While it never seems far from the front pages, sexuality has certainly been in the news recently. For example, we have seen recent legislation to legalise same-sex marriage in the UK, in addition to the thirteen other countries who already allow this. This remind us about the importance of love and intimacy in people's lives and that 'going public' can change things for the better. While it is to be welcomed, there is something that remains forgotten in our discussions about sex and sexuality: asexuality.
Asexuality is a sexual orientation that encompasses a range of people who experience low or no levels of sexual attraction or desire. The emergence in the last ten years or so of prominent online spaces for asexuals, notably the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), has allowed asexuality to be recognised as a sexual orientation. Before this, and for those who are not members of online communities, other terms may have been used, such as 'celibate', 'abstinent' or saying one was 'not interested in sex' and more interested in 'Boston marriages' or 'platonic' relationships.
Asexuality itself is very diverse with some asexuals defining as 'romantic', meaning they have romantic but not sexual attraction to others, and others as 'aromantic', meaning no sexual nor romantic attraction. There are also terms like 'demi-asexual', meaning people may experience sexual attraction but only after having formed an emotional attachment, such as being in love.
There has been some increased media attention in asexuality, including newspaper stories, TV documentaries, and news reports. It has also been suggested asexuals appear in TV shows, such as Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory and Sherlock.
This in turn has had some political impact. The UK coalition government's 2012 action plan for reducing hate crime listed asexuality as the fourth sexual orientation and New York's Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act has, since 2002, prohibited discrimination on the basis of asexuality. Despite such attention, asexuality is still poorly understood. Recent research suggests that the default response of heterosexuals to asexuality is discrimination. This is not simply a 'fear of the unknown' but rather discrimination against the very idea of asexuality, which is even more pronounced than that against homosexuality or bisexuality. Therefore, there is still some way to go.
Such limited knowledge of asexuality has wider implications. For example, do we leave space for asexuality when we talk to our children and teenagers about sexuality? This could be crucial for a young person trying to come to terms with their asexuality at an age when they would be expected to raging with hormones. This can also be important for adults. One side-effect of the greater cultural acceptance of sexual diversity is the expectation that everyone should have a full sex life, especially as part of a 'healthy' relationship. How might these pressures and expectations be experienced by someone whose ideal relationship involves emotional intimacy, perhaps romance, but not sex? Finally, asexuality may encourage us to think about sexuality over the life course. Can a person become asexual over time (and if so, how), rather than simply being 'born that way'?
So, while asexuality may have begun to attract attention there is still much to be known. This is part of what we're doing. As researchers in the sociology departments of the Universities of Sussex and Glasgow, we are conducting a project about the everyday experiences of asexuals. This involves exploring how people define themselves as asexual, including whether they 'come out'. Also, we want to understand how asexual people manage intimate and romantic relationships. We are far from the first researchers to look at asexuality, but we are hoping to obtain a deeper understanding of these everyday experiences of asexuality - of what becoming and being asexual is all about.
Are you someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction or desire? Perhaps you identify as an 'asexual' person, or just feel that the term describes you in some way. Would you be happy to talk to sociological researchers about your experiences? If so, and for more information about the project, please contact Dr Liz McDonnell at email@example.com