Asexuals don't consider their lack of sexual desire a disorder.

Cavan Images/Getty Images

Asexuality: Sexual orientation or sexual disorder?

Since the Asexual Visibility and Education Network went live in 2001, the online community has swelled to between 19,000 and 30,000 members worldwide [source: Cerankowski and Milks; AVEN Wiki]. But the growing recognition and acceptance of asexuality in recent years has also raised eyebrows. In clinical settings, disinterest in sex is more often regarded as a problematic symptom rather than a healthy, acceptable aspect of one's identity [source: Cerankowski and Milks]. Asexuality critics therefore counter that asexuality equates willful disengagement, like a protracted form of celibacy; the product of psychological trauma; or a hormonal imbalance that saps sexual impulses [source: Melby].

To understand how the dearth of a sex drive is so quickly pathologized, one need only flip through a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), mental health professionals' handbook for doling out patient diagnoses. Two disorders are characterized by a lack of, disdain for and avoidance of sexual contact: Sexual Aversion Disorder (SAD) and Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) [source: Brotto].

Whereas SAD manifests as an anxiety-inducing sexual phobia, which doesn't align with the communal definitions and characteristics of the asexual community, HSDD poses more of a challenge to the acceptance of asexuality as a sexual orientation. Defined in the DSM-IV as "persistently or recurrently deficient (or absent) sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity," HSDD doesn't sound all that different from the asexual experience. However, pathologizing a sexual identity because it exists beyond the bounds of normative behavior is also a slippery slope toward discrimination.

Though asexuals and people diagnosed with HSDD may share common behaviors, there's one crucial footnote: According to the DSM, nonexistent sexual desire must incite "marked distress or interpersonal difficulty" to meet the criteria for HSDD [source: Brotto]. Since the asexual community embraces the absence of sexual attraction and reports building healthy, solid relationships otherwise, they argue that theirs is an orientation that necessitates no clinical treatment. For that reason, some have petitioned the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the DSM, to revise its HSDD definition in the upcoming DSM-V edition to allow exception for the asexual orientation [source: Cerankowski and Milks].

Asexuals' challenge to the DSM classification is reminiscent of the successful protest gay rights advocates pitched to remove "homosexuality" as a mental illness from the handbook in 1973 [source: American Journal of Psychiatry]. Yet to be formally recognized as a fourth sexual orientation, such a designation could help solidify asexuality's place within humanity's sexual spectrum, and redefine sexuality beyond merely a measure of with whom or what, to also encompass by how much and how often. And if that happens, the community will most likely celebrate with a mouthwatering slice of cake.