This is the third part of a six-part series on asexuality, in which we explore the history of the asexual movement, uncover current research on asexuality, debunk common misconceptions and discuss the challenges the asexual community faces.
Masturbation doesn't make you sexual, says sex expert Lori Brotto. She estimates that half of all asexuals stimulate themselves on a fairly regular basis.
"People may ask, 'How can they be asexual if they masturbate?' I admit the finding did surprise me, too," said Brotto, the director of the University of British Columbia's Sexual Health Laboratory. "When you talk about masturbation, you may think of it as a sexual activity, but actually masturbation is not inherently sexual. [Asexuals cite] boredom, stress reduction, helping them to get to sleep, etc., as reasons behind masturbation."
Several male asexuals told us they masturbate frequently, some every day, and most used the phrase "cleaning the plumbing" to explain why they do it. One female asexual said that while she masturbates about once a month, she has no idea why she does it; it just feels like something she's biologically compelled to do.
"It's like an itch that you have to scratch," Luke Bovard, a 23-year-old graduate student at Canada's University of Waterloo, explained matter-of-factly, leaning back on a Brooklyn park bench during a recent visit to New York City. "There's nothing more to it."
Luke Bovard, who studies applied math, says he's been "vaguely aware" of his asexuality since his early adolescence. Finding the asexual community was a "relief," he says, as it helped him better understand himself and "articulate some of the thoughts" he'd been having about his asexuality. (Photo credit: Luke Bovard)
Though asexuals (or "aces") are often seen as individuals who are devoid of sexual desire, incapable of sexual arousal and averse to interpersonal intimacy, both researchers and asexuals alike say these are largely misconceptions.
In a 2010 study, Brotto says she found evidence that asexual women have a similar genital response to stimuli as sexual women -- in other words, a comparable sexual arousal response.
Still, despite evidence that sexual desire and arousal are not usually absent in asexuals, current research indicates that aces do have significantly lower sexual desire and arousal than sexual individuals. Orgasmic function also tends to be lower. Several aces even said that while they can experience orgasm (a reflexive response), it is almost always -- and this is a direct quote -- "meh."
Brotto's study indicates, however, that these lower levels are not caused by an "impaired psychophysiological sexual arousal response." As one asexual put it, "everything works, we just don't want to get somebody else involved."
Tellingly, most asexuals who masturbate say they rarely think about another person during the act, and even when they do, it's in a non-sexual context. Many aces say they think of nothing when they masturbate, while a handful indicated that certain fetishes, like BDSM, come to mind.
Brotto estimates that about 10 percent of masturbating asexuals masturbate to non-human images. One woman Brotto studied said she masturbates to mythical fairies.
THE ASEXUAL SPECTRUM
Still, though most aces neither want nor fantasize about sex with other people, that doesn’t always mean they are opposed to intimacy of a different variety: Romance is very much alive in the asexual community.
Aces say that asexuality, just like sexuality, exists on a spectrum. Most asexuals, when asked, will identify two orientations: a sexual one and a romantic one.
For example, while some aces identify themselves as both aromantic and asexual (meaning they generally do not feel romantic or sexual attraction toward other people), others say they do have the capacity to feel romantically toward others.
"[The ace lifestyle] allows you to see how sex and romance can be decoupled," said Anthony Bogaert, a professor at Canada’s Brock University and an authority on asexual research. "It allows you to see that when we automatically couple up romance and sex, as if they're naturally together, that's not true."
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Mark McClemont, who identifies as a homoromantic asexual, explains how romance and sex are delineated in his mind.
"I find men aesthetically attractive and emotionally alluring. I'm capable of having strong emotional feelings, and I'm also capable of falling in love, but sex and love for me are completely separate," the 49-year-old said. "I enjoy physical contact, and I don't find sex offensive. I just don't want to interfere with someone else's bits and pieces or have them interfere with mine."
There are also members of the ace community who identify as demisexual or Gray-A, which are identities that sit along the spectrum between sexuality and asexuality.
Demisexuals, explained Gwendolyn M., a 25-year-old designer who lives in Honolulu, are people who do not experience sexual attraction toward others unless and until they forge a very strong emotional -- and usually romantic -- connection.
Gwendolyn, who identifies as a panromantic demisexual, has been in a relationship with a sexual man for the past seven years. She says the bond generally takes a very long time to form, and even when it does, sex is possible, but it still remains relatively peripheral.
"I do have regular sex, and it is pretty nice," she said. "And I do feel some sexual desire under special circumstances … but I enjoy a lot of the sex with him only very partially from my own sexual desire, which is minimal. It's really from this secondary sexual desire, this desire to make him happy, that makes it enjoyable. That desire is a powerful force that stems from the head, rather than my libido. I don't hunger for sex the way other people might."
