Monday, January 28, 2013

More of the politics of science

In introduction to linguistics classes, students are told that linguistics is a science because it takes a descriptive, rather than a prescriptive, approach to language. In introduction to psychology, a different approach was taken. First, the concept of “confirmation bias” was introduced—people have a tendency to look for evidence to support their views rather than for evidence to contradict them, and they are often dismissive of evidence that contradicts their views. Therefore, to be a science, psychology must have research methodologies to help overcome confirmation bias.

Both approaches have their value. I like the approach taken by linguistics, and it has to do with my view on the is-ought problem, combined with my experience that using strongly ought-laden categories for descriptive purposes tends to lead to skewed pictures of things. (I realize that this itself closely relates to my normative judgment that researchers should avoid such analytic categories when possible. But I am not arguing for value-free research [which would make no sense at all, given that feeling a need for research involves epistemic values]. Rather, my position is that scholars’ epistemic values should take precedence over political values [with the exception of ethical obligations to research participants.])

Dealing with the problem of confirmation bias is also very important for science. It has often been said that science is not a process for always getting things right, but it is an inherently self-correcting process. I think this view of science is basically correct (provided that social values/taboos do not make some topic essentially unresearchable, or only researchable from a very limited range of perspectives).

In my last post, I discussed approaches to “objectivity” in research, and indicated my own preference for a) striving for (limited) objectivity, and b) putting epistemic values over political values in our research. Confirmation-bias is a major part of why (limited) objectivity is so difficult. In my view, there are three main means of overcoming it.

1) Be aware of the problem. If we are aware of the problem and strive for limited-objectivity, then recognizing (and trying to counter it) is an important step. But this is not nearly enough.

2) Hypothesis testing. I firmly believe that both quantitative and qualitative methodologies are important for studying humans. Among those studying asexuality, no one thinks we should only use quantitative methods, but there seem to be some who seem committed to only using qualitative methods, and this is something I am wary of because I am distrustful of our impressions of trends and tendencies (salience causes us to overestimate frequency). Rigorous methodologies, including quantification (if done well), allow for more rigorous forms of testing our hypotheses/beliefs.

3) Science is a social enterprise conducted by people of a variety of biases. Everyone has their biases and their prejudices. I’ve got mine, and you’ve got yours. If everyone working in a certain area has the same biases, then you’ve got a serious problem for any hope of limited-objectivity or scientific advancement. If we have different biases, different prejudices, and these are combined with shared epistemic commitments, then there is hope.  If I do a study and those with similar views find my analysis convincing, but those with rather different ideologies have differing views, this can be helpful, but it depends on how they respond. If they attack my research on purely moral/ideological grounds, this is a serious problem. If they criticize it on methodological grounds (as is popular in academic arguments), that’s fine, but what would advance the field is if they think that my findings are the result of some problem/limitation with my methodology, and then respond by trying to do a better study with improved methodology. Perhaps they discover that, even with those improvements, my findings are largely replicated. Perhaps they find that, without the improvements, my findings are replicated, but when this or that is controlled for, the effect goes away. Either way, as long as the research is well-conducted, the field has been advanced.

For this to work, there must be a shared epistemic commitment. Personally, I read things primarily because I want to learn (or because I have to read it for a class, a reading group, or because it pertains to something I’m working on, but then I very much hope that I will learn from it). If some researcher has an obvious political agenda, their work is empirically weak, it’s clear that they allow their political commitments to trump epistemic commitments, and I’m not especially interested in working on their particular political cause, why should I waste my time reading their stuff? If I have to read their stuff because academic requirements make me feel obliged, I feel it causes me pain: It can be annoying to read, and I’ve wasted time reading crap that could have been spending reading something more informative.

By contrast, if I have a number of political/ideological disagreements with someone, but they research issues closely related to mine, it is methodologically rigorous, and we share epistemic commitments, then my epistemic commitment will require that I take their work seriously. This is precisely the situation that we need to have to fulfill the third criteria necessary for achieving (limited) scientific objectivity.

If a field puts its political commitments above its epistemic commitments, the consequence is that they tend to be ignored by people who don’t already agree with them, and they run the risk of creating echo chambers. This especially concerns me because my experience has been that a dangerous temptation to which many activists are prone is to consider complex issues from a narrow range of concerns, and to consequently have a high tolerance for collateral damage and low regard for the law of unintended consequences: Pain that they cause others is OK because it is done in the name of justice.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Some thoughts on the politics of asexuality research

When I first discovered asexuality, one thing that greatly frustrated me was how little research there was on the subject, and how there was a lack of quality information available to people wanting to know more.  Since 2007, there has been a lot of improvement in the amount of community-developed literature on asexuality (and increasingly on demisexuality and gray-As), and there has been much more academic literature produced on the subject, with an increasing number of people researching it.

The standard by which I judge academic articles on asexuality has long been, "OK, tell me something I don't already know."  Most articles don't do a very good job at this.  Several of the early pieces seemed to tell us little beyond what people who'd read AVEN's FAQ already knew, but I'd hoped that this would change over time.

