Why the interest in asexuality? Were people around not surprised about your interest and research into asexuality? Is it ok for us to ask about your sexual orientation?
I became interested in asexuality because I met a couple of asexual people socially and, I now realise in common with pretty much all non-asexual people, I simply didn’t ‘get’ it. I didn’t understand what they were telling me when they said they were asexual. It was in the process of talking to them and coming to understand what asexuality was that I became interested in the subject academically. It was intriguing in its own right (I’m a sociologist with a background in philosophy who’s interested in identity & self-understanding) but it also called into question many taken for granted assumptions within the academic study of sexuality.
What do you think is the impact of an online community like AVEN on the redefining of the term ‘asexual’? Most people by hearing the word ‘asexual’ will immediately assume that you don’t have sex and that there is a reason why you don’t have sex (illness, old age, lack of hormones, not being attractive enough, …).
One of the most striking findings from my research was the extent to which it is seemingly a near universal experience for asexual individuals to make these assumptions, at least briefly, about themselves prior to discovering the asexual community. As I’ve gone on with my research, I’ve become extremely interested in how people aren’t asexual react to asexuality and what this reveals about the cultural attitudes towards sex and sexuality which have become dominant in the last few centuries. As you say most people immediately respond with these assumptions and, I’d argue, underlying them is one core idea: that sexual attraction is universal (everyone has it) and uniform (it’s basically the same thing for everyone even if, say, it’s directed at the same rather than the opposite sex) such that any apparent deviations from this norm have to be explained away as, well, deviations i.e. if you don’t experience sexual attraction then there must be something wrong with you. Once you bring it out into the open, it seems an obviously questionable assumption but until the recent visibility of asexuality it simply wasn’t out in the open.
What sort of feelings did you have while doing your research? Was it a revelation or did a lot of things make sense? Like for example the idea of romantic and sexual orientation being distinct, or the assumption that someone’s sexual behavior or non-behavior is the same as their sexual orientation.
The distinction between sexual and romantic attraction was a big eye-opener for me personally and one which, in retrospect, explained all sorts of tangled personal webs I had tied myself in as a teenager and young adult. It’s one of those concepts which, once you think through the distinction, seems self-evident and yet most people don’t draw the distinction, which is extremely interesting in and of itself.
Do you see asexuality as a sexual orientation or a lack of sexual orientation?
On a philosophical level I find the idea of ‘sexual orientation’ immensely questionable. But as a researcher I can see why the concept is used (though I don’t use it myself) and, in terms of sexual politics, I think it’s a useful term in many ways for the asexual community to use. With that caveat I’d say that, in terms of how the concept is usually defined, asexuality is a sexual orientation, though I think applying it to asexuality rapidly entails the conclusion that the concept needs to be stretched if not abandoned e.g. the extent to which ‘sexual orientation’ is bound up with quite restrictive understandings of gender and attraction.
Did the diversity within the asexual community surprise you? Since it is an umbrella term for those who don’t/occasionally/only when certain aspects are fulfilled – experience sexual attraction. Some are sexual active, others aren’t. Some have romantic relationships and others have no interest as such. Do you see a similar diversity within the sexual community? Is it ok to say that every asexual individual experiences his/hers asexuality in his/hers unique way, just like sexuals do?
This is what really fascinated me about the data I collected. In my ex life as a political philosopher, I was very interested in the concepts of commonality and difference and how they relate to each other. I rapidly found that behind the ‘umbrella term’ there was a great deal of difference within the asexual community but, in a way I found rather confusing initially, the process of articulating the way members differed (e.g. whether they were averse to sex or neutral, whether they experience romantic attraction or not, the genders towards whom they experienced romantic attraction etc) actually seemed to affirm what they had in common. I think there is a similar diversity within the sexual community but that, unlike with the asexual community, it’s often not talked about. When we express things about ourselves, we draw on the categories that are available to us within our culture. The conversations that took place within the asexual community literally brought into being new categories in terms of which individuals could express things about themselves. Whereas in contrast the categories sexual people have to draw upon are much more restrictive. Something which has become blindingly, sometimes frustratingly, obvious to me in the 4 years I’ve been researching asexuality. On a more positive note though, I think asexual visbility leads sexual people to think more reflectively about their own sexuality. So in a way asexuals can help provoke these conversations just by talking to those who aren’t asexual about themselves.