Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Asexuality as an Identity

In the October 2008 issue of Sexualities, a fascinating article by Kristin S. Scherrer appeared entitled Coming to an Asexual Identity: Negotiating Identity, Negotiating Desire.  In it, Scherrer explored the many dimensions of the asexual identity based on a survey she conducted online.  Through this, she revealed many of the complexities of the asexual identity and also some of the flaws of previous research.

One of the main flaws that is approached right away is that researchers have been focusing almost solely on categorizing asexuality as either a behavior (lack of sex) or a desire (lack of wanting sex).  Through this, asexuality is labeled and seen as a bodily dysfunction that requires medical intervention or as a psychological disorder that requires therapy to remedy.  Most of the early writings on asexuality view it as being negative.  Scherrer advocates steering away from this method and instead focus on asexuality as an identity.  If asexuality is viewed as a legitimate identity, it may motivate social and political action similar to other marginalized identities.

Scherrer's article has some interesting insights, though it is by no means exhaustive.  I recommend looking it up if you are interested in the asexual identity and it is certainly a good place to start.  Scherrer lays out the different aspects of identity, how people engage in it, and how asexuals define it.  A wide spectrum of asexuals responded to the survey, giving an interesting mix of romantic and aromantic individuals.  She also touched on the important topic of what constitutes sexual behavior from the asexual standpoint.  For example, there are some asexuals that engage in masturbation while others view this as a sexual behavior and therefore have no desire to partake in it.

Another important point made in this article is the relationship of asexuality to essentialist notions, which, no surprise, is incredibly complicated.  The essentialist argument relies heavily on the notions of "natural" and "unnatural".  This can be a double-edged sword.  Asexuality lacks legitimization and acceptance from most of society because human beings are "naturally" sexual beings.  Just like the LGBTQ community was once viewed as "unnatural", the asexual community is facing a similar uphill battle.  However, LGBTQ used the essentialist argument to gain legitimacy when they argued that their sexual identities were "natural" (i.e. sexual desire is not a choice).  Asexuals could use a similar argument and many do focus on how their asexuality is just a natural part of who they are.

The use of language plays a big part of the asexual identity and many asexuals struggle with finding an appropriate language.  This identity is different in that it kind of revolves around a lack of sexuality.  The internet has been a great help to the asexual community and many individuals have found acceptance and been able to accept their asexuality through the help of such online communities as AVEN.

Perhaps the most interesting finding/observation in Scherrer's article is the high occurrence of bisexuality in the asexual community, which could be the result of gender not being particularly important within the asexual community.  Scherrer's survey found a high percentage of bisexuality, higher than even found in surveys conducted in the gay and lesbian community.  Scherrer believes this provides an insight into the construction of the asexual identity.

It is interesting that when you remove sexual attraction, it removes the need to use gender as a definition in a relationship.  In sexual relationships, the aspect of gender tends to be central.  In asexuality, it appears to not be quite as important.  However, more research will have to be done in order to make any definitive statements.

Perhaps Scherrer's most important conclusion is how the lack of visibility and awareness is preventing its inclusion in legitimate sexual orientations and thereby acting as a barrier to political action.

Scherrer's findings and observation are fascinating and like I mentioned earlier, I recommend looking it up if you are interested in the asexual identity.

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