Asexual lives: social relationships and intimate encounters

Asexual lives: social relationships and intimate encounters

Susie Scott, Liz McDonnell  and Matt Dawson, Universities of Sussex and Glasgow

‘Asexuality’ describes a lack or low level of sexual desire and/or attraction towards others. This negative interpretation – defining something in terms of what it is not – is indicative of the way asexuality is regarded more generally within contemporary western societies. Sex is a dominant theme, the mass media fuelling endless debates about which sexual behaviours are ‘normal’, or whose sexual identities are deviant. Meanwhile, there is an established cultural scene of sexual identity politics, whereby those who identify with LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or queer) minority groups can find a platform to campaign for greater visibility.

Against this backdrop, asexuality appears curious, standing outside the sexual realm entirely. To have a minority status or engage in less common practices is one thing, but to not be a sexual person at all is quite another. Because it challenges social norms, expectations and cultural assumptions, asexuality is often viewed as a problem, a failure, or even a sickness. But is this an accurate portrayal? How do people experience asexuality themselves, and how does it affect their social lives?

These questions lie at the heart of a project we are conducting at the University of Sussex, exploring asexual identities and intimate relationships. Our research team is three sociologists – Dr Susie Scott, Dr Liz McDonnell and Dr Matt Dawson – who study the ‘micro’ level issues of self-identity, social interaction and everyday life. Taking a Symbolic Interactionist perspective, we are challenging the idea that asexuality is a fixed and stable attribute, arguing instead that it is a fluid and changeable social identity. Asexuality means different things to different people and unfolds in diverse ways, depending on their particular experiences over the life course: key relationships, chance encounters, memorable events and critical turning points, combine to create identity paths or ‘trajectories’ that are unique to each person. The second strand of our project concerns the notion of intimacy, asking what this means in the absence of sex, and how it is demonstrated by asexual people to partners, friends or ‘significant others’. To explore these two questions, we conducted interviews with 50 self-defined asexual people, 27 of whom also kept two-week diaries; in the latter, they documented occasions and episodes of everyday social life when their asexuality had been relevant.

“Asexuality isn’t who I am”

One of the most surprising findings was that asexuality is not necessarily an identity. Unlike being lesbian, gay, or other LGBTQ categories, asexuality is not a clear and tangible ‘thing’, nor a source of positive identification. Our participant Ed (a pseudonym) spoke for many when he said, “It’s a part of who I am, but it’s in with all the other parts, so it doesn’t rule my life.” This is because asexuality is negatively defined, as an absence, lack or difference from sexual norms, so it is hard to formulate a coherent sense of self around this. Another participant, Josie, explained: “because it’s a lack of a thing and not a thing in itself, it’s not that important to me. So it doesn’t define who I am… I have no reason to seek out more people like me.

Many participants described asexuality as an irrelevance or “non-issue”, citing work, family, hobbies or other factors as being more centrally defining aspects of their identities. Freya said, “the main thing about me isn’t that I have this sexual orientation; the main thing about me is that I’m a geek for TV series and history – that’s me.” Indeed, to form a self-identity around a peripheral, insignificant or even absent attribute seemed bizarrely irrelevant. Trevor drew the comparison, “I don’t need to go on at people that I really, really like pizza!”

Asexuality is a label, however, and as such it has a pragmatic, communicative function. Many participants found it useful as a concise shorthand term to explain something complex about themselves that was difficult for other people to understand (“So if you’re not gay or bi, then what are you?”) – but it had little personal significance beyond this. Relatively few people adopt the asexual label to describe their self-identity compared to other orientations within the LGBTQ array. We could say that asexuality is just a discursive construct: a product of social discourses and interaction. It does not exist as an essential state, but rather comes into being through the actions of others, who question or challenge the person and make them account for their difference. As Martha said, “I can’t figure out how I would become aware of my asexuality aside from someone bringing it up or hounding me about whether or not someone is hot.”

Community and (dis)association

Related to this, asexual people are less likely to socialise together and develop a collective identity than those in other LGBTQ communities. There is some debate about whether asexuality should be included beneath this umbrella (making it LGBTQA), or whether it stands outside the spectrum of sexual orientations altogether. Although some asexual people engage in political activism through groups such as AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, asserting the positive identity ‘ACE’, this only represents one demographic: mostly young, white, college-educated, middle class people.

