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Asexuality

Some parents may be concerned because their teenager appears to have no interest in sexual matters at all. There are various possible causes, among them asexuality, which characterizes about 1% of the population.

 

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Some parents may be concerned because their teenager appears to have no interest in sexual matters at all. There are many possible reasons why this might be the case: autism spectrum disorder (ASD), gender dysphoria, discomfort with their body or appearance, sexual inclinations your teen is not comfortable disclosing to you, a conscious decision to defer romance and dating until they are independent adults, or asexuality. We shall explore each of these phenomena. In some of these cases there is little you can or should do as a parent; pushing a child to attend school dances or other social events can be a mistake. In other cases, you may be able to help them build self-confidence and self-understanding.

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Asexuality is an ongoing lack of sexual desire for others and low desire for partnered sexual activity. Prior to the mid-90s, the word “asexual” was almost exclusively used by biologists to describe organisms that reproduce without sex [1]. Since then, it has increasingly been used by people to identify themselves as entirely or predominantly uninterested in pursuing sexual relationships.

The word “asexual,” often shortened to “ace,” can encompass a broad range of sub-identities. For instance, people who fall under the “ace umbrella” can include those who identify as “graysexual,” meaning that they rarely, intermittently, and/or mildly experience sexual desire for others, and often only under certain conditions [2]. Meanwhile people who are “demisexual” are people who only experience sexual attraction in the context of a very close relationship [2].

Often discussed alongside the asexual spectrum is one’s “romantic orientation” or “affectional orientation.” One romantic orientation focused around who one is romantically attracted to. Most asexual people nevertheless desire romantic relationships, and like sexual orientation, people can be heteroromantic, homoromantic, and biromantic. Like asexuality, many people are also aromantic (“aro” for short), meaning that they experience little or no romantic attraction to others, as well as grayromantic and demiromantic.

Asexuality, lack of sexual attraction to others, is not the same as having no libido or sex drive. One study (n=534) showed that 56% of asexual people masturbated at least monthly [3]. In another study (n=187), 80% of asexual men and 77% percent of asexual women reported having masturbated, with men reporting a significantly higher frequency of masturbation than women [4]. Some asexuals even have sex with others for various reasons, such as pleasing a partner, having a child, or trying to “change themselves” and begin to desire sex.

This has led many, including psychologist and asexuality researcher Anthony Bogaert to conceptualize asexuality as a lack of sexual desire for others, what he calls a “nondirected” sex drive [1]. This explains the number of asexual individuals (19%) who report masturbation despite having never experienced a sexual fantasy [4]. Many asexuals describe masturbation as a primarily physiological and functional activity for relieving tension and maintaining bodily equilibrium – “cleaning out the plumbing,” as it is sometimes called [5].

Other asexuals do fantasize while masturbating. However, these fantasies do not involve themselves, i.e., they are dissociated from the people and acts they are fantasizing about. This is what Bogaert (2015) calls “identity-less sexuality” or “autochorissexualism.” As one asexual individual on AVEN (Asexuality Visibility and Education Network) wrote: ‘‘It’s scenes in the third person; I may have a generic male character which is kind of me, but it’s still separate from me, mentally watched rather than participated in’’ [1].

Hence, the ace identity has similarities to the queer identity; it is broad enough to encompass a wide variety of people while maintaining a sense of shared community and experiences [6]. It also collectively counterbalances the assumption that one is not fully human unless one desires sexual relationships with others.

Considering that asexuality has often been assumed to be a human impossibility, it is sometimes confused with celibacy. Celibacy is the conscious decision to forgo sexual activity, regardless of one’s level of desire. Celibacy is usually undertaken for religious purposes, either until marriage, or lifelong in the case of Catholic priests and some Buddhist monks. Celibates refrain from sexual activity with other people, and sometimes even with themselves, however much they may long for it. Asexuals, meanwhile, exhibit a distinct lack of desire for partnered sexual activity, although they may have sex.

This brings us to the question of the asexual identity. Some argue that asexuality should be classified as a sexual orientation, while others believe that while asexuality is not a dysfunction, it is also not a sexual orientation in the same manner as heterosexuality or homosexuality [6]. Notwithstanding, there is reason to believe that asexuality should be theorized within a sexual orientation framework [6,1].

