July 2015 Carnival of Aces Call for Submissions: Asexual History

It’s now July, and that means a new Carnival of Aces! For those of you not familiar with it, the Carnival of Aces is a recurring blogging event where we write and collect blog posts (or tumblr posts, or linkspams, or videos) on a select topic each month. You can view the masterpost of previous topics here. Last month’s topic was “Mental Health”, and you can view the submissions here. Anyone can write a post – to be featured in the carnival, just post a link to your article here in the comments or shoot me an email at sennkestra@gmail.com. Submissions are due by August 1, but if you think you might take a little longer you can just shoot me a message to let me know and I can hold a spot for you :)

This month’s topic is “Asexual History”

For all that the asexual community is a young movement compared to communities like the LGBT community, we’ve developed a lot over the last decade and a half–and I’m still amazed that it’s really been that long. To put things in perspective, there are people on AVEN now who weren’t even born yet when the site was first created. But while we talk a lot about our speculation for the future of the community, there’s still very little formal conversation about our past. As such, for this carnival, I want to talk about our history – both how we remember our past and how we record our present for future aces. Some possible ideas for this topic include:

  • What events or trends do you see as the major highlights of asexual history?
  • What have been some of the highest and lowest points in asexual history, in your view?
  • What memories of your personal experiences with “asexual history” (whether it’s five years or five months ago) would you like to share with future aces?
  • What should we be doing (if anything) to record our history?
  • Why should we as a community care about asexual history? Why should non-asexual people care about asexual history?
  • Is it possible to speak of an “asexual history” before the development of self-identified asexual communities? If so, how should we approach that kind of history?
  • Is it appropriate to speculate about the a/sexuality of individuals who lived before asexuality and sexual orientations were a well-accepted concept?
  • They say that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it – what lessons can we learn from ace communities past that are important for ace communities moving forward?
  • How can we prevent the loss of institutional memory as older members move on from our communities to other things?
  • How is asexual historiography affected by the fact that ace communities are largely internet based?
  • What unanswered questions do you have about asexual history that you would like to see addressed?
  • And, of course, anything else not on this list!
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Asexuality in SF Pride! – Listen to the official parade coverage.

Watch Listen to the official coverage of Asexuality at SF Pride! The coverage for our group starts around 5:51:00.

So, either the camera person or one of the editors screwed up so they actually never show our contingent (the group on camera when they talk about us is the Opera contingent that was behind us), but you can still hear the announcer’s coverage. You can also see the flag in the background of some of the shots if you squint really hard.

I’ll post the clips and images that I have once I get a chance to finish editing them, but in the mean time check out the other awesome pics posted here!

Transcript:

Now, often times we like to group things here in our community, L, G, B, T, but we really should expand it to LGBTQQIA, and uh …

[interrupts] but where do we stop?

…and here’s the A.

There, there’s just such diversity in the LGBTQ community.

And, I just have to say that for TV we just call it the pride parade, instead of the whole alphabet, just for time savings, but it doesn’t mean disrespect for any of those groups. We just want to be proud today, no matter what aspect you represent.

So, this is the asexual visibility and education network, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network is an organization dedicated to promoting the visibility of asexuality, grey-asexuality, and demisexuality and to furthering the creation of safe spaces and communities for ace individuals.

(I don’t recognize voices well enough to figure out which announcer is saying what, but if you know please comment and I can update that!)

We also got an award for “Fabulous Marching Contingent” later in the parade, for the second time (first was in 2012 :) )

Image courtesy Katie Felong Photography (http://katiefelongphotography.com/post/122781772864/pictures-of-the-asexuality-contingent-at-sf-pride)

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AAW is October 19th-25th, 2015

Asexual Awareness Week 2015 is October 19th-October 25th

Asexual Awareness Week 2015 is October 19th-October 25th

Asexual Awareness Week dates for 2015 have now been announced! AAW will be October 19th – October 25th.

Good timing this year because we don’t have any overlap with halloween or with ally week :)

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Asexuality SF Announcement: 2015 Ace UnConference and SF Pride Parade

Announcement: San Francisco Ace UnConference and SF Pride Parade

Link to Main Event Page

Link to Donation Page

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Arrow Ace Graphics

I had way too much fun making these graphics, so I figured I’d post them here for anyone who might be interested in using them. They’re tileable so you can make them into backgrounds and repeating patterns; if you’d like a different color or the larger official files just hit me up!

tilingaroace_blue tilingaroace_green tilingaroace_pink tilingaroace_purple tilingaroace_tan tilingaroace_yellow

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How to Get Your Ace Event on Wikipedia

