Sunday, March 31, 2013

Unwrapping an enigma

This was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.

In Psychology & Sexuality‘s special issue on asexuality, there was an article called A Mystery Wrapped in an Enigma, which was basically an interview with several of the article authors.  A few people have complained that this article revealed that “many of the researchers seem wildly out of touch with actual ace communities and discourses.”

Therefore, it might be an interesting exercise to see how people actively involved in ace communities would respond to the same questions.  I’m going to answer the questions, and I invite you to answer one or more of them in the comments or on your blogs.

What motivated your initial engagement with asexuality research?

I initially started reading (a)sexuality research during the time that I was questioning the extent of my asexuality.  What I really wanted to know: how does science break down attraction into components?  AVEN had one way of breaking it down (and since this was four years ago, it was not the quite same way it’s broken down now), but I wanted a second opinion.  I didn’t get much of an answer from academic research, and perhaps it was foolish to expect one.  But I continue to be interested in academic research as a second opinion on asexual issues.

Are there issues particular to asexuality research which differentiates it from other forms of sexualities research?

I think the main difference is the community structure.  Because the community is very centralized, a lot of asexuals will have more or less the same conceptual understandings.  Because it is primarily internet-based, we transcend national boundaries (but language boundaries not so much).  Because asexual awareness is very low, there is a huge population of “potential asexuals”, people who do not identify as asexual, but who might identify under the right circumstances.  All of this has a big influence on what kind of research is feasible.

Unlike Bishop, I don’t really have a problem with classifying asexuality as sexualities research.  I wouldn’t usually use “PC” in a pejorative sense, but I think this is a case of being excessively PC.

How can researchers disentangle asexuality from diagnostic entities such as ‘hypoactive sexual desire disorder?’

There are probably some clear-cut cases, such as the happy asexual, or the person who suddenly loses their libido and is very distressed about it.  But there are always going to be some ambiguous cases.  How do we tell between lifelong HSDD, and a potential asexual who is distressed about not fitting into the norm?  I’m not convinced that there is in fact a difference, and I suspect it’s really a moral question about the best way to respond to such people.

In ambiguous cases, I would like clinicians offering the possibility of asexuality to their patients, and seeing how they react.  And I would like to see research evaluating the results of such an approach.

In a recent review article, C.J. Chasin raises several provocative questions. First, do you think asexuality should be categorised as a sexual orientation or as a meta-category akin to sexual? Second, how might asexual men and women rationalize or justify engaging in sexual activity and what are the potential consequences of doing so?

I’m with Hinderliter, in that I can’t think of any empirical difference between asexuality being a sexual orientation, and being a meta-category.  I don’t think it’s a scientific question at all.  It’s a political question.  Is it more politically beneficial to consider asexuality an orientation or as a meta-category?  I think it is better to think of it as an orientation, because: a) the parallel to LGB is educationally useful, and b) conceptualizing gray-A as half of a sexual orientation is needlessly confusing.

I think the second question is loaded.  Asking how asexual people “rationalize” engaging in sexual activity suggests that asexuals who have sex are necessarily disempowered, and they only have sex for the “wrong” reasons.  According to Aicken et al. (2013), most potential asexuals who are having sex enjoy it, suggesting that it isn’t always a kind of disempowerment.  The researchers had several good answers for why asexuals might have sex (satisfying partners, expressing intimacy, desire to reproduce), but I would add that some asexuals may also have sex for pleasure.  It would be cool to see research on the relative prevalance of these different motivations.

How is the negativity directed toward asexual individuals similar to/different from the negativity directed at other sexual minorities (e.g., gay men, lesbian women, etc.)?

There are a lot of different ways in which individuals and society express homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and ace-hate.  It’s hard to compare the different categories when each category is so varied!

There are some notable differences in the canonical forms of negativity directed at different groups.  Asexuals experience erasure and denial, whereas gay men experience bullying, and trans women experience serious violence.  These canonical forms of negativity partly reflect reality, but they also reflect back-and-forth political framing.  Bisexual erasure doesn’t get much attention, nor does the fact that bisexuals have higher rates of suicide than gay and lesbian folk.  There’s also a tendency to see these as being problems for white men, when usually minorities and women are disproportionately affected (eg).  Research is what helps us tangle out the details.

What directions do you expect asexuality research to take over the next decade?

I expect a lot of it to rehash what most people within the asexuality community already know.  Maybe years down the line they’ll “discover” gray-As and demis.  The queer and feminist theorists will “discover” that asexuals have the potential to break down romantic/non-romantic boundaries. Etc. etc.  There will probably also be a lot of research on HSDD.  And that’s all important research.

Although, what I’d like to see is more information that would be news to me.  Academic research can give us knowledge that we in the community would otherwise not have access to.  In particular, we don’t know much about potential asexuals, since by definition we don’t hang out much.  And we know very little about the relative prevalence of different experiences.