“New Orientations” paper

9 Feb

The Asexual Explorations Blog recently updated with notice of a new paper called New Orientations: Asexuality and Its Implications for Theory and Practice, written by Karli June Cerankowski and Megan Milks.

There’s no abstract, either on the journal’s website or in the article itself, so here’s the public description:

In their ambitious commentary, “New Orientations: Asexuality and Its Implications for Theory and Practice,” Karli June Cerankowski and Megan Milks make the case that “asexuality”–the inability or unwillingness to experience sexual desire–needs a place in scholarly inquiry and radical politics. The small but growing international community of people who identify as asexuals has recently gained media attention; it projects varying visions of asexuality as a conscious decision or as an innate condition. Cerankowski and Milks strive to go beyond important efforts in social psychology to de-pathologize asexuality, suggesting that serious engagement with asexuals and asexuality will transform both feminist and queer studies.

Short version: imagining the impact acknowledging asexuality as a legitimate thing in the world will have on feminist and queer studies.

Shorter version (my impression, anyway): sexuals talking to sexuals about asexuality.

I had hopes for this paper, although I have no idea why. And it wasn’t bad, exactly, it was just … sexuals talking to sexuals about asexuality. I admit I’m assuming that the writers are sexual. I feel like they would have mentioned being asexual. And at one point one of them talks about attending the Pride parade in San Fran and walking with the AVEN group, and didn’t make it sound like she was “one of us,” so to speak.

They theorize that as transgender studies emerged from feminist and queer studies, because it challenged assumptions about sexuality and gender, so too should asexuality studies. Also, that asexuality studies would affect conceptions of sexuality and gender in feminist and queer studies.

They spend a few pages defining asexuality. I found it interesting that AVEN and David Jay appeared to be the only asexual-created resources they consulted. No blogs, no other message boards. Some of the essays they referenced may have been written by asexuals, but if they were, I didn’t see recognition of that.

And here I just start quoting.

Thus far, asexual individuals have not politicized their (a)sexual practices in the same way that radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin have.

I’m wondering if that’s because the attitude I’ve seen is “shut up and don’t ask me about my sexual practices.” That’s such a common response to asexuality that I think a lot of people are turned off by the idea of talking about them in public. I don’t think the response to “I’m a feminist” is really ever “So do you masturbate?” Although if it is I have underestimated the human capacity for rudeness.

Then they talk about the “collective identification” model of asexuality: you can experience it in different ways, but if you choose not to identify as asexual, you’re not asexual. Then they say that this could go hand in hand with radical feminism, which I admit I know nothing about. They talked about before then as something about non phallic-central sexuality, and, being my only exposure, that makes me think radical feminism is heterosexist/cissexist, but that’s not really my point. My point is that they go on to say:

The asexual movement encourages the feminist movement to think further about how to theorize a feminist asexuality that cannot be dismissed as conservative, repressive, or anti-sexual.

And this boils down what my major problem with this paper is. I never really got the vibe that they were advocating working with asexuals to incorporate asexuality into feminist and queer studies. I got the feeling that I often get when I read sexuals talking about asexuals: that they’re watching us from the outside assuming we aren’t interested or capable of looking in. It made me feel vaguely alien.

There was one place where I thought that maybe they were hinting at a conversation:

On the other side of things, revisiting feminist theories of sexual practice and sexuality may complicate AVEN’s definition of “asexual” and bring more attention to the various ways of being asexual that already exist within the community.

But it also is phrased in such a way that I imagine great wonderful sexual people coming in saying “Look how complicated your group actually is! Look how you never noticed that!” Predicting, basically, that sexual people are going to make us realize how many different ways there are to be asexual, when my reaction to the idea of representing asexuality is usually: “REPRESENT ALL THE ACES! … represent all the aces?” Where “…” is me remembering how many different ways people experience asexuality and how much I would have to do to cover all the corners. (I attempted to make a comic out of this, but apparently I can’t even use MS Paint.)

