Asexuality, Sexual Culture and Pathology – Interview for a Greek magazine

What is it about this time in particular that has made asexuality so popular? Why now? Why is it visible now as opposed to 40 years ago?Is it because sex has become the focus of attention?

This is a fascinating question. Until the early 21st century, there was no sign of an organised asexuality community or an asexuality identity of the form we see now. It would be obviously silly to imagine that the people who now identify as asexual magically popped into existence at the turn of the millenium – so what explains the sudden growth of the asexual community?  Clearly the internet played a large role in this, in that it allowed otherwise emotionally and geographically dispersed individuals to connect with each other and, through those connections, develop a shared understanding of what they had in common.

Once this shared understanding is out there (the idea that there are people called ‘asexual’ who share certain experiences) it becomes easy to see how, particularly with increasing media attention, the community would grow. New people search for others like themselves and because of the increased visibility, it becomes easy to find them. One of the striking findings of my research was the disjuncture in the experience of older and younger asexuals: for the former, the process of ‘searching’ could take decades, whereas for the latter, they will often just type ‘do not experience sexual attraction’ (or something similar) into google and soon find an asexual website. 

But I think there must be more to it than this. What makes people go looking for others like themselves? What creates this desire to connect? In my research I found that what I termed ‘assumed pathology’ was a near universal experience – when people begin to realise that, unlike some peer group, they do not experience sexual attraction, it leads them to assume that something must be wrong with them: that they’re ‘broken’, ‘damaged’ or ‘fucked up’. This reaction is reinforced by those around them with depressing frequency – who tell them something must be wrong with their hormones, or they’re repressed or must have been abused as a child. So I’d argue that experience of pathology, the sense that something must be wrong with you for not experiencing sexual attraction in the ‘normal’ way, has driven the format of the asexual community. The internet was crucial to it but it was, ultimately, only the means. I think a more interesting question is whether this pathologisation of asexual experience is something recent. Or in other words: has sexual culture changed in recent years in such a way as to render the experience of asexuality more problematic? I strongly suspect that it has but, at this stage, I’ve yet to do the empirical research necessary to justify a stronger answer.

Is there a risk in labeling yourself as asexual too soon? A lot of people seem to think that there are underlying psychological problems to being asexual.

Indeed they do and that’s something which has come to fascinate me over the last few years. In a slight odd turn, my interest has shifted from asexual experience to the way in which people who aren’t asexual react to the existence of asexuality – I find the assumptions sexual people make about asexuality fascinating, given the sheer uniformity you begin to recognise when you encounter it a lot. They also tend to be remarkably flimsy, in the sense that if you question the basis of the reaction, it soon becomes apparent that it’s an assumption. I’ve argued that underlying these assumptions is something I’ve termed the sexual assumption: sexual attraction is both universal (everyone ‘has it’) and uniform (it’s fundamentally the same thing in all instances) such that its absence must be explicable in terms of a distinguishable pathology. I have a project planned to test my hypothesis that this assumption is something which demonstrably emerged in the second half of the 20th century, as an assumption made within academic discourse which ‘broke free’ and came to structure the way in which we think and talk about sexuality in everyday conversation.

It’s certainly possible that people might label themselves too soon – various researchers, including myself, have noted that we’ve yet to see the kind of longitudinal research about asexuality which would help us  understand this issue in greater depth. But equally it’s important to recognise that this notion of ‘too soon’ is something most asexual individuals encounter in their everyday lives. As friends would put it, “maybe you’re just a late bloomer?” or “maybe you haven’t met the right person yet?”. It’s not exactly something people are likely to be in the dark about, simply because the omnipresence of this reaction means they must think about it. But what makes these questions so corrosive is the simple fact that it’s not possible to know that these friends are wrong. How do you know that you might not come to be other than you currently are? In a sense I think it’s the wrong question, with the caveat that I also think the assumption of essential identity which underlies it (i.e. by coming to identify in this way, I am revealing a permanent and unchanging aspect of myself which I can never repudiate) is also the wrong way of looking at the issue.

Ιs asexuality hormone related/ genetic/ societal?

It’s an understandable question but I don’t think you can explain asexuality in these sorts of terms i.e. like most human things of any complexity, it’s both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. I’d reject the idea that asexuality can be ’caused’ by genes or hormones on philosophical grounds. However I’m completely open to the possibility that there may be a hormonal and genetic element in asexuality, though the diversity within the community (e.g. between people who are actively disgusted by sex and those who are simply indifferent to it) suggests that there are likely to be different causal pathways at work. Furthermore, the process of going from not experiencing sexual attraction to coming to identify as asexual is clearly a near entirely social one.

How did you become interested in asexuality?

Sheer curiosity. I didn’t really understand it when I first encountered it and, in the process of coming to understand it, many assumptions I hadn’t been aware of became apparent to me. This is a pretty common experience of people working on this topic. Once you really start to look at the data and think through the implications of it, it soon becomes blindingly obvious that many of the concepts we use to think and talk about sexuality are extremely limited. Not least of all the fact that everyone assumes that sexual attraction is a universal thing.

Do you see asexuality as a movement or as a sexual orientation? Or both?

It’s obviously both but I think there are sometimes tensions between the two. There are people who don’t experience sexual attraction (i.e. share a common orientation) and pretty pervasively find that wider society doesn’t recognise that they exist – this leads many of them to seek to change perceptions, increase their visibility and make connections with other groups in similar situations. Without the sexual orientation you don’t get the movement but they are practically two distinct things.

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