Interview about #asexuality for an Italian magazine

What is asexuality, and what are the social causes of asexuality?

Asexuality is usually defined as ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’, though it’s important to recognise that not everyone accepts this definition and some extend it to include a low or fluctuating experience of sexual attraction. This is distinct from celibacy, in the sense that this is understood as a choice (i.e. experiencing sexual attraction but refraining from acting on it) while asexuality is involuntary. One of the difficulties involved in ‘defining’ asexuality however is the diverse range of experiences which tend to be subsumed under this one word – to say that asexuality involves the absent experience of sexual attraction does not necessarily entail an absence of attraction as such, it’s just that we often fail to distinguish between the different forms that attraction can take (e.g. romantic, aesthetic, intellectual) because for those of us who are not asexual these forms of attraction are often, though not always, bundled together.

It’s also more difficult than it might initially seem to talk about what ’causes’ asexuality. As a qualitative sociologist, I’ve investigated how people come to identify as ‘asexual’. In this sense, it’s a cultural label with an identifiable history – clearly emerging in its present form on the internet in the early years of the millennium but having a complex existence prior to this – which can be investigated. It’s when we start to look at why people find this label useful, indeed why many find it life changing, that we begin to see the importance of questions about what underlies this cultural movement. As I said, there’s clearly a range of different experiences which lead people to use the label ‘asexuality’ to give an account of themselves but there are many common features to them – most of which I’d argue stem from a shared experience of having their orientation towards sex and intimacy made to feel highly problematic by others in their lives. One common way this is experienced is in terms of a sense of feeling ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ – in coming to find the asexual community, this experience of being made to feel different and wrong comes to be replaced by a sense of there being other people like them, who are just part of the diverse spectrum of human difference.

This is how I’d approach the question of the social causes of asexual identification. The process I just described is hugely important in many people’s lives (not all) but it’s clear there’s something more going on ‘beneath’ this – for instance some people talk of asexuality as the fourth sexual orientation. In this sense, I think it’s meaningful to ask about the causes of asexuality (i.e. as this underlying orientation) because I think it clearly extends further then the social causes I’ve looked at in my work (encompassing things like the internet which allowed people who were previously dispersed and relatively isolated to connect with one another. It does worry me a bit though on a political level. Should we ask what causes homosexuality? Should we ask what causes heterosexuality? Given that most asexual people have experienced a lot of distress at times because of how widespread the view is that there ‘must be something wrong with them’, I find research into ‘what causes them to be this way’ somewhat problematic. In one sense, I can accept its scientific legitimacy but in another sense, as someone who has tried to be an ally to the asexual community, I can see that it causes problems and, if it’s going to be pursued, researchers should be sensitive to the unavoidably political dimension of the questions they’re asking.

60 years ago having an asexual behaviour was not a problem for anybody. What has happened?

I feel it’s important to clarify that this is a claim that needs further historical work to substantiate it. However I think there are strong grounds to believe this is the case. One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had with someone asexual, which for a variety of reasons I was unable to incorporate into my academic work, was with an octogenarian woman who described the pressures she was subject to when younger as someone who didn’t experience sexual attraction – these were different pressures but they were still pressures. We need to be careful that recognising that something does seem to have changed about the expectations society has in relation to sexuality doesn’t lead us to romanticise the past as somehow more liberated. Particularly when we think in terms of gender, this manifestly wasn’t true. But on the other hand, it does seem there was more space to not experience sexual attraction, given that sexual intimacy was much less visible in a cultural sense than is now the case (though of course it was far from invisible).

I think this question ultimately comes down to that of how difficult contemporary culture – as a short hand for social norms, interpersonal expectations and media representations – makes it for people who don’t experience sexual attraction. Or perhaps we can usefully rephrase this as people who don’t experience enough sexual attraction, as well as those who experience too much, to acknowledge that social pressures relating to sexuality (the growing view that something has gone wrong if people experience ‘too much’ or ‘too little’) has implications for the lives of quite a wide range of people. An awful lot of anxiety and confusion comes attached to the sense of what is ‘normal’ in sexual matters – I find asexuality research so interesting both because of its inherent value as a research topic but also as a frame through which we can look differently upon these broader questions about sexual culture. If you’re not asexual, coming to understand the experience of people who are can increase your awareness about many of the assumptions we tend to make about sexuality and how these shape the way in which we approach our lives. This has certainly been my own experience and I’m curious about the broader cultural changes that might emerge as a result of the growing visibility and recognition of asexuality.