In light of the recent events where an attempt to make a wikipedia page for Ace Day failed, here are some quick tips for anyone who wants to get their page up on wikipedia, from someone who has been a casual wiki editor before:

  1. Get to know wikipedia’s editor policies, and follow them. Specifically, for making an event page, you should check out these pages:
    1. Notability Guidelines for Events
    2. Identifying Reliable Sources
    3. The right way to get events you or your friends started onto Wikipedia
    4. Criteria for Speedy Deletion (aka what really not to do)
    5. Wikipedia: Your First Article (introduction to making new wikipedia pages for newbies)
    6. Contributing to Wikipedia and Wikipedia:Tutorials
  2. Consider whether your event is suitable for Wikipedia.
    1. Not every big ace event will be big enough for wikipedia. After reviewing the wikipedia notability guidelines, consider whether your event really fits.
    2. Not being notable or well-cited enough for wikipedia yet is not a bad thing. It just gives you a goal for future iterations of your event!
    3. Consider also whether you might be better served by more specific interest wikis, like the asexuality-focused AVENwiki.
  3. During the event, reach out to mainstream media and other third parties who might cover your event (to provide reliable sources).
    1. One way to make sure you will have enough reliable sources is to engage with the media and other communities outside your target audience – spread press releases and announcements far and wide
    2. Make it easy for media to cover your event: have a press-kit with things like wuotes and images and press releases that are basically pre-written sample articles.
  4. After the event, gather reliable sources that discuss your event in one place. 
    1. Don’t even bother doing any writing until you have numerous reliable sources that you can cite. If you have no citations, your entry will be deleted, no matter how important or significant the event is.
    2. Good sources for event are things like newspaper articles, radio pieces – basically anything from mainstream media (online articles and small local papers count.)
    3. Note that personal blogs, tumblr posts, etc. are not considered reliable sources. There is no point trying to argue this point with other wiki editors; it won’t work.
  5. Quality over Quantity
    1. One well cited page draft is better than 100 people leaving uncited message or comments demanding a page
    2. One citation of a mainstream new source is better than 100 citations of tumblr posts.
    3. And as a corollary to that….
  6. Have one person take point instead of staging an unorganized mass viral campaign.
    1. Ideally, this should be someone already familiar with the ins and outs of wikipedia.
    2. Having a single person take point can prevent accusations of spamming and can help coordinate everything in one place, to maintain overall quality.
    3. This person should be responsible for drafting up the actual page article that will be submitted.
  7. Don’t submit until everything is ready.
    1. Start a wiki page in your personal sandbox, or in a text editor of your choice. Make sure everything has been edited and crosschecked and cited properly before you submit it to Wikipedia proper and subject it to the scrutiny of other Wiki editors.
    2. If you submit a half-done article and it gets deleted, it will be harder to get it back than if you wait to have a better written one.
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Aliens and Asexuality: Media Representation, Queerness, and Asexual Visibility by Sarah E.S. Sinwell [Reactions]

The following is part of my series of reviews of chapters from Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives. See the review masterpost here. This section includes my reactions to this chapter – you can find the detailed chapter summary here.

Before I start, I have to admit that I have seen neither Dexter nor Mysterious skin, so I won’t actually be commenting much on that section of the paper, though I’d like to invite any readers more familiar with either of those to chime in. But anyway, here were some of my personal reactions. I’d love to hear all of yours in the comments!

1. The “aliens” in “Aliens and Asexuality” were totally not what I was expecting, and actually kind of a let down.

So, I have to admit that when I first saw the book summary, I was totally expecting this to be an article about the supposed asexuality of the Doctor in Dr. Who, and got really excited (though I’m totally biased, probably because I wrote a class paper once about asexual media representation, including doctor who, that had “Space Aliens” in the title…). But it was not to be.

Alas, the actual aliens in question were really rather disappointing – the article only actually discussed the alien connection for exactly 4 sentences towards the end of the essay, and the connection is tenuous at best: apparently asexuality is “linked” to aliens because one characters asexuality was linked to his child abuse which was linked to false memories of alien abduction which displaced the “lost time” of the abuse?

I mean, I love wordplay, and I get that “Aliens and Asexuality” is a fun bit of alliteration, but it really has nothing to do with the main 95% of this paper. (If anyone in the future wants a better alliterative title for an article on media representation, may I offer up my own “The Sick, The Space Aliens, The Sociopaths, and the Socially Inept: The othering of asexual subjects in popular television.“? Still alliterative, but it’s actually more relevent to this article than the actual title.

