Let's Read! Chapter 1 of Asexualities

Hi, everyone! Welcome to Let's Read! Asexual Academic Literature, a series in which I read, react to and critically discuss academic papers about asexuality. You are cordially invited to join me in reading about asexuality (and aromanticism, though that usually consists of me shouting at researchers to include it).

Currently, the let's read is focused on Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives edited by Megan Milks and Karli June Cerankowski. Published in 2014/2013, this collection of papers is the very first publication (outside of single journal articles) exploring the way asexuality (and aromanticism!) influences scholarly fields outside of psychiatric science. Like the humanities.

For the coming months, I'll be reading and discussing a paper per week both here in essay format and on Discord as a liveread. Like with the previous book, I'm making the first post of the set available to everyone. Essay discussions are available to all Patrons and Discord livereads are available for Chocolate Fund patrons and higher ($5+), though these have no set time.

(YAY! I did get everything done before Wednesday! I was so worried. Also citing yourself feels horrendously pretentious.)

Let's Read posts: chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, chapter 4, chapter 5, chapter 6, chapter 7, chapter 8, chapter 9, chapter 10, chapter 11, chapter 12, chapter 13, chapter 14, chapter 15, chapter 16.

A Discussion of “Mismeasures of Asexual Desires” by Jacinthe Flore

As the introduction to Asexualities largely offers an overview of the papers included[1], I will be jumping directly into discussing Flore’s “Mismeasures of Asexual Desires”. Before that, though, it is important to note that Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives was actually published a year before Asexuality and Sexual Normativity and it stands as the first non-psychiatric or medical examination of asexuality published.

Flore’s paper, as the editors note, sets the stage for the other papers in the narrative, discussing in some detail the issues with studying asexuality only through clinical, psychiatric lenses. In her introduction, Flore notes that the paper’s aim is to disrupt the way that asexual discourse has appeared in psychiatric science.

The paper ties in well those in Asexuality and Sexual Normativity and, in particular, with Flore’s own “HSDD and asexuality: a question of instruments” in that volume. Readers who have read that book will, however, find little information that is actually new in Flore’s discussion in this book, which results in me feeling like I have very little to say about the text because I have said a lot of it before.

One thing that was very noticeable, however, in this paper and many of the previous papers I have read this past year is the tendency to assume that asexuality, as a concept, starts with the creation of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) in 2001 and it is a reminder of the dearth of sources we have when it comes to queer, and specifically asexual and aromantic, historical sources. While our modern understanding of asexuality and its modern visibility undoubtedly stem from the work done by David Jay and many members of AVEN, it is disingenuous, at best, to state or even assume that asexuality did not exist as a concept before that time.

Flore’s paper hints at this briefly when discussing hypersexuality where Flore says “Excess is a constant point of interest to psychiatry, and now, with the proposed “hypersexual disorder,”55 we are witnessing clear attempts to scale sexuality between excessive lack to excessive abundance.”

Here, Flore attempts to investigate how psychiatric science’s understand of hypersexuality and HSDD together create prescriptive (if impermanent) boundaries regarding what healthy sexuality ought to look like, at least according to psychiatric science. (The answer is, predictably: “coupled, heterosexual and reproductive”, a set of traits which explains why both asexuality and homosexuality have found their way into the DSM and ICD as disorders.)

The footnote is of more importance, however, as Flore uses it to point out that hypersexuality is not an unprecedented category and listing several examples of names under which hypersexuality has been referred to. Conspicuously absent from the footnote and Flore’s discussion in general is the way asexuality is also not an unprecedented category even though it was certainly a known category to scientists at the time. One of the terms Flore mentions, hyperaesthesia sexualis, has an asexual counterpart, anaesthesia sexualis. I first encountered the term in Magnus Hirschfeld’s Sappho und Sokrates where they appeared within the same passage. The term, though, does not originate with Hirshfeld, but from Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. The Psychopathy of Sex is, as the title suggests, a book about sexual pathology. In fact, it is one of the first books discussing the topic and, though it requires more research than I could do for this article, I would not be surprised to discover it is one of the foundational works causing the pathologisation of queer identities and that persistent, sometimes harmful link between queer identities and paraphilia because this book adds a third category to its sexual pathology that covers paraphilia.