It just seemed that there was a failure to contemplate that asexuals could also be feminists, could also be queer, could want to participate in the dialogue. That part of integrating asexuality into these studies would, at some point, have to move beyond the “What the hell is this?” stage of sexuals getting used to the idea, to talking to asexuals. That maybe sexual feminists don’t get to define what a feminist asexuality would look like. Maybe asexual feminists should get to define that. That made me angry, because I am all three of those things: asexual, queer, and feminist. And I know a lot of asexual people think of their aceness as queerness.

I suppose this paper was not really for asexuals. It felt weird to be in the room as we were being discussed, though. I wanted to ask, “You know I can hear you, right?”


16 Responses to ““New Orientations” paper”

  1. Sciatrix February 9, 2011 at 8:38 PM #

    Oh, dear. I had hopes for the paper, too, although I hadn’t yet read it. (I have access through my university’s subscription, so I suppose that’s something.)

    It sounds rather Othering, in fact, which is a general trend I’ve noticed in pieces about asexuals by nonasexuals. And the bit about “feminist discussion might complicate definitions of asexuality”–how? Like, the most common definition of asexuality outside of self-identification (the bit about sexual attraction) asks only one thing, and then assumes that even if you don’t satisfy that per se you still might be grey-A or on the spectrum. I mean, the ace community spends an incredible amount of time discussing all the different ways in which one can be ace.

    That sounds very, uh, patronizing. I mean, have they heard of Asexual Feminism? Did they even try to look? It’s not like an entire zine about asexuality and feminism from asexual people has been produced or anything, or that if you google “asexual feminism” people who explicitly identify as both don’t turn up. It would really have been that simple to identify asexual viewpoints if they’d chosen to do so.

    I’ll probably still give it a try, but thanks for the heads-up on the “not talking to us but about us” tone. I’m pretty sick of the “look what these interesting strange TOTALLY WEIRD people over in the corner are doing” attitude I’ve seen in other spheres about sexuals just discovering asexuals, and it’s not thrilling to see it again.

    • ace eccentric February 9, 2011 at 10:59 PM #

      I read it through my university’s subscription, too. I was glad I could get it there because I probably wouldn’t have shelled out the money to pay for it.

      Othering is a good way to put it. I usually think of it as scientists studying those supersmart dolphins from Hitchhiker’s and being totally unaware of what they were seeing. I have no idea why my mind leaps to this.

      I don’t really know what they were thinking about “complicating definitions of asexuality.” I was like, we do a lot of that ourselves. Rereading it to check, it seems like they only presented the “person who doesn’t experience attraction” and “person who identifies as asexual” definitions. They also mention something about competing definitions on the AVEN page. We do talk a lot about this though! I wonder whether they really read the forums or just went to the wikis. Because I spent some time on AVEN when I was younger, and talking about all the different ways people were ace was one of the things I really noticed.

      I don’t know if they even googled. I checked Ily’s blog while I was writing the post, too, just to see what was available, and that was up way before 09, the date from their communications with David Jay. I know peer review can take a while but I feel like there really would’ve been other material for them to look at if they’d thought about it. Being reminded of the zine is making me think they didn’t try, which is aggravating.

      If you do let me know! I’d love to see how our impressions match up. When it comes to sexuals just discovering asexuals, I do really get the vibe that we’re being watched through glass doors. I hope that when asexuality studies actually comes around, it’s because ace people are part of the dialogue.

      • Sciatrix February 10, 2011 at 8:53 PM #

        Having just finished it–wow, that really is pretty AVEN-centric. You couldn’t even mention the Livejournal community? (That one is actually older than AVEN is, albeit only by a few months.)

        I did quite like their point about asexuality challenging sex-positive feminist theories about what transgressive sexualities are, though. I’ve discussed the tendency for sex-positive people to react badly to asexuality before, and one of the things that has come up a lot is the idea that sex-positive discourse theorizes that society is essentially sex-negative and frowns upon all sex. Under this theory, asexuals are privileged for not being sexual, which…. seriously, Just No. So I’m glad they brought this point up in the context of the article.