2. The discussion of desexualization was spot on – I’d like to see it taken even further

Sinwell’s breakdown of the role of desexualization in so-called “asexual” characters was the highlight of this chapter, and I think it’s worth repeating here:

“Asexuality has traditionally (and often stereotypically) been represented on screen in relation to desexualization. Within contemporary popular film and television, asexuality is typically represented not through whether or not the characters themselves experience sexual desire or attraction (as in AVEN’s definition of asexuality), but whether these characters are seen as sexually attractive or desirable…Characters are represented as asexual not because they do not experience sexual attraction, but because they are not sexually attractive; they are not allowed to have a sexuality because, if they were, normative codes of sexual desirability would be threatened. These representations of asexuality conflate a lack of sexual desirability with a lack of sexual desire and redefine asexuality via the desexualisation of non-normative bodies and identities.”

I think Sinwell sums up the problem of desexualization quite distinctly and accurately here – namely that many  characters (and real people too) who are sometimes called “asexual” have in fact been desexualized – that is, they’ve had their ability to decide and define their own sexuality taken away from them because it posed a threat to normativity in some way.

What I’d like to see more of though is questioning whether these desexualized characters should even be called “asexual” at all. These characters do not call themselves asexual, nor (as far as I can determine) have they ever been described as asexual in the canon. They often do not identify as having a lack of attraction, they simply don’t show any where we can see. They’re being considered examples of ‘asexual representation’ only because the author looked at their lack of sexual expression and said, “aha! asexual”. So after all that discussion about these characters have nothing to do with actual community definitions of asexuality, why are we still calling them asexual? Why not just call them desexualized?

Instead, what I’d like to see is more discussion about how, despite several existing examples of desexualized characters (whose ‘true’ or underlying sexuality may be unknown or unmentioned) who could be mistaken for asexual, finding actual asexual characters – characters who own and control and actively express sexuality that just happens to not involve sexual attraction to other genders – is much more difficult. While the details of fictional characters sexuality may not seem like a big deal, having a firmer distinction between asexuality and desexualization becomes more important when you move out of the realm of fiction into the stories of real people. Many groups throughout history have been desexualized in histories and biographies in the same way fictional characters have – disabled people, people of color, women, fat people, and more. Uncritically calling such people examples examples of ‘asexuality’ just because we don’t see overt depictions of their sexuality does them a disservice and only perpetuates misunderstandings about both asexual communities and the communities targeted by desexualization.

3. The article got off to a bad start with misunderstanding/misrepresentation of existing asexual research on the first page

Like a lot of recent entries to the field of asexual research, Sinwell seems to exhibit either a poor understanding of or a blatant disregard for accurately reporting pre-existing research on the subject. Despite an extensive discussion of influential queer studies works, she makes little reference to existing groundwork in asexual research. That’s not be a big deal, considering how little asexual research there is in the field of media studies so far, if it weren’t for the fact that the one time she does bring in outside research she egregiously misrepresents the findings*. She’s clearly not unaware of pre-existing research, considering her citations. I just wish there was better (and more accurate) consideration of asexuality and the asexual community as it actually exists, maybe instead of some of that 3 page summary of the entire field of queer theory that took up like 1/3 of the article.

4. Why was there no discussion of characters who have actually explicitly been presented as asexual?

I think one of the other big things that jumped out to me about this article was the lack of discussion of actual explicitly asexual characters (i.e. those who are explicitly described by the author or in the original media as “asexual”) as opposed to characters who could under some readings be seen as “asexual-ish”). Of the characters the author chooses to discuss, the only one that comes even close to being any kind of “explicit” asexual characterization is the character in Mysterious Skin, who is offhandedly referred to by another character as “asexual”. In the last page of her essay, she does mention that she has learned about Gerald Tippett of Shortland Street, arguable one of the first explicitly asexual characters in television, by reading the AVEN forums, but she does not comment on how that character’s existence or portrayal might affect her argument at all – it’s mostly just included as an afterthought.

Now, it’s common for authors to focus on only a handful of their favorite examples when analyzing analysis, so while I find some of her choices a little odd, I wouldn’t usually consider it major flaw – if it weren’t for the fact that when discussing counterexamples to popular media trends of ‘asexuality’, she mentions both House MD (as a show that counters the “disability=asexuality” trope by showing disabled characters as sexual beings) and Huge (as a show that breaks the “fat=asexual” stereotype by depicting fat characters as still being sexually attractive/attracted) – and yet she completely fails to acknowledge that these two shows are also some of the only shows that actually include *explicitly* asexual characters. (In Huge, the camp counselor poppy (a recurring character) comes out to another character about identifying as asexual; and House MD features a [horribly stereotyped and rather demeaning] episode with an asexual-identified couple which, while being terrible representation from an asexual point of view, is also perhaps one of the best known examples of explicit asexual representation in mainstream american media). There’s such a huge potential for some really good analysis there, so it’s a huge missed opportunity and kind of an odd omission.

