Methodological Issues for Studying
by A.C. Hinderliter
In studying asexuality, using quantitative methods poses serious methodological issues that are difficult to resolve. While there are no easy ways to fix these, my goal is to highlight what some of these difficulties are—especially ones that have not been mentioned to date in the literature—and to propose some practical ideas to help deal with them in future work. Much of what I write will already be understood by people who research asexuality, but it is my hope that some of my ideas may be helpful in thinking about things and designing future studies. I discuss operational definitions used so far, difficulties posed by sampling problems, and provide suggestions for a research project to develop a more useful operational definition for asexuality in non-internet-recruited samples. I then discuss problems with using some existing research tools for studying asexuality.
2. Operational definitions: The main options
Asexuality has been defined in various way: in terms of (little or no) sexual attraction (e.g. Storms 1978, 1980, Bogaert 2004), sexual preference (e.g. Nurius 1983), and asexual self-identification (e.g. Andrews-Hyman et al. 2004, Prause and Graham 2007, Scherrer 2008, Ingudomnukul et al. 2007). In future research on asexuality, I expect the two most common to be asexual identification and (little or) no sexual attraction. Each has its advantages and disadvantages and is likely to be useful in different circumstances.
2.1 Asexual Self-identification
Practically, I can think of three possible ways of using asexual self-identification in research. A) In studies specifically aimed at people identifying as asexual, a question could be posed at the beginning of the survey asking respondents if they consider themselves asexual. If "yes," they continue on to the rest of the survey. If no, the survey ends. B.) Respondents are given a box in which to write their sexual orientation. C.) Respondents are given a list of sexual orientations—one of which is asexual—and are asked to select one.
Something like A was used by Scherrer (2008). Prause and Graham (2007) used something along the lines of A in the first part of their study (they posted flyers requesting asexual participants), and they used both B and C, yielding different results, in the second part of their study. The write in response preceded the multiple choice response. For respondents who chose asexual in for the forced choice question (n=40), 22 of these also wrote in asexual. Some respondents were recruited from psychology classes, others from the Kinsey institute's website, and some from asexuality.org. While the source of respondents was not reported, my guess is that a large number of the 22 who wrote in "asexual" came from asexuality.org. What this would mean is that in a sample of people not chosen on the basis of sexual orientation (i.e. people from psychology classes), a fairly large majority of those who choose "asexual" when given the option on a forced choice response do not actively identify as asexual. Rather, they identify as something else (likely "heterosexual" or "unsure.") There are probably considerable differences between people who actively identify as asexual and those unfamiliar with the term who feel it is the best fit when presented with the word on a forced choice sexual orientation question. Prause and Graham (2007) did not take this into account in their study (likely because doing so would have made their already small sample even smaller.) It is unclear what differences would exist between the two groups, but there are some reasonable hypotheses that can be made.
1.) People recruited from online will have spent more time thinking about asexual identity and spent more time trying to decide if they are asexual or not.
2.) People recruited from online will more closely fit the AVEN definition because that definition has likely had a significant impact on their decision to identify as asexual.
3.) People recruited from online are likely to be strongly influenced by asexual discourse in terms of the categories they use to think about their own experiences.
Differences between people who actively identify as asexual (i.e. those that wrote the answer in the box) and those who do not but chose asexual on the forced choice question is a potential area for future research. It may be possible to examine these questions using Prause and Graham's data. The data set for asexuals is rather small, but because such a small percent of respondents chose “asexual,” it would likely require a very large sample size to get a large a larger number who choose asexual who do not actively identify as asexual.
