Some Reflections on Working on Asexuality in Academia as an Asexual Person

In the summer between the third and fourth year of my Bachelors I vowed to read every academic article that had ever been published on asexuality. I wanted to know what academics were telling other people about me, but that quickly morphed into ‘I want to have a say in how I am being depicted.’

From 2013-2014 I put my Environmental Studies undergraduate on the shelf, my vegan activism on hold, and pursued a Masters degree that focused on asexuality. I have since completed my Independent Research Project, “Troubling the Term Asexual in Academia and Asexual Communities: Responding to Erasure with Multiplicity,” and am now looking into getting parts of it published. At this point I wanted to pause to share and explore some of my early reflections on what it’s been like to do academic research and writing on asexuality, as an out asexual person, so far.

1. Doing research on asexuality made asexuality the central focus of my life in a way that it hadn’t been before.

I’ve been out as asexual for many years, but devoting a year to thinking about the ways that my sexual orientation is depicted, and what that means to me and other people in my community, changed things. If you knew me, you knew I was writing about asexuality because it was now ‘my job.’ I became a lot more confident talking about asexuality and I was always doing it. Asexuality came up frequently when anyone asked about my life. Even coffee shop chats with strangers and over video games revolved around asexuality.

Getting university and federal grants to do research on asexuality was also extremely validating – the Canadian government cared about asexuality? And what I had to say about it? I even got invited to speak at my queer university group about asexuality.

2. There were a lot of times that I had to censor myself.

Sometimes I censored myself so that my experiences of asexuality didn’t overshadow people who also identify as asexual, but experience asexuality very differently than I do. This was extremely important to me and I wanted my writing to include all of us, as much as possible.

Other times I censored myself because my name was attached to this research. I might tell you a story in person, but I wouldn’t want that story permanently frozen in print. I feel like my work suffered from those omissions. Figuring out how to be okay with the archival powers of the internet and academia is a work in progress for me.

There were also many stories I came across, and conversations I participated in, ‘as asexual.’ Most of these did not end up in my research. In the early stages of my Masters I was settling into fandom and watching the fallout of Graham Norton showing celebrities fanwork on his talkshow, “The Graham Norton Show”; I watched as my fellow fans discussed how their work, which they had made for each other and our community, was being taken outside of its original context and ridiculed.  There is much more to say on this topic and my feelings about ownership and the capitalist university, but at the very least it left me with a deep concern about taking work and discussions from inside of specific communities and selling them as a punchline or to make a theoretical point. I felt it was very important to censor myself and keep some secrets; sharing them could help my academic career and ‘enrich’ asexuality studies, but I was and am very skeptical that telling these secrets would benefit the people having these conversations. Maybe Asexuality Studies will come to a place where it can do justice to all of the ways that we exist as asexual, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

3. The academic field that you write about asexuality in matters. 

The method, methodology, and even the subject, of my research was dependent on the field that I did this research in. I did my Masters in a feminist program and will send my work to feminist journals. In these contexts, and ones with similar political histories, I feel generally comfortable defining asexual as a person who self-identifies as asexual without explaining why self-identification matters or is important. If the people I am writing about say that they are asexual, I can ‘trust them.’

In other fields who counts as asexual, and what I have to do to prove that they count as asexual, seems to function differently. If I were writing in psychology I might have to include a section in my research that defends my use of self-identification, do a test to prove that my subjects really are asexual, or rely on other factors to determine asexuality. At the end of the day I could be writing about a completely different subject; while the groups ‘people who self-identify as asexual’ and ‘people who do not experience sexual attraction’ sometimes overlap, they are not the exact same group.