For example, the asexual identity formation process has marked similarities to that of other sexual minorities. Many asexuals report a general sense of “feeling different” from their peers, primarily starting around the time of puberty [4,1]. This is often followed by a period of doubt and questioning. Even among quite sexually accepting communities, asexual minors may have a more limited vocabulary to define people like themselves, because asexuality is generally ignored  in popular media. Young people may instead feel it is a deficiency in themselves and their capacity to mature as rapidly as their peers.

Once introduced to the asexual community, many asexuals report taking an interest in the term very quickly. The act of self-identification with the ace community, as mentioned above, can be seen as a way of attributing meaning and validity to experiences, something very important for people who want to connect their individual and their social selves. However, coming out as asexual does not always put an end to the confusion. Not only do people dismiss asexuality as a legitimate identity,  but asexual people are a heterogenous group with multiple sub-identities, and even the occasional infighting.

When David Jay founded the AVEN website while just a college freshman, he witnessed many of the early conflicts over definition, such as whether or not a person can be asexual and masturbate, and whether or not asexuals should consider themselves “anti-sexual” (i.e., asexual supremacists) [7]. Jay had a different vision for the ideal asexual community, and that was to build a place where people could find others with experiences similar to their own and acquire the tools to cultivate a personal identity. In this way, AVEN has a prohibition against telling people whether or not they are asexual. Instead, people are encouraged to ask questions and decide for themselves [7].

For instance, during an installment of the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 on asexuality, one asexual woman described her relationship with her fiancé. She claimed that the two of them are asexual, and that sex is not an important part of their relationship. However, as she states, they had been slowly trying different things in the bedroom, and although they had not yet had sex, she says she might be interested in trying it. The interviewer responds by asking her, “you’re like one of the leaders of the asexuality movement, and you’re thinking about having sex? Do you feel, at all, hypocritical that you might wanna have sex?” [8]. This question clearly demonstrates the challenges inherent in asserting the validity of one’s sexual identity while still allowing for changes that may occur in one’s life.

Estimates on the percentage of the population who are asexual vary somewhat between studies. One study in the UK found that 0.5% of people are asexual [9], while another study using New Zealand high school students put the percentage at 1.8 [10]. According to Brotto & Milani (2022), 1% seems to be a reasonable estimate [6].

Because asexuality is a relatively understudied issue in human sexuality, the percentages of people who identify as asexual vary depending on the narrowness of the definition [11]. It must also be recognized that “sexual attraction” in general is still a vague concept in scientific literature, and may mean different things to different people [12]. For example, when sex researcher Lisa Diamond interviewed a number of women who reported some same-sex attraction and asked them what they meant by “attraction” she found “‘a diverse range of responses that seemed utterly incomparable to one another’’ [13].

Along with other forms of non-heterosexual identity [14], asexuality may also be increasing among the young. Partnered sexual activity among adolescents and young adults has been steadily decreasing over the past several years [34,35], so we can at least say that behavior consistent with asexuality is more common. Sex researcher Debby Herbenick suggests that one of the possible reasons for this is the fact that asexuality is becoming increasingly accepted as a valid sexual identity [36]. Moreover, it is worth noting that of the people who identify as asexual in one study, 91% are in the younger age cohort (18-27) [37]. While the decline in partnered sexual activity among contemporary youth is likely explained by a variety of factors in addition to the increasing visibility of asexuality, the decrease in sexual activity may lead to more people contemplating asexuality as a possible feature of their self-identity. 

Methodological issues complicate the study of (specifically asexual) population sizes, “including an inconsistent awareness of self-label(s), hesitancies in coming out, fluctuating allegiances to a label, and political motivations” [1]. Given the diversity of experiences among people who identify with the asexual label, Chasin (2011) suggests that “asexuality be considered as a continuous variable, not a categorical one” [15]. Choosing to identify as asexual can be seen as a meaning-making activity, and can help people articulate why they have difficulty relating to what they see as a sexually and romantically compulsive society.

Identities, though, can be challenging to navigate, and as young people develop and mature, they may experiment with different identities. Being asexual at one stage of one’s life does not necessarily mean that one will always be, just as the urge to be sexual can change over time. Asexuals face deniers on the one hand, people who refuse to believe in the existence of asexuality, or conceptualize it as a psychological deficit, and gatekeepers on the other hand, members of the asexual community who refuse to recognize a commonality with others who do not meet their more rigorous definition of “asexual.”