I'm not sure that it really has, and I believe that part of the reason for this concerns academic activism.

Obviously, everyone who publishes on any topic does so for some reason(s), and sometimes this involves aiming to bring about some sort of social change.  I have long known that much of the work that I do constitutes a form of academic activism, and I do see potential benefits from academic activism, but also potential dangers, depending on how it is conducted.    I probably take a different view on what is appropriate/inappropriate academic activism than some, but I think it is important for asexuality researchers to think critically about how to do (and not do) academic activism.

Most of the academic work on asexuality is presently coming from three general areas: psychology, sociology, and gender studies/communication, as shown in the figure below.

Figure 1: Number of English language academic works on asexuality per year.*

Feminism and queer theory are overtly political, and that work clearly has political goals.  I strongly suspect that some of the research on asexuality coming from psychology was motivated partly from the backlash against the promotion of FSD (i.e. if you're wanting to challenge what you see as the over-medicalization of female sexuality, studying asexuality is a good way to do it).  My own research is partly motivated by a desire to promote better understanding of asexuality and increase academic visibility.

In my view, scholars' primary commitment in research should be epistemic, not political.  We should seek first of all to better understand things, and to promote better understanding in others.  Trying to improve society through research is acceptable only if done in this framework.  Because this involves striving to be “objective,” and “objectivity” has gotten a bad name in many areas, I want to discuss this matter:  I've generally found that people adopt, roughly, one of three main stances towards "objectivity."

1)  Researchers should be unbiased and objective (like me), not prejudiced ideologues (like people who disagree with me).

2)  While view-from-nowhere objectivity is impossible for humans, more limited forms of objectivity are both possible and desirable.  At least most of us have had the experience of reading works that were fairly "objective" and others that were less so.  We've read authors who fairly and accurately portrayed a variety of views, including ones the author(s) disagreed with, and we've read authors who present caricatures of opposing views.  We've read authors who openly acknowledged issues/data that are potential problems for their analyses, and we've read authors who try to sweep under the rug potential confounds, alternate hypotheses, and problematic data, hoping that readers won't notice.  In both, the former is felt to be “more objective” and this limited sort of objectivity, though often difficult, is desirable and something scholars should strive for.

3)  View-from-nowhere objectivity is impossible, so I'm free to be biased as all get out.  (Often, this will mean freedom to be biased towards what they view as morally good.)

As a caveat, I would like to distinguish between being objective and claiming to be objective.  My experience has been that people insisting on how oh-so-objective they are almost always have a rather obvious agenda and either a) they're hoping people don't notice this, or b) they hold to Type-1 objectivity and are oblivious to the matter.  Of course, those who adopt (2) have an agenda as well, if we regard "better understanding a topic" and "doing educational work to make others more informed" as agendas (which I think they are, though they are generally less partisan agendas.  Of course, scientific debates sometimes become partisan as well, but they at least generally have the virtue of the potential to ultimately be resolved with more research and new generations of researchers open to new ideas).

I very much favor Type-2 objectivity, and authors taking this approach are the ones whose work I most appreciate and find most informative.  This is the approach that I hope most people studying asexuality will take, but it can be difficult to do so.  In a future post, I intend to discuss means for striving for limited-objectivity.

*Figure 1 includes English language monographs (1);  journal articles [including editorials] (20); book chapters (4), doctoral dissertations (1), and masters theses (3).  For journals published online ahead of print, articles are coded based on when they go to press.  Two articles currently in press as well as one published in 2013 have not been included.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

2013 Call for Papers about Asexuality: National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA)

2013 Call for Papers about Asexuality National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) November 7-10, 2013, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

 The NWSA Asexuality Interest Group welcomes papers for the 2013 NWSA annual conference. These asexuality-related themes are orientated towards the full NWSA 2013 CFP which can be found here: If you are interested in being a part of the 2013 Asexuality Studies panels at NWSA, please send the following info to the designated panel organizer (listed under each theme) by Monday, February 11, 2013:
*Name, Institutional Affiliation, Mailing Address, Email, Phone
*NWSA Theme your paper fits under *Title for your talk
*50-100 word abstract We will try to accommodate as many qualified papers as possible, but panels are limited to 3-4 presenters. NWSA will make the final decision about which panels are accepted. Presenters accepted into the conference program must become members of NWSA in addition to registering for the conference.

Theme 1: The Sacred and the Profane
 • What is secular? Spiritual? Religious? Sacred? How do these terms work as we begin to open a dialogue between asexual communities and celibate communities? What are the challenges asexual people face from religious communities; what are the challenges celibate people face from asexual communities? Where do we understand the place or non-place of the sacred, religious, or secular in these conversations?
 • How do the sacred and religious inform identity in a global context? What paradigms deemed central to asexuality or celibacy shift when these terms are incorporated? How does the common assertion of celibacy as choice and asexuality as inherent become troubled when we move the terms to a global context, or between religious and spiritual connotations?
 • Is feminist critique inherently secular? Can feminist frameworks provide key insights into religious beliefs, affects, and practices that go beyond secular versions of insight and knowledge? Can feminist frameworks enhance how we understand celibacy and asexuality both within and without religious beliefs and practices? • Is there more overlap or disconnect between celibacy and asexuality when understood from perspectives of indigenous studies, queer studies, and/or trans studies? And how does this tension between the terms challenge the meaning of sex, desire, sexuality, the sacred and profane?