4. Asexuality opens up interesting connections with some topics and closes down connections with others. 

When I first realized I was agender I couldn’t pick a preferred pronoun – all of them made me uncomfortable. I considered asking people to not use pronouns when referring to me, but I quickly realized that if I couldn’t even talk without pronouns, how could I ask other people to? I practiced writing fiction stories that didn’t include pronouns to learn how to speak without them. It takes a lot of time, patience, and skill to re-arrange sentences so that they make sense without pronouns and even more so that they flow elegantly. I’ve since become comfortable with the pronoun they, but, whenever possible, I continue to think without pronouns. Most of the academic papers I write do not include pronouns. I am always tempted to litter these papers with footnotes that would explain to my professors why my writing is so awkward and the sentences just sound strange, but I never do. Why would anyone care about my personal vendetta against pronouns? It isn’t on topic. My Masters paper on asexuality was the first time I felt comfortable stating that I was not using pronouns. I used the 2011 Asexual Awareness Week Community Census to suggest that many asexual people do not identify along the gender binary and so it was particularly relevant for me not to use any gendered pronouns in my research on asexuality to avoid gender assumptions. I also stated that this would be good practice in research that is not about asexuality, but the connections made between asexuality and gender helped me feel comfortable making it explicit there.

While my focus was asexuality, I also did a little exploring into other subjects that might be relevant to asexuality. Paula Rust’s work on bisexuality and the lesbian community and Kath Browne and Catherine Nash’s work on queer theory and queer methods easily mapped onto my theories of asexuality and helped me think about important questions for future research. Although asexuality is certainly different from other sexual orientations, there are many shared threads to follow.

Sometimes linking asexuality to my other research interests feels like too much of a stretch. As I noted earlier, I felt like I had to put my Bachelors in Environmental Studies on a shelf. My minor in Women’s Studies gave me something to draw from, but I hadn’t learned about asexuality there either. This cutting up, and storing away, different parts of myself was an emotionally difficult process. I once had a professor tell me that all of my research interests are connected because they live in me – I am the common thread. Over time this has definitely shown true. The ways that I think about veganism, vegan-feminism, and Critical Animal Studies have been shaped by how I think about asexuality. How I think about asexuality has also been shaped by these other interests and I think Asexuality Studies could learn a lot from Critical Animal Studies. However, sometimes the bridge between these theories feels too fragile or the leap too large to make. I couldn’t justify making room to write about anything other than sexual orientation and gender. I did not do much bridge building in my Masters research, but I hope I do someday soon.

5. Participating in the asexual community is important. 

I have a long history of being reluctant to participate in asexual communities for a variety of reasons. When I started my research on asexuality I made a deliberate effort to jump back in. How could I write about asexuality if I did not see what people were talking about or what was important to them? I wanted to learn from, and with, other asexual people. If I didn’t, I feared that I would be writing a glorified version of ‘Talia’s asexuality only,’ and passing it off as something it wasn’t.

I learned a lot by following advice blogs on Tumblr, reading the Friday linkspams on this blog, thinking about what my fellow co-bloggers had to say, and sometimes dipping my toes into AVEN. Some of this learning shows up explicitly in my research when I cite blog posts and what asexual people are theorizing about themselves instead of what published academics think about them. Other times it shows up by what or who I prioritize writing about.

These are just a few of my early reflections on researching and writing about asexuality as an asexual person and I expect that there will be more to come. For the comments: if you’re in academia, have you ever considered focusing on asexuality? Why or why not? 

About Talia

Talia is an asexual, nonbinary, vegan-feminist that drinks a lot of coffee and stays up very late playing Blizzard video games and writing fiction. They are working on a PhD in Environmental Studies where they think a lot about oppression as intersectional and impacting identities differentially. Talia has a particular fondness for asexuality, fandom, and Critical Animal Studies. Their personal blog is petuniaparty.tumblr.com
This entry was posted in asexual identity, Intersectionality, personal experience, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Some Reflections on Working on Asexuality in Academia as an Asexual Person

  1. siphilemon says:

    I’m currently in college, and I wrote a paper for one of my Gender and Women’s Studies classes last year on asexuality. I had a different set of problems because it was nominally a paper that was analyzing “a piece of media” with the readings we’d done in class- the biggest issue, and one I wrote about for a Carnival of Aces a while back, was that so much of what was useful for me to use in the paper was concepts in the community that didn’t have a single author; or if they did, the person was lost to the annals of AVEN or Tumblr somewhere. I didn’t want to cite things from the first relevant blog post I found, because that seemed dishonest, both academically and to myself. One of my favorite things about the asexual community (which I’ve fallen out of a bit, unfortunately) is that it IS so communal and that the community theory is collective because there isn’t the same body or sort of research done on asexuality as there is on being gay or lesbian.

