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When sex isn't on the menu

April 16, 2005

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Some want physical closeness but not intercourse, and they may not be the rarity the rest of the community thinks.

Photo: Supplied

Some people are outing themselves as asexual, preferring to go to bed with a good book than someone else, writes Deborah Smith.

Like many young men, Michael enjoys cricket, parties and reading. But having sex, says the 22-year-old university student, is about as much fun as "watching paint dry".

Pressure to date girls during his teens meant that he ended up having sexual relationships with half a dozen young women.

"But it wasn't very fulfilling," he recalls. And three years ago he realised he did not want to have sex ever again.

Michael, from Tasmania, well remembers the first time he put a label on his sexual orientation. Rumours were circulating that he was interested in men, because he had stopped dating girls.

"Are you straight or gay?" a female friend asked him outright at a party. "I said, 'I'm neither. I'm asexual,"' he recalls.

He was not physically attracted to people of either gender. But now that he's thought about it, Michael also likes to describe himself as "bi-romantic". He is keen to have a romantic relationship with a man or a woman.


AdvertisementHow would it work? There would be no intercourse, but physical closeness, he says. "I'm not particularly into kissing, but I'm hooked on massages . . . And the emotional intimacy is what I would see as being ideal."

Michael may not be the rarity most would think.

Some surveys of sexual behaviour indicate there could be almost as many people who are asexual as there are gay. But in a society where sex is all-pervasive, asexual people tend to be invisible.

Kerry, a 21-year-old university student in Sydney who has never kissed nor masturbated, realised she was different in primary school when her girlfriends developed crushes on boys. Not wanting to be the odd one out, she pretended she felt the same way.

"Each year on the first day of school I would pick a boy so I could say I liked him and I wouldn't be teased," she recalls.

(Interest in sex ranges) from those who hardly have it to those who are biting the wall if they don't get it every day.As her teen years passed with no increase in interest, she assumed she must be a "late bloomer". For a brief period, she also thought she might be gay.

"But then I realised I didn't like girls either. It was a matter of elimination," she says.

Kerry hit upon the term "asexual" for herself in the final year of high school and a search of the internet led her to a website called Asexual Visibility and Education Network, or AVEN, which was set up by David Jay, an American in his early 20s who has also never experienced sexual attraction nor had sex.

"It was definitely a relief," says Kerry. "I realised I wasn't alone."

In the first study of asexuality published, Anthony Bogaert, of Brock University in Canada, last year analysed the responses of 18,000 British people to a 1994 survey on sexual attraction.

He found a "surprisingly high" number of people - 1 per cent - agreed with the statement: "I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all."

His results were published last year in The Journal of Sex Research and reported in New Scientist magazine.

While homosexual behaviour has been observed in more than 450 species, including wallabies and koalas, sheep have provided the best evidence so far of asexuality among animals.

Three different American research teams in the 1990s found that about 10 per cent of rams showed no interest in ewes. Up to 7 per cent tried to mount or sexually interact with other rams. This left about 3 per cent of rams that were sexually inactive.

Australian research on people comes up with a similar figure. Dr Juliet Richters, of the University of NSW, says that 6 per cent of people in a survey of almost 20,000 claimed they had never had sexual intercourse. Of the declared virgins, about half were under 20, and therefore likely to have sex later in life.

Richters says the remaining 3 per cent who will never have sex was probably an underestimation, because a further 2 per cent refused to answer the question. This sexually inactive group could include people from happily celibate nuns to those who are too sick, poor or unattractive to form a relationship, and who do not want to pay for sex or have a casual fling. Others may fear intimacy or have been put off sex by repressive parental attitudes.

But the group is also likely to include asexual people who simply don't want any sex, says Richters. "It seems clear to me there is a huge range in how interested people are in sex, from those who hardly have it to those who are biting the wall if they don't get it every day. Most are in the middle."

Professor Marita McCabe, of Deakin University, says people have different levels of drive in many facets of life, such as work and sport.

"Sex is a drive and falls into the same category," she says. "If you're not interested in sex, why should you be?"

