A Realist Theory of A/Sexual Categories

On July 15th I’ll be part of what will hopefully be a fascinating panel discussion on sexual categorization at the Understanding the Social World conference at the University of Huddersfield. Here’s the abstract for my presentation:

In this presentation I draw on my fieldwork into the asexual community (8 in-depth interviews, 174 surveys and an online ethnography) to outline my notion of the ‘sexual assumption’: the presupposition that sexual desire is both universal and uniform. I argue that the experience of asexual individuals provides both an empirical refutation of the former claim and a starting point through which to conceptually unpick the latter claim. Common experiences reported by asexual individuals in terms of identity formation (suspecting that one may be asexual, coming to define as asexual, entering into a relationship as asexual) suggest that ‘sexual desire’ is far from a uniform phenomena.

In fact the notion of ‘sexual desire’ as a function of ‘sexual drive’ seems manifestly inadequate for understanding the relational experiences of asexual individuals. The difficulties faced by asexual individuals in finding concepts through which to adequately understand their intimate needs highlights the problematic relationship between our experience and the categories through which we interpret it. I sketch out a realist account of the relationship between sexuality and sexual categories: I argue that such categories are ‘necessary fictions’ (unavoidable ones, without which we would be unable to live out meaningful intimate lives) but that, rather than seek to overcome them, we should incorporate the consideration of their congruence with our intimate experience into the academic study of them. With particular reference to the asexual community, I suggest that an array of categories ought to be subject to critical scrutiny.

My initial research on asexuality was an empirical study of a community which had, thus far, been under-researched and its intention was to collect as wide an array of qualitative data as possible on all aspects of the asexual community and draw out the commonalities, as well as the differences, within this diverse group of individuals. Since then I’ve tried to contextualise the socio-historical emergence of the asexual community in terms of wider transformations taking place in late capitalist intimate life. Now I want to try and get to the conceptual issue which, I now realise, has largely driven my interest in asexuality for the past few years: how do the categories within and through which we think about human intimacy shape our experience of it and what is the basis of the interface between them.

Although for a long time I thought asexuality was an entirely seperate strand of inquiry to my PhD research on human reflexivity I realise now it’s not at all. Asexuality is a fascinating example the relationship between deliberation (internal conversation) and cognitive dispositions (the often tacit categories through which our deliberations become articulable) in the context of the unfolding of a human life. I want to approach the findings of my empirical work in these terms. Particularly these things:

  • The literal non-comprehension which the majority of asexuals face from the majority of friends, peers and family if/when they ‘come out’. This often manifests as phobia with seemingly phobic consequences but I have argued (Carrigan 2011) that it is not itself intrinsically phobic. Rather it is a product of asexuality problematising a near hegemonic tacit conceptual category which I have termed the ‘sexual assumption’: the assumption of the uniformity and universality of sexual desire (Carrigan 2011, 2012).
  • The assumed pathology which many asexuals undergo for varying periods of time in the process of coming to an asexual identity. The sense that the difference they are aware of in relation to their peer group (i.e. a lack of sexual attraction) must be a product of something having gone wrong. This manifests itself both in the external judgements of other and internal deliberative judgements about oneself. What are the social and cultural bases of this?
  • The difficulties which asexual individuals face in applying common categories of relational life (e.g. best friend, lover, partner) to their own intimate exprerience.
Through examining these three issues, though there are more I want to look at in future, in terms of a wider realist theoretical analytic of human agency and human sociality, I will attempt to draw out an extremely sketchy ontology of sexual/intimate categories and a sociologically grounded moral psychology of intimate life. This is very much a work in progress, with this being my first attempt to talk explicitly about these themes, so this bit of the presentation might seem somewhat fuzzy! Finally I intend to talk about the methodological consequences of this line of argumentation (construed, at its very least, in terms of a thorough empirical engagement with the emergence of the asexual community) for the wider study of sexuality.