My point is that, though Flore mentions scientists at the time defined the concept of hypersexuality, she neglects to mention that they also offered a definition that is strongly in line with the definition AVEN uses. Given that Flore’s paper intends to disrupt the way science presents asexuality, it seems an oversight not to acknowledge their existence.

It is an oversight that feeds directly into the idea that asexuality, as a concept, did not exist before around 2001. Again, while it is undoubtedly true that AVEN’s activism was instrumental in spreading awareness of asexuality and causing it to become worthy of studying, it is emphatically not true that this is where asexual history should start. The history of documented asexual history in psychiatric science begins, like the history of homosexuality in psychiatric science, with the 19th century scientists who pioneered our modern understanding of sexuality as a whole.

Flore’s article touches on aspects discussed in more depth in Elizabeth Stephens’ “Sex as a normalising technology: early-twentieth-century public sex education campaigns”, Peter Cryle’s “The average and the normal in nineteenth-century French medical discourse” and Caroline Warman’s “From pre-normal to abnormal: the emergence of a concept in late eighteenth-century France”, as these are all papers concerning the emergence of sexology as a field of study. Notably, Flore hints at something discussed in-depth in Stephens’ paper: the way 19th century scientists and doctors combined morality with medical description. Though Stephens’ paper does not look in detail at European sources, such as Von Krafft-Ebing, the link is clear and Stephens’ paper sheds some more light on Flore’s points about how this morality led to including asexuality (and homosexuality, though Flore is not concerned about the parallels) as a disorder and what that means for the way the DSM defines sexuality.

The discussion about hypersexuality combined with the discussion of how one should extricate asexuality from the confines of being classified as a disorder presents another question: If we are to see asexuality not as something negative (a lack), but as a full and positive aspect of humanity and if we decouple the DSM from the underpinning morality that prescribed or prescribes queer identities must be a disorder for failing to fit an idealised view of society, what does that say about the disorders themselves?

As many valid criticisms of the DSM and ICD as we can present, it does beg the question what would happen to disorders such as hypersexuality and HSDD if we were to assume that these excesses were dependent on the individual. For example: demisexuals who experience sexual attraction for the first time (or for the first time in a long time) may find that experience extremely distressing especially if they are no longer teenagers. If it is distressing enough to require seeing a therapist, such a demisexual may, in fact, benefit from research into dealing with hypersexuality because, for them and their perception of the self, this can be a genuine problem. On the flipside, an allosexual who experiences a sudden drop in their libido may also benefit from research into HSDD because this change is distressing to them.

These questions are only starting to get asked and it will be interesting to see how science treats them.

Lastly, Flore’s article reaffirms for me how important aromanticism is to the field of queer studies, and asexuality studies in general. Flore says

The mapping of asexuality against “heterosexuality,” “bisexuality,” and “homosexuality” is perpetuated by Prause and Graham and Lori Brotto and colleagues. Both projects employ forced-choice questionnaires positioning choices of “asexuality” as a sexual orientation next to the three others. This approach overlooks the fact that some of the language produced by the asexual community positions asexuality in opposition to sexual, but not necessarily in opposition to hetero, homo, and bi categories (bear in mind that this community, mostly found online, may not be representative of asexuals everywhere). Such a disconnect results in a number of discrepancies even if both sets of authors claim to be presenting research on the “lived experience” of asexual individuals.41 Notably, several of their respondents explicitly refused the term asexual to describe their “orientation.” Some used “biromatic asexual” or “homoasexual.” This highlights a disconnection between asexual experience and its figuring in sexological and psychiatric discourses.

