In this paper I explore the role of sexual categories in the lived experience of contemporary young people through a case study of the asexual community. While still representing a relatively small area of research within contemporary sexuality studies, asexuality (commonly defined as people who do not experience sexual attraction) has become the focus of increasing attention in recent years, with a range of researchers and theorists suggesting that study of the asexual community has much to offer the wider study of sexuality across a range of disciplines (Bogaert 2012, Przybylo 2013). In this paper I draw on my prior empirical research project on asexuality, as well as the wider emerging literature within asexuality studies (Carrigan, Gupta and Morrison 2013). It elaborates upon an analysis offered previously (Carrigan 2011, 2012) through a development of Archer’s (2000, 2003, 2007, 2010) recent work on the internal conversation: our capacity to deliberate about our actions given our subjective concerns and our objective circumstances. This is reframed in terms of Layder’s (1997) work on psychobiography, to offer an account of how individual deliberation and sexual categorization intersect to shape observable biographical trajectories.
The data presented in this paper is the result of a mixed methods research project into asexuality and the asexual community. This constituted 8 semi-structured interviews, 174 online surveys and a online ethnography conducted through asexual websites, forums and blogs. All participants self-identified as asexual. The initial aim of the project was to collect empirical data on what was, at the time, still a largely unresearched community, as well as to understand the commonalities and differences within that community (Carrigan 2011). In subsequent writing I have explored the lived experience of asexuals (particularly in relation to friends, families and relationships) with the intention of understanding the exercise of agency necessary to negotiate a heavily sexualized social world for those who do not experience sexual attraction (Carrigan 2012). In both articles, as well as subsequent conference papers, I sought to develop a notion of the sexual assumption: a cognitive category, manifesting in the reflective judgements and dispositional reactions of individuals, which assumed the universality and the uniformity of sexual attraction i.e. that everyone experiences sexual attraction and that it’s largely the same thing in each case. I postulated that this lay behind the striking convergence, identifiable in the empirical data, in the responses of non-asexuals to an initial confrontation with asexuality. The attempts of others to explain away asexuality when initially confronted with it was a near universal experience of respondents. While the form this took varied (“you haven’t met the right person yet”, “maybe you’re just a late bloomer?”, “have you been to the doctor to check your hormones?”) the shared conceptual implication of these responses was that the individual in question believed that what the asexual individual was telling them about their asexuality could not literarily be true. This was an unexpected outcome of the research but it was one which increasingly fascinated me, particularly as the visibility activism and media work I began to engage in as an ally of the asexual community radically expanded the number of conversations I was having about asexuality in my daily life. My own experience of talking to others about asexuality, in this case as someone who was not themselves asexual though usually unclear about whether the other person assumed I was, strengthened my conviction in what had initially been a tentative hypothesis: there is a pervasive tendency to explain away asexuality and this tendency is susceptible to sociological explanation. The sexual assumption is an initial stage in this explanatory project, with an exploration of the cultural historical questions which so naturally flow from the hypothesis being a major planned focus of my future research.
In the original project I recruited interviewees through online and offline contacts and I promoted the online survey through the same websites which were the basis for the online ethnography. The interviews lasted from between half an hour to three and a half hours and were loosely guided by a list of ‘talking points’ I compiled through ideas resulting from my thematic analysis. The surveys involved a series of 27 questions permitting open-ended responses and was compiled through reflection upon the ideas gathered through the online ethnography. The online ethnography itself involved an in-depth reading of asexual websites, forums and blogs which was intended to familiarize myself with the terminology and self-understandings prevalent within the asexual community. More expansive methodological reflections can be found in Carrigan (2011, 2012).
