A couple of, well, years ago now, I participated in a research project run by sociologists Susie Scott, Liz McDonnell and Matt Dawson from the Universities of Sussex and Glasgow. The project was called ‘Asexual Lives,’ and focused on how asexual people negotiate their everyday lives and everyday intimacies. Participating in the project involved an interview with Liz, and keeping a two-week diary where I wrote generally about how asexuality affected my life day-to-day, if/how I was aware of it, and how it influenced my intimate relationships (broadly defined).
I recently received an overview of the results and publications (most of which are still forthcoming) that have come out of the study, and I was very interested in – and sometimes a bit surprised by – the results. At the moment I’m only working from abstracts for the articles and papers, but one piece has been published online already and is available to people without academic database access. It does a pretty good job at touching on the issues raised in the individual papers, so I wanted to write a bit about my thoughts on the piece and the small response it got from a few members of the ace community. You can find it here: Asexual Lives: Social relationships and intimate encounters.
Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to the article, summarising the focus of the research project:
Against this backdrop, asexuality appears curious, standing outside the sexual realm entirely. To have a minority status or engage in less common practices is one thing, but to not be a sexual person at all is quite another. Because it challenges social norms, expectations and cultural assumptions, asexuality is often viewed as a problem, a failure, or even a sickness. But is this an accurate portrayal? How do people experience asexuality themselves, and how does it affect their social lives?
To the best of my knowledge of academic writing on asexuality, relatively little research has been done on the micro-level, looking at these sorts of everyday-life questions. There’s been quite a bit on larger-scale questions of identity, community experience, and arousal, but this is the first I’ve seen specifically with a qualitative, experience-based focus. (Please correct me if I’m wrong – I try to keep up to date with the academic side of things, but obviously there’s stuff I miss as well.) So I find this topic really interesting, as someone reading the results now, and as a participant trying to figure out the everyday effect of asexuality on my life.
There are three key areas in this article: asexuality as a part of someone’s personal identity, community and social impact of asexuality, and practises of intimacy, each of which raised some interesting questions for me.
The first finding that I found somewhat surprising was the idea that for most of the people in the study, asexuality didn’t actually comprise a very significant part of their identity. Most participants seemed to see asexuality as a bit of a non-issue – a part of their identity, sure, but just a part like all the other parts. The authors attribute part of this to some participants’ statements that because asexuality is often only able to be defined by lack or absence, there is no strong positive identification to form a ‘coherent sense of self around.’ I can definitely see where those participants are coming from – I think most asexual people have times where they wonder how exactly they’re meant to be something by not being all of the other things.*
I think this is really interesting, because a lot of the writing about asexuality in the ace community has strongly emphasised the idea that asexuality is a strong part of their identity: see for example Queenie on asexuality not being a removable component, Katie on integral identities, or myself on un-detachable sexualities, and probably just about anything in the tumblr ace community. (Again, correct me if I’m wrong.) But then again, I’m pretty sure I’ve also seen people writing about how their asexual identity isn’t that important to who they are, so the idea is not that radical. (Of course, I can’t find any right in this moment. Anyone?)**
The researchers suggest that asexuality isn’t an essential state, but one that comes into being in terms of social interaction, questioning, or challenging, quoting one participant who said ‘I can’t figure out how I would become aware of my asexuality aside from someone bringing it up or hounding me about whether or not someone is hot.’ Because the data from the study seems to support this, I have no trouble accepting this – that for this group of people, asexuality wasn’t a big thing. That doesn’t mean, of course, that every group of people will be the same, and it is really critical that both readers and researchers keep this in mind – a bit more on this later. But in itself, the fact that not all aces seem to see asexuality as a big deal in terms of identity is really interesting and important.
As related to the first point, the second major finding of the study is that not all asexual people socialise or form a community identity with other asexual people, and that this seems to be correlated with demographic factors. While the study does acknowledge that some aces engage in political activism and community-building in places like AVEN, just as many don’t:
Although some asexual people engage in political activism through groups such as AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, asserting the positive identity ‘ACE’, this only represents one demographic: mostly young, white, college-educated, middle class people.
Equally common in our sample were those who were older, less socially networked or otherwise lacking the resources needed to make the personal political. Lisa, in her late thirties, had always felt she was ‘different’ from her peers but dismissed this an individual quirk and focused instead on her career. Like many others, she had not heard of the term ‘asexual’ until well into adulthood, by which time she had built an identity around other things.
Can we take a moment to think about this, please? Because I think it’s kind of amazing in that it shows just how important it is for us, the predominantly online asexual community, to recognise that not every ace is like us. We have the incredibly privileged position to basically be the ones creating and writing asexual discourse. And yet there are entire groups out there who aren’t us, who aren’t white and young and middle class and might not share our concerns and have different ones altogether. I know that some people in the ace community (The Agenda and others) have been trying to address this and have been doing a great job in encouraging writing that deals with intersectionality and different perspectives. This shows just how important it is.
But it’s more than that, actually – it also highlights for me that academic research on asexuality doesn’t have to lag behind what we already know, but can actually provide us, the online community, with a means of access to aces who aren’t active online. It adds to a more diverse understanding of asexuality. It allows us to hear the experiences of other asexuals which we might not otherwise hear, and to take them into account. In the end, that will only lead to a more accurate knowledge and representation of who makes up the asexual population of the world. (Ok, so I’m being a bit dramatic here, but I do think this is really valuable.)
