Unwrapping an Enigma: Some Ideas and Pointers

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A few days ago I came across an interesting write-up of a virtual discussion between several academics titled ‘A mystery wrapped in an enigma – asexuality: a virtual discussion‘ by C.J Bishop (download here). In the form of individual responses to six questions, it explored the current state of academic research into asexuality, what’s known and unknown, and the issues likely to affect future research in this area.

Issues Differentiating Research into Asexuality from Research into Other Orientations
Three central issues were brought up in response to this question which explains a reluctance to immediately class asexuality as another orientation. The first one that any serious researcher must address is the assumption that asexuality is anything more than a label. We’ll come to that.

Hinderliter pointed out that it’s difficult to gauge the social or political impact of asexuality, given the absence of beliefs (positive or negative) held among the general population regarding it, and given asexuality is something most people aren’t aware of and therefore haven’t formed any solid opinions around.
Added to this, the ‘asexual community’ is almost exclusively Internet-based, and without a history extending beyond the last decade, so research methodologies must be different from those used for studying other minorities.
Lastly there’s the shortage of information in terms of reliable sources and academic literature, although it might just be possible to derive something by studying the psychologies of those labeling themselves asexual.

Distinguishing Between Asexuality and Hypoactive Sexual Disorder
While asexuality and hypo-active sexual desire disorder (HSDD) might superficially appear very similar, the researchers are in agreement with Bishop’s statement: ‘The easiest way researchers can disentangle asexuality from other diagnostic entities is by using the one inherent symptom in almost each and every diagnostic entity . . . that of ‘dis-tress.’
Of course, it still means we’d have to separate that distress from the alienation an asexual person might experience living in a highly sexualised society.

Researchers might have an opportunity to derive valuable information from clinical studies related to HSDD, on the off-chance that an unknown number of people were misdiagnosed, and it’s possible that academics could use that to develop criteria for what constitutes asexuality.

The next question was put forward in the following two parts.

Should Asexuality be Categorised as an Orientation?
At the very least, asexual is a label that some people use, but the ‘community’ definition of it currently lacks the characteristics and attributes that qualify it as an identity or orientation. That’s one of the problems identified by the researchers. Since I began to give serious thought to this, I’ve come to the conclusion that the ‘romantic’ labels refer to a person’s actual orientation, while asexuality simply refers to the ‘magnitude’. e.g.

Orientations

It’s a simple, elegant model. Of course, if I’m right, ‘romantic attraction‘ and ‘sexual attraction‘ are both one and the same thing. If ‘demisexuality’ did exist, it would be about half way along any of the arrows.

The researchers shared a few other ideas, one of them being asexuality as a ‘meta-category’ that exists outside the group of known orientations. Another idea is that the ‘asexual community’ is more an ideological movement or social group that exists to develop its own alternatives to society’s views on sexuality, although it seems to tailor itself to the mainstream.

How Might Asexuals Rationalise Engaging in Sexual Activity?
Maybe a loaded question, but one that most rational people would ask. The common argument goes something like this: ‘romantic attraction’ and ‘sexual attraction’ are two different things, and ‘romantic attraction’ is what motivates many self-identified asexuals to enter relationships in which sexual activity is important for maintaining them. This underlying assumption here is that ‘romantic attraction’ is different from ‘sexual attraction’, which, as I’ve explained, might not be the case.

Bishop stated that it’s hard to rationalise it without introducing the possibility of psychological or identity issues being a factor. I do get the strong impression that many are attaching too much importance to the ‘asexual’ label while trying to navigate around the fact they are sexual, and so the community definition of asexuality had to deviate from the textbook definition accordingly. An interesting line of study would be to understand why this is.

How is the Negativity Addressed to Asexuals Similar to that Expressed Against other Sexual Minorities?
Academics can only speculate in the absence of empirical evidence. While there’s anecdotal information, discrimination and prejudice against asexuals are isolated cases, and seem to happen under circumstances that are specific to the individual.
One thing they’re all in agreement on is the alleged tendency to perceive asexuals as suffering from a mental or physical disorder, and dealing with that would mean changing society’s attitudes.
Speaking from personal experience, the only prejudice I’ve encountered came from those who mistakenly thought I was gay, so I’d argue that both are indeed connected but gays have it much worse. Again this indicates the low level of awareness and understanding in society, and the presumption that everyone is motivated by sexuality.

