Gray-Asexuality in Asexuality Studies

The field of asexuality studies* has grown a lot over the past decade, but generally the gray-asexual part of the umbrella receives minimal attention. Here I’ve compiled a sample of what that attention tends to look like. Note that most of these pieces have been covered by the Ace Journal Club, which provides a write-up with a summary and some notes, so I have included links to AJC posts where applicable.

[Crossposted to Pillowfort. Preview image by Steve Johnson, licensed under CC BY 2.0.]

* Asexuality studies is a name for academic scholarship concerning the entire asexual umbrella, not just “asexuality” per se. The terms “ace,” “asexual umbrella,” and “asexual spectrum” are all appropriate umbrella terms for referring to asexuality and gray-asexuality both.

For the most part, gray-asexuality in asexuality studies gets a sort of drive-by acknowledgement in narrow and simplified form. I’ve encountered only one piece of scholarship that’s dedicated to gray-asexuality itself. More often, either the mention is brief, or gray-asexuality isn’t acknowledged at all.

Here’s how I’d summarize the treatment of gray-asexuality in the following examples:

Mentions gray-asexuality in a parenthetical. Defines it as “those who sometimes but rarely experience sexual attraction.”

Mentions gray-asexuality in the introduction and, later, what percentage of survey respondents self-identify that way. Defines it as “rarely experiencing sexual desire.”

Mentions gray-asexuality in a paragraph about how the asexual community is “not monolithic.” Defines gray-asexuals as “those who fall on the lower end of the sexual attraction spectrum.”

Mentions a participant’s identity as “gray-A.” Defines it in a footnote as “a subjectivity located somewhere between asexual and sexual, in which a person might feel sexual attraction, albeit rarely.”

  • Przybylo, Ela. “Introducing asexuality, unthinking sex.” In Introducing the New Sexuality Studies. Third edition. Ed. Nancy L. Fischer and Steven Seidman. New York: Routledge, 2016. 181–91.

Mentions gray-asexuality as an example of ace community vocabulary. Described as a term that “can be used by anyone who experiences some level of sexual attraction but for whom sexual attraction and desire for sex play a minor role.”

Acknowledges a “‘gray’ area between asexual and sexual” in the abstract, and dedicates an entire section to gray-asexuality. However, for the purpose of statistical analysis, the researchers operationalized gray-asexuality as “based on self-report of some degree of sexual attraction […] but who explicitly prefer no sexual activity or are sexually satisfied without sexual activity.” In other words, they looked at other information and decided to classify certain respondents as gray-asexual, rather than use “gray-asexual” for respondents who self-identify that way.

This article does not mention gray-asexuality at all, and I’m including it here because that seems especially odd for the topic. Of course an ace doesn’t need to identify as gray-asexual to be interested in kink, but since the paper is very concerned with explaining why aces might engage in kink or sexual activity, this is a topic where acknowledging the gray areas of the spectrum would be warranted.

A WGS honors thesis entirely focused on gray-asexuality. I haven’t read the entire thing, but there’s a dedicated section introducing the topic (“So What About Gray-Asexuality?”) which actually acknowledges “the multitude of definitions” and frames gray-asexuality as “something that is between asexual and allosexual, yet also is identified with asexuality.”

In most of these, the framing of gray-asexuality is reflective of attraction fixation, i.e. defining orientations solely and exclusively in terms of attraction. This is frustrating to those of us for whom “attraction” is complicated or who identify with gray-asexuality for any other reason. It’s also noteworthy because in other parts of asexuality studies, scholars have already challenged the narrow, rigid “no sexual attraction” definition of asexuality. You can find this challenge in some of the work of Ela Pryzbylo and CJ DeLuzio Chasin, for instance. In the future, I would like to see scholars bring some of the same nuance and complexity to their approach to gray-asexuality.

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