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reflections on six years spent studying asexuality 

Notes for a talk tomorrow

It’s now been quite some time since I undertook my research on asexuality. It was initially motivated by sheer curiosity, as I guess research should be under ideal conditions: I’d met a couple of asexual people socially around the time I was completing a masters degree project on sexual identity. The conjunction between my confusion concerning the former (I just didn’t ‘get it’) and the absence of asexuality in the literature review I did for the latter, left me wanting to explore it in greater depth. The project I undertook involved an online ethnography, an online questionnaire and a small number of face-to-face interviews. Through the research I sought to answer the question of ‘how does one come to identify as asexual?’. It’s a biographical question about a process that takes place over time and what it means to the people involved.

What I found was get there’s a lot of similarities in the processes people go through: people recognise that they’re somehow different to a reference group, they initially impute pathology to this (often reinforced by others), before beginning to look for other explanations. Before the Internet this could take all sorts of forms, exploring different communities and trying out different identities. But with the Internet it became possible to google one’s experiences, a process which will likely lead to the asexual forums, websites, blogs, YouTube videos which have continually grown over the last decade. At which point the experience was pretty uniform among the people who took part in my research, much as it was with the assumption of pathology: going from “feeling broken” to finally discovering your “place in the world”.

In the last few years my interest in asexuality has shifted away from a concern with the experience of asexual people to a preoccupation with why those who aren’t asexual find it as confusing as they do. This can seem to be a confusingly niche interest, or at least I occasionally worry that it might come across that way. It emerged from one recurrent theme in the many personal stories I encountered in my research: the incomprehension with which most asexual people have at times found their asexuality greeted. What makes the notion so hard to grasp?

What’s more important is how this incomprehension can lead people to act. This inability to grasp asexuality as a concept can bring otherwise well meaning people to act in deeply hurtful and marginalising ways. It can leave those who are far from well meaning acting in even more unpleasant ways than they might otherwise. What these actions usually have in common is a failure to believe asexuality exists as a possibility and a concomitant tendency to explain it away. Offering asexuality as an account of themselves, asexual people are instead told that it can’t exist… it must be their hormones, psychological damage, repressed child abuse. Don’t they know that sex is natural? Don’t they realise that sexuality is an integral aspect of the human condition? Perhaps they’re just a late bloomer? Or maybe they haven’t met the right person yet? In terms of the broader cultural frameworks within which we think and talk about sexuality, some of these reactions are entirely comprehensible to me (and this is why I find the reaction of non-asexuals to asexuality so interesting from a sociological standpoint). But they’re often deeply hurtful and what I find particulalry frustrating is how unnecessary the hurt caused is.

But this isn’t just a matter of asexual visibility, as important as that it is. As Petra Boynton has put it, our lexicon to express what we’re into sexually has expanded hugely and I think this is an unambiguously good thing. But I’m not sure there’s a corresponding expansion in our lexicon to talk about sexuality itself, as opposed to sexual behaviour, in fact I wonder if it might have even shrunk as a evaluative register of ‘moral and immoral’ has been comprehensively replaced by one of ‘normal and pathological’. My own experience as someone who is not asexual (but has often been assumed to be so, which is quite interesting in its own right) has been that I know think much more articulately about my sexuality than I once did. I have an identify of myself as sexual, above and beyond my sexual orientation, in a way I once didn’t. But there’s no good word for this: sexual, non-asexual, allosexual? I think this very telling in its own right. I wonder if my own experience will become a common one as asexuality become ever more visible and recognisable. I think there’s a rich vocabulary to talk about sexuality and intimacy that has emerged within the asexual community that could be of great value to many who aren’t asexual.

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Mark