This is also, I think, a part of why I’d like to see more work from researchers who are already familiar with asexual community discussion of their chosen topics. We’ve already done a lot of work on many of these subjects (like collecting examples of explicit asexuality in media, creator comments, and other useful resources) that could serve as a great bridge for researchers who are just beginning to study the topics we’ve been discussing more casually for years, instead of them just stumbling around on their own and missing what to us seems obvious.

5. The discussion of asexuality as pathology was sound, but didn’t say much that was new to me.

I think it’s good to finally have some formal academic discussion of the way asexuality in media is portrayed as abnormal, as a pathology. But as someone already involved in community conversations about media tropes, this is just bringing to mainstream academia the same things we’ve already been talking about for years. I would have liked to see more about how asexuality is not only linked to pathology (like murderous impulses or disabilities) but is actually viewed as a pathology in and of itself, even when not associated with other problems – like, for example, the way that House MD treats asexuality as a disease to be cured in and of itself. Of course, since the article didn’t really talk about any actually asexual media characters, there was never really any discussion of what treatment of explicit asexuality in and of itself looks like.

6. AVEN is not the Asexual Community, and the Asexual Community is not AVEN.

This is a more minor comment, but this article also strays a bit into the trap of assuming that AVEN is the entire asexual community, and that all asexuality is AVEN. In her conclusion, Sinwell posits that AVEN and it’s culture of blogging, podcasting, and other creative works may be the answer to the asexual representation problem – and she’s mostly right, except for the fact that AVEN is only one small part of a larger asexual community in which these trends are taking place.  She gets off to a seemingly better start by noting at the beginning of the paragraph that “other social media and blogging sites” also contribute to ‘queerly re-imagining asexuality’, but by the end of the paragraph she’s back to solely naming AVEN as the source and host of all this potential future blogging and podcasting (which especially odd when you consider that asexual blogs aren’t even hosted on AVEN). Is it so hard to just say “asexual community” instead of “AVEN community”? .

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Carnival of Aces: Some Asexual Cultural Moments You Might Have Missed

Content Warning: includes some flash gifs.

In honor of the last day of the “Asexual Culture” Carnival of Aces, today we’re going Buzzfeed style in a more light hearted post about what’s really dear to my heart: memes.

Well, memes, injokes, and other cultural moments of significance, that is, especially those from Ye Olde Days of 2011-2013 Ace Culture.

Here’s a handful of some of my personal favorite ace community memes and injokes:

#6.The AVEN welcome cake

Probably one of the first identifiable asexual symbols, the AVEN welcoming cake is one of the first things newbies used encounter when they first start exploring the asexual community, back when almost everyone went through AVEN as a first step. It’ll always hold a special place in our hearts.

#5. Asexual Armadillo, Asexual Axolotl, and Aromantic Ardvark 

Animal Memes are pretty much the most classic of classic memes, so here’s the ace and aro versions :) (Click through on the image for more)

#4. That one song about how asexuals don’t want to touch butts.

Seriously. Just listen to it. It’s a shame I don’t see this very often anymore, because it really is and always will be the best asexual song.

#3. The Official Asexual Dance

See 2:19 for the official asexual dance! This video was a classic that popped up every now and again on AVEN around the time that I joined, around 2010/2011.

Of course, all asexual dances are the best dances :)

#2. Damn my Asexual Privilege!

Gosh, we aces just have so much privilege we’re practically tripping over it! Unlike those other poor souls who can’t perform mitosis. I mean, I’m so glad that we never get erased in the media or ostracized for having a non-normative sexuality! …Oh wait.

On the other hand, we do have all the cake :D

#DAMN MY ASEXUAL PRIVILEGE

#1. The Breadriarchy

Sure, we aces love to talk about how much superior cake is, but do we ever stop to think about the effects of such blatant pastryism on other members of the baked goods? Should we be more accepting  of brownies in the cake community? Do pies need to check their “real food” privilege?

There were a lot of  divisive issues in the baked goods community back in 2011,  but I think we can all agree that the social norms that discriminate against certain baked goods just because they are “too sweet” and “not healthy” need to go.

FIGHT THE BREADRIARCHY!

And now, readers, I have a question for you: what are your favorite ace community memes or inside jokes?

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The Anatomy of an Incorrect Citation

This is about an article on asexual media representation by Sarah E. S. Sinwell which was featured in the Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives book. You can see my summary of the chapter here, and my other reactions to it are coming in a day or so.

