Journal Club: A brief history of asexuality

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This month, the ace journal club discussed

“A brief history of asexuality”, Chapter 4 from “The Evolution of Online Asexual Discourse” by Andrew Hinderliter (2016). (publicly accessible)

The journal club meets once a month on Discord, using text or voice as club members prefer. We discuss a variety of academic works in ace studies, ranging from gender studies to psychology. Don’t worry about journal access, we can provide access. If you’re interested, please e-mail me at for an invite.

Our discussion notes are below the fold.

This chapter covers the history of asexuality, with the primary focus on early online asexual communities up to around 2013.

General remarks
– The chapter is part of a larger dissertation which uses corpus analysis to identify linguistic shifts in asexual discourse. Hinderliter argues that there were two major shifts, called the AVEN shift and the rise of intermediate categories.
– Hinderliter gave a talk about this work, which is partially recorded.
– This chapter is very descriptive, mostly recounting things that happened.
– Dissertations are usually not widely read among academics, which is a shame because this history is more faithful to the material than many of the other articles covered by the Journal Club.

Things not included in this history
– The data covers up to about 2013, and doesn’t include Tumblr because of the challenges in scraping the site and separating ace topics from other topics.
– So naturally, the paper doesn’t cover later developments, such as the more recent decline in popularity of Tumblr.
– It also doesn’t cover the conflicts between sex repulsed/indifferent/favorable, which was a hot topic around 2014, primarily on Tumblr. Instead, only the repulsed/indifferent dichotomy is discussed.
– While it covers many uses of asexuality in the 20th century, it doesn’t cover the usage in 2nd wave feminism, perhaps because some of the most significant examples were identified after the dissertation work was published. At the time, we only knew of the SCUM manifesto, and Breanne Fahs’ work, the latter which Hinderliter had publicly criticized.

Early ace communities
– When we hear about the history of ace communities from the early 2000s, the story is often simplified to just a few major websites and communities. This history shows how there were a lot more.
– It was interesting to see websites like the Organization For Antisexualism, whose owner made different choices on the best word to use and what it included.
– The Official Nonlibidoist Society (2003-2006) is usually brought up in ace history narratives as a symbol of asexual elitism, and almost always ignored in academic narratives. We discussed the appropriate amount of emphasis for the community. It wasn’t necessarily influential on its own, but instead illustrated a community sense of crisis around elitism.
– We remarked upon just how many of these websites and communities were basically dead-ends. Leather Spinsters seemed to have a decent amount of activity, but now nobody’s ever heard of them. Even the successful websites like AVEN and Asexuality LiveJournal appeared to be dead-ends for the first few years.
– The takeaway seems to be that the conceptual building blocks of asexuality were available for a long time, but the concept always fizzled out until the internet was there to serve as a catalyst.

Repulsed and indifferent
– Hinderliter discussed a distinction between nondesire (not desire to X) and undesire (desire to not X).
– Nondesire/undesire serves as a tool to explain the repulsed/indifferent distinction, although it’s not an exact fit. Repulsed carries a strong visceral connotation. And it doesn’t get at the way these words are used to describe trigger and trauma reactions, or how you feel about seeing sex in media.
– Although not discussed in the chapter, it’s easy to see how “desire” completes the trio, just as sex-favorable completes the repulsed/indifferent/favorable trio.
– Interestingly, Figure 5.8 shows that “sex-repulsed” didn’t take off until 2010, and it was more common to talk about “repulsed asexuals” before.

Romantic orientation
– Prior to constructions like “homoromantic”, we had constructions like “homo-asexual”, “bi-asexual”, and “hetero-asexual”. This construction peaked in 2005, replaced by the form “homo-romantic”, and finally “homoromantic” (see Figure 5.6).
– This is interesting to compare with some more modern usages of similar forms, for instance “bi-aroace”.
– Forms like “homo-asexual” may have been ambiguous if they had coexisted with gray-A, although gray-A was popularized later.
– In chapter 5, Hinderliter hypothesized that the shift may be related to increased discussion of aromanticism, since it would be strange to talk about a-asexuals.

Other terms
– The terms “libidoist” and “nonlibidoist” were extant even when this dissertation was published, but in our experience is much less common now. We speculated on that niche having been filled by aegosexuality, and debates about masturbation may have been replaced by debates about sex repulsion.
– We appreciated that the definition of Gray-A, which was taken from an AVEN pinned post, was attentive to how it’s actually used and didn’t just boil down to experiencing attraction infrequently.
– “Ace” is also used correctly as an umbrella term. Academics seem slow to adopt this one, often including the asexual spectrum in their scope, while only referring to it as “asexual”.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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3 Responses to Journal Club: A brief history of asexuality

  1. Andrew says:

    I think my dissertation is by far the most important contribution I’ve made to the study of asexuality, and my only original empirical contribution. Yet Google Scholar says it has only 4 citations, while “How is asexuality different from HSDD” has 68, and “Methodological issues” has 128. Even “Asexuality: The history of a definition” (which was self-published!) has 16.

    Partly, this is my own fault for failing to shamelessly self-promote. When it was published, I was out of academia, so there was no reason to self-promote by converting parts of it into journal articles (the asexual history parts would be hard to convert to journal articles, but I could have gotten some papers about my novel approach to excluding highly clustered words in keyword analyses). Probably the best way to get wider readership would be to convert relevant parts into a self-published e-book on Amazon, but I’ve never felt sufficiently motivated to do so.

    • Siggy says:

      I’m not sure how many academics read our journal club notes, but I hope that this raises at least some awareness of your work among scholars.

    • Coyote says:

      I think overall academics might be less inclined to cite dissertations, regardless of the quality of the work — in part because they’re very long. I agree though that there are some important contributions here that published work has yet to cover elsewhere.

      It’s kind of a problem because after all these years, we still don’t have a published journal article that actually recounts the origin of romantic orientation…. and in lieu of a better option, some scholars have resorted to citing wikis, blogposts they haven’t fully read, and worse.

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