2.2 Defining asexuality in terms of sexual attraction.
In defining asexuality in terms of sexual attraction, two questions immediately arise. First, is asexuality to be defined in absolute or gradient terms? That is, is the definition “a person who does not experience sexual attraction?” Or is it “a person who experiences little or no sexual attraction?” Second, there is the question of time. In Bogaert (2004) the operational definition of asexuality was choosing “I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all” for a forced choice question about sexual attraction. This definition requires asexuality to be lifelong (at least to the point of participation in the study), discounting the possibility of asexuality being fluid over time, and absolute, discounting the possibility of asexuality involving little or rare experience of sexual attraction. Hietpas-Wilson (2007), used data from a longitudinal study of youth (middle and high school aged youth in the first interview.) In the first interview, participants were asked “Have you ever had a romantic attraction to a female?” “Have you ever had a romantic attraction to a male?” In subsequent interviews at two year intervals, they were asked “Since (date of last interview) have you had an attraction to a male?” “Since (date of last interview) have you had an attraction to a female?” The largest change was found in respondents who were asexual at the time of the first interview and nonasexual in one or more subsequent interviews. However, there were respondents who were not asexual (according to the operational definition used) in one of the first two interviews who were asexual in one or more of the subsequent interviews. The way that asexuality is defined in the asexual community, fluidity over time is allowed for, as can be seen in a question in AVEN's general FAQ:
“Q: My sexuality comes in phases. Sometimes I'm sexual, other times I'm completely asexual. Do I have a place in your asexual community?
A: You would certainly have a lot in common with other asexuals. At the times when you are asexual you may choose to identify as asexual, at the times when you are sexual you could still have asexual issues -- such as explaining asexuality to sexual partners -- and therefore could find a place in the asexual community.”
Getting as representative samples as possible, along with getting funding, is one of the most constant difficulties that researchers of human sexuality must face. I do not have the answers here either, but I do have some suggestions with regard to asexuality. One option, of course, is simply to recruit off of asexual websites. So far, the studies that have recruited asexuals online have always used AVEN (e.g. Prause and Graham 2007, Scherrer 2008, Brotto et al. (in press.)) This is by far the largest asexuality site and is likely to be the one that will get the most participants. There is, however, another site that may be useful in the future. The asexual community on livejournal--asexuality.livejournal.com—has a large number of active followers. An informal demographic poll from December 2008 is illustrative of the potential value as well as methodologically problematic nature of recruiting there. In a matter of days, over 200 people responded to the survey, suggesting the usefulness of the site for recruiting subjects for survey research. However, the data suggest a significant gender bias--considerably larger than the gender difference that exists in informal demographic data collected on AVEN. For the question, "What is your sex?" three options were given: male, female, and other. By far, the largest group was females at 181 (84.2%), and the second largest was "other" with 19 responses (8.8%.) Males came in third with 15 (7.0%). While this was a highly informal survey, the results suggest two things. First, the large percent of "other" probably derives from the relatively large percentage of intersex and transgender people in the asexual community. Second, the large percent of women likely reflects both a disproportionate number of females in the asexual community and a disproportionate number of females among LJ users.
Recruiting from AVEN, and possibly LJ, is fine for qualitative research. However, it poses serious problems for quantitative studies. My suspicion is that people recruited online are a) likely to be the sort of people who spend a lot of time online, b) likely to be politically farther to the left than the general population (possibly because of the demographics of who uses the internet, but also because I expect that a lot more conservative people might not feel comfortable on the main asexual sites.)
Ideally, data about asexuality would come from samples in which respondents were not selected for on the basis of sexual orientation (either from convenience samples without online recruiting or, eventually, probability samples.) These face two main difficulties. The first is getting a large enough sample to get a large group of asexuals. Obviously, larger samples are better, but they are also more difficult and often more expensive. The second difficulty is creating an operational definition that will, with high probability, result in asexuals being identified as asexual and nonasexuals as nonasexual. If existing operational definitions underestimate the number of asexuals, as I suspect they do, solving this problem may help to solve the first problem.
