Asexuality: Classification and Characterization

Title: Asexuality: Classification and Characterization

Author(s): Nicole Prause, Cynthia A. Graham

Citation: Archives of Sexual Behavior (2007), volume 36, pp. 341-356

Abstract: The term “asexual” has been defined in many different ways and asexuality has received very little research attention. In a small qualitative study (N = 4), individuals who self-identified as asexual were interviewed to help formulate hypotheses for a larger study. The second larger study was an online survey drawn from a convenience sample designed to better characterize asexuality and to test predictors of asexual identity. A convenience sample of 1,146 individuals (N = 41 self-identified asexual) completed online questionnaires assessing sexual history, sexual inhibition and excitation, sexual desire, and an open-response questionnaire concerning asexual identity. Asexuals reported significantly less desire for sex with a partner, lower sexual arousability, and lower sexual excitation but did not differ consistently from non-asexuals in their sexual inhibition scores or their desire to masturbate. Content analyses supported the idea that low sexual desire is the primary feature predicting asexual identity.

As a biologist and someone who is used to analyzing numbers, I get more excited about the data papers than the theory papers. This is a data paper, in two parts. In the first part, interviews with three asexuals were used to help design a survey. Then 1,146 survey responses were analyzed quantitatively, and long-answer responses submitted along with the surveys were analyzed for trends.

Introduction

The authors define asexuality as low sexual desire. They trace a brief history of sexual desire disorders before turning to what asexuality means for the pathologization of low sexual desire. (The authors provide their definition of sexual desire much later in the paper, so I’ll put it here, with the note that I wish they had mentioned it earlier: “the cognitive (or ‘felt’) component of sexual arousal” (p. 346, based on Everaerd & Both 2001).) The authors hypothesize, based on current evidence, that asexuality is not necessarily a sign of a problem.

The authors give an extensive list of previous definitions of “asexual” as used in reference to people:

  • “lacking interest in or desire for sex” (Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries, 2000)
  • “individuals who ‘do not experience sexual attraction’” (Jay 2003)
  • individuals “who have never felt sexual attraction to ‘anyone at all’” (Bogaert 2004)
  • individuals “who have no ‘sexual interest’” (Carlat, Camargo & Herzog, 1997)
  • individuals who “did not prefer either homosexual or heterosexual activities on a Sexual Activities and Preferences Scale” (Nurius 1983)
  • referring specifically to “transsexuals,” those who have “a dearth of sexual attractions or behaviors” (Green 2000, emphasis Prause & Graham)
  • referring specifically to “women in lesbian relationships,” those in relationships “that may have had romantic components, but no sexual behaviors” (Rothblum & Brehony 1993)

(For the purposes of the paper, from now on, they use “asexual” to refer to self-identified asexuals.)

They also discuss the use of asexuality as a negative term, for example, in reference to age or disability. The authors then summarize the findings of Bogaert 2004 and present the following critiques:

  • respondents were divided into “sexual” and “asexual” based on a single, untested item (the statement, “I have never felt sexual attraction to anyone at all”)
  • since the survey used preexisting data, other “potential features of asexual identity” were not examined for correlation or predictive powerpoint
  • the question “assessed the direction of attraction, but there was no measure of the amount of sexual desire or attraction”
  • the study didn’t ask about solitary sexual activity (masturbation)

Study One

Procedure

Their research, therefore, is a follow-up to and expansion on Bogaert 2004. First, a few asexuals participated in lengthy interviews; their responses helped shape a larger, quantitative survey. The survey also included an open-ended response, which was thematically analyzed.

