Maybe I’m Not Really Asexual Because It Might Be A Disorder Making Me Feel This Way

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Some people think that a mental disorder of some sort might be at the root of their asexuality.  After all, something like Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder sounds very much like asexuality when you read about it.

Before we dive into that, let me first say that even in the case where there is something that makes you feel asexual, that doesn’t prohibit you from using the word.  If this is who you are, if this word accurately describes you and you find value in using the word, then you are allowed to use it, regardless of whether or not there’s some underlying reason.

Now, it is true that there are a number of conditions described in the DSM have criteria which sound like they’re talking about asexual people.  Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder lists “persistently deficient sexual/erotic thoughts or fantasies and desire for sexual activity”.  Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder lists “Absent/reduced interest in sexual activity.  Absent/reduced sexual/erotic thoughts or fantasies.”  (FSA/ID is actually the combination of two diagnoses listed separately in an earlier edition of the DSM.  For some reason, they combined a lack of sexual interest, which is a mental thing, and a lack of sexual arousal, which is a physical thing.  That seems like an odd pair of things to combine.)  Schizoid Personality Disorder lists “Has little, if any, interest in having sexual experiences with another person.”  And those aren’t the only conditions with similar descriptions, and the DSM isn’t the only diagnostic guide, these are just a sample of what’s out there.

So, there are things that psychiatric manuals describe in words that make them sound similar to asexuality.  What does that mean?

Maybe not as much as you think.  There are two important things to keep in mind.

  1. All of these guides and diagnostic manuals are descriptions based on observations. They are based on the idea of a mythical “normal” person, and any deviation from that is noted.  If they start seeing a pattern of these deviations, it can get labeled a “disorder”.  This is called “pathologization”.
  2. These guides are not infallible. There have been five major revisions of the DSM so far.  Some “disorders” are dropped, some are added, and some are refined to take into account new discoveries or new understandings.  There are things that are in the DSM-5 today that are flat out wrong and which will be removed in the next edition.

With that in mind, let’s look at how asexuality fits into this model.

First, between DSM-IV and DSM-5, the HSDD and FSI/AD descriptions were drastically changed and restructured.  One of the primary additions was and explicit exception that says that someone should not be diagnosed with either one, if they self-identify as asexual.  So that’s a direct recognition that asexuality is not HSDD or FSI/AD.  And one of the main things that was removed was the part of the diagnostic criteria that considered a partner’s distress.  Under the DSM-IV, someone could be diagnosed if their partner were distressed by the person’s lack of sexual interest, even if the person themselves were perfectly fine with it.  So, the DSM-5 has fixed some of the more egregious problems in the DSM-IV and that’s good, but that’s not enough.  Someone still has to know about asexuality in order to be able to “self-identify” as asexual.  If they’re ace, but have never heard the word before, they’ll get marked as having “Lifelong Generalized” HSDD or FSI/AD.  Why should a diagnosis depend on your vocabulary?

Let’s take a step back.  In point #1, I noted that things get into these guides because people notice patterns and put a name and some diagnostic criteria to them, and call them a “disorder”.  But in the case of HSDD and the “Interest” part of FSI/AD, maybe the pattern they’re describing actually is asexuality, and the only reason it’s listed at all is that no one really had the words to talk about it, so no one really understood it.  It became pathologized and called a disorder, instead of being recognized as a perfectly normal thing that a lot of people are.  And now that we have the words, we’re able to talk about it, we’re able to find others who feel the same way, and we’re able to say, “Hey, that sounds an awful lot like us, and there’s nothing wrong with us, so stop saying we have a problem.”

“What about distress?”, you say?  What if someone is distressed about their “Absent/reduced interest in sexual activity” or whatever?  Look at the source of that distress.  Very often, the source is the pathologization itself.  You are repeatedly told that everyone wants sex and everyone likes sex and that everyone will have sex and that everyone will find someone that they want sex with.  You are expected to provide a partner with an adequate and regular supply of mutually desirable sex.  TV, books, movies, music, friends, coworkers, all of it drills this message into your head.  So, if you realize that you don’t fit these expectations, that none of that is really part of your world, and you don’t know why and no one tells you that it’s okay, then of course you’re going to feel distressed.  Even when someone tells you that it’s okay, because the rest of the world still tells you that it’s not.

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Maybe I’m Not Really Asexual Because I’ve Fallen In Love

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What’s love got to do with it?