Equally common in our sample were those who were older, less socially networked or otherwise lacking the resources needed to make the personal political. Lisa, in her late thirties, had always felt she was ‘different’ from her peers but dismissed this an individual quirk and focused instead on her career. Like many others, she had not heard of the term ‘asexual’ until well into adulthood, by which time she had built an identity around other things. She enjoyed a fairly solitary lifestyle amidst close friends and family, and did not wish to associate with other asexual people: “It’s never been discussed and I would never bring it up so it’s not an explicit feature of my life at all… the identity I would put out in public is much more as a scientist.”

Those who do build an asexual identity do this relationally, through social interaction. Some participants described coming to an understanding of themselves as asexual by comparing their situation to that of their friends, family and colleagues. Often there was a gradual process of talking to certain significant others and ‘testing the water’ until they were ready to ‘come out’ publicly. Others recalled ‘feeling different’ when growing up and ‘researching’ this difference through Internet searches. Groups such as AVEN were helpful in providing a set of tools to articulate their specific desires and orientations (for example, the lexicon of asexual subcategories including Grey-A, Demi and Hetero/Homo/Bi-romantic) as well as to manage the social consequences of stigma and prejudice. Many participants described moments of epiphany that consolidated their sense of ‘becoming’ asexual, for example reading a news article about asexuality or hearing someone else use the term. Iris recalled the relief she felt upon “figuring out that asexuality was a thing. It’s not just me being weird” and Lisa agreed, “when it got a name it felt better.”

Everyday intimacy

Intimacy is as important to asexual people as it is to anyone else; participants voiced frustration at the assumption that being asexual was synonymous with being anti-social or unemotional. Many described themselves as ‘Romantic’ asexuals, meaning that they wanted to have emotionally but not physically intimate relationships, while ‘Demi’ asexuals felt they had the potential to desire sex, but only under certain conditions, such as in the context of a ‘serious’ committed relationship. Some valued friendship above all else, craving regular and intense contact with friends, while others felt closest to siblings. Moments of tension and conflict surrounded the need to negotiate with others different preferred types and levels of intimacy. Awkwardness arose from misunderstandings, such as ignorant questions, insensitive comments (“You just haven’t found the right one yet”) and unwanted flirtation.

In everyday life, the vast majority of our participants enjoyed indulging in non-sexual ‘practices of intimacy’, such as platonic kissing, hugging and cuddling with special people, having fun with colleagues, talking to close friends and other emotional self-disclosure. Iris wrote in her diary about eating ice cream in bed with her boyfriend while watching Doctor Who as being a highly intimate practice. Those in relationships reported much negotiation and discussion, sometimes formalised in explicit practical arrangements. Iris felt this communication was vital to ensure that both partners were “on the same wavelength”. She would ‘check in with’ her boyfriend every morning to establish how they were each feeling and what they wanted to do together that day:  “It’s just figuring out what both of us want to do that day – if its sexual, if it’s not, if it’s something completely different.”

These platonic practices are of course also enjoyed by non-asexual people, as has been shown in studies of long term relationships, families, and friendships, where they are vital to the day-to-day endurance of intimate bonds. Conversely, some asexual participants said that they engaged in sexual activity to satisfy their partners, despite not enjoying it themselves, regarding it an act of altruistic love. This blurring of boundaries and classifications challenges the idea that there are distinctly asexual practices of intimacy that are separate from sexual practices. Perhaps it even raises the question of whether ‘asexual people’ exist as a minority group who are essentially different from the presumed sexual majority. Could asexuality just be a way of relating to others and negotiating intimacy, which can be practised by anyone? 

Further reading and information:  (AVEN)

Carrigan, M. (2011) ‘There’s More to Life than Sex? Difference and Commonality within the Asexual Community’, Sexualities, 14:4, 462-478.

Gabb, J. (2008) Researching Intimacy in Families. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jamieson, L, Simpson, R. and Lewis, R. (eds) (2012) Researching Families and Relationships. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Scott, S. and Dawson, M. (2014) ‘Rethinking Asexuality: A Symbolic Interactionist Account.’ Sexualities (in press)

Smart, C. (2007) Personal Life: New Directions in Sociological Thinking. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Susie Scott is Reader in Sociology and Liz McDonnell is Research Fellow at the University of Sussex. Matt Dawson is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow. “A qualitative exploration of asexual identities and practices of intimacy” was funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2012-575) and runs from 2013-2015. 

10 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    June 07, 2014

    I appreciate the research being done on this topic, however, I noticed some inaccuracies and want to point them out.

