Let's Read! Chapter 1 of Asexuality and Sexual Normativity

Hi, everyone! Welcome to the very first official post of Let's Read Asexual Academia, a series in which I read, react to and critically discuss academic papers about asexuality. You are cordially invited to join in reading about asexuality.

Currently, the let's read is focused on Asexuality and Sexual Normativity: An Anthology.  Published in 2014, this book collects a special edition of the journal Psychology & Sexuality in 2013. (I messed up the dates in the post announcing the let's read. My apologies for that.) This post will cover some of the introduction, though its main focus is on the first essay in the anthology.

This first post is available to everyone, to give you all an idea of what to expect, but the remaining 9 papers (or chapters) of the book will only be available to patrons. I aim to have a discussion of a paper up once a week, which means we'll finish this book around mid-March.

Without further ado, let me offer you the essay! (Note: It's around 3,300 words long.)

A Discussion of “Who reports absence of sexual attraction in Britain? Evidence from national probability surveys” through the Eyes of an Asexual from the Future

One of the things you see a lot of in online discussions of asexuality (and to a lesser extent aromanticism) is a reference to a study conducted by Anthony Bogaert that concluded that about 1% of the population is asexual and, therefore, asexuality is a valid and real sexual orientation that should be acknowledged. That’s… usually also pretty much it for citing and discussing research into asexuality. At best, the assumption exists that people are aware of the study that Bogaert did: what he was looking for, how he came to those conclusions and what that means.

There is, however, more to it than that. Bogaert’s study is from 2004. I didn’t discover asexuality until around 2011 and was still exploring what that all meant for me by the time this book was published in 2013. By that time, almost a decade had passed since Bogaert first published his findings. I had no idea that there was more out there to be found, that Bogaert hadn’t conducted his own survey but analysed data from a much larger study, that other people were doing academic research based on other surveys, that they were all leading to similar conclusions insofar as the survey allowed them to draw those. I didn’t know, because no one ever mentions that these surveys and their findings exist.

I didn’t know that what is now known as the split model attraction to, at the very least, non-academic aromantics and some asexuals wasn’t just a known factor in academic research regarding asexuality, but an important part on the discussions of the limitations of the research done to date.

I didn’t know that research, repeatedly, suggests that asexuality is not, in fact, a sexual disorder that needs treatment and that researchers into asexuality may actively discourage health professionals from deciding it’s an issue. Mostly because a lot of asexual and aromantic people seeking help for something unrelated end up discovering their lack of sexual and/or romantic attraction being blamed for their issues and assumed to be causing them distress.

To date, I know of only three academic books that were published on the matter of asexuality. There are some more popscience publications, but that’s about it. You’re more likely to find individual papers. Asexuality and Sexual Normativity (edited by mark Carrigan, Kristina Gupta and Todd G. Morrison) is one of those books. It’s an anthology that collects a set of papers from a special edition of a psychology journal.

And I’ll admit that everything I’ve experienced and heard about psychology and asexuality made me step into this book wary, expecting to find myself invalidated and discussed in ways that made me tear my hair out. The introduction itself managed to make me not just interested in the chapters on asexuality and HSDD (Hypoactive sexual desire disorder) but excited to read them which isn’t a thing I’d ever say. I was dreading those and what they might say, how they might invalidate core parts of my identity. But the introduction itself already went “These are two different things”, so… I’m hopeful.

Then for this week’s discussion I read the first paper in the anthology. That’s Who reports absence of sexual attraction in Britain? Evidence from national probability surveys by Catherine R.H. Aicken, Catherine H. Mercer and Jackie A. Cassell. This paper is, in effect, a collation and summary of the qualitative research that had been done to date, so up to 2013. You shouldn’t go into it expecting an incredibly deep look at the numbers because this is an overview that only really highlights the main findings overall, where the surveys fail and the importance of more research.

Let me just say that, as a dyscalculic not-mathsy-person, I actually really enjoyed reading this paper. If I had to offer a single point of criticism on it, it’s that the paper, like the surveys it analyses, erases the spectrum of asexuality, as evidenced by its opening paragraph. The very first paragraph of the paper gives the reader the definition of asexuality used in it. That definition is “absence of sexual attraction to others”, and the researchers continue with a statement that they “recognise that this definition is contested.” I should note that the discussions about the academic definition of asexuality are somewhat broader than the discussions I’ve seen in asexual communities but both cover roughly the same gist.

