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Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology

J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 25: 167180 (2015)


Published online 1 July 2014 in Wiley Online Library
(wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/casp.2203

Making Sense in and of the Asexual Community:


Navigating Relationships and Identities in a Context
of Resistance

CJ DELUZIO CHASIN*
Department of Psychology, University of Windsor, 401 Sunset Ave., 173-2 Chrysler Hall South, Windsor, Ontario
N9B 3P4, Canada

ABSTRACT

Despite some increased visibility in recent years, the asexual community and asexuality generally
remain largely unknown. Aiming to demystify asexuality, this paper discusses the context of anti-
asexual animosity in which the (largely American) asexual community is situated. Specically, the
asexual community constructed itself in response to hostility, including explicit anti-asexual discrim-
ination, homophobia against asexual people perceived to be lesbian or gay, and the negative impact
of (implicit) pathologising low sexual desire. This theoretical paper outlines some of the unique
challenges asexual people face negotiating identities and relationships; the collective sense-making
strategies they use (generating language and discourse) to do so; and why these things are central
to understanding asexual peoples experiences. This is accomplished through a purposeful review
of literature and a case study of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network as an asexual
community space. Understanding the challenges asexual people face and the resources they invoke
to overcome them helps applied psychologists develop the cultural competence they need to work
effectively with the asexual people they will encounter. Copyright 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Key words: asexuality; asexual community; online community; sexual minority; sexual orientation;
sexual identity; LGBTQ; discourse; relationships; cultural competence

INTRODUCTION TO THE ASEXUAL COMMUNITY VIA AVEN

Being asexual is a positive way of being human and relating to othersfeaturing signicant
diversityjust like being sexual or non-asexual. The Asexual Visibility and Education
Network (AVEN) denes asexuality as a lack of sexual attraction, and many other asexual
spaces and activist forces such as Asexuality Awareness Week (AAW) use similar

*Correspondence to: CJ DeLuzio Chasin, Department of Psychology, University of Windsor, 401 Sunset Ave.,
173-2 Chrysler Hall South, Windsor, Ontario, N9B 3P4, Canada. E-mail: chasin@uwindsor.ca

Copyright 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Accepted 9 June 2014
168 C. D. Chasin

denitions.1 Asexual people may experience romantic attraction, pursue romantic relation-
ships, and have (straight, gay, lesbian, or bi) romantic orientations or may alternatively be
aromantic. As the sexual/romantic distinction is central to understanding asexuality, it
features prominently both in asexual community educational materials (e.g. AVEN and
AAW pamphlets2) and in academic writing about asexuality (e.g. Bogaert, 2006; Brotto,
Knudson, Inskip, Rhodes, & Erskine, 2010; Brotto & Yule, 2011; Prause & Graham, 2007).
An estimated 1% of people do not experience sexual attraction (Bogaert, 2004)people
who might or might not self-identify as asexual (or even know about asexuality). Unfortu-
nately, awareness of asexuality is still extremely limited, and asexual people have therefore
relied on the internet to nd and build asexual community. As I will explain, the asexual
community includes members who do not self-identify as asexual per se. Consequently,
the term ace is sometimes used to be more inclusive, yet others do not feel represented by
this colloquialism. Therefore, I will refer to the diverse community of people on the
asexual spectrum as the asexual/ace community.
This paper is a theoretical article grounded in both published literature and a case study
of asexual/ace community surrounding AVEN, which was chosen for its extreme size and
notability compared with other centralised asexual/ace community spaces. I explore this
asexual/ace community from a broadly ecologically informed perspectivenamely
accepting that people and their actions exist in a multi-dimensional context, and make
sense only within that context (Kelly, 1987). Signicantly, the focus on AVEN situates
this discussion within a largely American-informed social context. Also, this paper does
not address race because AVENs asexual/ace community adopts a race-neutral stance
(i.e. race is absent from AVENs information about asexuality, and many AVEN members
explicitly endorse race-neutral and colour-blind discourses, e.g. Owen, 2012). However,
many asexual/ace community members do discuss race and racism as central to their asexual-
itynding/creating safe(r) places to do that outside of AVEN (e.g. asexual blogs and tumblr3).
This paper outlines some of the unique challenges asexual/ace people face negotiating
identities and relationships, the strategies they use, and why these are central to under-
standing asexual/ace peoples experiences. Accordingly, I focus on asexual people making
sense out of being asexual in the context of a culture that is far from asexual friendly.
Reviewing existing literature, this paper rst explicates and theorises the context of social
animosity situating the asexual/ace community. In particular, some of the parallels with
heterosexism and homophobia are discussed, along with unique asexuality-specic
challenges (e.g. lack of social recognition for signicant relationships; overlap between
asexuality and the psychiatric diagnosis for low sexual desire). Next, this paper explores
some discursive and cultural resources the asexual/ace community has produced to
navigate this context of animosity, and the collective processes of identity negotiation that
asexual people have undertaken. The purpose of this two-fold analysis is to help equip
applied psychologists to better identify, understand, and serve the asexual/ace people they