Prior to the growth of asexual activism and acceptance efforts, asexuality only appeared in medical and sexological literature as a sexual dysfunction named Hyposexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). However, these are two separate phenomena with many overlaps, which means that teasing them apart requires some effort.

Some of these distinctions are medico-biological, others are experiential and conceptual. According to Bogaert (2006), for a person to have HSDD, they must experience distress or interpersonal difficulties due to their lack of sexual desire. Second, while asexual people may experience an “undirected sex drive” and engage in masturbation, people with HSDD typically experience a consistently low sex drive in general. Lastly, people with HSDD have usually had a higher sex drive previously that had been affected in some way by later developments (e.g., low testosterone, psychiatric problems, etc.) [16].

Hinderliter (2013) has taken this a step further and claims that while these distinctions may be largely true, they are less interesting than how characteristics of an individual’s desire for sex are separated into these categories. He writes that dysfunction is a value-laden term implying a “cure” [7]. This also cannot be separated from the increasing role of the pharmaceutical industry in sex research, an industry that has no incentive to underdiagnose or narrow the criteria of a sexual dysfunction [7].

This is not to say that HSDD is not real, that it does not cause distress, particularly in individuals who are married or want to be, and that medical interventions are useless. Just as not all asexual people have HSDD, not all people with HSDD are asexual. HSDD is often accompanied by other issues such as a difficulty achieving orgasm and erectile dysfunction, and what is particularly important, people with HSDD want to have sex despite their low libido. In one study comparing people with HSDD and asexuals, 93.2% of people with HSDD wanted to engage in intercourse and other sexual behaviors, while 83.9% of asexuals preferred not to engage in any sexual activities [6]. 

Asexuality and disability have had an uncomfortable and occasionally antagonistic relationship. On the one hand, asexuals have resisted the alignment of themselves with disability. People with disabilities, meanwhile, has been historically assumed to be asexual, an assumption the disability rights movement have fought hard to dispel. As each group has campaigned for dignity and recognition, each has occasionally and inadvertently contributed to the stigmatization of the other.

This is compounded by the fact that people with disabilities, particularly people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), are overrepresented in sex and gender minority populations, including homosexuality, transgenderism, and indeed, asexuality. In one study of women ages 18-30 with ASD, 36% identified as being on the asexual spectrum. Of the 88 participants on the asexual spectrum, 59 identified explicitly as asexual, while the rest identified as questioning asexuality (n=9), gray-asexual (n=7), and demi-sexual (n=7) [11].

In another study by Marriage et al (2009), in a community sample of individuals with ASD, 33% exhibited traits of asexuality [17]. These numbers may be somewhat lower in reality, as people with autism who struggle with social relations and experience sensory overload may appear to mimic characteristics of asexuality, although their lack of interest in sexual relationships with others is a result of other factors. However, considering the higher rates of non-heterosexuality and non-cisgenderism among people with ASD, it is possible that both autism and sex and gender variance, though distinct, are each influenced by particular pre-natal factors that cause these overlaps.                 

The best way to read asexual and disability narratives with a “dual affirming lens” is to look to the people who identify as both asexual and disabled [18]. As disability is often attributed to asexuality and vice versa, asexual disabled people are placed in a double-bind, violating the official message of each part of their identity [19]. As one individual wrote in her blog:

 

“[T]here is an astounding amount of ableism in the arguments people use to try and invalidate asexuality, ranging from ‘you should get your hormones checked!’ over ‘that’s a disability, not a sexual orientation’ to ‘you’re just all autistic!’ You can imagine how the last one feels to me as an asexual autistic person! Worse, parts of the asexual movement buy into this and will talk about how they’re not autistic, their sexuality is valid – unlike mine, apparently?” [20].

 

Hence it may appear that each of these marginalized groups, in their opposition to social, cultural, and medical assumptions, are destined to marginalize each other. However, this is not necessary. For one thing, most disabled people are not asexual, and most asexual people are not disabled. The correlation is not an equivalence.

