I first encountered the work of Rachel Hills in 2012, when she interviewed me for an essay in the Atlantic exploring asexuality. The conversation itself was incredibly stimulating and the ensuing piece of work was the best thing I’ve read about asexuality in the media. I’ve been waiting since then for her book, The Sex Myth, with high expectations of what it will include. It doesn’t disappoint. It’s an engaging and thoughtful overview of what Rachel calls “the gap between our fantasies and realities”. The lived space of ambivalence and anxiety in which so many of us dwell, so much of the time, yet which often resists articulation in a sexual culture that offers us an expansive array of ways to talk about sex acts but far fewer to talk about what sexuality itself means to us.

My own interest in this topic stems in large part from my research on asexuality. More specifically, I remember my bewilderment at the clear patterning that could be seen in how those who weren’t asexual had responded to attempts by participants in my research to explain their asexuality to those around them. The same responses came up time and time again: there must be something wrong with your hormones, you’re just a late bloomer, you must have been abused as a child, maybe you just haven’t met the right person yet. Asexuality often proves incomprehensible, at least initially, to non-asexual people: how can someone live without sex? Yet so many do, for significant swathes of the life course, if not as a permanent feature of existence. This prima facie incomprehensibility of asexuality reveals features of a broader sexual culture which often escape notice, at least if we inhabit them unproblematically much of the time.

Throughout The Sex Myth, Rachel’s concern is to understand those experiences when people don’t inhabit this sexual culture unproblematically. As she puts it, “The Sex Myth fades into the background when we are secure in our choices” but “It is when our footing is less solid that it is most powerful”. The uncertainties and stumblings, the private anxieties and unspoken agonies, so often attached to a part of life which is publicly proclaimed to be an unparalleled locus of human fulfilment. She’s a considerate interviewer and engaging writer, never failing to produce a readable pen portrait which nonetheless offers important insights into the wider themes of the book. The prevailing impression I was left with by the book was that everyone suffers under the sex myth, as the space in which one can just be contracts in the face of a creeping pathologization that perpetually leads people to ask “am I normal?” I particularly enjoyed her discussion of the politics of kink to this end. She deftly unravels how our neo-libertine culture often imposes unspoken limits on those drawn to kink and places further burdens on those who lack interest in it.

It’s reminded me of what had once been my post-doc plans: continuing my interest in a/sexuality studies by exploring the lived experience of sexuality for other groups for whom sexual normativity creates profound problems. But maybe looking at outlier cases misses the point, even if it could prove methodologically productive. What really interests me are the everyday experiences, private moments of quiet shame for failing to live up to a standard one might neither assent to nor fully understand. I’d like to excavate this baggage, understand it better conceptually but also explore the new vocabularies to talk about sexuality and intimacy which I’m familiar with from the asexual community but which can also be found elsewhere. Anxiety pervades contemporary sexuality and I’ve yet to encounter a convincing reason why this needs to be the case.

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.

The sexual assumption is the usually unexamined presupposition that sexual attraction is both universal (everyone ‘has it’) and uniform (it’s fundamentally the same thing in all instances) such that its absence must be explicable in terms of a distinguishable pathology.

All from this Guardian article about asexuality earlier in the week:

  • What, not even a bit of mild masturbation?
  • The only person I have seen in real life who was asexual was affected pretty severely with his autism so I don’t know if someone who has never felt attracted to another person is suffering from some kind of disorder.
  • Nature invented sex for reproduction. Being asexual is like being born without an arm. It’s not normal, but no one should get all excited about it.
  • So you can literally lie there and flick the bean without thinking about anything? I don’t believe you. Call me cynical, but I’m not even sure there is such a thing as asexuality. If you have a sex drive, even if it isn’t “directed at anyone or anything”, surely that makes you a sexual being of some sort?
  • In some ways, it’d be great to be asexual. There are so many other things to do, books to read (or write), mountains to climb, symphonies to compose, TV show box sets to watch, countries to travel to, languages to learn, video games to master, diseases to discover cures for, internet forums to engage in endless hair-splitting debates on, &c. Think of how much one would get done if one didn’t have to share one’s nervous system with the ancient machinery one’s genes built for passing themselves on.
  • I find it hard to believe that the hormone levels of asexual people who do not have anysexual desire would have hormone levels comparable to sexual people.
  • Maybe it’s just people who can’t find the opposite sex they think they deserve.
  • As you may I’m really struggling with this asexual stuff, I fail to see how “romantic attraction” can not involve some sort of physical trait in the person you’re attracted, even if it’s just “pleasing to the eye”.
  • Can I ask if this is post menopause? It’s one of those well known but hush hush “facts” in my extended family that the women (from my mothers side at least) lost pretty much all desire for sex once menopause is done. And most of their close female friends feel the same way. It’s just that talking about it openly is not done.
  • Because without sex, we don’t exist. We’re genetically predisposed to have a pronounced relationship with it.

And then I got bored. There were a lot of comments. But it’s helped developed my idea about something to add into my postdoc plan: the comments and responses to asexual articles online constitute a great resource and, rather than abstract theoretical speculation, I want to collate and systematically analyse responses to asexuality by non-asexuals. More specifically I want to analyse attempts to explain away asexuality: what do they have in common on a conceptual level? I’m offering the sexual assumption as an empirical hypothesis based on (a) what I found in my research about experiences of sexual responses to asexuality (b) my own experience in the last few years of doing media work, talking to lots of people about my research and generally seeing a lot of different people react to asexuality.