While many people are familiar with asexuality as a biological term, its widespread use as a self-definition is far more recent. The asexuality community has coalesced in the past decade through a number of online websites, as previously isolated individuals have used the Internet to contact each other for the first time. Foremost amongst these sites is the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). The front page of the AVEN (2009) website defines an asexual as ‘someone who does not experience sexual attraction’ and due to the popularity of the site this definition has been highly influential. However it is not exhaustive. Behind this ‘umbrella term’ lies a wide variety of people who relate in a whole host of different ways to sex and romance (Carrigan 2011). Some asexuals are indifferent to sex and, in the context of a relationship, are happy to have it because they know it is important to their partners. Others find sex abhorrent and are utterly averse to the prospect. As one survey respondent put it, “I find the idea of sex utterly disgusting. I honestly think I would vomit if I ever had sex.” However a significant number within this category went through periods of subjecting themselves to an experience they hated because at that point they did not feel it was ok to say they did not want to. Some asexuals are ardent romantics and want nothing more than to find someone special to share their life with. Others prefer to find companionship through friends and family, with no interest in finding a partner. As one such aromantic asexual explained to me in their survey,
‘I have no interest or will to conduct any form of romantic activities, all-out sex being just one of them. It also means that I’m free to use my time and energy on something a lot more meaningful than the constant overwhelming desire for such activities or feelings.’
What unites all these sub groups is a converging trajectory of identity development constituted through a series of stages. The notion of ‘stages’ can be a contentious one and it is used here in an attempt to conceptualise convergent experiences within a far from homogenous group composed of a membership which is both self-selecting (individuals have chosen to identify as such) and socially-selecting (individuals require sufficient acquaintance with the group and its ideas to be able to self-identify as members). Though a full exposition of the methodological question at stake here is beyond the scope of this paper, the notion of ‘stages’ is seen to have value because of the temporal dimension it accords to theorising about group membership. It offers a way to move beyond protracted debates about essentalism and instead reframe our theorising about groups in terms of converging and diverging biographical pathways into and out of groups, as well as how the stages involved shape the group (through working biographically to bring about patterning in the orientation of group members to each other and the group itself) and are in turn shaped by it (through the conditioning influences of a diverse range of social and cultural factors, the exact constellation of which is an empirical question). Ultimately these are behavioural concepts for which subjective adequacy is a necessary (though insufficient) condition to secure their methodological legitimacy (Layder 1998).
The following is the story told by a questionnaire respondent of how they came to identify as asexual. This individual’s biographical trajectory illustrates a number of stages which most participants in the research underwent, although biographical specifics and self-understandings varied throughout. It is offered here because of its narratological value (specifically its concision) and the clarity with which the processes of internal conversation involved are recounted.
“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 realized 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.”
At a certain point in time this person begin to develop a sense of individual difference in relation to a given peer group. Usually this occurs at adolescence when they encounter a culture amongst their peers which places a great stress on sexual experience as a marker of self-exploration and growing up. While those around them loudly proclaim their burgeoning sexuality, they increasingly come to see themselves as somehow different. The ambiguous nature of this difference, given that it is a private recognition rather than a public proclamation, prompts self-questioning in an attempt to make sense of precisely how they differ from their peers. This prompts an assumption of pathology, as the difference is assumed to be a sign that they are, in some way, ‘broken’. However living life in this way is not, all other things being equal, emotionally tenable and they search for non-pathological explanations of their perceived difference. For the participants in my research this desire for self-clarification ultimately found satisfaction online through the asexual community.
The obvious methodological limitation of the trajectory that I am proposing is that all my participants identified as asexual when I spoke to them. Furthermore I made contact with the vast majority of them online so it is not possible to say, at least on the basis of the present research, whether the trajectory described above is unique to this group. However the centrality of the Internet to the formation of the asexual community and the spread of the asexual identity suggests that asexual individuals found online are unlikely to be dramatically atypical of self-identified asexuals as a whole. The trajectory should not be understood as a necessary condition of asexual identification but rather as a heuristic which should be revised and reformulated in dialogue with further empirical evidence. Its utility rests on its capacity to foreground the distinct commonalities within the experience of a diverse group of individuals. However although the stages of the trajectory were common to all participants, the speed and experience of moving through them varied. It is precisely this capacity to foreground difference, with the explanatory challenge it presents, against a background of commonality which constitutes a virtue of the approach offered in this paper.