        In the context of the discussion of collective identity, I was not thrilled about the line “someone who has no sex drive but who does not identify as asexual is not asexual; but someone who does experience a sex drive but sees herself as asexual is asexual” given that if you talk to an actual asexual community for five minutes, most people will make it clear that asexuality refers to patterns of sexual attraction, not issues of libido, and that in fact most asexual communities separate those things. Did they forget to ask the masturbation question or something? They also construct asexuality as meaning “lacking a sex drive” later in the piece, which I found deeply irritating.

        The discussion about asexuality being queer–to be honest, in all the asexuality spaces I’ve been in, AVEN actually has the highest proportion of people who argue that asexuality is not necessarily queer of all of them, and it certainly is the only space in which I’ve seen people argue that asexuality and queerness don’t overlap at all. So the ambivalence they discuss–it exists, I’m not arguing that it doesn’t, but… the fact that they focused so heavily on the site with the most ambivalence about it is interesting.

        To be fair about the zine, that was first published in I think July 2010, so it’s likely they were in peer review by the time it came out.

        I actually think that overall, I liked the piece. I agree that there’s definitely a sense of “look at these people over here who I’m sure you’ve never heard of!” in it, it’s slightly condescending in places, and I would have liked to see more acknowledgement of the fact that the audience does in fact include asexuals. On the other hand, I’m pleased that it does actually exist (discourse, yay) and that the “these people are so STRANGE” tone I often see in “sexuals talking about asexuals” pieces is almost totally gone. Also, they seem like they’re actually trying pretty hard to draw attention to some of the ways in which general queer and feminist discourse are not safe for asexuals, which is a plus in my book.

        Also, some of the stuff in the conclusion about what people are working on looks pretty fascinating to read.

        • ace eccentric February 11, 2011 at 1:05 PM #

          I’ve never formally studied feminist theories, so some of that went a little over my head. I have seen sex-positive people react negatively to asexuality, and I did like their statement that considering asexuality would expand a view of sex positivity (which is not apparently a word). Reading it again I’m still left with the impression that it’s not talking to asexuals that would expand this, but studying asexuals, but that could well be my own bias. On privilege: The only times I’ve seen asexuals being elevated for not being sexual are a few scattered people who think we’ve somehow managed to shed our desires and attain some kind of purity. Which really, is just creepy.

          I thought they bungled the definition of asexuality a lot, but that would’ve been an entire post on its own, and I was too exhausted to even try. I chalked it up to typical thinking, which doesn’t, in my experience, separate out attraction and drive and desire. Somehow they must not have read through the forums where this is discussed so frequently, or at least not absorbed it if they did. One day maybe someone write a paper about how attraction and drive aren’t the same things.

          Hmm, that is interesting. Except for a brief revisit last year I haven’t really been in AVEN since 05-06, so I didn’t realize the boards were so ambivalent about that. I wonder if some of the ambivalence they talk about witnessing is also part of people worrying about negative receptions in queer spaces or having had negative experiences in queer spaces.

          Yeah. I tried to find more dates within the paper, but aside from the interview with David Jay being dated, there wasn’t much, so I couldn’t really figure out when they’d finished writing.

          Overall the bad outweighs the good for me still, but I see more good in the way you phrased it — that the strangeness isn’t so prevalent. After reading your comment I reread the section where it discussed the medicalization of asexuality, which was good, although I think it would’ve been better if they’d not used the word desire. And I also wish there’d been some acknowledgment that some asexual people do have sex. There seemed to be a line drawn that all asexual people wouldn’t — but maybe they’ve got that impression because they still think of attraction/desire/drive as the same things.

          There’s still not enough of an idea of actively engaging asexuals for me, or maybe I’m not picking up on it, but I admit I could be more sensitive to that because I’ve been in situations where people have been discussing asexuality over me rather than with me. So at the end of the paper I still see “conversation with theorists” as not engaging, which bothers me, but at least there wasn’t a debate about whether asexuality exists before starting the paper.

