ABC of Queer: B for Burnout: the label that keeps on not giving!

While I was at the Non-monogamies Conference in Lisbon recently a young woman in the Q & A section after a session asked about burnout amongst activists. She said that she was a poly-activist aged 26 who was already experiencing burnout after only three years as an activist. Nobody really answered her question. In fact, people quickly moved on to other questions.

To a large extent, this is my experience of the subject of burnout amongst academics, academic-activists and activists in sexual and gender social movements (I suspect it’s similar in most social movements). We kinda acknowledge that it happens, we think it’s awful for the individual, but the movement is the important thing so we move on.

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been in social movement spaces where stock phrases have been used about people experiencing burnout. “She was too emotional… ””He didn’t understand what the movement was about…” “She took too much on… It was her fault.” In other words the emphasis is to exonerate the movement from any responsibility; the great tragedy is that there is an implication that burnout implies some fault that must lie either with the individual or the movement, so blame must be directed towards an already vulnerable individual.

At the same time I’ve been in other social movement spaces where activists have been incredibly supportive of friends and colleagues who were experiencing burnout. Indeed I would go further and say the best practice I have seen has been from activists who have chosen to confront the kind of narratives I’ve written about in the previous paragraph. I’d also go further. I would say that activist and academic-activist good practice on burnout I’ve seen acknowledges that burnout is part of the activist life/lifestyle cycle, not an aberration of it to be silenced. The real issue is the ease with which people are enabled to transition from an activist state to a more or less everyday state.

In fact, many of us who are activists or academic-activists may experience burnout 3/4/5 times across our lives. Actually the lifespan of a single activist role may only be 3/4 years. There is nothing wrong with that. As there is also nothing wrong with remaining committed to a cause for the entirety of your life.

But we have a tendency to fetishize that kind of commitment in social movements which makes people who aren’t able to match up to that kind of ‘hard-core’ identity feel less authentically activist. In reality, the history of sexual and gender social movements has been that the short-term activists have been as significant as the long-term.

As well, we need to consider what burnout is. It’s certainly not just people deciding to disengage from a social movement. It’s a complex cluster of practices and frames. When I started to write this I thought about the times of my life when I’ve felt burnout. I tried to consider the kinds of different meanings involved. For me, burnout can involve:

  1. Moments when your body physically breaks down because you have overextended it too much for too long (as a consequence of being an activist). You are experiencing all types of physical illnesses, especially illnesses that you should usually shrug off. The worry now is that some of these will stay with you.
  2. Moments when your mental resilience breaks down because you have overextended it too much for too long (as a consequence of being an activist). You are experiencing all types of cognitive illnesses, especially illnesses that you would usually shrug off. The worry now is that some of these will stay with you.
  3. The complexity of activist relationships which are often fuelled by the mission, but at the same time operate according to interpersonal dynamics. These can often involve issues of gender, race, social and economic mobility, et cetera.
  4. Simply the experience of living in this heightened state and space of activism which is different from being in everyday space. That there is something wrong with you if you can’t continue to live in this heightened space….

We need to learn to understand burnout, especially to understand it as natural and part of the cycle of activism.  Otherwise the great danger is that ‘burnout’ as a demonised and fetishized label becomes something that we carry with us as a traumatising narrative. I know someone who was an activist for 18 months, but she has been burnt out for 18 years.

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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.