This is a pre-print of a paper published in Psychology of Sexualities Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, Autumn 2013. A copy of the final article can be obtained here.
While asexuality is usually defined as ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’ amongst those who self-identify as asexual , the question ‘what is asexuality?’ immediately becomes more complex when considered from the standpoint of psychological or sociological research. As Prause and Graham (2007, p. 342) note, the term ‘asexual’ has often been used pejoratively by researchers, deployed to characterise the ‘asexuality’ of older persons, younger lesbians, individuals with physical disabilities or severe mental illness. Likewise, as Bogaert (2012) observes, “women have often been portrayed in art and the popular media as asexual – for example, the iconic virgin” (p. 38). There is a politics of asexuality, existing prior to the contemporary trend for self-identification as asexual, which should ideally be taken into account by those now conducting research in the area. While some have argued that operationalising ‘asexuality’ should proceed from the observable trend to self-identify as asexual, for instance see Carrigan (2012), this will tend to exclude those who have not yet ‘come out’ as asexual and use of the definition ’not experiencing sexual attraction’ remains contested (Aicken et al., 2012, 122). The further methodological risk is that the apparent commonality expressed through this ‘umbrella’ definition can obscure the difference which nonetheless characterises asexual individuals (Carrigan, 2011). Beyond this shared point of identification are a plethora of differences, manifesting in divergent orientations to matters such as romance (those romantic asexuals who experience romantic attraction but not sexual attraction and those aromantics who experience neither romantic nor sexual attraction), the gendering of romantic attraction (those who are heteromantic, homoromantic, biromantic or panromantic) and sexuality itself (those who may enjoy sexual acts without experiencing sexual attraction, those who are entirely indifferent to sex and those who are actively repulsed by it). It is in this sense that the definition ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’ might best be thought of as an ‘umbrella’ covering a spectrum of orientations and identities. This then includes identities such as demisexual (someone whose experience of sexual attraction is conditional upon a prior emotional connection of significant strength) and gray-a (those who fall within the ‘gray area’ between sexual and asexual) within the asexual spectrum. Doing so helps ensure recognition of the phenomenological diversity of asexual identification, particularly in terms of negotiating the boundary between sexual attraction and attraction more broadly (Scherrer, 2008). If asexuality is conceptualised as a simple absence then this risks foreclosing the possibility of understanding the complex ways in which this ‘lack’ is negotiated in everyday life. For instance as Scherrer (2010) writes:
“Participants described many possibilities for talking about relationships including ‘platonic friendships,’ ‘significant others,’ ‘complex,’ ‘special,’ ‘romantic friendship,’ ‘companion,’ ‘romantic partnerships,’ and ‘friendship with various levels.’ Individuals also point to multiple aspects of relationships, such as time spent together, living situations, or degrees of emotional or physical intimacy, as other factors that could be important for describing intimate relationships. These descriptors all share an interest in rethinking and rewriting the language that is available to describe relationships.” (p. 67)
The forms taken by such ‘rethinking’ and ‘rewriting’, as well as the variability of the reasons for which they are undertaken, offer important insights into the lived lives of asexuals individuals which are easily lost if asexuality is understood as an absence. In this sense it is important to distinguish between the emergence of asexuality as a cultural identity, embedded within a wider discourse which is continuing to evolve (Carrigan, 2011), and the underlying characteristics which lead people to come to identify as such. With regards to the former, Hinderliter (2013) offers a perspicacious overview of the history of the asexual community, leading from its early online presence, through to the formation of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) which popularised the ‘umbrella definition’ of asexuality as ‘those who do not experience sexual attraction’ and was integral to the establishment of its present form. But while the contemporary discourse of asexuality only began to take form in the early years of the 21st century, it seems untenable to suggest that the individual characteristics which lead people to this mode of thinking and talking about themselves emerged concurrently. Furthermore, as Bogaert (2004) notes, “there may be a number of independent development pathways, perhaps both biological and psychosocial, leading to asexuality” (p. 284). Therefore we can helpfully construe the field of asexuality research in terms of an interconnected series of questions pertaining, on the one hand, to the (digitally mediated) formation of asexual communities and the emergence of contemporary modes of asexual self-identification and, on the other hand, to the (bio)psychosocial processes which causally shape the personal properties constituting the objective referents of asexual self-identification. In practice the two sets of questions are deeply intertwined but distinguishing between them can, at least in the abstract, be a useful aid for making sense of points of agreement and disagreement within the growing interdisciplinary literature on asexuality.
