SOC 326 ASU When We Talk About Gender We Talk About Sex Essay

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GASXXX10.1177/0891243219867916Gender & SocietyCuthbert / “When We Talk About Gender”
“WHEN WE TALK ABOUT GENDER WE
TALK ABOUT SEX”:
(A)sexuality and (A)gendered Subjectivities
KAREN CUTHBERT
University of Leeds, United Kingdom
Gender diversity is seemingly prevalent among asexual people. Drawing on qualitative
research, and focusing on agender identities in particular, this article explores why this
might be the case. I argue that previous explanations that center biologistic understandings of sexual development, the liberatory potential of asexuality, or psycho-cognitive
conflict, are insufficient. Instead, I offer a sociological perspective in which participants’ agender subjectivities can be understood as arising from an embodied meaningmaking process where gender was understood to be fundamentally about sexuality. I
emphasize the importance of understanding asexuality and agender in the broader
structural context, as particular subjectivities were shaped and sometimes necessitated
in navigating hetero-patriarchy. However, these entangled understandings of (a)sexuality and (a)gender were sometimes rendered unintelligible within LGBTQ+ discursive
communities, where there is often a rigid ontological distinction between gender and
sexuality arising from histories of misrecognition and erasure. I complicate this, arguing
that already-invisible subjectivities may be made even more invisible by this distinction.
The article illustrates the need to empirically explore the meanings of the categories
“gender” and “sexuality,” and the relationship between them, rather than siloing them
in our methodological and conceptual frameworks.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This research was funded by an ESRC +3 doctoral studentship (ES/
J500136/1) held at the University of Glasgow. Special thanks to Matt Dawson, Francesca
Stella, Ramona Delamore, Karen Young, Sharon Greenwood, Susan Bachelor, Sally Hines,
and Karen Throsby for their generous intellectual engagement and (equally important)
emotional support. I am also grateful to the Gender & Society editors and reviewers for
their constructive feedback. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed
to Karen Cuthbert, School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds, Social
Sciences Building, Leeds, LS2 9JT, United Kingdom; e-mail: k.cuthbert@leeds.ac.uk.
GENDER & SOCIETY, Vol 33 No. 6, December, 2019 841–864
DOI: 10.1177/0891243219867916
© 2019 by The Author(s)
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
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GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2019
Keywords: asexuality; agender; gender and sexuality; gender identity; gender diversity
A
sexuality, which has been dubbed the “invisible orientation” (Decker
2014), arguably is becoming less so. Not only can we find the existence of some asexual characters in mainstream entertainment (e.g., Todd
in the Netflix series Bojack Horseman, Liv Flaherty in the UK soap
Emmerdale), but these characters also are portrayed as complex and
nuanced, rather than one-dimensional stereotypes. The U.S. clothing
retailer Hot Topic sells “Asexual Pride” T-shirts, and asexual terminology such as “ace” and “aromantic” were added to the Oxford English
Dictionary in 2018 (OED 2018). Asexual is increasingly included in
official governmental research (e.g., in the findings from the U.K. government’s National LGBT survey in 2018), and there are plans to include
asexual in the 2021 U.K. census (ONS 2018).
There also has been a small but growing body of scholarship on asexuality for a decade and a half, ranging from the positivistic, to textual
explorations, to the sociological. Not only is asexuality of interest as a
social phenomenon in and of itself (especially given its increased visibility), but those working in asexuality studies have pointed out that we
should be interested in asexuality because of its potential to inform our
understandings about society and social organization more broadly—for
example, about the compulsory nature of sexuality (Gupta 2015), the possibilities for conducting relationships in new ways (Scherrer 2010), and
even what it means to be human (Gressgård 2013).
This article contributes to debates both within and beyond asexuality
studies. It is a qualitative investigation of the gender diversity that is
seemingly prevalent among asexual people (Bauer et al. 2018), and
challenges some of the proposed explanations for this. I argue that
explanations that posit gender diversity as arising from the (a)sexual
development process, as related to asexuality’s liberatory potential, or
as a strategy for managing psycho-cognitive dissonance do not adequately reflect the experiences of my study participants. Asexualagender subjectivities instead emerged much more complexly through
how participants made sense of concepts like gender and sexuality, and
how these meanings were dynamically understood and experienced
through the lived body. Crucially, these subjectivities also were situated, formed, and shaped in the broader socio-structural context of
hetero-patriarchy, as participants, especially those who were read
socially as women, had to find ways to navigate aggressive (hetero)
sexualization. This can be read as a sociological intervention to the
Cuthbert / “WHEN WE TALK ABOUT GENDER” 843
debate, as I center participant’s own meaning-making, their embodiment, and their emplacement within wider social structures. However,
these subjectivities were often rendered unintelligible by dominant
LGBTQ+ discourse, since they resisted the ontological separation of
gender and sexuality common to much scholarship and activism. This
article therefore speaks to broader issues about how gender, sexuality,
and the relationship between them is conceptualized, and how mobilizing them in particular ways may mean marginalizing particular subjectivities. Overall, I highlight the need for empirical engagement, as
gender and sexuality might come together or diverge in different ways
at different empirical sites (Richardson 2007).
