Labels, labels, labels!

This weekend, I attended the LGBTQIA conference at the University of the Pacific, a biannual event that draws hundreds of people from throughout California. At this conference, I presented an overview of findings from my research for my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community. The room was packed. There were people sitting on the floor. I stayed for half an hour after my session ended to talk to a line of people. “I don’t think they liked it very much,” one of my colleagues joked afterwards.

Then there was The Question. The one I didn’t have a great answer for. “Did you consider interviewing someone who identifies as asexual?” she asked. I had not. Because, in fact, I don’t know anyone who openly identifies as asexual. I didn’t at that particular moment, anyway. Throughout the conference, I met several people who identify as asexual. I met another person who is a demisexual panromantic poly female. I met another person who described herself as an “amoeba.” I heard the terms “gray-A,”, “nonlibidoism,” and “queerplatonic.” I’m embarrassed to admit that I wrote these terms down and Googled them later, because I had no idea what they meant – and, like entering Narnia through the back of the wardrobe, I was introduced to a whole new nomenclature.

There aren’t a whole lot of studies focusing on asexuality, and I could only find one that addressed the question of how common it is. Out of a community-based sample of 18,000 participants, 1% identified as asexual – which doesn’t sound like much, until you crunch the numbers. One percent of 18,000 is 180. One percent of the U.S. population is over three million people. That’s a lot of people.

Other studies focus on who is likely to be asexual. Morag Yule and Lori Brotto, researchers at the University of British Columbia Sexual Health Lab, have conducted several studies investigating whether other characteristics are associated with asexuality. Interestingly, asexual men and women are more likely to be left-handed, according to one study. One of their studies focused on birth order – asexual men, according to their findings, are more likely than non-asexuals to be later-born siblings, while asexual women are more likely to be first-borns. People who are asexual are more likely, according to yet another study, to have alexithymia – an emotional blindness, detached from any experience of feelings. Not surprisingly, Laura Gilmour, a researcher from Grant MacEawan University in Ontario, found a higher-than-average rate of asexuality among people with autism spectrum disorders – which often involve some form of alexithymia. The asexual community seems to have made this connection on its own – one blogger calls himself  “Amoebageek.” (“Amoeba” is a slang term used to describe asexuality.) Another calls herself “LadyGeekGirl” and posts semi-regularly about asexuality. Like so many things in the queer community, I bet if an asexual-identified person read these studies, that person would say, “Well, I could have told you THAT!”

All of that came from about five different studies. No joke. In fact, the best information out there about asexuality isn’t emerging from the psychological literature – at least, not yet. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), on the other hand, provides an overview of asexuality, a series of FAQs, stories of the experiences of various asexual-identified people, a newsletter, and an online forum.  In fact, some people identify as “AVENites” or “AVENistas,” meaning that they are a member of the AVEN forums. It’s clear that AVEN is a strong fixture in the asexual community, and it’s chock-full of great information.

As I was reading through AVEN’s site for the first time, what intrigued me was their strong, repeated focus on research ethics. Emphasis on the word STRONG. Their “Rules for using AVEN for research,” for example, provides researchers with an extensive set of guidelines for recruiting participants or using existing data from AVEN. This is as rigorous as a university Human Subjects Committee, I thought to myself as I read through these documents. In addition to their lengthy guidelines, AVEN also asks researchers to read their “Open Letter to Researchers,” a document drafted in 2011 that provides further recommendations for conducting research using online asexual communities. 

Why so much focus on research ethics? Remember what I said earlier – that “the best information out there about asexuality isn’t emerging from the psychological literature.” Part of that is because asexuality is just starting to register on the radar screen. But part of it is that asexuality has already been extensively studied – but in an abusive and pathologizing way. You see, most researchers have assumed that asexuality is a psychological disorder. They get diagnosed with “HSDD” – hypoactive sexual desire disorder (or, since the publication of DSM-5, “SIAD” – sexual interest/arousal disorder). And then they get treated for it – well, subjected to reparative therapy, really. Sound familiar?

Think about it. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people continue to be subjected to reparative therapy, even 41 years after the “homosexuality” diagnosis was removed from the DSM. Transgender people often are expected (or forced) to undergo some form of gender-reparative therapy, often after being diagnosed with “gender identity disorder” (or, since DSM-V, “gender dysphoria”). And here it is again. While there truly are people who suffer from sexual dysfunctions and deserve to experience relief from them, AVEN – and a growing group of researchers – makes clear that asexuality is not the same thing as HSDD or SIAD. It’s a sexual orientation. And attempts at changing people’s sexual orientation via reparative therapy techniques – well, you all know how that goes.

At the conference, the question about asexuality wasn’t the only one that got the gears of my brain turning. Shortly afterwards, another student approached me and asked, “What do you think about labels?” (Actually, before asking the question, he prefaced with a series of comments about queer theory, post-structuralism, and radical deconstructionism. I won’t go into all of that here.)

What do I think about labels? I had to think for a minute. Years ago, feminist psychologist Laura Brown wrote a book called Subversive Dialogues: Theory in Feminist Therapy, which influenced my thinking enormously. One chapter in the book was titled “Naming the Pain,” and it focused on the politics of diagnosis – a form of labeling, if you will. The Cliffs Notes version of that chapter is that diagnosis, as we all know, can be incredibly pathologizing and shaming. But it can also be liberating. Knowing what it is that you have enables you to talk about it, to find community, to experience some sense of relief.

The same goes, I think, for sexual and gender identity labels. Finding a word to describe your experience can be enormously empowering. Once you find the word “asexual,” you’re more likely to stumble upon AVEN – and find a large community of others like yourself. But labels can be hijacked by others (or they can create their own labels), and used to suppress and control. Sexual and gender minorities are all too familiar with this, I must say.

One conference. A semester’s worth of new information. Try it sometime.

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Filed under bisexuality, human rights, intersectionality, psychological research, relationships, reparative therapy

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