Whatever the reason, you probably associate masturbation with sex. The act is deeply rooted in sexual impulses, after all, and the endorphin boost, improved mood, and clarity of thought that follow are just secondary benefits, right?
Now imagine a world where you feel zero sexual attraction toward other people—do you think you’d still masturbate?
Welcome to asexuals’ reality. Asexuality, in the simplest terms, is defined by a lack of sexual attraction and desire towards others. Research suggests that about one percent of the population is asexual. If true, that breaks down to roughly 3 million Americans and 73 million people worldwide.
I recently spent time with three young asexuals living in New York City to learn more about what it’s like not to care about sex in our hypersexual culture. And along the way, I discovered one aspect of asexuality that surprised me—a notable portion of the asexual population does, in fact, masturbate, according to Tony Bogaert, a professor of human sexuality at Brock University in Canada.
In one 2010 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, 81% of men and 30% of women who identified as asexual masturbated at least once a month. The study included a total of 187 participants, which broke down to 54 men and 133 women. These numbers are small, but Bogaert says they reflect what he’s seen in his own research.
Asexuality is hard to define because, like sexuality, it works differently in different people. Some asexuals describe never having felt sexual attraction to anyone. Others say they’ve felt it in short bursts. Kim Kalestky, a 21-year-old asexual, told me, “I have experienced sexual attraction two or three times. They were small, half-hour moments.”
“I have experienced sexual attraction two or three times. They were small, half-hour moments.”
But most people who identify as asexual feel a general disinterest in sex and a lack of lustful feelings towards others. Their reactions to all sexual activity range from confusion to apathy to disgust. So if asexuals aren’t interested in touching others or being touched sexually, why would they masturbate?
There are a couple theories. One is that, for some, masturbation is utilitarian. For example, in the 2010 study, an asexual participant (whose gender was not given) described their masturbatory impulse as a way to “clean out the plumbing.” The same way a non-asexual person might crack his or her knuckles or stretch his or her back. In that way, the act of masturbation is disconnected from its sexual function and purely physical.
For another portion of the asexual population, research shows that some masturbatory urges are, in fact, sexual—they just don’t involve fantasizing about other people. Bogaert describes this situation as “non-partner-oriented sexual desire.” When I asked Bogaert what the sexual urges would be directed to if not people, he told me, “directed towards nothing.”
This can be difficult to wrap one’s head around. But as one participant in the 2010 study said about their experience with masturbation during puberty:
Puberty, well uh, you know I had the hormones, uh stuff starting working there but I really didn’t have anything, nothing to focus it on. I did you know test the equipment so to say and everything works fine, pleasurable and all it’s just not actually attracted to anything.
The study highlights that the language asexuals use to describe masturbation is usually “technical and emotionally stripped,” completely devoid of the sensual associations we associate with the act. The study also noted that while masturbation in the asexual community might be confusing to the sexual community, it’s also something of a tension point within the asexual community. Researchers have posited that asexuals might be reluctant to discuss personal masturbation habits because doing so “could threaten one’s asexual identity.”
For some asexuals, masturbation is purely utilitarian—the same way a sexual person might crack her knuckles or stretch her back.
Over the past decade, the asexual community has become increasingly visible, thanks both to academic research and online community forums like the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (or AVEN) and Tumblr blogs. While the medical community once viewed asexuality as a sexual disorder, the new thinking among sexuality experts is that, as long as the lack of sexual attraction doesn’t actively bother the individual, it’s not a problem. And so, more and more, asexuality is being discussed as a fourth sexual orientation: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and now asexual.
Of course, not all asexuals masturbate. As Bauer McClave, a 27-year-old asexual put it, “I tried it because everybody told me I should, and I got really bored.”
A quick word about pronouns: We are very grateful to Kim Kalestky, Bauer McClave, and Levi Back for speaking so openly with us about their asexuality. Please note that when referring to them, Bauer should be referred to as “she/they” while Kim and Levi should be referred to as “they.”