    As for why I did that paper- one of the things I want out of my college experience is to make asexuality part of the conversation. I don’t know how well I’ve been doing, but it’s at least to the point where I’m vocal enough about it that no one is ever surprised when I bring it up.

    (I figured I’d drop this in here since you mentioned the theory you were using- my paper was heavily based on using ideas in “Sex in Public” by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner)

    • Talia says:

      Figuring out how to credit ideas in the asexual community is really interesting and I definitely had that struggle too, which makes me wonder, does academia have the capacity to reflect how ideas circulate in online communities? Might it be more meaningful to talk about them differently? I read a really interesting article on fanwork by Alexis Lothian wherein the word ‘ephemeral’ was used to describe ideas circulating in fandom communities and that really resonated with me for just about anything on Tumblr and AVEN as well I suppose (although to a lesser degree). Ideas linger, shift, and move as traces. I wonder if that communal sense of theory that you referred to might be lost or at risk as asexuality studies as a field continues to grow in academia.

      Making asexuality a part of the conversation is always really difficult and that’s exciting that you’re attempting to do it. I haven’t had much luck doing it this year now that I’m out of a gender studies program, but maybe I’ll start getting creative soon. And I actually haven’t read that piece by Berlant yet! It’s on my never ending to read list (I think when I came across Berlant before it was in affect theory). Did you find it really relevant to writing about asexuality? Maybe I’ll have to read it sooner haha.

      • siphilemon says:

        “I wonder if that communal sense of theory that you referred to might be lost or at risk as asexuality studies as a field continues to grow in academia.”

        That’s one of things I was worried about when I wrote the paper, since it definitely occurred to me that it could and likely would happen. I mean, think about it- how many feminist ideas probably started in conversations and zines and then it sparked somebody’s brain who was in academia and then they get credited for it? I don’t want that happen to what the ace community has done. I want it to somehow be attributable to the people community as a whole. Personally, I feel like academia is seriously lagging behind the curve when it comes to the Internet, however much it might to try to analyze what’s going on there. It would be a LOT more meaningful for academia to have framework to acknowledge that, say, the identity-building for asexuals operates and looks and forms a lot differently than the identity-building for gays and lesbians- but nobody’s tried to do anything about that.

        The “Sex in Public” piece I used was presented in class as a work on heteronormativity but I found the concept of non-hetero sexualities being automatically a public concern in a heteronormative world, whereas heterosexuality was automatically a private matter, particularly useful. If asexuality is perceived as an ‘absence’ of sexuality, then the system ends up presented with a quandry, since then what’s there to make public? Basically, it’s that horrible comment from Dan Savage asking what asexuals could possibly have to lobby about. I coupled “Sex in Public” with Foucault’s theory of biopower to argue that acephobic comments aren’t actually about a hatred of anything not-hetero or the assumption of liking sex to be a fundamental human attribute but a fear-induced backlash against the idea of having non-sexually-reproductive citizens of a society/race/species to perpetrate the culture/race/species into the future and contribute to the success of the group against competitors.

        Do you happen to have the title of that thing by Alexis Lothian?

        • Talia says:

          Yes I’m also definitely worried that academics will take credit for the ideas that the ace community comes up with. I wonder if there is any work done on this happening in feminist spaces, because you’re right, I’m sure it has happened there as well – especially around zine making and concepts like Riot Grrrl. All that comes to my mind is media misrepresentation, not academic representation. I also worry about how academics will credit ideas from the ace community and which ideas if they decide to try – I’m thinking here of Anthony Bogaert’s article “Asexuality and Autochorissexualism (Identity-Less Sexuality)” from 2012 wherein Bogaert cited AVEN forum posts regarding sexual fantasies without stating if permission was obtained to cite them. I’m pretty sure AVEN requires academics to ask users if they can quote them, but I worry about the precedent it sets for this to not come up in the article, especially around such a sensitive topic. I also agree that academia is lagging behind on the internet, but I wonder, is this because I just haven’t read the right journals – maybe someone somewhere is doing it? More on my never ending to do list. Regarding identity building for asexual people, I’ve seen Andrew Hinderliter do some work on that that might hover around what you’re suggesting (however, without explicitly addressing how these models really do differ from other sexual orientations), but from what I recall it was posted on websites and not published in an academic journal. So yes, lots more to do, and if it does happen, I’ll be really interested in the way that it’s done.

