There’s nowt so queer as asexuality: asexual researchers at the 1st Non-monogamies and Contemporary Intimacies Conference, Lisbon.

It was a real privilege to attend the 1st Non-monogamies and Contemporary Intimacies Conference in Lisbon to present my paper on Asexual Activism as an Emerging Contemporary Sexual and Gender Social Movement. It was doubly exciting because there were three/four other presenters who were either speaking directly on asexual studies or interdisciplinary on topics related to asexual sexual-gender identity formations.

Even within the small group of asexual researchers there was a real diversity of research interests and opinions, which speaks well for the future of European asexual studies. I’m loath to pull out too many overarching themes in any of our work, but there were some common threads I think we were all considering.

One of those was the intersectional relationship between diverse asexual identity formations and queer (as a subjective claimed identity which posits itself against normative and often oppressive sexual and gendered identities). Rita Alcaire highlighted this with a quote from David Jay, a key figure in asexual activism and founder of AVEN (The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network):

David Jay

Another common concern was the problematic nature of the standard definition for asexuality – “an asexual is someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction to others.” I think it’s fair to say that none of us are happy with this definition, which complicates/obfuscates as much as it clarifies, but as I tried to say in my presentation part of the success of the asexual movement over the last 10/15 years has been its ability to cohere behind a common ground/statement despite their immense diversity.

To move on to the papers themselves, Patricia McLeod in The Asexual Slut: When Compulsory Monogamy Meets Compulsory Sexuality discussed the kinds of ‘myths’ and expectations society has of asexuals, particularly drawing on her own experiences. She drew out the intersectional links between compulsory monogamy and compulsory sexuality; the way in which the expectation that we should be sexual reinforces the expectation that we should also be in dyadic relationships.

In a similar fashion, Aoife Sadlier in ‘I’m Not That Bisexual. I’m the Other One ’ Queering Straightness on discussed her experiences of engaging with heteronormative relationship network sites. She juxtaposed this with examples from interviews with other queer asexual women who discussed their ambivalence with the types of labels offered to asexual women seeking relationships.

Mercedes Pöll’s paper on Defining “Sex” in Relationships Without was one of the highlights of the conference for me. Mercedes work is not directly on asexuality; she is concerned to consider all types of relationships in which people do not engage in ‘conventional sex acts’ according to societal expectations as part of their affective relationship matrixes (asexual identity-formations being just one segment of these). Mercedes work is subtle and complex; she draws on many theoretical traditions without being ideologically tied to any one. In this I feel her work reflects the shifting precarity that is so much a part of our current socio-political-cultural environment. In particular, I was struck by one of her comments “sex is that which is legible as sex.” It’s the statement that I’ve come away from the conference having to reflect on; it seemed so obvious once stated and yet it’s so radical, inclusive and queer.

Rita Alcaire gave three papers, so I’m only going to focus on the paper that she gave in the same session as me The Minority Report: The Asexual Community Discusses Its Struggle to Find Acceptance. This for me was also one of the standout moments of the conference for many different reasons. First of all, Rita delivered a brilliant polished analysis of the macro and micro aggressions which have prompted the asexual community to mobilise and organise; the relationship between that mobilisation and prior LGBT+ movements, and, how that very struggle by the asexual community is queer in its opposition to societal norms. Secondly, and this is unusual compared to British conferences where if you’re presenting a paper on asexual research you’re lucky to get 5/6 people coming to hear you, the room was packed (100+). I’m really grateful to the organizers, to researchers on polygamy and non-intimacy and Portuguese researchers for the openness to asexual research that they showed at this conference. As for Rita, there was a real sense of a foundational figure in Portuguese Asexual Studies delivering her first significant paper on her topic.

I was also very happy with my paper “Asexy and we know it”: The Emergence of Asexual Activism as a Contemporary Sexual and Gender Social Movement. If Rita focused on the kinds of macro and micro oppressions that have encouraged asexual communities to mobilise and organise, I focused on the kinds of cultural and structural forms that mobilisation and organisation have taken. The dissimilarities and similarities asexual activism has with prior sexual and gender social movements. The kinds of internal dialogues asexual activism was having with itself; the kinds of external dialogues asexual activism was having with the wider Pride/LGBT+ movements. The Q & A that followed our session was incredibly lively. I was too tired to go to the party afterwards!!

Overall, as I said previously, I think it was a very productive conference for asexual researchers. I hope that this is something that we can build on in the future.