For instance there was a clear divergence between the experience of older and younger asexuals. The Internet is the major factor in explaining this experiential divergence because prior to the Internet it was much more difficult for asexuals to discover the existence of others like themselves. The other major divergence was between those asexuals for whom the asexual community is simply the source of a concept of asexuality (i.e. the existence of a distinct group of people who do not experience sexual attraction and for whom this absence is unproblematic) and those for whom involvement in the asexual community satisfied an ongoing personal need. For the former group the community is where they encounter a way of understanding their individual difference which, as one respondent put it, “made it okay to just live my life without the need to seek out another person for sex” but serves no other purpose in their lives. For this group the community did not serve any ongoing needs and while the confirmation of a communal identity provided important clarification in their lives, there was nothing else that drew them towards active participation.
An example of this can be seen in the case of James, a 35 year interviewee, who told me how he thought that AVEN was an “‘interesting idea and interesting forum but surely getting together to discuss something you’re not interested in does seem a little counter-intuitive?’. For those who did not experience any situational need, the asexuality community largely represented an interesting though unnecessary diversion. In contrast, for the latter group their online encounter led to an enthusiastic embrace of the community as a whole, resulting in an active ‘online’ life, as well an increasingly active ‘offline’ life (albeit mainly in Britain and North America). For this group the asexual community served ongoing situational needs such as helping them meet asexual partners, making friends who understood their circumstances and generally helping them cope with the difficulties of living as asexual in a sexualised world.
Coming to Identify as Asexual
“My friends seem to understand it fairly well, although a few seem to think that I’ll change my mind about sex if I ever find the ‘right person'”
“At the moment people have joked about setting me up with someone and that ‘I need a boyfriend'”
“some have basically said ‘I don’t believe you, but as long as you’re happy’”
These extracts from online surveys are typical of the reaction that asexual individuals experience from friends, family and peers. Is this lack of understanding a consequence of phobia and prejudice? While there is certainly evidence that asexuals do experience phobia, with a number of research participants reporting instances of bullying and harassment, it seems this experience is relatively rare. In contrast, the experience of marginalisation and invisibility is very common for asexual individuals. Earlier it was argued that the sexual assumption is responsible for this pervasive lack of understanding of asexuality (easy to test for oneself in everyday conversation) which can prompt otherwise well-meaning and well-intentioned people to act in ways which can cause a great deal of harm. This prompts an obvious question: if people literally do not understand asexuality on a conceptual level, what explains this? Furthermore is this failure to understand it something which is historically and culturally novel? It is difficult not to speculate as to whether this literal failure of comprehension would have been quite as pervasive were the relevant circumstances present in past times. Would asexual individuals have even felt the need to articulate an asexual identity in earlier times? While I have argued elsewhere (Carrigan 2011) that the internet played a crucial role in the formation of the asexual community, in so far as that it allowed geographically and emotionally isolated people to connect for the first time, this was clearly a necessary condition but it is less obvious that it was a sufficient condition. The necessity that we give an empirically and conceptually adequate account of what else was needed to stimulate the formation of an asexual community leaves us with a number of options:
- Deny the existence of asexuals e.g. construe the identity as a rationalization of hypoactive sexual desire disorder (Bogaert 2012, Hinderliter 2013).
- Accept the existence of asexuals but claim they sprang into being at the onset of early 21st century.
- Accept the existence of asexuals but investigate the conditions which led people with asexual experiences to affirm an asexual identity.
Unsurprisingly it is the third option which I wish to pursue in this paper and, in doing so, I will proceed from the ‘umbrella definition’ of asexuality as not experiencing sexual attraction. Once an individual becomes aware of themselves in this way, what consequences does it hold for them? To what extent are such consequences the result of wider social and cultural forces rather than the particularities of an individual’s life and local circumstances? The table below shows the biographical trajectory, understood as a moral career in something close to Goffman’s sense of the term, originally developed from empirical data in Carrigan (2011). As discussed earlier, it is intended as an attempt to conceptualise identifiable convergences over time in the lived experience of self-identifying members within groups. It allows the interrogation of the situation individuals confront at each stage, with some degree of generalisability between the particular persons represented in data, such as to constitute a bridgehead between making sense of empirical data and broader theoretical endeavours. However, as such, the trajectory itself must be open to review and revision at any point, on empirical and/or conceptual grounds.
