Friday, 18 March 2016

What is it like to "come out" as asexual?

Participants were recruited via online asexuality communities
Sex, or talk of it, is everywhere, whether filling our TV screens or the conversations at the bar after work. Imagine then that you're one of the estimated one per cent of the population who actually don't have any sexual desire – an increasingly recognised status usually referred to as being "asexual". What is it like for such people to "come out" and tell the world that this is the way they are?

For a new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Nicolette Robbins at Yale University and her colleagues asked 169 self-identified asexual people to write an open-ended account of the development of their asexual identity and the disclosure of that identity to others. The participants were predominantly, but not exclusively, young women and they were recruited through three online asexual communities: AVEN, and Asexuality Livejournal.

Their answers give insights into their motives for coming out, their frequent relief at finding and sharing their identity, and they provide examples of how their disclosures were received, both positively and negatively.

The participants wrote about strong feelings of validation and liberation upon discovering online asexual communities. Many said they subsequently decided to come out as asexual so that their friends and family could understand them better, and to counter the pressure to meet cultural expectations to engage in sexual relationships. Other participants had only disclosed to their romantic partners, as a way to negotiate the terms of their relationship.

While the overall message from the study is of coming out as a positive, empowering experience, many participants described experiencing negative reactions from others. For example, one woman said: "My friends didn't believe me. One friend's exact response was 'you're not a tree'". Others spoke of the way people frequently told them it was "just a phase" and that they'd feel differently once they met the "right person".

Some participants had sought support from lesbian or gay friends, not always with much success: "I came out to my lesbian friend. She laughed at me and told me that I was being ridiculous ... My local gay switchboard told me that asexuality doesn't exist and that everyone wants to f*** someone."

Other participants said they'd been pathologised: "I've been called unnatural, and had people attempt to fix me by taking me to psychologists and therapists without my consent."

But there were also accounts of positive reactions: "When I told my parents, my mom was ecstatic. She knew that I had little to no sexual feelings growing up, so she thought it was great that I found the term asexual to legitimise myself." Another participant said: "When I told my friends none of them were really shocked. They had figured it out long before I did."

Not all the participants had chosen to come out, mainly because some just didn't see their asexual status as a big deal: "My orientation is not an important enough part of my identity for me to need to share it with others."

Based on their participants' accounts, the researchers have proposed a model of the asexual coming out experience with six stages from "identity confusion" all the way to "identity integration" with many of the ideas resembling similar theories proposed for the emergence of gay and lesbian identities. But Robbins and her team acknowledge this is all very preliminary – after all, their sample was confined to people who have participated in online forums – and they do not meant to impose or suggest there is a normal way for asexual identity to emerge. "Additional research on asexuality is needed before conclusions can be drawn about how identities emerge within this community," they said.


Robbins, N., Low, K., & Query, A. (2016). A Qualitative Exploration of the “Coming Out” Process for Asexual Individuals Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45 (3), 751-760 DOI: 10.1007/s10508-015-0561-x

--further reading--
AVEN - The Asexual Visibility and Education Network
People's "coming out" experiences are related to their psychological wellbeing years later

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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