4. Operationally defining asexuality for non-internet-recruited samples
The definition “a person who does not experience sexual attraction,” even if it is regarded as a technically accurate definition of asexuality, is functionally problematic for very practical reasons. If someone has never felt sexual attraction, they do not know what sexual attraction feels like. Consequently, knowing whether or not they have ever felt it can be difficult—this is regularly seen on the AVEN forums, and newcomers frequently want a precise definition of sexual attraction to know whether or not they have ever felt it. Such a precise definition has proved to be difficult to make. This problem is compounded by the fact that many asexuals do feel nonsexual forms of attraction. According to AVEN stats, about 61% of respondents identified in some way as having a romantic orientation towards others, compared to 16% that identified as aromantic. (A large number were either unsure (13%) or did not believe in a distinction between romantic and nonromantic attraction (7.3%.)) In asexuals not recruited from AVEN, it is likely that some people who do not experience sexual attraction do not realize that the attractions they do feel are not sexual attraction. People questioning whether or not they are asexual can take a long time trying to answer these questions. But on a survey, we want them to be able to decide accurately in a few seconds—including, and especially, people who do not experience sexual attraction but are unfamiliar with asexuality. What this means practically is that simply assuming that all respondents understand “sexual attraction” to mean the same thing is likely to result in unreliable data.
This problem, however, is by no means limited to studying asexuality. Diamond (2008), writing about a longitudinal study on women who had experienced some amount of same-sex attraction, states, “The problem with trying to define sexual attraction is that researchers know very little about how individuals experience sexual feelings” (p. 126.) Because of this, she asked interviewees what they meant by attraction and found
“a diverse range of responses that seemed utterly incomparable to one other. Women’s descriptions ranged from specifically genital sensations (tightness in my groin; wetness) to full-body physical sensations (warm feeling all over; high energy, fluttering feeling in my belly) to psychological states (liking to look at the person’s face or body; longing for nearness; not caring about the person’s personality; wanting to have sex” (italics original, p. 127.)”
Taking this as an inspiration, it might be possible to conduct a three part research project. The first part would be a qualitative study aiming to find out what experiences are regarded as sexual attraction (or attraction without the adjective ‘sexual’)—data for both males and females would be necessary. Using this study, a survey could be made in which the questions ask about specific feelings and sensations, rather than simply assuming that everyone means the same thing by “sexual attraction.” Using this survey, a second study could be conducted in which participants are selected on the basis of their sexual orientation--including internet recruiting, especially for asexuals, though also for other sexual orientations as well. Here, sexual orientation would be defined in terms of self-designation, and the results could potentially be used to operationally define sexual orientation for the survey. In future use of the survey, sexual orientation could be operationally defined in terms of the answers to various questions (other than the identity question)--possibly as a sum of a variety of answers--it should be possible to use this measure to study sexual orientation--including asexuality--in samples with no internet recruiting. It may also be useful to measure affectional orientation or other forms of orientation, especially because asexuals do not seem to be the only people whose affectional orientation does not match their sexual orientation.
One difficulty with doing a study of this sort, however, is how to do it without assuming that everyone fits into a strict gender binary. On the one hand, physiological sensations are anatomy specific. On the other hand, not everyone fits neatly into a strict gender binary. This is particularly important given that the proportion of asexuals who are either intersex or transgender seems to be disproportionate with the general population—the informal statistics cited about suggest this may include between 10 and 20% of asexuals.
This problem is highlighted by Brotto et al. (in press.) In their study, they recruited participants from AVEN and received a total of 214 responses. Toward the beginning of the survey was a forced choice response about sex, only giving the options “male” and “female.” Of the 214 responses, 24 (12.6%) did not provide an answer. They said that because this question was at the very beginning of the survey, it is unlikely that this large number of nonresponses was in error. Rather, they speculated, it may be because many individuals do not feel themselves to be exclusively one or the other. This, combined with the above informal polling done by asexuals strongly suggests that this is an issue that needs to be seriously considered in future research.
5. Developing new instruments to study asexuality
When studying a topic that has received little research, it is generally easier to use existing tools rather than to develop new ones. However, there is the danger that existing tools are inadequate for the topic to be researched. With studying asexuality, the question arises of how much to use existing instruments and how much to develop new ones. For example, Prause and Graham (2007) used a combination of a survey that they created as well as ones that already existed. With using existing tools, there are two potential dangers that could make the results either uninteresting or misleading.
