If you believe, as Bette Davis quipped, that “sex is God’s joke on human beings,” you’re not alone. Using the bell curve analogy for human sexuality, for every hump in the middle, there are extremes at both ends: those with an amped sex drive and those who can take it or leave it. This became clear to Seattle-based author Joan Sewell when she asked her husband how much sex he’d have in an ideal world. “Oh, I don’t know,” he replied. “Maybe five or six times a week.” This revelation was one of the things that prompted her to write I’d Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido.
“My sex drive couldn’t ride the huge cultural sex wave that kept coming in,” writes Sewell. “Instead, I was being beaten against the beach. The culture had turned, and there was no way to push back the tide. The sexperts, the pro-family traditionalists, the feminists and the skin peddlers of the media were all on the same side now, hoping to tug my sexuality in a more lustful direction to sell their products or save my marriage.”
“In a society that’s all about sex, imagine how you must feel when you don’t want to do it,” says Toronto-based author Elizabeth Abbott, whose book A History of Celibacy is primarily concerned with sex — or the lack thereof. “Even the word ‘frigid’ makes someone sound cold,” she says.
What is considered normal?
When it comes to sex, however, what’s considered “normal” is in a constant state of flux. When Oprah Winfrey tackled the subject of low sexual desire on her show, it proved to be a revelation for Sewell. “Oprah said that an estimated 40 million American women were suffering,” she says. “In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘How could nearly half of women be dysfunctional? What is the norm, and who’s deciding it?’” Until recently, doctors and scientists viewed a lack of desire as a pathology or sexual dysfunction, but their viewpoints just might be changing. When Procter & Gamble sought approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2004 for its female sexual-desire disorder “treatment” — a testosterone patch called Intrinsa — testimony from academics, sex therapists and women’s health activists on the FDA advisory committee led the agency to deny its request. Dr. Lori Brotto, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, first became aware of asexuality’s prevalence in society in her job as a sex therapist. “I saw a lot of people with low desire — people who would say ‘Well, I’m just not a sexual person.’” She was sufficiently intrigued to launch a study of asexuality — research that began with an online survey of 250 asexually identified people from around the world. She is now in the midst of a follow-up project with 15 individuals who were invited back for in-depth interviews. “These interviews have raised a lot of questions,” says Brotto. “We are finding that asexuality is not a sexual dysfunction.”
Instead, asexuality may represent a fourth sexual orientation, explains Dr. Anthony Bogaert, a psychology professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., who undertook one of the first studies into the existence of human asexuality. “You can be attracted to the opposite sex, the same sex or both sexes,” he says. “But, until recently, the fourth orientation — being attracted to neither sex — has not been addressed.”
Discovering that you’re asexual
Once you’ve discovered that you are asexual, the next hurdle can be finding someone to share that with. Finding a like-minded partner can seem like an impossible task — hence the growing popularity of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). Founded in 2001 by a young man named David Jay, AVEN currently operates an online community for asexually identified people and their families and friends and boasts more than 12,000 members worldwide. The very existence of AVEN indicates that asexuals make up a large subset of the sexual world. Some estimates propose that they constitute anywhere from one to six percent of the population.
Jackie* is a thirty-something woman who lives near Toronto. She is well spoken, smart and funny — and not interested in sex. “I thought something was wrong with me,” she says. “My friends would say ‘Oh, he’s so hot!’ and I’d nod my head and change the subject. I remember seeing the AVEN people on 20/20 and thinking, ‘Hey, that’s me!’ I started posting right away. I never thought that an asexual man actually existed. My ex-boyfriend used to say that every man was interested in sex — that it’s all men ever think about. I didn’t want to be alone, but I didn’t want to go into another relationship that would end in failure.” Jackie is currently looking for a partner (she has placed an ad on an asexual-dating site), but, as she says, “It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”
Asexuals and marriage
Some asexuals do get married and — ironically, mirroring many mainstream marriages — don’t have sex. Victoria Glancetts, who lives in North Carolina, met her husband, Karl, through AVEN. They have been married for just over a year. Now 29, Glancetts discovered AVEN two weeks before her 25th birthday. “It was nice to meet people like myself and talk to men who weren’t just trying to hit on me,” she says. “Compliments seem so much more genuine when the other person isn’t trying to look down your blouse, you know?”
Karl’s experience was similar. “After a couple of failed relationships, I avoided getting involved,” he says, “because I knew that I didn’t want to have sex with anyone and I thought that sex was an integral part of any romantic relationship.”
Like most married couples, Victoria and Karl are intimate — just not in the way you would expect. “The chief thing about not being interested in sex is that it has given us time to get to know each other slowly without hormones clouding our judgment,” says Glancetts. “In terms of cuddles and hugs, we’re very affectionate. We shower together once or twice a week, which, I guess, is intimate — though mainly it’s just nice to have someone else wash my back.”
Glancetts says that the media must share part of the blame for some people’s sense of disillusion about sex, especially younger people. “They see what it’s ‘supposed’ to look like on TV and in films,” she says. “Then they try it and think ‘That’s it?! What a gyp!’ Most of my friends are sexual and they’re not all swinging from the chandeliers, saying how great it is, so I’m not too bothered by it.” Far from the agony of no ecstasy, asexuals often seem remarkably cheerful, healthy and happy — just not horny.
Does sex equal happiness?
The connection between sex and happiness is, at best, a tenuous one. In a recent paper entitled “Toward a Conceptual Understanding of Asexuality,” Bogaert cites a study from The University of Chicago that suggests that as many as 40 percent of those who didn’t have sex in the past year considered themselves to be very happy. According to Bogaert, this suggests that “the relationship between sexuality and life satisfaction isn’t very strong and that some people can have rich lives without sex.”
But some asexuals have sex. “It’s important to keep in mind that asexual people may not be in relationships that are entirely sexless,” adds Bogaert. “Although they may not enjoy it or have any interest in it, they may still engage in sex to please their partners — if their partners happen to be sexual.” This point is reiterated by Brotto: “One thing that’s intriguing is that many asexuals engage in sexual behaviour,” she says. “They masturbate or engage in sex but don’t feel driven to this behaviour by the heat of passion. Masturbating may be a way of releasing tension, getting to sleep or pleasing their partners.”
In some ways, the asexual movement is turning previous sexual revolutions on their heads. What was once liberation (free love, gay rights) is now the opposite: everyone feels pressure to do it all the time, in new locales and positions. This may be asexuality’s most revolutionary aspect: the freedom to say “No thanks, I’d rather eat chocolate” and feel just fine.
*Name has been changed.