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Transcending sexualisation : a constructivist grounded theory study of asexual self-identity

Jones, Catriona


Catriona Jones


Mark (Professor of nursing and health research) Hayter

Julie Jomeen


Introduction and background

There is an expectation that everyone feels sexual attraction and sexual desire and that these feelings begin in adolescence. This is called the sexual assumption (Carrigan, 2011). Sexual attraction and desire are perceived to be the norm. These universally felt experiences are thought to be a precursor to engaging in sexual behaviour and they form an intrinsic part of a person’s sexuality. There is, however, an emerging movement that challenges the sexual assumption based on the recognition of a lifelong experience of the absence of sexual desire. This is driven by a community of people who self-identify as asexual.

Research suggests that individuals who embrace an asexual identity do so because of a number of factors relating to their absent or lowered levels of sexual desire and/or attraction (Bogaert, 2004; Prause & Graham, 2007; Scherrer, 2008; Brotto, et al., 2010; Scherrer, 2010; Poston & Baumle, 2010; Carrigan, 2011; DeLuzio, 2011). The asexual community is reportedly amongst the most poorly understood sexual minority populations (Pinto, 2013). This study aims to fill a gap in the literature on the overall construction of asexual identity, which is captured, by interview through the perspectives of people who self-identify as asexual. It will unpack asexuality and propose new ways of understanding how asexuality is negotiated and self-interpreted.

Aims and objectives/research questions
There are six areas of interest based on gaps in the existing literature. In order to address these, an overarching research question of ‘What are the social processes involved in constructing an asexual identity’ has been identified. Social processes represent the ways in which individuals and groups, interact, adjust, readjust and establish relationships and patterns of behaviour. This research question can be broken down into a number of specific objectives, which are detailed below:
 To establish how people who identify as asexual define their asexual identity.
 To understand the processes that inform the (development) construction of the identity.
 To understand how the asexual identity impacts upon relationships with others.
 To understand how embracing (or just the asexual) identity impacts upon health and wellbeing.

Data collection
Semi-structured interviews were considered to be the most appropriate method of collecting data for this study.

The data for this study was is based on interview data from 21 participants who self-identified as asexual. Participants were recruited through a number of asexuality forums: AVEN (The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network),,, asexuality Facebook and Twitter pages, Craigslist UK, and Craigslist US community pages. This study was also advertised through existing contacts, including: The Hull and East Riding LGBT Forum, the LGBT Foundation in Manchester, Stonewall, the University of Hull’s LGBT society, and the University of Hull e-Bulletin.

Data analysis
In order to gain an understanding of the social processes that inform asexual self-identity and to derive a theory of asexual self-identity, constructivist grounded theory (CGT) was used to analyse and interpret the data.

The process of self-identifying as asexual was informed by a central premise of transcending the sexualised world, represented by a core category of transcending sexualisation to fulfil a need to belong. Three conceptual categories were identified: (1) Becoming, (2) Resolution, and (3) Consolidation. These conceptual categories underpin the core category. Data indicates that individuals enter the becoming stage having already encountered the term asexuality, but having limited understanding of what it means to be asexual. The stage of becoming continues in a straightforward way for many, for some, however, an event, or a number of events occur resulting in the individual finding themselves in a situational bind: this is a critical juncture in their sexual and social lives where there is a level of risk to their ability to form meaningful relationships: their sense of belonging is potentially compromised. These situations, or events constitute a crisis of internal conflict, and something has to be done to rectify it. Those who decide to rectify it move on to the resolution stage. Some individuals reframe their experience of the situational bind, and by doing so, they by-pass the opportunity to contemplate their identity as anything other than sexual. When a stage of resolution follows a stage of becoming, individuals make a stand by disengaging from the cultural norms of sexuality/heterosexuality and begin consolidating their asexual identity. Ten subcategories represent the three conceptual categories: assimilating, connecting, experiencing situational binds, reframing, disengaging, searching for explanations, embracing the nuances, critiquing sexuality, and identifying as essentially asexual. The basic social process reflects a pattern of progression that may or may not be linear. Bourdieusian social theory, namely doxa, habitus, field, and capital offer a lens through which the collective action of participants and their interactions, adjustments, readjustments and patterns of behaviour during asexual self-identity formation can be appreciated in more detail. Whilst the core, conceptual, and the subcategories represent important aspects of progression towards self-identity, the application of Bourdieusian social theory has provided a framework to illustrate the social processes in action, by illuminating the structures of sexuality, gender, medicalisation, patriarchy and religion and demonstrating how their process dimensions become enmeshed within the progressive stages, and thus inform the process of asexual self-identity.

Implications for practice and research

Relationship education, as well as relationship and sex education, should be directed towards encouraging a culture that values lasting positive and significant interpersonal relationships with or without sexual behaviour. Alternative models of relationship formation that are not intrinsically bound to sexual attraction do exist and relationship education should encourage individuals to think more broadly about relationships and how they could be constructed in more meaningful ways.

The findings from this study have significance to the field of mental health. A significant percentage of the sample (38%) engaged with psychology, counselling, and/or antidepressant medication. The emotional wellbeing of people who identify with an asexual narrative should be a matter of concern for health and social care professionals and researchers.

There are significant gaps in the literature about individuals who reject a centralised model of sexuality and do not fall into a white middle-class category. Research is required in relation to this group, particularly, regarding their experiences of relationship formation and belonging, and how they navigate the sexualised environment.

Finally, this work has implications in relation to the education of society. Given that asexuality is largely shrouded in misunderstanding and negativity, as well as being met with doubt and questioning (Conger, 2012), how non-asexual members of society consider asexuality is important. This study makes a significant contribute to our understanding of contemporary sexual norms. It challenges existing ideas which associate asexuality with an absence or lack of sexuality and presents an alternative framework for considering the decisions made by self-identified asexuals to adopt the identity. In relation to healthcare, anecdotal evidence, taken from one of the largest asexual online forums, suggests that a number of self-identified asexuals choose not to disclose their identity to healthcare professionals through fear of their asexual status being pathologised, problematises or judged. Given that asexuality has been identified through studies as a poorly understood concept, this may be due to lack of understanding on behalf of healthcare providers. The work provides health professionals and practitioners working in clinical settings with some insights of the social processes which inform the identity as well as the features of an asexual identity to facilitate culturally competent care.


Jones, C. (2019). Transcending sexualisation : a constructivist grounded theory study of asexual self-identity. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Feb 21, 2020
Publicly Available Date Feb 23, 2023
Keywords Health sciences
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Midwifery and Child Health, The University of Hull
Award Date Jul 1, 2019


Thesis (2.8 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2019 Jones, Catriona. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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