One recurring manifestation of these issues within the literature has been the contested relation between asexuality qua sexual identity or orientation and the absence of sexual attraction qua pathology. Carrigan (2011, 2012) identified a number of recurrent reactions to the public expression of asexuality e.g. “you haven’t met the right person yet”, “maybe you’re just a late bloomer?”, “were you abused as a child?”, “is there something wrong with your hormones?”. The most virulent form this assumption takes is the notion that there must be a childhood trauma which explains (away) a given individual’s asexuality (Bogaert, 2012, p. 155). These pathologizing social reactions went hand-in-hand with a clear tendency for the research participants to have self-pathologized for a period of time prior to coming to identify as asexual, with reports of feeling “broken” or “damaged” recurring frequently (Carrigan, 2011). While much work remains to be done concerning the stigma experienced by asexual individuals, it is nonetheless clear that, as (Gazzola and Morrison 2012) note, “the current literature suggests the experiences of asexual individuals are excluded from contemporary Western society’s understanding of sexuality and intimate relations in many ways”. This can be seen in the “absence of an English vocabulary to describe their relationships, asexual individuals’ exclusion from peer groups, and the assumptions underlying the development and use of many social scientific scales” ( p. 27). The latter point in particular poses obvious difficulties for further research in the area, as the pervasive marginalization of asexuality within contemporary culture also means that the assumed universality of sexual attraction has shaped many methodological approaches and research instruments commonly used for the study of sexuality. The question of stigma remains empirically under-researched but has indirectly been the object of much theoretical work, with authors such as Gressgard (2013), Kim (2011) and Pryzbylo (2011, 2013) addressing related issues from the perspective of queer theory.
Another closely related issue has also attracted much theoretical attention within the literature. Authors such as Bogaert (2004, 2006, 2012), Flore (2013) and Hinderliter (2013) have, among others, sought to address the relation between asexuality and Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). While the conflation of the two categories has largely been rejected in the literature, the question of how the relation between them ought to be conceived remains contested. One immediate response to the prima facie overlap between the two categories is to observe that the available evidence fails to suggest the prevalence of the distress or interpersonal difficulty required for a clinical diagnosis (Brotto et al., 2010; Prause and Graham, 2007). Another is to point towards the source of such distress where it does occur (Bogaert, 2010, p. 109-110), with the deeply entrenched lack of cultural visibility and the tendency of many to explain away asexuality as a function of some prior trauma or physical ailment upon encountering it representing an obvious social origin for the experience of distress. Bogaert (2012) offers a memorable rejoinder to the pervasive tendency to pathologize asexuality:
“Have you ever skydived before? Of course, most people haven’t and have no interest in it. I have, and for me, it was a thrill. But do those who have not had, and do not want to have, this experience have a disorder? So, if you don’t want this experience, should we diagnose you with, say, hypoactive skydiving disorder because you eschew this thrilling life activity?” (p. 113).