1
Hinderliter (2009) discussed how AVEN adopted its attraction-based asexuality denition and how this was re-
lated to AVEN quickly becoming the (pre)dominant central asexual community hub.
2
Printable versions of AVEN pamphlets and other asexual community resources are freely available online at
http://www.asexuality.org/en/topic/72195-links-and-resources-masterpost/ and http://asexualawarenessweek.
com/downloadable-resources/
3
One particularly popular discussion about race and the asexual community began on Peaces blog
thingsthatmakeyouacey on 17 April 2014: http://thingsthatmakeyouacey.tumblr.com/post/82945597477/it-kind-
of-is-when-it-comes-to-the-community

Copyright 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 25: 167180 (2015)
DOI: 10.1002/casp
Making sense of asexuality 169

will inevitably encounter in their practice and researchsensitive to the contextualised


struggles and creative solutions unique within the asexual/ace community.

FACING ANIMOSITY

Asexuality and discrimination


Asexuality as a missing sexual orientation category. In 1980, Storms mapped sexual
orientation on a plane dened by two orthogonal axes of gender-based sexual attractions,
dening four quadrants: heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality. Else-
where (Chasin, 2011), I discussed how various researchers (e.g. Bogaert, 2006; Brotto
et al., 2010; Prause & Graham, 2007) have explicitly and implicitly conceptualised asexu-
ality as a sexual-orientation-type category according to this model. Bogaert (2012) further
detailed support for asexuality as a sexual orientation in his recent book about asexuality.
Moreover, although asexuality might be regarded as a meta-category including signicant
romantic orientation diversity (and not a unied sexual orientation), it nevertheless
occupies the pragmatic space of a single sexual orientation. Asexual people cannot rightly
be said to have a sexual orientation other than asexuality, so whether asexuality is a sexual
orientation proper or a lack thereof, it lls the conceptual space of a sexual orientation
category in this context. Moreover, situated amid prominent identity politics, asexuality
represents a useful political sexual orientation (identity) categoryand the political action
toward asexual visibility has proceeded accordingly. Furthermore, just like other sexual
orientation categories, asexuality is not determined by behaviourmany asexual/ace people
are behaviourally celibate, whereas others participate in (often unwanted although,
ideally, non-coerced) sexual contact with (non-asexual) partners.
People on the asexual/ace spectrum (e.g. including demisexuals and grey asexuals who
experience some degree of sexual attraction in certain contexts) face several sites of (often
unintentional) hindrance. These include others (e.g. family, friends, and professionals) not
understanding/believing their asexuality; people undervaluing their friendships and other
signicant relationships; and for those asexual people who date, trying to navigate the highly
sexualised dating world from an asexual perspective (often when dating a sexual/non-asexual
person). Just like members of any other marginalised sexual orientation-type group, people
on the asexual/ace spectrum face issues of being closeted, or coming out of the closet. Many
of these issues are either uniquely asexual or affect asexual people in unique ways.
Although strong analogies can be drawn linking homophobia, heterosexism, and the ideo-
logically informed treatment of heterosexuality as an unacknowledged and naturalised norm
(i.e. heteronormativity) with anti-asexual discrimination and the ideologically informed
treatment of sexuality as an unacknowledged and naturalised norm (i.e. sexual normativity),
these analogies are not perfect. For example, heteronormative arguments are often explicitly
made, intentionally insisting that being heterosexual is superior to being lesbian, gay, or
bisexual (e.g. opposition to legalised same-sex marriage based on the alleged unique sanctity
of manwoman marriage). However, sexual normativity (and the predicating belief that being
sexual or non-asexual is better than being asexual4) is rarely articulated so directly and instead
4
I recently explored this belief in detail, explicating how/why it underlies some very common discourses surrounding
asexual people, public acceptance of asexuality, and clinical treatment of people with low (partner-focused) sexual
desire (Chasin, 2013).

