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.

I41mRZVYpOXL._SY300_n the last few years my interest in asexuality has shifted 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? I’ve written about this at length in the past and I don’t think I have anything new to add to the discussion at this point.

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 frustrates me is how unnecessary the hurt caused is. What we need is some sort of accessible introduction to asexuality, providing a readable overview of the many ways in which these reactions (and their underlying assumptions) are mistaken. Thankfully we now have one, with the publication of Julie Sondra Decker’s The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality.

Written by a well known and respected figure within the asexual community, Decker’s book benefits from a personal familiarity with the issues concerned that lends an air of implicit authority that the author manages skilfully throughout. The tone is just right for a book of this sort: friendly and conversational yet also authoritative and precise. It begins with a personal story which illustrates the first-hand experiences Decker brings to the book, which is intended as a “starting point for people interested in asexuality”. It begins with an ‘Asexuality 101’ that introduces the basics in a way satisfying to the reader yet also firmly repudiating some of the most common miscomprehensions that one might bring to a book such as this. It then moves on to the varying experience of those who identify as asexual, introducing the potentially confusing panoply of terms which have proliferated within the asexual community but skilfully showing how these are grounded in specific kinds of experience. The next section, unsurprisingly my favourite given the nature of my own interest in the subject, addresses the (many) myths surrounding asexuality. The final sections offer practical advice to those who are asexual (or questioning whether they may be) and to those who know someone who is asexual (or suspect that they might be). The book then concludes with a helpful compendium of resources that the reader can use to explore further.

This is a long overdue book, offering the general purpose introduction to the subject which has heretofore been lacking. It is an essential addition to any academic reading list that encompasses asexuality and should be required reading for any therapists with an interest in sexuality. It provides a sense of what it is like to be asexual that can sometimes be missing from academic work and engages with the literature while nonetheless refusing to be constrained by it. It is also immensely readable, providing an authoritative overview that sign posts the reader who is keen to explore further. I can’t recommend The Invisible Orientation highly enough and hope it has a wide readership. Given how effectively it critiques the myths surrounding asexuality, helping those who are not asexual themselves better understand something that can at first be deeply confusing, it is a book with the potential to make a positive difference to many people’s lives and help combat what the author describes as the “insidious form of exclusion” that asexual people continue to experience.

I’ve been thinking recently about trying to relaunch asexualitystudies.org (which is now asexualitystudies.wordpress.com because the domain lapsed) as a group blog. As I see it the site would serve four purposes:

  1. Collating news about asexuality research
  2. Curating asexuality related resources 
  3. Providing a network spacing for asexuality researchers
  4. Providing a forum for people to write shorter articles about asexuality research

If we could get five or six people together, it seems as if the site could be a really useful resource without it being a major responsibility for any one person. If you’re interested in getting involved please get in touch: mark@markcarrigan.net

Screen shot 2014-04-29 at 15.10.54

Screen shot 2014-04-29 at 15.10.54The last decade has seen the emergence of an increasingly high profile and politically active asexual community, united around a common identity as ‘people who do not experience sexual attraction’. This unique volume collects a diverse range of interdisciplinary empirical and theoretical work which addresses this emergence, raising important and timely questions about asexuality and its broader implications for sexual culture. One of the most pressing and contentious issues within academic and public debates about asexuality is what relationship, if any, it has to sexual dysfunction. As well as collecting cutting edge scholarship in the emerging field of asexuality studies, rendering it indispensable to any sexualities course across the range of disciplines, this anthology also addresses this urgent debate, offering a variety of perspectives on how and why some have pathologised asexuality. This includes a range of chapters addressing the broader issues of sexual normativity within which these contemporary debates about asexuality are taking place.

Buy online here. Yours for only £85. Hmm. But maybe you want to ask your library to buy a copy….? 

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.

Introducing Asexuality

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:

  1. Deny the existence of asexuals e.g. construe the identity as a rationalization of hypoactive sexual desire disorder (Bogaert 2012, Hinderliter 2013).
  2. Accept the existence of asexuals but claim they sprang into being at the onset of early 21st century.
  3. 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:

  1. An individual realises that their peer group is loudly and vocally proclaiming their experience of sexual attraction while they themselves do not experience it.
  2. This recognition of difference demands some explanation of it (“why am I this way?”) using the cultural resources which are situationally available to them.
  3. The explanations of difference possible using the cultural resources available to them lead to a conclusion of pathology.
  1. 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.

References

Archer, M. S. (2000) Being Human: The Problem of Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Archer, M. S. (2003) Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Archer, M. S. (2007) Making Our Way Through the World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bogaert, A. F. (2012). Understanding asexuality. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Carrigan M (2012) 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

Carrigan, Mark (2011)  “There’s more to life than sex? Difference and commonality within the asexual community.” Sexualities 14.4 (2011): 462-478.

Carrigan, Mark, Kristina Gupta, and Todd G. Morrison. “Asexuality special theme issue editorial.” Psychology & Sexuality ahead-of-print (2013): 1-10.

Hinderliter, A. (2013). How is asexuality different from hypoactive sexual desire disorder?. Psychology & Sexuality, (ahead-of-print), 1-12.

Gazzola, S. B. and Morrison, M. A. 2012. “Asexuality: An emergent sexual orientation”. In Sexual minority research in the new millennium, Edited by: Morrison, T. G., Morrison, M. A., Carrigan, M. A. and McDermott, D. T. 21–44. New York, NY: Nova Science.

Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Layder, D. (1997). Modern social theory: Key debates and new directions. Routledge.

Przybylo, Ela. “Some thoughts on asexuality as an interdisciplinary method.”Psychology & Sexuality ahead-of-print (2013): 1-2.

Taylor, C. (1985) Human Agency and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2014 Call for Papers about Asexuality
Asexuality Studies Interest Group
National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA)
November 13-16, 2014, San Juan, Puerto Rico 

The NWSA Asexuality Studies Interest Group welcomes papers for the 2014 NWSA annual conference. These asexuality-related themes are orientated towards the full NWSA 2014 CFP which can be found here: http://www.nwsa.org/files/NWSA%202014%20CFP_Final.pdf

If you are interested in being a part of the 2014 Asexuality Studies Interest Group panels at NWSA, please send the following information to the designated panel organizer (listed under each theme) by Thursday, February 6, 2014:

*Name, Institutional Affiliation, Mailing Address, Email, Phone

*NWSA Theme your paper fits under

*Title for your talk

*50-100 word abstract

We will try to accommodate as many qualified papers as possible, but panels are limited to 3-4 presenters. NWSA will make the final decision about which panels are accepted. Presenters accepted into the conference program must become members of NWSA in addition to registering for the conference.

Sponsored Session: Asexualities and Issues of Race

For our sponsored session, we wish to think through the ways that race, ethnicity, and nation intersect with asexuality studies. We are interested in academic scholarship that focuses on these intersections, personal experiences of asexual people of color, as well as pedagogical approaches to teaching about asexuality through the lens of critical race studies and women of color feminism. Some questions we want to raise are:

• What difference does race, ethnicity, and nation make in the lives of asexual-identified people?

• How does asexual-identification predicated on low levels of sexual attraction and/or desire interact with racist assumptions that people of color are hypersexual?

• In what ways does asexuality help us think through histories of race-making and racism?

• How is racism experienced in the asexual community?

• How do online asexual communities work to make asexual people of color visible or invisible?

• How can we make asexuality studies be more attentive to issues of race and white privilege?

Please submit materials for the sponsored session to organizer Regina Wright at wrightrm@indiana.edu

Co-Sponsored Session with NWSA Fat Studies Interest Group

Fatness and asexuality provide useful frameworks for understanding how subjects are produced and disciplined within the context of the nation: positioned as unhealthy, deviant, pathological and unproductive–both fatness and asexuality are perceived as threats to the state’s normal functioning. While the growing activist and academic movements pertaining to fatness and asexuality both expose and problematize the disciplinary techniques of the nation, fatness and asexuality are only ever positioned together negatively. Fat empowerment politics, for example, involves critiquing the dominant ideology that fat bodies are either hypersexualized, fetishized or desexualized, and by this emphasis, can overlook the experiences of people who identify as both fat and asexual. This co-sponsored session wishes to place fat studies and asexuality studies in dialogue with each other and seeks papers that address questions including, but not limited to:

• What are points of encounter between asexuality studies and fat studies?

• In what ways can the intersections of fat studies and asexuality studies serve as a productive platform from which to critique ideas about labor, the economy, and the nation-state?

• How do marginalized fat and asexual bodies continue to foil the nation-state’s desire for fixity?

• How can fat asexuality be re-imagined as a form of empowerment and not stigma?

• How might the increasing use of social media as a mode of resistance to oppressive state regimes present a useful point of departure within fat and asexual politics?

Please submit materials for the sponsored session to organizer Danielle Cooper at cooperd4@yorku.ca

Theme 1: Rethinking the Nation

• In what ways does an avid investment in sex, sexuality, and the sexual imperative shape the formation of colonial nation-states and the making of empires?

• How does gender, race, class, ability, and sexuality interact with the sexual imperative to make mandatory certain ways of inhabiting and enacting national belonging and citizenship?

• Through what ways can we develop an asexual analytic to puncture the normativizing structures at work in the making of empires, nations, and neoliberal economies?

• In what ways does “asexuality” as an identification either collude with or challenge the grounding elements of nation-making, in and beyond the Occidental empires?

• Can asexual perspectives work in concord with critical race theories and feminist theories of race-making to demolish global hierarchies and the production of whiteness and white privilege?

• How is asexuality integral to the future of feminist critiques of the role of sexuality in nation-making?

Please submit materials to theme organizer Ela Przybylo at przybylo@yorku.ca

Theme 2: Trans- Feminisms

• What does it mean to be both trans* and asexual? How do trans* members of the asexual community negotiate these two identities?

• How might these intersecting identities help us redefine feminist and asexual politics and epistemologies?

• What is the intersection between the human and the non-human in asexual communities? How might the encounter between the human and non-human species be productive in terms of transspecies critiques and participation in ecofeminist or cyborgian narratives?

• In what ways do cultural and socio-political locations create space or challenge asexual identities? • Why are some ethnicities, nationalities, and races only minimally represented in online asexual communities?

• How do the hierarchical relationships among regions across North/South and other hegemonic borders figure into asexual studies?

• How might asexual communities and identities help generate transnational and transcultural feminist alliances?

• How might transgenerational feminist perspectives in asexual studies intersect with or challenge foundational concepts in women’s and gender studies? What are the dynamics among the members of the multi-generational asexual community?