          • Sciatrix February 11, 2011 at 1:51 PM #

            The purity people are so creepy, I totally agree with you on that. Yeesh. I agree, I haven’t seen asexuality privileged at all, really–I’m not even sure I would say the purity people privilege it, because what they’re saying about asexuals when they mention us reads more like fetishizing or putting on pedestals than actually privileging asexual experiences over sexual ones. Sexual romantic relationships are still the “default,” and the creepy purity people never seem to be asking actual asexual people what they think either, which… does not really sound like privilege in a social justice context to me.

            I suppose I fall much more on the side of good outweighing the bad because I’ve seen so many fails coming from identified sex-positive people, and it’s nice to see feminist people criticizing those. But yeah–SO MUCH definition fumbling. Given the quote about how feminism could TOTALLY complicate our definitions of asexuality–well, the fact that they don’t seem to comprehend the totality of the current most common one, I’m not holding my breath.

            When I was still posting on AVEN (came back in I think fall 08, left the site for good last November), there was a definite faction that felt pretty strongly that they did not want to see asexuality associated with queerness. I personally am very strongly opposed to that particular faction–I read a lot of it as not wanting to have to give up straight privilege or be “associated” with other kinds of queer people–but it does exist. Given earlier AVEN’s explicit attempts to align itself with other sexual orientations, which would define asexuality as queer in the “non-heterosexual” sense, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that this faction is new enough that you wouldn’t have seen much of it in 05-06.

            I actually see very few people discussing the negative reactions from certain corners of the queer community as a reason for asexuality to disassociate itself with queerness. The more mild form of thinking asexuality isn’t inherently queer that I do see is asexual people worrying that they’re not queer “enough” and that self-identifying as queer might be appropriating in some way. That one crops up in non-AVEN asexual spaces as well occasionally, in my experience, but not as often as on AVEN.

            I totally agree with you that there’s not nearly enough about engaging asexuals in the paper itself. My standards might be a bit low, in fact. There needs to be more recongizance in the paper of the fact that the “no sexual attraction” definition is actually deceptively simple, largely because of the way it dissects things like libido and desire and the actual behavior of having sex and sets it aside, and I think that for a paper about the asexual community it did a very bad job of explaining that. Particularly because asexuals will explain that distinction ad nauseum–it’s not like it’s hard to find people talking about it in the community! If you want to really incorporate asexual ideas into existing queer and feminist ideologies, you should probably consult asexuals first to make sure you’re getting them right.

            • ace eccentric February 12, 2011 at 4:10 PM #

              Mmm that’s a good point. Maybe the fetishizing aspect is why they’re so creepy. I guess that’s “studying us,” too, just in a different way, rather than privileging us.

              I still don’t understand how feminism could complicate our definitions any more than we already complicate them ourselves. Considering even if I use the current most common one, I then have to go into a ramble about how attraction is one thing and all these other elements they mixed together don’t actually have to be mixed together. I guess if they hadn’t taken the time to see how people are currently defining it and talking about the different elements, it would be a little easier to imagine something making it more complicated.

              Ahh. I think I would be opposed to that faction too — I’ve pretty much always read my asexuality as queer, although a little less so when I thought I was mostly hetromantic (this would be the worry about appropriation, but now that I’m older I think if I still identified that way I’d consider it queer). If it is not wanting to give up privilege or be thought of with other queer people, I really wouldn’t like them. Thanks for the info. Sometimes I think about reading more of AVEN just to get reacquainted with more asexual thought, but I just don’t have the energy to go through all of that, and I’ve heard too many bad things about the space.

              I suppose they just assumed from reading the definition that the wikis and the front pages of AVEN were the best places to understand the discussion surrounding different definitions… which seems either dismissive or not as well-researched as it could have been. I agree that it isn’t hard to find people talking about it; even though I’m not on AVEN anymore it’s not like I can’t find discussions on the topic. I could probably spin on about it for a good handful of pages and I don’t even like doing 101. Hopefully future research in the area will be better about engaging asexual people.