Surprisingly, the paper (like the introduction) acknowledges the split attraction model in all but name and makes a distinction between ‘romantic asexuals’, ‘aromantic asexuals’ and ‘sexuals’. (I’ll be using ‘alloromantic’ or ‘allosexual’ to discuss general identity groups unless I’m referring directly to what the paper is saying.) To my knowledge the terminology here is at least somewhat outdated, but it can be explained by the concept that the split attraction model was only starting to be formed and the idea of (a)sexuality as a spectrum wasn’t as well known. The paper itself makes it clear that they’re using asexual/sexual as a binary definition, effectively if potentially unknowningly erasing the experiences of grayasexuals and demisexuals who would, according to the survey data available to the researchers, be found under ‘sexuals’ even if and even though an analysis of anecdotal experiences would make it clear that these are distinct aspects of asexuality. The use of ‘allosexual’ in favour of ‘sexual’ allows discussions of sexuality and sexual attraction to be more nuanced than they were at the time this paper was written.

The use of ‘sexual’ was, to me and my 2018 lens of asexuality and aromantic studies, very jarring and it sent me down a tangential thought of the way language, culture and how we understand the world all come about. A frequent, ah, complaint made against asexuality by ace-exclusionists is that the term ‘asexual’ is simply too new and too modern. No one was asexual before the word was coined, therefore asexuals are special snowflakes[1]. To my surprise and delight, the introduction at least acknowledges the possibility of how the language we use shape our understanding of the world around us[2]. This isn’t a concept that’s new to queer studies. Looks at the past, especially those through a queer lens, are rife with warnings that we cannot simply apply modern labels to people who didn’t have the same concepts or definitions of sexuality that we did. We know that the past didn’t view sexuality quite the same way we do nowadays and we do our best to account for that.

For all that, though, discussions about asexuality seem to be the only discussions where people try to use the absence of a modern understanding of sexuality as a reason to say this modern understanding of sexuality is therefore clearly and categorically something ‘made up’ by people who ‘want to be oppressed’. The reasoning there is something like “Because there was no concept of asexuality the way we understand it today in the past, asexuality isn’t a valid orientation”. But that type of reasoning ignores that we allow most every other queer identity the benefit of the doubt. Despite the pitfalls of assigning modern concepts to historical people, there are no shortcomings of people arguing for the fact that Sappho was a lesbian or that Jeanne d’Arc was transgender; it’s just they didn’t have words. And, listen, I’m not contesting those assertions (for one I’m not a historian; for another the arguments are pretty convincing). I’m just pointing out that the absence of modern definitions of the words we ascribe queer identities is not an issue with recognising these identities as real and valid (and historically present, linguistic issues aside) while it is an issue when it concerns asexuality. I doubt this anthology of papers will offer me a look into that, but boy do I ever want one and I hope someone’s already done or is doing research in that area. Also I would like to note that Western people-whom-we-might-now-describe-as-asexual actually did have a word they could use to describe their experiences. That word is ‘celibate’ and its existence is kind of a bane to a lot of asexual people who just repeatedly have to explain the difference and how the word does not, in fact, apply to them. Fun fact: according to the paper about a third of asexuals has or has had sex and is in a relationship, possibly with children, but then I’m getting ahead of myself.

The paper goes on to say

In the analysis, it was assumed that asexuals would respond ‘something else’, instead of heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual (Poston & Baumle, 2010). However, in order to pick responses that best fit their experience, asexuals may in fact categorise romantic relationships in which they do not necessarily feel sexual attraction, as hetero-, homo-, or bisexual, and not ‘something else’ (Brotto et al., 2010) (Aicken et al., 2013)

which, if I’m honest, annoys me spectacularly. There’s nothing wrong with this assertion, as such. It’s a statement of fact about the way that romantic asexuals may muddle the survey data. The idea here is, of course, that romantic attraction will get mistaken for sexual attraction and that a non-insignificant portion of alloromantic asexuals will answer the question of who they’re sexually attracted to by stating who they’re romantically attracted to. Since the surveys make no distinction between romantic or sexual attraction either, that means there’s a potentially significant portion of asexuals who are getting excluded from these surveys.

Some of this could have been addressed by a simple note reminding people of the existence of aromantics. It would, at the very least, have aided in acknowledging that romantic and sexual orientations are not the same thing. While academic research in 2013 evidently didn’t acknowledge the split attraction model by name, it is obviously using that model to discuss findings regarding (a)sexuality. So despite ace-exclusionists being all “Ew, that’s homophobic” about it, this is a model that academic research finds valuable enough to include in its discussions and if their beef with asexual and aromantic studies is “that’s not authentic enough”, here you go: peer-reviewed academic research is using it too and was doing so as early as 2013.

The authors then get into more detail regarding how the surveys were performed, which sent me on a tangent reading survey questions, but let’s start at the beginning. The first (well-known) research into asexuality stems from Anthony F. Bogaert’s Asexuality: Prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample from 2004, which led to the book Understanding Asexuality, published in 2012. 

