that they are all in denial)
  • Bogaert then considers the following objections to defining asexuality as an orientation
    • self-reporting can be inaccurate
      • for example, measurable arousal may differ from what is reported; therefore, self-reported asexuals may be unaware of their attractions
        • these people may have a “traditional underlying sexual orientation” and simply be unaware of it
      • self-reported asexuals may also be falsifying their attractions
        • this group would also have a “traditional underlying sexual orientation”
      • but Bogaert has already addressed this objection by giving his reasons for placing the most importance on subjective attraction: if the mind does not register the attraction, there is no way for the person in question to know it actually exists
    • potential overlap between low sexual desire and lack of sexual attraction
      • it’s been argued that low desire can mask sexual attraction, and therefore, increasing desire (for example, with chemical intervention) would reveal the underlying orientation
  • Considering these objections as valid, for the moment, who then “counts” as asexual? Bogaert lists three categories:
    • “an individual who has no sexual desire and who does not have the ability to decrease their desire with any known intervention”
    • “an individual with little or no sexual desire who could increase their sexual desire through an intervention (e.g., testosterone) but still has no sexual attraction toward anyone or anything despite that potential increase in desire”
    • “those who have sexual desire and possibly express it (e.g., masturbate) but do not direct this sexual interest/desire toward anyone or anything”
    • these categories are recognizable in descriptions of asexuality. We would probably call the first two categories alibidinous and the second, libidinous.
  • Next, Bogaert considers problems with the idea that all asexuals have a “traditional, underlying orientation” (that is, they’re not really asexual)
    • treating HSDD can be difficult, and is likely to be even more difficult in the subpopulation of those with lifelong HSDD; since this is the group that most closely overlaps the definition of asexuality, it is likely to be extremely difficult “reveal [the] underlying sexual orientation, if indeed there was one there in the first place”
    • assuming an underlying “traditional” sexual orientation implies “an underlying, presumably biologically determined (e.g., prenatal organization of anterior hypothalamus of the brain) sexual orientation toward others that all people have before adolescence and that will reveal itself in adulthood under adequate social and hormonal circumstances”
      • this idea isn’t supported by the evidence, which indicates a more complex model of sexual orientation
      • even if this idea were true, there could be a biological predisposition to asexuality, and there is tentative evidence for this
    • sexual orientation development and sexual orientation itself are not the same thing; a child who may at some future time develop a sexual attraction to a certain gender does not necessarily have that sexual orientation at the present time
      • in other words, “sexual orientation is not a possible predisposition that may, if certain circumstances occur (e.g., experience with a partner, introduction of an abnormally high level of testosterone…), cause a future attraction”
    • Bogaert concludes this section by arguing that someone who does not and has never had sexual attraction to anyone is “best described as having an asexual orientation.”
  • Bogaert argues that the asexual “movement” indicates that “a sizable minority are choosing to identify with a term that is not part of the traditional academic and clinical discourse. Such identification with regard to sex, gender, and intimacy issues is a powerful part of self-expression… Thus, the academic and clinical communities need to be sensitive to these issues. Thus, in keeping with the guidelines of the American Psychological Association (APA; 2002), it is reasonable and practical to use designations that individuals prefer (e.g., asexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual) when referring to sexual orientation.” In other words, it’s important to call people what they want to be called.