Sexual orientation and romantic orientations are different things.  For many people, their sexual and romantic orientations coincide, and can even reinforce each other.  But they can be different.  Some people experience romantic attraction, but don’t experience sexual attraction, or vice versa.  (And falling in love doesn’t even necessarily require romantic attraction, just like having sex doesn’t require sexual attraction.)

Did your love come with an accompanying aspect of sexual attraction or desire?  Something more, something different than “They want it, so I’ll go along” or “I kinda like how it feels, so sure” or “As long as I can keep reading my book, you can do whatever”?  If it did, was it there to begin with, or did it come later, and have you ever felt similar toward anyone else?

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Maybe I’m Not Really Asexual Because Isn’t Everyone Like This?

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To tackle this one, you should first try to get a sense of exactly what “like this” means to you.  Write down some of your feelings, things that interest or disinterest you, take some silly online “What’s your sexual spirit animal” type quizzes, come up with your personal list of “sexiest celebrities”, keep track of all the times you think or talk about sex or make some sort of suggestive statement for a week or so.  Try to build up some data about how you really feel.

Then, once you have that information, try to get some friends or other people to do the same and see if they’ll share the results with you.  If they won’t do it, or you’re uncomfortable asking them to, think about how they probably would have answered.

Now compare the datasets you’ve acquired.  Do the results seem similar, or are they wildly different?  Did you get “panda bear” on the spirit animal quiz, and all your friends got “rabbit” or “bonobo”, or are you all somewhere in the neighborhood of “blue jay”?  Do you have roughly matching sets of celebrities on your lists, or is your page blank and theirs needed five sheets of college rule paper, double-sided?  To go back to your original question, is everyone like this?

Let’s also take a moment to look closer at where “Everyone is like that” comes from.  In many cases, when someone says “Oh, everyone is like that”, it comes from a misunderstanding of what asexuality is.  People saying that often believe that asexuality is similar to celibacy or abstinence or prudishness, that is, they think being asexual means that you’re not willing to act on your sexual desires, not that you may not really have any to speak of.  They’re saying, “I won’t sleep with just anybody”, not understanding that you might be saying “I just won’t sleep with anybody.”  It’s also fairly common for people who are asexual but aren’t yet aware of asexuality to believe that everyone is, in fact, like this.  So maybe the person saying this is asexual themselves and just doesn’t know yet.

When I look around at “everyone”, I see that they are not “like this” from my perspective.  I see them talk about who they find hot.  I see them discuss sexual things they have done or are interested in doing.  I see them notice things I am completely blind to.  I see TV shows and movies and books with obligatory sex scenes and hear music about various anatomical interactions described in ways that won’t upset the FCC.  I see them seek out sexual encounters.  I see them act in ways and talk about feelings that are wholly alien to my personal world.

For everyone to truly be “like this” from my perspective, everyone would have to be constantly spinning fairy tales about things they’re not remotely interested in and then lying in response to the fairy tales that other people are telling.  It would have to be a massive global conspiracy where almost everyone but me was complicit in selling the Great Lie About Sex, and that humanity has been repeating this lie for thousands of years.  The pottery turners of Moche sold this lie, the carvers of the Khajuraho temples sold this lie, the tilers of the brothels of Pompeii sold this lie, the author of the Song of Solomon sold this lie.  A legendary knight wrote these immortal words in his famous poem:  “I like big butts and I cannot lie.  You other brothers can’t deny that when a girl walks in with an itty-bitty waist and a round thing in your face, you get sprung.”  Are you calling Sir Mix-A-Lot, knight of the Emerald City, known for his valiant deeds he and his squires performed on the Broad Way, are you calling him a liar?  Occam’s Razor and common sense dictates that this cannot be happening, that there is no ancient conspiracy to preserve the Great Lie Of Sex, which means that all of these people are truly experiencing something that I have never experienced.

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Maybe I’m Not Really Asexual Because I Haven’t Tried It Yet To Be Sure

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Quite a few people don’t want to call themselves asexual, because they don’t feel they can know for sure until after they try having sex and see how it goes.  There are several ways to address this doubt.