Note – throughout I have tried to use pronouns that people stated they preferred at conference. If I have made a mistake please let me know and I will amend the text.

Non-Monogamies and Contemporary Intimacies Conference

Off to the Non-monogamies and Contemporary Intimacies Conference  in Lisbon. I’m giving a paper on ‘Asexual Activism as an Emerging Sexual and Gender Social Movement’.

I’m looking forward to it, not least because Lisbon is supposed to be a great city to eat fish in. But, especially because there is a large number of researchers who are engaged in one form of asexual studies or another giving papers. It’s a real opportunity to network/consider potential collaborations.

New book discussing Flibanserin: ‘Big Pharma, Women, and the Labour of Love’

There has been a lot of discussion recently about Flibanserin. In fact, I’m probably going to write something myself about about it over the next few days. In particular, what I think is the overlooked rise of Big Momma Pharma (mainstream women’s organisations pushing a particular matriarchal template of neo-liberal entitlement as exemplified by certain sexual health products). The Even The Score campaign with the American FDA over Flibanserin is a good example of this I would suggest.

In the meantime, here is a new book which discusses Flibanserin. As it has only just been published, the subject is very of the moment, I haven’t read it yet as the paperback doesn’t come out until September (though I may see if I can get a review copy and put a review up here):

“I’m excited to announce the publication of my book: Big Pharma, Women, and the Labour of Love.

It’s available through the University of Toronto Press website as well as on Amazon:

Description/ reviews:

In 2010, Thea Cacchioni testified before the US Food and Drug
Administration against flibanserin, a drug proposed to treat low
sexual desire in women, dubbed by the media the “pink Viagra.” She was
one of many academics and activists sounding the alarm about the lack
of science behind the search for potentially lucrative female sexual
enhancement drugs.

In her book, Big Pharma, Women, and the Labour of Love, Cacchioni
moves beyond the search for a sexual pharmaceutical drug for women to
ask a broader question: how does the medicalization of female
sexuality already affect women’s lives? Using in-depth interviews with
doctors, patients, therapists, and other medical practitioners,
Cacchioni shows that, whatever the future of the “pink Viagra,”
heterosexual women often now feel expected to take on the job of
managing their and their partners’ sexual desires. Their search for
sexual pleasure can be a “labour of love,” work that is enjoyable for
some but a chore for others.

An original and insightful take on the burden of heterosexual norms in
an era of compulsory sexuality, Cacchioni’s investigation should open
up a wide-ranging discussion about the true impact of the
medicalization of sexuality.

Thea Cacchioni’s book is well thought-out, beautifully written, and
important. Her research shows that women themselves are not clamoring
for a pink Viagra. If anything, they deserve a break from the labors
of love that they perform.

Meika Loe, Women’s Studies Program, Colgate University”

From #GotYourBack to #GiveItBack: frame-analysing the impact of GLAAD’s apology to “millions of Asexual, Agender, and Aromantic people. ”


In social movement studies we often talk about ‘frames’ – ways of structuring events into stories and narratives (often to fit a particular political or ideological worldview).

For example: protests usually have beginnings, middles and ends; there is either victory or defeat; there are usually heroes (most commonly us) and villains (the people that we are protesting against).

Frames are particularly useful to social movements because they are a way of short-handing, signposting and communicating the key issues the social movement wishes to address to prospective members, powers that be and the general public.

In case you think this is all just social theory – you can literally see GLAAD (formally the Gay & Lesbian Alliance against Defamation) using actual frames in the above image as part of its advertising bumf for its #GotYourBack Pledge campaign to encourage Americans to become allies of LGBT Americans.

The complication arises because of how powerful frames can be at simplifying and communicating a message. It’s what can get lost, misrepresented or erased in the framing.

I have no doubt that GLAAD saw their advertising campaign for the #GotyourBack Pledge as a great way to frame ‘A’ and ‘Ally’ and imprint those on the American consciousness. However, asexual activists have been working diligently for more than a decade so that ‘A’, in discussions of sexual and gender orientations and identities, frames asexual visibility across its diversity. GLAAD were quite literally boxing in what ‘A’ could mean in a sexual minority political context, in a way that erased asexual visibility and the efforts of asexual activists.

The response by asexual activists to GLAAD’s original framing of their campaign, which perpetuated however unintentionally an on-going erasure of other gender and sexual orientations by predominantly dominated L and G organisations, was to reframe the campaign online as a #GiveitBack campaign.

