Could you go for 29 years without sex? An estimated 1% of the population, including Tim Gunn of “Project Runway,” could. These individuals consider themselves asexual, which is defined by the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) as “a person who does not experience sexual attraction.”
The concept of asexuality, which literally means “without sexuality,” made headlines in 2004 when Anthony Bogaert — professor and chair of the department of community health sciences at Brock University in Ontario, Canada — examined data from a survey of more than 18,000 British residents and found that approximately 1% of individuals reported having no sexual attraction to anyone. Since then, it seemed like mainstream media had generally forgotten about the topic — until last week, when Tim Gunn admitted on ABC’s chat show “The Revolution” that he identified as asexual.
According to Metro, Gunn stated on the show that he hadn’t had sex in 29 years and wrote about his sexual orientation in his recent book, “Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making It Work”: “I knew what I wasn’t: I wasn’t interested in boys, and I really wasn’t interested in girls. … For many years, I described myself as asexual, and I still think that’s closest to the truth.”
Asexuality vs. celibacy, HSDD and sexual aversion disorder
Asexuality is often confused with celibacy or mistakenly assumed to be the result of a psychiatric disorder or an adverse experience with sex. However, celibates and people who choose to abstain from sexual activity differ in that they are choosing to not engage in sex because of personal or religious beliefs. Asexuals simply have no interest in it and find it boring or mundane, like doing the dishes or cleaning the house.
As one member of the AVEN community put it: “It is not a case of avoiding sex out of fear, or as a result of a perceived moral obligation, or out of disinterest in starting a family. I just seem to have been spared the development of sexual inclination — maybe I have a biologically nonexistent libido, or maybe I have a psychological disinterest in physical intimacy, or maybe some of both … but the end result is simply that I have no interest in sex, and I like it that way. “
Asexuals are not unhappy about or bothered by their lack of sexual interest, which is what differentiates them from individuals suffering from hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) and sexual aversion disorder, two psychiatric conditions listed in the DSM-IV that are frequently (and mistakenly) associated with asexuality. Criteria for HSDD include “persistently or recurrently deficient (or absent) sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity” and “marked distress or interpersonal difficulty.” Sexual aversion disorder involves “persistent or recurrent extreme aversion to, and avoidance of all (or almost all) genital sexual contact with a sexual partner” and “marked distress or interpersonal difficulty.”
The key difference here is the “marked distress or interpersonal difficulty.” Asexuals are, as Gunn described himself, “perfectly happy and fulfilled individual[s]” without sex in their lives, while those suffering from HSDD or sexual aversion disorder are unhappy with their feelings toward sex and find it maladaptive or detrimental to their overall quality of life.
Asexual ABCs (and Ds)
This doesn’t mean asexuals don’t have romantic relationships. AVEN initially used a system of classification with the letters A, B, C and D for types of asexuals but have since abandoned it because they found it too limiting.
Types B and C are often referred to as “romantic asexuals,” and sometimes label themselves as asexual-heterosexual, asexual-homosexual, asexual-bisexual or asexual-asexual, depending on the orientation of their romantic attraction. Some asexuals even say they occasionally feel sexually attracted to others but have no inclination to act on it.
As AVEN’s website explained: “Asexual people have the same emotional needs as anyone else, and like in the sexual community, we vary widely in how we fulfill those needs. Some asexual people are happier on their own; others are happiest with a group of close friends. Other asexual people have a desire to form more intimate romantic relationships and will date and seek long-term partnerships. Asexual people are just as likely to date sexual people as we are to date each other.”
Potential causes of asexuality
The cause of asexuality is currently unknown, though it would be interesting to investigate whether or not any structural differences in the brain exist between those who identify as sexual and those who identify as asexual. (Neurological research found that the cell structure of a gay man’s hypothalamus looks more similar to that of a heterosexual woman’s than a heterosexual man’s.)
Studies indicating asexuality among animals suggest that the lack of sexual desire has nothing to do with psychological issues, such as repression or fear, since animals aren’t capable of repressing their desires or having “commitment issues.”
It’s important to note that while sexual arousal isn’t necessary for a healthy lifestyle — unless lack of sexual arousal bothers you and takes away from your general happiness — it is possible, in some cases, that it’s indicative of a more serious medical condition. AVEN’s website states that most of the asexual community have had this lack of sexual desire throughout their entire lifetime, just as those who identify as gay rarely change from straight to gay or vice versa. If your libido suddenly diminishes, it’s probably a good idea to consult a doctor to rule out other causes.
For more information, visit Asexuality.org.