Please submit materials to theme organizer LaChelle Schilling at lache2380@gmail.com

Theme 3: Technologizing Futures

Contemporary asexual identities and communities have largely developed online (and in some cases have subsequently moved “off-line”). This theme will explore this relationship between contemporary asexualities and the Internet and might address any of the following questions, or other relevant questions:

• What is the relationship between the Internet and contemporary asexual identities and communities? How has the fact that these identities and communities were first developed online shaped the form of these identities and communities?

• What forms of asexual activism have been enabled by the online nature of asexual identities and communities? Has the online nature of these identities and communities augmented and/or limited their ability to effect social change?

• What role do bodies play in online asexual communities? How has the online nature of these communities affected the ways in which other social categories have manifested in these communities (such as race, class, gender, and ability)?

• What happens when asexual communities and identities move “off-line”?

• Has the online nature of asexual communities enabled the formation of transnational connections? Do global inequalities remain unaddressed in asexual communities?

• What can the “case study” of asexual identities and communities contribute to scholarship on digital communities? To scholarship on sexual identity formation?

Please submit materials to theme organizer Kristina Gupta at kag24@georgetown.edu

Theme 4: Love and Labor

One can look at the larger project of asexualities as a relatively recent series of actions by individuals, groups and disciplines laboring privately and publicly to come to terms with different approaches to our definitions of love. Through radically redefining sexuality, identity, bodies and desire in a heteronormative society, it becomes possible to further imagine an openness to contingency and experiments within and between communities. This panel addresses some of the ways in which feminist, queer and performance studies can inform and build upon one another within the context of activating various perspectives on asexualities, through the following areas of inquiry:

• How do we construct new networks in innovative ways that link theoretical inquiries to the socioeconomic and racial realities of asexual communities?

• To what extent can we employ trust, creativity and imagination in the exploration and construction of asexual identities and space through an everyday performativity?

• How would shared social and cultural rituals of a small community translate into larger, networked activism?

• In what ways, do we enable and enrich the writing of future histories of asexualities within the context of this interdisciplinarity?

 Please submit materials to theme organizer Anna Lise Jensen at aaaonyc@gmail.com

Theme 5: Creating Justice

• In what ways are asexual identities marginalized/oppressed? What structures, discourses, and modes of power refute, obstruct, and/or censor asexual legitimacy?

• In what ways does the struggle for legitimacy resemble prior movements toward justice, such as those for women’s rights, minority voices, and queer communities? What can a campaign for asexual justice take and learn from those movements? In what ways is the asexual movement different?

• What can be learned from the proliferation of asexual spaces online and how can that knowledge be put into practice in a campaign for legitimacy and justice offline?

• What is asexual justice? How can it be achieved in theory and practice?

• In what discourses and institutions is asexuality currently allowed (wholly or partially) to operate?

• How do specific cultures and languages reshape, challenge, or aid the campaign for asexual justice?

• How does this campaign for justice change when considered outside of the dominant contexts of the United States and Europe?

Please submit materials to theme organizer Nathan Erro at nmerro@gmail.com

In the last decade, a growing number of individuals, self-identifying as asexual, have come together to form asexual communities. According to the largest asexual community, an asexual individual may be defined as a person ‘who does not experience sexual attraction’ (http://www.asexuality.org/home/overview.html). However, the straightforward nature of this definition masks the considerable heterogeneity, captured by a rich terminology that has emerged through the ongoing dialogue of asexual persons about their respective experiences (Carrigan, 2011). Within the asexual community, one key distinction drawn is between those who experience romantic attraction (romantic asexuals) and those who do not (aromantic asexuals), with individuals in the former group commonly understood as heteroromantic, biromantic, homoromantic or polyromantic. Another distinction that often emerges concerns reactions to sexual activity: some asexual individuals are indifferent to sex while others are actively averse to varying degrees. For researchers in the field of psychology and related disciplines, the elaboration of asexual identities and the growth of online asexual communities raise a range of empirical and theoretical questions, which are just starting to be addressed.

Mark Carrigan , Kristina Gupta & Todd G. Morrison (2013): Asexuality special theme issue editorial, Psychology & Sexuality, DOI:10.1080/19419899.2013.774160

Pre-print available here. Published in Psychology & Sexuality.

In this chapter I critically engage with existing work on asexuality and develop an account of the ethical, theoretical and methodological issues inherent in asexuality research. I utilise the work of the social theorist Margaret Archer to explicitly articulate a theoretical model within which the experience of asexual individuals can be understood. I draw upon the findings of recently conducted fieldwork into the lives and experiences of individuals within the asexual community, focusing on three domains of experience in particular: friends, families and relationships. Through the practical application of the theoretical and methodological approach expounded upon earlier, I analyse the experiences reported by participants in terms of the situations they face and how they negotiate them through reflexive deliberation. In doing so, I attempt to illuminate some of the wider issues raised by investigating asexual experience in this way.

Pre-print available here. Published in Sexual Minority Research in the New Millennium.

Asexuality is becoming ever more widely known and yet it has received relatively little attention from within sociology. Research in the area poses particular challenges because of the relatively recent emergence of the asexual community, as well as the expanding array of terms and concepts through which asexuals articulate their differences and affirm their commonalities. This article presents the initial findings of a mixed-methods research project, which involved semi-structured interviews, online questionnaires and a thematic analysis of online materials produced by members of the asexual community. The aim was to understand self-identified asexuals in their own terms so as to gain understanding of the lived experience of asexuals, as well as offering a subjectively adequate grounding for future research in the area.