The first study took place in “a Midwestern town” (I would imagine that this was Bloomington, where the researchers are based and which has a known asexual population), and initially involved five asexuals: two men and three women. One man indicated that he no longer considered himself asexual, so his responses were not used to design the quantitative survey. The four remaining interviewees were between the ages of 31 and 42 (average 35.5, standard deviation 5.07). All had completed some college, and two had an undergraduate degree. All were single, and all reported some degree of “heterosexuality.” The man had experienced orgasm; the women were unsure. In addition to the interviews, the subjects also completed the Sexual Desire Inventory (SDI) and the Sexual Inhibition and Sexual Excitation Scales (SIS/SES). (One thing not noted by the authors is that all interviewees also seemed fairly alibidinous, or with a low sex drive.)

  • SDI: measures “trait levels of sexual desire,” with two subscales. Answers not dependent on sexual experience.
  • Solitary Sexual Desire measures “desire for autoerotic sexual activity”
  • Dyadic Sexual Desire measures “desire for sexual activity with a partner”
  • The low correlation (0.35) between the two scales was interpreted to mean that the subscales measured different, independent things. (Summarizer’s note: it’s not clear whether the 0.35 referred specifically to this study or in general to all uses of the SDI. In either case, there seems to be an accepted idea that one’s masturbatory habits and desires do not necessarily correlate with one’s desire for partnered sex.)
  • The authors added two questions to the end of the SDI to measure “subjective distress,” which is a component in diagnosis of many psychiatric disorders, including Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). The questions were: “How worried are you about your current level of sexual desire?” (“not at all worried,” “a little worried,” “somewhat worried,” or “very worried”); “Would you see a health professional to help you with your level of sexual desire if you could?” (“yes,” “no,” or “unsure”).
  • The SIS/SES was developed for use in men but later modified for use in women. It involves three subscales: the Sexual Excitation Subscale (SES), a sexual inhibition subscale (SIS-1) about fear of performance failure (example, “worry about losing an erection in intimate situations with a partner”), and a sexual inhibition subscale (SIS-2) about fear of threat of performances consequences (example, “unplanned pregnancy”)

Results

The SDI scores of the interviewees were compared to unpublished data sampled online from 3,441 undergraduate students (2,224 women and 1,217 men; the average age was 19.26, and the standard deviation was 3.86. This sample was therefore considerably younger than the asexual sample). The asexual interviewees had lower scores on the Dyadic Sexual Desire scale compared to the undergraduate sample. The SIS/SES scores of the interviewees were compared to those from previous published studies; the interviewees had “considerably” lower scores on the Sexual Excitation scale, but fairly similar scores on both sexual inhibition scales. The interviewees, therefore, were less likely to desire partnered sex and reported less sexual excitation, but weren’t any more sexually inhibited than the general population. The Solitary Sexual Desire scores of the asexual interviewees are also in the same approximate range as the general population. (Since the asexual sample size in this part is so small, it is hard to be more precise than that.)

The authors list several responses from the interviewees. One woman reported never having engaged in any sexual (non-platonic) kissing, or having any sexual fantasies or dreams. The other three respondents had engaged in some form of sexual activity, but had not really enjoyed it. There were several responses about not finding masturbation or partnered sex enjoyable. One woman reported that sexually explicit films did not create any response in her, and she found them boring. Two of the women said that they didn’t necessarily consider masturbation “sexual”; it’s not clear whether these were the same respondents who had not enjoyed masturbation (since there were only three women in the sample, at least one of the women must have been in both groups).

The interviewees were also asked about their definitions of asexual. Their responses revolved around “a lack of sexual interest or desire, rather than a lack of sexual experience.”

The interviewees were asked about their motivation to engage in sexual behavior, and their responses had two general themes: curiosity, in the context of masturbation as well as partnered sex; pleasing a hypothetical partner who, in their estimation, would probably “expect” sex.

The interviewees were asked about their concerns about asexuality. Three had questioned the reason behind their asexuality and “had worried about whether they were ‘normal.’” One participant worried about “how the consequences of being asexual… made her different than other people.” She said, “I find myself not really interested but at the same time I kind of worry for not being like everybody else, I guess.” She also felt like she “should… change”: “I feel that I should be normal, not that I have a clear idea of what is normal… As for myself, I think I should seek out the opposite sex and be more involved in social life.” Respondents also expressed concern about “what other people might be thinking about them.” Interestingly, the one respondent who had not had doubts or questions of these kinds was the one male asexual in the sample.