First, you can go through with it.  That would provide a definite answer one way or another.  If you decide to take this route, I would strongly suggest taking steps to ensure that the experience is the best it can be. You will want to be able to view it as a positive learning experience, even if it turns out that sex wasn’t for you after all.  Don’t rush into a situation you know you’ll regret later, just because it’s available.  If there’s anything about a situation that feels off or makes you feel uncomfortable, then don’t do it.  If you’re not into it (or at least consentingly neutral for the sake of experimentation), then you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a terrible experience, and there’s almost certainly nothing magical that’s going to make it all perfect and shiny.  Also, don’t let yourself get caught in the trap of “Maybe next time it’ll be different.”

However, before going that direction, take a step back and think about why you think it might make a difference to try it out.  Many other aces have had sex, and found that it didn’t change anything. And remember that being asexual doesn’t mean you have to dislike sex.  Asexuality is a sexual orientation, not an opinion on sex.  (Although many people do find that asexuality strongly influences their opinion on sex.)

If you feel you have to try it because other people have told you that it’s some sort of test of whether or not you’re truly asexual, well, those other people are wrong.  You don’t have try something to know it’s not your thing.  You don’t have to go skydiving to know you’re not interested, you don’t have to hug a cactus to know it wouldn’t be something you’d find pleasant, you don’t have to get a pet snake to know that reptiles aren’t your deal.  To bring it back to sexual orientations, a person can know for sure that they’re straight without needing to have had gay sex to prove it’s not something they’re into.  Hell, a person can know for sure that they’re straight without even needing to have had straight sex to prove it.  You don’t have to have sex just to prove that it’s not something you’re into.

If you feel you have to try it because you think an orgasm or the physical sensations might change your mind, consider the following:  Having sex is no guarantee of orgasm, and masturbation is an effective and reliable means of obtaining one without needing to involve someone else.  If you’ve never had an orgasm through masturbation, give that a shot first.  Knowing how your body responds and what works will go a long way towards making the experience better if you ever decide to have sex with someone else.  And if you have had an orgasm, do you think it’s going to make that much difference to have someone else involved?  The physical sensations will be about the same, so what do you think the emotional difference will mean to you?  Do you think that will be a clarifying and determinative factor for you?  Do you need to perform a physical act to get that emotional clarity?

If you think that sex is scary or disgusting or there’s some other emotional stoplight in the way, and you feel that having sex might get you past that point to a clear road ahead, stop and take a look at why you look at sex that way.  If you could eliminate whatever it is that’s there, if sex didn’t have that characteristic, would that change the way you feel?  Would you become more interested or would you still probably be ambivalent?  And keep in mind that you don’t have to be asexual just because you’re repulsed or averse towards sex, and you don’t have to be repulsed or averse towards sex just because you’re asexual.  Many people assume that those go hand in hand.  Indeed, for many aces, those feelings are strongly linked.  But you can be one or the other and not need to be both.  It’s possible for a person to be sexually attracted to people, yet also feel that sex is a repulsive, unpleasant act they want nothing to do with.  It’s also possible to be asexual, yet also feel that sex is the best thing since color TV.

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Maybe I’m Not Really Asexual Because I Have No Idea What Sexual Attraction Is So How Do I Know If I’m Feeling It Or Not

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This is a very common thought amongst aces.  If asexuality is described as a lack of sexual attraction, and you don’t know what sexual attraction is, how can you be sure you’re not feeling it?  Maybe you’re feeling it right now, you just don’t know that’s what it is.  (Or is that just heartburn…?)

Most people who’ve felt it describe it as being a distinct feeling, and that you’ll know it when you feel it.  This includes some gray-aces and demis, who’ve sat on both sides of the table.  However, “You’ll know it when you feel it” isn’t a great description, and probably doesn’t help much.

Here are some of the ways people who’ve felt it have described sexual attraction:

  • A strong desire to have sex with them.
  • A strong sense that you want them.
  • A electric spark or a lightning bolt.
  • A strong desire to be physically close.
  • A strong desire to do things involving genitals with them.
  • A need to touch them.
  • Everything they do makes you think of sex.
  • A strong pull towards them.
  • Arousal at the thought/sight of them.
  • A feeling that your rational mind is being overridden by downstairs.
  • A funny/good/warm sensation in the stomach.
  • Like there’s actually a magnet attracting you to them.
  • You want them inside you or want to be inside them.
  • Feeling hungry for them.
  • Can’t look away and don’t want to be away.
  • They become the only thing that matters.
  • Various “roar”, “wow”, “phwoar”, “aah-oooh-gah” noises happening in their heads and/or crotch.

