JENNIFER A. SMART │ UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Contemporary political spaces and pop culture are rife with discussions regarding the ever-broadening spectrums of sexual identity and orientation. As societal recognition of this array of identities expands, it is instinctive to form conceptual frameworks around labels such as pansexual or demisexual. Asexual is one such label which has met with misrepresentations — perpetuated in medicine, the law, and popular media — due to both the lack of a strict definition and a pervasive “sexual assumption.” This paper explores the importance of building a strong community and support network for asexual individuals, increasing psychiatric research on the orientation to dispel pathologization, and bolstering visibility for the so-called “invisible orientation” by reframing popular representations of asexuality.
The year is 1996, and newborn baby Judy nestles into her mother’s arms for the first of countless comforting embraces. Her summation of faithfully functioning organs clothed in unblemished, suede-soft skin betrays no sign of poor health. At age 7, Judy clamps her fingers tight over her eyes when Wendy kisses Peter Pan. Her parents share amused smiles and shake their heads. At 12, Judy misses school, bedridden with the stomach-churning dread of facing a friend turned suitor. You’ll grow out of it, her parents reassure her. By eleventh grade, the groping hands crowding her nightmares beg otherwise. “Jude the Prude,” classmates mutter. You just haven’t met the right person yet, her mother consoles. At 17, she looks away when Wendy kisses Peter Pan and catches a fleeting flash of sadness on her boyfriend’s face. She ignores his open palm on the armrest. When I’m an adult, I’ll understand, she tells herself. At 18, an abstinence pamphlet placed prominently in her college’s health center proclaims, “Everyone feels sexual attraction.” Almost everyone, she mentally amends. Desperate Google searches surrender swaths of sexual dysfunction and phobic diagnoses until one result catches her eye: Asexuality Visibility and Education Network. A click unleashes thousands of forum posts telling stories just like her own, enfolding her as if to say what she always wanted to hear: You’re not broken. For the almost 70,000 members of AVEN, Judy’s experiences are uncomfortably familiar. Before finding their home online, many asexual people internalize messages that they are broken or immature from intimate sources, the unfortunate consequence of systematic erasure. Building a culture less hostile towards asexuality involves forming inclusive asexual communities that fight for visibility and accurate representation in queer, academic and medical discourses.
Unlike other marginalized sexual and gender identities, asexuality fights an uphill battle against societal messages that it does not exist, or that it indicates a lack of humanity, notions which create an experience of omission for asexual people. The definition of asexuality has been a topic of considerable debate over the past 50 years because of the importance in distinguishing sexual attraction, behavior, and self-identification. The most commonly used operational definition is “a sexual orientation characterized by sexual attraction to no one” (Decker 22). The assumption that sexuality is uniform and universal has led to asexuality’s pathologization and association with sexual dysfunction despite the evidence that at least 0.75% of the American population exhibits asexual behavior, attraction, and identification (Poston & Baumle). The proclivity to view asexuality as a treatable illness extends beyond medical professionals to the non-asexual majority, making asexuals targets for disdain and prejudice. A 2012 study found participants more likely to view people not interested in sexual contact as machine-like and devoid of other traits linked with “human nature,” exposing undercurrents of unacknowledged anti-asexual prejudice in the average person (MacInnis & Hodson 729). Discourses of all types, from medical journals to popular sitcoms, perpetuate subtle misunderstandings of asexuality that indicate an underdeveloped societal conception of human psychosexual complexity. The issue of awareness not only prevents closeted asexuals from finding a community of their peers by depriving them of relevant vocabulary, but also bars academic and medical recognition by rendering potentially asexual spokespeople invisible.