The authors give a short discussion before moving on to the second study. They discuss that asexuals “may experience a lower level of sexual motivation and less sexual activity than others,” but may also be willing to engage in unwanted, consensual sex; the asexuals interviewed had no aversion to or fear of sex, but viewed it as boring or uninteresting. The interviewees viewed fewer behaviors as sexual, compared to the typical non-asexual, possibly because they didn’t associate those behaviors with pleasure. Finally, the interviewees expressed concern about being abnormal or having something wrong with them.

Study Two

Based on the responses from study one, the researchers made three hypotheses:

They hypothesized that asexuals would not necessarily lack sexual motivation (“desire for sexual behaviors that is driven by external cues, such as the desire to satisfy a romantic partner”) but would lack sexual desire (“the cognitive (or “felt”) component of sexual desire”). Therefore, they thought that asexuals would report markedly lower sexual desire, on the SDI, than non-asexuals, but would not necessarily report less sexual behavior.

They hypothesized that asexuals would have a higher threshold to sexual arousal than non-asexuals, as measured by the Sexual Arousability Inventory and the SIS/SES, and therefore would be less likely to experience sexual arousal.

They hypothesized that asexuals would not have higher levels of sexual inhibition than non-asexuals, as measured by the SIS-1 (“fears such as losing sexual arousal too easily, worries about the sexual partner being satisfied, and concerns about performing well sexually”) and the SIS-2 (“fears related to being caught having sex, experiencing negative consequences such as sexually transmitted infections, causing a partner pain, and having an appropriate partner (e.g., not too young)”).

The researchers also included an open-ended, qualitative response portion, asking about the participant’s definition of asexuality as well as the perceived advantages and drawbacks of asexuality. These responses were quantified with content analysis, and responses between the two groups were compared.

Procedure

Participants were recruited by convenience sampling from undergraduate psychology courses and from websites (e.g., asexuality.org, kinseyinstitute.org). There were 1,146 responses analyzed (511 women, 635 men; ages ranged from 18 to 59, with a mean of 21.7 and a standard deviation of 6.3). The 732 undergraduates tended to be younger than the 414 respondents recruited through the Internet; mean ages were 19.77 and 25.13, respectively. Age was significantly different between the two groups; gender was not. The authors attempted to control for the age difference when comparing the two groups, and noted if correcting for age changed the comparison.

The participants completed these surveys:

The Sexual History Questionnaire collected demographic information about gender (options were male, female and other), age, education, and relationship status. It also collected basic sexual history information about number of lifetime sexual partners and sexual intercourse partners, worry about sexual problems, masturbation frequency, and orgasm consistency in masturbation and with a partner. It also asked about sexual attraction with the following item: “Would you describe the type of person you find most sexually attractive as,” with options “Only male,” “Mostly male, but sometimes female,” “Could be equally male or female,” “Mainly female, but sometimes male,” “Only female,” or “None of the above.” This part of the survey used an open-ended, text-box-response for participants to type in their sexual orientation; these answers were compared to a later multiple-choice question about their sexual orientation. Any question asking about sexual activity defined it as including “stimulating a partner’s genitals or breasts with your hand or mouth, and intercourse,” and a hyperlink further specified “by sex we mean ANY contact with genitals or female breasts.” (This definition is somewhat limited, and cis-centric.)

The Sexual Arousability Inventory, which asked how arousing participants found each of a list of 14 activities, on a 7-point scale.

The Sexual Orientation Questionnaire, created for this study by the authors, asked about sexual orientation development, feelings, and perceptions of asexuality.

