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.
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.