Furthermore, any causal links between the two should not be used to invalidate either, or imply that one or the other is in need of “fixing.” Asexual people, disabled people, and asexual disabled people can, together, resist the implication that human beings are simply a compilation of symptoms to be diagnosed.

Another marginalized group that notably overlaps with people under the asexual umbrella is transgender and gender non-conforming people (TGNC). According to a survey from the AVEN Census Project, 28% of respondents chose a gender identity that did not align with their biological sex [21]. In a survey sponsored by the Trevor Project, 41% of asexual youth identified as transgender or nonbinary, and another 13% questioned whether they were [38]. Furthermore, in one study of transgender participants in a sexual education seminar (N=181), 11% identified as asexual [22].

Finally, in the 2011 Asexual Awareness Week survey (n=3436), 51% of respondents identified as female, while 13% identified as female-ish (those who checked the “female box” in addition to some other boxes such as “gender fluid,” “unsure,” and “gender neutral.” Meanwhile, 9% of participants identified as “male” while 4% identified as “male-ish”. 23% of participants were grouped as “other,” meaning they chose both “male” and “female,” or neither “male” nor “female” [23].     

Why this is the case is not quite certain, though there are several hypotheses. Firstly, as with ASD, many characteristics of TGNC seem to mimic asexuality, particularly among the transgender and gender non-conforming individuals who experience gender dysphoria. Many people with gender dysphoria struggle with feeling sexual attraction to others and with enjoying sexual intercourse from within a gender-dystonic body. For many people with gender dysphoria, sexual attraction is sourced not only from the traits of the desired object, but from a particular conception of oneself [24].

Additionally, sexual orientation revolves around a definition of gender. A homosexual man is homosexual because he is attracted to members of the same gender. Without gender, gay, lesbian, and bisexual are words that would not have meaning [25]. Hence, people who are asexual may not feel as conditioned into their biological sex as much as, say, a heterosexual boy might come into greater identification with his maleness via his ongoing attraction to females.

Once again, though, as with ASD and sexual orientation, pre-natal influences likely have a role to play in gender variance. Furthermore, for transgender people who are in the process of transitioning, hormones are known to dampen desire. Certain hormones, particularly anti-androgens taken by transwomen, can lower the libido and make erections more difficult to maintain [24]. This is obviously distinct from asexuality, but can lead to similar experiences.

As with disability, the intersections between asexuality and gender variation can cause some discomfort. Unlike people with disabilities, TGNC people have not been desexualized in modern culture. If anything they have been oversexualized, and even attacked as sex predators and hounded for “deceiving” heterosexually identified people into homosexuality or “grooming” children into alternative lifestyles. Asexuality is therefore not as much of a threat as the TGNC identity. However, many asexual TGNC people experience fear that people will automatically attribute one of these features of their identity to the other without seeing them in a whole-person context [24].

In spite of this, many TGNC people can use their asexuality as an asset, particularly if they consider transitioning. If bodily congruence is their primary desire, a transwoman, for example, may receive a penectomy and vulvaplasty (the removal of the penis and the creation of the vulva), though if they are not anticipating penetrative sex, they may more easily forgo a vaginoplasty (the creation of a vagina), which is a more invasive procedure and has more risks of complications [24].

Of course, transitional procedures still must be considered very carefully before any surgeries are undergone. Even if satisfying sex with others is not a concern, numerous asexual people still enjoy masturbation, an activity which may be made more difficult after a procedure on the genitals. In general, integrating one’s gender identity with one’s sexual needs must be done on an individual and case-by-case basis. 

Although in social justice discourse, asexuality is rarely mentioned alongside more popular identities, people on the asexual spectrum frequently encounter stigma, and can be seen as constituting an “invisible minority.” According to one survey of college students, asexuals were deemed, even by other sexual minorities like gays and lesbians, the least likely to possess “human nature traits” [26].

Sexual desire for other people is often listed as one of the fundamental aspects of being human [26]. Hence many conceptualize asexuals as cold, robotic, entities without feeling or passion. Many people in the LGBTQ+ community are reluctant to acknowledge asexual people as well. According to one interviewee in a qualitative study by Cuthbert (2015), the apparent lack of political persecution, incarceration, and violence against asexual people leads many queer people to ignore and dismiss the discrimination against asexuals and assume that they cannot relate to the history of heteronormative oppression [19].