The authors were attempting to determine which potentially predictive variables– sexual desire level, sexual arousability level, sexual behaviors, or sexual inhibition– best separated asexuals from non-asexuals. For each variable, the false positive rate (those who would be classified as asexual by the variable, but who were not actually asexual) and the false negative rate (those who would not be classified as asexual by the variable, but who were actually asexual) were measured and compared.

Results

In addition to the significant difference in age, asexuals were more likely to have completed college. (This makes sense, since the non-asexual group was primarily recruited from college classes.) By comparing the multiple-choice question about sexual orientation with the open-ended question about sexual orientation, the authors found that the item used in 2004 by Bogaert, “having no sexual attraction for either sex,” was specific, but not sensitive: of the 41 people who wrote in “asexual,” only 41.5% also answered the multiple-choice question by saying they were not sexually attracted to men and women. However, of the 19 people who answered the multiple-choice question by saying they were not sexually attracted to men and women, 89.5% also wrote in that they were asexual.

Binary logistic regression indicated that the most accurate predictors of asexual identity were the Dyadic and Solitary Sexual Desire indicators, the Sexual Arousability Indicator, and one of the Sexual Inhibition Indicators (SIS-2). A different type of analysis, receiving operating characteristic (ROC), indicated that the Dyadic Sexual Desire and the Sexual Arousability Indicator were the best predictors of asexual identity, followed by the Sexual Excitation Subscale. This analysis did not indicate that SIS-2 was predictive. Asexuals were no more worried than non-asexuals about their level of sexual desire, and no more likely to want to discuss it with a health professional.

Content analysis of the open-ended questions produced five common themes as to what experiences the respondents expected an asexual to have had: (1) a psychological problem, (2) a very negative sexual experience, (3) no/low sexual desire, (4) no/little sexual experience, (5) no differences from the experiences of non-asexuals. The most common expectation was #3. Non-asexuals were significantly more likely than asexuals to expect that asexuals would experience no/low sexual desire; asexuals were more likely than non-asexuals (though not significantly) to expect that asexuals would have no/low sexual experience.

Respondents were also asked about the drawbacks and benefits of being asexual. Four common benefits were listed: (1) avoid intimate relationship problems, (2) lower health risks, (3) less social pressure, (4) benefits of free time. Asexuals were significantly more likely than non-asexuals to provide each benefit as a response. Four drawbacks were also listed: (1) partner relationship problems, (2) means that something is wrong, (3) negative public perception, (4) miss positive aspects of sex. Asexuals were significantly more likely than non-asexuals to provide the first three drawbacks as responses; non-asexuals were significantly more likely than asexuals to provide drawback #4.

Discussion

Both types of analysis indicated that asexuals were well-distinguished from non-asexuals by lower or absent scores on the Dyadic Sexual Desire subscale, lower scores on the Solitary Sexual Desire subscale, and lower scores on the Sexual Arousability Inventory. One analysis indicated that the SIS-2 (inhibition due to threat of performance consequences) could differentiate the two groups; the other analysis found instead that asexuals could be distinguished by their lower SES scores, or lower propensity to become sexually excited. Based on these results, the authors suggest that self-identified asexuals are neither “particularly sexually fearful” nor “motivated by avoidance”; instead, they have a lower excitatory drive. The results also indicate that excitation and inhibition can be thought of as independent in their effect on sexual arousal.

Because asexuals and non-asexuals didn’t differ in their fear of performance failure (SIS-1), but did have lower SIS-2 scores by one measure, the authors suggested that asexuals may feel that they are less at risk of negative sexual consequences because they are less likely to experience strong sexual excitation or desire; in the authors’ own words, “they [may] feel less vulnerable about being carried away by feelings of sexual arousal into practicing unsafe sex.”