THEORIZING SEXUALITY AND GENDER
Theorizing sexuality and gender (and the relationship between the
two) has a long and multifaceted history (see Richardson 2007 and
Valentine 2007 for fuller accounts). Victorian sexological discourses of
inversion tied gender and sexuality together in a determinate and pathologizing fashion, where same-sex attraction was understood as a kind of
gender atypicality (Devor and Matte 2006). These discourses came to be
challenged by the newly mobilizing gay and lesbian movement in the
midtwentieth century (Valentine 2007, 54). In particular, the characterization of gay men as effeminate was seen as a barrier toward sexual
citizenship, and so conformity to gender norms was strategically emphasized (2007, 54). Valentine argued that this move had two effects: firstly,
as gender non-normativity became unstuck from homosexuality, “trans”
emerged as the kind of container vessel for this, and, secondly, it
instated an ontological separation of gender and sexuality. Today, while
gender and sexuality are still frequently conflated (e.g., Zaslow 2018),
the separation of gender and sexuality has become almost orthodox in
“much grassroots political activism” and “contemporary social theory”
(Valentine 2007, 15), as it is seen as a matter of respecting self-determination. Bettcher (2014, 618) suggested that “a central assumption in
transgender politics” is that “gender identity is entirely distinct from
sexual orientation,” whilst Jourian (2018, 362) spoke of an “overemphasis on distinguishing gender from sexuality” in academia. Hines (2010)
also showed how this separation is codified into certain legal frameworks, such as the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 in the United
Kingdom. This separation model is also becoming increasingly visible
within popular culture (e.g., Adams 2017; Mannion 2015).
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GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2019
Articulating gender and sexuality’s relationship also has been a central
plank in both queer (and) feminist theory (Richardson 2007). Rather than
as attributes of the individual (e.g., how one’s sexuality might be connected or not to one’s gender), feminist and queer theorists have considered gender and sexuality in their more systemic and institutionalized
forms, including how the relationship between the two have contributed
to women’s oppression and/or heteronormativity. Theorists have differed
on the mechanics of this relationship; Hines (2010, 141) deemed it a
“chicken or the egg” situation. For example, Catherine MacKinnon
(1989) argued that gender and gender inequality are created through (hetero)sexuality; similarly, Wittig (1992) and Ingraham (1996) prioritize
sexuality as an explanatory framework, arguing that categories such as
woman would have no meaning if not for the heterosexual regime.
Conversely, Jackson (1999) argued that heterosexuality (based as it is on
the idea of opposite sexes) itself only makes sense because of preexisting
gender divisions. Richardson (2007, 466) also argued that while we can
“think about gender without invoking sexuality” it is perhaps more difficult to think about sexuality “outside gendered discourses and scripts”
(i.e., gender might be more independent than sexuality). In contrast, some
queer feminist theorists have sought to untether gender from sexuality
entirely, such as Rubin (1984) and Sedgwick (1990). Commenting on this
impulse, Butler (1994, 11) suggested that this is in part down to a desire
to liberate sexuality: If sexuality is tied to gender, then sexuality can only
be a site of oppression, rather than a source of transgression or pleasure.
Indeed, Martin’s (1994) depiction of a “queer utopia” is one which has
“sexualities without genders.”
Empirical sociological research shows us how gender works through
sexuality and vice versa, and how together they shape behaviors, identities and relationships. For example, scholars in a number of empirical
contexts have shown how a performance of a particular kind of heterosexuality is crucial if one is to be recognized as “properly” masculine
or feminine (Connell 2005; Renold 2005). Researchers also have
shown how experiences and expressions of sexuality are unequally
structured by gender, with girl’s and women’s bodies, desire(s) and
agency policed and constrained in multiple ways across the life course
(e.g., Carpenter 2010; Miller 2016; Tolman, Davis, and Bowman 2016).
In this work, the structural, relational, and subjective elements of gender and sexuality are in continuous dialogue, as the social system of
hetero-patriarchy is traced through individual identities and interpersonal interactions.
Cuthbert / “WHEN WE TALK ABOUT GENDER” 845
Some researchers within trans studies have built on this work on gendered sexualities and sexualized genders by illustrating the lived inseparability of these categories. Distinguishing between gender and sexuality
often does not make sense in the lifeworlds of many trans and/or gendernonconforming people, particularly for trans and gender-nonconforming
people of color (Valentine 2007), where identities such as “stud” and “ag/
gressive” can fuse gendered, sexualized, and racialized subjectivities
(Kuper, Wright, and Mustanski 2014; Jourian 2015). Research within
trans studies also has emphasized the importance of embodiment in
understanding the lived interplay of gender and sexuality. For example,
Latham (2016) discussed how trans men “achieve maleness” through
assemblages of sexual practices, pleasures, and embodiments. Schilt and
Windsor (2014) demonstrated how, for the trans men in their research,
changing gendered embodiment often changed (or disrupted) their sexuality, while Doorduin and van Berlo (2014) discussed how, for some of
their trans participants, desire for changes in gendered embodiment were
themselves often motivated by sexual subjectivity. These accounts speak
to a “feedback loop, underscoring the dynamic and dialectical relationship between gender and sexuality” (Schilt and Windsor 2014, 733), yet
research also points to the ways in which these subjectivities are denied
credibility or intelligibility in institutionalized settings, such as the gender clinic (Whitehead and Thomas 2013).
(A)SEXUALITY AND GENDER
Research on gendered experiences of asexuality is in its infancy, as
scholars are only beginning to think about asexuality intersectionally
rather than as a single homogenous phenomenon (Cuthbert 2017).