Copyright 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 25: 167180 (2015)
DOI: 10.1002/casp
170 C. D. Chasin

crops up less obviously, in more insidious, mundane contextssuch as suggestions that


asexual people are missing out on sexuality, or warnings against people pigeon-holing
themselves as asexual too soon. These struggles, and their profound impacts, are often
unnoticed by non-asexual people who have never had to experience the difculties of being
impossible in this way. Signicantly, this kind of sexualnormative, anti-asexual opposition
is systemic and rarely involves malicious intentgoverned by compulsory sexuality, the
non-asexual world simply has no place yet for asexual/ace people and so operates as though
none exist.
Discrimination motivated by anti-asexual sentiment. Academics have not substan-
tially investigated anti-asexual discrimination, and only several have made preliminary
attempts. MacInnis and Hodson (2012) discovered that participants were more willing to
discriminate against hypothetical members of Group X who were not interested in sexual
contact (i.e. asexual people, not named as such) than against hypothetical gay and lesbian
individuals. Meanwhile, using a modied version of a scale originally designed to measure
discrimination against lesbians, Gazzola and Morrison (2011) attempted to measure the
asexuality-related discrimination that asexual-identied people personally report.
Although this work is important, and adapting existing measures is a reasonable starting
point, it is only a starting point. Asexual participants in their study reported experiencing
few incidents of direct deliberate discrimination as measured by the research scale; yet,
this nding seems to be an artefact of the questions they posed (and omitted) rather than
a substantive nding about asexual/ace peoples experiences of asexuality-related discrim-
ination. Not surprisingly, few participants reported discrimination on the basis of their
asexual appearance, whereas the kinds of (direct) discrimination that asexual people do
face were simply missing from the measure (e.g. family and friends rejecting the
legitimacy of signicant non-sexual and/or non-romantic relationships). Gazzola and
Morrisons ndings illustrate that the kinds of discrimination faced by lesbian women
might not be equally or similarly relevant to asexual/ace people; moreover, their results
reect the limitations of existing measures and their insensitivity to the diverse kinds of
discrimination specic and most salient to asexual/ace people. Carrigan (2011) illuminated
some of these issues indirectly, drawing on self-identied asexual peoples explanations of
why they do or do not come out about being asexual, and the risk assessments involved.
Understanding asexuality means seeking out and carefully considering actual experiences
of real asexual/ace people, and not merely extrapolating from lesbian, gay, and bisexual
experiences or narratives.
Homophobia and heterosexism acting on asexual people. Homophobia and hetero-
sexism affect asexual/ace people more than might be expected (especially for asexual/
ace people who do not form gay or lesbian romantic relationships). Note that even though
LGB identities are about sexual orientation, being read as lesbian and gay (and bisexual to
the extent that this is possible) is primarily about interpreting gender presentation. Further-
more, homophobia, heterosexism, and sexual orientation-focused discrimination are
largely based on the social policing of gender. Specically, these things are often theorised
as punitive sanctions against violations of both heteronormative masculinity (e.g. Pascoe,
2005) and heteronormative femininity (e.g. Hamilton, 2007) within an institutionally
heterosexual erotic market or economy (e.g. Collins, 2004; McCall, 1992). This means that
heteronormative gender structure marks as other anyone who resists heterosexualitys
conguration of masculinity/femininity, perhaps by failing to participate (or participate

Copyright 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 25: 167180 (2015)
DOI: 10.1002/casp
Making sense of asexuality 171

correctly) in the social economy of (hetero)sexual desire. Moreover, perpetrators of homo-