|Experienced Difference||Assumed Pathology||Self-Questioning||Self-Clarification|
|Internal Conversation||“I’m different from the group I’m comparing myself to”||“This difference must mean something is wrong with me”||“If there isn’t something wrong with me then what explains this difference?”||“Some people are this way and there’s nothing wrong with me”|
|Situational Preconditions||Recognition that a relevant reference group seemingly experiences sexual attraction while the individual themselves does not.||Acquaintance with the assumption (either through interactions with others and/or expert knowledge system) that all ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ people experience sexual attraction.||Any number of personal, social or cultural factors that can lead an individual to dispense with the assumption of pathology.||Any number of personal, social or cultural factors that can lead an individual to come to a sustainable sense of their identity.|
While many individuals only come to see themselves as asexual through encountering other asexuals (usually online) or discussion of asexuality in the media, this is far from universally true. An example of how the approach offered in this paper can sustain a sensitivity to difference, as well as offering a temporally orientated explanatory purchase upon it, can be seen in the case of David, an asexual man in his 30s, who described to me how he theorised the existence of asexuality prior to contact with the asexual community. In common with other older asexuals, David had gone through a prolonged period of searching, exploring the gay scene but finally coming to the conclusion that he was not able to be sexual. This prompted him to begin thinking theoretically about his sexual experience in terms of what he already knew to be true about human sexuality:
“Well I thought it just sort of made sense when you think about it. You’ve got the variation in human sexuality: gay people, bisexual people and the broad spectrum of things outside of that, you know fetishes and all that kind of thing. Well I thought “well if you’ve got all that variation in human sexuality then there’s bound to be some people like me who don’t experience sexual attraction to other people”. It also makes sense if you think about the sexuality, or how you define sexualities, it’s broadly on which gender a person finds to be sexually attractive. So if you think about it then asexuality fits into that really well because it’s kind of the opposite of bisexual.”
However this initial conceptualisation did not render contact with the asexual community redundant for him. Even after he had drawn this conclusion his lack of interest in sex was, as he put it, “always a slight drag on my psyche, that there’s no else like me so I’m not sort of ‘normal’ as such”. It was only later when he encountered an article in a newspaper about asexuality that this ‘drag’ was relieved:
“It’s like a theory confirmed. It was “yes! I was right”. That was it. It was confirmation I got it right. It’s almost as thought I’d worked it out for myself and I thought “I was right”. I actually cycled home that day and was like “yes! yes! I was right”. It was just a fantastic feeling but it didn’t affect my lifestyle as such, over and above that that drag on my psyche was gone.”
Making Sense of a Situation and the Discursive Gap
The approach offered in this paper allows for the detailed excavation of particular situations individuals face while retaining a broader and temporal frame of reference in terms of how such situations connect into a biographical trajectory over time. At any given point in time an individual confronts a situation not of their own choosing, though partially shaped by past choices they have made. Often the situation poses no challenge, such that one can proceed in much the same way as in the past, without any spur to deliberation. However sometimes the situation can demand such reflexivity, as it renders habitual responses problematic and invites internal conversation (Archer 2003, 2007). For instance when:
- An individual realises that their peer group is loudly and vocally proclaiming their experience of sexual attraction while they themselves do not experience it.
- This recognition of difference demands some explanation of it (“why am I this way?”) using the cultural resources which are situationally available to them.
- The explanations of difference possible using the cultural resources available to them lead to a conclusion of pathology.
- An individual encounters others who have faced similar questions and made sense of them in a way which, at first sight, seems subjectively plausible.