Przybylo (2014), Vares (2018), and Gupta (2018) have made great
initial strides in exploring gender and asexuality empirically, beginning to unpack how constructions of masculinity and femininity clash
with or alternatively cohere with asexual identities and subject positions (Przybylo, Gupta), and how asexual men and asexual women
have very different gendered experiences of dating and relationships
(Vares). These studies highlight the ways in which asexuality is an
inherently gendered phenomenon, as it involves understandings and
practices of sexual desire, sexual activity, and agency, all of which are
intimately tied to gender.
There is also some limited quantitative data that indicates that gender
diversity or gender nonconformity is fairly common among asexual
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people, although cisnormativity can still be found within the asexual
community (e.g., Sumerau et al. 2018). This has been the case for studies that have recruited within the asexual community, as well as studies
recruiting on a population-wide basis. The 2016 iteration of the annual
Asexual Community Census (Bauer et al. 2018) echoed previous years’
results in that 26 percent of asexual respondents (n = 2,420 out of a total
n = 9,294) refused the options of “woman/female” or “man/male” in
favor of a “none of the above option.” Participants who selected the latter option subsequently went on to identify with a range of different
terms, with nonbinary, agender, and genderqueer being the three most
popular. Likewise, in their New Zealand national probability sample,
Greaves et al. (2017, 2421) pointed to a correlation between asexual
identification and non-cisgender identification (although they do not
disaggregate this category).
Attempts have been made to account for this seeming prevalence of
gender diversity among asexual people. Three different explanations have
been proposed, reflecting different conceptualizations of what gender is
and where it is located. Firstly, drawing on particular biological understandings of gender, the psychologist Anthony Bogaert (2012) speculated
that exposure to certain combinations of prenatal hormones may make
asexual people develop “brains that are neither masculine or feminine,”
which may then “cause” asexuality (2012, 79). But this, he argued, could
also be a bidirectional relationship: he had a “hunch” that asexual persons
do not go through “traditional sexual development,” a process that he
argued tends to “make females more feminine and males more masculine”
(2012, 76). For Bogaert, this process of traditional sexual development
involves becoming conscious of oneself as an object-of-desire, and consequently becoming appropriately masculine or feminine in “attire, manner and language” (2012, 76).
Secondly, writing from a queer feminist perspective, Chasin (2011,
716) theorized that “it is possible that sexual attractiveness standards govern gender presentations and behaviors, and that without the desire to
attract a sexual partner, asexual people may have more freedom to explore
their own genders.” Here the onus is not on a natural developmental path
governed by the unquestioned “logics” of cis/heteronormativity as in
Bogaert’s account, but rather on heteronormativity as a social system,
with certain gendered requirements. This invokes Butler’s (1990, 208)
notion of the heterosexual matrix: that is, the “hegemonic discursive/epistemic model of gender intelligibility” where bodily sex, gender, and sexuality are understood through one another and are required to “cohere”
(e.g., to be male is to be masculine and straight). In Chasin’s account, it is
Cuthbert / “WHEN WE TALK ABOUT GENDER” 847
implied that asexuality represents the possibility of escaping the matrix,
since there is (ostensibly) no sexuality which acts as a reference point for
gender, thus giving asexual people the freedom to do gender differently.
The third explanation comes from the social psychologists MacNeela
and Murphy (2015), who suggested that asexuality poses a “threat” to the
“self-concept” which is, they argued, governed by heteronormative gender role expectations. That is, there are difficulties involved in reconciling
asexuality with normative femininity, or asexuality and normative masculinity. Thus, identifying as nonbinary or gender diverse is framed as a
psychological “strategy” for dealing with this clash. Here, MacNeela and
Murphy do draw on empirical research (a survey with open-ended
responses), but the data presented does little to support their theory; it is
not at all clear that participants would conceptualize their identities in
such a “rational” way.
Therefore, there is need for empirically grounded research to explore
gender diversity or gender nonconformity in the context of asexuality.
Gender diversity and gender nonconformity are, of course, extremely
wide-ranging terms, and this article covers only a small subset—agender,
nongendered, and genderless subjectivities in particular—since this is
what emerged as most significant among my participants. Critical
scholarship on gender diversity/gender nonconformity more broadly
has a long interdisciplinary pedigree (Stryker and Whittle 2006), and
research is beginning to emerge in the context of the recent discursive
availability and visibility of subject positions such as nonbinary and
genderfluid (Nicolazzo 2016; Vincent 2016; Yeadon-Lee 2016).
However, the experience of feeling like you have no gender, or are
removed from gender in some way (commonly denoted by terms such
as agender, nongendered, and genderless) have received very little
attention in comparison to the experience of having a gender that is not
man or woman. This is perhaps because of a tendency to subsume them
under a term like nonbinary. But, as Clucas and Whittle (2017, 77) put
it, “non-binary gender is still a gender” and for some people who see
themselves as agender (or nongendered or genderless), the term nonbinary might miss the point. Eve Sedgwick (1996), building on the idea
of masculinity and femininity as orthogonal axes, made the almost
throwaway comment that “some people are just plain more gender-y
than others—whether the gender they manifest be masculine, feminine,
both, or ‘and then some’” (1996, 16). The focus in subsequent scholarship has been on those who are the most “gender-y,” reflecting the
examples Sedgwick gives (“both” “and then some”), but the experience
of being “less gender-y” (which might manifest itself in the extremes
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as agender) remains ripe for exploration. Therefore, while this article
contributes to asexuality studies, it also contributes to opening up the
discursive space around agender.