I got completely sucked into this discussion all afternoon. I had three initial aims with my asexuality research: mapping out community in a ideographically adequate way, understanding the role the internet played in the formation of the community and exploring what the reception of asexuality reveals about sexual culture. There’s still more I want to write in relation to the first two points but I’ve basically drawn my conclusions at this point. Which means that my interest in asexuality has basically transmuted into an interest in how sexual people react to asexuality. This sounds much more obscure than it actually is.

In essence I’m arguing that the reactions of sexual people to asexuality reveal the architectonic principle of contemporary sexual culture, namely the sexual assumption: the usually unexamined presupposition that sexual attraction is both universal (everyone ‘has it’) and uniform (it’s fundamentally the same thing in all instances) such that its absence must be explicable in terms of a distinguishable pathology. This is instantiated at the level of both the cultural system and socio-cultural interaction: it’s entailed propositionally, even if not asserted outright, within prevailing lay and academic discourses pertaining to sexuality but it’s also reproduced by individuals in interaction (talking about sex, either in the abstract or in terms of their own experience) and intraaction (making sense of their own experience through internal conversation).

Until the asexual community came along, the ideational relationship (the logical structure internal to academic and lay discourses about sex) and patterns of socio-cultural interaction (the causal structure stemming from thought and talk about sex) reinforced one another. Or to drop the critical realist terminology: the sexual assumption got reproduced at the level of ideas because nothing conflicted with it at the level of experience. But when something comes along which empirically repudiates it (namely the asexual community) the underlying principle suddenly becomes contested. This doesn’t mean discourse ‘makes’ sexual people not get ‘asexuality’ but it does mean that, given the centrality of the sexual assumption to our prevailing ways of understand sexuality, being confronted with asexuality immediate invites explanation. One such explanation is to drop the ideational commitment but, given that its usually tacit, few people (including myself) can do this immediately – though many, it seems, do so once they’ve reflected upon it. Instead the usual response is to evade the logical conflict by explaining away asexuality: its a hormone deficiency, the person was sexually abused, they’re lying, they’re gay but repressed, they’ve just not met the right person yet (etc).

The empirical evidence of quite how pervasive, indeed near universal, this kind of reaction is seems increasingly conclusive. What I am suggesting is that the sexual assumption is what explains this being a ‘kind’ of reaction i.e. all the explanations, in spite of their superficial differences in content, involve a reassertion of the uniformity and/or universality of sexual attraction. I’m not saying people are deliberately or consciously defending the sexual assumption (though I’m not categorically saying no one will ever be doing this) but rather that it is this, as the foundational assumption ‘holding together’ the conceptual architecture of the sexual culture which has emerged from the mid/late 20th century onwards, which asexuality renders problematic. The precise content of any given individual’s attempts to explain away asexuality varies depending on the specifics of their personal and intellectual history within this sexual culture (i.e. it’s not a homogenous thing) but the shared form of the response is explained by the architectonic principle of that culture and the logical relation of contradiction in which it stands to the empirical observation of asexual individuals who are ‘normal’ (i.e. non pathological). Logical relations don’t force people to act (some people don’t try and explain it away) but everyone who has not experienced what David Jay calls the ‘head-clicky thing’ has the same initial reaction. The above is my first attempt to offer a convoluted social theorists explanation of what I mean when, in interviews, I talk about sexual people not ‘getting’ asexuality. If you follow my chain of reasoning then, I ask of you, test it out: go and read the comments on the Guardian article I linked to and think about the reactions of people on there and what they have in common. Or do the same with pretty much any news article which has comments that I’ve encountered. There is something really fucking interesting happening there.

This research project is an extension of my research on asexuality, particularly the notion of the sexual assumption this had led me to. I take this to be the habitual cognitive category which, as an empirical claim, asexual individuals regularly encounter in the dispositional reactions and the reflective judgements of peers, friends, family and others. The sexual assumption holds that sexual attraction is both universal and uniform: everyone ‘has’ it and it’s largely the same thing in every instance.

Does it just impact on asexuals? No, I don’t think so. I want to try and do secondary analysis on qualitative data about sexual experience and sexual anxiety in these terms. I also don’t think it’s universal. It has a history of emergence and I want to understand what that history is.

My underlying hypothesis is that increased visibility and publicity of sexuality created a discursive vacuum which emerging sexological discourses (in an uneasy concordance with politicised discourses emerging from the new social movements) filled. This was a process mediated by the proliferation of a mass market for cultural products pertaining to sex & intensified by the structural pressures created by the shift to a consumption-driven economy (rise of sexualised advertising being the obvious one, suspect others though). Some of these were problematic to begin with. All the more so when they subsequently lost whatever scientific context they had in the first place.

These are my research questions for the project:

    1. How does the 1949 Mass-Observation ‘Little Kinsey’ sex survey compare with available contemporary survey & interview data?
    2. What shifts in the underlying conceptual architecture of the most influential sexological texts can be identified on a decade-by-decade basis?
    3. What shifts in the underlying conceptual architecture of the most influential popular books on sex & sexuality can be identified on a decade-by-decade basis?
    4. How do the conceptual trends identifiable in academic and lay discourse help explain the experiential transition found in comparison of Little Kinsey and contemporary data.

The research is intended to be qualitative (discourse analysis) and quantitative (corpus analysis) assuming I can work out how to compile the corpus in a way that is suitable for the latter.