          Thanks for going into “Sex in Public” in detail. It definitely looks like an article that I have to read; I’ve never thought before about non-hetero orientations being treated as a public concern, but that idea opens up a lot of interesting directions. Your use of Foucault is really interesting and I think Foucault is surprisingly (or maybe not) underrepresented in how we think about asexuality. Did you ever think of trying to publish that essay? Some of the ideas you’ve briefly mentioned here I can see myself wanting to cite in future.

          The citation for Lothian’s article that I mentioned is: Lothian, Alexis. “Archival Anarchies: Online Fandom, Subcultural Conservation, and the Transformative Work of Digital Ephemera.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 16.6 (2013): 541-56.

          • siphilemon says:

            Well, thankfully my college supports undergraduate research/papers and I’ve had a professor already try gunning for me to do some; so I suppose I could try. I haven’t really decided yet because my major concern is Study Abroad and getting all my major classes done. Another problem is that I am currently mired in a sea of personal gender issues and I’d rather not publish under a name that I may very well get legally changed. That’s the sort of paper trail/public record that could make things really awkward and uncomfortable or dangerous.

            But if I DO do published papers, they will more than likely be on asexuality.

            I hadn’t heard that about Bogaert. That’s very worrying. As far as academia staying caught up on the Internet, I can definitely say that sexuality theory is behind; but the one place that might be keeping up is media and communications. I just don’t know what they do for theory over there, but that’s the sort of field that can’t afford to fall behind. But that’s also not really something that’s geared for ‘niche’ research. The only place I’ve seen where the theory is appreciably close to the reality of the Internet is Fan Studies (which I think falls under media and communications?), the academics who write about fandom. Archive of Our Own publishes a peer-reviewed journal that has a LOT of interesting stuff in it. Last I saw they were on Volume 15 or 16, I think.

            I looked up Andrew Hinderliter to try to find some of the things he wrote- was what you mentioned on The Sociological Imagination, or somewhere else?

          • Siggy says:

            Andrew Hinderliter runs the Asexual Explorations website, which I believe hosts a few additional articles, not to mention that bibliography.

            I have different feelings about Bogaert’s autochorissexualism paper. One of the basic problems with Bogaert’s book is that he makes a lot of speculations that would have been tossed out if he had made the slightest effort to listen to a few asexual experiences. The autochorissexualism paper is based on the one time someone sent him a link to a single thread on AVEN. I’d rather have more of that, not less. And it’s not like the people on some forgotten AVEN thread would have gotten credit for the idea anyway.

          • Talia says:

            Thanks for linking to Asexual Explorations Siggy! The hosted essays on that site were the ones that I was referring to.

            Siphilemon, I’m actually also going through gender related changes right now that are leading me to do a legal name change that have the potential to mess with my academic paper trail. I’ve done a chosen name change at my uni (first, middle and last – I might eventually write about this somewhere because it’s been a very complicated experience, made more complicated because I’m going by the name Nathan), but I won’t do the legal one until after April. I met with a professor to discuss my publishing options and he advised sending articles in for consideration anyways and if they accept, just ask them to publish under my chosen name (and for legal/copyright reasons, maybe put a footnote that this is a chosen name). Although, this only works for me because I’ve got my name picked out. I hope that if you do decide to publish your name doesn’t stop you and if you do want to discuss this privately I’d be more than happy to.

            Yes Fan Studies definitely looks like it’s more on top of the internet than other fields, but I’m still struggling to find an article with a methodology that I love in its entirety and can use for my own research. The articles in Ao3’s journal are lovely and I’m currently sifting through the journal Popular Communication with some interesting things coming up.

            I agree Siggy that it would be awesome to have more AVEN threads being credited in academic papers, or just more asexual opinions in general. I’m just worried about how they’re being credited and the ways that these threads are being framed… but it’s more, I hope Bogaert keeps that in consideration for next time rather than he should stop doing it.

