Academic approaches to asexuality

This is my submission to the Carnival of Aces of August 2017: Asexuality and Academia, hosted this month by the blog Asexual Research.

It was also cross-posted (in Spanish) to my blog.

I’d like us to talk in this post about academic publications on asexuality, the variety of approaches they may adopt and the value they may have to the ace community.

Here’s a bit about me: Although I’m interested enough in these academic papers and research to keep a thematic bibliography about it —in Spanish and constantly updated— and help once in awhile with the Zotero group, I have maybe read about ten of those publications if that. I always check the ones in Spanish to make sure they are really talking about asexuality as a sexual identity or orientation (and not using the term to talk about celibacy, social desexualization or androgyny) and try to read at least those who are short or sound interesting.

But like, marvel with every new publication and read everything that reach my hands? Nah, not really.

In part it’s because, even though reading is my favorite thing to do, in reality it actually tends to be very hard for me, especially essays and academic literature. To read an article of say, 20 pages, may easily take me 5 or more hours. And that’s not talking about having a deep understanding of the practical and ethical implications of what was expressed, which is quite important if you’re approaching those studies as an activist ace person of any kind.

The other important part, however, is that I have a critical view on the importance given to academic research in the ace community, in comparison to the vast knowledge we have built ourselves; and on its possible positive and negative influence as a source of acknowledgment of our realities and issues within scientific and academic circles.

Sexological discourses

Let’s start with some history. In his doctoral dissertation about the development discourses in ace English-speaking communities, Andrew Hinderliter¹ includes as context a chapter on academic discourses about asexuality during the XX century (pp. 22-36). He says that, before the birth of the first ace communities at the dawn of this century, the academics —or more specifically, sexologists— had talked about “asexuality” either as pathology, as preferential celibacy, as a throw-away category, or as a sexual orientation.

As pathology

These studies present the idea as a neurosis or disorder based on lack of normal sexual desire, starting by Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s concept of “sexual anaesthesia” in 1886 and coming up to 1977, with the proposed “hypoactive sexual desire disorder” of Helen Singer Kaplan and “inhibited sexual desire disorder” of Harold Lief, which would then be incorporated in 1980 to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (aka the DSM-III).

And that’s not to mention terms like “sexual anorexia”, “anaphrodisia”, “frigidity” or “sexual anhedonia” —codes F52.0 and F52.1 of the current International Classification of Diseases by the WHO.

F52.0 Lack or loss of sexual desire (Frigidity, Hypoactive sexual desire disorder); F52.1 Sexual aversion and lack of sexual enjoyment (Sexual anhedonia)

As preferential celibacy

In her article of 1977 “Asexual and Autoerotic Women: Two Invisible Groups”, Myra Johnson focus on the experiences of women who wrote letter to magazines describing a lack of interest in sexual relations. The author opens by trying to find a way of talking about these women that wouldn’t have a religious connotation, after which she writes

There appear to be very few really appropriate words in the English language to describe the individual who, regardless of physical or emotional condition, actual sexual history, and marital status or ideological orientation, seems to prefer not to engage in sexual activity. Oppressed by consensus that they are nonexistent, these are the ‘unnoticed’ who in this article are called ‘asexual’ –by default.

As a throw-away category

The main example is the “Group X” presented by Alfred Kinsey in his reports of 1948 and 1953, defined there as

Individuals [who] do not respond erotically to either heterosexual or homosexual stimuli, and do not have overt contact with individuals of either sex in which there is evidence of any response.

This category didn’t fit with his idea of human sexuality as a continuum between heterosexuality and homosexuality (known as the Kinsey Scale), so he didn’t dedicate much writing about it, and many editions and later analysis about his reports simply omit it

As a sexual orientation

Finally, the idea of a asexuality as a (possible) sexual orientation has been present since the late 70s when Michael Storms, based on the Kinsey Scale and contemporary research on masculinity and femininity, created a bidimensional model² that considers homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality and asexuality.