The first potential problem stems from asking the wrong questions or asking questions that make assumptions that do not make sense in light of asexual experience. An example of this would be asking a question about the orientation of sexual/romantic attraction. Since making a distinction between these two types of attraction is fundamental for many people’s experience of asexuality, assuming them to be the same would be likely to yield misleading results.
Problems of these sorts are highlighted by Brotto et al. (in press.) After participating in a quantitative study, some participants offered unsolicited comments about the study which were then forwarded to the researchers. One criticism that was given was the some of the questionnaires were felt to be more appropriate for people who do feel sexual attraction, and, as such, were entirely irrelevant for asexuals.
The second, and closely related, problem deals with difficulties stemming from sexualnormative assumptions underlying many surveys. This may prove to be problematic when using surveys regarding sexual dysfunction. Prause and Graham (2007) note, “Implicit in the debate about what constitutes a ‘normal’ level of sexual desire is an assumption that some level of sexual desire is normative” (emphasis original.) Asexuality challenges this notion. Taking it a step further, it is worth asking to what extent the belief that sexual desire should be viewed as normative functions as an assumption in existing questionnaires.
The concept of “sexual dysfunction” stems from using a medical model to understand human sexuality, and as such it is fundamentally value-laden. Medical models rely on a normative construct of “healthy,” and a construct of “illness” or “disordered” that deviates from that norm. Medical models are useful in many contexts, but I am skeptical that a medical model will be of much value for the study of asexuality. While it may be politically useful to use some measures related to sexual dysfunction in order to “discover” that asexuality is not a sexual dysfunction, I do not expect such studies to be particularly enlightening or to provide much understanding of asexuality. This likely means that new measures and surveys will need to be developed that do not rely on sexualnormative assumptions, and these measures could potentially be used for the study of human sexuality in general.
There are various ways that asexuality can be defined for the purposes of research. Which definition is most useful depends on what is being studied. In future research, the two most common definitions will probably be in terms of asexual identification and in terms of (little or) no sexual attraction. Using asexual self-identification is likely the most useful method when recruiting participants from asexual sites, but it is likely that asexual self-identification in non-internet recruited samples will result in a rather different group, especially given the low visibility that asexuality has at present. It is not clear how these would differ, and this is a potentially useful topic for future research.
As with studying human sexuality in general, sampling difficulties pose a number of problems. Participants from the internet are likely to differ from the general population in a number of ways and will likely skew quantitative data. However, because of low visibility of asexuality, there are likely to be a number of difficulties in getting accurate reports of asexuality in non-internet recruited samples as well as difficulties in getting large sample sizes for research purposes. This is further compounded by the fact that it should not be assumed that everyone understands the same thing by “sexual attraction.” Because people who have never felt sexual attraction do not know what it feels like and because many asexuals do experience other forms of attraction, simply assuming that everyone understands what is meant by ‘sexual attraction’ is likely to cause problems. Moreover, there is evidence suggesting that even among sexual people, there is wide variation in what is meant by ‘sexual attraction.’ Dealing with this problem is essential for providing valid statistics for asexuals.
One final issue of importance for studying asexuality is the use of existing tools versus the development of new ones. While using existing ones is easier, there are several difficulties that this faces. First, many are likely to be ill equipped to understand asexuality because asexuality was not taken into consideration in their development and consequently the questions may assume things that are contradicted by the experiences of asexuals. A second difficulty comes from sexualnormative assumptions underlying some tools. Another category likely to be problematic for understanding asexuality is sexual dysfunction because of its often implicit assumption of the normative character of sexual desire. Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties faced in studying asexuality is one of the main difficulties asexuals face in struggling to understand asexuality—because it has been invisible and undiscussed for so long, many existing categories and concepts are inadequate for making sense of asexuality. As such, it is necessary to strive to generate ideas that do make sense of it.
