Saturday, June 4, 2011

Radical refusals: On the anarchist politics of women choosing asexuality

So, I knew that it was just a matter of time. Until recently, all academic articles about asexuality had been supportive of us. It's not so much that all academics in any field at all are supportive, or even that all who have learned something about asexuality are. I believe that the main factor in this is that those who aren't are too dismissive to care enough to publish on the matter.

Still, I had expected when the dismissive/hostile finally did take notice and respond in the academic literature, it would be an proponent of pathologization, the sort of person function as the designated hater in media articles. Instead, it has come from radical feminism.

Fahs, B. (2010). Radical refusals: On the anarchist politics of women choosing asexuality. Sexualities, 13, 445-461.

This article examines how women consciously choosing asexuality might inform both radical feminist politics and anarchic concepts of positive and negative liberty. By resituating some of the lesser-known narratives of the 1960s’ and 1970s’ radical feminist movement (e.g. Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto and Boston’s Cell 16 and No More Fun and Games), asexuality is shown to disrupt key intersections between sexuality and the state, particularly institutions that control reproduction, pleasure, and women’s bodies. Using interview data with Cell 16 members, content analysis of early radical feminist writings, and theoretical and historical analyses of separatism, the piece argues that, by removing themselves from sexuality, women can take a more anarchic stance against the entire institution of sex, thereby working toward more nihilistic, anti-reproduction, anti-family goals that severely disrupt commonly held assumptions about sex, gender, and power.


Up to this point, when I have announced articles, I've decided to that I should keep my opinions to myself regarding what I thought of the article. This one has convinced me not to do that anymore, largely because I feel that it needs to go in my bibliography, but also needs a comment/warning.

When I first saw this article some months ago, I saw the abstract and figured it wasn't relevant to us. But later, it was suggested on the Asexual Studies listserv and I also talked to someone who felt it should go in my bibliography, so I decided to read it.

From seeing the title and reading the abstract, it was clear that "asexual" is being used to mean celibate and not how we understand it. I assumed that this was because this is how the term is used in the literature she discusses. As it turns out, this appears to be wrong. Fahs distinguishes between "asexuality" (meaning permanent celibacy) and "celibacy" (meaning temporary celibacy). This distinction is not made in any of the quotes that she gives from the literature she discusses. Indeed, there, they just use "celibacy" to mean "celibacy" so probably Fahs just made up the distinction in order to use the word "asexuality."

In the paper, Part I is "Sex and Pleasure as Freedom" and Part II is "Remembering Radical Histories." I don't know that much about radical feminism from the 60s, and some of the stuff in the paper was interesting, but I felt that the asexuality/celibacy distinction imposed onto the texts was utterly forced. Basically, the texts talked about celibacy and Fahs tries to force "asexuality" onto them.

Then in Part III (Asexuality as a political identity and strategy of reform), the paper begins to completely and totally suck through "misreadings" so awful that I suspect to them be deliberate falsifications. This falsification is used in order to critisize asexual identity in order to promote her agenda. That agenda can be seen in the beginning of that section:
When examining asexuality and separatism, their political use differs greatly from their implications for pathology, identity, and sexual classification. Most existing research on asexuality, for example, asks questions that have relatively little social and political significance. For example, some studies address prevalence rates, with most research reporting that between 1 and 6 per cent of the American population describe themselves as asexual, with numbers rising consistently during the past five years (Bogaert, 2006; CNN, 2004).


Now, almost everything she says later about the "social and political significance" of asexuality is based on the definition that she herself invented at the beginning of the paper. Taking a careful look at this passage however, the utter disregard for getting the facts right is staggering. The 1% figure came from Bogaert's 2004 paper; it relied a British sample--not an American one--and it operationalized things in terms of lack of sexual attraction, not asexual self-identification. Furthermore, "asexuality" only can have anything to do with separatism (in the sense Fahs discussed about) if we mean it in her sense of "permanent celibacy" which is NOT the meaning these others are using, as so citing them as such is simply dishonest. There is nothing in the things she cited to say anything about numbers rising in the past five years. The 6% percent figure was a CNN poll which probably got linked to on AVEN, which is why the number is so high, so no one seriously thinks this should be taken as an estimate of prevalence.

What I believe is going on in this paper is that Fahs is aiming to exploit the visibility and currency that "asexuality" has gained in the literature (i.e. Bogaert, Prause & Graham, and Scherrer's work) and through the visibility and education work of the asexual community and then to use this to in order to advance her own ideological agenda, which is accomplished largely through equivocation, misrepresentation of others, and possibly even outright lying. If she had just said "celibacy" (which is what she is talking about and is the term used in the radical feminist literature cited in Part II), the paper wouldn't have had a Part III. So instead she created a new meaning for "asexuality" (that I've never seen anyone else use before) and then force it onto how others use the term.

This paper is academic dishonesty plain and simple. It should never have been published.

Edit: On doing a little more research, it seems that this article was discussed on AVEN last fall around the time that it came out. Not surprisingly, people didn't like it much.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Those radical asexuals!

Seriously though, there are several problems with the paper and the author's inaccurate/dishonest use of the term "asexual", as you rightfully point out.

Have you written a Letter to the Editor yet and/or contacted the author herself?

~Carsonspire

ACH said...

After finishing this post last night, I emailed the author about it (including a link to this post) and I bcc'ed it to her dept. head, as well as the undergrad and grad advisors. On reflection, I probably should have just cc'ed them.

Audacious Ace said...

Thanks for bringing this to my attention because I completely missed this on AVEN. I think we saw the same thing in those recent Plan B ads. These attitudes towards asexuality are ignorant and irrisponsible, but also dangerous because if you knew nothing of asexuality you might take these definitions for truth.

Shawn Landis said...

It's perfectly acceptable to put your opinions on a blog.