METHODS
The data in this article come from a wider project on asexuality, sexual
abstinence, and gender. In this article, I focus exclusively on the participants who identified as asexual (n=21). The research involved semistructured interviews followed by a notebook element (of which 10 participants
out of 21 took part). Participants filled in a notebook (paper or digital)
over the course of four to six weeks, aided by a prompt sheet that encouraged participants to reflect on gender and sexuality through exploring
feelings about the body, moving through the world, relationships, and
identity. Partly inspired by Thomson and Holland’s (2005) use of memory
books, participants were encouraged to use whatever expressive medium
felt best for them within their notebooks, with resulting data in the form
of diary entries, prose pieces, drawings, photographs, and comics. These
10 participants took part in a further follow-up interview to talk through
their notebooks. The addition of the notebook element to the research was
designed to augment the exploration of participants’ subjectivities and
understandings, as well as overcome some of the perceived limitations of
the interview format (e.g., reliance on speech and words; pressure of faceto-face and immediate communication; potential to forget or dismiss more
mundane experiences).
Participants were all based in Scotland or England. Recruitment was
via a number of sources: university LGBT+ societies, posters in community centers and libraries, a UK-based website for platonic dating,
Gumtree, and advertising on social media. The majority of previous
research on asexuality recruited via the “go to” hub of asexuality on the
Internet, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). Because
of this oversampling, I deliberately avoided recruiting via AVEN. This
resulted in slightly more diversity than the students and young professionals that dominated previous research. For example, there were more people over 25 who participated (n=11) including four over 40, and while a
number of participants were still students or in occupations normatively
considered professional, there also were some people in low-paid work
(such as charity fundraising and care work) or who were unemployed.
However, the sample remained overwhelmingly white (n=20). The vast
Cuthbert / “WHEN WE TALK ABOUT GENDER” 849
majority of empirical asexuality research to date has been white-dominated; indeed Hawkins Owen (2014) has written about how, historically,
whiteness itself (as a hierarchical relation to blackness) has been constructed as asexual. Thus, the whiteness of this research is a significant
limitation, and there remains crucial work to be done on the racialization
of asexuality (including more concerted attempts to include asexual people of color in studies).
The gender breakdown of participants is difficult to state definitively,
since gender identities were almost always complex and belied simple
categorization. Twelve of the 21 participants spoke about terms like agender, genderless, or gender-neutral being terms they felt described them.
However, participants varied in how they used and thought of these terms.
For some, it was their primary gender identity, while others retained an
(often hesitant) link to man/male or woman/female, since they were recognized as such socially, but they had an internal sense of themselves as
agender or similar. Participants who used the term agender also differed
with regard to whether they thought of themselves as trans; at least three
participants were considering the fit of the term, while one explicitly
stated that they were not transgender. The other nine participants felt
(more) comfortable with terms like man/male (n=1) or woman/female
(n=8), although almost always with qualifications (e.g., “I’m a female, but
I don’t identify with femininity”).1
I relistened to the audio recordings and read through the interview
transcripts multiple times, coding the data for emerging themes, and
refining and revising codes each time. I also made extensive use of
memos throughout the coding process to note my thoughts and make
connections between themes, and constructed narrative portraits for
each participant to avoid the fracturing of data. In my analysis, I paid
attention to what participants’ experiences were and what they were
telling me about their lives. However, I also paid attention to how participants put together their narratives—that is, identifying the underlying discourses that both shape participants’ accounts, but which also are
used by participants in particular ways to claim certain subject positions (Holstein and Gubrium 2011). I also paid attention to how narratives are shaped in the interactions between the participant and myself
as a researcher. Mindful of striking the balance between self-disclosure
as feminist research praxis (Oakley 1981) and the possibility of selfdisclosure being interpreted by some participants as violating the
norms of the research encounter (Ribbens 1989), I indicated to participants that I would be happy to answer any questions they had about me
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and my interest in the research. As a result, I disclosed myself to some
participants and not others, as some took me up on this while others did
not. Undoubtedly, speaking to some participants about being queer,
about being moderately femme-presenting but largely agender-identifying, and about my own complicated and shifting relationship to
asexuality affected the data we created together (as did, equally, not
speaking about these things to other participants). For example, some
participants assumed shared knowledge and included me in the category of “we” when discussing being queer or asexual, while in other
cases, avenues of discourse were shut down (such as when one participant began to critique make-up and beauty practices before adding, “I
don’t mean you though, I’m not saying you’re shallow or anything”).
Thus, insider and outsider roles as a researcher are rarely clear-cut or
binary, with multiple nodes of dis/identification.
(A)GENDERED SUBJECTIVIES AND ASEXUALITY
Gender Is Irrelevant
There was a critical questioning of gendered norms in almost all 21
of the participants’ narratives. This typically took the form of critiquing
narrow and restrictive understandings of femininity and masculinity, or
troubling the organization of gender into binary opposites. But, whilst
participants had a keen awareness of the significance of gender in shaping the social world, including an awareness of how their own experiences were shaped by how others gendered them, around two-thirds of
the asexual participants talked about how gender actually felt irrelevant
to them on the most intimately subjective level. For instance, Reeta,
age 19, asexual and aromantic, noted, “Gender just being quite an irrelevant thing to how I think of myself.”2 Similarly Blair, age 20, asexual
and aromantic said, “None of it [gender] seems relevant to me, I don’t
identify with a particular gender but I’m nevertheless aware of gender
because I’m definitely not a man and so I don’t have the privilege to
basically ignore it.” Participants skillfully deployed different understandings of gender—for example, as both a structural and institutional
framework which impacted on their lives, but also as something subjective that related (or in this case, did not relate) to one’s sense of self
(Jackson and Scott 2010).