This is as close as Flore gets to discussing the split attraction model, despite the way it is phrased. Curiously, Flore claims that several respondents refused the term ‘asexual’ to describe their orientation and yet both examples cited actually use the word asexual. What the respondents of the surveys by Prause and Graham and Brotto refused to do is not to use the term asexual for their orientation, but to allow their romantic orientation to be conflated with their sexual orientation because the difference, for them, was strong enough to require separation.

The dismissal of aromanticism and its jargon, whilst highlighting the importance when discussing asexual identities, stings the more because it is such a frequent occurrence. Flore follows this thought up later in the paper by citing several other researchers (notably Hinderliter, Przybylo and Chasin) who point out the importance of not treating sexual orientation and romantic (or affective) orientation as always being the same.

Flore says, “[w]hile the distinction between romantic and sexual attraction is one key concept in the study of asexuality, I suggest that the formulation of romantic desire bears the shadow of an object choice structure” which is a baffling statement, especially following her citations from other researchers. The full romantic and the full sexual spectrum, after all, only differ in one aspect: the type of attraction. If, as Flore claims, asexuality disrupts the idea of an object choice structure in sexuality, aromanticism ought to do the same thing. Again, the only difference between asexuality and aromanticism is the type of attraction, not the way people relate to it.

It is the more baffling because, other than that note, Flore seems well aware of the way aromanticism and asexuality disrupt our allonormative and amatonormative societies in similar ways. In fact, in the article’s conclusion, Flore explicitly calls researchers and academics to pay attention to the diversity within asexuality and asexual experiences – that is to say: acknowledge the different spectrum identities and the way asexuals and aromantics experience different forms of attraction – yet it falls short of drawing conclusions that, to me, seem utterly obvious ones to achieve Flore’s goals of disrupting existing ideas about sexuality in general.

References

Cryle, Peter.   "The average and the normal in nineteenth-century French medical   discourse." Carrigan, Mark, Kristina Gupta and Todd G. Morrison. Asexuality   and Sexual Normativity: An Anthology. Routledge, 2014. Ebook.

Flore, Jacinthe. "HSDD   and asexuality: a question of instruments." Carrigan, Mark, Kristina   Gupta and Todd G. Morrison. Asexuality and Sexual Normativity: An   Anthology. Routledge, 2014. Ebook.

Flore, Jacinthe.   "Mismeasures of Asexual Desires." Milks, Megan and Karli June Cerankowski.   Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives. Routledge, 2014. Ebook.

Hirshfeld,   Magnus. Sappho und Sokrates over wie erklärt sich die Liebe der Männer und   Frauen zu Personen des eigenes Geschlechts? Leipzig: Verlag von Max Spohr,   1896. Pamphlet.

Krafft-Ebing, Richard   Freiherr von. Psychopathia Sexualis. 1886. Book.

O'Connacht, Lynn   E. "Asexuality Has Been Around Longer than You Think: A Peek at the   History of a Concept and a Word." 4 February 2019. Little Lion   Lynnet's. Online essay. 2 April 2019.

Stephens,   Elizabeth. "Sex as a normalising technology: early-twentieth-century   public sex education campaigns." Carrigan, Mark, Kristina Gupta and Todd   G. Morrison. Asexuality and Sexual Normativity: An Anthology.   Routledge, 2014. Ebook.

Warman, Caroline.   "From pre-normal to abnormal: the emergence of a concept in late   eighteenth-century France." Carrigan, Mark, Kristina Gupta and Todd G.   Morrison. Asexuality and Sexual Normativity: An Anthology. Routledge,   2014. Ebook.

End Notes

[1] The sole exception might be for the way Cerankowski and Milks engage with criticism from asexual readers on an earlier paper by them and the tensions between writing about a marginalised group as either someone outside that group or someone in it. It is a problem similar to the one I had with several of the essays in Asexuality and Sexual Normativity.

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