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Asexuality panel highlights emergent field

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This article was originally published on Nov. 16, 2015.

On Thursday, Nov. 12, students, faculty and staff crowded around the table in the North Lounge of the World Affairs Center for the panel
The event, sponsored by the English and Critical Identities Studies departments, featured scholars Karli June Cerankowski and Eunjung Kim, and was moderated by Megan Milks, Visiting Assistant Professor of English.

Milks and Cerankowski co-edited the anthology Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives, published in 2014 by Routledge Press as part of the publisher’s Research in Gender and Society series.

Milks started by introducing Karli June Cerankowski, who teaches in the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Stanford University. Next, they introduced Eunjung Kim, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Disability Studies at Syracuse University.

Cerankowski began by introducing the historical background of asexuality: in 2001, the online community known as the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) was created. A Yahoo group for asexuals, Haven for the Human Amoeba, formed about five months before. There are a few differences between the networks; AVEN has over 60,000 members, while Haven only has about 500. “Non-libidoists tend to dominate Haven,” she said, while AVEN has a more diverse representation of asexualities based on different attractions.

An asexual is generally considered “someone who does not experience sexual attraction,” according to AVEN. The term is sometimes shortened to “ace.” Asexuals can have any sexual orientation, and may or may not experience romantic or physical attraction.

The asexuality community gathered more media attention around 2004 and 2005, with TV specials airing on shows such as “20/20” and “The View.” However, both Cerankowski and Kim had issue with the way asexuality was framed as a “new thing,” and as a problem to “cure.”

Cerankowski pointed to the trend of putting asexualities in the “hotseat” to “batter them with questions.” Mimicking a common interview approach, she remarked sarcastically, “Do you masturbate? ‘Cause if you masturbate you must have sexual feelings and we need to figure out why you don’t express those feelings with others.” According to AVEN, some asexuals will masturbate but “feel no desire to be partnered sexually.”

She compared to this to how trans individuals are often “made into spectacle” in mainstream media. There is a similar medicalization of asexuality, as the response is to “check hormones, maybe it’s from sexual abuse, or a brain tumor.” People think there’s “something underlying it. Asexuality can’t just be what it is.” She noted a 2012 episode of House, “Better Half,” that communicated “asexuals are lying or sick.” This misrepresentation sparked a petition, called “reconsider your portrayals of asexual characters!” aimed at Fox Broadcasting Company and House producers, which gathered over 1,300 signatures.

Besides mainstream media representations, the community has grown on tumblr blogs, YouTube channels, and other online platforms. There are notable communities in USA, Canada and New Zealand. There’s also been a German radio station, and members of the Japanese asexuality community were the first in the world to march in a Pride Parade. Kim noted the increased interest in South Korea, where a celebrity has announced their asexuality. A twitter account, Asexual_bot, repeatedly posts information about asexuality, anticipating common questions and misconceptions without prompt.

Kim focuses her research on the connections between how asexual and disabled people are seen as having “abnormal bodies.” She elaborated, “It can be difficult for disabled people to identify as asexual, as there’s an assumption of asexuality as a result of prohibition of sexuality.” The wholesale rejection “erases the sexual diversity of people,” leading to a “need to fight against desexuality, as there’s a shared interest in wanting diversity to be recognized.”

When members of the disabled or asexual community insist “we are not disabled” and “we have not been traumatized,” this means “people in the [asexual or disabled] community who were abused and traumatized are silenced,” Cerankowski added.

Both scholars have experienced “prejudiced pushback” within academia, and were interested in the ways studying asexuality has implications for other disciplines and cultural ideas. Kim aimed to position her work as a “Push to challenge hierarchical and normative understanding of gender and sexuality in general.”

Cerankowski discussed asexuality’s “tension” with queer theory, from which her work has been heavily influenced. She was interested in asking questions such as, “What does understanding asexuality reveal about norms of intimacy, how we experience relationships, desire, being alone? What are stories we’re not telling or can’t tell?” she said. There has also been “resistance to the idea that asexuality is queer,” she said. “There’s a difference between queer identity and thinking about asexuality queerly.” Some asexuals have adamantly rejected a queer label, while others align themselves in queer communities.

Kim noted that some of the pushback comes from the mistaken belief that asexuality is new. She mentioned women in the feminist movement of the 1970’s wrote about not having sex as protest, or having lots of sex, other women wrote about their asexuality and being autoerotic. Another example they discussed were Boston marriages, a term used in the 19th and early 20th centuries to describe lesbian romantic and asexual relationships. She added, “You cannot simply erase that [history] and think it didn’t exist until 2001.”

Both panelists emphasized the importance of asexualities as plural, acknowledging there are a range of identities and experiences. “It’s a spectrum,” Cerankowski said. AVEN claims celibacy is a “choice,” acknowledging that (a)sexualities can change. The term “grey-A” refers to people who exist between asexuality and sexuality.

Kim noted her own “epistemological tendency” to “blur” categories. While other research might rely on clear definitions, she aims to de-essentialize, finding it important to allow for many different kinds of asexualities to exist. “It’s unusual for an identity-based movement to embrace the space in between,” she said, noting how identities often exist in dichotomies with “opposing bodies,” such as “cis or trans, gay or straight.” She has a “tendency to undo the boundaries.”

From the audience, Critical Identities Studies Teaching Fellow Professor Courtney Patterson brought up the relationship between fat studies and asexuality, and asked about how race plays into the asexual community.

Kim responded saying Ianna Owen’s work addresses racialized images of hypersexuality and asexuality and the hypersexualization of women of color, which can be used to resist asexuality.

Cerankowski also mentioned cultural differences are a factor. It might be hard for people of color to claim asexuality when there’s a different way they experience it, perhaps from living in a “culture of silence” around sexuality.

“We have a long way to go to make these spaces open to everyone,” she said. The visible asexual community tends to be predominantly white, American, and under the age of thirty. However, there are “grassroots” efforts to diversify the community, such as YouTube channels featuring asexuals of color and trans asexuals, but this representation remains outside of mainstream discourse.

Cerankowski mentioned that in media, asexuality is “still read as closeted homosexuality or code.” The “classic asexual example,” she said, was Sherlock Holmes, who is never portrayed in a sexual relationship.

More questions from the audience sparked even more routes of inquiry for the the panelists to consider, highlighting the emerging opportunities of the topic. As Milks had commented in the beginning, there has been “exciting growth, with still lots of room for growth.”

Cerankowski laughed. “Megan is being modest. Now we can say there is a field called asexuality studies. All of us up here have shaped and helped create that field.”

Editor’s note: The Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) club hosts meetings open to those who identify as asexual, aromantic, trans or questioning. If interested, please contact Sarah Hodkinson’18, hodkinsons@beloit.edu

Sources: Salon, Change, AVEN, AVENwiki, Routledge

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