This question has obvious political implications, particularly when considered in terms of the visibility and media activism undertaken in an organised fashion by some within the asexual community. As Hinderliter (2013) observes, “a major goal of the asexual community is for asexuality to be seen as part of the ‘normal variation’ that exists in human sexuality rather than a disorder to be cured” (p. 167). The contested relation between the categories of ‘asexual’ and ‘HSDD’ follows inevitably from the radically divergent cultural history of each, as Hinderliter (2013) goes on to argue,
“HSDD was created by clinicians to talk about patients, making it a category imposed from above. References to things that patients say may be made in articles about HSDD written by clinicians, but very little of the HSDD discourse comes from people self-identifying as having HSDD [..] By contrast, asexuality is a category largely constructed by those identifying as such (or considering identifying as such). In discourses about asexuality outside of asexual spaces (E.g. academic work and media articles), it is often necessary for authors to actively work with members of the asexual community, who are then able to have varying degrees of influences over how asexuality is talked about. Furthermore, members of the asexual community often actively seek out means of promoting visibility as well as research on asexuality” (p. 175)
How many people are Asexual?
One understandable preoccupation of media coverage of asexuality has been the disputed question of population size: how many people are asexual? As discussed in the previous section, the issue of how ‘asexuality’ should be conceptualised and operationalised remains contested, with obvious ramifications for how the question of prevalence is addressed. Bogaert (2004) offered an early attempt to address this issue and is the source of the claim, frequently reproduced in the media, that 1% of the population is asexual. This conclusion was reached through a secondary analysis of the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAl-I) stratified probability sample conducted in the UK. 1.05% of NATSAL-I respondents reported having “never felt sexual attraction to anyone at all”. His secondary analysis of the follow-up study NATSAL-II found 0.5% of respondents reporting having “never felt sexual attraction to anyone at all” (Bogaert, 2012, p. 45). Aicken et al. (2013) raise a number of important points in their analysis of the divergence between the NATSAL-II results, which they also reanalysed, and those reported in Bogaert (2004):
“Social desirability bias is particularly interesting in relation to absence of sexual desire, as there are compelling arguments for its operation in either direction (or differently among different individuals or groups): resulting in either over- or under-reporting of sexual attraction. For instance the reduction in prevalence between surveys may reflect a genuine change over time in the experience of sexual attraction in the population. Alternatively, there may have been changed affecting the reporting of sexual attraction. The social desirability of reporting an absence of sexual attraction may have decreased, and/or the social undesirability of reporting it may have increased. While widely recognised as ‘normal’, depending on an individual’s circumstances and values, it could be seen as undesirable to report either sexual attraction or its absence. Though changes in societal norms could increase pressure to report some sexual attraction, it may be argued that an absence of sexual attraction has, until comparatively recently, been viewed as a virtue.” (p. 131).
How does someone come to identify as Asexual?
As discussed earlier in this article, the ‘umbrella definition’ of asexuality as a ‘person who does not experience sexual attraction’ is a self-identification which has been taken up by individuals with a diverse array of experiences. Carrigan (2011) reported on qualitative findings from a multi-methods study which involved in-depth interviews, online questionnaires and an online ethnography. The following is an extract from a story told by a questionnaire responded, selected for its typicality:
“The year I was sixteen (and for some time after) I spent a lot of time in the company of a few people who were very sexual and it was through their near-constant talk of sex that I was finally convinced that sexual attraction was real. I had heard that something would happen to make you want to have sex with another person, but I had never experienced it myself. In fact, I did not really believe that a person could have physical feelings ‘down there’ that they identified as sexual feelings, despite having learned what erections etc. were in my health class. I thought everyone was like me, until my classmates and friends begin to talk about sex. Then I realised that I was not like them, and for a while I thought I must be immature . . . except that in every other way they seemed so much less mature than I. I thought there might be something wrong with me, except that I am otherwise in perfect health. Then, one night while I was surfing the internet, I came across an embarrassingly girly website which included, as one of its pages, a ‘definitions’ page. I suppose the point was that was that sheltered girls with internet access could look up all the words they were afraid to ask their parents about and get solid, medical definitions. The first word on the list was ‘asexual’ and it caught my interest, because I had never heard it before. I clicked on the link which read the same thing AVEN does, ‘Asexual: a person who does not experience sexual attraction’ and it was like coming home. I knew immediately that this was me and that I wasn’t alone.”