    It seems the researchers focus on behaviors in their understanding of sexual orientation, however, sexual orientation is about attraction and not about the behaviors people engage in.
    While I agree that how people relate to one another and how they negotiate intimacy may be quite similar among all sexual orientations, as we are all human, I disagree that this means asexuality is a “practice” that anyone can do as the researchers suggest.
    People don’t “practice” homosexuality/heterosexuality/bisexuality/etc. just as they don’t “practice” asexuality. It’s about feelings and how people are oriented in those feelings.

    Also, it’s inaccurate to say someone “becomes asexual” just as it’s inaccurate to say someone “becomes homosexual/heterosexual/bisexual/etc.” People don’t “become” a sexual orientation. It’s something they discover about themselves, so, “discovering asexuality” is a more appropriate phrase.

    Additionally, while a sexual orientation may not define a person, I don’t think that negates it’s validity or role (irregardless of size) in someone’s identity as the authors seem to suggest.

    Overall, I disagree with the suggestion that asexuality is “a fluid and changeable social identity.” Asexuality is a valid sexual orientation and not something people choose or can change about themselves.
    Whether or not people want to socialize or actually do socialize with others, or whether or not they’re involved with political activism, within their sexual orientation is irrelevant to the validity of the sexual orientation.
    Also, whether or not someone identifies as heterosexual and then later identifies as asexual/homosexual/bisexual/etc. or vice versa doesn’t invalidate the sexual orientation as the researchers seem to suggest. Labels exist as a way to help people understand and discover themselves and others and, while a person’s social identity (or label) may not be “a fixed and stable attribute,” sexual orientation is. While the fluidity of sexual orientation is still a topic of debate, and while there are certainly those who believe sexual orientations are changeable, much harm has come to those who underwent or were pressured to undergo sexual orientation change efforts.

    Asexuality faces similar challenges that other valid sexual orientations have faced and still face. Just as homosexuality has been classified as a mental disorder and has been viewed as something people can change about themselves, asexuality is often seen as a mental disorder, and, as reflected in this post (“a fluid and changeable social identity”), something a person can change about themselves.

    Asexuality/Homosexuality/Bisexuality/Heterosexuality/etc. is not a choice.


  2. Avatar
    June 08, 2014

    Hi FP,

    Thanks for your comment. Just to be clear, we’re not saying asexuality, or indeed any sexual orientation, is simply a choice.

    What we were saying is that for our participants asexuality was not a central part of who they are, as you say, this doesn’t stop them being asexual, and we’re not saying that, but it does mean it may not be the central part of their life. Also, when talking about the ‘fluid’ nature of the identity what we meant was that many of our participants moved through different identities, e.g. from thinking of themselves of hetereosexual/celibate/etc. to asexual, then perhaps coming across other terms like grey-a or demisexual as part of that. We found this process to be especially prominent among our participants for reasons I won’t get into there. As you say, people will come to use these terms because they feel they most accurately describes themselves at those varying points. This doesn’t invalidates the sexual orientation and we aren’t saying that.

    This is why we use the term ‘becoming’. Each of these processes means changing things about yourself and seeing yourself and others in different ways. Coming to think of yourself as bi-romantic after initially thinking you were homoromantic would involve a similar process of becoming (as it did for one of our participants). Our participants ‘became’ asexual in differing ways and again, this doesn’t mean we’re saying its a choice, more that coming to think of yourself of asexual is a process.

    In terms of the practice point, what we wanted to highlight is that for our participants most of the things they did with their intimate others was not entirely unique from things sexuals may do with theirs. Therefore, as you say, people relate intimately in similar ways across sexual orientations and ‘asexual’ ways will be shared with sexuals just in the same way as many of our asexual participants shared ‘sexual’ ways of being intimate with others. As I say, this doesn’t mean we’re saying they’re ‘not asexual’ because of this. As sociologists, we do think that all sexual orientations have their forms of ‘practices’ (the things we do if we have that sexual orientation) and this is what we found from our participants. By saying that we’re not then saying there are no feelings or emotions attached to it, rather we have a different point of focus.

    I hope that helps with explaining why we’ve written what we have here. Our goal throughout has been accurately representing what our participants said.

    Thanks for reading!

