Since so many of the writers on The Asexual Agenda are graduate students, a while back we were talking about writing about what it’s like to be an ace in graduate school. Since grad school has been taking over my life recently, I figured now was as good a time as any.
It should be noted that these are my experiences, and almost certainly cannot be generalized, because my department is weird.
First, some background. I’m in a two-year master’s program in a regional studies department, which basically means that I’m studying with folks doing research on East Asian countries. I also take classes with PhD students from a wide variety of departments (but, because of my research interests, most of them are studying something having to do with either religion or East Asia). Our department isn’t huge–the master’s program has roughly 50 people, and I think the PhD program for our department has another 35-ish. My specific field of study is modern Japanese religion, and I am planning a career in academia.
In class, being ace…doesn’t affect me much at all. Sure, there are folks in my field who want to apply Freud to everything, even if it’s wildly inappropriate. (Sorry, are you applying Freudian analysis to Japanese mountain worship? I mean, it’s great that you think the straw rope they’re using is phallic, but have you tried asking the people involved what they think?) Thankfully, most of the people in my department think applying Freudian analysis to everything is rubbish and also super Eurocentric. I’m also very lucky in that my advisor studies gender in Japanese religion, and I have several other professors who have a gender studies bent to their research, and so they tend not to assume that everyone is straight, everything is a sign of straightness, and all straw ropes are phallic.
In the group of folks I take classes with, with only a few exceptions, everyone is either not dating anyone or engaged/married. The impression I get from other folks is that dating is not something that normally happens in grad school–it’s too hard to meet eligible dates,** and looking outside of your class group takes time and effort that would be better devoted to improving your research papers. Thus, I would say that there isn’t much pressure to date, and nobody will look at you weirdly for being single. There is also, at least in my social circles, a lot of tolerance for alternative relationship structures (and not just sexual-romantic relationships either!), which I think is really awesome.
Despite (or, perhaps more accurately, because of) the singledom of the majority of my classmates, there’s a fair amount of drunken revelry and getting intimate with other single folks in the department that goes on during the weekend. I don’t live on campus, so I am not involved in the weekend social scene, but I do tend to hear reports along the lines of “omg, [someone] totally made out with [someone else] at the party on Saturday.” It’s not a big deal (and I’m not bothered by their talking about it during lunch, unlike some of my more conservative classmates), but sometimes it’s a little weird to have everyone talking about whose face they made out with as I sit quietly in the corner and eat my sandwich. In general, lunchtime conversations tend to be very sexual and sex-heavy, but I think that’s more of a function of the people in my lunch group (who tend to be very openly sexual) than of grad students as a whole. Whether or not semen could be found on ancient Japanese room-dividing screens is probably not a lunchtime conversation topic in most other departments.
I know of two openly GSRM people in my class group–one is a lesbian (single) and one is a gay man (engaged). I do not know of any openly GSRM non-student researchers in my field (or any related field). There’s speculation about some professors, sure, but nobody knows anything for sure. This is not entirely surprising, given that Japan is…not the most GSRM-friendly country. You won’t get stoned in the streets, but you might lose research contacts (especially if you work on a topic like religion).
I would count myself as half-out; I’m out to the group of folks I have the most classes with and spend the most time outside of class with, but I tend to be quiet about my sexuality around basically everyone else. Of the classmates that I am out to, the majority have taken it in stride (one already knew about asexuality before I came out, which was SO EXCITING), and haven’t made a big deal about it. I just ignore the ones who tell me that I just need to “grow into” my sexuality (well, ignore them after destroying their arguments with SCIENCE). My classmates do occasionally laugh at the irony of my being one of the few people in my cohort to be dating–despite the fact that I am probably less romantically motivated than everyone else.
I am out-ish to my advisor. When I found out that the BLGTQ center at my school wanted New England Aces to come panel for them, I had a momentary crisis of confidence, and wound up babbling at her, asking for advice on how to run a panel for “a sexual minority” on campus without destroying my academic career forever. My advisor took all my hand-wringing very calmly,*** and said that nobody at my school cares if you’re GSRM or not, so I shouldn’t worry about that too much. We then talked about how to deal with the issue in Japan, and she basically said to deflect any questions that came my way, or else turn the question around. (I.e. if someone asks me, “Why aren’t you married yet?” ask right back, “When did you get married?” or “What age do people normally get married in Japan?” She said, “Turn terrible situations into ethnography!” which I have decided to make my new motto.) She said that there are non-straight researchers in Japan, and their sexualities just become open secrets that nobody does anything about unless there’s some sort of confrontation or blow-up. So what I have to do for the rest of my days is deflect, smile politely, and don’t let anything blow up. Oh boy.
I asked my advisor if there were any GSRM resources for folks in the humanities, since I know there are a limited number for GSRM folks in sciences (article here). She said that if they existed, she didn’t know about them. Once again, not entirely surprising. If being out means potentially destroying your academic career, you’ll stay closeted and then the next generation will have no one to serve as a role model for being successfully out, and then they’ll stay closeted, etc. etc. etc.
What it comes down to is that no matter how liberal and GSRM-friendly people are here, I am, at the end of the day, a researcher working on a not terribly liberal and GSRM-friendly topic in Japan. (To give you an idea of how conservative some of my research contacts are, I’ve occasionally had people be disappointed that I had the gall to show up to interview them while being a woman.****) As is, I get bugged about not being married (and not having any plan to get married) constantly when I’m in Japan, and the only thing that’s keeping people off my back right now is the fact that I’m young. I don’t know what will happen as I get older and fail to conform to their expectations–will they leave me alone (because I’m older and thus it’s less socially appropriate to harass me about my marital status) or will it only get worse (because I can’t play the “too young for marriage” card anymore)? Only time will tell, I suppose; it’s not like I have any role models who I can ask.
Once again, these experiences are very specific to my field and to my situation, and so I doubt that they can be generalized to everyone. If there are any other asexy grads in the audience, I’d love to hear from you!
*For those of you who don’t know grad school lingo, your cohort is the group of people in your program that you enter with.
**The main difference between grad school and college in this respect, is that over the course of your college career you will have hundreds, maybe even thousands (depending on your class sizes) of classmates, and you might meet other folks through extra-curricular activities, running into each other in the dining halls, or living in the same dorm. In graduate school, you have classes with the same group of people over and over (which is great if you have lovely classmates, like I do), you probably don’t have time for many extra-curriculars, you most likely live in a dorm with other graduate students (and you are too busy to do much socializing) or else off-campus, and the meals you take in the dining hall are probably shared with your classmates (since you all get out of class at the same time).
***I could write an ode of praise to my advisor, but suffice to say that she is the best and I want to grow up to be her.
****I wish this was a joke, but I once showed up to interview someone, and he was very disappointed because he had thought that I was a man. “I was going to show you a bunch of cool stuff,” he said, “but now I can’t.” (A subset of the cool stuff he was going to show me was related to martial arts, which is kind of hilarious, since I’m a martial artist. Sexism in the wild, folks!)