This narrative foregrounds a series of elements common to many biographies of asexual individuals. The individual came to experience themselves as different relative to a given peer group. This often occurred at adolescence upon encountering a culture which stresses sexual experience as a marker of maturation and self-exploration. The nature of this difference is assumed to be pathological, often described in terms of feeling ‘broken’ or ‘fucked up’, with this tendency compounded by the aforementioned pervasiveness of the propensity to explain away asexuality as a function of some prior trauma or, more benignly, as being a ‘late bloomer’ or having ‘not met the right person yet’. This assumed pathology engenders a tendency towards self-questioning, pursued through activities such as seeking medical and/or therapeutic consultation, exploring sexual subcultures or searching the internet. Amongst those who took part in the research reported in Carrigan (2011, 2012), which predominately relied on online recruitment of self-identified asexuals, discovery of the asexual community online led to self-clarification, frequently expressed in terms such as “I finally understood what I was” or “I knew then how I fitted into the world”, constituted through the depathologisation of ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’ as a local reference group, in terms of which this trait was regarded as problematic, came to be replaced by a geographically dispersed reference group, in terms of which this trait was regarded as normal (Carrigan, 2011). There are obvious risks which obtain in talking of ‘stages’ and, in this case, the term is simply intended to indicate empirically identifiable commonalities in experience rather than to homogenise these experiences. Such a construct can help sensitise us to differences within the data as, for instance, in the process of self-clarification which, in spite of the homology within reported experiences, was nonetheless constituted differently by age. Younger participants in the research reported the use of internet search engines as a first port of call for seeking to clarify this trait which they assumed to be pathological, rapidly finding asexual resources online when searching for ‘not sexually attracted to anyone’ or some variant thereof. In contrast, older participants in the research had a much more prolonged process of self-clarification, lasting years or even decades, in which various strategies were pursued and resources consulted but none were able to engender the self-clarification which was being sought after.
What is the broader significance of Asexuality?
In a relatively short period of time, the burgeoning literature on asexuality has attracted significant attention from both inside and outside the academy. Many researchers working in the field have found themselves in frequent contact with journalists within both print and broadcast media, with the ensuing features tending to be subjects of widespread discussion within asexual community spaces online. AVEN actively works to facilitate such collaborations, with a media team elected through an online vote proactively working with the media and helping solicit academic responses if and when this is required. AVEN also has a project team, which takes the lead with ‘asexuality visibility and education’ beyond engaging with media. In this sense we can identify the existence of an embryonic social movement, arising from though not identical with the ‘asexual community’, which seeks to transform social attitudes and increase the visibility of asexuality to that enjoyed by other minority sexual identities. While significant in its own right, the potential complementarities between the social claims emanating from the asexual community in this sense and those emergent from, inter alia, the trans, poly and queer communities are certainly deserving of future study. More mundanely, Bogaert (2012) is certainly correct in his claim that “there is value in the opportunity for members of an overlooked and under-studied group to be able to read about and understand issues relevant to them” (p. 5). From my own perspective as a researcher who has studied asexuality for a number of years, the absence of ‘those who do not experience sexual attraction’ (regardless of whether they are culturally identified as ‘asexual’) from the sexualities literature is retrospectively startling. The growing asexuality studies literature is valuable internally, in that it fills this gap in the wider literature, and externally, in the attention it gives to a group whose marginalisation in contemporary culture has, until recently, been reproduced in their absence from the academic literature. Furthermore, as Bogaert (2012) goes on to note of the public role such research can play, “such glimpses into new worlds may have have health and social benefits, as exposure to sexual minorities may help to increase general tolerance and acceptance” (p. 6).
