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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Meanwhile, in social sciences (sociology, history, journalism, gender studies, etc.) the main questions are:
- Who identify as asexual?
- What is their discourse around asexuality?
- 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.
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?
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. ↵