Asexuality in the Media: Towards Diverse Representation

Asexual people have always had difficulty with media representation. Most frequently, everything is oversimplified, only a narrow portion of the asexual spectrum is presented, and often aromantics are either ignored or presented as “those weird ones” in opposition to an assimilationist presentation of alloromantic aces along the lines of “they can fall in love and even have sex, too!”

Those who do not fit the narrative a journalist has decided on for a piece are often ignored, or simply never volunteer in the first place because they have so often been told that parts of them—like neurodivergence, or being a survivor, or disability—make them assailable, and thus unsuited to doing visibility work. (We call this phenomenon The Unassailable Asexual; it may be helpful for prospective writers of articles about asexuality to read up on that.)

This week a new series of articles called #21AceStories was published at The Advocate, with the idea being that instead of a traditional article, it would feature asexuals themselves answering questions. There are four parts in all: part one, part two, part three, and part four.

Unfortunately, the choice of questions alienated some would-be participants, and so the series presents a much less diverse picture than we all had hoped. Laura documented some objections to the series raised on Twitter by Lauren Jankowski and Lyssa Chiavari; the latter is a survivor of a corrective assault, and had told the person who curated the series, Eliel Cruz, that she was uncomfortable with the questions. I signal boosted their concerns, though I didn’t have the chance to properly respond until now. (Warning: later on, I will be discussing survivors and some of the difficulties we face, primarily focused on arguments and visibility work.)

Eliel Cruz responded here and again here. Piecing the tweets together, his response on Twitter reads:

hi! I curated this series. I would love to hear any criticisms. I received almost 100 individuals interested isn’t the series. If I didn’t respond to you it’s because I haven’t gotten the chance to respond to all of them yet. It’s on my schedule for this weekend. in deciding on the questions, I had ten Asexuals contribute questions they though would be best when I choose the questions, I realized I choose too many dating/sex ones — something I mention in my op-Ed that’ll be published on Friday. My intent wasn’t to upset anyone, which is why I reached out to ten Asexuals to help me curate. that being said, I know it’s not perfect and look forward to learning from this series to do better in the future.

His second response gives more detail:

Hey friends,

I curated the series. I sent out an open call fro asexuals and received almost 100 participants. I chose a cut off number (21) and prioritized who made “the cut” by who responded to the questions first. The bulk of the responses came during a rough week in which i had a death in the family so i got really behind in emails that week. I plan to respond to the rest of the emails this weekend. (I want to use every willing participant and was already brainstorming a second series)

In deciding which questions, I asked ten asexual people to give suggestions. Ultimately, i chose four from their suggestions. In putting the answers together for the series i realized a lot of the questions were sex/dating base. That is an error i reflect on in my op-ed over the learning experience scheduled for this Friday.

If anyone has concerns over the series i would love to know about them. I tried very hard to reflect the answers i received in the intros and give as much space to the answers as possible. I look forward to learning both from curating this series and from the criticisms i receive.

You can now read the promised op-ed.

Since he is open to receiving direct feedback—and that is truly rare!—I’m responding here. I hope that this response is not only useful to Cruz, but also useful to any other prospective writer of articles about asexuality as well.

It’s good that Cruz at least reached out to some aces to help curate questions for these articles. Featuring asexuals’ words is a great idea, and it contrasts very favorably with other journalists’ treatment of their asexual subjects. Some journalists don’t even do so much as get permission before quoting asexuals, and link to their personal blogs without considering the very serious harm that could result. (I have had that happen to me, too—though fortunately in my case the article was not so widely read.) So I’m glad that Cruz is actually asking aces to respond directly, and featuring their own words! And I’m glad that he says he is interested in listening and learning from this.

The problem is, it’s not enough to just get ten asexuals to help generate questions like this. It matters which ten asexuals you ask. Not all of us have the same concerns, and we focus on different things when doing visibility work. The balance of these concerns is often off even within our own community, and tends to swing back and forth in a never-ending cycle. So trying to include both sides without erasing anyone is important.

