Top 6 Mistakes in the Academic Field of Asexuality Studies

Through my participation in Ace Journal Club, I’ve gotten to read my fair share of publications in asexuality studies, a field which has grown tremendously over the past decade. I haven’t read everything, but I’ve seen enough to say this: the field needs to be alerted to certain mistakes. In this post I’ve compiled a list of basic problems I consider important to flag and look out for, covering some old recurring mistakes as well as cases where there’s still time to nip them in the bud. So whether or not you’re a researcher yourself, here’s how to spot these issues going forward.

Crossposted to Pillowfort. Preview image: Magnified by Jake Bouma, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

1) Misrepresenting the 1% statistic. If you’ve done much reading on asexuality, chances are you’ve encountered this one before: the claim that 1% of the population identifies as asexual. This number comes from Anthony Bogaert’s “Asexuality: Prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample” (2004), which analyzed a sample of British residents. The 1% number is how many of those British residents reported no sexual attraction, not how much of the world’s population identifies as asexual. In The Anatomy of an Incorrect Citation, Sennkestra explains how the 1% idea has traveled, and you can find a more recent instance in this 2021 article on asexuality in YA.

2) Mis-attributing the term “allosexual.” This one is not a recurring problem — yet — but with Ela Przybylo gaining prominence in the field, it’s important to set the record straight. In Asexual Erotics, Przybylo attributes the term “allosexual” as “derived from ‘alloerotic’ in [Eve] Sedgewick’s work.” This is incorrect because allosexual was coined without any reference or knowledge of Sedgewick’s work. The term specifically originates from Tumblr user metapianycist, also known as Hezakiah, who has confirmed that Sedgewick was not an influence. Although Hezakiah has since distanced himself from the term, scholars employing it or referencing its use in aro/ace contexts should make sure not to mis-attribute it in this way.

3) Presenting “sex-positive” alongside non-parallel terms. The term that ace communities have devised for feeling personally inclined toward sex is “sex-favorable.” The term “sex-positive” predates ace communities and originates with earlier feminist debates about the sociopolitical status of sexuality. Given this political background, “sex-positive” should not be presented alongside terms for personal disposition toward sex, like “sex-indifferent,” “sex-neutral,” or “sex-averse.” Instances of this can be found in Mark Carrigan’s “There’s more to life than sex? Difference and commonality within the asexual community” (2011) and Ela Przybylo’s “Introducing asexuality, unthinking sex” in Introducing the New Sexuality Studies (2016). Presenting these together as if they are parallel terms can risk contributing to misconceptions about the politics of sex aversion.

4) Reducing orientation to attraction. For multiple reasons, it is important for asexuality studies to leave room for the complexity of ace identities, as well as the wide range of differentiation and terminology employed by ace communities. Too often, asexuality scholars introducing their subject matter have glossed over the complex history of asexual definitions and leaned on attraction-based essentialism. This includes conflating attraction subtyping with romantic orientation, a problem baked into the term “split attraction model” by design. Examples of scholarship uncritically adopting this term include this article by Winer et al., the Kennon YA article, and “Asexuality & Asexuality Studies” by Amanda L. Mollet. For more on this issue and why it matters, see An Actual History Of The Term “Split Attraction Model” and Don’t Make Me Choose.

5) Over-reliance on AVEN. Posting to the AVEN forums can be convenient for recruiting research participants, but AVEN is not completely representative of ace communities, and that’s something that researchers should be aware of. This goes double because recruiting from AVEN has been very common, allowing AVEN perspectives to become overrepresented in academic research — which in turn risks portraying ace communities as more conservative and assimilationist than they really are. This issue is something I’ve covered more in-depth in a different post: Why do academics keep recruiting from AVEN?

6) Discounting ace community theorizing. This mistake makes the list not for its frequency, but for how egregious it is when it happens. In “Being and doing” by Evelyn Elgie, which has been cited as recently as 2022, the author critiques the ace community for overlooking the social construction of romance, even though aces have already been discussing this subject for at least a decade. For an in-depth look at this issue, see Why is no one talking about the tip of the spear?: An reading of the asexual academy through Skopos Theory and in particular this passage:

My honest characterization would be “confused.” For instance, they claim the categories of “sexual” and “romantic” have gone “uninterrogated” on page 4, but then reference WTFromantic—the existence of which on its face refutes the claim—on page 7.

To claim that aces have left the concept of romance uninterrogated, as if deeper interrogation couldn’t be found in ace discourse at all, is intellectually inexcusable, in that it reflects a drastic lack of familiarity with the community this thesis purports to critique. While some critiques are certainly warranted, there’s a citational politics to this, too. Meticulous and responsible scholarship should at least acknowledge when community members have advanced such critiques before.

These are mistakes that I’d like scholars to take greater pains to avoid — misrepresenting the 1% statistic, mis-attributing the origin of “allosexual,” presenting “sex-positive” alongside non-parallel terms, reducing orientation to attraction, over-reliance on AVEN, and discounting ace community theorizing. Of course these aren’t the only mistakes I’ve seen, just the ones that I’ve assessed as salient and overlooked enough to highlight here.

If you’ve noticed more mistakes like these, please feel free to add on in the comments.

5 responses to “Top 6 Mistakes in the Academic Field of Asexuality Studies

  • Perfect Number

    Good post- especially the part about the 1% statistic. And I feel like asexuality is still not widely known enough- even if researchers designed a good survey and got a random sample of people, you can only measure how many people id as asexual, not how many people would id if they knew more about it/ would benefit from knowing what asexuality is.

    • Coyote

      That’s what Bogaert was aiming to do with that survey data, circumventing identification to look at other factors (like absence of sexual attraction). That may be an interesting number when presented faithfully, but it doesn’t make sense to present it as how many people identify as asexual.

      • Perfect Number

        Yeah- though I always feel like, when they try to ask other questions like that to estimate who is asexual, without directly asking, they wouldn’t end up counting me as asexual. So I guess it depends what specifically they’re trying to measure and why they’re asking- because no matter how they ask, they’ll probably miss some people in the vague fuzzy category of “people who are asexual / people that we would think are asexual even if they don’t use that word themselves.”

  • Journal Club: Introducing Asexuality | The Asexual Agenda

    […] to sex-neutral and sex-averse. This is one of the top 6 mistakes in asexuality studies that Coyote recently listed. These terms are incorrectly framed as coming from scholar Mark Carrigan, when they actually came […]

  • Linkspam: September 23rd, 2022 | The Asexual Agenda

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