Asexuals, the group that Kinsey forgot
How Anthony Bogaert’s pioneering research on asexuality is forcing us to rethink human sexual behaviour.
|Psychologist Tony Bogaert stands against a backdrop of the asexual pride colours. Photo: Daniel Ehrenworth.
In January 1948, the American sexologist Alfred Kinsey administered a shock to the hearts, minds and libidos of post-war North America with Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, the first of two books in what would come to be known as the Kinsey Reports.
By year’s end, the book had become a cultural phenomenon, selling more than 200,000 copies, thanks in no small part to its eye-popping observations, which included the Kinsey Scale: a measurement tool that was used to classify the surprisingly eclectic sexual behaviour of Kinsey’s 5,300 interview subjects.
The scale ranked sexual desire on a range between 0 and 7, with zero representing exclusive heterosexuality; seven, exclusive homosexuality; and one through six, a range of bisexuality. Dr. Kinsey used his scale to collect and publish a series of findings that caused a sensation at the time, including: 10 percent of males interviewed were homosexual, more than a third (37 percent) of males reported having a homosexual experience, and nearly half had experienced sexual feelings for women and men. At turns titillating and taboo, the findings gave Kinsey’s report a remarkable cultural cachet and helped launch a new age of human sexuality research.
But those who expressed no interest in sexual behavior, asexuals, were given short shrift on the Kinsey Scale. Instead, they were allotted their own category which Dr. Kinsey identified with an “X.”
According to Dr. Kinsey, approximately 1.5 percent of his adult male subjects fell into the “X” category, meaning that they expressed “no socio-sexual contacts or reactions.” In his 1953 follow-up, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, he estimated that between one and four percent of male interviewees, and from one to 19 percent of female interviewees, were asexual.
And that was pretty much it for the study of human asexuality for the next 50 years. While the study of sexuality flourished throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, the study of asexuality was practically non-existent, limited to the biology of plants and animals and some limited theoretical academic work.
That is, until 2004. That’s when Anthony Bogaert, a psychology professor at Brock University, published a paper that ignited academic interest in the long-neglected and often misunderstood “fourth sex” (as he calls it). “He really jump-started international research into the field of asexuality with his 2004 paper,” says Lori Brotto, a well-known sexuality clinician and associate professor in medicine at the University of British Columbia.
His paper, “Asexuality: Prevalence and Associated Factors in a National Probability Sample,” did something that was mundane, yet brilliant: it asked what made asexuals tick.
In the decade since, Dr. Bogaert has published on a range of topics unrelated to asexuality, including the role that physical attractiveness plays in the coming out of gay men and how birth order seems to influence homosexuality in males. But it’s his body of work on asexuality that has been the most influential. “His work has had a profound impact,” says Dr. Brotto.
Not only has it convinced many in the research community to completely rethink their views of asexuality, but it’s offered some much-needed validation to asexuals and the fledgling Asexual Pride movement. In his latest work, 2012’s Understanding Asexuality, Dr. Bogaert draws on his research and that of others to make a compelling and at times eloquent case for asexuality as a “new” sexual orientation, one that deserves a place alongside heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality.
As he’s found out, it’s an idea that’s almost as controversial as anything Alfred Kinsey proposed a half-century ago.
Tony Bogaert’s breakthrough moment came in 2003 during a sabbatical from his job at Brock University’s department of psychology. He was reading a 1994 survey about the sexual behaviour of men and women in the U.K. when it struck him.
“I noticed that one of the data sets had a fascinating question that expanded beyond the traditional sexual orientation questions,” the 49-year-old explains from his office in St. Catharines, Ontario. “Aside from saying ‘Who are you attracted to: men, women or both?’ they actually gave people an option of ‘No one.’ A light went off in my head and I thought, ‘Hey, that’s asexual people.’ This particular sexual minority had not really been studied before, and I thought ... why not concentrate on this aspect of the sexual orientation spectrum?”
His paper, published in the August 2004 edition of the Journal of Sex Research, suggested that slightly more than one percent of the general population was asexual and that they appeared to share a number of common traits, such as height, weight, socio-economic status and degree of religiousness (which was high).
Despite the preliminary nature of his findings, Dr. Bogaert’s paper provided a sobering second take on the western world’s sexually obsessed culture, and within a few weeks the New Scientist contacted him for an interview. That article triggered unanticipated media attention that lasted several years and led to dozens of interviews with the likes of the New York Times, the Guardian, 20/20, and a guest spot on an asexual-themed episode of The Montel Williams Show.
During this period “the media kept asking all these fascinating questions [about asexuality] and I couldn’t answer some of them,” he recalls, “and that made me think even more deeply about asexuality.”
In 2006, Dr. Bogaert published a follow-up paper, “Toward a Conceptual Understanding of Asexuality” in the Review of General Psychology, in which he sought to better articulate and define asexuality. In it he took care to set asexuality apart from sexual conditions such as hypoactive sexual desire disorder, a persistent (but temporary) lack of sex drive that is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) and often gets confused with asexuality on a clinical level. He argues that this has contributed to the erroneous labeling of asexuals as being either sexually repressed, “late bloomers” or, worst of all, “broken.”
He also separated asexuality out from celibacy (a personal choice) and aromantics, who express no interest in romantic relationships. In fact, Dr. Bogaert suggests that many asexuals have romantic feelings but don’t express them sexually, an idea borne out by the recent popularity of so-called “snuggle parties” for asexuals – gatherings of like-minded people who are looking for physical contact without the sexual complications that such behavior typically leads to.
His insights, which were built on interviews with asexual people, were extremely well-received by the emerging asexual community, many of whom embraced Dr. Bogaert as a champion for their cause.
