What better way to celebrate Asexual Awareness Week (this year October 26 through November 1) than reading and reviewing a book titled Understanding Asexuality?! Right? Well…
Actually, the title of Anthony F. Bogaert’s 2012 book, Understanding Asexuality, is a bit of a misnomer. A better title might be Trying to Understand Asexuality or What Science Understands About Asexuality. The book contains more unanswered questions than answers. Which is not to say that there are any other books that provide more answers.
I should maybe take a step back. The way I see it, there are two main ways to approach developing an understanding of asexuality. One is by trying to understand the perspective and experiences of an asexual person. The other book on asexuality that I have read, Asexuality: A Brief Introduction, takes that approach. It was written by an asexual and begins with a series of statements: “I am asexual. I don’t feel sexually attracted to anyone. Not men. Not women. That is all it is… Asexuality is real… I don’t want to convert you. I don’t want to recruit you. I just want you to understand me.” The next chapter, “What Is Asexuality?” begins with the author recounting his experience figuring out that he is asexual. It is not that the author doesn’t cite some of the more commonly known figures and studies, such as the prevalence of asexuality, but the main point of the book is to introduce the reader to asexuality “from the asexual point of view,” as the back cover explains.
The other approach is the scientific approach, trying to understand the whys and hows of asexuality. This is the approach Bogaert, as a professor and researcher of sexuality, takes. Bogaert is not asexual or at least does not approach the subject from an asexual perspective. He does address some of the same questions, such as what asexuality is, but the tone is much different, the definition is needed to be able to examine the topic scientifically rather than needed to determine whether you or someone you know is asexual. While he occasionally draws on testimonies from AVEN users (the asexual perspective), it is mostly only to illustrate the findings of the scientific research he is discussing.
Because neither book fully addresses both approaches to understanding asexuality, neither can be said to truly offer a complete understanding of asexuality.
However, as a book explaining scientific research to a lay audience, Understanding Asexuality does a decent job answering a number of questions using the data available. To a sexual, it may read as a balanced explanation of what asexuality is, the mechanisms that cause it, and the reasons it probably should not be considered a disorder. And if it reads as Bogaert intended, it may even offer the sexual a better understanding of their own sexuality. To me as an asexual, the reading isn’t that simple and it doesn’t feel that balanced.
In his introduction, Bogaert listed the three reasons he writes about and studies asexuality, which can be seen as the goals of the book: first, that “there is value in the opportunity for members of an overlooked and under-studied population to be able to read about and understand issues relevant to them” (5), second that, as per the contact hypothesis of prejudice reduction, exposure to sexual minorities may help to increase general tolerance and acceptance, and third that “asexuality offers us a unique opportunity to look at sexuality through a new lens, affording perhaps a clearer (or at least new) view of what sex is and what it is not” (6). I don’t have any problems with these reasons/goals, even the last one. I, for one, read everything I pick up, regardless of the topic, with the hope of learning something about myself. What bothers me is the amount of attention given to each goal in the writing of the book.
Maybe Bogaert thinks he did give them all equal attention, the way that sexual readers will probably find the book a balanced explanation of asexuality. But sexuals, particularly heterosexuals, aren’t the subject of the book and aren’t the ones whose identity might be considered a disorder, but also get told that they don’t really need to form an identity or have pride in it. The book lacks sensitivity toward asexual people in ways that may undermine the value of the opportunity for us to read about ourselves and understand issues relevant to us and may also limit the degree to which tolerance and acceptance increases in the general readership.
The following is choice quote illustrating Bogaert’s occasional insensitivity: “I’ve also grappled with these questions [i.e. Is there only one right way to live a human life?] from an academic perspective, because I was (and still am) trying to understand whether asexuality should be considered a disorder” (105, emphasis added). He spends the next chapter arguing that asexuality is not a disorder, but that one parenthetical insertion legitimizes what he describes at the end of the chapter as “a vague notion, a feeling you can’t shake, that regardless of these arguments, asexual people still must be missing something” (113). He does have a response to that feeling which is that the feeling might be right, but “who am I to say—and who are you to say—what passion is right for a given individual?” And further: “Have you ever skydived before? … if you don’t want this experience, should we diagnose you with, say, hypoactive skydiving disorder because you eschew this thrilling life activity?” He is the “expert,” has a response to all the reasons why asexuality should be considered a disorder and he has this humorously illustrative question that he has used in presentations about why asexuality isn’t a disorder, but he himself is still trying to understand whether asexuality should be considered a disorder?
He follows that up in the next chapter with: “So do I believe people when they tell me that they are asexual? Well, yes, even if it is a bit of a qualified ‘yes’” (121, emphasis added). Need I explain why his qualified belief in someone’s professed identity is massively insensitive and problematic?