Furthermore, for more than half of the 21 participants, this sense of the
irrelevancy of gender had translated into an understanding of themselves
as agender, gender-neutral, or genderless. Participants who described
Cuthbert / “WHEN WE TALK ABOUT GENDER” 851
themselves using these terms also connected this to their asexuality. They
spoke about how gender is essentially about sexuality, and because they
had a lack of interest in sex or did not feel sexually attracted to others,
gender (their own and others) became much less important to them.
Heather, age 21, asexual and panromantic, said:
I kind of find gender an unnecessary question . . . it just doesn’t matter to me,
and in some roundabout way I feel like that’s probably connected to my
asexuality. When you have no interest in one [gender or sexuality] there’s not
very much reason to find interest in the other I guess. We define, conventionally, sexual attraction as being like heterosexual or homosexual, if you take it
in its most basic forms, and that’s always related to your own gender.
Homosexuality and heterosexuality are defined by the existence of gender. So
if sex wasn’t a thing there would be no need to have that separation [of genders] at all. For me my lack of interest in either is exemplified by the other,
and if I felt very strongly that I was female, for example, I would probably be
more inclined to find out more about my sexuality, and if I was convinced that
I was heterosexual, or even bisexual or whatever, I might be more interested
to find out about my gender and how I slotted into other people’s sexualities.
But as it is I have no particular interest in either, and neither really inclines me
to find out about the other, because I don’t really see the point.
Heather felt that the raison d’etre of gender is to organize and regulate
our sexual relations, given that our sexuality is defined by the gender
of the person to whom we are attracted. This is similar to Chrys
Ingraham’s (1996) argument that the only reason for the separation of
humans into two genders/sexes is the existence of (hetero)sex(uality).
Gender, for Ingraham and for Heather, only makes sense through the
framework of sexuality. For Heather, who does not feel sexual attraction, gender is not a meaningful way for them to organize their relationships, or orient themselves to the world. Oran, age 26, asexual and
panromantic, also felt that gender becomes less meaningful in the context of asexuality. Oran said:
If heterosexuality, or sexuality in general, isn’t something that you really
value then also you should take a look at your gender identity and say, well,
is that something that’s really important to you? Because yeah I do think
they’re intrinsically linked because when we talk about gender we talk about
sex. Like if you look in a textbook about animals for example, like that’s
what you’re talking about. It’s like reproduction and sexual activity, or like
how [laughs], asexual in plant life or like animal life is just about not needing a partner and stuff like that. So yeah I do think it’s all interlinked and I
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do think like if you start to identify as asexual then there’s probably part of
you that thinks about gender as well. It’s almost easy to think of yourself as
agender when you start to realize that those binary ideas are only there to
serve heterosexuality, sexuality, in a way.
Although the biologistic understanding of asexuality as self-reproduction
is usually dismissed in asexuality discourse (hence Oran’s self-conscious
laughter), Oran strategically uses it here to make the point that sex and
sexuality are fundamentally defined in relation to gender (both yours and
your sexual partner’s) whereas asexual organisms (who do not have sexual partners) are not typically gendered. Tobi, age 53, asexual and heteroromantic/aromantic, also felt her lack of affinity with gender was related
to her asexuality. She said:
If I’m not identifying strongly as female, feminine, whatever you want to
call it . . . then that would seem to go along with it [being asexual].
Identifying with a certain gender also seems to me to be about identifying
with sexuality . . . so most of the people I know seem to perform their gender in the context of their sexuality.
Tobi went on to discuss how different sexualities often had different
gendered aesthetics attached to them (e.g., the idea of looking straight or
lesbian or gay), and it was in this referential context that Tobi felt most
people understood their gender. Without experiencing any kind of sexual
attraction, Tobi was indifferent to being a woman. For Tobi, her gender
and sexuality made sense in light of one another. Similar to Tobi, Kai,
age 26, asexual, and aromantic, said, “I don’t have a defined thing [meaning they lack sexual attraction] because I don’t participate in that game.
The gender game. And I don’t participate in the gender game because I
don’t feel the need to get a sexual partner.” Kai talked about how they
had, in effect, dropped out of gender, because gender was so intrinsically
linked to sexuality and sexual relationships. Their quote also highlights
the circularity of the relationship—for Kai, it was not a case of linear
causality, but rather more a sense of mutual reinforcement. For some
participants, such as Jeffrey, age 53, asexual and heteroromantic, they
even saw their asexuality and their gender neutrality as one and the same.
When asked, “How connected do you think your asexuality and your
gender neutrality are?” Jeffrey replied, “They are more or less the same
thing. [long pause] I suppose there’s not much more that I can say about
that. They’re the same thing basically.” While Jeffrey went on to
acknowledge that it was possible for someone to be gender neutral and
Cuthbert / “WHEN WE TALK ABOUT GENDER” 853
sexual, for him, they were conceived of as so similar that he struggled to
articulate the difference between them.
These accounts call into question MacNeela and Murphy’s (2015)
claims that asexual people might strategically identify as agender or nonbinary in order to side-step the ostensible challenge posed by asexuality
to normative understandings of masculinity and femininity. They disrupt
the implicit rational actor in MacNeela and Murphy’s theory, as participants’ understandings of themselves as agender or gender-neutral or a
similar term were not ways to manage asexuality, but rather were entangled materially with and inextricable from participants’ asexuality.