There’s a reason that a study with a sample size of ten would rightfully be ridiculed; ten is not nearly enough to guarantee that you won’t happen to get ten people who are all very similar. Selection bias is very much a thing, and I suspect it may have been at play here.

Of course, I am not actually suggesting that Cruz needed to ask a very large number of people for input on questions. An article series like this isn’t an academic study and shouldn’t require a large sample size—the focus should be on quality rather than quantity—but journalists should be taking measures to create as diverse a range of perspectives as possible. So what would have been better, I think, would be to carefully make sure that the ten ace advisors bring different viewpoints to the table.

That means specifically seeking out aces with different perspectives like:

  • Asexual people of color—the media has a bad habit of representing asexuality as a “white thing” (and on the internet, everyone assumes you are white unless otherwise stated)
  • Asexual people with a range of attitudes and experiences towards sex—neither only celibate/sex-repulsed aces nor only aces who have sex; the latter appears fetishistic while the former plays into the conflation of asexuality and celibacy
  • Asexual people who are aromantic, happily single
  • Asexual people who are survivors of trauma, including CSA and corrective rape—but keep in mind that ace survivors are very diverse as well! There is not one single “ace survivor experience.”
  • Asexual people who are older, or have kids—these perspectives are more difficult to find and thus frequently ignored
  • People who are on different points on the asexual spectrum—demisexuals, gray-A’s, etc. all need visibility too

The list could go on, but I’ll leave it at that—Laura already covered some other points. My point is, you probably won’t be able to benefit from diverse perspectives unless you intentionally try to find them.

This kind of article has a lot in common with putting together a panel dicsussion. You don’t want too many voices, because that would be overwhelming, but you want to have voices that are different enough from one another to present a suggestion of all the many ways that it’s possible to be ace. Here’s what Stephanie Zvan had to say about creating a diverse panel:

Not only does this help keep you from accidental discrimination, but it makes for more interesting and informative discussion. Talking in generalizations is easy, but it doesn’t advance anyone’s understanding. Different perspectives make for more disagreement, particularly of the kind that result in nuanced statements and deeper understanding.There are many ways to think of diversity in this context: academic vs. experiential knowledge of a topic, regional or national background, age/generation, academic or other occupational specialty, volunteer vs. paid work, size of organization, confrontational vs. collaborational approach to activism–all in addition to the differences we typically think of when we talk about being inclusive.

Note the part about accidental discrimination; I think that was a big part of what happened here.

Choosing respondents on a first-come first-serve basis will necessarily favor those respondents who are immediately available to respond… and that will probably be heavily influenced by privilege. People who have mental illnesses, deal with intersecting oppressions leaving them with less energy, economic difficulties leaving them with little free time outside of work, or those taking care of children on top of everything else, will be much more likely to be slower to respond—if they even see the call for participants in time at all.

And as we’ve seen here, people who have been victimized for being asexual may not feel safe enough to respond at all.

If at all possible, if someone expresses discomfort with the questions you’re asking due to being a survivor of a corrective assault, I think it should be a priority to respond to that and ask what they would be more comfortable talking about instead.

I don’t know what Cruz’s time frame for getting this article out there was like—maybe it truly wasn’t possible to course-correct because of the way that things worked out in his personal life (and I offer my condolences on the death of his family member). But if that’s the case, then the whole thing must have been really rushed, without anywhere near enough thought or research put into the article. It was clearly a much larger undertaking than Cruz had planned for.

I think it would have been preferable to postpone the series until a time when Cruz would have actually had time to re-evaluate (and correctly fact-check), instead of running it with such glaring problems. It is not okay to let your work suffer this way because something has happened in your personal life, when what you are doing could have very negative effects on a huge number of people. Take the time off that you need, or at least take time to run something that you have experiential knowledge of in the meantime. Take care of your personal life, take care of yourself, and then come back to it when you can manage it better.

We should matter enough to you that you are willing to give us that much consideration.

There are already so many barriers to ace survivors being represented—safety, suppression of our perspectives from within the ace community, the idea that it’s not okay for us to do visibility work because people will just say we aren’t really asexual.