Certainly, some of these can describe something else, like love or a strong friendship.  But in many cases, people describe it as something strong, distinct, and sexual in nature, and that combination might be helpful in distinguishing it from more run-of-the-mill feelings..  For instance, a cute puppy might make you want to touch them and create a warm/good feeling of happiness in your stomach, but you probably don’t want to have sex with the cute puppy.

It’s also noteworthy that many of these descriptions get a lot of “me too”s from people who had initially described sexual attraction differently.  That indicates that there is some sort of recognition of a common underlying force at work.  In other words, sexual attraction doesn’t feel like one of these, it sort of feels like all of these swirled together, in a way that’s impossible to accurately put into words.

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Maybe I’m Not Really Asexual Because I Get Aroused Sometimes

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Arousal on its own is a physical process that says nothing about whether or not a person is asexual.  There have been lab tests that show that ace people have similar arousability levels as non-aces.  Trying to say that someone must have experienced sexual attraction because they’ve gotten aroused is like trying to say that someone must love the outdoors because they’ve gotten sunburned.

Sometimes arousal just happens.  This is particularly prevalent during puberty, but can happen throughout life.  It’s usually more noticeable when it happens to a penis than a clitoris or vagina, because a penis is typically larger and more exposed, but the same thing can happen to a clitoris or vagina.  A common manifestation of spontaneous arousal is “morning wood”, that is, waking up with an erection.  This can happen regardless of downstairs equipment, and is just your body performing a self test.  It’s not a sign of a forgotten sex dream or secret sexual desires.

Sometimes arousal is the result of pressure or contact with the genitals.  The genitals are designed to react to stimulation.  This contact can be unintentional, for instance, if you’re wearing tight clothes or sitting a certain way.  This contact can also be intentional, for instance, if you touch or rub them or press them against something.  Either way, your genitals may interpret this as a sign that you’re preparing to use them, so they’ll get ready by becoming aroused.  This is strictly physical, and doesn’t require any kind of sexual thoughts.

Sometimes arousal is a response to sexual thoughts.  As with physical contact, your genitals may interpret these thoughts as an indication that you’d like to use them for something.  As we’ll get to in another post, having sexual thoughts doesn’t disqualify you from being asexual, so your body’s physical response to those thoughts doesn’t disqualify you, either.

And sometimes, yes, arousal is a response to sexual attraction. But that’s not the only reason.

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Maybe I’m Not Really Asexual Because I’m Curious About Sex

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Curiosity is normal.  Sex is an important thing in many people’s lives.  Some people rave about it as if it’s the only thing worth living for.  It’s central to many aspects of our culture and influences just about everything in some way.  Even things that have absolutely no connection to sex, like cars or computer monitors, get called “sexy”.  So it’s perfectly fine to be curious about it.

Maybe you want to know what it feels like.  Maybe you’re interested in the diversity of body shapes.  Maybe you want to know what’s so great about this thing people keep going on about.  Maybe you just want to see how someone else’s genitals work.  Maybe you want to know if it’s something you’d enjoy.  Maybe you’d want to know if trying it will change how you feel about it.  Those are all valid things to want to know, even if you’re asexual.

In some cases, aces may develop a “scientific curiosity” about sex.  They want to know all there is to know about this mysterious activity.  This curiosity may even manifest before they discover that they’re asexual, as a way of exploring the sexual realm, looking for something, anything, that might catch their interest and light that sexual spark that everyone says is supposed to be there.  But all that means is that you have a scientific curiosity about sex.  It’s not the result of misinterpreted sexual attraction.

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Maybe I’m Not Really Asexual But It’s Really Just My Religious Upbringing

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A lot of people wonder if their religious beliefs or their religious upbringing that’s responsible for their perceived asexuality.  They wonder if they’re just repressed, and if there might be a way to undo the effects of this repression.

One thing to consider is how easy you found it to follow your purity pledges or vows to remain chaste until marriage or whatever similar things they might have had you do.  Did you ever struggle with it?  Or was it smooth sailing the whole way?  Were you ever confused by how hard it was for some of your peers?  If they strayed, could you not understand how they could succumb to temptation so easily?

Were the religious messages strictly about abstinence, with no mention of marriage?  Most of the time, there is a component of the discussion where you’re supposed to wait until marriage, then you’re free and even encouraged to have sex with your spouse.  Do you think getting married would change how you feel?  Or do you think you would continue to find sex uninteresting and unappealing, even after you’re married?  Did you even dread the possibility of getting married, because it meant there would be sex? Has anyone in your peer group ever said or done something that makes them seem like they’re in a race to the altar, so the door to sex can be opened, and have you ever felt something remotely similar?