Andres-Hyman, Raquel, Melissa A. Cott, and Steven N. Gold (2004). "Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation as PTSD Mitigators in Child Sexual Abuse Survivors" Journal of Family Violence, vol 19, no. 5. October
Asexual demographics survey http://community.livejournal.com/asexuality/590046.html. Dated 12/18/2008. Retrieved 12/30/2008
AVEN General FAQ http://www.asexuality.org/home/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id... retrieved 12/30/2008
AVEN project team. (2008) “Aven survey analysis.” unpublished paper
Bogaert A.F. (2004) Asexuality: Its Prevalence and Associated Factors in a National Probability Sample. The Journal of Sex Research, 41, 279-287
Brotto, Lori; Gail Knudson; Jess Inskip; Katherine Rhodes; Yvonne Erskine. “Asexuality: A Mixed-Methods Approach.” Archives of Sexual Behavior. In press.
Diamond, Lisa (2008). "Sexual Fluidity." Harvard University Press.
Gilbert, Francis and Michael Gamache (1984). “The Sexual Opinion Survey: Structure and Use.” The Journal of Sex Research Vol. 20, No 3. pp. 293-309.
Ingudomnukul, Erin, Simon Baron-Cohen, Sally Wheelwright and Rebecca Knickmeyer. Elevated rates of testosterone-related disorders in women with autism spectrum conditions. Hormones and Behavior. Vol 5. Issue 51 May 2007. pp.597-604.
Hietpas-Wilson, Tammy (2007) "Sexual Minority Adolescents' Sexual Identity: Prevalence, Disclosure, Self-lableing, Fluidity, and Psychological Well-Being." (PhD Dissertation, University of Missouri-Kansas City)
Nurius, Paula S. "Mental Health Implications of Sexual Orientation." The Journal of Sex Research" Vol. 19, NO 2 pp. 119-136.
Prause, Nicole & Cynthia Graham (2007) Asexuality: Classification and Clarification. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 36 p.341-35
Scherrer, Kristin (2008). "Asexual Identity: Negotiating Identity, Negotiating Desire" Sexualities 2008; 11; p. 621
Storms, M. D. (1978) "Sexual Orientation and Self-Perception" in P. Pliner K. R. Blankenstein and I.M. Spigel (Eds), Advances in the Study of Communication and Affect vol. 5 Perception of Emotion in Self and Others. New York. Plenum
Storms M. D. (1980) "Theories of Sexual Orientation." Journal or Personality and Social Psychology 1980, 38, 783-792
 I suspect this is because of the age of the respondents, but age was not considered in her analysis of this part of the data.
 Because the question was about romantic attraction, it may be more appropriate to say that this measured romantic orientation than sexual orientation. Regardless, the possibility of fluidity over time is an issue worth considering.
 http://www.asexuality.org/home/general.html retrieved 1/11/09
 AVEN conducted an informal survey of its users in the first half of 2008. Of 283 responses to the question about sexual orientation, 247 identified as asexual identified as asexual. While this was informal and most demographic information given in the summary of the results, which can be obtained from AVEN by request, are based on the entire sample rather than only asexuals, I feel that it is suggestive of general trends and can be useful for suggesting future research hypothesis as well as issues to be taken into consideration in future research. I will refer to it as AVEN stats. In that survey, the question was about sex assigned at birth and of the usable answers. Of usable answers, 71% of respondents were female and 29% were male.
 This has trend has been informally observed by a number of people in the asexual community. Also, according to AVEN stats, 85% of those assigned female at birth identify as female. Those that do not were generally either FTM (5%) or “androgynous, genderless, unsure, etc.” (9.6%). Of those assigned male at birth, 80% currently identify as male, 2.4% are MTF 17% are “androgynous, genderless, unsure, etc. AVEN stats does not provide information about intersex individuals because the question about sex asked about what sex the person was assigned at birth.
 According to LiveJournal, (http://www.livejournal.com/stats.bml) of LJ users that have identified themselves as either male or female, 66.4% are female and 33.6% are male. Retrieved 12/31/08
 If recruitment is done online, it is possible that someone in the asexual community may encourage other asexuals to participate in order to have asexuals be more represented in research on sexuality.
 An extreme example of this would be the construct “erotophobia.” (e.g. Gilbert and Gamache 1984)