phobic violence often insist their actions were not based on hatred either of homosexuality
or of gay, lesbian, or bisexual people but instead explain their actions as targeting their
victims (perceived) violations of gender (e.g. Franklin, 1998). In practice, therefore,
conventionally feminine-seeming lesbian and bisexual women (or conventionally
masculine-seeming gay or bisexual men) escape aspects of homophobias punitive/regulatory
inuence, whereas heterosexual (and non-LGB asexual) people who violate these norms face
them in some contexts.
Asexual/ace people are disproportionately affected by these kinds of homophobia and
heterosexist gender policing because they are especially likely to not participate in aspects
of heteronormative gender related to the economy of sexual desire (e.g. conventional
heterosexual irting, dating, and/or sexual behaviours; dressing to be (hetero) sexy).
Moreover, there is currently no way to be read as asexual per se. Even wearing a t-shirt
declaring asexual or I am asexual typically proves insufcient.5 Consequently,
asexual/ace people are frequently read as lesbian or gay (or occasionally bisexual) by simply
being asexual (i.e. including not actively doing heterosexuality), regardless of whether they
are actually lesbian, gay, or biromantic. When this happens, asexual/ace people are subjected
to homophobic and heterosexist reactions as though they were lesbian or gay (or bisexual),
because there is no social space for asexuality as an intelligible alternative to heterosexuality:
being lesbian or gay (and to a lesser extent, bisexual) are the only viable categories of non-
heterosexuality. Because being asexual in a heteronormative context where asexuality is
not yet possible sets up asexual people to be subject to homophobia by virtue of their
asexuality, this kind of discrimination should be considered asexuality-related discrimi-
nation (e.g. asexuality-related homophobia). How frequently (or why or how) non-LGB
asexual/ace people are read as (sexual or non-asexual) LGB people is unclear. However,
on the basis of my own experience talking with other asexual/ace community members
and reading accounts of asexual/ace experiences, this seems to be a common occurrence,
especially for asexual people on the aromantic spectrum (who are frequently overlooked
in these types of discussions).
Moreover, many asexual/ace people are also lesbian, gay, biromantic, or otherwise
queer-identied and therefore face the issues of homophobia alongside their non-asexual
counterparts (for reasons other than violations of heteronormative gender presentation,
e.g. having a signicant relationship with someone of the same gender). This homophobia
intersects with their asexuality instead of simply being triggered because of it. The Asexy
Census project (a grass-roots endeavour by members of the asexual/ace community) found
that, of more than 3400 participating people on the asexual spectrum, about 30% were
LGB (romantic), and another 30% reported experiencing other (non-exclusively hetero
or homo) romantic attractions (Asexual Awareness Week, 2011). LGB and otherwise
non-hetero asexual people may therefore experience both asexuality-related homophobia
and typical homophobia (e.g. barring a same-gender partner from hospital visits) that acts
in addition to other forms of asexuality-specic discrimination, perhaps intersecting in
complex ways. Of course, it is important to consider how other systemic oppressions
(e.g. racism, ableism, and sexism) function uniquely for asexual people. Although exploring

5
In my experience, displaying an asexuality t-shirt or sign is, unfortunately, a remarkably effective way to solicit
(unwanted) offers of casual sex and occasionally inspires threats of corrective rape.

Copyright 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 25: 167180 (2015)
DOI: 10.1002/casp
172 C. D. Chasin

these ideas is beyond the scope of this paper, some asexual/ace community members are
having these conversations, and certain academics are beginning to join them.

Transphobia and cis-centrism acting on asexual people. Just like non-asexual people,
some asexual/ace people are subject to transphobia because they are (or are read by others
as) trans-identied, androgynous, genderqueer, agender, or otherwise-identied in terms of
gender or may express themselves in gender non-conforming ways (beyond what is
coded as signalling LGB identity). The Asexy Census project found that approximately
80% of asexual/ace-identied participants described themselves as not transgender
(Asexual Awareness Week, 2011). Meanwhile, approximately 10% claimed a transgender
identity, and an additional 10% indicated that they were unsure about their transgender
status. Some of this uncertainty likely results from the ambivalent inclusion/exclusion of
people with non-binary gender identities within transgender circles. Point of fact, many
respondents answered the multiple-response gender question with gender neutral,
androgynous, and gender queer or gender variant (more than 10% each); with gender
uid (8%) and with I dont have a gender identity (6%). Moreover, looking at the raw
Asexy Census data, Miller (2011) determined that 23% of respondents answered by se-
lected neither female nor male optionshalf of these people considered themselves
not transgender, whereas the remaining half were equally split between transgender
and unsure. Additionally, two recent studies with asexual participants suggest that atypi-
cal (i.e. non-binary) gender identities may be especially common within the asexual/ace
community. About 12% of participants in a large study (N = 214) by Brotto et al. (2010)
refused to provide any gender information when this was asked in a two-option forced
choice question, even though this decision resulted in (knowingly) cutting short participa-
tion in the study. Meanwhile, almost 20% of participants in a small study (N = 39) by
Gazzola and Morrison (2011) claimed gender identities other than man or woman.6
Because of the proportionally large number of asexual people who are trans-identied
and/or who have non-binary gender identities, the asexual/ace community may sustain
an especially powerful impact of transphobia and cis-centrism7 collectively (although indi-
vidually, experiences of these things may differ radically). Psychologists and other service
providers working with people on the asexual spectrum should anticipate clients and
participants with a variety of non-binary gender identities, as well as diverse binary and
non-binary-identied trans people.

Asexuality versus a disorder of sexual desire


Overlapping conceptual territory: asexuality or/and Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder.
Bogaert (2006) and Prause and Graham (2007) distinguished asexuality from the DSM-IV-
TR diagnosis of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD)the clinical disorder dened
by absence of sexual desire coupled with distress or interpersonal difculties (American
Psychiatric Association, 2000). They argued instead that asexuality per se should not be
regarded as pathological. Bogaert in particular argued that asexuality (i.e. lack of sexual
6
I explore elsewhere (2011) some reasons that the asexual community might reect a particularly large proportion
of trans and/or non-binary-identied people.
7
Cis-centrism designates the often-invisible ideology positioning cisgender experiences and perspectives as the
norm, that is, the centring of people who have gender identities that straightforwardly match the genders they were
assigned at birth.