This approach to the analysis of biography should not be misunderstood as reductive. Isolating the internal dynamics of specific situations, as well as the causal connections between them over time, does justice to the ideographic complexity of individual biographies while also facilitating causal explanation of the processes shaping the unfolding of the biographical itself. It recognises the empirical messiness of biography while also explaining it, rather than refraining from sociological explanation by construing the biography as self-narrative (reducing to agency) or construing the biography as an inevitable response to social circumstances (reducing to structure) (Archer 1995). Instead this psychobiographical approach focuses “on the intersection or join between two fundamental features of the human social world” (Layder 1997: 51). In doing so, it takes account of the “way in which individual psychology and personality factors interact with the changing personal and social circumstances of the life-career as they unfold over time and affect self identity” (Layder 1997: 48).
The ‘stages’ identified in such a biographical trajectory are analytical constructs, drawn up in order to unpack and explain empirically observable of psychobiographies. The first three stages can be clearly delineated in this (partial) account from the online questionnaires:
“I came to identify as asexual this way: I have never understood the desire to engage in the acts that define sex, from kissing on down the list. My body doesn’t function that way – it doesn’t excite me. Other things excite me: a good protest, a fine steak, reaching the top of a mountain after a long climb. Sex doesn’t excite me. It’s not fun for me, it’s not interesting. This issue haunted me for years until finally, when I was engaged to be married, I knew that I couldn’t walk down the aisle until I solved what we called the sex issue. So I went into therapy. I explored every corner and crevice of my childhood. After psychological reasons were ruled out, I took hormone tests to see if my body was functioning properly. When the tests came back as “normal”, I still lobbied to be prescribed low-levels of testosterone. I got the prescription and took testosterone to jump start my sex drive. The testosterone didn’t work, so I switched to progesterone after a few months. I lamented the feeling that I was somehow “broken”, that I was somehow “less of a person”. I continued to look for psychological reasons in therapy. I continued to engage in sexual activities even though I’d rather take the LSATs or swim the Pacific than be naked with another human. After over a year of hormone therapy, after exclusive sex therapy with my partner, after the kind of lament and struggle that so many of the kids I mentor experience when they’re struggling with their sexuality, my relationship ended. I continued in therapy, and I continued to wonder why I was broken.”
The respondent was led to actively search for explanations of her experienced difference. Underlying the journey she undertook was a discursive gap between her emotional experience and the resources that were socially and culturally available to articulate that experience both to herself and to others. The lack of congruence between what she was experiencing and the terms available within and through which to think/speak about those experiences led her to seek out new terms. This is a subtle cognitive process and one which, given the theoretical excesses which characterize social theory after the linguistic turn, often finds itself occluded. It is one which involves ‘conceptual revolutions’ in our quotidian and situated attempts to make sense of our selves and our circumstances, with the cultural affordances situationally available to us constituting a barrier of self-articulation against which we struggle over time rather than some absolute on how we construe our life and our place within the world (Taylor 1985: 68-72).
The process of making our way through the world necessitates internal conversation, particularly given the intensification of individual choice which characterizes late modernity (Giddens 1991), as daily life poses a plethora of questions – ranging from the practical to the existential – which demand internal deliberation about what to do and who to be (Archer 2003, 2007). Similarly in so far as we are social beings, we converse with others and, where they are close to us, we spend much time giving an account of ourselves and engaging with the account others give of us. In all cases we rely on cultural resources (ideas, concepts, terms, metaphors, analogies etc) in these activities and these exercise powers of constraint and enablement in relation to our attempts to articulate or elaborate an underlying experiential reality. It is important to note that, given “our internal conversation is constituted as much by symbols, images, emotions and remembered sensations as it is by components of limitation” this account does not entail a deterministic relation between language and thought (Archer 2007: 72). But nonetheless our capacity for making sense of our experience is shaped by the characteristics of the cultural resources available to us.
The experiences of the respondent above illustrates the biographical significance of the discursive gap. While the account in question was reported retrospectively, thus coming to possess narrative characteristics, it can be analyzed in terms of distinct stages (synchronic) in order to understand the dynamics which lead to biographical change (diachronic). In this case the respondent spent many years searching for a satisfying and sustainable explanation for her personal experience. The ongoing assumption that this was a pathology led her to seek medical and therapeutic explanations of this state of affairs. However having searched for such explanations on a number of occasions, the subsequent incongruence of these medical-therapeutic categories with her lived experience compelled her to continue this search. The categories socio-culturally available to her at a given point in time (synchronic) were inadequate for making sense of her lived experience, thus prompting her to negotiate a path through the world in search for new categories which would be congruent with her lived experience (diachronic).