GLAAD issued an apology and retraction (to their credit). They further stated unequivocally “the ‘A’ in LGBTQIA represents millions of Asexual, Agender, and Aromantic people, who are far too often left out of the conversation about acceptance. It was never, ever our intention to suggest otherwise…” As importantly  the frames themselves have been extended, I think. It was interesting to see GLAAD as a major North American LGBT organisation  use the term LGBTQIA instead of LGBT.

I believe what the above shows is not only how important an understanding of frames are to the research of social movements, but how important that understanding is to engaging with them in activism.


The more you’re seen, the less you’re there: Window Dressing, the Rhoda Conundrum and LGBT*+ representation

From the late 1960s to the late 1970s Rhoda Morgenstern was one of the most vibrant and popular characters on mainstream American television. Played by Valerie Harper, Rhoda is still considered to be one of the greatest TV sidekicks ever from her friendship with Mary Richards, played by Mary Tyler Moore, on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.


The friendship also set new standards for the portrayal of young single women; Mary Richards, the polite sophisticated Midwesterner; Rhoda Morgenstern, the sassy Jewish New Yorker. This Jewishness was further emphasised by the frequent visits of Rhoda’s mother Ida played wonderfully by Nancy Walker.


So popular and successful was the character with audiences she was eventually given her own show Rhoda which set its own television firsts. It was the first show ever to debut at number one in the ratings in America. Rhoda’s romance and wedding to Joe, played by David Groh, would also break TV ratings and become a television phenomenon of the 1970s.


Although the series was unable to maintain the momentum beyond two seasons, ratings fell sharply from season three onwards, for those two seasons it’s arguable that it surpassed the popularity of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

However, one thing effectively changed. In the transition from sidekick to main character, from Mary Tyler Moore Show to Rhoda, Rhoda stopped being overtly Jewish. Any deep expression or serious consideration of Jewishness as had occasionally occurred on the Mary Tyler Moore Show was excised (there had been episodes of the parent show which considered anti-Semitism for example).

What touches of Jewishness remained were merely window-dressing (ironically as this was Rhoda’s job for the first two seasons of the series). The character as she’d been originally imagined could be a sidekick on a mainstream show, but not the main character, because in the 1970s being Jewish was still considered too ‘ethnic’ for a main character.

In the mid-late 1980s/1990s that would change as Jewish main characters took centre stage on shows such as Mad about You, Seinfeld, Curb your Enthusiasm and Friends. But, the important thing to note is that the characters being portrayed are no longer ethnic. They have become white, usually middle-class, to such an extent that their Jewishness can not only be tolerated but assimilated. In fact their Jewishness only serves to emphasise their neo-WASPishness: the most Jewish thing about a character such as Rachel in Friends are the constant references to the nose she’s had surgically removed.  Again, it’s window-dressing, but with a point.

Popular mainstream TV, especially comedy, is a very particular beast to consider. There’s the issue of the extent to which American mainstream TV follows a different path from British TV where LGBT*+ representation is concerned (I personally think that the differences are often exaggerated in favour of British television). One consideration is the extent that British Soaps have developed a tradition of increasingly representing LGBT*+ lives as part of their everyday scripts. Another is the impact of the quality PPV channels in America, such as HBO, which has ushered in a new era of braver programming with consequences for LGBT*+ representation.

But the Rhoda Conundrum still remains. On Modern Family – Cameron and Mitchell, the gay parents, constantly refer nostalgically to the ‘gay lifestyle’ they have had to give up to become WASPlike parents. Yet it is never in doubt, despite Mitchell’s feelings towards his own father, that being a WASP parent is a state to be earnestly desired.  It’s not that there aren’t constant references to Cameron and Mitchell’s gayness, but again it’s window-dressing with a point. Cameron and Mitchell not only desire to be WASP parents; their desire props up, and exonerates, the failings of both their own sets of parents.

The point with window-dressing is to get you inside to buy. What’s inside the store may not have changed all that much, if it all. Perhaps as important for current LGBT*+ representation is to consider that neither Valerie Harper nor Nancy Walker, excellent actors that they both were/are, were actually ethnically Jewish. The performances themselves were another form of window-dressing.


EIGHTH SEXGEN SEMINAR: March 3rd, 2015, What (not) to do: Young people, gender and sexuality

I always enjoy these

SexGen Northern Network

Bookings are now open for our eighth sexgen event which is taking place on the 3rd of March, 2015, in Sheffield Hallam University. The event is entitled What (not) to do: Young people, gender and sexuality.

The event page is here and bookings can be made through eventbrite (places are free but limited).

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