Coincidentally, you know what else was going on this week? Another round of arguments on Tumblr about whether asexuals are “oppressed enough” to be counted as queer or included in LGBT+ communities—with survivors used as a rhetorical trump card. It is very, very hard on survivors to be put in that position—it invites people to question our experiences or view us as in some way opposed to other LGBT survivors. As if we have claimed that our experiences are worse, or theirs don’t exist. As a result many of us will not be willing to talk about things like that. These Opression Olympic death-matches are always looming on the horizon, poised to break out at any moment. In that kind of context it’s very reasonable to avoid answering any questions where we’d have to put ourselves on the line.

Also, just because a person is asexual does not mean that they are correct. Sometimes asexuals perpetuate myths, incorrectly define terms (see: sex-positive, which one person used incorrectly in the article), or engage in wild speculation about survivors that only harms us further. So when running an article like this, it’s important to fact-check each person’s comments.

That means you really can’t rush it!

I think it’s important to take all of that into consideration. It’s likely that for many of us who are asexual-spectrum survivors of sexual violence, there may inherently be an element of discomfort with participating in something like this, but there are ways to approach the topic that are less likely to make us balk. The most important thing is to listen to us, respect our decision to talk or not talk, and try to find out what we want to talk about, what will make us more comfortable, and feel the most safe.

I want all of that consideration to be extended to all aces, all of the time. I want it to become standard. But for so long, with journalists it has felt like we’re just begging for scraps of vaguely positive attention. It shouldn’t be too much to ask that journalists ask permission before quoting us and make sure they don’t write about us in a way that threatens our safety. It shouldn’t be too much to ask that journalists try their best not to perpetuate the further marginalization of minorities within the ace community, or present asexuality in a way that feels like our sex lives are the only thing anyone could ever be interested in. It shouldn’t be too much to ask that journalists actually do research before writing articles, and make efforts to correct inaccuracies.

All of those should be default expectations, and a measure of journalistic integrity.

Our expectations of journalists have been way too low. We shouldn’t have to beg for scraps. Let’s raise the standard.

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth is a 30-something asexual woman who is often mistaken for a lesbian, due to the fact that she is partnered to a lady. She is actually bi (but not biromantic) and somewhere on the aromantic spectrum. She is formally trained in creative writing with a focus on non-fiction and poetry, and maintains a blog called Prismatic Entanglements, where she mostly writes long-winded personal essays and social criticism. In her spare time, she enjoys being cat furniture, coming up with new Pokemon strategies and never going to church.
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26 Responses to Asexuality in the Media: Towards Diverse Representation

  1. Excellent post. I agree that Eliel should have postponed the piece (assuming this was possible given his deadlines from the publication) rather than do a rushed, shoddy job. I was surprised by what he said and I hope he’s learned from this to be less careless in the future.

    I had seen his call for interview subjects earlier on and considered taking part but wasn’t sure how much personal exposure it would entail and I ultimately decided I wanted to focus on my project of increasing asexual representation in Muslim spaces rather than seeking out a general audience.

  2. DG Arf says:

    I was soooo disappointed by the total lack of demisexuals! Not one single demisexual! I feel like that’s pretty basic, but probs a result of it being rushed and not researched well, as you suggested.

  3. Mikayla says:

    I asked him why he had completely ignored aro aces in the series. His response was that he did the series to learn and didn’t know that aro aces were a thing.

    If he didn’t do enough research to come across romantic orientations, I’m not surprised the series turned out the way it did. We definitely need higher standards.

    • Coyote says:

      GOOD GRIEF. How do you set out to learn about asexuality and not even encounter the concept of aromanticism?

    • Elizabeth says:

      Wow. I hadn’t seen that, and I kept thinking “maybe I’m being a little bit too harsh?” but I guess I was being too charitable. :/

      • Sciatrix says:

        ……..seriously! *jawdrop* It’s one thing to not know much and to try to learn, but before you share your learnings you should make sure you have at least a minimal grasp of the material.