The demographic findings of this study differed on several points from those of the 2004 Bogaert study. There were no significant gender, relationship status, or number of lifetime sexual partners differences between the two groups, though the latter could have been because the non-asexual sample was significantly younger than the asexual sample; this particular comparison between the two groups may not have been valid. Asexuals were more likely to have completed at least a college degree than the non-asexuals, which remained true even after controlling for age. Also, the item Bogaert used to identify asexuals did not identify many people who did self-identify as asexual, suggesting that that item might have missed many people who would identify as asexual. (If this were true, then the 1% figure coming out of the 2004 study would be low. Asexuals were 3.6% of this sample, but that is not surprising since it was not a random sample.)

Asexuals were more likely than non-asexuals to say that asexuality was a sign of something wrong (often something out of one’s control, like genetics or a hormone problem), that asexuals, would have more relationship problems, and that there was a negative public perception of asexuality; however, they were not more likely to be worried about their lack of sexual desire or to want to speak to a health professional about it, indicating that they strictly on their own account they felt no distress about their sexuality. Asexuals may feel pressure to conform to the expectation that “a person should experience sexual desire,” and they may react to this pressure by framing what they think others think is an abnormality by framing it as something that is out of their control. The authors suggest that, in light of evidence that asexuals may feel distress based on how they think asexuality is perceived by others rather than because of what being asexual is actually like, then diagnosing these individuals with a psychiatric abnormality (like HSDD) may only make things worse.

The authors critiqued the study on several grounds. The sample was not random, and the ages were not evenly distributed, which may have produced problems I noted earlier. The study was conducted online, though they argue that online studies are not as problematic as they are often perceived to be, and have benefits over more traditional studies. Only four asexuals were interviewed for the qualitative component; the authors suggest that since this component produced very rich results, future qualitative studies should be considered. Finally, the measures used for sexual behavior, number of lifetime sexual and intercourse partners and frequency of masturbation, are subject to confounding influences like availability of sexual partners, abusive sexual experiences, etc.

The authors list areas of potential future research generated by the results:

  • Asexual self-identification wasn’t predicted by people having hang-ups about sex (high inhibitory processes) but about being just not interested (low excitatory processes). This may be because asexuals haven’t experienced “behavioral activation” (not defined here, but I assume it refers to developing sexual interest/orientation through sexual activity) or that self-identified asexuals tend to be depressed; however, the current evidence doesn’t support those two theories.
  • Asexuals cite more benefits and drawbacks of asexuality than non-asexuals, maybe because they’ve thought about it more, or maybe because asexuals, having actually experienced greater challenges, “counteract” this experience by identifying or perceiving greater benefits.
  • Asexuals appear to have similar levels of sexual behaviors to non-asexuals, and studying “emotionally intimate partner variables” separately from sexuality variables could help explain why. For example, are asexuals having sex to maintain a relationship with their partner?
  • “Physiological and psychophysiological correlates of asexuality,” like responses to sexual stimuli, neurological evidence of perceiving affective experiences with different intensity, and hormone abnormalities. (Many of these “physiological correlates” are often very flawed measures; the authors postulate that these correlates are unlikely to completely explain asexuality, but that finding some physiological correlate of or biological basis for asexuality could help asexuals feel more legitimate in their identity, and reduce negative perceptions from others who think they “chose” their identity.)

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 Asexuality: Classification and Characterization

  1. Siggy says:

    Also, the item Bogaert used to identify asexuals did not identify many people who did self-identify as asexual, suggesting that that item might have missed many people who would identify as asexual. (If this were true, then the 1% figure coming out of the 2004 study would be low.

    Unfortunately, there’s a possible confound. This study recruited from AVEN, which has a high number of self-identified asexuals. This inflates the number of false negatives (ie self-IDed asexuals missed by Bogaert’s question). This could make it appear as if the number of false negatives is larger than the number of false positives. But it’s still good to get a sense of the uncertainty in Bogaert’s 1% figure.

    On a separate note, does anyone understand the difference between ROC analysis and binary logistic regression analysis? I’m not sure what it means that the two methods got different results with respect to SIS-2 and SES. Surely it means that any correlations are on the border of significance.

  2. Pingback: Journal Club: Prause and Graham 2007 | The Asexual Agenda

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