David Jay, the 30-year-old founder of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), says Dr. Bogaert’s pioneering work and vocal public support was welcomed by asexuals, in part because they were accustomed to decades of indifference from the research community.
“I think [the Kinsey Reports] are a great example of the way that we’ve been treated historically,” Mr. Jay explains from his home in San Francisco. “Researchers acknowledged that we existed, but no one talked about us directly.
“Tony’s studies, more than any others, have helped us to establish in the press that we’re an issue that’s worth paying attention to. It’s a body of research that every asexual person knows – we throw it around in discussion a lot – but more importantly, it’s a body of research that has allowed many people to find a community that will accept them.”
Dr. Bogaert’s recent book, Understanding Asexuality, compiles the growing body of research into an in-depth and engaging exploration of the subject that manages to inform, entertain and provoke. For example, sample chapter headings include “The Madness of Sex” and “To Masturbate or Not to Masturbate.” (For the record, some asexuals masturbate to relieve tension.) The book offers an unstuffy and at times stirring defence of asexuals and asexuality in general.
In a key early chapter, he traces the history of asexuality back to the beginning of life on Earth, pointing out that for two-thirds of natural history, asexuality and asexual reproduction was actually the norm. (Sexual reproduction likely first took place among simple organisms called eukaryotes about 1.2 billion years ago.)
From there he goes on to explore the history of human asexuality, taking some time to speculate on notable asexual figures through time, including scientist Isaac Newton, writer Emily Brontë and illustrator Edward Gorey, all of whom exhibited asexual tendencies, he argues. One might as well add to this list singer Morrissey and comedian Janeane Garofalo, who have both made public statements about their asexuality, and Tim Gunn, host of TV reality show Project Runway, who came out as asexual in January 2012.
As it happens, there’s no shortage of famous asexuals in fiction either. It’s an intriguing list that includes Jughead Jones from Archie comics, Gilligan (from the 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island), Sheldon Cooper (from the contemporary sitcom The Big Bang Theory) and perhaps the most celebrated asexual in literature: Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the reputed asexuality of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most enduring character is so renowned that there are entire websites devoted exclusively to asexual, romantic Holmes fan-fiction.
Though the research is still in its early stages, Dr. Bogaert writes that asexuals are still interested in (and capable of) building lasting romantic relationships with others. The percentage of married asexuals is lower than in the general population, at around 34 percent, but asexual people do want lasting relationships of a non-sexual nature, often with other like-minded asexuals; this fact has led to asexual dating sites and online forums, like those found on AVEN. Although there hasn’t been a lot of research on the family life of asexuals, Dr. Bogaert says that it wouldn’t surprise him if some do have children.
But the most fascinating sections of the book delve into the mental landscapes of asexuals, exploring their experiences and articulating how they view the rest of society. According to Dr. Bogaert, it is not uncommon to find asexuals who consider the obsessive sexual preoccupation of the majority of the population as unusual and even abnormal.
“There’s a kind of different view of the world if you take an asexual perspective: this idea of how odd and mad sex is. I mean, sex is part of the great story of life, but it’s also utterly mad. It’s a madness that most sexual people suffer from gladly, but they still suffer from it,” he notes.
“If you really think about it, sexual people in the medical clinical community say that asexuality is a disorder, but it’s like, have you looked at yourself? Have you looked at what sex makes people do? Once you start seeing things in that way, you start really questioning whether or not a label of normality should be applied to asexuality.”
Reaction to Dr. Bogaert’s unique outlook from the academic and clinical communities has been largely positive. His work likely played a part in the fact that the next volume of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM V, will for the first time differentiate asexuality from sexual disorders. And while the reviews of his book have been positive (Booklist called it “an unusually intriguing and enlightening inquiry”), many in the popular media have been less than kind to his asexual arguments.
In 2006, during an episode of the TV show The View, AVEN founder Mr. Jay was mocked by one of the hosts as “repressed” and accused of “faking it.” Last fall on the FOX TV show Red Eye, Dr. Bogaert’s book and the asexual pride movement in general were ridiculed by the show’s acerbic host and his guests. Even the notoriously open-minded U.S. sex columnist Dan Savage has questioned the legitimacy of the asexuality movement and AVEN itself.
Dr. Bogaert isn’t surprised by such reactions. He draws a parallel between what asexuals are experiencing and the discrimination gays and lesbians went through at the dawn of the gay rights movement of the 1970s.
“I think that people react to asexual people as if they’re freaks or weird, and really broken, maybe even sort of sub-human,” he says. “There’s a kind of foreignness there that average sexual people can’t get their heads around.”
Perhaps this helps explain Kinsey’s asexual X. Dr. Bogaert, who has “an enormous amount of respect” for Kinsey’s work, says he thinks that the famed researcher may have done more harm than good by separating asexuals out from his scale “as if he just didn’t know what to make of these people. It was like he was branding them in more of a mysterious way.”
The decision may have had long-term effects on how several generations of sexologists understood asexuality and asexual people, he observes. “Sexologists are no different than other people, so they may have excluded them, maybe even thought of them as oddballs. But in the context of a ‘sex is good’ and ‘sex is healthy’ framework that most sexologists believe in, asexuality is to some degree a challenge.”
Dr. Bogaert hopes that the last decade’s growing body of knowledge on asexuality will lead to a greater acceptance of this behaviour across society, in part because we all stand to learn something from seeing sexuality through a new lens.
“It’s not just about asexuality,” he says, “but how we think and frame [questions] about sex in general. From a sexology point of view, studying the absence of sex actually gives us a much more interesting viewpoint on sex than we ever had before.”
Brad Mackay is a journalist based in Ottawa.