Misrepresenting Difference: Objectifying Asexuality in Journalism

[10 minute read]

The media we consume shapes our implicit biases. It is one factor among many, but I saw it at work among my Fox News-watching relatives during the 2016 election. I saw it at work among rosary-praying priests putting my femininity on a pedestal. I saw it at work after 9/11, when I started getting spooked by Arab-looking passengers at airports — even though my family is Arab-American. The dominant popular media narratives about categories of difference like race and gender routinely reinforce stereotypes that serve the interests of dominating ideas of racism and patriarchy. But one oft-overlooked dominating idea is what asexuality scholars call allosexism or erotonormativity: the belief that everyone should experience sexual attraction.

Internet news on asexuality is scattered with clickbait articles characterizing asexuality as “controversial” in their description of the sexual orientation. After the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network’s (AVEN’s) Facebook page reposted this article, I broke my polite internet silence to express my frustration. It wasn’t so much that asexuality was “controversial”; rather, sensationalizing articles like these make asexuality controversial. When several dozen AVEN followers liked my response, I knew I had identified a common sore spot in our community: We’re sick of being a spectacle.

In her 2013 essay “Spectacular Asexuals: Media Visibility and Cultural Fetish” (139–161 here), asexuality scholar Karli June Cerankowski has written at length about how AVEN’s mission of visibility may be contributing to this “journalistic” phenomenon to our own detriment. It’s a useful argument and I recommend reading it, but here I’m more interested in how journalism does that on its own by continuing to represent asexuality from the perspective of allosexuals (that is, not aces) and/or for an allosexual audience.

With few exceptions, the 250 articles (including news, magazines, and major blog hubs indexed by Google News) that featured asexuality in 2017 generally fall into one of three categories:

  1. Asexuality 101
  2. Asexual Freakshow
  3. Asexual Representation

 

  1. “Asexuality 101” articles attempt to be a primer on the definition of asexuality as the absence of sexual attraction (although they often get this point wrong by confusing attraction with desire). Sometimes they discuss the concept of romantic orientation and how asexual relationships can look just like sexual relationships, but without the sex . This is a journalistic process of heteronormative assimilation similar to the “Love Is Love” movement that moved gays and lesbians into larger mainstream acceptance by downplaying their essential queerness.

asexual2A typical infographic supplied by AVEN.

  1. “Asexual Freakshow” articles play up the peculiarity and even the perceived perversity of asexuality. They usually attempt some of the explanatory work of Asexuality 101 articles, but frame the explanation in a way that exaggerates our alleged prudishness, or makes us the object of subtle ridicule or skepticism. These articles’ authors like to dwell on the incidence of masturbation and sexual fantasy among aces, or ask fellow allosexuals to share their shock that people can walk the planet without feeling lust.

asexual3Oh no…not the finger…

  1. “Asexual Representation” articles typically recognize a newly “out” celebrity, politician, or fictional character, or note the enduring absence of asexual figures in popular media. These articles are less likely to do the defining work of Asexuality 101. They often still explore the experiences exclusive to aces that are thus un/represented in the media (sometimes with nuance), as in the case of The Mary Sue, a pop-culture web magazine that often publishes sophisticated analyses of aces in visual media, often by ace authors. Unfortunately, articles about asexual celebrities might still frame the announcement in Asexual-Freakshow clickbait terms.

urlCheck out that URL.

Articles that don’t feature asexuality but instead mention it in passing (or list it among other subjects) don’t deviate much from the patterns I describe above. Features about Pride Month or LGBTQ resource centers do brief work in Asexuality 101; sex-ed articles addressing asexuality share a wink and a nudge with allosexuals; and pop-culture news often completely misunderstands asexuality as distinct from celibacy or gender-neutrality, or briefly reflects on the absence of ace role models.

To a degree, the abundance of Asexuality 101 articles unfortunately makes some sense. As Asexual Representation articles point out, known aces are frustratingly absent from public sight. Our A appears irregularly in the LGBT(QIAP+) acronym, and even when it does appear, it’s often appropriated to represent “ally” instead: most egregiously by American Apparel to sell bags in 2016 and by Equinox Gym to make a viral video in 2017. If allosexuals don’t know we exist, they can’t look for us, or be good allies to us; therefore, education is necessary. Even shoddy Asexuality 101 articles and the clickbait education of Asexual Freakshow articles can put information in front of people who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.[1]

asexual5That’s…that’s not how it works…

But for those of us who have already discovered we identify as ace, the endless parade of explanatory articles describing us as if we were some curious or kinky novelty dominates the conversation. These articles aren’t written for us but rather about us. Cerankowski has observed that we are made into “objects for consumption” for a voyeuristic audience (141). Perhaps because aces themselves aren’t in charge of how we’re written about or what gets published, we are continually framed as eternally new, strange, and dubious in the service of others’ entertainment; not our own.

