Is asexuality on the road to acceptance?

"There's a whole history we're building upon with feminist movements, with queer movements and LGBT politics that have really established a ground on which people can think about sexuality in different ways," says Karli Cerankowski. "Asexuality seems like the next frontier for that reframing of sexuality." (Credit: iStockphoto)

Most people find the idea of asexuality, a life free of sexual attraction, baffling at first. But that’s changing, according to the editor of a new book on the topic.

“Society has normalized certain levels of sexual desire while pathologizing others,” says Karli Cerankowski, a lecturer in Stanford University’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric.

“In a sense, it’s the social model that’s broken, not asexuals.”

Although sex and sexuality are centralized, prized aspects of our culture, Cerankowski says that “if we recognize the diversity of human sexuality, then we can understand that there are some people who just don’t experience sexual attraction or have a lower sex drive or have less sex, and that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them.”

Cerankowski and her co-editor, Megan Milks, recently published Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives (Routledge 2014), the first collection of essays on asexuality—and the second book ever to be written on the topic.

Contributors from a variety of disciplines pursue the subject through scientific, sexological, psychoanalytical, and political models.

Pleasure without sex

Cerankowski’s own research reveals that people are capable of obtaining just as much contentment from other areas of life, and complete gratification in life doesn’t necessarily include sexual gratification.

“We sort of prioritize sexual pleasure and sexual fulfillment in our lives, but we can think about the other ways that people experience intense pleasure, like when listening to music,” Cerankowski says.

Cerankowski’s studies of asexuality found their home under the expansive umbrella of queer and sexuality studies, which she says assists in the acceptance of asexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation.

In Cerankowski’s dissertation on the ways asexuality is misunderstood in American culture, she traces “the history of the creation of sexual categories” through an extensive study of text and media from pop culture as well as historical works, including collections of sexology texts in the Stanford University Libraries. She received her PhD from Stanford’s Program in Modern Thought and Literature last year.

A ‘vast spectrum’

The prefix “a-” means “not,” and so some might mistakenly assume that asexual must mean “not sexual” and that all asexual people are entirely uninterested in sex and love in any capacity.

But, as Cerankowski points out, the plural in the book’s title is no accident. They use the plural to evoke the intricacies involved in the vast spectrum of asexuality, to be compatible with the “more commonly understood model of fluid and multiple sexualities.”

As Cerankowski has found, studying and thinking about asexuality brings up broader implications of what pleasure means to humans.

In one scenario, an asexual person might be married, living with a partner, and having regular intercourse. This person might be a romantic asexual, meaning someone who experiences strong, intimate, and romantic feelings for another person but engages in sexual behavior only for procreative purposes or as a means of experiencing intimacy.

Another scenario might involve an a-romantic asexual, who is completely uninterested in romantic attachment or sexual encounters altogether, but finds satisfaction in other arenas of life. And, to debunk a common myth about sexuality, this a-romantic, asexual person is not necessarily any less fulfilled than a person with romantic and sexual drive.

Rights and recognition

Cerankowski’s work raises the question: why is now the ideal time for recognition of the asexual community and of asexuality as an orientation? Cerankowski points to the recent evolution of asexuality acceptance as the next natural step in equal rights.


Much as homosexuality was once consistently pathologized by the public, though, the asexual community faces similar contention.

“There’s a whole history we’re building upon with feminist movements, with queer movements and LGBT politics that have really established a ground on which people can think about sexuality in different ways,” says Cerankowski. “Asexuality seems like the next frontier for that reframing of sexuality.”

Cerankowski points to the countless forums, blogs, and YouTube channels that provide platforms for open discussion of the topic.

While Cerankowski’s research has done much to shed light on asexuality, she says there’s still much more to be understood: “What I imagine being the next step for my research would be to look through some of those medical and sexological histories and trace a kind of genealogy.”

Source: Leah Stark for Stanford University