Those two quotes were probably the most egregious demonstrations of insensitivity. However, while reading I did occasionally feel like a bug under a microscope or at least a chimpanzee in a lab being studied with the hopes of gaining a better understanding of humans. I am somewhat concerned that this book will make progress towards developing understanding of asexuality as a topic of research but not as a lived experience and unintentionally reinforce the idea that asexuals are less than human, study subjects rather than individuals.
Still, a lot of interesting information was discussed in the book. I can’t deny that there is value in knowing that some scientists take asexuality seriously enough to study it. Before I mention the parts that stood out to me most (read ‘the parts that bothered me the most’), I do want to say that I am not the biggest reader of scientific literature on sex and sexualities. Some of my negative reactions to the studies presented and the book as a whole are the result of knowing that the language being used to discuss the studies echoes the language of stereotypes that the queer community has been struggling against for years. An example of this is the frequency of discussion of homosexuality as an inversion of heterosexuality, both in terms of socialization and in terms of genetics and womb chemistry. I don’t have the background in sex and sexualities research to know if the best scientific research does suggest that, but my first instinct is to ask whether research that produces results suggesting homosexuality is an inversion of heterosexuality has basis in anything other than confirmation bias.
Probably the most interesting parts for everyone who picks up the book are the sections of the book that address the question of why asexuality exists, both in terms of the biological or environmental cause for it and the reasons a genetic variation that reduces the chance of direct biological reproduction continues to persist. The answers are less than satisfactory if you are looking for certainty. What I now understand about asexuality and sexuality in general is that scientists have a lot of theories about what causes a person to have a certain sexuality, but no one really knows for sure. The main sense I got was that there are multiple factors, both biological and environmental, that impact whether a person is heterosexual, asexual, bisexual or homosexual and that the development of a sexuality is probably a complex process that we may never fully understand.
One thing that frustrated me about the material on why asexuality exists is that Bogaert spends a fair amount of time discussing how prenatal exposure to hormones impacts brain development and “abnormal” exposure to hormones may result in homosexuality and asexuality, but does not get much more in depth than that. I can’t tell if his discussion is dumbed down for the lay audience of the book or if researchers don’t know much more about how this process might work, but I personally want all the technical details. I would rather have something go over my head when I am reading it because I don’t know enough about brain development and sexuality than not have the chance to even attempt to understand how it works.
Another piece that frustrated me was the identification of groups that are more likely to identify as asexual, including females, people from lower-class homes, people with less education, and people of color, and speculation on why those groups have higher rates of asexuality. He did clarify that there is no proven link suggesting sexual assault or sexual abuse cause asexuality, but speculated that “some asexual people have been exposed to an atypical environment relative to a standard, white, middle- or upper-class environment occurring in most Western societies” (156-157). He asks further “Could ethnic differences between asexual and sexual people indicate that some asexual people have not been “accultured” to a sexualized Western society (Brotto, Chik, Ryder, Gorzalka, & Seal, 2005)?” (157). I wonder what Alok Vaid-Menon, the author of an article called “What’s R(ace) Got To Do With It?: White Privilege & (A)sexuality,” would have to say about that line of inquiry. Possibly that Western society sexualizes different groups of people differently and rather than not being exposed to sexualized Western society those who are not from the standard white, male, middle- or upper-class environment are frequently treated as asexual by Western society.
Finally, I found the section on identity formation, particularly the formation of an asexual identity, both interesting and frustrating. This is the section I feel would have most benefited from more inclusion of the asexual perspective. It was not wrong to examine Dan Savage’s belief that we don’t need an asexual identity or asexual pride, but I think it probably would have been more revealing to give more space to asexuals expressing in their own words why an asexual identity is important to them, why they go to Pride events, instead of writing something like this: “From the above, it may seem like there are only modest reasons for asexual people to forge and fiercely defend a sexual identity. But we must not discount the importance of the other identify-relevant forces in asexual people’s lives, such as general identity needs, not wanting to be alone and isolated, and perceiving oneself on the extreme end of an often very salient construct in society—sexuality. Moreover, there is another reason why forging an identity, developing an asexual culture, and becoming part of a cohesive group is of importance to asexual people: to defend their lives against modern medicalization and the perception that they have a disorder or are unhappy” (91). That may all be true but none of it is going to help a sexual understand why some asexuals forge an asexual identity because identity formation is a deeply personal experience and this rather cold attempt at a scientific understanding of it misses the essential personal component.
In conclusion, while I am grateful to read anything about asexuality, I’m still waiting for a book that does justice to both sides of understanding asexuality, the personal and the scientific, is well written, and relevant to both asexual and sexual audiences. This book, but, at the very least, co-authored by an asexual person and/or someone with some experience with gender theory and ideas about intersectionality and is willing to pay attention to the details of how the book read from the asexual perspective. We’ll get there though, someday. That’s what Asexual Awareness Week is about.