This is a post about the importance of proper and accurate citation of sources, and how it’s possible for citations to go wrong in so many ways. This particular example was only a single sentence, but it’s a good example of a larger problem in the growing field of “asexuality studies”.

The story starts in Sinwell’s recent essay, where she starts off with what seems a fairly simple claim: “According to Anthony Bogaert, between 1% and 6% of the American population describe themselves as Asexual”. Seemed straightforward, which is why at first, I was confused – I was sure I’d read all of Bogaert’s work, how could I have missed that!

Of course, it turns out I hadn’t missed it, it was just flat out wrong – it’s an incredibly confused misinterpretation at best, or deliberate deception at worst. Even then, it took a little  bit of detective work to figure out where she was pulling that claim from, since it’s most likely from several different bits of data that have been mashed together.

The first number – the 1% part of the 1-6% estimate – seems to most likely be linked to the most famous of Anthony Bogaert’s papers (published in 2004), which found that 1% of respondents to a British national health survey stated that they did not experience sexual attraction to any gender, and could perhaps be considered asexual. But this sample comes from Britain, and had nothing to do with self identity, unlike Sinwell’s claim.

The other likely source for the 6% figure – the other half of the supposed 1-6% range –  appears to come from an informal internet poll attached to a CNN article about asexuality, in which 6% of respondents (of unknown nationality, though most were probably american) chose the “Asexual” option. This poll is mentioned in Bogaert’s 2006 paper, but it’s not actually from any study found by him. In fact, Bogaert expressly states that that number is most likely incorrect.* Casual internet polls are already an unreliable source of information in general, and the fact that the poll was linked to an article about asexuality means it likely had a pretty significant responder bias in favor of asexual people; polls like that are also completely unrandomized and absolutely cannot be used to make generalizations about the general population in the way Sinwell’s statistic is claiming to.

Then, of course, there’s the Poston & Baumle study (2010), which is listed in the bibliography but never mentioned in the actual paper, which actually did find a range of figures – from I think something like .7-6.1%  – which actually was from a national American probability sample. Unfortunately, it also defined asexuality as something like “anyone who chose “not sure” as their sexual orientation, haven’t had sex yet, or identified as anything other than heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual”, which is kind of meaningless. Despite being the closest to Sinwell’s claimed percentage range, this study had no connection to Anthony Bogaert and didn’t really look at self-identity.

The mysterious transformation then happens somewhere in Sinwell’s head, so that a British 1% figure from a national population study and a 6% figure from an American convenience sample somehow got combined into a 1-6% percentage range from a supposed American national population sample. How does that even happen? This isn’t advanced math, it’s basic statistics and a little reading comprehension. She even directly cites the Bogaert study even though, if you actually read it, it completely undermines her false statistic.

This was just one sentence in one paper, but it’s representative of a much larger problem in the field of asexual research. This kind of casual misinterpretation and misuse of statistical “findings” to make whatever claims an author wants regardless of the actual original findings is a rampant problem in current asexual research, as is the process of just making up random claims and then citing semi-related works in an attempt to pretend they are validly sourced (for example, things like citing AVEN as the source of your definition of asexual even when your definition is completely different from AVEN’s clearly stated positions, as other articles have done). Misrepresentation of research results and poor citation problems happen in all fields, but I feel like they are even more rampant in the field of asexual research, and the problem seems especially noticeable in self-identified queer and feminist approaches to ‘asexual’ research.

Part of the problem is likely the small size and relative novelty of the field of asexual research – a lot of poor quality research that would be ignored in other fields gets published and gets a lot of attention simply because there isn’t anything better out there yet. Another part of the problem is the fact that most of these articles are probably getting peer reviewed by people who know nothing about asexuality or asexual research, so things that are obviously and blatantly incorrect to someone familiar with the field may seem reasonable to an unfamiliar reviewer who doesn’t have the time/effort to spare to actually factcheck things. And in the case of some queer theory approaches to asexuality, they are often being written or reviewed by people who don’t have much knowledge of statistics either, which I suspect may make these kinds of errors even more prevalent.

I have no idea if this error or ones like it are the result of simple carelessness or outright intentional deception. But either way, it’s a problem that queer and feminist asexual research really needs to solve if it wants to be taken seriously.

===

*For reference, the original statement from Bogaert was:

when the interest of the popular press surrounding the issue of asexuality reached its height in late 2004, CNN conducted an Internet poll asking people to self-identify their sexual orientation. A sizable proportion (6%) of the nearly 110,000 respondents reported that they identify as asexual (“Study,” 2004). The point of presenting this result is not that this percentage accurately reflects the true proportion of asexuals in the population—it likely does not— but rather that a sizable minority are choosing to identify with a term that is not part of the traditional academic and clinical discourse on sexuality and sexual identity.”