Bogaert analysed the responses of the Natsal-1, which is where the oft-cited idea that 1% of the population is asexual comes from. It does not, as I’ve seen people claim, come from a survey specifically created to identify asexuality and it does not, as I’ve seen people claim, come from a sample size too small to draw any reasonable conclusions. (In any case, other independent research and further analysis of Natsal surveys largely support the original claim.) Natsal stands for “National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles” and is a survey conducted by NatCen Social Research, the largest independent social research institute in the UK. Natsal-1 refers to the first survey of this type, conducted in 1990-1991. Natsal-2 refers to the second survey of this type, conducted in 2000-2001. At the time this paper was written, Natsal-3 (2010-2011) does not appear to have been available for inclusion in the paper’s analysis.

If you’d like to know more about the Natsal-3, you can go directly to the survey’s website or you can read more about it on the NatCen website. Since the Natsal-3 offers a transcript of its revised questionnaire, I’d like to point out that the question most relevant to this analysis, that of whether someone has experienced sexual attraction, does not appear to be changed. I’d also like to note that while the Natsal-3 is pretty good at repeatedly reminding respondents how the survey interprets certain terms ‘sexual attraction’ is not part of the terms they define. The paper will point out that some asexuals may mistake romantic attraction for sexual attraction or otherwise not know how to interpret ‘sexual attraction’, so if there is to be a fourth Natsal in 2020-2021, I would urge the researchers in charge of that to offer a definition of how they define ‘sexual attraction’ in the interest of gathering more accurate data. (While I’m at it, more awareness that nonbinary people exist would be welcome to.)

At this point, the paper gets into a table of results that I just… genuinely cannot parse effectively on my own. I’m sorry. I plead dyscalculia. What I can parse, though, reveals some interested pieces of data. You’ll have to get the research and tables yourself if you want to verify what I’m about to say, but honestly the book is worth getting for this essay alone and if you’re interested in research regarding asexuality you want this essay.

Among the interesting pieces of data it reveals is that between the Natsal-1 and Natsal-2 the prevalence of ‘people who identify as never experiencing sexual attraction’ has gone down rather than up. It would be incredibly interesting to see how the Natsal-3 compares to them because of the dates of the surveys. Natsal-2 was conducted right in the year that asexuality started to gain some visibility, so you might expect the number of people identifying as ‘not interested in sex’ to go up as awareness increases. Yet Natsal-2’s numbers are down from the first survey and we’ve no idea what Natsal-3 is like in that regard. Did they go up? Did they drop further? Were they roughly the same as Natsal-2? Is asexuality less prevalent than we first assumed? How does the increased understanding of asexuality (and sexuality as a whole) as a spectrum affect these surveys? We don’t know! 

What we do know is that these survey numbers are going to be inaccurate representations of asexuality so long as they maintain the binary divide between asexual/sexual that the researchers are using and the paper never really touches on that. I bring this up largely because, as a demisexual, my experiences have an incredibly and not insignificant amount of overlap with those of asexuals. Yet, if I were to participate in a Natsal survey, my experiences would also lump me in the ‘sexual’ category even though a more detailed look at those experiences places me, quite firmly, in the ‘asexual’ category. The survey just isn’t designed to handle the inclusion of certain experiences with sexual desire, leading to miscategorisation and erasure of these experiences. The paper will acknowledge this eventually once in almost a throw-away sentence later on; I just think it needed to be a larger part of their criticism.

Another thing that these surveys uncovered is that “[a]bsence of sexual attraction was more commonly reported among respondents of Indian and Pakistani ethnic origin, who made up 12.2% men and 23.2% of women without sexual attraction (in contrast to 2.7% and 2.8% of those who experienced sexual attraction).” (Aicken et al., 2013) Yes, you’re reading that correctly. Despite the overwhelming whiteness of asexual communities, especially online, according to surveys white people do not, in fact, make up the largest group of people reporting no sexual attraction. This is where my inability to read the tables effectively was really strong because this is something that the paper will say explicitly a bit later, but what it doesn’t do (because it assumes you can read the tables effectively) is give you the numbers or a sense of the size of the difference.

I’ve already touched on the paper’s finding that asexuals can and do get into relationships and may have kids. The analysis doesn’t really go into how or why asexuals choose to this, but they do acknowledge that there are a variety of reasons and not all of them will be captures by a survey like this. In fact, when it comes to having children, “[o]ne in three men and one in five women with an absence of sexual attraction had children, in contrast to almost half of men and almost two-thirds of women with sexual attraction”.

