I borrowed a copy of Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives, which is an anthology of scholarly articles published in 2014. Sennkestra wanted to write summaries of each chapter, but ran out of time, so now I’m doing that. For the first chapter, I selected “On the Racialization of Asexuality“, by Ianna Hawkins Owen. You might remember the author from our interview with her several years ago.
In the introduction, Owen says,
Many authors have claimed, in one way or another, that “little or no” scholarly attention has been directed to asexuality in humans prior to the twenty-first century. In response to such observations, I offer that asexuality as a concept has long been invoked in the study of race.
So what you can expect from this article, is the reinterpretation of historical images and ideas as “asexual”. Now, this is something that ace activists commonly complain about in academic approaches to asexuality: using overly broad definitions of asexuality in order to include historical examples that at best are irrelevant to the modern day, and at worst are basically stereotypes.
But this is different! Owen writes about historical stereotypes and misunderstandings of asexuality, and explicitly describes them as such. Then she shows evidence that these misunderstandings still influence reactions to asexuality today.
A history of racialized stereotypes
[cn: slavery, implied rape] Owen first writes about two “controlling images” used against black women. First, there is the jezebel, a black woman who is “erotically deviant, insatiable, and sexually savage”. This image was used to justify the use of black women as slaves, to breed more slaves, and as mistresses for their masters.
Second, there is the image of the mammy, created for slaves working in domestic settings. The mammy is typically portrayed as tame, overweight, dark, and sexually undesirable. This image made it safe for her to raise white children, while also removing the question of whether she has any desire to raise her own children. It also supposedly protected the virtue of white male masters (not that it really did). The mammy is essentially an asexual stereotype, and Ianna notes how the asexuality seems to relate more to white male desires than the black woman’s own agency.
Next, Ianna discusses asexual stereotypes among white people. These stereotypes might be more recognizable to most readers, because we talk about these stereotypes all the time, usually without acknowledging their whiteness.
The first stereotype, dated to the late 19th century, is “asexuality as ideal”. White people were expected to “struggle against” their sexual desire, and their triumph in this struggle was a sign of their superiority, and their fitness to rule other races.
The second stereotype, dated to the early 20th century, is “asexuality as reparable”. At this time, there was anxiety about the erosion of marriage which could threaten white reproduction rates. Thus there arose a new market for marriage manuals that would promote erotic desire in the context of monogamous marriages. Sex became a sort of responsibility to perpetuate the white race, and an evolutionary triumph. At the same time, white ethnic groups, who were often stereotyped as having “sexual vigor” started getting inducted into whiteness.
Stereotypes on TV
In the final segment of the paper, Owen shows evidence that these stereotypes affect how people perceive asexuals in the modern day. She investigates the first big public debut of asexuality, a series of television appearances that occurred in 2006-2007. Specifically, on The View, 20/20, Tucker Carlson, Fox News Dayside, CNN Showbiz Tonight, Montel Williams, and MTV News.
I’m going to gloss over this section, since the stereotyping that occurs should already be familiar to everyone here. The asexual interviewees emphasize that asexuality is not a form of sexual restraint, which disrupts the “asexuality as ideal” narrative. So then the TV hosts engage in the “asexuality as reparable” narrative, for example Tucker Carlson asking if asexuals are in need of therapy.
The only reaction that seems to fit neither “asexuality as reparable” nor “asexuality as ideal” is when one of the hosts on The View questions if asexuals might just be “lazy”. But in a way, that also fits, since those marriage manuals would encourage people to see sex as a form of labor.
My biggest disappointment with this article is that almost all of the asexual people interviewed by these TV shows were white. There was one exception in the MTV video, but it seemed like there wasn’t enough to analyze. The introduction built my expectation that asexual people of color would face a qualitatively different set of narratives, but the absence of data left my expectations unfulfilled.
But this should only be seen as a limitation of the present article. The intersection of race and asexuality is an area of ongoing scholarly work. Ianna Hawkins Owen just published another paper, “still, nothing: Mammy and black asexual possibility” which examines asexual narratives in Corregidora, a 1975 neo-slave narrative. If you’re interested, check it out.