Posted in asexual research | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Aliens and Asexuality: Media Representation, Queerness, and Asexual Visibility by Sarah E.S. Sinwell [Summary]

The following is part of my series of reviews of chapters from Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives. See the review masterpost here. This section includes a detailed summary, and this post contains some of my personal comments and reactions.

Content warnings for discussion of molestation/child abuse/nonconsensual sex in one of the plot descriptions below.

This week, I’m discussing Sarah Sinwell’s chapter, which focuses on asexual representation in contemporary and fictional film and television:

 “Using a Cultural Studies approach, I investigate how asexuals have been represented in contemporary (and fictional) film and television to show how asexualities have been constructed in relation to non-normative bodies and pathology. Focusing on the television drama Dexter (Showtime, 2006-2013) and the film Mysterious Skin, this paper analyzes how these representations of asexuality queer sexuality itself”

Section 1: Queering Asexuality and Situating it within Queer Theory

Sinwell begins with a brief introduction of asexuality as defined by AVEN (someone who does not experience sexual attraction), and the (factually incorrect) statement that 1%-6% of the American population identified as asexual (more on that in my next post). She then states that the ways in which the asexual community emphasizes romance over sex, and the way that it portrays asexuality as a sexual orientation/identity rather than as a pathology or a personal choice, put into question “the links between sexuality and sexual attraction, and desire, and it also challenges the meanings of intimacy, romance, sexual acts, and sexual relationships.” Therefore, Sinwell states, “Queer theory is a particularly useful tool for addressing asexuality in all it’s complexities”.

Sinwell then launches into an introduction to the concept of “Queer” as “a concept that is constantly being defined and redefined, problematized and negotiated, created and questioned“, and discusses the evolution of Queer Studies, from the more limited Gay and Lesbian studies to  an expanded concept of “Queer” that includes other non-normative sexualities like sadomasochism or public sex or even heterosexuality.

The next couple paragraphs are mostly summing up the contributions of several influential works to the rethinking of queer theory, specifically Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Eve Sedgewick’s Epistemology of the Closet, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, and Michael Warner’s “Fear of a Queer Planet”. The emergence of asexuality studies, Sinwell argues, contributes to this reimagining of queer theory by disrupting assumptions about normative sexuality, sexual identity, and identification, leading to the thesis of this chapter:

“In this chapter, I investigate the ways in which asexuality has simultaneously been made visible and misconstrued within contemporary media. I argue that contemporary media representations work to (re)create the cultural constructions of normative sexuality by mapping asexuality onto non-normative bodies and identities. By linking asexuality to fatness, disability, and nerdiness, for instance, many media representations construct asexuality in opposition to normative notions of the body, gender, and sexuality. Additionally, in Dexter and Mysterious Skin, the focus on asexuality as a pathology redraws the boundaries of asexuality in terms of the binary relationship between normal and abnormal sexualities”.

Section 2: Asexuality, Desexualization, and Media Representation

In this second section, Sinwell discusses the relationship between asexuality and desexualization:

“Asexuality has traditionally (and often stereotypically) been represented on screen in relation to desexualization. Within contemporary popular film and television, asexuality is typically represented not through whether or not the characters themselves experience sexual desire or attraction (as in AVEN’s definition of asexuality), but whether these characters are seen as sexually attractive or desirable.”

“Characters are represented as asexual not because they do not experience sexual attraction, but because they are not sexually attractive; they are not allowed to have a sexuality because, if they were, normative codes of sexual desirability would be threatened. These representations of asexuality conflate a lack of sexual desirability with a lack of sexual desire and redefine asexuality via the desexualisation of non-normative bodies and identities.”

In particular, she cites examples in which fat, (male) asian, nerdy, or disabled characters are portrayed as being “Asexual”. Examples include:

  • Fat characters as asexual: Norm on Cheers, Bonnie Grape from What’s eating Gilbert Grape
  • Asian men as asexual: The San Pebbles, Sixteen Candles and Romeo Must Die (as documented in the documentary “The Slanted Screen”)
  • Nerds as asexual: Revenge of the Nerds, The Big Bang Theory
  • Disabled people as asexual: What’s eating Gilbert Grape, Rain Main, Sling Blade

Asian men, Sinwell notes, are also denied not only sexuality but romance – asian men can never be love interests. Sinwell also describes the desexualization of some of these characters as a way disempowering them – removing the threat of ethnic otherness in asian men, or the threat of intelligence in nerdy figures.

Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory is in particular called out by Sinwell as one of the few well known asexual characters in contemporary media, due to his failure to become intimate with his girlfriend Amy. His asexuality is further complicated by his disability, specifically an implied autism spectrum or Asperger’s disorder.

On the other hand, Sinwell notes, there are gradually increasing examples in which fat, asian, nerdy, and disabled characters are starting to be depicted as sexual beings. These representations, however, are typically restricted to characters with otherwise normative bodies and genders.

  • Fat characters as sexual: Huge, Drop Dead Diva, Double Divas, Mike and Molly, Hairspray
  • Asian men as sexual (and even non-heterosexual!): Harold and Kumar Go to Whitecastle, Better Luck Tomorrow, Ethan Mao
  • Nerds as sexual: Napolean Dynamite, Chuck
  • Disabled people as sexual: Friday Night Lights, House MD

Sinwell also notes that while fat women are starting to be depicted as more sexual, it is often depicted as being “despite” their undesirable bodies, and is a very male-focused heterosexual desire; fat men, on the hand, are still mostly portrayed as asexual.

Notable, though, these characters also never describe themselves as asexual or identify their lack of interest as a sexuality; unlike narratives of homosexuality or bisexuality which focus on self-identity and “coming out”, asexuality is rarely named or identified.

“Indeed, one of the reasons asexuality may be unseen (and unheard) onscreen is precisely because it is not recognized as a cultural category or a sexual identity.”

For the next and final section, Sinwell moves on to a discussion of examples where, rather than being defined by a lack of sexual attractiveness as in the examples above, characters’ asexuality is defined by their lack of an ability to experience sexual desire or attraction.

Through analyzing the ways in which these media explicitly address asexuality and its interrelationships with normalcy and pathology, I explore categories that question how asexuality is culturally constructed in relation to normalcy and how this relates self-identification, self-actualization, and the cultural constructions of “normal” sexuality and identity”. Within both Dexter and Mysterious Skin, as I’ll discuss, mental disability (and pathology) are written onto the asexual and asexualized bodies of these characters as a means of constructing their (ab)normalities, thus reinforcing many of the same stereotypical associations of the asexual body with an othered, unfit, pathological body.

Part 3: Asexuality, Pathology, and The Normal: Dexter and Mysterious Skin

“As discussed previously in this chapter, asexuality has often been understood as pathology. Often associated with sexual trauma, sexual abuse, hormonal imbalance, or sexual disfunction, asexuality has historically been considered an emotional and sexual disorder rather than a sexual preference or identity. However, rather than “queering” asexuality by representing it in such a way as to depathologize it or destigmatize disability, Dexter and Mysterious Skin only reinscribe the boundaries between the perverse and the normal by writing them onto asexual bodies.”

Dexter is the story of a Dexter Morgan, forensic expert with the Miami Police, and also a secret serial killer with an ethical code: kill only other killers, and don’t get caught. Dexter is also one of the more talked about depictions of asexuality in current television. Although much of the show is focused on Dexter’s process of stalking and killing his victims, it also discusses his personal relationships, including those with his sister Deb and his girlfriend/wife Rita.

Dexter’s asexuality is linked to pathology and psychosis: In the pilot episode, he claims that he has no feelings, fakes all human interaction, and does not understand sex – like all the other social interactions he fakes, it’s just a way to “play the game” of being normal. We also later learn though flashbacks that he witnessed his mother’s murder.

“In reference to his girlfriend Rita, he says, “When it comes to the actual act of sex, it always seemed so…undignified. But I have to play the game.” Here, “playing the game” becomes not only faking his relationships with his sister and his coworkers, but also faking sexual attraction and desire. Being normal is understood as necessitating sexual desire.”

This performed heteronormativity and sexual desire serve to mark him as normal despite his murderous instincts; his sexual interactions are motivated not by sexual desire but by a desire to hide his killer instincts and  be normal, and this emphasizes the idea that one must be sexual to be normal.

When Dexter starts having sex in season 2, it is unclear whether or not he is experiencing sexual attraction or desire – one incident is linked to violence, and the other is an attempt to form a meaningful emotional connection. In some ways, this is a queer break from the assumption that to be asexual is to never have sex; but the depiction of asexuality as abnormal still enforces the idea of asexuality as pathology. Sinwell quotes Prause and Graham: “Implicit in the debate about what constitutes a “normal” level of sexual desire is an assumption that some level of sexual desire is normative.”

Dexter’s abnormality, however, is not only because of his asexuality, but also because of his psychosis – “His inability to desire sex is thus intrinsically linked to his status as a psychopath and murderer.” Instead of queering asexuality, Dexter links it with pathology and emotional and psychological dysfunction.

