Saturday, October 9, 2010

Thoughts on the UBC Sexual Health Laboratory Study

This morning I woke up earlier than expected and decided to take the study which was linked from:

Asexual Explorations Blog: Recruiting participants for a study: "Here's the description for a study being done by the UBC Sexual Health Laboratory that is wanting asexual participants..."

"This study will help researchers understand the potential biological underpinnings of sexuality in individuals of different sexual orientations. In this study, we will employ a series of questionnaires asking about physical and mental health, sexuality, and biological markers of sexual orientation.

We hope that the data from this study will help to further our understanding of the health correlates and biological features of sexual orientation, and impact on the greater community to decrease stigma associated with individuals of all sexual orientations."

I'm not sure which biological markers they were looking for. The only portion of the survey that was obviously based on previous scientific research into the biological underpinnings of sexual orientation (namely homosexuality), was the part in which participants are asked to measure the lengths of their ring and index fingers.

The study asks a ton of questions about overall physical health as well as mental health, as well as (seemingly) asking the same question over and over about how satisfied you are with the level of sexual attraction you experience.

It was hard for me to gauge how satisfied I feel with my sexuality and level of experience of sexual attraction. Personally, I sometimes feel angry about my orientation, but this is not because I especially want to have sex (I don't), it's because of the way that one is treated for not being interested in sex. I feel angry about my orientation sometimes because it's difficult to deal with the pressure to pretend I'm interested like nonasexual people are. I think I'm more angry at the culture I live in than at my ability to be sexual... This is not something that one can clarify through the survey, though. 

I can't comment on the results yet because the study isn't finished. I will say that I hope it reveals a variety of experiences in terms of mental and physical health, as well as subjective feelings about sex and sexuality. What would make me sad is if asexuality were linked (through this survey) to certain physical or psychological disorders. I tried hard to make it clear that I'm in what is generally considered excellent health.


  1. I will admit I was a little uncomfortable with that survey as well. I feel like it didn't really address the issue of sexual trauma well enough, just from the questions that were present... I don't recall any questions that even directly asked about it, much less attempted to determine WHEN any trauma might have happened—as in, before or after having asexual feelings? I feel like that would make a huge difference in most people's eyes, as otherwise there's a tendency to dismiss asexuality as being a result of the sexual trauma, when from what research I've done, there seems to be a similarity among several asexual respondents that the feeling of being asexual (or at least uninterested in others sexually) existed before the trauma, but maybe not so much the language to talk about it (or they DID try to talk about it and were ignored). It may well be that this combined with societal attitudes about sex makes asexuals more likely to experience sexual assault. I hope that the researchers are very careful about the way they present their data if there does turn out to be a significant rate, as it definitely has the potential to make the problem get much worse if the results end up encouraging people to dismiss asexuality further.

  2. You make a good point about trauma. My opinion is that the question of trauma shouldn't even be part of a survey meant to determine the biological underpinnings of asexuality (or any sexuality). The question reveals a kind of bias or ignorance on the researcher's part about queers in general, because nonheterosexual persons of any stripe are often questioned about trauma. After all, no one has ever asked a heterosexual person if they became straight after experiencing trauma.

    I think that what you have to say about the timing of trauma in the lives of asexual people is far more telling about cultural attitudes than it is about anything else, and it's far more useful than trying to tease out how trauma relates to identity formation.

  3. Hmm, I'd be hesitant to say that nobody has ever asked that, given some of the circumstances described to me about female-on-female abuse. But yeah, it certainly is much less likely that you'd hear questions like that directed towards heterosexual-identified people, and definitely a result of cultural attitudes towards queerness. I don't think trauma should be considered as a biological underpinning of asexuality or any other queer orientation, but I do think that it needs to be considered in the survey, so that it can be controlled for when considering the results. Sexual trauma, particularly coupled with the development of PTSD, does have physical effects on health as well after all, plus the obvious effect on how okay one might be with having sex, which that survey seemed to dwell on quite a bit.

  4. Yes, that's absolutely true that sometimes people who formerly identified as queer are questioned about trauma. I think it's even legitimate to decide to identify and live your life a certain way based on trauma. However, what I meant was that it's not common for people who have always had heterosexual relationships, when discussing their lives as heterosexuals, to be questioned about whether or not they decided they were heterosexual because of trauma. Unless a heterosexual person reveals that they've experienced trauma, it's unlikely that they'll be asked if trauma influenced their orientation. It just goes back to heteronormativity. I know you weren't really arguing with me, but I just thought I'd clarify.

    It's true that PTSD can affect one's health, particularly sexual health. I know PTSD has affected me in a myriad of ways. I wonder if the researchers are aware that asexuality is not defined by sexual behavior and attitudes toward sex so much as it is defined by sexual attraction itself. If they are curious about the variety of attitudes, that's totally fine, but I have to wonder if they're suggesting that behaviors are attitudes are part of the biological underpinnings of sexual attraction.

  5. Write to Lori Brotto and tell her any problems you had with taking the survey. I did. She sounds very open and appreciative of feedback. Lori.Brotto AT