Pre-print available online here. Paper published in Sexualities 14(4).

Carrigan, M. (2011). There’s more to life than sex? Difference and commonality within the asexual community. Sexualities, 14(4), 462-478.

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.

References

Aicken, C. R., Mercer, C. H., & Cassell, J. A. (2013). Who reports absence of sexual attraction in Britain? Evidence from national probability surveys. Psychology & Sexuality, 4(2), 121-135.

Asexual Visibility and Education Network. (2011). Rules for research requests: New policy. Retrieved 11/6/2011 from http://www.asexuality.org/en/index.php?/topic/59868-rules-for-research-requests/

Asexual Awareness Week Committee. (2011). Open Letter to Researchers. Retrieved 23/10/2013 from http://asexualitystudies.org/2011/11/27/open-letter-to-researchers/

Bogaert, A. F. (2004). Asexuality: Prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample. Journal of Sex Research, 41(3), 279-287.

Bogaert, A. F. (2006). Toward a conceptual understanding of asexuality. Review of General Psychology, 10(3), 241.

Bogaert, A. F. (2012). Understanding asexuality. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Brotto, L. A., Knudson, G., Inskip, J., Rhodes, K., & Erskine, Y. (2010). Asexuality: A mixed-methods

approach. Archives of sexual behavior, 39(3), 599-618.

Carrigan, M. (2011). There’s more to life than sex? Difference and commonality within the asexual community. Sexualities, 14(4), 462-478.

Carrigan M (2012) 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

Flore, J. (2013). HSDD and asexuality: a question of instruments. & Sexuality Psychology, 4 (2), 152-166

Gazzola, S. B. and Morrison, M. A. 2012. “Asexuality: An emergent sexual orientation”. In Sexual minority research in the new millennium, Edited by: Morrison, T. G., Morrison, M. A., Carrigan, M. A. and McDermott, D. T. 21–44. New York, NY: Nova Science.

Gressgård, R. (2013). Asexuality: from pathology to identity and beyond.Psychology & Sexuality, 4(2), 179-192.

Hinderliter, A. (2013). How is asexuality different from hypoactive sexual desire disorder?. Psychology & Sexuality, 4(2), 167-178.

Kim, E. (2011). Asexuality in disability narratives. Sexualities, 14(4), 479-493.

Prause, N., & Graham, C. A. (2007). Asexuality: Classification and characterization. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36(3), 341-356.

Przybylo, E. (2011). Crisis and safety: The asexual in sexusociety. Sexualities, 14(4), 444-461.

Przybylo, E. (2013). Afterword: some thoughts on asexuality as an interdisciplinary method. Psychology & Sexuality, 4(2), 193-194

Scherrer, K. S. (2008). Coming to an asexual identity: Negotiating identity, negotiating desire. Sexualities, 11(5), 621-641.

Scherrer, K. S. (2010). Asexual relationships: What does asexuality have to do with polyamory. Understanding non-monogamies, 154-159.

Weller, M. (2011). The digital scholar: How technology is transforming scholarly practice. A&C Black

As the AVEN website describes, “in a world where sexuality is promoted as the norm, many asexuals grow up thinking that they’re somehow sick, broken or deficient” (AVEN, 2011). This raises the question of the nature of this norm, as well as how it is formed and propagated. Why would individuals who do not experience sexual attraction be so pervasively prone to considering that this might be a function of some underlying pathology? Seemingly the association between sexual desire  and ‘normal’ physical and psychological functioning is sufficiently pervasive that it goes largely unrecognized and unquestioned. Kim suggests that reaction to asexuality can be understood in terms of the “pathological framework for asexuality” which results from a “larger trend in which sexuality is tied up with the image of ‘normal bodies’”. On her account stigmatizing reactions to asexuality should not be assumed to be particularistic prejudicial responses to a newly emerging minority identity but rather stem from culturally pervasive and near hegemonic ideas about health and the body. She suggests that “the absence of sexual desire, feelings and activities is seen as abnormal and reflective of poor health because of the explicit connection made between sexual activeness and healthiness”. This association is echoed in the everyday experiences of many asexual individuals.

Kim places much stress on contemporary attitudes towards health and the body as an explanation of the marginalization and stigmatization which the asexual community is widely subject to. She suggests that “health information and interpretations about sex are grounded too much in belief in universal sexual desire and given too much authority to health professionals to produce ‘cures’ marketed by sex therapy and pharmaceutical industries”. This stands as a plausible claim given the high visibility which such ‘lifestyle and health’ discourses are afforded in a world saturated by information television, lifestyle magazines and health websites. The aggregative effect of such phenomena is to propagate a sense of normalcy which equates bodily health with sexual satisfaction. Within disability studies, much attention has been paid to the ‘myth of asexuality’, identifying the role which outward markers of disability are equated with an underlying lack of sexual function.

This pervasive tendency within contemporary culture to equate health with sexual activity expresses itself in the trend, discussed earlier, for asexual individuals to initially consider that the difference they recognize in themselves (i.e. their lack of interest in sex) is the result of some underlying pathology. Though the vocabulary used and the stress placed varies from person to person, the notion in play is the same: ‘if I don’t have a desire for sexual activity does this mean there’s something wrong with my health?’

