Can Life Without Sex Be Happy?
In a world where we hear endless details of celebrity sexual addictions and behaviors, it's not always easy to know what's normal, excessive or lacking when it comes to an individual's sex drive. Is it ever okay to have absolutely no sexual desire? Is this part of the normal continuum of behavior, or does the total absence of desire indicate that something physical or emotional is amiss? The concept of asexuality as a normal variation is currently being evaluated by the authors of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the guidebook used by mental health professionals). They called it "Inhibited Sexual Desire" in the 1980 version and modified it slightly to "Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder" in 1987 -- but some now argue that there is no need for a diagnosis or to label it a "disorder" for those who feel complete and fulfilled living an asexual lifestyle.
I asked Nicole Prause, PhD, who has coauthored several studies on asexuals (the preferred term) about all this. She told me that there's plenty of evidence that asexuality is real, but she does not believe it belongs in a guidebook of psychiatric diagnoses at all. "I see no evidence of asexuality as a disorder that requires treatment," she explains. Dr. Prause says that her 2007 study (published in Archives of Sexual Behavior) found no evidence that the absence of interest is always rooted in a sexual trauma or that it is evidence of an underlying hormonal imbalance or other pathology. (Note: Any or all of these may sometimes precipitate decreased sexual desire.) She also noted that people don't report "growing out of it" but rather tend to retain their asexuality as they age.
Dr. Prause cited a study that found that asexuality occurs in both genders and is thought to affect about 1% of the general population. Not all asexuals actually are celibate. Some report that they engage in sexual activity to please their partners, and an earlier study found that 44% of asexual respondents were in relationships (heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual).
Most interesting to me was that Dr. Prause said that her research has found that most asexuals are not unhappy about their lack of sexual desire. In fact, they cited several benefits -- including not having to deal with the complexities and difficulties of intimate relationships... feeling less social pressure to be attractive in order to find a partner... even, in some cases, a perception that the lifestyle gives them the benefit of more free time. Some drawbacks were acknowledged as well, such as the difficulty of establishing couple relationships that don't include sex... concern about whether their asexuality has a problematic cause... a negative public perception of asexuality... and curiosity about desire and sex, as well as some sadness about not enjoying its positive aspects, including closeness and the excitement of attraction.
Are You Asexual?
The online site Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) now has 30,000 registered members (http://www.asexuality.org/home/). Dr. Prause suggests that the site might be helpful to anyone wanting to learn more about asexuality and pointed out that it is a good place to find and talk to like-minded people. And, noting that this research is still very preliminary, she said that people who do find their lack of desire troublesome should absolutely visit a physician and/or psychologist to investigate whether there might be a root cause that should be addressed.
Dr. Prause adds that we would all do well to keep in mind that there is a tremendous and normal variability of sexuality, as sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey discovered many years ago. There are people who are willing to put their marriages, even their lives, at risk for the sake of exercising their high-pitched sexual drive. Why then, she asks, should it be surprising that there are people at the other end of the spectrum?
Nicole Prause, PhD, assistant professor, clinical psychology, Idaho State University, Pocatello.
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