Graduate school, asexily

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!)

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
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10 Responses to Graduate school, asexily

  1. Sciatrix says:

    Huh, now you’ve got me thinking about how that sort of atmosphere is different for us! Just for reference, I am a PhD student at a 5-6 year evolutionary biology program. There are a couple of just generally living differences–for example, I don’t know anyone who lives on campus, and for the most part I don’t know anyone who has bothered to get access to the dining hall cafeteria.

    I can think of a lot of openly gay researchers in evolutionary biology at a variety of career levels, most of whom I know personally and a few of whom (mostly faculty) I don’t, and at least one openly trans woman who is a tenured professor. In fact, I’ve never even worked in a lab where I was the only person who wasn’t straight. When I went to the Evolution conference last summer, there was even an informal lunch for LGBT attendees posted on the conference bulletin board. (I ended up not going for a variety of reasons, but one of my friends did and he really enjoyed it.) I do say “openly gay” for a reason, because all of the people I personally know are cis gay men.

    The fact that for the most part, I have a choice between straight women, straight men, and gay men as potential mentors in my field makes work-life balance issues fairly tricky to talk about. Actually, work-life balance is a buzzword in my experience–one people invariably only talk about it as it pertains to the issues facing straight, cis women in academia, which entails dealing with possibly unsupportive male partners and expectations of being the primary child caregiver and which is honestly an entirely different kettle of fish than some of the things I wish people would talk about, like “managing the two-body problem if you’re not a straight person” or “dealing with the pressure to work constantly in academia.” Some of these things seem to be gendered, or at least I’ve only ever seen women talk about them (or occasionally men talking about them in the context of going “hey we should be paying attention to what women are saying!”), but the way they’re presented is generally itchily heteronormative.

    The other small thing about being a grad student in evolutionary biology is that when asexual reproduction comes up, and people start discussing why it’s not a long-term pure strategy of reproduction for any known species, I invariably get context whiplash. I know my instructors are not talking about why asexuality in the context of the sexual orientation doesn’t exist over the long term, and I still occasionally catch myself getting shirty before I go “wait!–oh, yeah same word, totally different meaning.”

    • Ember Nickel says:

      Interesting take on work-life balance as it applies to non-straight women, thanks.

    • queenieofaces says:

      I think most people in my program live on campus their first year (since housing is guaranteed for first years) and then have to buy meal plans because they’re living in the dorms. A lot of my cohort is moving off campus next year, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens to the social scene.

      And, yeah, definitely there’s a lack of resources for non-straight women. The base assumptions seem to be A. you will have a husband who may or may not be willing to help you with research (since, you know, if you’re a male professor married to a woman, OF COURSE she’ll be your research assistant) and B. you will want to have kids but having kids and a career is hard. So most resources seem to address those two topics and…not much else. (Well, occasionally I’ll see some “sexism in academia” stuff.)

  2. Siggy says:

    In my (physics) PhD program, a lot of the social circumstances are different. I used to socialize with the other grad students of my year, but most of that ended when people joined their research groups. Instead I make friends on my own–mostly through my boyfriend and through student groups.

    Maybe it’s just because I’m in Berkeley, but I just can’t imagine anyone making an issue (in the negative sense) about me being GSM. It would seem petty and unprofessional–what does my personal life have to do with physics? I also know several openly GLB people in the department, including at least one professor. I’m not out to my cohort as asexual, because coming out takes work, but I’m very visibly gay, and it’s never been a problem.

    • queenieofaces says:

      It seems like a lot of people in the sciences are pretty chill about people being GSRM–at least, I have a lot of openly GSRM friends in sciences and they’ve gotten minimal (if any) hassle for it. I don’t know how much the overall lack of GSRM representation in my field is a humanities thing or a cross-cultural thing, but I would bet it’s a cross-cultural thing. When I was in Japan, I went to interview someone, and it turned out that he’d been in the San Francisco Bay Area a couple of years before, and he was telling me how a friend of a friend there had driven him down to Half Moon Bay for the day. And then he leaned forward and said, “And it turned out he was GAY. I thought he was a normal guy, and he was actually gay! And I spent ALL DAY IN A CAR WITH HIM,” and then he waited for me to gasp or something, I guess. (He seemed to be disappointed that I wasn’t shocked, and kept repeating “ALL DAY IN A CAR WITH HIM” and then looking at me like he was expecting me to suddenly get it.) …so, yeah, that’s probably why so many people stay very quiet.

  3. Seth says:

    This is going off on a bit of a tangent, but your comment on the lack of eligible partners just reminded me of this article, which is well worth a read.

  4. Twi says:

    I’m currently needing to start thinking about grad school (yikes) and I was wondering if anyone had any advice on looking for programs/applying for grad schools?

    • Sciatrix says:

      Well, it helps to be field-specific–a lot of this varies dramatically from field to field, and between Master’s programs and PhD programs. That said…

      Do you have a professor who is your mentor? If so, they are hands down going to be your best resource for grad school, because they should know your interests best and they should know which programs are best suited to those programs. If you’re looking into any kind of scientific program and you don’t currently have a research mentor, I strongly advise going out and finding one. Many are quite happy to take undergrad workers, especially if you’re going to be able to stick around for at least a year and you’re willing to work for course credit.

      Even if you don’t have a research mentor, you should find professors in your field and ask them if they’d be willing to sit down and talk to you about your interests and possible programs that might suit them. You’ll need letters of recommendation anyway; best to start cultivating that kind of relationship with a mentor as soon as possible. They’ll know which departments are best suited to your interests and which are turning out students that are getting hired. (This last is not a trivial consideration; the academic job market is currently appallingly flooded with newly-minted PhDs and job prospects just about everywhere are very bad. This is not just a humanities thing; things are nearly as bad in biology and sciences more generally. I went in after having carefully considered the extremely real possibility that I will not end up being able to stay in academia because competition is too intense, and I firmly believe everyone contemplating academia should seriously think about that possibility.)

      I also recommend The Grad Cafe as a good source of people in a variety of fields who are all worrying about how to get into grad school.

      • queenieofaces says:

        Seconding everything Sciatrix said, and also recommending that you contact anyone you’d be interested in working with ahead of time. When I applied, I could already tell which schools I was likely to get into just from talking to the professors there. Also, it’s a good way to get yourself on a professor’s radar (and they DO have influence over application decisions, so that’s a good thing), and figure out who you want to work with.

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