However while this prevalent discourse of the healthy sexual body clearly plays some role in the sexual assumption, it does not explain it in its entirety. To suggest that it does would assume firstly that individuals in contemporary society are ‘cultural dupes’, with attitudes entirely determined by medical discourses propagated in the media and secondly that the emergence of the sexual assumption correlates directly with the increasing proliferation of lifestyle advice about sex and the body. While an empirical investigation of this latter claim is beyond the purview of the present chapter, it seems implausible that this could be so, not least of all because the bringing into being of such an idea through massive exposure in the media would surely prompt a degree of reflection upon it which has heretofore been lacking. Therefore I will argue that other factors play a crucial role in explaining the genesis and trajectory of the sexual assumption within contemporary society.

I found an incomplete draft of a book chapter I had intended to write a couple of years ago. I’m unlikely to ever do anything substantive with it so I’ve posted it in sections on my blog. 

The situations one faces in negotiating intimate life without a desire for sexual activity foregrounds the centrality of the sexual assumption in the conceptual apparatus culturally available for making sense of human intimacy and human sexuality. Without the assumption of sexual desire, the salience of intimacy concepts begins to break down. While they may retain their place within the everyday vocabularies of individuals who do not experience sexual desire, their efficacy as conceptual tools to capture the emotional and moral texture of intimate relationally is profoundly undercut. They cease to adequately explain important aspects of what is at stake personally in intimate life, as well as impeding the possibility of successfully communicating that human caring to others who are still operating naively within that conceptual matrix. In effect the disjuncture between the sexual assumption (as encoded in prevalent relationship concepts) and a lack of sexual desire prises  open a conceptual and experiential space between human emotional experiences and the discursive resources we rely upon to articulate that experience to ourselves and others. With this space comes a need for creative redescription, personalizing and rearticulating these concepts before ultimately, perhaps, moving beyond them entirely. In the term of Archer (2010) these can be seen as rendering reflexivity imperative. The cultural resources afforded to asexuals within contemporary western societies are simply inadequate to make sense of large aspects of their personal experience. This throws them back on their own resources to deliberate about themselves and similar others. Chasin (2011) makes this point eloquently:

“In many cases, asexual people are simply not able to draw on the same cultural resources that other people use to construct their close personal relationships. Consequently, the asexual community is one place where people are actively involved in creative discussion (Jay, 2007), figuring out how to make sense of the experience of being asexual and relating to other people from asexual perspectives. Since “whatever we might say (and think) about ourselves and others as people will always be in terms of a language provided for us by history” (Edley, 2001, p. 210), we are limited by what is possible within the discourses we can access (Shotter, 1997). In practice, trying to make sense out of our asexual selves and relationships sometimes requires inventing new discursive “tools” (i.e., generating new words and ways of talking about relationships) or adapting pre-existing tools to new situations. These new discourses literally make the unique and often confusing relationships asexual people engage in make sense, that is, they render otherwise non-normative relationships intelligible.”

As earlier stated, many asexual individuals have experienced difficulty in getting those around them to take the notion of an ‘asexual relationship’ seriously because without the presence of sex,  it is difficult to differentiate it from a friendship. Often sex is seen as a precondition (indeed an explanation) of intimacy within a relationship between two people. So relationships which diverge from this particular conception (dyadic, exclusive, intimate, sexual) pose conceptual problems which are rarely addressed. In a very literal sense, their participants meet the limits of language, as a relatively limited range of relational concepts (friend, sexual partner, romantic partner, life partner – there’s a variety of descriptions for these concepts but obvious convergence upon the underlying ideas) fail to do justice to their emotional experience.

Being in a relationship leaves both individuals needing to articulate and present that relationship: to themselves, to each other and to the wider world. There is more to our experience and understanding of relationships than the terms in which we describe them. In fact it is the interaction between the former and the latter which leads to growth and change, as we try to put it words what we feel. Reciprocal understandings and expectations begin to flow from that dialogue, producing transformation in the form and content of the relationship which in turn poses new descriptive challenges.

I found an incomplete draft of a book chapter I had intended to write a couple of years ago. I’m unlikely to ever do anything substantive with it so I’ve posted it in sections on my blog. 

This came through on the Asexuality Studies mailing list – posted here because of the likelihood some not on the list might want to read it:

I have finished my Master’s Thesis: Asexuality as a Spectrum: A National Probability Sample Comparison to the Sexual Community in the UK

The final product is available here to download for free: http://academiccommons.columbia.edu/catalog/ac:162382

The main findings in the paper (that I thought were interesting) are that 1) there are more people who report experiencing sexual attraction who are content not having sex, indicating that the level of someone’s sexual desire is a spectrum, and 2) asexual people are more likely not to drink alcohol, and when they do they drink less. In a combination of the two, sexual people content not having sex drink an intermediary amount between sexual and asexual people

This is the outline for the special theme issue of Psychology & Sexuality which I edited with Kristina Gupta and Todd Morrison. It was published in March 2013. The editorial and the ‘virtual discussion’ are open access (i.e. freely available without a university library subscription to the journal) until the end of May 2013.

