Scientist Isaac Newton, writer Emily Brontë, fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, singer Morrissey, and comedian Janeane Garofalo all share an unlikely commonality: they were or are thought to be asexual.
An asexual, or “ace,” is someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction or a desire for sex—an anomaly in today’s sexually preoccupied world. The phenomenon has garnered increasing attention in recent years as human sexuality experts and the media attempt to understand it.
For the last decade Anthony Bogaert, a psychology professor at Brock University in Ontario and a leading expert on asexuality, has been working to change the notion that being asexual is some kind of problem or disorder.
“It used to be the case that a lack of sexual interest, a lack of sex drive, or a lack of sexual attraction to other people was not necessarily construed as a problem—it was actually considered to be a virtue,” Bogaert explains.
“That sort of changed in the past 20 years or so, when the medical community became interested in looking for treatments, interventions related to human sexuality, and an absence of sex was starting to be construed as a problem.”
Asexuals often have a life-long disinterest or little interest in sex, says Bogaert. He notes, however, that asexuality is not the same being sexual but choosing to be celibate, or experiencing a temporary loss of sex drive from an illness or traumatic experience.
Bogaert jump-started international research in the field of asexuality with his 2004 paper “Asexuality: Prevalence and Associated Factors in a National Probability Sample,” which suggested that at least one percent of people are asexual. In Canada, that would be nearly 350,000 people.
He has been an influential authority on the subject ever since, culminating in his latest book, “Understanding Asexuality,” which characterizes asexuality as an emerging sexual orientation.
Bogaert’s studies have also challenged popular attitudes and norms in today’s sex-obsessed Western culture.
“When you start looking at it you start to see sex for its particulars and some of its strange intricacies and manifestations. It also makes you start to think about, really, what is a disorder and what is not a disorder,” he says.
Bogaert’s work has been extremely well received by the global asexual community, many of whom see the professor as a champion of their cause. It has also likely been instrumental in changing attitudes in the academic and medial communities. For example, last year’s edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders differentiated asexuality from sexual disorders for the first time.
Amy de Vos, a 21-year-old Kitchener-based photographer, has identified as an asexual since the age of 16. She says that although awareness about asexuality is growing, she still encounters many misconceptions.
“’You just haven’t found the right person’—that’s probably one of the most significant responses I’ve gotten,” she says.
“It’s kind of saying, ‘you don’t know who you are.’ I am very aware of myself, so I don’t like people telling me that.”
De Vos coordinates meet-ups with other asexuals in her area, usually groups of 10-12, but says it isn’t easy to meet others like her. She hopes to get married one day but doesn’t want children, and plans to remain celibate.
“Sometimes you kind of wish that you weren’t [asexual] so that you could find more people like you,” she says.
But there’s a positive side to asexuality, she adds— putting the focus on someone’s character and compatibility when choosing a partner as opposed to animal attraction.
“Personally I think it’s just more healthy to focus on those romantic aspects and someone’s personality, as opposed to lust,” she says, adding that she finds the modern obsession with sex “disconcerting.”
“Especially if someone isn’t that sexual, there’s a lot of pressure on people to act.”
According to the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), the main online portal for the global asexual community, there are a wide range of relationships amongst asexuals: many enjoy romantic partnerships, others are satisfied with close-knit friendships, and some are happiest alone.
“Figuring out how to flirt, to be intimate, or to be monogamous in nonsexual relationships can be challenging, but free of sexual expectations we can form relationships in ways that are grounded in our individual needs and desires,” the website states.
With increasing attention paid to asexuality in recent years, the community appears to be expanding. Several dating websites for asexuals have cropped up, and a documentary examining asexuality is currently available on Netflix.
One of the largest-ever gatherings for asexuals will be held in Toronto on June 28 at the 2014 WorldPride Asexual Conference, featuring international visitors including the founders of AVEN.
This exposure is important, says Bogaert, because the more asexuality comes into mainstream consciousness, the more “closeted” asexuals will be able to identify it in themselves and avoid an identity crisis.
“If you don’t have a label for yourself and you don’t know what this is you can’t really ‘come out,’ so to speak, and be part of an ‘out’ minority and be counted,” he says.
“If you don’t have a label for it people just assume they’re part of some other group.”