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MSU researchers hope to challenge the stigma surrounding asexual relationships

October 21, 2022
<p>Design by Madison Echlin. </p>

Design by Madison Echlin.

Photo by Madison Echlin | The State News

Experts say existing research on what keeps people in relationships has left out a diverse group of individuals: the asexual community.

While many common perceptions about asexual individuals often dismiss the idea that asexual relationships exist, a recent study from MSU found that not only do they exist, but they are extremely similar to non-asexual relationships.

MSU researchers looked at a sample of 485 asexual people who are in relationships and examined what makes them stay as well as how satisfied they are in them. 

“There's three things that people think keeps people in relationships,” associate professor of psychology Dr. Bill Chopik said. “One is if they're happy, another as if they've already invested a ton of time and then if they don't have any other options or they don't like those other options. So basically, that's what relationship researchers think keep people married, keep people friends, keep people working for the same job. That's kind of the dominant framework in the literature right now.”

After using this framework to examine asexual relationships, the study found practically identical results to similar studies examining non-asexual relationships.

“All of those relationships have a bedrock of wanting to feel understood, looked for and appreciated,” Chopik said. “Those are kind of human universals and in a way, we kind of want to make these relationships more acceptable, or they're viewed as more appropriate or less stigmatized. Because asexual people have the same desires for closeness and satisfaction.”

The study started in 2018, as research associate and coauthor Alexandra Brozowski’s undergraduate honors thesis. After graduating from MSU in 2019 with a degree in psychology, Dr. Chopik and psychology assistant professor Dr. Jonathan Weaver reached out to her to help her expand on this research.

“That whole 2018-2019 school year, I was working on this, and we just collected a bunch of data, even more than I could write about for my actual thesis,” Brozowski said. “We were always talking about like 'we should do something more with this, it’s really great, we collected so much.'”

As a member of the asexual community herself, Brozowski said the idea behind the research came to her from her own identities and experiences in romantic relationships, as well as the lack of existing literature surrounding them.

“The literature had kind of been agnostic or hasn't really said a lot about their experiences,” Chopik said. “Both overall, like what's it like being an asexual person living in the world, but then also, there's very, very tiny literature on asexual people who find themselves in in romantic relationships. And that was this first paper, was kind of looking at what predicts commitment among people who are asexual.”

Chopik said that he thinks there are a few reasons why there is such little research: asexual relationships are not very visible and there is a stigma surrounding the identity.

“We live in a culture that kind of sends mixed messages about sex, especially for women,” Chopik said. “Sex is a defining characteristic of a lot of people's relationships, but then you don't want to be judged as having too much sex. But then here comes a group of people that have no interest or are often disgusted by the idea of sex … And I think that these people's lives and experiences challenge a lot of our current understanding about relationships.” 

Brozowski said it was important to include in her research just how diverse the asexual community is. Not only are there varying levels of sexual attraction within the community, the concept of romantic attraction is often forgotten.

Brozowksi said the "split attraction model" divides up romantic and sexual attraction, which can vary between individuals.

“For a lot of people, obviously, we don't think about those things as a different thing because for a lot of people, they're the same thing," Brozowksi said. "But for the asexuals a lot of times, it doesn't necessarily match up like that. I think there's probably a stereotype that all asexuals are aromantic but that's not necessarily the case, they're definitely different feelings.”

Brozowski said it is important to ask about both identities. Sometimes asexual individuals identify themselves more with their romantic orientation since it indicates the presence of something and not the absence. 

However, differing sexual and romantic identification is not exclusive to the asexual community. Brozowski said that anyone of any identity could be, for example, heterosexual and biromantic people. 

“A lot of people look at this community and write it off as like, 'You can't find love and you'll never be accepted and or have a successful relationship,' and the study kind of goes in the face of that a little bit,” Brozowski said.

Social relations and policy and sociology sophomore Tom Dolinka, who identifies as asexual, said that it was nice to see the results that relationships for asexual people are very much the same as non-asexual relationships, ingredient-wise.

“Perceptions of asexuality in the past have been primarily around pathologizing people and just like bringing it down to a medical diagnosis, that there was something wrong with us,” Dolinka said. “Asexual people are capable of living fulfilled lives with great relationships. I like to see that kind of research, it’s just humanizing.”

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Dolinka said he didn’t realize he was asexual until the spring semester of his freshman year at MSU. He said it is hard for some people to discover that they are asexual, especially when they don’t have the language for it.

“When you hear the language around asexuality, that there actually is the possibility of people not experiencing sexual attraction, you're like, 'Oh, wait, so this is actually like a unique experience that is not shared by everyone,'” Dolinka said. “For a lot of people, there just isn't a conceptual basis for understanding asexuality. I think if more people knew about it, there’d probably be more people who identify that way.”

Dolinka said he has been trying to find research on the asexual community for a class he is in this semester, but it hasn't been easy. He said that this is because asexuality has fairly recently emerged as a sexual category. He hopes that with more awareness will come more research.

“I think it's important … for research to come out to like actually show that we're not a disease,” Dolinka said. “It's not a mental illness that we're having to deal with, it is a way that we engage with the world and lead equally fulfilling lives.”

Brozowski said that the results of the research have also been reaffirming for her and that they resonate with her experiences. 

“Reducing those stereotypes and hopefully just bringing more education and awareness around a group that doesn't really get a lot of it, that's my goal," Brozowski said.

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