Ace-stravaganza: How Journalism Objectifies Asexuality

Ace-stravaganza: How Journalism Objectifies Asexuality

Note: I originally wrote this in early January 2016 but did not share it publicly while I debated whether or not to place it in a major publication. The exigence of my methodology has since passed, but I’m sharing it publicly here now as the subject is still relevant.

Yet another clickbait article has characterized asexuality as “controversial” in its description of the sexual orientation. After the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network’s (AVEN’s) Facebook page reposted this article, I did what I don’t usually do and commented on the post, expressing frustration that sensationalizing articles like these make asexuality controversial. When several dozen AVEN followers liked my response, I knew I had identified a common sore spot in our community. We’re sick of being a spectacle.

In her 2013 essay “Spectacular Asexuals: Media Visibility and Cultural Fetish” (139–161 here), asexuality scholar Karli June Cerankowski has written at length about how AVEN’s mission of visibility may be contributing to this “journalistic” phenomenon to our own detriment. It’s a useful argument and I recommend reading it, but here I’m more interested in how journalism does that on its own by continuing to represent asexuality from the perspective of allosexuals* and/or for an allosexual audience.

Articles (loosely defined) that feature asexuality as their subject generally fall into one of three categories, and the 200 or so articles indexed by Google News in 2016 were no exception:

1. Asexuality 101

2. Asexual Freakshow

3. Asexual Representation

1. “Asexuality 101” articles attempt to be a primer on the definition of asexuality as the absence of sexual attraction (although they often get this point wrong, confusing attraction with desire). Sometimes they discuss the concept of romantic orientation and how asexual relationships can look just like sexual relationships, but without the sex — a journalistic process of heteronormative assimilation similar to the “Love Is Love” movement that moved gays and lesbians into the mainstream while downplaying their essential queerness.

A typical infographic supplied by AVEN.

2. “Asexual Freakshow” articles play up the peculiarity and even the perceived perversity of asexuality. They usually do some of the explanatory work of Asexuality 101 articles but frame it in a way that exaggerates our alleged prudishness or makes us the object of subtle ridicule or skepticism. These articles’ authors like to dwell on the incidence of masturbation and sexual fantasy among aces or ask fellow allosexuals to share their shock that people can walk the planet without feeling lust.

Oh no … not the finger …

3. “Asexual Representation” articles typically recognize a newly out celebrity, politician, or fictional character, or note the enduring absence of asexual figures in popular media. These articles are less likely to do the defining work of Asexuality 101 but often still explore the experiences exclusive to aces that are thus un/represented in the media, sometimes with nuance. Articles about asexual celebrities might still frame the announcement in Asexual-Freakshow clickbait terms (I’m looking at you, Daily Mail).

Tangent: the two out ace politicians have both been men. #OMara2020

Articles that don’t feature asexuality but instead mention it in passing or list it among other subjects don’t deviate much from the above norm. Features about Pride Month or LGBTQ resource centers do brief work in Asexuality 101; sex-ed articles addressing asexuality share a wink and a nudge with allosexuals; and pop-culture news either completely misunderstands asexuality as distinct from celibacy or gender-neutrality or briefly reflects on the absence of ace role models.

I admit that, to a degree, the abundance of Asexuality 101 articles makes an unfortunate sense. As Asexual-Representation articles point out, known aces are frustratingly absent from public sight. Our A appears irregularly in the LGBT(QIA+) acronym, and even when it does appear it’s often appropriatively used to represent “ally” instead. If allosexuals don’t know we exist, they can’t look for us, or be good allies to us; therefore, education is necessary. Asexuality 101 articles (even when they’re shoddy) and even occasionally the clickbait education of Asexual Freakshow articles can put (albeit poorly contextualized and sometimes wrong) information in front of people who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise — even as (Cerankowski argues) it potentially calcifies stereotypes (140).

That’s … that’s not how it works …

But for those of us who have already discovered we’re ace, the endless parade of explanatory articles describing us as if we were some curious or kinky novelty dominates the conversation. These articles aren’t written for us but rather about us. Cerankowski has observed that we are made into “objects for consumption” for a voyeuristic audience (141). Perhaps because aces themselves aren’t in charge of how we’re written about or what gets published, we are continually framed as eternally new, strange, and dubious in the service of others’ entertainment, not our own.