M. Storms (1980) Theories of Sexual Orientation (via)

This model, however, didn’t reach the popularity of the Kinsey Scale, and Hinderliter mentions having only found it in 5 papers published before 2011.

Health sciences and Social sciences

Nowadays, asexuality tends to be studied from two approaches, that have a certain parallel to the classical nature–culture dichotomy: that of the health sciences and that of the social sciences.

In health sciences (sexology, psychiatry, psychology, neurology, etc.) the main questions tend to be:

  1. Does asexuality exists?
  2. What are the causes of asexuality?
  3. How should we deal with asexual people?

Meanwhile, in social sciences (sociology, history, journalism, gender studies, etc.) the main questions are:

  1. Who identify as asexual?
  2. What is their discourse around asexuality?
  3. What are the characteristics and issues of asexual communities?

The medical approach is useful as a way to achieve social validation and the depathologization of asexuality, which is very important but that I am really not passionate about. I position myself from the social sciences where, usually, asexuality is considered to be a very real, factible social phenomenon that deserves to be studied, not to certify it in front of the world, but to learn from it and from the constructions of society born in our communities.

That doesn’t mean that I despise all sexological studies. We definitely need more research on ace competent healthcare and how to adjust the diagnostic criteria of certain physical and mental disorders having our experiences in mind.

Nor does it mean that I believe all social sciences papers on asexuality to be bright and admirable. There’s many of them that may seem so very clever but don’t actually say anything new, and there are those around who insist in presenting asexuality as an messianic ideology that will not only end cisheteronormativity, but also the patriarchy, traditional politics and capitalism.

Squirtle diciendo Vamo a calmarno

“let’s calm down”

But even so, I’d rather read works that do not spend half their length questioning my very existence in order to appear “objective” and that, more often than not, don’t consider among their variables the many different, and often contradictory, experiences around sexuality present in the ace community.

So tell: Which approach are you interested in? What aspects of asexuality or ace communities do you think should be researched more?


¹ This is the same Hinderliter that was part of the AVEN DSM Taskforce in 2008-09 and who for years maintained the website Asexual Explorations.

² There are similar models proposed as a simplified way to explain nonbinary genders, classifying people according to their identification as women, men, both or neither. Some examples can be seen in Bidimensional models for asexuality and gender identity by Isaac and Queering gender: studying gender identity in ‘normative’ individuals [pdf] by a group of researchers from the universities of Tel-Aviv and Haifa.

About Chrysocolla Town

Chrysocolla Town (or CT for short) is a chilean nerd who posts about ace history and the spanish-language ace community at her blog, where one can also find resources on local groups and ace research. She also has a spanglish Tumblr (@chrysocollatown). She is asexual and her romantic orientation is ¯l_(ツ)_/¯. She's currently the admin of the Facebook group Asexuales Chile and manages the related Fanpage and Tumblr.
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3 Responses to Academic approaches to asexuality

  1. Pingback: Enfoques de estudio en torno a la asexualidad – Chrysocolla Town

  2. Jess says:

    One the social science side, I think I would like to see more research on the lack of ace representation (both in media and in sex ed) and the psychological effects on ace people – though I don’t know if that would cross over into the health sciences; I suppose it would depend on whether the focus was on lack of visibility in society and its effects of on the intricacies of the resulting psychological state. I think I want both. I think it would also be nice to get a more recent survey of ace people: what percentage we are of the larger population.

    • It could be an interdisciplinary study, though community psychology does it more related to social sciences compared to clinical psychology, and in my university the psychology department is part of the social sciences faculty (i’m not sure how to translate that to american english…)

      About global percentages, there have been a couple of recent surveys that have gotten around 4% of ace people, but they’re not the most representative. There was a campaign last year to include asexuality in the sexual identity question of the UK 2021 Census, but i don’t know any more info on that 😦

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