Last year was a particularly disappointing year for the objectification of aces in the news. In the articles I surveyed in December, twenty-five of them had headlines that either asked a question (“Is It Normal to Not Want Sex?”) or promised answers (“All Of Your Questions About What It’s Like To Be Asexual Answered”), all addressed at an audience presumed to not be ace. Prominent AVEN user Siggy compiled no less than 16 pseudo-journalistic takes on a study showing that aces have sexual fantasies (though not necessarily in the same way, for the same ends, or to the same extent that allosexuals do, a fact crucially omitted from the articles); one ace Tumblr user kindly compiled these articles’ tendencies to pathologize aces’ “condition” that prevents their “turning sexual fantasy into lived reality” at the same time as they sensationalize those sexual fantasies.

asexual6“Mostly White People Laying Down,” a collage of images accompanying articles about aces’ sexual fantasies (by sound-overlord.tumblr.com)

We’re either exhibited as circus freaks: can you imagine people who don’t have sex? (Even if some aces do have sex and the article conflated attraction with libido.) Or we’re shunted into the shadows of allosexuals: they might be repressed, or really closeted gays, or actually they’re really horny just like us and goodness knows why they don’t do anything about it. (Even if “not doing anything about it” can be its own desirable ends  —  and thus we’re not repressed.) On the one hand, we’re a desirable novelty pushed into a vulnerable spotlight. On the other, our existence discomforts some allosexuals so much that they try to dissolve our existence into their own.[2]

This year’s batch of articles shows some slight improvement. There are the usual Asexuality 101 suspects like “Asexuality: Can a relationship without sex work?”; and Asexual Freakshow headlines like “13 asexual people explain what things can turn them on” and “I’m Asexual And Here’s What Sex Feels Like For Me.” But peppered among the standard objectifying fare are a thoughtful interview with the showrunners of an ace podcast; an interrogation of the absence of aces from Pride festivities; savvy coverage of a sex toy review site by and for aces, and a dating app for aces. Even the alt-right’s favorite “news” site managed to spotlight research on microaggressions toward aces without trashing aces (cached link; don’t read the comments).

By and large, though, the only news articles that didn’t attempt the voyeurism Cerankowski describes or even Asexuality 101 were Asexual Representation articles on pop-culture subjects. And 2017 has been a banner year for ace representation. The new season four of Bojack Horseman finally confirmed the asexuality of Bojack’s sidekick Todd when it featured an episode dedicated to his coming out as ace and finding an ace community. Meanwhile, television series Shadowhunters confirmed the asexuality of one of its major characters, and Emmerdale suggested that it might be headed in the same direction. Teen Vogue and Bustle both called out Riverdale for erasing Jughead’s canonical aromantic asexuality, the comic-book confirmation of which generated much excitement for aces and articles on asexuality last year.

asexual7A scene from Bojack Horseman that I never thought I’d see with my own two ace eyes.

As a scholar of textual studies, this is my glimmer of hope. Where journalism neglects to represent aces as subjects rather than objects, narrative art increasingly tries to represent our diverse subjectivities on our own terms. This kind of storytelling invites aces to be participants in an empathetic audience, rather than experience constant subjection to being involuntarily paraded for others to ogle. Not only can allosexuals learn (hopefully more fully) about aces’ varied experiences, but also, aces can receive all the affirmation and pleasure that allosexuals have in narrative depictions of their straight and queer desires. Importantly, in ace stories, aces can see how other (even fictional) aces navigate the particular social and emotional terrain of asexuality.  This is, and has long been the end goal of representation: to be on the stage instead of inside a circus ring; to be in an audience instead of being an usher who disappears into the shadows of the theater, knowing that this show isn’t for them.

This is why it is so important that media narratives represent minorities on their own terms. What magazines and news sites might call “objectivity” in reporting on minorities is often indistinguishable from “normativity,” no matter whether it appears in its patriarchal, heterosexist, racist, classist, or ableist form. By centering within popular media voices from the margins, we can dismantle the mainstream misconceptions about asexuality and other categories of difference that continually cycle through news coverage.


[1] Even as (Cerankowski argues) bad representation potentially calcifies stereotypes (140).

[2] This is a move troublingly similar to that of some gatekeeping queer people who insist aces are not really queer because we’re somehow really straight  —  but that’s another story.

Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies celibacy and the queer politics of Catholicism in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she is a freelance writer who listens to a lot of Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.

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