I bring this up largely because these findings so directly contradict the stereotype of (aromantic) asexuals as robotic or dead or emotionless or, basically, in any way divorced from society. Research, actual academic research, indicates that these stereotypes are nonsense. Okay, fine, research suggests that the majority of asexuals lives their life not according to the social ideal, but my point is that this majority is a lot smaller than the stereotype would have you believe. (And even then it’s still a stereotype that isn’t really bourne out by the surveys, as we’ll see in a little bit.)

 Lastly, the research indicates that “more than half of women without sexual attraction agreed or agreed strongly to the statement [that sex is the most important part of any marriage or relationship]”. The survey takes a while to point out that there appears to be no link between this number and sexual coercion, which I think is a bit of an oversight, to put it mildly. Part of that stems from having seen the ways ace-exclusionists deal with the very concept of asexuality and coercion. (It’s basically “You weren’t coerced. Okay, maybe you were, but it wasn’t because you’re asexual. No, not even if the person doing the coercing explicitly says so. It can’t have been because you’re asexual because asexuals can’t be coerced.”) It's extremely dismissive of people's experiences, for a start. But, more than that, the paper makes no reference to the way that society exerts pressure on individuals or how deeply entrenched rape culture is in (Western) society and it doesn't allow the possibility that people are saying they weren't coerced because certain methods of coercion are so prevalent in society that they don't register that way. Better sex education, as the paper points out, would go a very long way, especially considering the fact that a lot of this societal-level coercion gets dismissed or assumed as normal and that any change to the status quo means the people challenging it are obsessed with sexuality. Which is how we get bigots telling queer people that their very existence is X-rated (yes, asexuals, even the sex-repulsed and sex-negative ones, get that too) and that including queer characters in children's media is 'sexualising children'. (It's not.) The paper, though, doesn't really acknowledge that which is one of the larger failings because it's an area that absolutely requires more research and societal awareness, especially if we want queer (of any letter in the acronym) kids to grow up safe and happy. 

After that the paper goes onto discuss some of the (potential) ramifications of research on asexuality and on asexuality research, which it would have been nice to see expanded a little bit. Aicken et al. discuss, very briefly, the way asexuality is ignored in certain areas such as law, but it spends most of its time discussing the relationship between asexuality and disorders. While it doesn’t go into detail, the paper explicitly states that asexuality was medicalised, possibly due to the its relation to disability[3], as well as noting that all the surveys to date agree that asexuality is not inherently problematic for people reporting no sexual attraction. In fact, the surveys all agree that most asexuals seem satisfied with their sex life, although some would like to have more sex. The paper further states that asexuals whose partner is pushing them to get help for their lack of sexual attraction be referred to relationship counselling rather than, say, a sexual health specialist or otherwise seeks help ‘fixing’ their sexual attraction. The paper ends by explicitly telling health professionals not to assume that a lack of sexual attraction is “problematic for the individuals who experience it” because research indicates that this assumption is wrong, and that, likewise, health professionals should not assume that someone who does not experience sexual attraction is not sexually active or incapable of pursuing romantic relationships. It would have been nice to see another note about aromanticism, because it’s very erasive of aromanticism at this point, but honestly this level of detail and nuance is miles above what I was expecting from research before 2016.

References

Aicken, Catherine   R.H., Catherine H. Mercer and Jackie A. Cassell. "Who reports absence of   sexual attraction in Britain? Evidence from national probability   surveys." Carrigan, Mark, Kristina Gupta and Todd G. Morrison. Asexuality   and Sexual Normativity: An Anthology. Routledge, 2014. Ebook.

Bogaert, A.F.   "Asexuality: Prevalence and associated factors in a national probability   sample." Journal of Sex Research 41 (2004): 279–287.

Deutscher, Guy. Through   the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.   2010. Ebook.

National Surveys   of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. 2015. Website. 3 January   2019. <http://www.natsal.ac.uk/natsal-3.aspx>.

 

[1] Another common tactic to discredit the word is to bring up negative associations with the person who coined it. They say “The person who coined ‘asexual’ is a homophobe, therefore the entire concept is homophobic and invalid”. Apparently, according to them, only the most pure and virtuous and totally unproblematic people are allowed to coin words. Or something.

[2] If you find it interesting too, Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages is a pretty nice introduction to the concept of how language and culture shape one another.

[3] And we can see this in the backlash disabled asexuals may face when trying to discuss their experiences as asexuals given the way disability has been desexualised and the way disabled people have fought hard to reclaim a sexual identity in recent years. Whether there is overlap between the ways in which allosexual disabled people lash out against asexual disabled people speaking about their experiences and the ways in which allosexual queer people lash out against asexuals is out of scope of the article and my discussion of it, but I feel it may be something worth exploring.