 Please submit materials to theme organizer Karli June Cerankowski at

Theme 2: Borders and Margins
• How are the borders and the margins of asexuality studies being constructed over time?
 • In what ways does asexuality studies “traffic” in the objects, knowledges, preoccupations, desires, and/or body of disciplines of study, identities or movements?
 • How has the field of asexuality studies been shaped by or enhanced by utilizing women's and gender studies methodological approaches or pedagogical perspectives? How does this relationship and its converse exist or manifest (or not) in the visibility of asexual interests?
 • How have shifting geographies of technology, labor, economy, and migration impacted study of asexuality? How might these new forms of “encounters” be studied and enacted through asexual movements in the future?
 • How do the actual geographies of women’s and gender studies locations—in institutions of higher education, in surrounding neighborhoods, communities, cities, towns, and other spaces—renegotiate the borders and margins of the discipline?

 Please submit materials to theme organizer Aasha Foster at

Theme 3: Futures of the Feminist Past
• What are the visible and invisible feminist and queer histories of asexuality?
• What are asexuality’s archives and how do they bear on the present asexuality movement and community?
• Given the difficulty of tracing asexuality historically, what strategies of historiography can we undertake to render asexual histories? How might feminist and queer historiography help us in telling asexual stories?
 • How might the definitional parameters of asexuality be questioned, complicated, and rethought when searching for asexuality historically? What possible overlaps might there be between asexuality, celibacy, frigidity, and singlehood?
 • How could we account for moments of anti-feminist asexuality and what are the points of encounter between feminist and non-feminist modes and moments of asexuality?
• In what ways does asexuality complicate our relations to the past, to history, and to temporality?
• What new categories, methods, and strategies might an asexual history call for?
• Who and what are the subjects of asexual histories and feminist & queer asexual histories? How might various affects, including loss, mourning, desire, and hope be mobilized by these histories?
• Finally, what is at stake in telling asexual stories and seeking asexual histories? How does the past bear on asexualities’ presents and futures?

 Please submit materials to theme organizer Ela Pryzbylo at

Theme 4: Body Politics 
• What role does the body play in communal articulations of asexual identity? How do members of asexual communities understand the relationship between embodiment and asexual identity?
• Given that asexual identities have primarily been articulated in online spaces, to what extent are communal articulations of asexual identity detached from the body? At the same time, how have bodies remained relevant and/or present in online asexual communities?
• What is the relationship between asexuality and medical/psychiatric categories like hypoactive sexual desire disorder?
• What is the relationship between asexuality and disability rights politics and/or disability studies?
• Does asexuality facilitate particular types of bodily practices, such as types of bodily comportment or bodily presentation? Does asexuality facilitate particular ways of relating to the bodies of others?
• What does theorizing about asexuality have to offer theories of embodiment in general?

Please submit materials to theme organizer Kristina Gupta at

Theme 5: Practices of Effecting Change
 • What does it mean to create visibility about asexuality? What are the strengths and limitations of identity politics surrounding asexuality?
 • How do we teach about asexual identities, communities, and movements in women’s and gender studies classrooms?
 • How do social movements--such as antiracist, feminist, and LGBT movements--relate to asexual movements? How do asexual activists and scholars take inspiration from and work with other social movements?
 • What do asexual communities have to learn from radical queer and trans communities? From polyamorous communities?
 • What are the interpersonal, contextual, institutional, and ideological factors that constrain and/ or nurture the legibility of asexuality as an identity and social movement?
 • How might we harness new technologies and media in our efforts to create visibility and awareness about asexuality?

 Please submit materials to theme organizer Regina M. Wright at

New paper: Picturing Space for Lesbian Nonsexualities: Rethinking Sex-Normative Commitments through The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Gupta, Kristina. (2013). Picturing Space for Lesbian Nonsexualities: Rethinking Sex-Normative Commitments through The Kids Are All Right (2010). Journal of Lesbian Studies, 17. 103-118.
This article examines representations of lesbian nonsexuality in the film The Kids Are All Right and in responses to the film by feminist and queer scholars. In some moments, the film offers a limited endorsement of lesbian nonsexuality, placing pressure on the category lesbian to include nonsexuality and asexuality. However, in their responses to the film, many feminist and queer scholars rejected nonsexuality as an aspect of lesbian experience, placing pressure on the category lesbian to exclude nonsexual and asexual women. Asexual activism challenges scholars to question their sex-normative commitments and to keep the category lesbian open and flexible.