  2. queenieofaces says:

    I’m in academia, but I’m not technically focused on asexuality. I think studying it for a job would hit too close to home, and sometimes I want to throw myself into a research paper and not have my own acceptance riding on the line (along with, you know, a grade). That isn’t to say my time in asexual communities hasn’t influenced by academic work–I recently submitted a paper on non-binary genders in Japanese religions to a conference. (We’ll see if they take me! I’m hopeful.) Plus I’ve done interviews in Japanese with ace activists and read stuff coming out of Japanese-language ace communities. But mostly asexuality has influenced my time in the classroom in a “wow, you’re really well-read when it comes to queer theory” sort of way and not a “I’m going to study asexuality in religion super hard” sort of way. (Although I’d love to do a project on LGBT issues and Japanese religion someday! I already have some ideas of where to start…)

    • Talia says:

      Yeah writing about asexuality for a grade definitely complicates things. The research I did was marked on a pass/fail basis and I wonder if that contributed to my comfort level.

      I hope you get accepted for that conference! That sounds like a really exciting paper. Your response also points out that asexuality can influence our time in academia in many different ways, rather than just the explicit, I am now doing research on asexuality. That’s interesting to me because it reflects the potential interdisciplinarity of asexual theory.

  3. Dragon says:

    I’m not exactly in the academia yet (still doing my undergrad), but I’d definitely find it interesting to do some work on asexuality. Unfortunately, my degree is in Ancient History (mostly Roman), and one of the first things you learn about ancient history is how much information we DON’T have. It’s not as if I can go out and quiz my subjects about their orientations, and even with what we do have the ancients conceived of such things quite differently from modern Westerners. But, that being said, if I happen to read a text that screams ASEXUAL at me, I would definitely be excited. Because the other thing about Ancient History is that the raw material has been around for literally thousands of years, and sometimes you can’t help but feel that everything must have been said already. Asexuality in antiquity could be my angle 🙂

    • Talia says:

      If it does happen to come up, asexuality in antiquity would be a really interesting angle! Especially since I imagine asexuality would function very differently in those texts and open up a whole host of unique questions. Then there’s the whole, how do sexual orientations function when not named as such? Thinking of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality here.

      I haven’t read much ancient history, but I also often feel like many ideas have already been said; I remember reading Charles Darwin’s work for the first time and being so excited because I saw the kinds of ideas I had about species already reflected there.

    • Ace in Translation says:

      I’m a graduate in medieval studies, and the Middle Ages has similar source problems as Antiquity. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a wealth of academic research done on sexual history – which also includes the history of non-sexuality (ie. virginity, abstinence, non-sexual romantic relationships, etc.) which is just begging for an asexual perspective. Though I have to say that in the history of sexuality, the history of not-sex is not as well-explored.

      All of the papers and studies I’ve read have a serious blind spot because the writers don’t even question their assumption that everyone wants sex. And therefore they don’t question whether people in Antiquity/the Middle Ages held the same believes about everybody wanting sex. I do think there’s plenty of opportunity to revisit texts knowing about the possibility of asexuality, for the very simpe reason that not questioning that assumption of “everyone wants sex” means people will interpret subjects like “not having sex” radically differently.

    • Talia says:

      Thank you for letting me know and for the reblog. I’m glad that you found what I wrote useful or interesting in some way 🙂

  4. That was really interesting. As an academic I have never considered bringing asexuality into the equation; even going as far as to dismiss my own asexuality as even remotely relevant to what I say and do. Perhaps this comes from being a historian, however. In the field of history we are taught from day one that we need to step outside ourselves and be a blank slate on which the topic is discussed. Naturally this isn’t how it happens in practice, but the mindset sticks to you like glue. I now wonder if there would be a good way to discuss asexuality from an historical point of view. It would be difficult as most of it would be no more than conjecture. Though I suppose it would take someone a little more motivated on the subject than I am to achieve that. What I will take most from this going ahead is that I need to take a better look at the bias I bring to the table, not only as a white woman in the 21st century, but as an asexual in a sexualized world. Thank you for posting this, I really enjoyed reading it!