Asexuality Research over the Next Decade
Any progress by future researchers will rely on asexuality becoming formally established and widely accepted as an identity, and so there will be efforts to determine what it means in the real world. The ‘asexual community’, being a global Internet-based thing, might also enable future researchers to gain a better understanding of its relationship to different cultures and societies, and how societies might react as it becomes normalised. Whether that does actually happen will depend on the online community somehow becoming a tangible influence that challenges society’s values.

Definitions, Interpretations and the Subtle Art of Visibility

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What passes for the asexual community is kind of like the Occupy movement at the moment, in that the mainstream knows asexuality exists, but nobody quite knows what we stand for. What prompted this post was the word that certain members of AVEN considered changing their definition of asexuality from ‘does not feel sexual attraction‘ to ‘does not feel drawn to engage in partnered sex‘. I don’t know the full details of the debate first-hand, but I’ve become very familiar with the underlying issue over the years.
AVEN, whether we like it or not, is the public face of asexuality and usually it’s first in the search results when someone goes looking for information on asexuality. Whatever is posted there will influence the way society perceives us.

What does ‘asexuality’ really mean?
Asexuality is simply the absence of sexuality, according to the Oxford American Dictionary (2012). The Oxford Dictionary of English (2012) gives the definition ‘Without sexual feelings or associations’.
Both definitions themselves are unambiguous, but none of us seem able to apply them objectively in the real world, so what they actually mean in practice depends on who you ask. Some (including myself) will say that asexuals are completely indifferent to sex, and almost never have sexual experiences. Others will say that asexuality is part of a spectrum that somehow encompasses people in normal sexual relationships. The point here is that no interpretation could really be taken as anything other than the opinion of those who subscribe to it. Everyone has a different idea of where the line is drawn (if there is one). Perhaps the only way of resolving this is to encourage all asexuals to promote their own interpretations and allow a more solid collective identity to take form over time.

Another reason I’d argue against dictating a particular interpretation is that I personally believe genuine asexuals are exceedingly rare (closer to 0.1% of the population). It’s entirely possible that most of them go through life without labeling themselves, interacting with the AVEN or Tumblr crowd or getting involved in the identity politics. At the very least they’re massively outnumbered by attention-seeking youngsters on the Internet with a need for some community that validates whatever identity they’ve adopted.
So we must be careful in how we address that, as the same need for community often becomes the scourge of political activists in the form of elitism. That need for a smaller pond to make themselves look bigger is why communities so often become factions, each faction soon dividing itself into even smaller cliques that nobody else cares about. Again, we’re better off with a decentralised but consistent identity that people could gravitate towards.

How society might eventually view asexuality
People in general seem to already have a vague idea of what asexual means, even if they do get it slightly wrong sometimes, and the prevalent view is that if something looks and sounds sexual, then it is sexual. Credibility is lost in attempting to convince them otherwise, for example by claiming that a person in a normal sexual relationship isn’t sexual.

What does the future hold? The asexual visibility campaigners have done an excellent job, getting the term itself mentioned occasionally in the press. Almost any publicity is good at this point, but if we’re trying to get society to accept asexuality as an identity, the campaigns must stand for something more tangible than a hazy interpretation. In the future I think it’ll become more commonly known that asexuality might exist, and a more conservative definition of it will propagate through society.

Grades Actually do Matter. Seriously.

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Since giving a Masters’ degree serious consideration in recent months, I’ve been hearing of the Higher Education Achivement Report thing that some nearby institutions are starting to use. It seems to have come about because Aaron Porter, the Burgess Group, a couple of vice chancellors and others have complained about how totally unfair the degree classification thing apparently is, and that most graduate schemes have drawn the line at 2:1 as a minimum entry requirement. They want to replace it somehow with something that does roughly the same thing, but in a way that doesn’t discriminate against graduates who didn’t make the grade.

Well, the world isn’t fair. If it was, young people would have decent opportunities in life without having to graduate, young people wouldn’t have to compete for internships, the minimum wage would be around £8 per hour and the unemployed wouldn’t be demonised and used as free labour for Tesco.

But anyway, what is to be done? The logical answer is to try painting those who didn’t make the grade in a better light. That’s where HEAR comes in. The Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) is basically a more detailed transcript, outlining module grades, certain activities endorsed by the Student Union not strictly related to the course, voluntary work and other things.
Except it still doesn’t really solve the original problem, firstly because Oxford and Cambridge insist on sticking with the old system, so everyone else will, and secondly because most potential employers still want to see applicants’ classification/average before even considering the finer details.
Assuming the classification system is officially scrapped, it’s a safe bet that graduates who rightfully earned a 1st or 2:1 will either continue using it regardless, or failing that, stick their average grade on their CV.