The Editorial for the Theme Issue, including a review of existing literature on asexuality and an attempt to formulate a cohesive agenda for Asexuality Studies

Who reports absence of sexual attraction in Britain? Evidence from national probability surveys

There is little evidence about the prevalence of absence of sexual attraction, or the characteristics of people reporting this, often labelled asexuals. We examine this using data from two probability surveys of the British general population, conducted in 1990–1991 and 2000–2001. Interviewers administered face-to-face and self-completion questionnaires to people aged 16–44 years (N = 13,765 in 1990–1991; N = 12,110 in 2000–2001). The proportion that had never experienced sexual attraction was 0.4% (95% CI: 0.3–0.5%) in 2000–2001, with no significant variation by gender or age, versus 0.9% (95% CI: 0.7–1.1%) in 1990–1991; p < 0.0001. Among these 79 respondents in 2000–2001, 28 (40.3% men; 33.9% women) had had sex, 19 (33.5% men; 20.9% women) had child(ren), and 17 (30.1% men; 19.2% women) were married. Three-quarters of asexual men and two-thirds of asexual women considered their frequency of sex ‘about right’, while 24.7% and 19.4%, respectively, ‘always enjoyed having sex’. As well as providing evidence on the distribution of asexuality in Britain, our data suggest that it cannot be assumed that those reporting no sexual attraction are sexually inexperienced or without intimate relationships. We recognise the possibility of social desirability bias given our reliance on self-reported data, but suggest that its effect is not easily predicted regarding absence of sexual attraction.

Mental health and interpersonal functioning in self-identified asexual men and women

Human asexuality is defined as a lack of sexual attraction to anyone or anything, and preliminary evidence suggests that it may best be defined as a sexual orientation. As asexual individuals may face the same social stigma experienced by gay, lesbian and bisexual persons, it follows that asexual individuals may experience higher rates of psychiatric disturbance that have been observed among these non-heterosexual individuals. This study explored mental health correlates and interpersonal functioning and compared asexual, non-heterosexual and heterosexual individuals on these aspects of mental health. Analyses were limited to Caucasian participants only. There were significant differences among groups on several measures, including depression, anxiety, psychoticism, suicidality and interpersonal problems, and this study provided evidence that asexuality may be associated with higher prevalence of mental health and interpersonal problems. Clinical implications are indicated, in that asexual individuals should be adequately assessed for mental health difficulties and provided with appropriate interventions that are sensitive to their asexual identity.

HSDD and asexuality: a question of instruments

The relation between the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals(DSMs) and asexuality is likely to constitute a prolific direction in research, especially because of the diagnostic category ‘hypoactive sexual desire disorder’ (HSDD). This article investigates the concept of sexual desire as outlined by psychiatry and explores the ways in which asexuality disrupts that knowledge. By extension, I consider the model of sexuality that the DSM vehiculates. The manuals themselves provide no measures, no scales, and no defined norms, yet, simultaneously, assume a normative sexuality against which all others can be measured and classified. This article discusses the conceptualisation of ‘sexual dysfunctions’ in the DSM, of which HSDD is a part, and questions how it operates in clinical research into asexuality. I also pay attention to the clause of ‘personal distress’ in HSDD, since it appears to be one of the main differences between HSDD and asexuality. HSDD, asexuality, and the role played by the DSM poses questions such as what discourses, forms of knowledge, and institutions, have shaped, silenced, and eventually erased, asexuality.

Asexuality: from pathology to identity and beyond

This article draws attention to the constitutive mechanisms of asexual identity. It identifies a shift in expert discourse: a move away from pathology towards recognition of asexual identity. While this discursive shift, propelled by recent research in psychology and sexology, could pave the way for the inclusion of asexuals in public culture, it also reaffirms dominant terms and formations pertaining to sexuality and intimacy. The article argues that the discursive formation of a new asexual identity takes place through a process of objectification and subjectification/subjection at the interface between expert disciplines and activism. The recognition of identity is constitutive of subjects that are particularly suitable for self-regulation within the parameters of (neo)liberal citizenship. Yet, at the same time, the discursive shift also makes room for critical intervention akin to queer critique of naturalised gender and sexuality norms. The recognition of asexual identity could serve to destabilise the sexual regime (of truth) that privileges sexual relationships against other affiliations and grants sexual-biological relationships a status as primary in the formation of family and kinship relations. The article concludes that asexual identity encourages us to imagine other pathways of affiliation and other concepts of personhood, beyond the tenets of liberal humanism – gesturing instead towards new configurations of the human and new meanings of sexual citizenship.

Afterword: some thoughts on asexuality as an interdisciplinary method

A mystery wrapped in an enigma – asexuality: a virtual discussion

Contributors to this thematic issue were requested to answer six questions related to asexuality as a phenomenon and also the research therein. All responses received were collated into a ‘virtual discussion’ with the hope of spawning new ideas and also identifying any gaps in the current research and general knowledge regarding asexuality.

Review of Sex, lies and pharmaceuticals: how drug companies plan to profit from Female Sexual Dysfunction 

Review of Understanding Asexuality

And here are some of my favourite papers that have been written elsewhere on asexuality:

Coming to an Asexual Identity: Negotiating Identity, Negotiating Desire

Sexuality is generally considered an important aspect of self-hood. Therefore, individuals who do not experience sexual attraction, and embrace an asexual identity are in a unique position to inform the social construction of sexuality. This study explores the experiences of asexual individuals utilizing open ended Internet survey data from 102 self-identified asexual people. In this paper I describe several distinct aspects of asexual identities: the meanings of sexual, and therefore, asexual behaviors, essentialist characterizations of asexuality, and lastly, interest in romance as a distinct dimension of sexuality. These findings have implications not only for asexual identities, but also for the connections of asexuality with other marginalized sexualities.

