“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.

An interesting article in today’s Times (which I can’t link to because of the paywall) about the growth of ‘friendship with benefits’. It reports findings of research in the US which suggests that such relationships are becoming a lot more demographically varied (rather than being the preserve of university students) and that “unexpectedly … both men and women reported being more committed to the friendship than to the sexual aspect of the relationship”.

This is an interesting assumption to explore. Why is it “unexpected” that the friendship will be a more important part of the relationship than the sex? Largely because of the (often unacknowledged) hierarchies of intimacy through which we make sense of human relationships. First comes a committed sexual relationship, then an uncommited sexual relationship, then sex outside the context of a relationship until, eventually, we get to friendship. Now I’m not for a second suggesting that people don’t conceive of friendship as emotionally or morally important. Only that the way in which many of us habitually think of human relationships accords it a lesser status, in terms of intimacy, then sexual relationships.

This is something that many of the asexual people I’ve spoken to in my research report finding: it’s difficult for those around them to take the notion of an ‘asexual relationship’ seriously because, without the sex, it’s difficult to differentiate it from a friendship. Often, we see sex 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’s more to our experience and understanding of relationships than the terms in which we describe them. In fact it’s the interaction between the former and the latter which leads to growth and change, as we try to put it words what we feel and reciprocal understandings & expectations begin to flow from that dialogue, producing transformation which in turn poses new descriptive challenges.

Many asexuals I’ve spoken to report the sense that boundaries between these categories are blurred for them. With this blurring comes a need for creative redescription, personalizing and rearticulating these concepts before ultimately, perhaps, moving beyond them. In a very real way, relationships which push at the boundaries of our languages for talking about them represent experiments in human relationality. It’s through the emotional agency of people involved in them that relational culture changes at the macro level. If enough people have established a certain way of relating to each other then it opens up that possibility in language.

I suspect, though am by no means certain, that the concept of ‘friendship with benefits’ is experienced as inadequate by many/most of those being studied. It’s an attempt to understand and describe what they’re doing through the modification of existing concept and, as such, remains provisional. Or perhaps it’s an imposition of the researchers and/or journalists. Such considerations should be at the forefront of research into human relationships. Our relationships aren’t reducible to the ways in which we talk about them but nor are they ultimately separable.