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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Cognitive processing of sexual cues in asexual individuals and heterosexual women with desire/arousal difficulties Brown, Natalie Bellman


Asexuality is defined as a lack of sexual attraction to others. Though scholars have classified it as a sexual orientation, this has been challenged, with some experts positing that it is better explained as a sexual dysfunction. Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder (SIAD) is characterized by absent/reduced sexual interest/arousal paired with personal distress, with two subtypes: acquired and lifelong. Research suggests that while asexuality and acquired SIAD are distinct entities, there may be overlap between asexuality and lifelong SIAD. Findings from studies of visual attention to and appraisals of sexual cues suggest that these methodologies might differentiate these two groups on the basis of their neural mechanisms. However, no study has compared these groups’ cognitive processing of sexual cues, and the literature on lifelong SIAD is minimal. The current study aimed to test differences between asexuality and SIAD (both lifelong and acquired) on cognitive processing of sexual cues. Forty-two asexual individuals and 25 heterosexual women with SIAD (16: acquired; 9: lifelong) completed three study components: a visual attention task, a sex SC-IAT, and the Sex Semantic Differential Scale. One-way ANOVAs examined group differences in: 1) visual attention to erotic cues, 2) implicit appraisals of sexual words, and 3) explicit appraisals of sex. Women with SIAD displayed a controlled attention bias for erotic images and areas of sexual contact, making a greater number of fixations and having longer dwell times to these areas relative to asexual individuals, who did not gaze preferentially at erotic cues. There were no differences in gaze behavior between women with different SIAD subtypes. For implicit appraisals, there were minimal group differences, with asexual individuals and women with both SIAD subtypes demonstrating negative – neutral implicit associations with sexual words. For explicit appraisals, women with acquired SIAD reported more positive evaluations of sex relative to asexual individuals and women with lifelong SIAD, with no notable differences between the latter groups. This project sheds light on key differences between asexuality and low desire, and has important implications for best clinical practice guidelines for the assessment of lifelong SIAD.

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