asexuality

Normalizing Difference: Redefining Asexuality

[5 minute read]

The problem with asexuality, as I’ve discussed before, is that it is hard to talk about on its own terms — even in a grammatical sense.

For example: If you’re homosexual, you can say, “I’m sexually attracted to people of my same gender.” If you’re pansexual, you can say, “I’m sexually attracted to all genders.”

These are positive constructions: I do experience attraction to x. But if you’re asexual, the sentence structure use is a negative construction: “I don’t experience sexual attraction.” Etymologically, it’s a negative identity: it literally means not-sexual. I’m not-something. This is Parmenides’ dilemma: the Greek philosopher’s famous poem describes how the goddess told him not to contemplate “not-being,” for it is categorically impossible to fathom that which is not. No wonder then, that asexuality is always rendered in terms of allosexuality. As we saw in journalism and in fanfic, an asexual person is always compared to an allosexual norm in order to describe the ace’s asexuality.

blogasexual1Parmenides suffering the effects of contemplating “not-being.”

But what if that weren’t the case? Asexuality obviously exists independently of allosexuality, so how might we describe it in its own terms? One scholar who has boldly gone where no Greek philosopher has gone before is Benjamin Kahan, the author of Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life. Although contemporary discourse about asexuality is careful to distinguish celibacy (the abstention from sexual behavior) from asexuality (a state of being which exists independently of sexual behavior that a person may or may not practice), Kahan uses celibacy to describe what we might otherwise call asexuality. At first, this seemed an unnecessarily confusing choice, especially since Kahan dedicates his last chapter to aromantic asexuality. But I came to realize: casting celibacy as only a religious or political choice assumes that that person would otherwise behave “normatively” sexually. Such a rhetorical move erases the very real potential that celibates do not, in fact, repress any sexual desires, but instead desire their own celibacy — perhaps in the same way that aces might desire their own asexuality.

blogasex2Desiring celibacy? Say what?

Popular images of celibates — priests and nuns, spinsters and forty-year-old virgins — represent celibacy as anti-sexual frigidity, a cover for sexual “perversity,” or the pitiful pining of total losers, but never something desirable in itself. However, Kahan argues that we’ve been approaching celibacy all wrong when we imagine it as the opposite of sexuality. Asexuality, when its existence is recognized, has at least managed to be classified as one of many sexualities like bisexuality and heterosexuality, even if that classification is complicated by its etymology: not-sexuality. But celibacy, Kahan argues, is not not-sex; it is another mode of doing sex. I would argue the same is true of asexuality. By re-sexualizing nongenital attractions, we get closer to understanding asexuality as a positive construction. We might be able to answer what it is that aces want — what pleasures they’re attracted to in a nongenital sense, if not sex with other beings or objects.

blogasex3Come, let us enter together the door to new a/sexual possibilities.

This is the driving force of Kahan’s argument. His book underscores the importance of “understanding celibacy not as an absence or as a stigmatized identity but in positive terms as an attractive identity with its own desires and pleasures.”[1] If we apply the same principle to asexuality, it becomes imperative to reorient hegemonic ideas about asexuality. We must look beyond the language of lack and assumptions of asexuality’s opposition to erotonormativity, and instead locate what it is in and of itself. What does asexuality look like when it isn’t compared to another sexual orientation? What do aces want?

To answer this, I suggest looking at how Kahan grapples with answering a similar, though distinct, question: what do celibates want? When he says that celibacy is a form of sex, Kahan is careful to distinguish celibacy from kinks; although celibates (like aces) can have kinks, celibacy and asexuality are not coterminous with kinks. For Kahan, bringing nongenital attractions back into the realm of sexuality seems to mean recognizing other, asexual attractions on equal footing with what we’ve historically known to be sexual attractions — not as a substitute for or deferral from sexual attraction, but a sexual attraction because it offers the same kind of fulfillment that normative sexual attractions do. Essentially, Kahan wants us to expand the definition of what qualifies as attractive desire to include the attractions of the celibate. Specifically, Kahan writes, “rather than desiring something lacking and trying to obtain it” — for instance, desiring a sexual relationship and going for it — “the celibate desire is the reiteration of celibacy itself.”[2]

What does the celibate want? To be celibate. To maintain their celibacy, to revel in their identity. What does the ace want? I would tentatively suggest the same. Perhaps aces want to be ace.

Kahan’s argument about celibacy might not fully answer what it means to be asexual. Reiterative desire is only one kind of nongenital attraction, and there’s a possibility that pulling asexuality back into the realm of normative sexuality erodes some of its characteristic queerness. But by insisting that we consider what celibacy is on its own terms — positive terms — Kahan’s argument show us the possibility of self-definition, and positive asexuality.


[1] Benjamin A. Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 3.

[2] Ibid., 69.

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Abnormalizing Difference: Sexual Normativity in Asexual Sherlock Fanfic

[7 minute read]

(CW: discussion of sexual violence in fanfic.)

Can I tell you a secret? I knew the titular character of BBC’s Sherlock had become one of the mascots of the ace community before I even watched the show — and I defended his reputation as such before I watched it, too, as evidenced in a text conversation between myself and my best friend:

Best Friend: Omg, you have to watch Sherlock. They’re so gay.

