PSA: Attraction and Desire are Not Synonyms

So there’s a new study out about asexuality (which is free to read, and available here), and I’ve barely started reading it, and I’m already annoyed. Check this out:

“[AVEN] holds that an independence from sexual desire is the key feature of asexuality, claiming that ‘an asexual is someone who does not experience attraction.’ Asexuals might choose to develop an emotional closeness to particular individuals that is devoid of sexual contact. Or, they might engage in sexual behavior, but experience no desire or pleasure in the act.” (emphasis mine)

But… but… that’s not what it says at all! Not experiencing sexual attraction is NOT the same thing as being independent from sexual desire! And asexuals CAN take pleasure from sexual behavior.

Look, really, what is so hard to understand about this? It’s possible for an asexual person to experience non-attraction-based desire for sex. Nothing about my partner (or anyone else) is sexually attractive to me, and yet I still sometimes think, “Oh, that would be nice.” Because it’s pleasurable. Imagine that.

I am so sick of this misconception being perpetuated. I really wish people would cut it out.

Reading further, their measure of whether a person is “behaviorally asexual” (i.e. whether they are virgins, though they refer to it as celibacy even though it is a measure of lifetime rather than current/recent sexual activity) is 1) for males, answering “no” to the questions a) “Have you ever had vaginal sex with a female?” and b) “Have you ever had anal or oral sex with a male?” and 2) for females, answering “no” to the questions a) “Have you ever had vaginal sex with a male?” and b) “Have you ever had sexual contact with a female?” Meaning that apparently, males and females who have had anal or oral sex with one another still count as celibate? What? No. Stupid.

I find it really bizarre that there are such vastly different standards for what counts as homosexual female sex vs. heterosexual sex. I mean really, any sexual contact vs. specifically PIV sex? And why exactly doesn’t anal or oral sex count if it’s between a male and a female? But it does for any other combination of participants? Plus there’s the issue of manual stimulation, which counts as sex, but only if you’re a girl with another girl. What’s up with that?

I also just don’t think that trying to retrofit some old demographic survey to figure out how asexuals might have responded is going to result in any meaningful data at all, considering that there weren’t any responses provided with the idea of asexuality in mind. Make new surveys with new response options, and THEN analyze the data. Even if their definitions of what constitutes asexuality weren’t so ill-conceived, this is really just grasping.

I am not impressed.

11 thoughts on “PSA: Attraction and Desire are Not Synonyms

  1. Before publishing this study, the same authors had presented an earlier version as a conference paper, and I had read that a while back, so I announced this one on my blog without have gotten a chance to read it (I’d just looked at the abstract and the first page or two.) I wasn’t impressed with the conference paper, so I had rather low expectations for this one as well. However, I also have a policy of not editorializing on these things when I announce them, nor would I want to not announce a new paper on asexuality simply because I wasn’t too terribly impressed with it.


  2. But I sort of understand why they’re equating desire and attraction. They’re dividing orientation into three axes: desire, behavior, and identity. I’m not sure if this is the standard understanding, but I’ve seen it before in other papers. Between these three axes, attraction is definitely in the desire category.

    And I could be wrong about this, but my impression is that the desire axis, as defined in the literature, is not meant to include anything more than attraction. Keep in mind that they’re not necessarily connected with asexual discourse, and may not define “attraction” and “desire” in the same way we do. (And how are “desire” and “attraction” defined in asexual discourse anyway? I’d define desire as any kind of motivation for sex, but I’ve heard some people define desire as just libido.)

    But all the confusion over the definition of “desire” is moot because the question they used asks about attraction. The question was, “People are different in their sexual attraction to other people. Which best describes your feelings? Are you… Only attracted to the opposite sex; Mostly attracted to the opposite sex; Equally attracted to the opposite sex and the same sex; Mostly attracted to the same sex; Only attracted to the same sex; Not sure.” The real problem with this question is that they had to use “not sure” as a proxy for asexuals.

    That wasn’t the only bad proxy they used. For identity, the possible answers were heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or something else, and they took “something else” to be asexuals.


  3. Wow. I just opened the study from Andrew’s link, and was all excited. Then I went to your blog while it was loading and now I’m all WTF?!’d.

    You’re right, this really isn’t so hard, especially for somebody who’s, like, -researching- the subject. I completely agree with your points, and won’t frustratedly reshash them in a comment…except that I can see how academics could define “desire” and “attraction” differently than we do, but did nobody inform them that asexual people can participate in, enjoy, and even want sexual things for a number of reasons, just sexual attraction isn’t one of them?

    Their implied definition of Sex is pretty wacky, but even if they defined it as something we’d agree with, and even if that happened to be relevant as far as being “behaviorally asexual” (like, behaving like an asexual? So you mean, not thinking of relationships/people/life in light of your sexual attraction?), it’s still wacky. It’s exactly like saying, “Are you behaviorally straight/gay?: Have you ever had sex with a person of the opposite sex? How about of the the same sex?” If ‘yes’ to either, then You Must Be [straight/gay], even if you just tried something out that one time at the beach. And gosh, what are you if you’ve had sex with both, ever?? (Automatically bi?) The question could define you as being any sexuality it wanted!


    • “but did nobody inform them that asexual people can participate in, enjoy, and even want sexual things for a number of reasons, just sexual attraction isn’t one of them?”

      And not just asexuals, but sexuals, too. The authors could do worse than go off and read the UTexas study on the 237 reasons people have sex, only about half of which have anything to do with attraction.

      It bothers me to think that professional sex researchers use a behavioural definition that would have made me “behaviourally asexual” at age 20, at that age having done pretty much everything with women short of PiV intercourse, and I’d unsuccessfully propositioned people for that, too. But worse is the idea that a rape victim would count as “behaviourally heterosexual” or “behaviourally homosexual” if they’d never otherwise had sex with anyone of the same sex as their rapist. That’s not stupid, that’s offensive.


  4. It’s interesting how people can never just take the definition for what it is.
    “Does not experience sexual attraction” = “celibate”?
    “Does not experience sexual attraction” = “doesn’t like sex”?
    “Does not experience sexual attraction” = “doesn’t know that they are gay”?
    Its not that hard people.


  5. I read the study and had major problems with it. The one that shocked me the most was their “finding” that aces are not as educated as sexuals. Wha?! How do they prove that when they admit with their insanely overinclusive criteria that they have NO IDEA how many respondents actually identified as asexuals? Sigh. And I was greatly amused by the table in the study that said 90 percent of male respondents were attracted to only men. (And the award for strangest typo goes to..)
    Then it said 90 percent of men were hetero. Why not just stamp “worthless” on page 1 and call it a day?


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