Copyright 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 25: 167180 (2015)
DOI: 10.1002/casp
Making sense of asexuality 173

attraction) and lifelong HSDD (i.e. low sexual desire) were substantively different phenom-
ena. However, given the lived experiences of so many asexual people, the clear-cut attrac-
tion/desire distinction may be misleading. Unsurprisingly, asexual people also often
experience low or absent desire for partnered sexual contact (e.g. Brotto & Yule, 2011;
Brotto et al., 2010; Prause & Graham, 2007). This means that an asexual person can be diag-
nosed with HSDD if this person is made to feel badly about being asexual, perhaps through
romantic involvement with a non-asexual person who objects to asexuality. The new DSM-5
criteria maintain this situation for asexual people because both Female Sexual Interest/
Arousal Disorder and Male Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder feature the absence of
sexual/erotic thoughts and/or desire for sexual activity, coupled with personal distress (American
Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Although academics continue exploring where and how to separate asexuality from
HSDD (e.g. Gazzola & Morrison, 2011), Hinderliter (2013) discussed how asexuality
and HSDD are two different kinds of concepts with different histories and purposes.
Specically, asexuality was created by and for people building a community about shared
experience. Meanwhile, HSDD was constructed by clinicians and pharmaceutical compa-
nies working, for prot, to delineate and cure a problem. As various feminists have
discussed (e.g. Cacchioni, 2007; Hartley, 2006; Tiefer, 2006) since the emergence of
Viagra, the pharmaceutical industry has been searching for an equivalent drug to sell to
women, resulting in the medicalisation of womens sexuality and the invention of female sex-
ual dysfunction (which consists primarily of HSDD, Metson & Bradford, 2007). Men too
face pressure in various forms, such as expectations that real men are always up for it
(e.g. Muehlenhard & Cook, 1988). Consequently, and as neither asexual people nor people
aiming to cure HSDD will likely voluntarily cede conceptual territory, asexuality and HSDD
will overlap. Furthermore, as mostif not allasexual people experience low (partner-
focused) sexual desire, and as HSDD is dened as low (partner-focused) sexual desire ac-
companied by distress, HSDD can conceptually subsume asexuality to the extent that distress
can be imposed on asexual people. Although deliberate attempts to cause distress would be
clearly unethical, and (as I have to believe) very unlikely, it is important to question the source
of asexuality-related distress and to assess the impact of the implicit assumption that being
sexual or non-asexual is better than being asexual (e.g. Chasin, 2013).

Interrogating sources of distress. General sexual/non-asexual culture is likely to be


distressing for people who do not want sex. Przybylo (2011) described the sexusociety
as the integration of sexuality and societya context that is routinely hostile toward
asexuality and difcult for asexual people to navigate without considerable opposition.
This hostility is powerful, reecting a society organised around the presumption of
(hetero)sexuality as the norm, which fails to recognise or accept asexuality, in which
non-sexual relationships are routinely undervalued, and where not wanting sex can be
considered a diagnosable mental disorder. Allowing asexual people to be diagnosed with
HSDD because they are distressed because they live in a world that is inhospitable to
asexual people is not only complicit in the persecution of asexual people but actively rein-
forces it. This is profoundly problematic, and the values of community psychology call for
a solution that is more afrming of the asexual/ace community.
Clinicians should consider why someone is distressed about not wanting sex before
diagnosing a client with HSDD and/or working to increase their level of sexual desire.
Another therapeutic outcome more appropriate for many clientsfor asexual people and

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DOI: 10.1002/casp
174 C. D. Chasin