    • DG Arf says:

      That is odd, because some of the respondents were gray aro or demiro.

      • Elizabeth says:

        In the 3rd article, there was this line:

        “Asexuals can be biromantic, heteroromantic, homoromantic, or a variety of labels that identify where their attractions fall on the spectrum.”

        So, I think what happened is that he didn’t understand the labels and threw them all together in a “whatever that means” pile.

        • I also noticed this:

          “and others are sex-repulsed (a term among asexuals meaning they do not have sex)”

          I’m now suspecting he doesn’t understand that label either.

          • Tristifere says:

            … it’s really odd that he doesn’t know what aromanticism is if he did his research on asexuality. Also noticed the sex-repulsed definition. Odd. And on top of that, he defines asexuality a few times as “a lack of sex drive” in the asexuality vs. celibacy installment. Which is … no. There’s a difference between sexual attraction and sex drive/libido. And that difference is important for plenty of reasons (primarily for confused questioning people with a libido).

            I think his idea was great (to do a stories series like he did with bisexuality), but I don’t think he fully realised what it means to do a series on an orientation he knew nothing about vs. writing about bisexuality: an orientation and community he has personal experience with.

  4. Siggy says:

    While this post is focused on the role of journalist as curator, my immediate reaction (which may or may not be correct) upon reading the articles is to blame the ace respondents for saying so many wrong things. Nearly every other answer says something to the effect of “Asexuals CAN have romantic relationships,” or “Asexual CAN have sexual relationships.”

    When you say that asexuals can do this or can do that, what people think you mean is that this is within the reasonable realm of possibility for each and every asexual. I know you’re used to everyone equating asexuality and aromanticism, but that doesn’t mean people actually have an understanding of aromanticism, it means they’re just generally ignorant.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Very good point! I hope other aces will listen. I think it’s something that you tend to learn with time that you need to be careful about, but when you first start doing asexual visibility it’s easy to make that mistake.

      It may have been the case that a first-come first-served method selected for people who are newer at activism and thus didn’t realize how much careful wording it really requires. Between that and the journalist essentially asking about their specific, personal annoyances about what people don’t understand… Without being able to see the whole picture, you’d have to trust the journalist to carefully check all the answers and put it all together in a balanced way. But he didn’t do enough research to be able to do that, and… well, apparently thought a biased questionnaire would be a substitute for research.

    • I think this is a good point. The evidence seems clear that Cruz didn’t bother to do due diligence before he put together the series, but ace communities also have a responsibility in how we present ourselves to others and which voices *we* promote and share within our own spaces.

      “I know you’re used to everyone equating asexuality and aromanticism, but that doesn’t mean people actually have an understanding of aromanticism, it means they’re just generally ignorant.” THIS.

    • Tristifere says:

      I think that trap is easy to fall into, especially for people new(er) to activism and speaking to the media. Though I also think that the kinds of questions asked aren’t that well suited for this format. If you want a balanced view of how asexuals and relationships mesh, from an ace-representation perspective, we’d be better served with a well-balanced article or interview with a seasoned ace activist who knows their way around the sensitive issues. So you’d get nuanced texts like you have floating around the 201 and 301 discussion bubbles and also in the book of Swankivy.

      The only question I thought particularly suitable for the format that was chosen (multiple people responding to one question), was the one on LGBT+ inclusion. I really liked how the answers reflected diverse personal experiences of aces in the community: the feelings of inclusion, exclusion or doubt. The important thing is: that was the question which asked a personal question, whereas the other questions were more general ace 101 stuff … You don’t really need 21 answers to what the difference is between celibacy and asexuality.

      • Yeah, I thought the LGBTQ inclusion one was the strongest. The one on misconceptions was OK, and it’s also a question he asked for #27BiStories so I see why he included it here. The idea for the series is great in theory but was almost fatally flawed in execution, which is really too bad.

  5. ryyuutan says:

    have you send or link or share this post with Eliel Cruz? or if you haven’t, do you have a plan to do that?

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