Gray-A's, on the other hand, are people who identify more generally in the gray zone between asexuality and sexuality. These include individuals who don't typically experience sexual attraction, as well as people who can desire and enjoy sex but only under very specific circumstances.
"Sexuality is so fluid, and Gray-A presents more of a possibility to be unsure. I don't understand all the intricacies of myself yet, so this is the closest approximation I've come up with," said Chris Maleney, an 18-year-old Pennsylvania high school student who identifies as Gray-A.
The specific language that has developed among asexuals has not just been useful in helping aces define themselves, but it's also worked to bring the community together.
"It's one of the coolest parts of our community," said David Jay, founder of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). "It's like a microcosm of the way in which everyone is experiencing intimacy that they don't have words to describe. Words like ‘girlfriend’ and ‘boyfriend’ and ‘it's complicated’ on Facebook aren't sufficient in describing intimacy. That's why [this language] developed. It acknowledges that we're experiencing a lot of different kinds of connections that we don't have words for."
Mark Carrigan, a Ph.D. student at the University of Warwick who has been studying asexuality for the past five years, agrees. He said this language could also be useful in a broader context.
"We as a society are very inarticulate about the quality and quantity of attraction. We have a very homogenizing, uniform language in which we talk about attraction and love,” said Carrigan, who recently published a number of articles about asexuality in the journal Psychology and Sexuality. “This distinction made in the asexual community between sexual and romantic attraction just blew my mind when I heard about it. It's a conceptually rich language that could be very valuable to even people who are not asexual."
Still, even with this powerful vocabulary, aces say navigating the world of relationships has not been made much easier.
Though some asexuals, like Gwendolyn, have managed to forge successful, healthy and lasting partnerships with sexual people, these relationships appear to be the exception, not the rule.
Many aces who have romantic inclinations say they would be open to finding romantic partners; some say they would even like to get married. But the idea of being in a relationship with a sexual person is often daunting and, some say, impossible.
"Relationships are the biggest hurdle in my life," said Brittainy Jones, a 21-year-old recent graduate who lives in Austin, Texas. "I can't just tell them that I'm asexual, I'm demisexual. It can make dating very, very difficult."
While most aces say that dating a sexual person is perhaps plausible ("Communication, communication, communication," was the mantra recited by several aces who have pursued relationships with sexual people in the past), many say that a relationship with another asexual is the most appealing option.
"Finding an asexual partner would be ideal. We could have a great life together, but I'm not expecting that to happen anytime soon," said Luke Bovard, a heteroromantic asexual who has dated sexual women in the past, shrugging his shoulders in resignation.
ISAAC & KATIE
Isaac Paavola and Katie Mathias look like any other young couple in love. Fresh-faced and bright-eyed, they sit just a little too close to each other on the sofa, all giggles and stolen glances.
But the pair, both 20, are a rare sort of couple. Both asexual, they represent the very small percentage of the ace community who have managed to connect with other aces offline. Even more magically, they've also found love.
Katie Mathias (left) and Isaac Paavola, both panromantic asexuals, have been dating since January. (Photo credit: Isaac Paavola)
Speaking via video chat from Paavola's Chicago living room on a Sunday afternoon, the couple happily described their relationship and what a positive experience it has been for both of them.
"This is the best relationship I've ever had," said Mathias, a panromantic asexual who dated a number of sexual men before meeting Paavola. "I feel so much more comfortable with Isaac. I trust him. I know there's not the same pressure, I know he's not thinking about [sex]."
Paavola and Mathias, who both grew up in small towns, met last year on Acebook, a dating and social networking site for asexuals. Finding a lot in common, they decided to meet in person at an AVEN event in January. They've been dating since then and recently decided to move in together.
"People often ask us, 'How is your relationship different from a friendship?'" said Paavola, also a panromantic asexual. "A lot of it is commitment, a lot of it is internal, emotional attraction. We don't have this physical ritual, sex, that defines this relationship, but we share a physical intimacy outside of sex."
"It amazes me when people assume that because we're not sexual, that we're not romantic, and that we don't touch or share affection," he went on to say. "There's a lot of things outside of sex that people do with their significant others that they wouldn't do with most of their friends. Our relationship involves the same two-person commitment and emotional connection sexual couples share."
Mathias and Paavola admit that before they met each other, they thought they might go through life without a romantic partner. But they say that's no longer the case.
"[Asexuals] just need to put themselves out there and organize. They need to attend meet-ups in their cities, try to meet other aces in person," said Paavola. "Now with Katie, I've never felt better about a connection with anybody, it's pretty promising. ... It's obviously possible."
This story appears in Issue 63 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, August 23.