9 thoughts on “Interview about #asexuality for an Italian magazine

  1. I’d definitely be interested in hearing more about the octogenarian woman that you interviewed.

  2. Sadly she didn’t want to do an interview & it was just an hour talking to her on the phone about her experiences. She was very interesting.

  3. I’ve got a question for you with regards to your answer to the second question (ie. “it was no problem to be asexual 60 years ago”). In 2012 you’ve been quoted in two interviews on the Guardian and the BBC saying there was no need for an asexual identity prior to the sexual revolution;

    Is this still something you stand by? Your answer to a similar question in this post, especially from what you tell about your conversation with the octogenarian woman, seems to contradict that theory.

  4. Hi, yeah I basically stand by it. I think my view is probably more nuanced now than it was, partly after talking to David Jay about this in an interview last year. Previously I thought that if sexual activity was not a part of general conversation then asexuality wouldn’t be experienced as problematic. I still think this but I think I’d previously underplayed other forms of cultural pressure (particularly relating to gender and marriage) and overstated the point a bit.

  5. I don’t think you’d get the contemporary asexual community without (a) a culture that leads most to assume that all ‘normal’ people visibly exhibit an interest in sexual behaviour (b) diffusion of internet access, bulletin boards and social media (c) the visibility and institutionalisation of LGBT politics* (d) a broader cultural politics of identity in which people attend to inner experiences with the intention of working out who they are.

    *Andrew H’s point, not mine

  6. thanks for your answer. While your explanation goes a long way in explaining the factors that caused the rise of the asexual communities and explains some of why the identity has taken on this particular shape, I honestly still don’t understand why that would mean that there wouldn’t have been a “need” in the past?

    You identify four factors that play a key role in the formation of our communities and identity, but that still doesn’t explain why there wouldn’t have been a need for some form of asexual identity in the past.
    While point (b) explains that the barriers in communication would have been lifted, and points (c) and (d) address certain aspects of the identity politics within our communities, it doesn’t take away that point (a), which explains the need for an identity or community, still stands, although I think that definition might be too narrow. Because although the exact shape in which social pressure was put on asexual(-ish) people would have been different, there would still be a social pressure to conform to a strict understanding of sexuality and sexual behavior, which many asexual(-ish) people would have had difficulty to comply to. And thus their sexuality would have been experienced as problematic.

    I can understand an explanation that centers around an improbability of communities forming due to communication barriers or it being impossible to conceptualize asexuality without first have a conceptualization of LGB identities and broader cultural identity politics. But a lack of “need” for positive self-conceptualization would imply things were easier prior to the sexual revolution. And I very much doubt that things were indeed “easier” back then (if anything, all I can come up with are reasons why things might have been difficult back then, especially for women).

    oh btw, I forgot to say so earlier, but I’ve come across two accounts of elderly ladies, in case you and Andrew are interested: –> this one is in French, but google translate makes a very readable translation if you need it. also features an octogenarian woman.

  7. well it’s (a) that we disagree on. I’m saying that the kinds of reactions that drive people in the direction of identifying as asexual, that render the identity helpful in making sense of themselves and their circumstances, were at most relatively marginal compared to their pervasiveness now. i don’t think the identity could have come into being for reasons (b), (c), (d) and i don’t think it would have been subjectively meaningful, at least not in the same way, for reason (a)

    ” And I very much doubt that things were indeed “easier” back then (if anything, all I can come up with are reasons why things might have been difficult back then, especially for women).”

    I completely agree! That’s what I was trying to say and it’s my coming to recognise that which explains the shift in my argument you initially asked about.

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