    • Talia says:

      I think your experience really reflects my point that the discipline you do your work in matters. Writing about asexuality in a field where the ideal is a blank slate, and you are not supposed to have an opinion on asexuality, is a very specific kind of position. I wonder if there is something to say on historical perceptions of asexuality but it simply isn’t being written about because of how the field functions. Here I’m thinking of Foucault’s work on Herculine Barbin, a French intersex man who lived in the nineteenth century. Although Barbin certainly would not be included in any historical canon, and was not understood as intersex in the way we understand it today, the data was recorded in a way that we can write about. Also I often think about how the term asexual was used to refer to women who didn’t want to have sex and was sometimes linked with hysteria. So much to look into there! Now I’m just getting excited about theory I don’t have the time to do myself haha. Glad you enjoyed reading this and that it got you thinking 🙂

  5. Estrid says:

    I did my bachelor-assignment on asexuality (I study European ethnology at University of Copenhagen) – or rather, I was critical of Anthony Bogaert’s articles and his book Understand Asexuality, arguing that it reproduced certain normative ideas about sexuality. I would have loved to do some empirical research on asexuality, but my BA-assignment had to be strictly theoretical. I hope to do my Master thesis on asexuality based on field work.
    Talking to my fellow students about my assignment at the time was rather exciting because they showed what seemed to me a genuine interest in the topic without showing any “asexuality can’t exist”-attitudes.
    A significant consideration at the time for me was whether or not to “disclose” the fact that I identify as asexual. A friend of mine who read and commented my paper first suggested it. I didn’t do it as it didn’t seem relevant. If I end up doing my Master thesis on asexuality, I think I might mention it in the introduction as part of a “how I stumbled upon asexuality, why it is important etc.”-section.

    • Talia says:

      Thanks for commenting! It’s really interesting to see the ways in which other asexual people are writing about asexuality. If you happen to do your Masters on asexuality I would love to hear more about it. It’s really nice to hear that your peers seemed supportive of asexuality in general.

      Deciding whether or not to disclose your asexuality is certainly an interesting question. I always knew going in that I would disclose my asexuality, but it was interesting seeing the ways that my peers sometimes pushed me to disclose more, and the ways that other people were very clear to point out that I didn’t have to disclose anything.

      If you haven’t read it, the introduction to the book Asexualities; Feminist and Queer Perspectives has a really interesting commentary on disclosing asexuality. The authors write about how they didn’t disclose their association with asexuality in the first article that they wrote and received some backlash for it.

      • Estrid says:

        I’ll remember that! 🙂
        I didn’t tell my fellow students that I am asexual, and honestly, I have no idea whether they “guessed” it. They may be like: “Well, she’s in a relationship. It’s probably just an “outgrowth” of her interest in feminist questions.”
        I used the book a lot for my paper. It was really interesting! I also recommended it for some of the people in the Danish asexual community the other day. They might have to fight for it if they want to borrow it at the library – I’m quite certain they only have one.

  6. Ace in Translation says:

    I’ve graduated in history (medieval studies to be precise. The Middle Ages are the BEST). I want to continue in this field and I’d love to do something to connect my love for history with asexuality. And I’ve started reading up on the history of sexuality, the historiography of homosexuality (aka how to study non-normative sexualities in different time periods) and the history of non-sexuality, mostly geared towards the Middle Ages. Let me tell you: it’s fascinating.

    My main problem with pursuing asexuality related historical research in academia is that it targets the wrong audience (for me personally). If I’m doing research on (medieval) history and asexuality, I want to share with the asexual community. Yet academia requires that I code it in a language that is difficult to understand for lay people, and my work will disappear behind a paywall. Open access is not exactly that widespread yet that I feel I can work on an academic discourse while at the same time making sure it’s accessible for everyone.

    So yeah, for me it’s the issue of who’s the audience of my efforts. I want to tell the asexual community about all these fascinating things related to asexuality and perspectives of non-sexuality in the past, and I’m not that interested in introducing academics about the possibility of asexual perspectives in my particular discipline. I do want to combine my knowledge of history with my personal interest in anything asexuality related, but I’m not convinced purely focussing on academia will give me the satisfaction I’m looking for. I’d much rather work making research accessible for the wider public, than discussing and working within the same small circle of specialists.

  7. Pingback: Thinking of Asexual Culture as Indefinite, Ephemeral, and Sometimes Incompatible | The Asexual Agenda

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