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?