undoubtedly some non-asexual people toois to eliminate the distress surrounding low
sexual desire without attempting to change the level of sexual desire itself.8 Some (not
necessarily asexual) clients would surely prefer this approach if it were offered and
regarded as legitimate. Although some clinicians certainly already engage in those consid-
erations, doing so is voluntary; other clinicians are unaware they are possible.
Interrogating distress about low sexual desire is crucial, given the nancial incentives
endemic in a capitalist system to generate both problems and consumer demand for
solutions that can then be sold. For example, some people working to develop (and sell)
a cure for HSDD have attempted to construct womens sexuality as pathological by
denition, for instance, by claiming that HSDD may affect all women (Kingsberg,
Simon, & Goldstein, 2008, p. 183) at some point in their lives. Worst case scenario, ethical
practices risk being compromised when psychological and/or mental health services oper-
ate on a for-prot basis, and people in distress are re-cast as consumers of services and/or
treatments: more distress means more consumption (and prot). This consumer-economy
perspective toward mental health and sexuality carries the potential for profound harm.
Even well-meaning practitioners can perpetuate distress by approaching low desire per
se (and not hostility targeting it) as the problempotentially pathologising the asexuality
of asexual/ace people who carry internalised shame or self-hatred. Others may implicitly
delegitimise asexuality by only accepting it after ruling out all possibilities for curing
or explaining away low (partner-focused) sexual desire. As it happens, if Hildebrand-
Chupps honours thesis (2013) is any indication, practitioners specialising in sexual
disorders often do regard clients low sexual desire in this way. Although no hostility
may be intended, the impact of (unintentional) sexual-centrismjust like (unintentional)
hetero-centrismcan be devastating. Approaching mental health and sexuality as though
asexuality were an (second-rate) afterthought harms asexual/ace people and needs to stop.

The goal of treatment: corrective/reparative therapy?. If a gay, lesbian, or bisexual


individual distressed about being gay, lesbian, or bisexual seeks clinical help from a
psychologist, then according to the American Psychological Associations Resolution on
Appropriate Afrmative Responses to Sexual Orientation Distress and Change Efforts
(APACR, 2009), the psychologist should help the client resolve issues of distress without
trying to change the clients sexual orientation. In other words, psychologists should never
engage in corrective/reparative therapy, which the American Psychological Association
has deemed unethical (Anton, 2010). Additionally, the Guidelines for Psychotherapy with
Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Clients afrm psychologists ethical obligations to oppose
ideas of LGB people as mentally ill because of their sexual orientations. These further
require psychologists to strive to understand the stigmatisation and prejudice that LGB
people face and their impact on mental health (APA, 2012). Unfortunately, APAs Council
of Representatives did not include asexuality in their denition of sexual orientation, and
psychologists currently have no expressed obligation either to accept asexuality or to avoid
trying to cure it. As a profession, psychology has yet to articulate any ethical or
professional position against corrective/reparative therapy targeting asexuality or asexual/
ace people. Until this happens, the profession is actively complicit in sexualnormative,
sexual-centric anti-asexual social hostility.
8
Brotto and Yule (2011) made similar recommendations, although limited in scope to the treatment of (self-identied)
asexual clients.

Copyright 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 25: 167180 (2015)
DOI: 10.1002/casp
Making sense of asexuality 175

MAKE SENSE OF ASEXUAL IDENTITY, EXPERIENCES, AND RELATIONSHIPS

Negotiating asexual identity: emphasising self-identication


Asexuality is not limited to the kinds of relationships that asexual people do not form
but is more importantly about the kinds of relationships that do constitute asexual/ace
peoples social lives. For those asexual/ace people who might not necessarily have a
strong sense of being not sexual (despite lacking a strong sense of being sexual),
empathising and identifying with the stories and perspectives of other self-identied
asexual/ace people lead them to consider themselves as asexual/ace. AVEN is this rst
and often only point of contact many people have with the asexual/ace community,
although increasingly, people are encountering asexuality in disparate online spaces
of tumblr and the asexual blogosphere. As evidenced by accounts on the forums,
AVEN is where many people realise that there are people with whom they share an
(asexual/ace) experiencea way of being (asexual/ace)that they might not have
otherwise considered, or considered possible.
Perusing the discussion forums, it is apparent that new members (e.g. posting discover-
ing asexuality stories or questions in the Welcome Lounge or the Asexual Q&A sections)
are initially trying to puzzle out whether they are themselves asexual.9 Although AVEN
broadly denes asexuality as a lack of sexual attraction, people are left to decide for them-
selves whether asexuality ts. The standard party-line routinely voicedthat no-one
can tell you if you are asexual and people must decide this for themselvesreects AV-
ENs philosophy of self-identication. This is further illustrated by static content of the
website, in the General FAQ section. The philosophy is stated explicitly as a response to
the question Am I asexual?:
The denition of asexuality is someone who does not experience sexual attraction. However,
only you can decide which label best suits you. Reading this FAQ and the rest of the material
on this site may help you decide whether or not you are asexual. If you nd that the asexual label
best describes you, you may choose to identify as asexual (AVEN, 2008a).