Asexuality and Agender as Embodied
Asexuality also impacted how the body was experienced. Some
participants talked vividly about the kinds of embodied gendered discomfort that being asexual could invoke. This often was due to a (cultural) consciousness of particular body parts or physiological functions
as “sexual”—for the purposes of having sex, or expressing sexuality—
and thus was experienced as something “alien” to themselves. This is
not to say that these participants were repulsed by sex and all manifestations of sexuality—some (such as Jeffrey) were—but most others
expressed generally “sex positive” views.3 Figure 1 is an illustration
from Oran’s notebook.
Here, Oran uses the metaphor of the fairground game “Whack-a-Mole”
to describe their experience of getting unwanted erections. There was a
frenzied attempt to manage these physiological responses, as Oran is left
feeling “gross” and with a sense of self-loathing as these bodily transformations are at odds with their sense of themselves as asexual/not feeling
sexually attracted to others. The moles (manifestations of a particular
gendered-sexed-sexualized bodily configuration) are externalized from
Oran’s core conceptualization of self, providing a recursive feedback loop
through which Oran could come to an asexual/agender identity. Jeffrey,
too, spoke of his gendered and sexed body as something alien from his
“true self.” In his notebook, Jeffrey wrote of “The Beast Within” that
caused nocturnal emissions and spontaneous erections. He wrote:
There’s this disconnect within me. My monster from the id, my primal
beast within, goes rampaging about in the world of my dreams, causing
havoc in the “pyjama area.” Or at least it used to. I’ve pretty much got it
under control nowadays by no longer sleeping in a bed. If I sleep in a bed,
if I get all comfortable and snug, that’s when The Beast strikes. So I sleep
854
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2019
FIGURE 1: Oran’s Illustration
propped up in a chair. . . . This is how I’m made aware of and feel sexuality
in my body, and I don’t like it one bit.
Jeffrey experienced his gendered and sexed body as betraying him, if he
did not take requisite steps to keep it under control. Blair’s notebook also
illustrates how their asexual/agender subjectivity affected how they felt
about their gendered body. They wrote:
And most of the time I don’t really think about my breasts but sometimes
I’m like, these are weird? What’s the point of them? I’m glad I have small
breasts, and I like wearing a sports bra partly because it’s comfy and partly
because it makes them even flatter. I don’t know if this is because breasts
are soooo sexualized and I’m not interested in looking sexy so they’re . . .
not really doing anything for me.
Blair’s asexuality means they are not interested in being or looking sexual,
and because women’s bodies in particular are heavily sexualized, Blair
experiences alienation from their own body (“sometimes I’m like, these
are weird?”), and from being a “woman.” This was not about a desire to
be differently gendered, or to have a more masculine embodiment (they
write, “While I don’t feel strongly like a woman, I do feel strongly not-aman”), but to be untethered from gender more completely, because gendered embodiment was so associated with sexual embodiment, and thus
seemed irrelevant.
Cuthbert / “WHEN WE TALK ABOUT GENDER” 855
Participants also spoke about how asexuality, in a way, necessitated a
gender-neutral or agendered embodied presentation. Significantly, only
those participants who had been assigned female at birth spoke about this,
as it became clear that being asexual in the socio-structural context of
heteropatriarchy when one was read by others as a woman presented particular challenges, since femininity was so aggressively heterosexualized
and structured around male sexual desire (Radner 2008). Participants
spoke about objectification and sexualization. For example, Cass, age 21,
demisexual and panromantic, said, “Men thought that I was sexually
available just because I was wearing a dress.” Pippa, age 28, asexual and
homoromantic, said, “I found I got unwanted attention while wearing
feminine clothes.” This is of course not just an issue for asexual people—
within rape culture, it is seen as a woman’s responsibility to modulate the
way she looks in order to avoid unwanted sexual attention. However,
while acknowledging this broader context, participants felt that being
asexual added an additional layer in that they felt particularly averse to
being seen through a sexualized lens. Reeta wrote in their notebook,
“Especially as being asexual, I’m VERY uncomfortable with any sort of
objectification because it’s so far removed from what I want to be,” and
Sam, age 23, asexual and queer, said, “I was very disgusted with the idea
of anybody being attracted to me, I don’t want people to sexualize me in
their heads.” Cass also talked about how she was perhaps even more
uncomfortable at being viewed as sexually available because of the kinds
of relationships she wanted to forge. She said, “I wanted people to feel
connection with me not on a physical level but on different levels . . . I
don’t want people to find me cute and attractive.” The result was that most
participants had adopted a more gender-neutral appearance in order to
navigate this. Pippa said, “I wear quite neutral clothes as a signal that I’m
not interested.” Heather said:
I’m not interested in people finding me sexually attractive, I don’t want to
advertise myself in a sexual way . . . so I’m always just in jeans and
T-shirts, I don’t dress in a conventionally female way. That makes people
more wary.
For some, such as Cass, being gender neutral equated to appearing more
masculine. Cass said:
I had people thinking I was male and ran with it, cos I was more comfortable, because if they perceived me as male then I wouldn’t have the problems
856
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2019
with being female and they wouldn’t be interested in me, they wouldn’t
make moves on me.
