The queer asexual activist

This is based on empirical data from my PhD on asexual activism.

While there was much more commonality, homogeneity, of response amongst those participants who framed asexual activism in terms of race, this was far less evident in terms of those participants who framed their activist identities even at least partially in terms of queerness. This is not to imply that queer and queerness wasn’t significant and meaningful, as the quotes below show. Participants responses were thoughtful; it was evident that most had reflected on their sense of queer and queerness and their relationships to their asexuality and their activism. But who was queer, who could be queer, whether it was simply enough to be asexual in some form to be queer? The responses were diverse. In attempting to give some sense of how and why these responses were so framed, one must be careful not to over-define queer, because it is a flexible, heterogeneous signifier. I would suggest that at least some of its success is its elasticity; its ability to be stretched and pulled in various personal and socio-political directions while retaining coherence. It retains this coherence because there are certain broad boundaries I think. As my research participants’ quotes illustrate, queer is being engaged with across three broad interrelated discourses. These are not always antagonistic towards each other, but they can be. Queer is framed as a commitment to an oppositional, activist identity and lifestyle to heteronormativity and homonormativity. Queer can also be an identification of oneself as a sexual and gendered minority outside of mainstream norms. Finally, queer is an umbrella term for sexual and gendered minority identities; often used to be free of the historical baggage carried by prior umbrella terms. 

This sense of queer as an oppositional, activist identity and lifestyle was particularly strong for some participants. For them, although it was linked to their sense of asexuality, it was could be quite distinct.

It’s not just that I feel an affinity toward queer, I am queer. I’m not sure that my asexuality is what makes me queer. I think there are lots of other things about me that make me queer, but queer is at least, somewhat self-consciously, politically existing heteronormativity kind of way. That’s certainly the way that I live my life, that’s who I am, that’s how people treat me as well. I mean, typically, I’m read as a dyke. I mean, that’s incorrect, but it’s still… Non-binary people are not… It’s fairly difficult to pass as non-binary, especially with certain body shapes. But yeah, the kinds of relationships that I do engage in and who I am, and what I’m inclined to do and not do, and what’s important to me, that is something that’s completely outside of the heteronormative, heterosexual matrix thing, and it’s even kind of fringed beads within many queer circles. I’m not part of the homonormative world, either. 

There was an expectation here of queer carrying a commitment to a radical sexual and gendered politics which would preclude many asexual from identifying as queer. S, who is a very committed radical activist, talked about their experience of identifying as heteroromantic when they first came out as asexual, but still feeling queer compared to many heteroromantic asexuals who would identify as straight:

I used to identify as heteroromantic when I first came out as ace. And even then I still felt queer, I know that there’s some people who are heteroromantic who would see themselves or they’ll call themselves like straight aces. I certainly didn’t identify that way. But certainly, to each their own, but I still felt queer. While I think other people that I’ve talked to have maybe not so much

Others spoke about their feelings when their right to claim queerness was denied them by other LGBT+ community members:

And then from the LGBT community, you kind of get… Because people are like, “Oh it’s just the same as being straight, or whatever,” and it’s like, “Mmm. No”. Even if… ‘Cause if you’re a heteroromantic asexual, they can kind of argue that, “Oh no,” just ’cause you’re basically straight, and it’s like, “Well, no, no. I’m still queer.” So, I wouldn’t say it’s the same level as the other oppression, but it is definitely a thing that asexual people experience. 

For many of the queer asexual activists, their queer and asexual identities intersected with each other, but it was often a case of ambiguous coexistence. That was certainly not the case for all. Others felt that there had been productive engagement between asexual activism and queer activism. J, who is a person of colour and a queer demi-sexual, felt that mainstream asexual activism had been more successful in engaging with queer then with issues of race. He also noted the many conversations online as to whether simply being asexual makes one queer. This is a reiteration of the comments by David Jay that I noted in Chapter Four. In essence, that anyone who has struggled with a sexual norm can identify as queer:

I think the asexual community’s been very good, in my opinion, of recognizing being able to be asexual and queer. And I think there’s a lot of debate whether being asexual is a queer identity. And so that’s also been another interesting conversation that I’ve been noticing in a lot of communities. 

Pragmatically and symbolically this frames all asexual spaces as queer spaces, which was problematic for some of the queer asexual activists. This ran both ways; not simply about asexuals viewing themselves as queer, but how non-asexual queers view asexuality:

If I’m with a bunch of asexual people, meet ups are often really strange and awkward, depending on the group, because they’re my people but in many ways, they’re really not my people, so that’s less likely… It’s a similar thing with groups of non-asexual queer folk, but in different ways, but often, groups of asexual people are much more alienating than groups of non-asexual queer folk.