Me: No Sherlock isn’t! He’s supposed to be asexual!

Judging by the events of series four (spoiler alert), we both might have been a little optimistically defensive of our interpretations of Sherlock’s sexuality; but I think I was justified in my devotion to Sherlock-as-ace. Until Archie’s Jughead last year, and Bojack Horseman’s Todd this year, aces had no authentic canonical representations of themselves to turn to in popular fictional media (let alone celebrities).[1] So we appropriated other characters for ourselves. No other fictional character had given voice to the experiences I considered uniquely ace quite like Sherlock did: his quick jump to defend himself from what he perceived as John’s eventual sexual advances by claiming “I’m married to my work” (“A Study in Pink”); his refusal to recognize Irene’s overt sexual advances by protesting “Why would I want to have dinner if I wasn’t hungry?” (“A Scandal in Belgravia”); and his deft evasion of imaginary-John’s insistent questions about his seemingly absent sexual desires by insisting that “Nothing made me” the way that Sherlock is (“The Abominable Bride”). In my eyes, Sherlock actively distances himself from the erotonormative expectations of the people around him, like I do, and I loved him for it (platonically, of course).

fic1Asexuality is A-okay.

However, for all the refusal of normative sexuality that Sherlock performs in the BBC series, there exists a perversely normalizing trend within asexuality-themed Sherlock fanfic. When I ran out of new Sherlock episodes to watch, I found a thread on the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network’s message board, wherein users recommended ace Sherlock fanfic that they had come across. Although I would later read fics featuring other interpretations of Sherlock’s sexuality (inspiring this earlier Metathesis post), the first few Sherlock fics that I read all featured an ace Sherlock, and, in one case, an ace John. But, with one notable exception, these first few fics also featured its ace character experiencing some form of sexual harassment or violence.

In one graphic fic, Sherlock tolerates tacitly unwanted sex with John out of fear of losing his companionship. In another fic, college-aged Sherlock evades his boyfriend’s sexual contact one too many times and gets called a freak. In a more light-hearted fic, Sherlock recounts narrowly escaping losing his virginity at a brothel after his brother pressures him into visiting one. In other fics, Sherlock feels that he’s a dysfunctional human for being ace and denies himself platonic intimate contact for fear of sending mixed signals. Although these fics and those like them generally end happily or at least peacefully, with John understanding and affirming Sherlock’s asexuality, or John and Sherlock negotiating their sexual boundaries together, this upbeat ending can come only after a moment wherein erotonormativity’s current stranglehold on sexuality is reasserted — indeed, normalized.

Maybe there is something unique about the BBC series that affords the exploration of how dominant ideas about sexuality make aces vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence; for instance, I haven’t yet dug very deeply into Doctor Who’s limited selection of ace fic, but so far, I haven’t experienced the same phenomenon. Perhaps where Doctor Who institutionalizes some nonsexual companionships and allows for alternative — albeit alien, in both senses of the word — normalized ideas about human behavior, Sherlock’s long refusal to directly address Sherlock’s sexuality encourages fic writers to render Sherlock’s cryptic rejection of sexual advances as discomfort with his asexuality. Whatever the cause of this trend in Sherlock fic, it reproduces some of the narratives about asexuality that I described last week. Asexuality is, however briefly, depicted as freakish: subhuman, antisocial, pathological. Furthermore, ace Sherlock must find a way to educate his companion about his asexuality, often in terms that privilege his companion’s sexual needs and desires over his asexual needs and desires. Erotonormativity haunts these fictional narratives as much as it does real life.

fic2The show doesn’t really disabuse people of this norm, either.

Understandably, fic writers looking to positively represent asexual experiences want to show their characters contending with, and eventually overcoming struggles that are common to the ace community. These often include the threat of so-called reparative rape when erotonormativity says that everyone should want sex; the miscommunication that occurs when erotonormativity codes otherwise nonsexual gestures as sexual innuendo; and the internalized doubt and dismissal of one’s asexual desires when erotonormativity insists an allosexual partner’s sexual desires must be catered to, because asexuality is outside the norm. This is, after all, the general state of affairs aces have been told to anticipate from those who are not asexual, and art has been known to imitate life — especially when ace writers are looking for a space to test out reactions to situations and ideologies that they might face in their lives outside fiction writing.

But fanfic is, of course, fiction. Many fics already have an extremely distant relationship to both reality and the canonical source text they’re drawn from. Why not imagine a world wherein asexuality is normalized, aces don’t have to explain themselves, and their desires are privileged? I’m concerned that “asexual experience,” insofar as experiences can be generalized, is becoming characterized only in relationship to erotonormativity, perhaps in a similar way to how queerness is sometimes characterized only in opposition to heteronormativity. What would it look like to accept asexuality on its own terms? This is what I’ll be exploring the rest of this month for Metathesis.


[1] Technically USA’s Sirens featured a canonically out ace, but we’re all still applying brain bleach to erase that representation from our memories.

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.