In the next piece, Mysterious Skin, asexuality is again linked with pathology and childhood trauma, but it is also tied into queerness.

Mysterious Skin tells the story of a boy named Brian, who (along with a friend) is molested by a baseball coach, in an experience so traumatic he blocks part it off. While he suffers from nightmares, bedwetting, and blackouts, he attempts to cope by attributing his missing memories to an alien abduction – but over the course of the movie, the truth is revealed.

While Brian’s friend Neil (who was also molested) reacts with sexual promiscuity, hypersexuality, and prostitution, Brian is portrayed as having the opposite reaction – when a girl attempts to kiss and have sex with him, he rejects her, and in doing so rejects sex itself. One of Neil’s friends also describes Brian as “asexual”. When discussing the night of the molestation, Neil describes Brain as “your face looked like it had been erased” – so too was his sexuality.

“Here, asexuality is not only linked to childhood trauma, but it is also linked to alien abduction. These links map ideas of alienation and queerness onto Brian’s experience. The idea of alien abduction explains “lost time” and displaces his childhood trauma and abuse, but it also alludes to the queer experience itself. Here, asexuality becomes linked not only with “alienness”, but also sexual difference. In addition, the interrelationships between asexuality and hypersexuality are seen as two extremes; promiscuity is seen in opposition to asexuality. Yet, both promiscuity and asexuality are constructed in terms of pathology and opposition to the “normal”. Interestingly, though the film explains these pathologies in great detail through flashbacks, it does not address the question of treatment or provide an indication of either of the boys’ sexual futures. Instead, asexuality – and hypersexuality – are linked solely to pathology. Though the film explores Brian’s traumatic past as a means of explaining his asexuality, it does not enable a rethinking of asexuality outside of this traumatic and pathological context. In fact, it assumes that asexuality is a natural response to such trauma instead of drawing out the larger implications of these connections in relation to queer theory and heteronormativity.”

Part 4: Conclusion

“When asexuality is represented within contemporary media, it is often limited to representations that blur the lines between asexuality and desexualization. These representations misname and misrepresent asexuality as a lack of (normative) sexual attractiveness rather than a lack of sexual attraction. Even when asexuality is represented as a lack of sexual attraction or desire, as in DExter or Mysterious Skin, these representations restrict our cultural understanding of asexuality to one defined by trauma, pathology, and abnormality.”

On the other hand, Sinwell notes, AVEN is constantly reinvestigating and renegotiating the cultural meaning of asexuality, through spongebob fanfiction, vlogs, forums, and blogs for both the asexual and sexual community – thus exploring asexuality beyond just pathology and abnormality.

Sinwell also remarks on being introduced by AVEN to Shortland Street, which features perhaps the first character to come out as asexual on mainstream television, and the (A)sexual documentary, which features discussion from asexuals and provides a context for rethinking asexuality.

The AVEN community of blogging, podcasting, and fanfiction perhaps represents the most promising site for future media representations of asexuality.

“By interrogating social and cultural constructions of asexuality that move beyond sexual dysfunction and non-normativity, these participatory cultures redefine asexuality as queer and open up a space for asexuals within the LGBTQ(A) community”

=========================================================

Sinwell Author Bio:

Sarah E. S. Sinwell teaches in the Program in Media and Screen Studies at Northwestern Universirty. She has published essays on Being John Malkovich, Green Porno, and cell phone culture in Film and Sexual Politics, Women’s ‘Studies Quarterly, and In Medias Res.

Other Asexual Research Cited*:

  • AVEN, http://www.asexuality.org (as accessed in 2008; no specific pages or sections mentioned)
  • Bogart, Anthony “Asexuality: Prevalence and Associated Factors in a National Probability Sample” (2004)
  • Bogart, Anthony “Towards a Conceptual Understanding of Asexuality” (2006)
  • Gressgard, Randi “Asexuality: From Pathology to Identity and Beyond” (2013)
  • Hinderliter, Andrew “Methodological Issues for Studying Asexuality” (2009)
  • Poston, Dudley, and Amanda Baumley “Patterns of Asexuality in the United States” (2010)
  • Prause, Nicole, and Cynthia Graham “Asexuality: Classification and Clarification” (2007)
  • Scherrer, Kristin “Coming to an Asexual Identity: Negotiating Identity, Negotiating Desire” (2008)

*I like to include this because seeing which works an author chooses to cite can be one way to gain insight into their interaction with the existing research. I’ve only included only articles which are primarily about asexuality-as-sexual-orientation. General queer theory articles, and articles about things like “disabled people aren’t asexual” are excluded (unless they also acknowledge asexuality-as-orientation).

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