Participants once again made mention of the exhaustion that comes from having to constantly explain the specifics of asexual identities in each space. Queer could operate as a form of code-switching, a shorthand, an umbrella term that didn’t carry the historical baggage of earlier umbrella terms. In this sense, queer is not just being used as a more radical synonym for LGBT+. It can be a holding term for a point when the person using the identifier is more comfortable expanding upon their sexual and gendered identities:

I’ve got a few friends who are men exclusively attracted to men, but they call themselves “queer” because they want to kind of disassociate themselves with the gay community and some of the negative areas in there, like the misogyny and that kind of thing, so they disconnect themselves from it by saying “queer”. I think that identifying as queer kind of, is a way of showing that you are…You want to be identified as separate from heterosexual, heteronormativity, but at the same time, you kind of are aware of the problematic elements of the community and you kind of need to have your own identity there, and when not everyone is educated about asexuality, specifically, it can get a bit exhausting, having to explain it all the time. 

Queer asexual activists were therefore framing queer in diverse, heterogeneous ways. What queer meant was contextual and shifted. There was a sense that claiming queer established a critique; both of the heteronormative and the homonormative mainstreams. Whether asexuality and asexual activism in itself was queer was a matter of debate:

Because there are certainly lots and lots of asexuals who are queer. And asexuality can be a queer thing but I don’t think it necessarily is, and… And it depends on what kind of queer space and what queer’s meaning in that moment.

There was a belief amongst participants that queerness, queer communities and queer activism took recognition of emerging sexual and gendered identities in a way that had not yet happened in the mainstream:

So I’d definitely say the… And I think maybe another part of it, maybe for the mainstream queer community, for all its flaws, societies in general have been talking more and more about, for better or for worse, about sexualities outside of heterosexuality. 

There was also an underlying belief the queer activism, and by extension queer asexual activism, concerned themselves with issues that neither the heteronormative nor the homonormative mainstreams were focused upon:

It’s kind of interesting. I’ve had it happen to me before where I’ll be talking, it’s usually to a straight person where I’ll tell them that I’m interested in queer activism and queer thought and queer feminism and all this stuff, and then the first thing that comes to their mouth is, “Well, marriage equality, right?” And I’m sitting there like, “I couldn’t care less.” 

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What does Jughead teach us about asexual activism?

Excerpt from Jughead No. 4. Courtesy Archie Comics. Art by Erica Henderson.
Excerpt from Jughead No. 4. Courtesy Archie Comics. Art by Erica Henderson.

The most popular teen comic series for girls in America has an asexual character. So?

Well, what matters is that Jughead isn’t a damaged savant genius (think Big Bang Theory) nor is he a repressed virgin (of whatever orientation other than asexual) waiting for (you can guess the rest of the narrative).

He is a typical teenager; the thing most teenage narratives cannot cope with.

It seems so normal, but the third window is actually deeply radical because it’s so normalising – a boy who identifies as asexual and a boy who identifies as gay chatting about their respective sexual/romantic relationships (I do think being asexual doesn’t preclude being romantic).

If you actually had a trans* boy and a straight boy in the same window, it would be like the Four Horseboys of the Masculine Apocalypse. The rules of teenage school narrative would collapse (except for Teen Wolf, which I think would accommodate it).

It’s important to recognise that this didn’t just happen by accident. Over 15 years asexual activists, such as AVEN, have campaigned for the increasing visibility, public awareness of, and, tolerance towards asexuals.

With is striking is how successful they have been as a sexual and gendered social movement.

Chips Zdarsky talked about Jughead’s asexuality  during an interview with ComicBook.com. He made it clear that he wasn’t making Jughead asexual for any personal identity politics issue. He was doing it because asexuality was on his radar and he felt it was very much on the radar of his target audience, particularly at the moment.

Putting it on the radar is actually quite a big achievement, which has taken a fair number of people significant time and effort.

Let’s not be fooled; there are intersectionally ways in which asexuality may be more easily ‘mainstreamed’ than other minority sexual and gendered identities. But Jughead teaches us that asexual activism is certainly getting some things right about the process of mobilising and organising around mainstream visibility and awareness.

It might seem very little… Two boys walking down a school corridor, chatting as if it’s everyday… But it’s a lot.

 

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 Match.com 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:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Big-Pharma-Women-Labour-Love/dp/1442611375/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1440583856&sr=8-1&keywords=big+pharma+women

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”