An asexual person is commonly understood simply as someone who doesn't experience sexual attraction, but the full picture of asexuality is more nuanced than that. A new study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior that looked at the masturbation habits and sexual fantasies of 351 asexual people and 388 sexual people found far more similarities between the two groups than expected: Almost half of the asexual women and 75 percent of the asexual men reported that they masturbated and had sexual fantasies, even though they also reported a lack of attraction to other people.
"I don’t put myself into my fantasies," one asexual woman in the study explained to the researchers. "That is thoroughly unappealing to me. Instead, I imagine other people in sexual situations, and focus on their thoughts and feelings for a sort of vicarious arousal. I don’t want to do anything sexual with any of the people I imagine, and by themselves, they don’t turn me on." In her experience, fantasizing is imagining getting turned on, not imagining to get turned on.
As the researchers observed, "An asexual individual may not experience sexual attraction, but may nonetheless engage in sexual fantasy, perhaps to facilitate physiological sexual arousal and masturbation." This suggests that fantasies aren't necessarily just imagined scenarios people wish they could bring to life, which should be evident to anyone who's ever had a sexual fantasy they enjoy in their head but wouldn't want to enact IRL for whatever reason. Interestingly, there was a lot of overlap between what asexual and sexual people fantasized about, although asexual people were much less likely to fantasize about group sex, public sex, and infidelity. Both sexual and asexual people were equally likely, however, to have fantasies about BDSM and fetishes. More research is needed about the lived experiences of asexual people, but as with people of any other orientation, it's clear they're not a monolith.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.