Asexuality and Pathology

  • Should asexuality be considered pathological?
    • Criteria for what constitutes pathology need to be established
    • Pathology must be more than statistical rarity
    • Bogaert uses the APA’s criteria of “marked distress or interpersonal difficulty”
  • There is no data on the mental health of asexual people, so we must generalize from other data
  • For example, we know that sexual activity is not universally necessary for happiness: a 1994 study indicated that up to 40% of the people who hadn’t had sex in the past year considered themselves to be very or extremely happy
    • Most of these people likely were not asexual, but a lack of sexual activity does not constitute unhappiness
  • Asexual people could have “elevated rates of distress or other mental health issues” and still have a majority of asexuals who do not have these issues
    • For example, “gay men and lesbians have been found to have elevated mental health issues and often have distress about their sexual inclinations… yet many are also within the normal range of contentment and mental health… and, of course, these people (and homosexuality in general) are not viewed as pathological from a modern medical or psychological perspective”
  • “Interpersonal difficulty” requires distress in some area that is not “the specific sexual domain of issue”
    • People who are celibate choose to “go against their sexual desires (and sexual orientations),” and are not pathologized; therefore, it would not make sense to pathologize asexual people, who are following their desires and orientations
  • Certain biological markers and physical health issues may correlate with asexuality, but should not be used as evidence of pathology, because:
    • “Physical health and the markers of prenatal development only accounted for a small percentage of variation in the prediction of asexuality (Bogaert, 2004)”; this is similar to the “elevated but not large” argument above. Something can occur at a statistically significant rate and still occur at a very low rate.
    • An “unusual prenatal event” causing “atypical sexual development” is not the same as a current mental health problem, and should not be used as evidence of pathology
  • Historically, what we now call asexuality was not considered negatively, but was considered positively if it reduced nonreproductive intercourse; currently, some religions and cultures still consider “a lack of sexuality” completely normal.
  • Pathologizing asexuality would also stigmatize it, and such stigmatization could cause mental health issues on its own

Bogaert concludes by reiterating his argument that “asexuality should not necessarily be synonymous with a pathological state.”

Thoughts and Criticisms:

  • The lack of conditioning argument: Bogaert argues that “a lack of conditioning (e.g., lack of repeated association between genital stimulation and potential partners in adolescence, and/or few rewards within one’s prior sexual contexts)” may be one cause of asexuality. I’m not sure if this is a fancy way of referring to fantasizing during masturbation, or is more broadly about a lack of (pleasant) sexual activity. Either way, though, it seems backwards to me. Certainly many adolescents engage in sexual experimentation because they are curious, or because of societal pressure, but many also engage in sexual activity because they are experiencing sexual attraction. A lack of sexual activity, and therefore lack of “repeated association between genital stimulation and potential partners in adolescence,” could just as easily be the result of asexuality.
  • I don’t think levels of sexual desire, arousal, or activity constitute a good distinction between asexuality and HSDD, because people with HSDD may also experience desire, arousal, and activity. I think the primary distinction is presence or absence of distress. I’m also less confident than Bogaert that doctors make sharp distinctions between people without sexual desire who are distressed, and who are not distressed; I’ve seen many reports of asexuals pathologized by their doctors even though they are not distressed about their orientation.
  • In the section addressing objections to asexuality, he reports data that uses arousal as a proxy for attraction, which isn’t necessarily accurate. He also mentions, but does not explain, something called “psychological attraction.”
  • “Marked distress or interpersonal difficulty” aren’t always great criteria for whether something is pathological, since societal pressure can cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty that is not caused by the lack of sexual attraction itself. Medical asexuality discourse, and especially the DSM, has unfortunately lacked this distinction
  • I disagree with his point about asexuality being viewed positively, historically, and still be viewed positively in some contexts today. I think this is a common misperception– it occurs in another form in the “people want women to be asexual” argument– but it’s not nuanced enough to be helpful. There are a very limited number of situations in which asexuality itself is considered positive, but overwhelmingly, it’s celibacy that is considered positive.
  • This is a subject for another post entirely, made by someone who knows more than me, but phallometry and vaginal photoplethysmography are not necessarily reliable indicators of sexual attraction.

Crossposted at Confessions of an Ist.

About Aydan

Aydan is an aromantic asexual biology grad student in the US. She blogs at Confessions of an Ist about asexuality, Christianity, environmentalism, and feminism.
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2 Responses to Towards a Conceptual Understanding of Asexuality

  1. Thank you for summarizing and commenting on the paper here. I am not sure where Bogaert is getting any information pointing to asexuality being viewed positively in (Western?) history: did he make any citations for that claim, or did he just assert it on basis of the history of establishments of religious celibacy?

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