Practises of Intimacy
A large part of the project involved figuring out what everyday practises of intimacy felt like for asexual people, and for the large part, I think the results nicely show the diversity I would have expected:
In everyday life, the vast majority of our participants enjoyed indulging in non-sexual ‘practices of intimacy’, such as platonic kissing, hugging and cuddling with special people, having fun with colleagues, talking to close friends and other emotional self-disclosure… Those in relationships reported much negotiation and discussion, sometimes formalised in explicit practical arrangements… some asexual participants said that they engaged in sexual activity to satisfy their partners, despite not enjoying it themselves, regarding it an act of altruistic love.
In one of the abstracts I was sent which focused more on this part of the project, the researchers argued that in contrast to other studies on asexuality which focused on the transformative and political nature of asexual intimacies (a ‘unique’ form of intimacy), their results showed that asexual people seem to make more pragmatic adjustments and negotiations to get the intimacy they want, but without seeking to radically change the nature of intimate relationships. I found this really interesting, and also a bit confronting, because I tend to agree more with the idea that asexual relationships do have a lot of radical potential, as the links above also suggest. At the same time, I can actually still identify with the idea that sometimes practises of intimacy can be very much based on pragmatic, practical adjustments rather than large-scale re-writing of narratives. I think I’ve started to see, perhaps, that both of those things can actually exists at the same time. And I think demographics come into it, again. I’d be very interested to see how individual people in the study actually categorised or described their relationships (romantic or other), and how that might affect these findings. But overall, those findings do make sense to me, even if they contradict some of our talk about how inherently different ace intimacies can be.***
The other interesting, and somewhat contentious, suggestion the study makes is that ‘asexual’ practises of intimacy on a day-to-day basis are also things that other, non-asexual people engage in. This ‘blurring of boundaries’ suggests that there are no uniquely asexual practises that are separate from sexual practises. I can definitely see where the researchers are coming from here, and in general, I think it’s really important for us to recognise that non-asexual people have really, really diverse experiences of sexuality and desire and intimacy just as we do. But I do think the (albeit tentative) suggestion at the end takes this a bit too far:
Perhaps it even raises the question of whether ‘asexual people’ exist as a minority group who are essentially different from the presumed sexual majority. Could asexuality just be a way of relating to others and negotiating intimacy, which can be practised by anyone?
The first sentence? There’s a lot to that. Society tends to have this very monolithic view of the ‘presumed sexual majority’ that ignores how much diversity in terms of sexuality is actually natural. That’s not something that I think asexual people should feel threatened by at all. But I do think it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that asexuality can be ‘practised’ by anyone, because in the end, asexuality isn’t defined by its practises – it does remain, as some of the comments point out, an orientation, based on a lack of something most other people do experience, at least to some extent. It’s really helpful and interesting to look at the different ways asexual people do negotiate and engage in different intimacies, and to point out that a lot of those aren’t so radically different. But in the end, this is still a rather small sample, and I don’t think such a sweeping hypothesis, however tentative, is justified.
A Few Comments on the Comments
One last thing I want to mention briefly is the small response to the article, in the comments. There are some very relevant questions which are raised (e.g. on the comparisons to LGBT+ communities), but overall I was quite surprised at how negative some of the comments were, and how some of them seemed to not be able to think outside the very narrow focus of ‘accepted’ online asexual discourse. Some of the main objections include to the use of words like ‘becoming,’ or the idea that asexual identity is a ‘fluid and changeable social identity,’ or the researcher’s interest in behaviours when asexuality is not about behaviour, and that this somehow means they were saying that people were ‘choosing’ to be asexual, or the use of both desire and attraction in the definition of asexuality.
To be honest, I find a lot of the criticisms and objections that are being made to be quite nit-picky. It seems to me that many of them are coming from a very rigid idea of what asexuality is and what it isn’t – i.e. the discourse that has emerged as dominant in the online asexual community, with a sort of ‘no-dissenting-allowed’ attitude. Many of the things that are criticised are actually things that asexual people are still on the fence about, so I think the ‘you’re doing asexuality wrong’ comments could do with a bit more flexibility and readiness to actually think about what they might mean, rather than just dismissal.
The other thing that strikes me is that some of the comments don’t seem to realise that this article is based on actual research with actual asexual participants, whose perspectives are just as valid as everyone else’s. Researchers don’t just make shit up to support whatever hypothesis they want to go for – maybe bad ones do, but I had the advantage of actually participating in this project and that’s not the impression I got! Yeah, some of their conclusions don’t mesh with my own personal experience either, but that doesn’t make them invalid. This is only one study, and I think all of us – readers and the researchers alike – should remember that it exists in the context of a lot of other research and non-academic writing as well.
If anything, this study reminded me of just how diverse the asexual community is, and that we need to be much more aware of some of the demographic differences between asexual people and how that might affect their relationship to asexuality. Rather than writing this off as damaging and stereotyping because of a few differences and one not-really-justified suggestion, I think we should take it as an example of how different groups within the asexual population can be more inclusive and flexible in thinking about asexuality.
What are your thoughts or comments on this study? Hopefully I’ll soon have access to more of the material, and will be able to look at the findings in more depth, which I suspect will add another layer of nuance.
* Of course, this idea of negative identification probably is influenced by whether you have any other identities as well as asexual – for instance, if you have a romantic orientation that you strongly identify with, that does give you more of a sense of positive identification, because you can say ‘yes, I feel romantic attraction towards…’ rather than ‘I don’t feel sexual attraction.’ Aromantic people (like myself) may be more strongly affected by this.
** And maybe there’s a bit of a sample bias in that people who write about asexuality are probably a bit more invested and involved than those who are ace, but don’t see it as a thing worth writing about.
*** I think it’s also worth pointing out that a lot of the discussion about relationships and intimacy in the ace community is hypothetical and can be very idealised (like this thread on AVEN). This is something that actually frustrates me a bit, because from my own experience of being in a relationship with another ace person, nothing is ever as easy or simple as you imagine.