Nonetheless it is important to note that research itself, as well as the public interventions made on the basis of it, have also been the object of criticisms from within the asexual community and this, in itself, represents an aspect of the topic which is of broader significance. Given the crucial role the internet has played in the formation and reproduction of the asexual community (Carrigan, 2011), research on asexuality has become an inevitable topic of news and debate within these online space, with blogs and forums frequently highlighting new papers and often hosting discussion of them. This trend has been intensified by the growing number of asexual scholars, some already publishing in the area and others preparing to, actively engaged in the development of the literature. There is an identifiable homology between the formation of the asexual community and the formation of what asexual research community presently exists, with digital communications facilitating contact and collaboration between geographically dispersed individuals, ultimately leading to ‘online’ communication having ‘offline’ offshoots. Certainly the asexual community is far ‘ahead’ of the research community in this respect, though it is notable that ‘offline’ meetings (e.g. conference sessions) seem to be becoming more frequent. This reshaping of the field of research, with the same trends identifiable in the groups of researchers as in groups of the researched, represents an important issue to be addressed by digital scholars (Weller, 20§11) and challenges existing models of how researchers relate to the communities they study. While the asexuality community is certainly an outlier in this respect, it nonetheless illustrates some of the possible ethical and methodological challenges posed by the new ‘politics of circulation’ being brought about through the digitalisation of social life (Beer, 2012). Practical examples of this can be seen in the formalisation of AVEN’s gatekeeping function, with well formulated criteria now governing the use of the space for participant recruitment by researchers (Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, 2011), as well as the Open Letter to Researchers written by the Asexuality Awareness Week Committee (Asexual Awareness Week Committee, 2011) which criticised a number of trends within the research literature, not least of all an over-reliance on online methods. Instances such as this point to the challenges likely to be faced with increasing frequency by researchers, as well as to the opportunities digital communications presents to develop new repertoires of relating to research communities. For instance I recently found my own work criticised for the occlusion of sex positive asexuals in an article in AVEN’s online magazine which was further commented upon in a number of blog posts. I found the criticism extremely thought-provoking and wrote a response which was posted on my personal website, which in turn was linked to on the AVEN forums and other blogs, leading to a range of helpful comments which helped me highlight important questions I needed to address in future writing. This is a mundane example but one which is indicative of the potential gains to scholarship which can be accrued through more open and collaborative engagement with research communities online, as well as to the enthusiasm for this sort of interaction which is common within the asexual community.
Many have also suggested that asexuality studies has conceptual and methodological ramifications for the study of sexuality more broadly. Bogaert (2012) has argued that the “study of asexuality offers a unique opportunity to view sexuality through a new lens, but, perhaps more importantly, this new lens affords a distant, wide-angle view of its subject” (p. 8). Pryzbylo (2013) offers a similar thought in a discussion of the implications stemming from “an asexual method, lens or perspective” which she contends can be found in the work of researchers from a variety of disciplines. On Pryzbylo’s (2013) account a dynamic cultural politics is incipient within the growing literature on asexuality, one which questions dominant norms, diversifies sexual options, challenges pathologization, problematizes sex liberation rhetoric and “insists on the legitimacy, viability, positivity and possibility of absence or low levels of sexual attraction, desire, arousal or pleasure” (p. 210). For instance Scherrer (2008) argues that asexuality problematizes common assumptions regarding the universality of sexual desire, theorised in Carrigan (2011, 2012) as the ‘Sexual Assumption’: the tacit presupposition of the universality and uniformity of sexual attraction. Similar themes have also been explored within the work of Kim (2011) and Pryzbylo (2011, 2013). Bogaert (2012) summarises the substantive point effectively when he writes that “in the same way that homosexuality allows us to understand heterosexuality, and vice versa, asexuality allows us to make broad comparisons to understand sexuality as a whole” (p. 6). Asexuality Studies offers a novel and productive framework through which to analyse human sexuality, rethink longstanding assumptions relating to it and to study the diverse array of social and cultural phenomena which encompass it in a variety of ways.
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