Dossier: Sexuality

Asexuality: a happy life without sex

People who identify as asexual experience no sexual attraction to others. It was long considered abnormal. But experts say that it’s actually just one orientation among many.

Author: Anna Miller; photo: iStock

We all know the feeling of not wanting sex from time to time. There are many reasons for not wanting sex at a given moment – perhaps we’re tired, we’ve had a bad experience, we’re going through a rocky patch in our relationship or we’re not feeling well. But some people never feel sexual attraction. They’ve never understood what all the fuss is about when it comes to kissing, oral sex or sexual intercourse. Being asexual is when a person has no interest in sexual interaction and don’t feel like they’re missing out.

Asexuality is a sexual orientation

According to the official definition, anyone who defines themselves in this way is asexual. But how do I know if I’m asexual? Asexuality is a sexual orientation characterised by a persistent lack of sexual attraction toward any gender. For many asexuals, this lack of desire for sexual interaction is a constant. This feeling has always been there and hasn’t changed over the years, regardless of the person they are with. However, this doesn’t mean that an asexual person doesn’t feel any sexual excitement at all, they just don’t want sexual interaction with another person. There is no single “asexual experience”.

Asexuality isn’t a medical condition

Unlike sexual desire disorders, which can be diagnosed and treated, asexuality is not a physical or mental disorder. “If a person has a basic desire for sex, but then loses it and suffers because of it, this is a form of sexual desire disorder,” says Nadia Lehnhard, sexual health specialist at Sexuelle Gesundheit Schweiz. “Asexuality doesn’t belong in this category.”

Psychologically speaking, treatment is only necessary when the person suffers as a result of their condition. Unlike people who usually feel sexual desire and then lose it, asexual individuals don’t suffer as a result of their situation. “Most asexual people are very content with the fact that they have no desire for sex or feel no sexual attraction. They don’t feel they are missing out,” says Lehnhard. So they don’t need treatment.

Misunderstood by others

And that’s what people don’t understand. People who aren’t asexual often can’t understand that a person can live a happy and fulfilled life without sex. This is because society is still mainly driven by a heterosexual narrative about what makes life worth living: a close, primary relationship (usually between a man and a woman) that is sexual and, in many cases, results in children. At some point, usually at the start of puberty, the school playground is the first place that young people feel attraction – they fall in love, suddenly the girl next door is hot, everyone wants to kiss, touch, be physical with each other.

If you browse asexual forums or read articles on the topic, it’s clear that people who identify as asexual don’t feel the same way. These “coming of age” moments meant nothing to them. At school, they had no answer to the question about who they fancied. They felt no desire to be kissing with tongues and wondered: what’s all the fuss about? Their world doesn’t revolve around sex or questions of attraction. They prefer to talk about other things, even when it seems everyone else only has one thing on their mind. 

“It’s the people around them who constantly question their lack of interest in sex that’s the biggest problem, because it makes them ask themselves: what’s wrong with me?”
Nadia Lehnhard, sexual health specialist at Sexuelle Gesundheit Schweiz

The constant feeling of being different can lead to psychological problems among asexuals. Persistent questions about when they’re finally going to have a girlfriend or boyfriend. The feeling that they always have to explain themselves. “Those who identify as asexual are usually totally at ease with their situation, because they don’t feel they’re missing out on anything. It’s the people around them who constantly question their lack of interest in sex that’s the biggest problem, because it makes them ask themselves: what’s wrong with me?” says Lehnhard.

One reason is that asexuality isn’t a commonly discussed issue. There are still hardly any figures on the phenomenon worldwide. The first international study on asexuality was only conducted in 2008. In this study, around 1% of those surveyed stated that they had no interest in sexual activity. This response was given by many more women than men. There are no official figures for Switzerland. Many asexuals also report an “aha” moment, a blog post, a video or an article that they stumbled across. And they recognised themselves in descriptions of those with a total lack of interest in sex. How it feels. Many people say that it feels like nothing. 

The causes of asexuality are unclear

This “nothing” remained unexplored by research and public debate for hundreds of years, even though the first descriptions of people who feel no desire for others date back to early centuries. Until a few years ago, entering “asexuality” as a search term in Google would only result in hits for amoebas in relation to this phenomenon in the animal world. It’s unclear what causes asexuality . “No one is born asexual, everyone has a fixed genetic identity. However, a person’s hormonal balance and sexual orientation may change over the course of their life,” says Elke Krause, head of the gynaecological outpatient clinic at Inselspital Bern, in an interview with SRF. However, it is quite possible that a person may become asexual and have no interest in sex.

The internet in particular is helping asexual people to network, raise awareness, increase media coverage of the issue and also encourage associations and, above all, the queer community to campaign for greater visibility and education. Asexuality is now also represented with an A in the acronym LGBTQIA+. Many asexuals are finding a new home in the queer community, where classic role models are scrutinised and sexuality is seen more as a spectrum of possible forms. 

Asexual individuals can form loving, fulfilling relationships

Those not interested in sex are quickly assumed to have no interest in people, relationships or friendships in general. Many people don’t understand that one is possible without the other. But many asexuals have close connections and feel love, warmth and affection for family and friends. Some also enjoy masturbation, and feel purely physical sexual pleasure.

And an asexual person can also have a romantic relationship. There is a diverse spectrum of identities and experiences when it comes to asexuality. There are also asexual people who are aromantic, i.e. don’t experience any romantic feelings. But not all people who are asexual are aromantic – and vice versa.

“People who identify as asexual can also have romantic relationships.”
Nadia Lehnhard, sexual health specialist at Sexuelle Gesundheit Schweiz

Asexuality in partnerships: talking helps

How do you deal with asexuality in a partnership? The most important thing, says Lehnhard, is to take your feelings seriously, find out more about the topic and talk to your partner. Both parties need to talk openly and honestly about what they want and what they need. A desire for sex is just as important as a desire for no sex. People who identify as asexual can have romantic relationships. They may be platonic, but they don’t have to be. “Relationships can take many forms. There are many reasons to have sex other than pure physical desire.” Reasons for being physically intimate include a need for closeness and a feeling of security or simply physical relaxation.

Within the asexual community, there is a diverse spectrum of identities and experiences. “We can learn a lot by considering different ways of life and relationships,” says Lehnhard. Sexual interaction and closeness have to be negotiated in any relationship. Most couples don’t have the same needs. You have to talk to each other, explain your needs and set boundaries. “A relationship in which people have to redefine their roles is a great opportunity to think about what we need. This process can make us more aware of our own needs and those of our partner.”

About the expert

Nadia Lehnhard is a sexual health specialist at Sexuelle Gesundheit Schweiz (Sexual Health Switzerland), the Swiss umbrella association for specialist sexual health services. More information is available from the Swiss Aromantic Asexual Spectrum (AroAce) website.

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