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Asexuality, the Internet, and the Changing Lexicon of Sexuality

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22.08.2019

This is an excerpt from Sexuality and Translation in World Politics. Get your free copy here.

According to the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), the largest online community and online archive on asexuality, ‘an asexual person is a person who does not experience sexual attraction’. The most inclusive definition of an asexual individual is a person who self-identifies as an asexual individual, a person who does not experience sexual attraction, not merely the lack of attraction itself (Carrigan 2011, 2012 and Chasin 2011). However, this non-experience of sexual attraction is experienced in many different ways, such as experiencing only romantic or platonic attraction, or both. AVEN defines the community’s mission is to create awareness about asexual identity. To do this, people who self-identify as asexual continue to develop language to describe the diverse modes of not experiencing sexual attraction. Both scholarly research and activism have led to emerging forms of explaining how people experience sensual, romantic, and sexual desires and attractions, such as Carrigan (2011) and Mardell (2016), explored later. These new formulations have had direct implications in several disciplines, especially psychology and queer studies. Within psychology, researchers and practitioners are at odds with the asexual community, using them to attempt to discover cures for asexuality under the guise of hyposexual (lack of sexual) desire disorder. The asexual community, in turn, resists this manipulation by engaging in research projects themselves and by developing community activism to better inform practitioners and combat harmful practices. The self-definition has permitted the community to gain validation as a sexual identity and has enabled community building to resist imposed definitions and to further educate those outside of the asexual community on best practices and available resources. On the other hand, the development of new language around asexuality is pushing queer theorists to re-examine their own assumptions, how they theorise desire and attraction, and what it means to be queer.

The struggle for recognition as a sexuality, especially within academic discourse, has material consequences. In addition to educating people who might potentially identify as asexual, information around asexuality could reach professionals who are likely to interact with asexual people, such as mental and physical health practitioners. The information about asexuality based on lived experiences must be taken seriously, and asexual individuals who participate in and create academic research need to be treated as experts of their own identities. In 2016, I presented on asexual diversity at the HumanitiesNow Conference at the University of Cincinnati. Someone in the audience asked me what is the point of creating language on asexuality and why people cannot just be instead of having to label themselves and put themselves in boxes. I am very invested in the society I am living in because I experience the material results of it, as do other asexual community members. We are told that we do not exist, that we are broken and should be fixed, that there’s a pill for that, that we need some serious psychological help. We are told that our relationships are invalid, immature, and not allowed to receive legal recognition. We are subjected to corrective rape and interpersonal violence. We commit suicide. For these reasons, it is important to have the language to articulate our experiences and find communities of support.

This chapter examines how scholarship has defined asexuality and how the usage of the internet aided the asexual community in resisting these definitions imposed upon them – as well as their material consequences. I survey the depth of language the asexual community has created for itself, including its collaboration with researchers, exploring the new ways of delineating attractions and desires. To conclude, I broaden the discussion to the potential of language around asexuality for informing queer theory.

Defining and Curing Asexuality

A variety of definitions of asexuality exists within academia. In Understanding Asexuality, one of the first and few books written on asexuality, Anthony Bogaert (2012b) explores the ‘true asexual’, that individual that has never felt sexual attraction or desire and never will. For Bogaert, this is the only way to experience asexuality, and understanding this type of asexuality, he claims, enables a better understanding of sexuality as a whole. In contrast, Mark Carrigan (2011) argues for exploring diversity within the asexual community. Recognising and understanding the commonalities and differences within asexuality ‘is a necessary starting point for research that attempts to understand and/or explain asexuality and asexuals [sic]’ (2011, 465). Some disagree. Lori Brotto and Morag Yule (2009) argue that allowing for diversity within asexuality may attract people to identify as asexual when they are actually not, especially in academic research studies. Eunjung Kim (2010) disputes this by looking at lived experiences. According to Kim, ‘many narratives of individuals demonstrate that asexuality escapes monolithic definition, simple behaviour [sic] patterns, bodily characteristics, and identities despite some researchers’ efforts to draw a clear boundary for the “condition”‘. (2010, 158). Concretely, individuals who self-identify as asexual understand themselves in a variety of ways which are not monolithic, but fluid and changing, and cannot be defined in static or rigid terms – as is the case with most identities.

In the face of definitions purported on asexual people by some researchers, Kim argues that asexuality itself escapes these boundaries and asexual people perpetuate diversity through attempts at understanding themselves. For Carrigan (2011), asexual community members transform these boundaries and definitions through their collective activity. Asexual individuals can shape the........

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