What Asexuality Contributes to the Same-Sex Marriage Discussion

While same-sex marriage debates have captured public attention, it is but one component of a broader discussion regarding the role of marriage in a changing society. To inform this discussion, I draw on qualitative, Internet survey data from 102 self-identified asexual individuals. I find that asexual relationships are complicated and nuanced in ways that have implications for a GLBTQ political agenda, including same-sex marriage recognition. In addition, findings indicate that assumptions of sex and sexuality in relationships are problematic and that present language for describing relationships is limiting. Findings suggest a social justice agenda for marginalized sexualities should be broader in scope than same-sex marriage.

There’s more to life than sex? Difference and commonality within the asexual community

Asexuality is becoming ever more widely known and yet it has received relatively little attention from within sociology. Research in the area poses particular challenges because of the relatively recent emergence of the asexual community, as well as the expanding array of terms and concepts through which asexuals articulate their differences and affirm their commonalities. This article presents the initial findings of a mixed-methods research project, which involved semi-structured interviews, online questionnaires and a thematic analysis of online materials produced by members of the asexual community. The aim was to understand self-identified asexuals in their own terms so as to gain understanding of the lived experience of asexuals, as well as offering a subjectively adequate grounding for future research in the area.

Crisis and safety: The asexual in sexusociety

This article provides a discussion of the implications that asexuality, as an identity category emerging in the West, carries for sexuality. Asexuality provides an exciting forum for revisiting questions of sexual normativity and examining those sex acts which are cemented to appear ‘natural’ through repetition, in the discursive system of sexusociety. Drawing especially on feminist and postmodern theories, I situate asexuality as both a product of and reaction against our sexusocial, disoriented postmodern here and now. This article also addresses the question of whether or not, and on what terms, asexuality may be considered a resistance against sexusociety.

Asexuality in disability narratives

This essay explores normative regulations of disabled people’s sexuality and its relationship with asexuality through narratives of disabled individuals. While asexuality has been persistently criticized as a damaging myth imposed on disabled people, individuals with disabilities who do not identify as sexual highlight the inseparable intersection between normality and sexuality. Disabled and asexual identity and its narratives reveal that asexuality is an embodiment neither to be eliminated, nor to be cured, and is a way of living that may or may not change. Claims for the sexual rights of desexualized minority groups mistakenly target asexuality and endorse a universal and persistent presence of sexual desire. The structurally and socially enforced asexuality and desexualization are distinguished from an asexual embodiment and perspective disidentifying oneself from sexuality.

The aforementioned transformations in the socio-cultural and the cultural system are generalisable beyond the particular experiences of asexual individuals. Some have suggested that the heterogeneity which manifests itself through the Internet precludes generalisation. For instance Gauntlett and Horsley (2004: 28) argue that the diversity of material available online means that it is “not possible to say that online communication is one thing and one thing only” and thus argue that “research about the Internet as a social, psychological and linguistic communication site is most fruitful when it is based on the specific case at hand”. While their argument is undoubtedly correct as a denunciation of abstract theorising about the ‘Internet’, it has no bearing on theorising about the cultural dynamics of the Internet when this is grounded in empirical case studies. While the specific consequences of the changes I am detailing may manifest themselves in the asexual community only, it is my contention that the changes themselves are not limited in this way and that furthermore they hold salience for all Internet users given the nature of human cultural agency.

The Internet facilitates an unprecedented degree of access to the cultural system far above and beyond that which would have been accessible to even the most committed of searchers in the pre-Internet age. Whereas once access to the cultural system was heavily mediated by the socio-cultural context, the Internet has both democratized cultural production and democratized access to the increasingly diverse cultural system which results. It is easier than ever for individuals and groups to articulate ideas within the social arena. Until relatively recently the effective social dissemination of ideas depended, inter alia, upon writing letters to the editor, producing articles for magazines or getting books published. In contrast now every individual potentially has access to a whole range of outlets for the production and dissemination of ideas: contributing to an online discussion forum, setting up a website, writing on a blog, producing you tube videos, setting up groups on social networking services, editing Wikipedia articles etc (Beer and Burrows 2007). The proliferation of these technologies (perhaps able to be subsumed under the notion of the ‘digitization of culture’) is “helping to challenge – even, in some instances, break down – the difference between production and consumption” (Taylor 2001: 16). The sphere of cultural production was traditionally separated from the sphere of cultural consumption by the usually prohibitive barriers to entry which inhered in the former but not in the latter, as the political economy of culture rested on widespread consumer access to a range of mainstream cultural products produced by an increasingly small number of major international corporations (Held et al 1999: 350).

Certainly this universal accessibility only obtains in principle, as the consistent availability of Internet access and the practical knowledge necessary for this sort of online activity are still dependent upon the social distribution of resources. However the available evidence suggests that an increasing portion of the population, albeit it concentrated among younger Internet users, is involved in the production of online content and that an even greater number are consuming this sort of ‘do it yourself’ online content. As long ago as 2005 research has suggested that a small majority of teenage Internet users have done one or more of the following: “creating activities: create a blog; create a personal webpage; create a webpage for school, a friend, or an organization; share original content they created themselves online; or remix content found online into a new creation.” (Lenhardt and Madden, 2005) While structural obstacles still prevent the full realisation of this democratisation of cultural production, it seems to be the case that these are diminishing with time and that, furthermore, they are less onerous than inherent in ‘old media’ cultural production. Similarly access to the increasingly diverse stock of ideas is less contingent upon the individual’s local context than ever before.