      • asexualsexologist February 19, 2011 at 2:45 PM #

        I don’t suppose you could send me a copy of the article? My school doesn’t have a subscription to this journal and none of my connections to other schools do either. I’d really appreciate it since I’ve been trying to find a way to read it for almost 2 weeks! My e-mail address is Info@AsexualSexologist.com .

        • ace eccentric February 19, 2011 at 2:52 PM #

          It says that it can be e-mailed for individual use, so, I think that fits. :) I don’t have an official address for the blog, so all I ask is that you don’t share my address when I send you the article.

          Are you in the U.S.? Sometimes the GAILELO database can detect what public library you’re nearest, and if they have a subscription you can log-in as a guest of that library. I’ve gotten a lot of articles that way.

          • asexualsexologist February 19, 2011 at 2:55 PM #

            I do indeed promise to not share your e-mail address. I am just across the street from a library but I asked them about a number of electronic journals I was trying to find articles in and they said no to all of them, I’m pretty sure I included this one… but it was a while ago, maybe I’ll get lucky.

            • ace eccentric February 19, 2011 at 2:58 PM #

              Thank you! Ahh, sorry to hear that. My county puts a nice amount of money towards libraries so I just noticed it last time I had to get into GAILELO.

  2. grasexuality February 10, 2011 at 1:05 PM #

    Hmm… I could’ve sworn there was an asexual Karli June who had an old blog with a few posts on it. Maybe she was sexual, or maybe it was a different person, but I’m sure the blog existed. It’s possible that she just adopted a very “outside looking in” tone in order to maintain a sense of objectivity. I think in academic papers people are strongly encouraged not to provide that kind of personal information. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but I plan to go to acquisitions soon and request that the library add it, among other papers. It does sound unfortunately condescending from these quotes, whether that was intended or not. I hope it does have at least something worth quoting.

    • ace eccentric February 10, 2011 at 3:44 PM #

      Yeah, I can see not wanting to provide that information in the paper. If Cerankowski is ace, then I think she bungled the delivery, because I never really got a sense of “the feminist community engaging with the ace community to think about A and B,” more “the feminist community studying the ace community and then coming to X conclusions and reevaluating Y.” If she wanted to include the ace community more directly in those discussions, she or Milks didn’t make it very clear. Maybe they assumed it would be implicit and I didn’t pick up on that in the reading. I tried to read it several times. I hope your library can add it to their collection, I’d like to see whether my impressions match up with anyone else’s.

    • Andrew March 1, 2011 at 12:43 AM #

      Yes, this is the same Karli who had the short-lived blog. I just tried to find it online, but it seems that it has been taken down. My impression is that feminist epistemology tends to be skeptical towards many notions of objectivity. Also, it is often unabashedly political–quite a different approach from trying to be as detached and objective as possible.

  3. maddox March 3, 2011 at 6:18 PM #

    I don’t really know how to define a feminist. But from what you wrote I gathered that it’s women asserting their right to have sex, nay, their obligation to exert that right as much as possible, in order to stick it to the manly world that they CAN and WILL have sex! Hence why asexuals, and asexual women staunchly asserting their asexuality, are such a threat. Did I get that right? :)

    • ace eccentric March 3, 2011 at 8:45 PM #

      I define feminists as people who think that all people should be equal, and have moved past a historical thinking of women being inferior. But there’s been waves of feminist theory, and different thoughts and methods in the movement, that have been problematic in the past (ex. leaving out women of color, transwomen, etc.). From what I can tell there’s been a move in the feminist movement to claim women’s rights by asserting women’s sexuality and insisting that women can, do, and have the right to enjoy sex, since that was historically denied. So asexual women would throw a wrench in that thinking a little bit, yes.


  1. Revenge of the Linkspam « Writing From Factor X - February 27, 2011

    […] An Asexual Space, a commentary on the “New Orientations” paper: Short version: imagining the impact acknowledging asexuality as a legitimate thing in the world […]

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