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Love without sex

Between the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and the public rise of transgender individuals like Caitlyn Jenner, this year is likely one of the most important for the LGBT community. But one sexual orientation seems to have been left behind as LGBT relationships and identities enter mainstream American society: asexuality.

Asexuality — the experience of very low or no sexual attraction to either gender — is one of the least common and least understood sexual orientations. One survey found that only about 1 percent of the population identifies as asexual. Because of these low numbers, asexuality remains underrepresented among the larger sexual minority community. A fact that is plain to see in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) acronym.

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This state of near invisibility presents two potential challenges to straight and LGBT society. First, our neighbors who are asexual may not have the means to find social support as they publicly establish their sexual identity. And second, the unique challenges facing asexuals and their romantic partners are poorly understood.

Only a handful of asexual support groups exist. The most well-known online community is The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). AVEN provides a virtual space for resources and discussions on asexuality, allowing asexuals and sexuals to better understand what it means to be asexual and the common issues asexuals face (especially issues surrounding relationships and love). The advantage of an anonymous, global, online space is obvious for closeted asexual individuals but fails to establish a supportive, local, in person, community.

Many local universities have established offline LGBT support communities. For example, our university — Stevenson — has the Q group. Towson University has three support communities: the Queer Student Union, In the Life, and the Center for Student Diversity. And University of Maryland has six: Pride Alliance, Hamsa, Progressive College Republicans, Satanic Mechanic Theatre Company, SmithOUT and Theta Pi Sigma. However, none of these groups specify the welcome acceptance of asexual individuals. This is not to say that these groups would shun or reject asexuals, but it is noteworthy that among these minority support groups, asexuals are not identified as potential members who can approach the groups for support.

It might be tempting to believe that asexuals do not need the same support as other sexual minorities because they do not seek love, but, just like sexuals, many asexuals go on dates and enter into relationships. One survey found that 70 percent of asexuals will be in committed relationships at some point in their lifetimes. Because of the important role that sex plays in most couples' love lives, the lack of sexual desire experienced by one of the partners can create a great deal of conflict.

Many couples establish sexual boundaries in their relationships. However, asexuals in relationships with sexuals face particularly unique challenges. For instance, researchers from the University of British Columbia found that unlike in typical monogamous relationships, when asexuals do not want to partake in sexual activity, some allow an open sexual relationship for their romantic partners. However, like sexuals, asexuals are sensitive to emotional infidelity. For these individuals, sex outside of the relationship may be acceptable, but love is forbidden. To them, the sex is simply an outlet for their romantic partner's needs, not an indicator of romantic feelings.

The researchers found that other asexuals are comfortable having agreed upon forms of sex with their romantic partner (although they do not experience lust to the degree that sexuals do). They consider these consensual sexual acts valuable emotional connectors and favors to their partners. For these asexuals, sex is a necessary tool that can help maintain their romantic relationship and retain their romantic partner.

Of course, the simplest way for asexuals to negotiate their sexual boundaries is to date other asexuals. For these couples, sex may not play much a role in the couples' romance at all. Unfortunately, the ability for two asexuals to meet and pursue a relationship is seriously hindered by the lack of supportive communities and the challenge of finding another person who shares their orientation.

While actor Neil Patrick Harris, who is raising twins with his husband, has publicly talked about his sexual orientation, and Laverne Cox, of "Orange is the New Black" fame, has openly discussed her gender identity, almost no one has publicly spoken about their asexual identity. This is particularly distressing given the unique challenges that asexual individuals and their partners face in their romantic relationships. Having a strong public asexual figure could foster a greater understanding and acceptance of this otherwise invisible sexual minority.

Catherine Butt is an undergraduate psychology student at Stevenson University; her email is cbutt@stevenson.edu. D. Ryan Schurtz D. Ryan Schurtz is an assistant professor of psychology at Stevenson University; his email is dschurtz@stevenson.edu.

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