We don’t know much about the phenomenon of asexuality. Scientists have only researched it for about a decade, and the only reliable demographic data we have is from a 2004 sample of 18,000 British adults. That sample has led researchers to believe that asexual people make up about one percent of the general population. But a new study on masturbation and fantasies in this group of people might indicate that what little we know about the science of asexuality is hardly sufficient to characterize this unexpectedly broad group of people.

Human asexuality is defined as a lack of sexual attraction. On the zero to 10 Kinsey scale, asexual people are typically checked off as an X. To learn more about asexuality, a team of University of British Columbia researchers gave 351 asexual participants and 288 sexual participants online questionnaires about their reasons for masturbation and the contents of their sexual fantasies. Asexual participants — 292 women and 59 men — were identified using the Asexual Identification Scale.

In their study, published recently in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, the researchers report that asexual women were the least likely to masturbate out of all the participants, and that asexual men were less likely to report masturbating for sexual pleasure than sexual men.

Although asexual women and men were more likely to report that they have never had a sexual fantasy, that didn’t mean all people within that group never fantasized. It just meant that asexual fantasies did not involve other people, and these people found such fantasies to be “less sexually exciting” overall.

Asexual people don't fantasize about themselves.

While asexual fantasies did not involve themselves, participants reported fantasizing about things like watching other couples be intimate with each other. Interestingly, both asexual and sexual participants of either sex were equally likely to fantasize about topics like fetishes and BDSM.

I enjoy watching other people enjoy their sexuality,” said one 35-year old female participant. “I like the role of being strictly a voyeur. . .Although I am very excited by these situations, I wouldn’t call it sexual excitement. Although my body is clearly aroused by it, I have no desire to attend to that arousal.”

The lack of desire to act upon sexual fantasies is probably what underlies the difference in masturbation rates between sexual and asexual participants. But the finding that fantasies do exist in this group of people is strikingly different from the stereotype that this population is completely removed from sex. While research psychologist Jesse Bering wrote in Scientific American that he had believing asexuals who masturbate “are really and truly asexual” because their fantasies give away their sexuality, the situation appears to be much more nuanced.

“Sexual fantasies have long been thought to reveal an individual’s innermost desires,” the study authors write. “However, the current data suggests that if this is true, individuals do not necessarily act on these desires. An asexual individual may not experience sexual attraction, but nonetheless engage in sexual fantasy, perhaps to facilitate physiological sexual arousal and masturbation.”

Having sexual fantasies is a unique part of being a human being — something scientists believe is a hominid adaption that gave us the cognitive capacity to masturbate. Why asexual people, who are considered to have a sexual preference and not a disorder, still fantasize without the actual desire to have sex, however, remains to be explored.

Photos via Giphy, Wikimedia Commons