Did you ever feel that you were having sexual thoughts involving another that needed to be kept under control, because that’s what your religion required?  Many people who feel that they are negatively impacted by their religion’s teachings on sex know that it’s going on.  For them, it’s a constant struggle between how they feel and how they’re supposed to feel.

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Maybe I’m Not Really Asexual But I Have A Hormone Imbalance

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This one’s fairly easy: Go to your doctor and say “You know, I’m not all that interested in sex. Can I get a hormone test to make sure everything’s alright there?”

This may prompt your doctor to ask questions like “Are you always tired?”, “Are you losing your hair?”, “Are you gaining weight?”, “Were you previously more interested in sex, but it suddenly dropped off?”, “Are you feeling weak?”, “Are you feeling depressed or have you noticed other changes in mood?”, “Do you have memory problems or difficulty concentrating?”, “Is your period irregular?”, “Are you experiencing any erectile problems?”, and “Are you having trouble sleeping?”. All of those are also potential signs of a hormonal imbalance.  Ultimately, a blood test will tell you one way or the other.

If you do find that you have a hormonal imbalance, it may be good idea to seek treatment, if available. There’s no sense in suffering through any of the things listed above, just because you bought a bunch of purple shirts.

And even if you do discover that you do have a hormonal imbalance, you might be asexual anyway. It’s not like being asexual means you’re immune to hormonal imbalances. If a certain percentage of people are asexual, then it would make sense for a certain percentage of people with hormonal imbalances to be asexual, too.

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Maybe I’m Not Really Asexual But I Just Haven’t Met The Right Person Yet

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Okay, maybe you haven’t.  Maybe your one-and-only soulmate is out there somewhere, waiting for you to walk in the room and say hello.

But let’s talk numbers.

As of this writing, the population of the world is somewhere around 7.5 billion.  Let’s say that, for simplification sake, there are an average of five people per room, and that it takes you an average of 60 seconds to travel to a populated room, say “hello”, and scan the crowd for that instant spark of sexual attraction.  It would take you almost 3000 years to get through everyone, although statistically, you’re likely to run across The One™ in only around 1500 years.  Time to get moving!

Now let’s consider geography.  Even if you’re in the most populated country, there’s still an over 80% chance that your one-and-only lives in a different country.  When you consider people just in your immediate area, that chance drops drastically.

And finally, let’s talk demographics.  There would be a good chance that your one-and-only is significantly older or significantly younger than you.  So if you think you’re going to find them just milling about at a local coffee shop, you’re mistaken.  You’d better make sure to scout the local nurseries and nursing homes, just in case.

The idea of the one-and-only soulmate hiding behind a tree, waiting to be discovered is a myth.  If it were the case, the human race would have starved to death thousands of years ago, because everyone would be endlessly trekking from the Himalayas to the Kalahari to Redwood Forests of Northern California, hopelessly searching for their soulmate, rather than inventing agriculture.

Think about the number of times you’ve heard someone who isn’t asexual talk about how hot someone is, and how many different people they’ll apply that label to.  Certainly, some people are more vocal than others, but most people express attraction to more than one person.  Sometimes, it’s multiple people per day. Do you relate to that at all?  Do you know anyone (that isn’t gray-ace or demi) who has ever said “This is the only person I’ve ever been attracted to?”  Religions of the world wouldn’t have to spend any time at all decrying lustful thoughts and adultery, if everyone was only attracted to that one right person.

Given that most people have found multiple people attractive before they start dating, and many people are dating even before high school, if you are well past that stage in your life, that is a significant data point, one that should not be ignored and brushed aside.  If you have not met “the right one” yet, the one that sets your sexual alarm bells buzzing, chances are, you probably won’t.  And if you do, then demisexuality is a good thing for you to look into.

You can also flip this doubt around and look at it another way.  Maybe all the people who are straight or gay just haven’t met the right person yet, the one that will make them realize they they’re really bi or pan after all.  That possibility exists, yet people rarely give it much thought.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say “Well, I think I’m straight, but I don’t know, maybe the right man will come along someday, I can never be sure, so I think I’ll hold off on calling myself straight for now.”

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