In high school, she felt isolated and alienated because everyone else was having sexual experiences that she wasn’t. She did things she didn’t feel comfortable with and pushed herself to be something she wasn’t, simply to fit in. Luckily for her, when she finally came out to her family, her parents were supportive.
Although this description may sound like the formative experiences of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person, it isn’t. Vancouver-based web developer Nicole Brown found that she is asexual, or someone who does not experience sexual attraction.
After learning about the label in her first year of university, Brown, like many asexual people, felt the burden of confusion lift from her shoulders.
“Upon discovering asexuality—the label, the community, and the resources and information and research that had been done into it—I immediately felt at ease, that I wasn’t broken, that I wasn’t missing something, I wasn’t defective in some way, shape, or form,” she said by phone. “And that’s how I had been feeling prior to being able to have a label that not just said you fit in with a community but also that basically nobody had told me growing up that there were other sexual orientations, period.”
Brown, who became the webmaster of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, said the asexual community helped provide a safe space for her to explore her own identity. Vancouver now has the second-largest asexual meet-up group after London, England.
Vancouver is also helping to lead the way with asexual research, which still remains limited. UBC Sexual Health Laboratory director Lori Brotto, who focuses on clients with sexual difficulties in her private practice, had not heard of asexuality in humans until 2006, when a psychiatrist in her clinic mentioned an asexuality group on the Internet. At that time, there was only one published study, from Britain, about the subject.
Since then, the psychologist and associate professor has conducted eight studies of asexuality, ranging from sexual-arousal patterns to mental illness to biological markers. She told the Georgia Straight by phone that she shifted from thinking it was an extreme form of low-level desire to being convinced that it is likely a unique sexual orientation.
Brotto asserted that asexuality is not a sexual dysfunction, and is neither a choice nor celibacy. She also stated that there are slightly higher rates of Asperger syndrome in asexuals “but really no indication of psychopathology or past trauma or abuse or PTSD or anything like that”.
In an unpublished study she recently conducted, she showed asexual people erotic films and measured their genital responses. She discovered that they still respond, even if they don’t necessarily feel aroused.
“So it suggests to us that it’s not that they’ve become asexual because their bodies are not capable of responding,” she said.
What might be surprising to those unfamiliar with asexuality is that some asexual people do masturbate. But it’s not for the same reasons that sexual people do.
“They said it’s sort of like scratching an itch or it can be a means of getting to sleep or relieving tension or cleaning out the plumbing, what have you,” Brotto said. “They do not say that it’s a product of their sexual desire or because they’re in the mood or that it leads them to then want to have sex or be sexual.”
Another interesting facet of asexuality is that some asexual people form emotionally romantic bonds (and identify as heteroromantic, homoromantic, or biromantic) while others don’t (aromantic).
“The developmental process in our brain of romantic attraction occurs separately from the development of sexual attraction,” Brotto explained.
Brotto pointed out that because asexual people experience stigmatization, discrimination, and marginalization, like LGBT people, they are also susceptible to mental-health issues due to the pressures of living in a heteronormative world.
Brown said asexuals don’t experience the same level of hatred or malice that many LGBT people do, but a lack of understanding of asexuality does fuel prejudices.
“There are always the questions, ‘Well, haven’t you tried it?’ and ‘What’s wrong with you that you want to identify that way?’ or, like, ‘You’re less of a human because you don’t share this genuine human experience.’ ”
Brotto said she supports efforts to include asexual people in LGBT communities, as it helps to alleviate distress and loneliness.
Qmunity executive director Dara Parker said by phone that her organization does include asexuality as part of the queer spectrum. Although it doesn’t have any asexual-specific programming, it tries “to include asexual folks within all of the programming that we offer”, for instance by reminding everyone that some people aren’t sexually attracted to anyone.
One of Brown’s biggest goals is to ensure that future generations know that there is more to life than just being straight. “I want to see kids being taught sex ed in a way that is presenting all facts to children so they can grow up and know that there are more sexual orientations out there rather than just heterosexual, that it’s not just, ‘You are straight or you are broken.’ ”
In spite of numerous differences between people, Brown said, figuring out who we are is one thing we all share. “It’s a human experience that we all go through: self-identity and the struggle to understand the self. I don’t think this is unique to the queer community, nor do I think it is unique to asexual individuals.”