Asexuality; The Unicorn of Sexual Orientation

What is asexuality and why is it the unicorn of sexual orientation? Well, asexuality simply refers to an individual who does not experience sexual attraction – which refers to the attraction you feel that causes you to want to be physically intimate with someone (8). Asexuality is not a very common occurrence as it only occurs in about 1% of the population (10). Much like sexuality is a spectrum, asexuality has its own spectrum. Asexuality is the umbrella term that refers to the complete lack of sexual attraction. From here there are two subcategories, gray asexuals and demisexuals. Gray asexuality refers to individuals who sometimes experience sexual attraction to a person (2). Demisexuals on the other hand, only experience sexual attraction once a close emotional bond has been formed with a person (2).

Asexuals are often referred to as unicorns, because much like unicorns, a significant amount of the population does not believe that they exist (7). Many examples of a unicorn representing asexuality can be seen on social media sites and crafted images online (see link 1 and link 2 ). These images are typically created by asexual individuals who try to make light of the situation and spread awareness that asexuality does in fact exist. Thankfully, the disbelief of asexuality being a legitimate sexual orientation has been shrinking due to increased amounts of media representation and discussions within popular culture.

You might be thinking, “I thought bisexuals were the unicorns?”, and you would be correct. Though for bisexuals, being a unicorn refers to the individual who is willing to be the third party to a heterosexual relationship (meaning there is a male and female) on a sexual level (1). In the past, the term unicorn for a bisexual person similarly referred to the fact that no one believes they exist, much like how it is used for asexuals now.  However, with greater acceptance and understanding of bisexuality, the term has evolved and is no longer considered to be imaginary. With the growing amount of research and media attention that asexuality is currently receiving, it is possible that the metaphor of a unicorn for asexuals will also cease to exist.

To clarify a few points: Asexuality is not the same as abstinence or celibacy. Celibacy refers to an individual who is consciously choosing to avoid sexual activity, and is common in religions such as Christianity (4). Abstinence refers to an individual who is choosing to refrain from sexual activity, usually for reasons other than religion (4). While celibacy and abstinence are choices, asexuality is not and it does not mean that the individual is choosing to refuse/avoid engaging in sexual activity, as many asexual individuals are sexually active (6). The degree to which an asexual is sexually active varies from person to person, just as it does with non-asexuals, or allosexuals.

Asexuality also does not mean that asexuals do not experience romantic attraction, do not to have sex or do not enjoy sex, or that they do not masturbate (6). Romantic attraction and sexual attraction are not the same. As previously stated, sexual attraction refers to attraction you feel that causes you to want to be intimately close with someone, whereas romantic attraction refers to the emotional response that you feel to someone you are close to (9). For every sexual attraction orientation, there is also a romantic orientation. For example, heterosexual and heteroromantic, homosexual and homoromantic, bisexual and biromantic, asexual and aromantic (lack of romantic feelings) etc. It is possible to identify as any combination of these orientations. This is the case for asexuals, just because an asexual does not experience sexual attraction does not mean that they also do not experience romantic attraction (being aromantic). It is very common to see asexual individual that also identify as heteroromantic, homoromantic, biromantic, or another romantic orientation (6).

Identifying as asexual does not mean that the individual experiences no sexual response or has a sexual dysfunction. In fact, Brotto and Yule (2011) suggests that there is no difference in genital arousal response (physiological sexual arousal which includes; pulsing/throbbing of the genitals and the warming of the genitals) when viewing an erotic film when comparing asexual, heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual women. Furthermore, this study also showed that there is no difference in subjective sexual arousal (i.e., feeling “turned on”) between the four groups of women (3). These two results show that asexual individuals seen as a sexual dysfunction, as it is commonly seen as, because asexual individuals show no significant difference in their ability to experience subjective or physiological arousal when compared to allosexuals.

A final misconception about asexuality is that it is a sexual issue. Many people believe that individuals who identify as asexual have disorders such as sexual aversion disorder or hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). But this is not the case. A study by Houdenhove and colleagues (2014) found that unlike those with sexual aversion disorder, asexual individuals are not motivated by avoiding sexual encounters (5).  The study also looked at the similarities and differences between individuals who identified as asexual and those who have HSDD. They found that asexual individuals, unlike individuals with HSDD, do not experience any sexual distress (5). This finding lead the researchers to propose that identifying as asexual be an exclusion criterion when diagnosing HSDD (5). Houdenhove and colleagues (as well as the study by Brotto and Yule, 2011) found that there is no difference in genital arousal between asexual and non-asexual women, which suggested that asexuality and HSDD are not the same thing (5).

In conclusion, there are at least three main types of asexuality: Asexual, which is the complete lack of sexual attraction; gray asexual, which is occasional sexual attraction; and demisexual, which is when sexual attraction only occurs once an emotional bond has been formed. Due to the lack of asexuality awareness, asexuals are often referred to as unicorns. Misconceptions about asexuality include the following: asexuality is the same as abstinence or celibacy, asexuals suffer from some sort of sexual dysfunction, asexuals do not experience romantic attraction, asexuals do not masturbate, and asexuals do not have or enjoy sex. These misconceptions can lead to asexual individuals feeling marginalized in society and/or that there is something wrong with them because they do not feel sexual attraction. With the growing recognition of asexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation in both research and the media, this type of marginalization and negativity should lessen, making society a much nicer place for asexual individuals to live.

Crystal Tripple, BscH, Psychology, Queens University.

(Edited by Shannon M. Coyle, M.A., and Caroline Pukall, Ph.D., C.Psych.)

Links of Interest:



  1. Alptraum, L. (2016, July 19). Bisexual Women Are Not Going To Be Your Sex Unicorn ... Retrieved October 19, 2016, from
  2. Asexuality, Attraction, and Romantic Orientation. (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2016, from
  3. Brotto, L. A., & Yule, M. A. (2011). Physiological and Subjective Sexual Arousal in Self-Identified Asexual Women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 699-712. doi:10.1007/s10508-010-9671-7
  4. Difference between Celibacy and Abstinence - (2015, December). Retrieved October 19, 2016, from
  5. Houdenhove, E. V., Gijs, L., T’Sjoen, G., & Enzlin, P. (2014). Asexuality: Few Facts, Many Questions. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 40(3), 175-192. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2012.751073
  6. How to Understand Asexual People: 8 Steps (with Pictures). (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2016, from
  7. (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2016, from
  8. McLay, A. (2012, May 28). Asexuals Aren’t Unicorns. Retrieved October 19, 2016, from
  9. Romantic attraction. (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2016, from
  10. What Is Asexuality :: What Is Asexuality? (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2016, from