Reflections on five years spent studying asexuality

It occurred to me earlier that it’s been five years since I started my research on asexuality. After a year, I wrote this article reflecting on my experiences. When I read it back, I’m struck by how little my thinking has changed since then. I’ve felt for ages that I’m just repeating myself whenever I talk or write about asexuality and this has been making me increasingly uncomfortable. I don’t like the idea that I’m contributing to a process in higher education which I find immensely problematic: expressing the same insights and ideas across an ever broader range of (repetitive) publications. This research was something I conducted independently at the same time as my PhD and at times the former was crucial to sustaining my enthusiasm for research when the latter was proving intractable and frustrating. So having officially completed my PhD a few weeks ago, it feels like a good time to declare my asexuality research complete as well – in a sense it was a couple of years ago, I’ve just been habitually saying ‘yes’ when people ask me to do things about asexuality since then.

Looking back on it, I’m quite pleased with what I’ve done: I think I’ve made a strong argument that the everyday experience of asexual people needs to be integral to the study of asexuality and that we in turn need a wider historical and social frame of reference to understand this everyday experience. It’s also been lovely to see people cite my idea of the sexual assumption (the unexamined assumption that sexual attraction is universal and uniform so that deviations from this are seen to be inherently pathological) which I think is a useful theoretical concept that’s firmly rooted in my empirical research. However when I read asexual blogs, I’m increasingly aware of how much the online community has changed in four years and the need for qualitative research to be up to date in this respect. I’ll probably still read the literature on occasion because there are a few questions I still hope that people address:

  • Are there ‘parallel’ identities to asexuality in different national contexts? I mean this in the sense of forms of identification which people who don’t experience ‘enough’ sexual attraction (relative to prevailing social norms) are drawn to as a means to assert that their experience is non-pathological.
  • How persistent is asexual identification across the life course? I think this is crucial for how we understand asexuality from a sociological perspective but unfortunately it would take a lot of time and money to investigate it adequately. Ultimately I don’t think this can be separated from the consistency or otherwise of the underlying orientation but I think the identification question is more important given its implications for the cultural consequences of continually expanding asexual visibility.
  • Is it possible to trace the emergence of the sexual assumption empirically? The idea I had in mind for ages was to compile a corpus of popular and academic materials, using concordancing software to search for collocations with sexual discourse i.e. can we find shifting evaluative terms associated with sexual terminology? I’ve lost interest in doing this myself but I hope someone does do it.
  • In what sense, if at all, is it meaningful to talk of the ‘asexual community’? In what sense, if at all, is it meaningful to talk of an ‘asexual social movement’? I’m increasingly hostile to the former notion, even though I keep using the phrase and uncertain about the latter.
  • What are the commonalities and differences in how non asexual people respond to an acquaintance with asexuality? How does it change their own self-concept with relation to their sexuality? What are the broader cultural consequences of these trends? I suspect a discourse analysis of media commentary could prove interesting in addressing this question, in so far as there are clearly recurrent tropes (e.g. “it’s a fourth sexual orientation”, “they don’t have sex but they enjoy life”) which visibility work is feeding into in some respects.
  • Is sex-favourability the same thing as sex-positivity? I’m not sure that it is but it’s one of those questions which is vastly more complex than it seems once you begin to look into it in a serious way.

I’ve been quite negative about asexuality research recently because I’ve long felt that I’ve basically lost interest and I feel bad about this. However it occurred to me when writing this post that what I’d seen as ‘losing interest’ could equally be seen as having satisfied my curiosity. I started the research because I was fascinated by the topic (I just didn’t ‘get it’) and I’m ending it having come to an understanding that entirely satisfied that curiosity. There are many other topics I’d like to do this with and I’m realising that it just won’t work unless I learn to focus on one thing at a time, even if this means excluding other things that interest me in a way that risks feeling (superficially) arbitrary and unnecessary. Doing everything at once doesn’t become possible simply because I really dislike having to choose where to focus my finite energy and attention.

For my own interest as much as anything else, here’s what I’ve spent these five years doing:

  1. The special issue of Psychology & Sexuality that the Routledge book is based on
  2. An entry on ‘Asexuality’ in the LGBTQ encyclopaedia forthcoming with Sage
  3. A chapter on Asexuality and Applied Psychology in a forthcoming handbook
  4. Review of Celibacies that’s forthcoming in Sexualities
  5. An interview with David Jay in an upcoming book on sexualities
  6. Asexuality and Its Implications for Sexuality Studies. Psychology of Sexualities Review, Vol 4(1
  7. Review of Understanding Asexuality, by Anthony Bogaert. Psychology & Sexuality (2013)
  8. Editorial w/ Todd Morrison and Kristina Gupta. Special issue of Psychology & Sexuality (2013)
  9. How Do You Know You Don’t Like It If You Haven’t Tried It? Asexual Agency and the Sexual Assumption’(pp 3-19). In T.G. Morrison, M.A. Morrison, M. Carrigan and D. T. McDermott (Eds.) Sexual Minority Research in the New Millennium. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science
  10. There’s more to life than sex? Difference and commonality within the asexuality community’, Sexualities (2011), 14 (4)
  11. Loads of blog posts here and some scattered around various other tags on this blog (including here)
  12. A panel at Sexualisation of Culture a few years ago which I organised with CJ Chasin and Ela Przybylo
  13. The AsexualityStudies.org blog which is now archived here
  14. The Spotlight on Asexuality event I organised with Ruth Pearce and Lyndsey Moon archived here.
  15. Lots of talks at various conferences (my favourite ones attached below) – not entirely up to date list here
  16. Lots of interviews with the media (my favourite ones attached below) – not entirely up to date list here
  17. Two educational workshops I ran at Warwick with Michael Dore (podcasts are somewhere but can’t find them)
  18. A photography project with my friend Holly Falconer which is finally finished and will be on display at some point next year
  19. A year spent trying to get a documentary made about asexuality which ultimately went nowhere (and left me with a profound cynicism about tv)

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About Mark