The first battle in the struggle for mainstream recognition of asexuality is gaining understanding and acceptance from the queer community through the authority of respected LGBTQ organizations. The most commonly-used initialism LGBT literally stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender, but as the sexual minority movement expanded to emphasize all non-heterosexual and non-cisgender identities, a popular variant adopted the letter Q for Queer. Queer is an umbrella term which encompasses all of the marginalized orientations and genders left off of what would have become an increasingly lengthy alphabet soup. This is where asexuality comes in. Like homo- and bisexuals, “aces” constantly battle the presumption that they are heterosexual, are pressured to deny their true nature, and suffer extreme feelings of isolation while forced to endure the potentially prickly process of “coming out” to friends and family. Counterintuitively, specific educational efforts are often met by uninformed, superficial vitriol from collections of strangers, queer and otherwise, purportedly motivated by “pity” for asexual people. To many, asexuals are either squatters on LGBTQ territory, freeloading off of hard-earned political and social gains that they don’t need in order to practice their lifestyle, or repressed, sex-negative celibates. These knee-jerk reactions perpetuate erasure and debilitate the asexual political cause by preventing it from reaching LGBTQ institutions that would be natural allies if properly and uniformly educated. In order to break the cycle of misinformation, one major LGBTQ non-profit needs to blaze the frontier for reframing sexuality: GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network), an institution dedicated to eradicating sexual orientation and gender identity-based discrimination in school environments. GLSEN has the unique position of being a highly conspicuous resource for questioning youth, and can therefore use its influence to alleviate a lot of teen angst by simply introducing asexuality as a possible orientation. Asexual teens face alienating media portrayals, which paint people their age as bundles of raging hormones, and dismissive attitudes from their peers and parents, who insist that they’re late bloomers. A recurring theme in many asexual coming-of-age stories is the lapse into depression after attempts to ask questions about their sexual orientation in high-school GayStraight Alliances fail to reveal any answers. Because GLSEN works directly with local LGBTQ chapters and GSAs countrywide, they could easily distribute brochures and flyers detailing the basics of asexuality and pointing the way to online resources like AVEN and Asexual Explorations. Even inclusion on their prolific “Safe Space Campaign” posters—which currently only mention LGBT students and allies—would simultaneously spark curiosity in confused asexual students and encourage a movement of LGBTQ solidarity in their support, empowering them to come out and join the rallying cry against heteronormativity.
As important as it is for the asexual identity to be acknowledged by queer communities and discourses, the accessibility of a distinctly asexual forum facilitates necessary internal discussion and enables external academic research. The consciously asexual population’s continual growth has given rise to multiple such outcroppings on social websites like Tumblr and Reddit, but arguably the most cohesive nexus of activity is the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). Founded by college freshman David Jay in 2002, AVEN’s message boards house hotbeds of activity ranging from romantic advice request threads to active visibility projects. AVEN has developed its own culture complete with in-jokes, pride symbols, and an entirely new vernacular. Terminology like “poly-pan ace” (polyamorous panromantic asexual) draws ridicule from those unfamiliar with the separation between romantic and sexual attraction, but finding words to puzzle out models of intimacy is essential in a world of non-traditional relationships. Yet for all of its richness, AVEN’s legitimacy is anything but cemented. Methodological issues confronting academic research on asexuality—including lack of a consensus on its definition and qualitative differences between self-identified and “closeted” asexuals—have resulted in a dearth of hard evidence for its existence. The majority of investigation originates within the community from AVEN’s yearly census and a smattering of asexual-identifying scholars such as Andrew C. Hinderliter (“Methodological Issues for Studying Asexuality”) and Julia Sondra Decker (The Invisible Orientation). From the outside, this looks like a pharmaceutical company giving the thumbs-up to its own drugs without FDA oversight: possibly accurate, but hard to take seriously. Generating interest within academia starts with targeting budding graduate students in Human Sexuality Studies programs at large universities. Asexuality is a relatively unexplored frontier, an enticing notion to PhD students pressed to produce original research for Master’s theses. David Jay and other pioneering asexual researchers could appear as guest lecturers in core sexuality and queer studies courses and host open “Asexuality 101” events on-campus in order to give students insight into the ace community, filling in the inherent gaps in outdated textbooks. After presenting, they could remain on-call for the rest of the semester to advise interested students in terms of viable research topics and methods. Giving asexual advocates a voice in the classroom would go a long way to make ace students feel welcome on their campus; college life can be exhaustingly isolating for people who don’t relate to the sex-saturated culture, so removing the pressure on asexual students to explain themselves may make them feel less alien. Incorporating asexuality into collegiate curricula and increasing the number of studies on the subject will not only generate discussion about the numerous modes of attraction and whether there are normative levels of each, but may also provide basis for the de-pathologization of asexuality.