    Matt Dawson


    • Avatar
      June 23, 2014

      A question: have you already done (or have you considered doing) any similar interviews with members of other LGBTQ individuals in similar situations for comparison? Because a lot of the assumptions here (that individuals are less likely to use labels than LGBT folks are, that asexuals view their sexual orientation as less central than LGBT folks, that other LGBT identities are less fluid, that LGBT people are more likely to seek out social interaction and communities) seem to be based simply on assumptions about LGBT individuals and their identity processes that I suspect are either exaggerated or in some cases even the opposite of reality.

      Furthermore, the current methods seem to ignore the possibility confounding factors like the fact that asexual people and gay people have very different levels of resources currently available, which can affect their ability to engage in communities regardless of how they might desire them if such communities were equally accessible, and that needs to be taken into account.

      Do you have any plans to account for such complications in any further research you might be considering?


  3. Avatar
    June 17, 2014

    *I have written this very quickly, so please excuse me if I have not explained myself adequately for you to understand what I am saying. I am Benjamin Klein, a student at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and an ‘asexual’.

    ‘Asexuality’ describes a lack or low level of sexual desire and/or attraction towards others. This negative interpretation – defining something in terms of what it is not – is indicative of the way asexuality is regarded more generally within contemporary western societies.’

    I am unhappy with your opening sentence. You suppose asexuality to comprise, essentially, absences of both desire and behaviour. Most social scientists will study human sexuality in one of three ways: identity, behaviour or desire. A huge error is to suppose identity as being informed by both behaviour and desire, as you purport to do (fusing all three as interdependent). In light of asexuality, this has large consequences. Taking an essentialist view of asexual identity (that it is biologically innate to the subject- the way in which the subject relates to the world), desire and behaviour are immediately rejected as non-essentialist. This is because both desires and behaviours are acquired (cognition and conation are largely taught and learnt). Behaviour can even be involuntary which is why I tend to reject it all together- X might be raped (however ludicrous this may sound, X is still acting sexually); or X might deliberately place himself in an objectively sexual scenario because he has been taught that ‘this is what people are supposed to do’ (this behaviour is sexual on the face of it, but it bears no sexual relevance in light of subjectivity). Asexuality is seen, at least within my understanding (I am asexual), as instinct. Instincts and acquisitions ought to be kept separate in order to reach an accurate understanding of sexuality (or asexuality).

    Additionally, situating asexuality as a negative determinant is wrong as this immediately presumes that it bears a subordination or relation to sexuality (that it only exists where sexuality exists). Asexuality and sexuality are independent of another. In this light, asexuality should not be seen as a negative determinant, but rather a zero-level or neutral value (an absence of the positive). This is primarily what asexual identity is- a zero-level. Desires and behaviours that are acquired during the life-time of the subject are non-zero-level. They distort the subject into the positive (they radically sexualize the subject). This is why identity should not be defined by desire and behaviour.

    I admire your purported research; but please make sure that you situate and theorize the various suppositions that you are clearly endorsing. Suppositions are violent and exclusionary means that skew accuracy.


  4. Avatar
    June 23, 2014

    I have some more questions about this research, but for now there’s one thing that jumped out at me, which was this claim:

    “Relatively few people adopt the asexual label to describe their self-identity compared to other orientations within the LGBTQ array.”

    What exactly is this being based on? The authors seem to be suggesting that fewer people self-identify as asexual because it’s less of a “real thing” and therefore less useful as a label, but I question that assumption.

    First, what does “few people adopt the label” even mean? Is it referring simply to the fact that the estimated number of self-identifying asexuals is usually assumed to be smaller than the estimated number of say, gay or lesbian individuals? If so, that doesn’t necessarily say anything about the “identity” itself – it could just be a matter of the underlying biology or experiences that lead to asexual identity. After all, the overall number of individuals who identify as lesbian is much smaller than the number who identify as heterosexual – yet I don’t think anyone would believe that being lesbian is therefore not a “real thing”.

    Furthermore, while it’s true that some population counts tend to show more lesbians, gay men, etc. than they do asexuals – that’s because most such surveys don’t even allow asexual as a possible answer. It’s not that we don’t identify as asexual, it’s that we all too often aren’t even *allowed* to. Furthermore, even those who have a sense of “difference” often go years before stumbling across asexuality as a label for what they are feeling, often coining their own similar terms for lack of a common community. But what happens when you DO allow asexual as a possible identity option? According to one of the few recent large studies that allowed such an option, you get a pretty big response (see page 167):

    In fact, in the above data we see that when given the option, we see asexuals not only equalling but actually outnumbering all other individual LGB orientations. While the idea that asexuality is very rare compared to other orientations is a common assumption, it’s just that – an assumption. While the above example admittedly has limited applicability, it’s also some of the only currently available data that actually allows for asexual self-identification in a random sample. Almost all other existing data has either looked at asexuals alone or has not allowed for self-identification as asexual (e.g. studies that use lack of sexual behavior or reported attraction as a proxy).