In the articles I surveyed, twenty-five of them had titles that either asked a question (“Is It Normal to Not Want Sex?”) or promised answers (“All Of Your Questions About What It’s Like To Be Asexual Answered”), all addressed at an audience presumed to not be ace. AVEN’s Siggy compiled no less than 16 pseudojournalistic takes on a study showing that aces have sexual fantasies (though not necessarily in the same way, for the same ends, or to the same extent that allosexuals do, a fact crucially omitted from the articles); one ace Tumblr user kindly compiled these articles’ tendencies to pathologize aces’ “condition” that prevents their “turning sexual fantasy into lived reality” at the same time as they sensationalize those sexual fantasies.

“Mostly White People Laying Down,” a collage of images accompanying articles about aces’ sexual fantasies (by sound-overlord.tumblr.com)

We’re either exhibited as circus freaks: can you imagine people who don’t have sex? (Even if some aces do have sex and the article conflated attraction with libido.) Or we’re shunted into the shadows of allosexuals: they might be repressed, or really closeted gays, or actually they’re really horny just like us and goodness knows why they don’t do anything about it. (Even if “not doing anything about it” can be its own desirable ends — and thus we’re not repressed.) On the one hand, we’re a desirable novelty pushed into a vulnerable spotlight. On the other, our existence discomforts some sexuals so much that they try to dissolve our existence into their own. (A move troublingly similar to that of some gatekeeping queers who insist we’re not really queer because we’re somehow really straight — but that’s another story.)

Virtually the only news that didn’t attempt voyeurism or even Asexuality 101 were Asexual Representation articles on pop-culture subjects. Archie comics’ Jughead was named as asexual in Issue #4’s dialogue in February (this was by far the most common non-Asexuality-101 ace news item for outlets to report). Bojack Horseman featured an ongoing and nuanced storyline that seems to be headed in the direction of confirming Todd’s asexuality. One opinion piece observed that pop-culture narratives themselves are hostile to aro-aces. (In fact, The Mary Sue covered all three of these — props!) A synopsis of a queer gaming conference brainstormed ways to better represent aces in video games. (A fifth article in a non-academic film journal usefully theorized some elements related to nonsexual desire but deliberately avoided connecting them to asexuality as a sexual orientation — although the article earlier appeared in this asexuality theory anthology.)

Panel from Archie Comics #4 Jughead, February 2016.

As a scholar of textual studies, this is my glimmer of hope. Where journalism fails to represent aces as subjects rather than objects, narrative art increasingly tries to represent our diverse subjectivities on our own terms. This kind of storytelling invites aces to be participants in an empathetic audience rather than be involuntarily paraded for others to ogle. Not only can allosexuals learn (hopefully more fully) about aces’ varied experiences, but also aces can receive all the affirmation and pleasure that allosexuals have in narrative depictions of their straight and queer desires. Importantly, in ace stories, aces can see how other, even fictional, aces navigate the particular social and emotional terrain of asexuality — the end goal of representation. To be on the stage instead of inside a circus ring; to be in an audience instead of being an usher who disappears into the shadows of the theater, knowing that this show isn’t for them.

So in the future, journalists, please: instead of writing more redundant Asexuality 101 articles, link to the dozens that already exist and write more original content about the unique experiences of aces and the challenges they face right now. Push for census data on aces and the services they need. Seek out information on “corrective rape.” Connect the tax on the single person to institutional heteronormativity. Explore the intersections of race, gender, faith, and class in asexuality. And, please — continue to celebrate the aces in art, entertainment, and public service who are working to establish a world that makes room to fully satisfy our nonsexual desires.

* I use the phrase “allosexuals” to describe bi-/hetero-/homo-/pansexuals with some reservations, as the French queer community has objected to its use in this way in English. Originally I used “sexuals” instead, with great reservations, but, based on the advice of my allosexual beta readers who felt very uncomfortable with the term “sexual,” I’m using “allosexual” in this version.

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