There are, of course, many differences between the stigma against asexuals and the stigma against other sexual minorities like homosexuals. For one thing, few people doubt the truth of homosexual people’s same-sex attraction, however much they may disapprove of it. The existence of asexuality, however, is often disbelieved entirely. As another study participant, interviewed by MacNeela & Murphy (2014), explains, “Most of the time, people find a way to dismiss asexuality so that they can continue to claim that all human beings are fundamentally sexual creatures’’ [27].

MacNeela & Murphy (2014) identified four major denial narratives in their research on asexual people’s experiences. These are (1) the belief that they have a disorder of desire (repression, cognitive deficiencies, etc.), (2) the belief that they are going through a phase or looking for attention, (3) the assumption that they have just “not met the right person yet, and (4) (for asexual females) that a disinterest in sex is typical of women in general [27]. As a result, many asexual people report that their friends and family respond to their asexuality in three different ways, all negative: ignoring it, considering it a lie, and re-interpreting it to be a sign of something else (e.g. gay or lesbian identity) [27].

Asexual people often desire romantic relationships with others. According to Diamond (2003), the processes in the brain that make up sexual attraction are related to, but distinct from those that make up romantic attraction, with the processes controlling sexual desire being evolutionarily older [28]. Thus asexuals can quite easily find themselves falling in love with other people, despite having no desire to have sex with them, and according to Bogaert (2015), approximately 33% are in a relationship [1].

Modern culture assumes that sex can exist without romance, although it seems less sure that romance can exist without sex, or at least the desire to have sex. According to Olsson (2022), many asexual people have difficulty understanding their feelings of romantic attraction outside of the discourse of sexual desire, which can lead to them believing that their romantic feelings aren’t real [2].

Romantic orientation, like sexual orientation, can be directed toward people of the other sex, “heteroromantic,” toward the same sex, “homoromantic,” or towards both sexes, “biromantic.” In addition to romantic attraction, other types of attractions that are sometimes discussed in asexual communities include emotional attraction, aesthetic attraction, physical attraction, sensual attraction, intellectual attraction, and platonic attraction [7]. Furthermore, even though asexual relationships do not or only rarely involve sex, many asexual people still enjoy other types of physical contact including kissing, hand holding, hugging, cuddling, etc.

While asexual people often desire these sorts of relationships, asexual dating has unique difficulties. One of the biggest difficulties is meeting a partner who understands, accepts, and respects their asexual identity. As one woman states, ‘‘It has been confusing because I desire intimacy with women, just not sexual intimacy,’’ and another women states that people often assume that they do not really love them unless they are willing to have sex with them [27].

To compensate for these issues, many asexual people have opted to look for partners online on asexual specific forums and dating sites. Many find these to be a much less stressful alternative [24]. Others are content to find romantic partners in their daily lives. However, since asexuals are a small minority, this can have its challenges. Often, sex is expected. Women may have a hard time in particular expressing their asexuality, as gendered assumptions portray most women as asexual by default until a man has properly seduced her. If a woman continues to refuse sex from a man, he may react aggressively, regardless of how many times she has explained to him that she is asexual.

As a consequence of this, while asexual people are shown to have similar rates of depression to the general population, they score higher on social withdrawal, anxiety, and interpersonal difficulties [29]. Much of the literature on mental health problems within the asexual population relates to feelings of exclusion, isolation, and “not fitting in.”

Meanwhile, asexual aromantic people (aro-ace’s for short) are a minority even within the asexual community. While most asexuals experience romantic attractions, 26.6% of asexuals (n=1229) report no romantic attractions [30]. Not experiencing romantic love is one of the greatest taboos in modern society. As one aromantic person put it, ‘Love songs and most movie plotlines proclaim the beauty and supremacy of love, portraying people without such attachments as lonely, misanthropic, or deeply flawed in some way’’ [27]. 

Many parents dread the day that their child starts dating and becomes sexually active. They anticipate educating them on safe sex, dealing with breakups, etc. As uncomfortable as this obligation is, however, developing sexual attractions and seeking romantic relationships are also seen as among the surest ways of knowing that teens are on the correct developmental track, while their absence is seen as indicative of maladjustment [31]. This being said, parents may find themselves in an even bigger panic if their child just doesn’t seem that interested either in girls or boys. If this is true for your teen, what does it mean?