    Of course, what the authors are perhaps more likely claiming is that that the ratio of individuals individuals who self-ID as asexual compared to those who are “potentially asexual” is somehow lower than that same ratio for say, self-ID gay men to “potential” gay men. If so, I’d first like to see what data they have that backs up that assumption – because based on the currently available literature on asexuality, there’s simply no information available yet on what that ratio might actually be.

    The other flaw with that line of thought is the assumption that when someone does not use the label “asexual”, it’s because they do not find it useful or real. Consider, however, that many people do not yet have access to the concept of asexual – and it’s difficult to use a word if you’ve never heard it. Second, for many of us who had not yet found the word asexual, we still had positive identities around those experiences – it’s just that the only labels we had at the time were the ones we improvised, whether it was the more mild “not interested”, “unsexual”, or “nonsexual”, or the more harsh ones like “broken”, “frigid”, “weird”, or “freak”.

    Finally, in reference to the core idea from the introduction that asexuals do not see asexuality as a positive orientation, that’s…not what any of those quotes were even saying. The statements given are all objections to the idea that sexual orientation should be the *sole*, *definitive*, identity of a person – not to the idea that asexuality is an identity at all. This is a sentiment that is quite common among LGBT discourse as well, if you listen – the idea that a persons sexual orientation makes up part of a persons identity, but shouldn’t be considered their sole defining characteristic is common to both LGBT and asexual discourses.

    Having a definition based around a negative does not make something a negative identity in itself, because the fact is that that in many cases shared lack leads to common shared experiences. Identities that are based on negatives are actually quite common – it’s not just an asexual thing. A vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat. An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in god. A Deaf person is someone doesn’t hear. While these all have “negative” definitions, they are also all positive labels that many people take on and use to form active communities around the shares experiences that result from their shared lacks – just as asexual people do.

    A true negative identity would be say, the fact that I am not from Belgium. Unlike say, being asexual or being atheist, I do not necessarily identify with anyone else who happens to also be “not from belgium”, nor do I expect to be able to connect with any shared experiences. I simply disidentify with the experiences of those who are from Belgium.


  5. Avatar
    June 23, 2014

    Also, the conclusion here is just disappointingly sensationalist anti-asexual nonsense:

    “These platonic practices are of course also enjoyed by non-asexual people, as has been shown in studies of long term relationships, families, and friendships, where they are vital to the day-to-day endurance of intimate bonds. Conversely, some asexual participants said that they engaged in sexual activity to satisfy their partners, despite not enjoying it themselves, regarding it an act of altruistic love. This blurring of boundaries and classifications challenges the idea that there are distinctly asexual practices of intimacy that are separate from sexual practices. Perhaps it even raises the question of whether ‘asexual people’ exist as a minority group who are essentially different from the presumed sexual majority. Could asexuality just be a way of relating to others and negotiating intimacy, which can be practised by anyone?”

    OMG. Did you also know that asexuals and other people both breathe oxygen? So you found that asexual and non-asexual people can both engage in acts of intimacy like kissing or hugging or even sexual intercourse. So what? This finding challenges nothing, because asexuality isn’t defined by what behaviors one is capable of engaging in, it’s defined by whether one has the innate sexual attraction that leads a person to desire certain sexual acts with specific individuals.

    If we use the logic in the authors’ conclusion above, after all, what even is the difference between any sexual orientations? After all, both gay men and straight men are capable of and report sometimes engaging in PIV sexual intercourse with women. Bisexual people and heterosexual people can both give hugs and feel close to others. Does that mean those identities don’t exist either? No. They’re still different groups because the essential difference is in their innate sexual attractions, not their behaviours.

    Like, I get the whole publish-or-perish thing and the desire to make things sensational and “radical”, but please, at least try to have some kind of reasonable basis – don’t just spout unsupported “what if” claims as if they were actual conclusions that follow from the facts (especially when the testimony of your own test subjects will refute it if you actually listen to them). There’s nothing radical or innovative about repeating the same old stereotypes we’ve heard a thousand times before.