I was alerted by a friend that there was a seminar taking place at Oxford University about asexuality. These are like hen’s teeth, so having one so close I was bound to go to. I’m not certain whether I was actually meant to go: I blagged my way into Balliol College and later found out it was an event run by the LGBTQ welfare group there. Regardless whether I was allowed to be there or not, they made me feel very welcome, so thank you to them!
This seminar was led by Mark Carrigan. He studied sexual identity during his PhD study and it was during this data collection that he encountered asexual individuals and was intrigued. This led to an unfunded, self-motivated project to find out more about asexuality and asexual individuals.
He talked about people’s journeys to discover asexuality and recognising it in themselves. He gave an example of the differences between older and younger asexuals in discovering asexuality: there was a trend for older asexuals to have been through a process of sexual exploration before finding the term “asexuality”; younger people tended to find out about asexuality on the Internet.
There is a de facto definition for asexuality, but in reality the term “asexuality” covers a diverse range of experiences, attitudes and behaviours. While this resulted in a wider awareness of asexuality and a larger asexual community, it also created some divisions resulting in hostility between asexuals and those that identify as grey- or demi-asexuals.
Mark noted the importance of the Internet in asexual awareness and the development of the asexual community. In particular, he believes there may be parallels between asexuality and Trans* communities.
He also believes there may be parallels between the evolving awareness of asexuality and the gay rights movement: particularly in the impact of the acceptance of homosexuality on the sexual identity of heterosexuals. It could be, he suggested, that an awareness of asexuality would lead to a wider appreciation that sexuality is not binary (either you’re interested in it or you’re not) and that there is a spectrum of sexual attraction and interest in sex, regardless of orientation.
To that end, I agree with Mark that awareness of grey-asexuality is important. Grey-asexuals (or grey-sexuals) have some sexual attraction and interest in sex, but may not consider themselves to be “fully sexual”. That is, there may be circumstances or instances where a grey-asexual would be interested in sex. Mark argued that asexual visibility is important for a “cultural articulation” of sexuality (and asexuality) and a more critical reflection of our own sexual identities.
However, he has concerns about the discussion of asexuality, particularly in the media. His experiences of news articles on asexuality have ranged from ambivalent to supportive, but have broadly presented asexuals as “freakish”. I agree.
And he is equally concerned that some sections of the media might jump on the asexuality movement to propagate a prudish agenda to promote chastity.
The questions from the group were encouraging: it was clear that there were some empathies with the asexual movement from gay, trans* and women’s rights perspectives. However, it was also clear that asexuality awareness is still quite some way behind and that there have been difficulties in integrating asexuality in LGBT+ movements and groups.
I started a dialogue with Mark about the problem of protection for asexuals and he was disappointed with an apparent loss of will in political circles to offer legal protection to asexuals. We had a good chat afterwards about it and some of the developments that have happened in the asexual community.
I think everyone in the room was thirsty to hear about research in asexuality: most questions from the floor contained the phrase, “has there been research on…”. However, there is a dearth of research in this area. To hear about Mark’s research and his interest in developing this research is hugely reassuring and refreshing.
Certainly, I am going to read more about his work and expand my reading. It might be a change of direction for me in terms of where I take my research career in future!
You can follow Mark and his work on his website or on Twitter.