With the pressing evidence of an extensive body of research, the American Psychological Association will be forced to divorce lifelong asexuality from Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) and reform their restrictive norms of human sexuality. The most prominent source of invalidation asexuals suffer is the treatment of asexuality as a disease or disorder that demands correction. Asexual people that seek counseling for depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues often encounter insistent attempts to instead “fix” their sexual orientation. The few studies on the subject up to the present imply that lifelong absence of sexual desire is not pathological (Bogaert), but the American Psychological Association (APA), whose Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is used worldwide as a key guide for diagnosing pathologies, is largely to blame for continued clinical refusal to recognize asexuality. By the DSM-V’s guidelines, any asexual person in “distress” for reasons related to their absence of desire can be deemed mentally ill and eligible for hormone treatment with psychiatric therapy. Ironically, APA ruled Sexual Orientation Change Efforts unethical in 2007 after their task force’s review of peer-reviewed journal literature on sexual orientation revealed no abnormality in samesex attraction (APA Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation). Assuming future research continues to validate asexual identities, AVEN, LGBTQ allies, and sexuality academics have the power to petition the DSM subcommittee of the APA to change their stance on asexuality. The first step would be to revise the APA guidelines, which currently read, “sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes” (American Psychological Association 1). While explicitly exempting lesbian, gay, and bi identities from medical stigma, this categorical conception of sexuality uses Kinsey’s outdated binary model and leaves no room for asexuality. If bisexual people do not have two distinct sexual orientations, it is nonsensical to imply that asexual people do not lack one. A truly comprehensive definition should therefore logically include attraction to no sex or gender. From there, action should also be taken to make note of asexuality in the definition of HSDD in order to either expressly exclude it or warn against misconstruing it as symptomatic of sexual dysfunction. This would set up sturdy framework for the depathologization of asexuality by first encouraging therapists to acknowledge its validity, and then standardizing sexual orientation affirmation in asexual cases. Asexuals who wish to pursue therapy should not fear erasure in what is meant to be a guaranteed safe space, and an APA stamp of approval also prefaces gradual avenues into common knowledge—the ultimate achievement for asexual visibility.
Tackling problematic representation in contemporary LGBTQ, academic, and clinical contexts is vital to setting the stage for mainstream asexual recognition. That said, in the long run, attaining goals in these areas is akin to picking the low hanging fruit in terms of increasing visibility. As lofty as these discourses may seem with such a small community, the most daunting barriers to widespread acceptance lie in more popular discourses such as television and movies. The dominant culture is one of mass consumption such that the media people partake in informs their worldview, establishing norms of gender identity and sexual orientation. Even a seemingly benign weekly sitcom like The Big Bang Theory has the power to lead millions of viewers by example into unintentionally intolerant behaviors. Unlike respected institutions such as GLSEN or the APA, mass media is notoriously difficult to hold responsible for any societal damages it precipitates, especially with the limited support of a comparatively tiny online community like AVEN. Massive conglomerates have little motivation to cater to quiet, niche groups of insignificant financial consequence. However, the collective force of an expanded asexual demographic backed by allies from backgrounds in queer activism and academia alike would likely raise the stakes to make accurate representation a higher priority. Only then can asexual individuals like Judy begin to look beyond the horizon to a future where their identity is not only visible, but embraced with open arms as another healthy variation of human sexuality.
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Jennifer Smart is a 21-year-old 2D animator and documentarian based in Washington, D.C. A recent graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, she has spent two years as an editor at National Geographic Digital, and currently works at Newsy editing and creating animations for long-form digital documentaries. She has openly identified as asexual since age 13, but her (a?)romantic identity remains an enigma. You can find her various works and writings at lehenp.com. She/her pronouns.