Some Advice on Performance, Grades, etc. etc.
Degree classification matters in the real world, and Aaron Porter is seriously deluded if he honestly believes otherwise. It’s usually the one thing that gets an application through a typical paper sift (with a well-written CV), and everything else is just icing on the cake. Of course, there are some half-decent vacancies out there for which grades aren’t so important.

How does one get a decent classification? The obvious answer is not to mong it through the course. The primary responsibility of an undergraduate is towards the degree programme itself, and doing whatever it takes to earn a 1st class honours. Unfortunately (and unfairly, in my opinion) that 1st can easily drop to a 2:1 for the most trivial reasons beyond the student’s control, so usually the undergraduate won’t quite make a 1st, but instead land firmly with a 2:1 because (depending on the institution) there’s a comfortable margin.
Student Union politics, internships and various other desperate attempts to improve employability are of secondary importance, and definitely aren’t worth sacrificing grades for.

There are also nuances to this system that actually work in the student’s favour. Generally lecturers and institutions will do everything within reason to ensure students get the highest possible grades, even round up percentages and decide between two weighting methods (50/50 or 66/33) if possible. Sometimes undergraduates screw up a couple of modules to the point of referral and still get a 2:1 if the grades are there to balance things out.

Choose Wisely
Another thing that matters in the real world is the choice of degree subject, as not all are equal. Where computing, engineering and the hard sciences are concerned, there are ways and means of gaining a reputation in whatever field long before graduation (publishing software, for example), which is how certain undergraduates get that ‘tap on the shoulder’. More importantly, you should be dedicated to the subject area and produce something tangible and relevant as summer projects during the three years. Projects look good on CVs and LinkedIn profiles. The dissertation also gives you a free hand to distinguish yourself by publishing a masterpiece that potential employers want to read.

Why Citations, References and Hard Data are Important

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In any online discussion related to discrimination against asexuals, there’s a good chance someone will make a point of linking to the Psychology Today article, as if it’s proof that such prejudice exists. But it’s not, and here’s why:

In this article, Dr. Gordon Hodson’s point seems to be that heterosexual people are more likely to discriminate aginst asexuals because of their orientation, and he goes further by stating
‘we uncovered strikingly strong bias against asexuals in both university and community samples’.
My main argument here is there seems no evidence whatsoever of this, since the study he’s referred to isn’t publicly available, and a search of five academic journal databases only turned up a reference to it.

The next point is Hodson assumes, as everyone else does, and as I did when starting this blog, that asexuality is an orientation. But the more I read on this, the less it seems to be the case. This is important, because asexuals aren’t a distinct identifiable group as such, especially if the majority of self-identified asexuals are in relationships. Did the people surveyed know what an asexual is? Did Hodson given them a definition, and if so, what was it?
Furthermore, and this is another important question, what constitutes prejudice?

Now, if asexuals were an identifiable group, Hodson’s reasoning would make sense. That is, those already prejudiced against any social group has an inherent dislike of ‘The Other’, or to put it another way, someone who’s prejudiced against gay people is more likely to discriminate on grounds of race. But this is also far from proven.

There were also a couple of bold statements, for example:

‘Yes, asexuals were seen as relatively cold and emotionless and unrestrained, impulsive, and less sophisticated.’
According to what, exactly?

‘“Group X” is targeted for its lack of sexual interest even more than homosexuals and bisexuals are targeted for their same-sex interests.’
Really? Society on the whole seems fairly ignorant of asexuality, and compared to hate campaigns against gays, examples of asexuals being targeted are few and far between.

Here’s the reference anyway, for anyone who might be able to obtain the paper:
MacInnis, C, & Hodson, G 2012, 'Intergroup bias toward “Group X”: Evidence of prejudice, dehumanization, avoidance, and discrimination against asexuals', Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 15, 6, pp. 725-743, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, viewed 23 April 2013.

Dreams, Innermost Thoughts and Suchlike

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Since coming out I’ve had several weird dreams, most of them vague, but weird nonetheless. In one of them I was hugging a female colleague for some reason. Something I’ve never done in real life, but it evoked a feeling.

There’s also a rarely recurring dream where I’m in a dark room with several mannequins all dressed in black. They’re inanimate but very lifelike, and sometimes there’s black electrical wiring inside them.

Last night I dreamed I was in the old forensics lab, with several colleagues, trying to convince Till Lindemann (of Rammstein) I’m not gay.

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