By Dr. Justin Lehmiller
The nature of asexuality is something that scientists have been debating for years. Some have argued that it’s a mental disorder, others have classified it as a sexual dysfunction, some claim that it’s an unusual sexual interest (technically known as a paraphilia), and yet others consider it to be a sexual orientation. So which is it? In a recent paper published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Drs. Lori Brotto and Morag Yule offer a valuable review of the relevant research that yields important insight regarding how we should think about asexuality.
Is it a mental disorder? Nope. According to the data, asexuality is neither a disorder, nor is it a symptom of another disorder. I should note that research has found that a link between asexuality and reporting more psychiatric symptoms; however, this linkage is thought to be a function of the fact that asexuality is a stigmatized social status. To the extent that asexual persons indeed have higher rates of psychological distress, it’s probably because they lack social approval and support—not because they are mentally ill.
Is it a sexual dysfunction? Again, according to all of the available research, no. Studies indicate that sexual arousal is not impaired in asexual individuals (or, more specifically, asexual women—no published studies have examined arousal in asexual men, at least not yet). Furthermore, research finds that asexuals don’t feel distressed about their lack of sexual desire, which makes them quite distinct from people who have true sexual desire disorders.
Is it a paraphilia? The evidence for this turned out to be little more mixed. Studies suggest that at least some people who identify as asexual might be best categorized as having a paraphilia. This makes sense when you consider that research has found that many self-identified asexuals masturbate and, further, that many of them have sexual fantasies, too. However, the content of asexuals’ fantasies are different from those of sexual persons in several ways. For instance, asexuals are less likely to appear in their own fantasies, they’re more likely to fantasize about fictional characters, and they’re more inclined to feel disconnected from the activities taking place in their fantasies. So, while it doesn’t make sense to say that asexuality in general is a paraphilia, it seems possible that a small subset of self-identified asexuals might simply have some uncommon sexual interests.
Is it a sexual orientation? The answer to this question depends, in part, upon what your definition of a “sexual orientation” is; however, there is a reasonable amount of support for the idea that asexuality is a unique sexual orientation. For instance, research has found that many of the same biological characteristics linked to homosexuality are also linked to asexuality, such as handedness and birth order (you can learn more about this research here). This suggests the possibility that asexuality might very well be an innate characteristic.
Other research has found that asexuality meets many of the criteria scientists have argued are necessary to constitute a sexual orientation, such as an early age of onset. It doesn’t meet all of the criteria, though. For instance, some scientists have argued that sexual orientations typically involve a certain degree of stability in sexual attraction patterns over time, but the limited longitudinal research available on asexuality hasn’t necessarily supported this. In one small study of asexuals, most people who reported a lack sexual attraction eventually went on to say that they experienced sexual attraction.
However, a different way to think about this is that asexuals might have some degree of sexual fluidity, just like people of other sexualities. This lack of stability might also just be a reflection of the fact that asexuality is an umbrella term that also includes gray-sexuals, or persons who are somewhere in between completely asexual and completely sexual. One example of this would be demisexuals, or people who are asexual but can develop sexual attractions to persons with whom they have a strong emotional bond.
To sum it all up, asexuality is neither a mental disorder nor is it a sexual dysfunction. Instead, the available research suggests that it’s most likely a unique sexual orientation; however, a small subgroup of self-identified asexuals might be more appropriately thought of as having a paraphilia.
Brotto, L.A., & Yule, M. (2016). Asexuality: Sexual orientation, paraphilia, sexual dysfunction, or none of the above? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46, 619-627.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. He has published articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, written two textbooks, and produces the popular blog, Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research topics include casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. He is currently the Director of the Social Psychology Graduate Program and an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at Ball State University.