The second question emphases this further (AVEN, 2008a): (Q) I dont nd anyone
sexually attractive.10 Does that mean Im asexual?; (A) By the denition, yes. Again,
only you can decide to use asexual as a label for yourself. There is clearly strong
resistance within the ofcial AVEN discourse against declaring people asexual on their
behalf. If the asexual/ace identity and community are predicated on a sense of shared
experience and sympathy, then it makes sense that community membership (i.e. asexual
identity) should be left for individuals to determineand should not be a matter of blindly
applying a denition. This also implies membership/identity to be potentially uid, as
experiences can change over time. Otherwise stated, people can participate in the
asexual/ace community for any (short or long) period, depending on the current salience
of their identication with asexuality.

9
Experience/newness can be roughly gauged by looking at how many times the users who start threads have
posted previously. Median post counts (calculated 12 January 2011) for the initiators of the most recent 10 threads
in these sections conrmed that thread initiators were less experienced in Welcome Lounge (M = 14) and Asexual
Q&A (M = 4) compared with Asexual Relationships (M = 264) and Asexual Musings and Rantings (M = 493). The
AVEN forums are accessible at http://www.asexuality.org/en/
10
The AVEN homepage prominently features an attraction-based denition of asexuality. Asexual: A person who
does not experience sexual attraction, available at http://www.asexuality.org/home/

Copyright 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 25: 167180 (2015)
DOI: 10.1002/casp
176 C. D. Chasin

This standard of self-determination is also politically responsive to complaints that the


asexual/ace community inappropriately convinces people to be asexual and, in doing so,
allegedly impedes their would-be healthy sex lives (e.g. statements in a 2006 interview
on ABCs 20/20 by Dr. Joy Davidsonlater revised11). Even though these very public
accusations are unfounded (and based on the assumption that being sexual is better than
being asexualthat asexuality should only be accepted if people cannot be sexual or
non-asexual), they place the asexual/ace community in a defensive position. The
asexual/ace community has responded by making clear that there is no agenda to convert
anyone to asexuality, for instance, by insisting that nobody can tell you whether or not you
are asexual. This mandate of self-identication also provides a non-threatening option for
young teenagers wondering about asexuality, and for adults going through asexual/non-
sexual periods in their livesoffering people an asexual identity for as long as it is helpful,
and the option of discarding it.

Navigating asexuality experiences with(out) the discursive resources


Asexual people face certain challenges constructing their relationships and identities.
Many of the cultural resources (i.e. expectations, ways of talking, cultural scripts, and
familiar stories) that non-asexual people use to talk about themselves and their relation-
ships simply do not apply to asexual people or may apply in different ways. For example,
as people employ the expectation of sexual contact in romantic relationships to distinguish
romance from friendship (Chasin, 2009), and if asexual people are unable to do this, then
asexual people need either to nd new ways to make this distinction or to change how they
form relationships so that the distinction no longer matters. Consequently, within the
asexual/ace community, people are actively involved in creative discussion (Jay, 2007),
guring out how to make sense of their experiences of being asexual and relating to other
people from asexual perspectives. Incidentally, romantically inclined asexual/ace people
do have unique (shared) ways of making sense of their romantic relationships. Exploring
how asexual-identied people understand their romantic partnerships, Haefner (2012) dis-
covered the central role played of (i) acknowledging how those relationships differed from
a (sexual) norm and (ii) naming the asexuality in those relationships.
Asexual people are forging their own discourses and ways of being, resisting against the
dominant societal centrality of the (hetero)sexual partnership. For example, some (asexual)
people who organise their social lives around highly valued (non-romantic) friendships
have created the possibility (i.e. through inventing the label and concept) of being
friend-focused (Jay, 2007). Similarly, the normative prioritising of (presumed sexual)
romantic relationships above friendshipan ideological position that the aromantic
community has named amatonormativityis the topic of many discussion threads on
the AVEN forums. Asexual/ace people are subject to other people systematically
devaluing their most important (romantic and non-romantic) relationships or failing to
recognise them altogether. Consequently, it makes sense that the static About Asexuality
content on AVEN (i.e. the primary asexual information resource for non-asexual people)
prominently asserts the signicance of relationships in asexual peoples lives. Not only
11
The blog Asexual Curiosities by Slightlymetaphysical hosts a discussion of this interview and a related article,
and includes Dr. Davidsons response and revised position from 2009: http://asexualcuriosities.blogspot.ca/2009/
12/q-with-joy-davidson-part-1.html