Altogether, these accounts illustrate how asexuality’s entanglement
with a/gender also happened on a visceral and embodied level, rather than
(only) the ideational. They also highlight the importance of situating any
understanding of asexuality and a/gender in wider sociostructural contexts. Doing so disrupts some of the existing theorizations as to why gender diversity is common among asexual people. As we have seen, Bogaert
(2012) suggested that asexuality stymied the process of becoming conscious of oneself as an object of desire (and therefore becoming more
masculine or feminine), but the accounts of participants in this section
who had been read as female by others show a hyper-awareness of how
their bodies are objects of desire. Bogaert’s hunch about the developmental process that asexual people supposedly go through is ironically ungendered in itself: he does not acknowledge the sociostructural context of
patriarchy and the coercive power of the male gaze that forces those read
as female into an often painful self-awareness. Iris Marion Young’s statement that “I cannot see myself without seeing myself being seen” (2005,
63) seems particularly apropos to the accounts of these participants.
Indeed, some participants were so aware of themselves as objects of
desire that they deliberately cultivated a more gender-neutral embodiment
in order to shield themselves from the violence of objectification. This
should not be read as a strategy in the way that MacNeela and Murphy
suggest, but rather as something necessitated by the realities of heteropatriarchy.
The accounts here also perhaps complicate Chasin’s (2011) suggestions
about the liberatory potential of asexuality with regard to transgressing the
gender binary. While it is true that more than half of the participants in the
research had a gender identity that was not man or woman and that this
was related to their asexuality, there was little sense (for these participants
at least) that this was liberatory or about feeling free to transgress gender.
Rather, participants had agender or gender-neutral subjectivities because
it simply made sense when gender was understood as being about sexuality. Furthermore, the agender or gender-neutral embodied presentations of
some participants came about precisely because of sociostructural
restraints (rather than a freedom from those restraints). Dawson, Scott,
and McDonnell’s (2018, 388) critique of some of the bolder proclamations of the asexuality literature is applicable here: “The pragmatic adjustments of individuals to their social situation are overlooked in an attempt
Cuthbert / “WHEN WE TALK ABOUT GENDER” 857
to identify a ‘vanguard’—in this case, asexuals as transgressing gender
norms.” We might also see some parallels with how trans identities have
been posited as de facto deconstructing gender, and the resultant critiques
made of this (Prosser 1998). As calls have been made within trans studies
to ground any theorizing in the lived experiences of trans people, the data
here highlight the need to do similar in the case of asexuality.
The Unintelligibility of Entanglement
These self-understandings where (a)gender and (a)sexuality were
entangled were not always affirmed in the wider discursive communities
of which participants were a part. As discussed earlier, a separation model
of gender and sexuality often dominates within some scholarly and activist spheres, including in LGBT+ communities. A number of participants
alluded to this, and three made specific reference to the Gender Unicorn,
a popular graphic resource circulating in LGBT+ communities. Here,
gender identity, gender expression, sex assigned at birth, physical attraction, and emotional attraction are conceptualized as independent dimensions. Within each of these dimensions are further scales to indicate
relative strength and directionality of identity, expression, or attraction.
The idea is that a person can locate themselves at any point on each scale
without affecting the other scales. So, for example, if someone is assigned
male at birth and positions themselves as having strong physical attraction
to men and no physical attraction to women, then nothing is assumed
about their gender identity or expression. The rationale for such a model
is clear, but insisting on separation also meant that the subjectivities of
some of my participants who experienced their gender and sexuality as
entangled were rendered unintelligible. Referring to both LGBT+ and
asexual communities (which often overlap but are not the same), Dylan,
age 26, gray-A4 and queer, said, “Sexuality and gender are the two things
that are significant in my identity and I haven’t heard anyone talking
about the two in combination, they’re always separated out.” Sam went
further and, in the interview, they spoke about how they were reluctant to
say (their) gender and sexuality were connected because they were aware
of the political efforts within the LGBT+ community to disentangle the
two, and didn’t want to “shit on” work which they recognized as important. A year-and-a-half after the interview took place, Sam also attended a
presentation I was giving about my research findings. Afterwards, they
approached me, and referring to my discussion of how some participants
felt their gender and sexuality were connected, Sam told me they were
relieved to hear that they were not the only one who felt this way. There
858
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2019
was a sense from Sam’s story that articulating the connectedness of gender and sexuality (even when speaking solely of personal experience) felt
somewhat clandestine. Sam thus found themselves in a difficult position
where they held a particular understanding of self that did not accord with
how gender and sexuality were conceptualized within LGBTQ+ communities, and yet they were also appreciative of how and why this conceptualization had emerged in the context of progressive gender and
sexual politics.
The prevalence of such a discourse could also impact some participants’ own self-understanding. This was the case for Frankie, age 18,
asexual and heteroromantic, who said in our first interview:
There possibly is a link in that . . . I don’t have a defined attraction and
because of the way that I experience romantic and platonic attraction . . . I
think for me gender is a lot less important than it might be for others.
However, in the follow-up interview, roughly two months later, we
returned to this question. Frankie then said:
The thing I said the last time, about how I don’t really care about gender; I
don’t really feel one way or the other . . . I think I sort of pushed that as
being part of my asexuality. And when I actually started doing a bit more
research, it came to me that—maybe it’s not part of my sexuality, maybe
it’s something else. Umm . . . I think that might have slowed me down on
that bit and I thought it was just part of me being ace [asexual], and not
really being interested that much. But it was just sort of talking about it to
other people who are lot better informed. And they said, “Have you looked
up this or that?” and I ended up looking and, sort of finding all of these
non-binary resources, reading through it, finding out all of this stuff—and
it made a lot of sense when you start getting through that.