First of all, there’s no need to rush your son or daughter into the dating market. There’s little data to suggest that adolescents who delay dating until adulthood experience any negative effects. While some studies demonstrate that a healthy relationship in high school can contribute to positive self-esteem and interpersonal skills [32], other studies show that teens who didn’t date fared equally well, or better than, teens who did date on both social and mental health outcomes [33].

However, if your teen seems to have no interest in dating; if you never hear them talk about sex around their friends; if they never mention any crushes, you may start to feel worried about them. Are they asexual or on the asexual spectrum? The best thing you can do in this case is to simply talk to them about it. If you’re not used to broaching subjects of such a sensitive nature, here are some articles that might come in handy: https://www.moms.com/talk-teenagers-about-sensitive-topics/https://www.commonsensemedia.org/articles/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-difficult-subject,    https://raisingchildren.net.au/teens/communicating-relationships/tough-topics/difficult-conversations-with-teens.

When you ask them these questions, it might not be a good idea to use the word “asexual” so quickly into the conversation. Instead, keep it casual – ask them if there are any people they are interested in and whether or not they would like to ever bring anyone over for a date. If they say that they just really don’t seem to like other people the same way that their peers do, and they don’t know why, asexuality might be a possibility.

Before encouraging them to learn more about asexual identity, however, the two of you should explore some other possibilities. Asexuality is still a misunderstood phenomenon, and many things may be affecting the sexual attraction patterns (or lack thereof) of a teenager. Body image issues, specifically gender dysphoria, can limit a person’s sexual desire for others, as people with gender dysphoria often only feel sexually attracted to others within the framework of a specific view of themselves. It is also possible that they are somewhere on the autism spectrum, as ASD shares many overlaps with sex and gender diversity, including asexuality.

Another possibility could be HSDD. HSDD is not at all common in teenagers, but it can be caused by many things, including certain medications, poor body image, medical problems, stress, depression, etc. If your teen happens to have HSDD, how can you find out for certain, and there any medical/psychiatric options you can explore? You should be taking them for regular checkups anyway, and while you are at the doctor’s office you can encourage your teen to ask their doctor about this if they are experience no or very little sexual attraction to others. A qualified therapist or child psychiatrist should also be able to diagnose this condition.

If there is no underlying medical problem, they may be asexual. If they are unsure, you can direct them to a number of asexual forums where they can read the testimonies of others and see if what they are reading is similar to their experiences. By far the largest asexual forum is hosted by AVEN, which you can check out here: https://www.asexuality.org/en/. Meanwhile, some other great places to find out more about asexuality and the ace community included: https://asexualoutreach.org/#story, https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com, https://www.whatisasexuality.com/intro/.

Also remember that romantic orientation is distinct from sexual orientation. Many asexual people still desire romantic relationships, as well as other sorts of relationships, though they might not realize this due to their lack of desire to have sex with others. Encouraging them to seek out romantic partners even without sexual involvement can help them find much fulfillment, and it may even contribute to their better understanding of their asexuality, including determination of the sub-identity they best relate to such as graysexuality and demisexuality.

Above all, avoid telling them anything about themselves or pushing them towards seeing themselves in a particular way. Asexuality is an aspect of the rainbow community that is uniquely discredited and erased, and as a result, asexual identification has a sometimes defensive function. However, all forms of self-identification involve ongoing reflection and cognitive reorganization of ideas and values. One thing that will make this process difficult and perhaps even stop it in its tracks is you telling them that their asexuality isn’t real.

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[2] Olsson, L. (2022). An Ace Theory of Relationships: Asexuality and Narratives of Relationship Norms [Master’s thesis, University of Gothenburg]. Gupea. https://gupea.ub.gu.se/bitstream/handle/2077/73905/V22%20Olsson,%20Limes.pdf?sequence=1

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[13] Diamond, L. M. (2008). Sexual fluidity: Understanding women’s love and desire. Harvard University Press.

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[18] Lund, E. M., & Johnson, B. A. (2015). Asexuality and disability: Strange but compatible bedfellows. Sexuality and Disability, 33(1), 123-132. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11195-014-9378-0

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