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Life without sex: imagining asexuality in popular culture
By Karli Cerankowski, 2011-12 Graduate Dissertation Fellow
“If you’re not having sex, what’s there to talk about?” The View co-host Star Jones asked David Jay, founder of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), when he was a guest on the ABC daytime talk show. In a society that teaches us to constantly think and talk about sex, this might seem like a legitimate question. If we truly have become a society structured around sex — when we have it, who we are having it with and how often we are having it — then what is there to really talk about when people are aren’t having sex?
In a hypersexual media culture, asexuality is a hot topic for discussion. AVEN defines asexuality as, “an orientation describing people who do not experience sexual attraction." The idea of someone being asexual can be unfathomable to those who believe that sex is a normal, healthy, and necessary part of human life. Despite the growing popularity of AVEN’s online community and a burgeoning movement, asexuals remain nearly unimaginable in American popular culture.
In the United States, our culture is becoming more open to multiple ways of expressing sexual desire. Even President Obama has voiced his support of gay marriage. Yet, in this period of heightened awareness around sexuality, people who do not experience sexual desire are left out of the scripts that guide our social expectations regarding gender and sexuality. Often asexual people are dismissed as immature, in need of hormonal therapy, sexually traumatized, repressed, or ascetic and sacrificial. These commonplace responses only serve to pathologize or medicalize asexuals, and consequently reinforce boundaries around “normal” and “appropriate” sexuality.
Anthony Bogaert’s analysis of the data suggests that at least one percent of the population may be asexual.
Developing a deeper understanding of asexuality helps illustrate how arbitrarily sexual norms are constructed, and how they tend to leave a significant number of people on the margins. Anthony Bogaert, a social psychologist at Brock University, has extrapolated survey data from a study on sexuality done in the UK. Bogaert’s analysis of the data suggests that at least one percent of the population may be asexual. Many members of the asexual community believe this to be a conservative estimate.
Opening a dialogue on asexuality
Despite the continued growth of an asexual community, our culture is still struggling to find language to talk about asexuality. In the United States, AVEN does outreach at conferences, LGBT resource centers, college campuses, and LGBT pride parades. The website also serves as a resource for education and visibility. AVEN members have also appeared on daytime television shows like The Montel Williams Show, The View, 20/20, and MSNBC’s The Situation. More recently, New York based Arts Engine, has produced a documentary film on the subject entitled (A)sexual.
With all this media attention, one might expect that by now more people would have heard of and developed a more complex understanding of asexuality. However, as the women of The View aptly illustrate, sex still sells – though perhaps at the cost of presenting asexuals as spectacular sideshow acts. Ironically, media works hard to make asexuality seem sexy. For the sake of sensation and capital gain, asexual bodies are displayed as objects of consumption for an inquiring and incredulous public. These cultural representations can sometimes perpetuate stereotypes and ideologies that have material effects on how people are treated.
Because kneejerk reactions to asexuals in popular culture tend to cast them as broken subjects, it is necessary to reframe the popular representations of asexuality. Instead, we can look more critically at the representations of asexuality in American culture and refigure asexuality in positive terms that challenge us to reconceive our definitions of sexual normalcy. Asexual experiences diversify the ways in which intimacy is understood by including non-sexual partnerships, networks of emotionally-intimate relationships, and passionate friendships. Perhaps we can learn to understand asexuality not as an absence or lack of sexual attraction, but as a way of desiring differently and creating new forms of intimacy.
Karli Cerankowski is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. Her research interests include performance studies, queer studies, feminist studies, and studies in gender and sexuality. She was a Graduate Dissertation Fellow 2011-12 at Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research.