Copyright 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 25: 167180 (2015)
DOI: 10.1002/casp
Making sense of asexuality 177

are relationships the rst sub-topic addressed in the Overview (AVEN, 2008c), discussed
throughout the General FAQ (AVEN, 2008a) and mentioned again in the Family/Friend
FAQ (AVEN, 2008b), but relationships also have their own dedicated Relationship
FAQ section (AVEN, 2008d).
Additionally, the asexual/ace community has developed a number of unique words,
phrases, ways of talking about identities and relationships, and familiar stories of iden-
tity-formation and coming out. For example, non-romantic crushes are routinely called
squishes, and queerplatonic relationships (i.e. non-romantic signicant-other relation-
ships of partner status) are sometimes referred to as zucchinis.12 Similarly, within the
asexual/ace community, being asexual is contrasted with being sexual or non-asexual
(or even allosexual), naming the dominant majority. In response toand in contrast
withubiquitous sexualnormativity, sexual-centrism, and compulsory sexuality, asexual/
ace people needed to create other identity labels such as demisexual and grey-asexual;
romantic, grey-romantic, and aromantic asexual; and straight-A, gay-A, and bi-A to make
sense out of their experiences.
These new words and ways of talking about relationships are discursive tools for mak-
ing sense out of experience. Collectively, they comprise asexual discourses, and taking
them seriously is crucial to respecting and understanding asexual/ace people. As whatever
we might say (and think) about ourselves and others as people will always be in terms of a
language provided for us by history (Edley, 2001, p. 210), we are limited by what is
possible within the discourses we can access (Shotter, 1997). These new discourses literally
make asexual peoples unique and often confusing relationships make sense, that is, they
render otherwise non-normative relationships intelligible. The asexual/ace communitys
collective discursive production parallels the creation of new language by other
marginalised communities, such as the polyamorous community (Ritchie & Barker,
2006), which invented new words, as necessary, to make their own non-normative iden-
tities and relationships make sense.

Changing the shape of (asexual) social reality


Asexuality as a possible social identity is a relatively recent phenomenon, and the power-
ful, prolic asexual discourses even more so. The words that people use to talk about
relationships and identities can change the discursive landscape of those relationships and
identities, altering what they mean and therefore what they are all about (Bradac, 1983). In
generating new discourses of relationships and identity, people self-identifying as asexual
are making it possible to make sense as asexual peoplemaking asexual people make
sense. These new asexual/ace discourses are making being asexual/ace possible in a very
real sense, in ways that were not possible a short time ago and which extend beyond the ability
to merely independently describe oneself as asexual/ace. To be unintelligible (i.e. beyond
the realm of possibility) is to be positioned as an outsider to humanity, against which human
subjects are formed (Butler, 1990). This unintelligibility underlies much of the anti-asexual
hostility described above. In generating asexual/ace discourses, the asexual/ace community
is making it possible for asexual people to be possible and to live the possibility of asexual
lives. Butler (1990, p. 219), proclaimed, For those who are still looking to become possible,
12
The collaborative AVEN wiki maintains a list of terminology used specically within the asexual community
(Lexicon, 2013): http://www.asexuality.org/wiki/index.php?title=Lexicon

Copyright 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 25: 167180 (2015)
DOI: 10.1002/casp
178 C. D. Chasin

possibility is a necessity. Although she was referring specically to gender, the sentiment
applies more broadly. It is through prolic discussions and emerging asexual discourses that
asexual people are making themselves possible, by constructing their relationships and
identities. Lesbians and gay men (and to a lesser extent, bisexual people) have already gone
though the cultural process of self-creation (e.g. Brown, 1989). Asexual people are just
beginning it. Psychologists engaging with (a)sexually diverse populations can help this
process by familiarising themselves with asexuality and asexual/ace discourses, and by taking
asexual peoples accounts of their own experiences seriously.

CONCLUSION

Although few applied psychologists seek out asexual people directly, most have likely
already worked with them (if only unknowingly). Lack of asexuality awareness is a signif-
icant barrier facing the asexual/ace community. Within the psychiatric and mental health
domain in particular, lack of consideration for asexuality has instituted a situation where
practitioners can easily inadvertently perpetuate the marginalisation of asexual people.
Applied psychological practitioners and researchers, therefore, should stop ignoring asexual-
ity and begin operating as though asexual people exist (and are present, albeit in small
numbers, in most target populations). Moreover, asexual peoples deliberate and explicit
processes of negotiating relationships and identities may offer exciting models of mindful
social organisation that could ultimately inuence non-asexual communities in positive ways.
It is time to recognise asexual people and the struggles faced by asexual/ace community mem-
bers. Asexual people exist and deserve practitioners and researchers who have the cultural
competence to work with themasexual people will not be the only ones to benet.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I would like to thank Andrew Hinderliter for hosting a preliminary version of this paper on
his Asexual Explorations website under the title Amoeba in Their Habitat (from April
2009 to January 2011), Mark Carrigan for his encouragement, and the editor Flora Cornish
and the anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism. I would also like to express
my gratitude toward the asexual/ace community, for having been there, years ago, when I
needed to nd it.

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