It isn't a problem unless one partner's lack of interest is causing problems in a relationship, or making people feel bad about themselves, she says.

While AVEN is promoting A-pride, asexuality seems unlikely to become a big movement.

"It's not like it's a wild and crazy thing," admits Kerry, a conservatively dressed young woman with a passion for reading who wears her auburn hair pulled tightly back in a ponytail.

She has a busy life combining university with weekend work and volunteering at a community radio station and is not desperate for a relationship.

"If it happens, it happens," she says.

Her hope is that society will come to regard asexuality as normal and people will stop telling her she just hasn't found the right man yet.

Michael, who is tall but admittedly a little overweight, says he gets asked out on quite a few dates. If someone makes a pass at him in a bar he "runs the other way", he says. "But if I'm at uni and someone shows signs they want to have sex with me, I have a coffee with them and say, 'It's nothing personal, but I'm not interested in that facet of life."'

He wants people to realise that "a lack of physical drive doesn't mean a lack of emotional drive".

Asexuality has slipped under the scientific radar. The pharmaceutical industry has focused on people who want sex but can't get satisfaction.

And studies on the genetics of sexuality have been driven by trying to understand the biological enigma of homosexuality.

A complete lack of oestrogen in men has been linked, although only in five cases worldwide, to a low libido.

Both Kerry and Michael are not particularly bothered whether it is genes, societal factors or upbringing that mean they are not interested in sex.

"I'm perfectly happy being who I am," says Kerry.

Michael says: "It's not boring. I find it much more interesting to do a lot of reading about philosophy and the emotional side of life."

However, several young Australians contacted through AVEN said they had changed their minds since registering on the website.

"Asexuality in my life was a time of transition, albeit an extended one," said one young man.

Said another: "I realised it isn't for me. I can't control my urges."

Historian Dr Hera Cook says that in a different age, when sex was not used to sell everything from cars to washing machines, asexual people would not have felt so out of place.

She says there is a lot of evidence that the fertility decline in the late 1800s and early 1900s, before effective contraception was available, was due to people not having sex.

A lack of interest in intercourse was not portrayed as a problem for women then. And an asexual man could have lived an easy life, with difficulties only arising if his wife demanded to have children.

"Today we think about more sex as better sex," says Cook, who is affiliated with the University of Sydney.

The emphasis during the past 40 years has been on rejecting the sexual repression that dominated the first half of last century. But she claims that this public prudery reflected the private beliefs of many.

"There was a tremendous amount of support for it," she says.

Cook says she has spoken to several people who have been in relationships in which they have not had sex for up to five or six years.

"My experience is that people only start to talk about it at the time when their relationship is about to end," she says.

Both Kerry and Michael have told their friends and families that they are asexual, but neither was ready yet to "come out" publicly and have their surnames used in this article.

Kerry, who has two siblings with a normal interest in sex, informed her parents by leaving an information sheet from the AVEN website in the icebox her parents were taking on a trip.

She says they were concerned she might have been trying to protect herself from relationship disappointments.

Michael believes having a father who is gay is one of the reasons he is open to thinking laterally about his own sexuality.

"My parents are OK about it as long as I'm happy," he says.


Apparently people looking frustrated or sleepy in bed is some sort of corresponding symbol for us:


I'm also not sure if the part about 'ex-asexuals' was really necessary-not because it hasn't happened but as far as I know it hasn't happened often and it seems pointless to draw attention to that.

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Thats the same one out of the SMH. Looks like it got more than 4 million potential viewers!

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Cate Perfect

To Kez: Really? Oh my. *prepares self for influx*

Sacred, I liked your point about us being represented by people who look sleepy in bed. It made me: :D

I also agree that the comment about ex-asexuals seemed superfluous. I mean, every article about gay people doesn't include some 'But SOME change!' comment about ex-gays. Are they trying to reassure people or what?

Overall, it's a good article--fair-minded, I think.

Thank you, Official AVEN Mediasurfer. :)


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Yup. I think it was distributed to all the major newspapers... so thats a potential readership of 20 million.

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