These technologies have proved to be the necessary condition for the formation of an asexual community, as their creative use enabled the rapid formation of a self-conscious community. Consider that Bogaert (2004) performed a secondary analysis of a dataset about sexual behaviour in order to offer an estimate of the prevalence of asexuality within the wider population. Given that the pre-existing data came from a study in 1994 this suggests that there were people who could be classified as asexual at least 7 years before any organized asexual community began to emerge. Furthermore it seems intuitively plausible that there were individuals who lacked sexual desire prior to this time. When considered in terms of this historical context, it becomes clear quite how rapidly increasingly sophisticated ideas about asexuality were able to be communally articulated and disseminated, in spite of their apparent absence before the turn of the century.

The growth of the Internet also means that most individual are no longer limited to their local socio-cultural context. Scherrer (2010a) suggests a significant degree of geographical dispersal amongst the asexual community. As earlier discussed, the existing literature renders it plausible that there were many who did not experience sexual desire (i.e. who had the experience of being asexual without possessing such a concept through which to interpret that experience) significantly prior to the formation of the asexual community.  The concepts, labels and identities which have emerged through online discussion within the asexual community have been integral to the shaping of asexual experience (Chasin 2009, Scherrer 2010a, Scherrer 2010b). Whereas asexual individuals were previously reliant on those within their local socio-cultural context when seeking to discuss or deliberate about their experience, the formation of the Internet liberated them from that geo-local constraint and thus massively expanded their pool of potential interlocutors: in allowing those with shared experience to conduct creative dialogues over time the Internet facilitated the emergence of an asexual culture and, with this, the cultural resources which enabled the production of distinctly asexual selves. As Chasin (2009: 12) observes “within the asexual community there is a clear and creative generation of new words and discourses, which asexual people use to explain and shape their experiences, relationships and identities”.

The asexual community is a striking example of the Internet facilitating the articulation and affirmation of a personal difference (the absence of sexual attraction) which was previously silenced and largely invisible. Through the dissemination of concepts within the cultural system (i.e. articulating coherent understandings of asexuality which are available online and increasingly through the mass media and academic research) and establishment of a cultural presence online, asexual identity becomes a socio-culturally available option for an increasing number of people who previously might have simply experienced themselves as different from their peer group and assumed this difference was a consequence of pathology. While the particular content of this process may be specific to asexual individuals, it is facilitated by processes which are not and furthermore it is only through an appreciation of the specificity of the former that we can begin to develop empirically adequate and theoretically rigorous accounts of the latter. In other words we can only understand ‘identity technologies’ through in depth analysis of the actual identities which ensue from them

“Spotlight on Asexuality Studies” was a groundbreaking event hosted by the Identity Repertoires/Mind the Gap research group in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK.  Academics, activists, community members, therapists and students gathered in the university library and online to discuss contemporary asexual research, with papers presented both in-person and from the United States and Canada via video-conference.

For more information about the event, see the website.

My chapter outline for the book I’m planning for this research project: Late Capitalism and A/Sexual Culture

Introduction

Part 1

The History of Asexuality
The Asexual Community
Asexual Experience
The Sexual Assumption
Sexual Culture

Part 2

The Sociology of Intimate Life 1949 – 1979
The Sociology of Intimate Life Life 1980 – 1997
The Sociology of Intimate Life 1997 – 2012
The Sexual Revolution or the Consumer Revolution?

Part 3

Theorising Socio-Cultural Change
Methodology and Methods
Little Kinsey and Contemporary Survey Data
The Popular Corpus – Decade by Decade
The Academic Corpus – Decade by Decade

Part 4

Results 1949 – 1959
Results 1960 – 1969
Results 1970 – 1979
Results 1980 – 1989
Results 1990 – 2000
Results 2000 – 2010
Results 2011 onwards

Part 5

Cognitive Sociology and Human Being-Together
The Transformation of Intimate Life
The Future of Human Intimacy

Conclusion

Most of us see ourselves as living in a sexually liberated age. Having thrown off the shackles of prejudice and prudishness, we believe ours is an enlightened culture where we tolerate sexual difference and value sexual choice. Yet are we as well adjusted about sex as we tend to think we are?

Drawing on my research into asexuality (those who do not experience sexual attraction) and sexual culture, I argue that there’s a profound and often unrecognised inarticulacy and confusion about sex which plagues the modern consciousness. We talk loudly and frequently about sex and yet we’re far less able to articulate why sex matters to us and the role we think it should play in our lives. We’re plagued by confusions and anxieties, as clinical ideas about what constitutes sexual normalcy enter ever more into our daily lives.

This leaves a diminishing space within which to enjoy the freedom we have, with too little sex drive and too much sex drive – as well as a whole range of experiences in between – increasingly seen as a sign that something is wrong with us. I argue that western society has seen a huge and profound transformation in our personal & intimate lives over the last half century. So huge in fact that we are very rarely able to acknowledge its scale.

I talk about how this transformation is wrapped up in the spread of capitalism throughout the globe, as well as the onset of consumer society, suggesting that for all the pleasures brought by the sexual revolution, it has also brought countless problems and that, unless we face up to these and work out progressive ways to overcome them, much of what past generations struggled for risks being lost in the face of a moralising conservative backlash.