At this point, Frankie now felt that being agender and/or nonbinary was
something separate from their asexuality, and they felt that they might
identify as such regardless of whether or not they were asexual.
Significantly, this new understanding of self emerged from Frankie’s new
engagement with LGBT+ discursive spaces, both online on places like
Tumblr and offline in LGBT+ groups. Frankie’s understanding of their
gender and sexuality thus may have shifted in this context, especially as
they cede expertise to “people who are a lot better informed.” This is not
to deny Frankie’s self-understanding or to insist on a more authoritative
Cuthbert / “WHEN WE TALK ABOUT GENDER” 859
reading of Frankie’s account, or to say that one understanding is better
than the other, but to recognize the widespread acceptance and indeed
effect that this discourse might have.
CONCLUSION
This article has added an empirical grounding to speculations as to why
many asexual-identified people might have diverse gender identities. In
doing so, it has challenged existing explanations that focus on an aberration in the “traditional sexual development” process (Bogaert 2012), or
asexuality as freeing people to transgress gender norms (Chasin 2011), or
asexual people adopting non-normative gender identities as a “strategy”
for resolving purported internal conflict (MacNeela and Murphy 2015).
Of course, that is not to deny that elements of some or all of the above
may be true for some asexual people at some points, but engaging with
the subjectivities and lived experiences of participants, as well as locating
these in wider social structures, has allowed for a more grounded and
textured understanding of why identities such as agender or gender neutral
might be common amongst some asexual people.
Many research participants understood gender to be fundamentally
about sex. Because of their disconnection or disaffiliation with sex and
sexual attraction, many asexual people experienced a simultaneous feeling of alienation from gender, with some going on to find recognition in
identities such as agender. This was not a strategy, or an act of gender
transgression, but rather something that just made sense. A disconnect
from gender was inextricable from their asexual subjectivities, and this
was also felt viscerally, at an embodied level, as some participants spoke
of disgust or alienation from their sexed and gendered bodies. Furthermore,
for those participants who had been assigned female at birth, or were read
socially as female, asexuality also necessitated a level of agendered or
gender-neutral embodiment, because of the relentless sexual objectification and aggressive propositioning experienced under heteropatriarchy.
This was not something that was experienced as liberatory, but rather
something that was necessary as an asexual person read as female moving through the world.
However, some participants were aware that talking about their (a)
gender identity and their (a)sexuality as connected went against the discursive currents of some LGBT+ communities, where a separation
model was emphasized. Some participants spoke about feeling like their
860
GENDER & SOCIETY/December 2019
experiences were not reflected in the things they saw and read, or that it
was a risk to articulate these feelings due to what was at stake politically; these discourses could also have a significant impact on participants’ self-understandings.
While directly relating to debates within asexuality studies, my findings also have broader resonances for gender and sexuality research. It
opens up discursive space around experiences of being “less gender-y” (to
paraphrase Sedgwick 1990, and under the aegis of which we might consider agender), which have not received as much attention as the “more
gender-y.” The research on which this article was based began with the
idea of asexuality, through which agender became important, but research
specifically centered on agender is needed. A question directly arising
from this research is how agender people who are not asexual understand
gender—how might agender subjectivities come to form when one does
experience sexual attraction towards others? Is gender still conceptualized
as being “about” sexuality, as for the participants in this research, or is it
(and the rejection of/disaffiliation with it) understood and made sense of
in different ways? Asking such questions is also about de-essentializing
gender (and sexuality): the “object” becomes not so much the alreadygendered subject, but the constitution of the category itself.
Taken together with some work within trans studies (e.g., Latham
2016; Schilt and Windsor 2014; Valentine 2007), the findings also point
to how, for some subjects, gender and sexuality are not as easily separable
or distinguishable as suggested by some activism and scholarship.
Therefore, methodological and conceptual frameworks that attempt to silo
them may be unable to capture the complexity of some subjectivities—
and indeed, the subjectivities of those who are often already most at risk
of marginalization and erasure within both heteronormative and LGB
discourse (i.e., trans people, and particularly trans people of color; asexual
people who are usually invisible). Opening up space to empirically
explore the meanings of gender and sexuality and their relationship,
including how gender might be sexuality (and vice versa) in some contexts, is therefore also possibly a way of decentering the cis-genderedness,
compulsory sexuality, and whiteness of our research praxis (rather than a
regression to conservative models of inversion).
ORCID iD
Karen Cuthbert
https://orcid.org/0000-0002-8810-8088
Cuthbert / “WHEN WE TALK ABOUT GENDER” 861
NOTES
1. The overrepresentation of asexual women compared to asexual men is
found across much asexuality research. This may reflect the actual demographic
make-up of asexual people (see Gupta 2018 for how asexuality particularly fits
with dominant constructions of white middle-class femininity), and/or it may be
an artifact of the sampling and recruitment process.
2. All names are pseudonyms.
3. There is enormous heterogeneity beneath the label of asexuality. This
includes a huge amount of variation with regard to how asexual people feel about
sex, as well as variation with regard to sexual in/activity (Decker 2014).
4. Gray-A refers to a subjectivity located somewhere between asexual and
sexual, in which a person might feel sexual attraction, albeit rarely.
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Karen Cuthbert is currently a research fellow in sociology at the University
of Leeds, interested in forms of “non” sexuality, such as asexuality, abstinence, and celibacy, and particularly how these are related to gender. More
broadly, she is interested in exploring how gender might be changing and/
or staying the same.

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