The movement is agential: it is deliberate, chosen and conscious. Yet if it is construed in an excessively rationalistic or cognitive way, the underlying dynamic is lost. Her movement over time is not driven by intellectualized reflection upon her situation (although she undoubtedly is intellectually reflecting upon it) rather it is driven by the gap between what she is moved to try and say and what she is able to say given the accumulated constellation of cultural and cognitive affordances which characterise her situation at different stages. It is a struggle to articulate who she is and what she experiences. The direction her life takes is driven by a lack of the cultural resources she contingently needs to express an important experience of who she is, both in internal conversation and to external others. Without an appreciation of the disjuncture between articulation and categories (what we are trying to ‘say’ and the terms available to us within and through which to ‘say’ it), as well as between the synchronic and diachronic (the situations we are in at particular times and the responses they provoke in us and our lives over time) our accounts of human agency, as well as how it plays itself out over the lifecourse, are going to be lop-sided: either over-cognitive or under-cognitive, missing a crucial and universal aspect of human experience which too often escapes attention by theorists and researchers alike because of its ambiguous status vis-a-vis language i.e. the discursive gap is neither a linguistic nor a non-linguistic phenomenon.
The Sexual Assumption and Sexual Categories
While the postulated centrality of the synchronic/diachronic and articulation/categories distinctions to biographical unfolding has implications for theorising membership of self-selecting groups more broadly, it is of particular significance for understanding sexuality and gender. Jeffrey Weeks (1995) famously termed sexual identities ‘necessary fictions’, which are taken up for a variety of reasons: ‘because they make sense of individual experience, because they give access to communities of meaning and support, because they are politically chosen’ (Weeks 2003: 128). I wish to argue that the processes Weeks adroitly identifies extend beyond identities, broadly construed, encompassing networks of mutually implicated categories which both create and are created by communities of meaning. Gaining access to communities of meaning is so important because such communities are constituted by other individuals who, through their biographical transitions, have negotiated similar struggles which can be understood in synchronic/diachronic and articulation/categories terms. They have faced similar cultural obstacles in attempting to make sense of their difference in terms of cultural resources which are coded with prevailing assumptions about gender and sexuality. Through doing so they have creatively, though fallibly, engaged in bridging the discursive gap and it is this activity which has driven the direction in which their biographies have unfolded.
I want to suggest that this particular kind of experiential convergence is, in an ontological sense, constitutive of a community of meaning and that, furthermore, this is the necessary condition for the development of the communities of support discussed by Weeks. The biographical commonality, construed in terms of the discursive gap rather than (necessarily) substantive similarity between persons, inevitably has a dialogical component within such communities of meanings. While some can be part of an ‘imagined community’ and enjoy self-clarification through the terms this provides to make sense of oneself, much of this activity takes place through actual others (even if this content is mediated through, say, web forums and social media).
This paper was intended as an initial outline of an integrated approach to studying ‘communities of meaning’ which is grounded in a critical realist approach to biographical research (Archer 2003, 2007). It understands such communities as constituted through converging biographies which coalesce into a specific form of group which can be seen most clearly in the realm of sexualities but is by no means restricted to such instances. The primary concern of this account has been with the socio-cultural availability of categories at any given point in time, as well as the extent of their congruence/incongruence with lived experience over time. Through reconstructing such synchronic junctures on the basis of empirical data (particularly those moments when individuals realised that the cultural resources available to them were inadequate for making sense of themselves and went in search of new ones) it is possible to explain biographical trajectories in a way which both does justice to their ideographic complexity while also move beyond simple description of narrative. Such an approach also leads beyond biography, in so far as that it inevitably poses questions about the relational networks and cultural environment within which individuals exist at any given point in time.
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