Gender Variation in the Asexual Community: Results

A little while ago, I created a survey meant to measure gender variation in the asexual community, because I suspected that a large number of asexuals, in one way or another, do not conform to gender norms. There have been polls around AVEN and elsewhere in the past which have indicated that there is a significant percentage of trans members, and in my four or five years of observing the asexual community, I had noted how often the subject of gender has come up–over and over again, people will ask whether others identify as androgynous or gender-neutral in some way (often making a connection between that and asexuality); or mention that they don’t “get” gender, or don’t feel like they have a gender at all. In that latter scenario, what follows is usually a bunch of people agreeing with that sentiment, and then a trans person will chime in to try to explain the subtle nuances of gender, and that devolves into a frustrating argument wherein there is usually a lot of misunderstanding (to put it mildly), and a clash of gender essentialist/social constructionist vs. intrinsic inclinationist views. I will likely make a post on that kind of argument later, but for now, I can’t bear to deal with it, and anyway, I want to focus on the task at hand.

Before I post the actual results, I feel it necessary to make some distinctions clear: this survey is by no means academic, and was faced with a number of problems which no doubt affected the results. This is not meant to provide solid statistics, but rather just a general idea of where the community stands with regard to gender diversity. But, if this serves to give people who actually have the means to do real scientific research on these ideas about what to examine, then so much the better.

I want to post something addressing the difficulties I had with the survey in detail, but I fear I will bore those of you who are just anxiously waiting for the results, so I will save that for another post. However, I do need to address definitions here before I begin: “Transsexual” refers to someone who wants to change their body (generally within the male/female binary), while “transgendered” can mean different things to different people, but here I use it as an umbrella term to encompass a range of people who explicitly identified themselves as such, either by ticking the “transgender” box in the question about which gender one identifies as, or by writing it in the comments. There is a significant difference between the two, since some trans people don’t identify as trans, but just women or men, no qualifiers necessary. Although I was aware of that, it’s not what I was looking to examine, so in order to simplify the results, I combined them; however, in any future surveys there would need to be a means of addressing this issue. Since this requires conscious identification with the label, there may have been (actually, there most definitely were) some people who may be considered transgendered under certain definitions of the word but who do not personally identify with the term, or have not yet figured out where they stand. In particular, this is likely to leave out some androgynous-identified people (and here, I use “androgynous-identified” as another umbrella term to refer to several different gender identities which would typically be considered “in-between” male and female: androgyne, neuter/neutrois/agender, bigender/intergender, and so on), who are not sure whether the term fits them. For these people, there is no standardized approach to gender, as there has come to be for transsexuals. Some may want to physically alter their bodies in certain ways, others may want to alter their bodies in different ways, some may rely primarily on gender expression rather than changing their physical sex, and still others may be content not to do anything at all. There isn’t an easy way to sort these people, because they defy conventional categorization. They tend to overlap with other categories, and this overlap may confuse any statistics formed from the survey.

For short, I am going to refer to all trans people on the FTM spectrum (including androgynous-identified) by FTM, and all on the MTF spectrum (likewise) with just MTF. Again, keep in mind, I am NOT INCLUDING those who did not specifically identify themselves as trans at some point in the survey.

Now, on to the actual results.

This is already a well-known fact which has come to be expected, but the online asexual community is extraordinarily female-dominated, and since the survey was posted on LJ, which is extraordinarily female-dominated itself, the results are naturally skewed. However, what’s interesting to me is that, not only do females outnumber males (79.2% to 14.7%), but 87% of the transgendered respondents were female-born as well. This is interesting, because while I’m not sure what the actual FTM:MTF ratio is for the general population (I have seen various estimates ranging from 1:8.7 to 1:0.66), it is considered to be roughly equal, and certainly a lot closer than the 20:3 that responded here. It is doubly interesting because there is significant evidence that testosterone increases sex drive, whereas a switch from testosterone to estrogen reduces it. For this reason, transitioning FTMs are often stereotyped as aggressive hornballs, while it might be more expected that MTFs would, upon transition, become closer to asexual (as happened with my own girlfriend).

This may be a new piece of evidence, as it seems that many asexuals are unaware that there is such an extremely unbalanced ratio of FTMs to MTFs, as evidenced by this thread on AVEN. It is interesting to me that the OP of that thread thought that trans people within the community were predominately MTF; perhaps this has to do with the fact that (for disgustingly sexist, phallocentric reasons) people so often sensationalize MTF transsexuality, while completely ignoring the other side of the spectrum.

If I were to theorize, I would think there are several reasons for this: 1) It is a female-dominated community, so likely feminine socialization plays a big role. Females are probably more likely to realize that they have the option of being asexual, because they are more likely to be exposed to other females who identify as asexual. Due to the fact that male socialization is so sex-oriented, males may not ever be exposed to asexuality the way females are likely to be, and thus never realize it is an option, and the libidinal effects of testosterone surely do not contribute to the formation of an asexual identity. Some MTFs may, even upon encountering asexuality and finding they can identify with it to some degree, reject the notion that they could be asexual simply because it is not a way they have been used to thinking of themselves. I have more thoughts about that, but I’ll save it for another post. 2) FTMs may feel more limited sexually than MTFs, due to the fact that while vaginoplasty has become fairly sophisticated, phalloplasty leaves much to be desired. For this reason, a large number of FTMs choose not to go through with bottom surgery at all. Lacking the proper genitalia may be a contributor to asexuality, and those who have already had the experience of being asexual may not want to become sexual (it seems there aren’t many asexuals who would; likely that is because it is difficult to accept the identity “asexual” unless one is satisfied being that way). A number of asexuals on the FTM spectrum indicated that, rather than going for SRS, they would prefer to have their genitalia completely removed, thus becoming neutrois.

I wish I had something to compare this to; I would like to do a survey of the trans community to see how many of them identify as asexual, and whether there is a similar ratio there.

More results, in bullet format:

  • Twenty-four out of 279 respondents (out of 296 who started; those respondents who did not complete the survey were removed) identified themselves as transgendered. That’s about 8-9% of the total, which is possibly quite a bit higher than that of the general population. According to Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl (page 190), “international statistics for post-operative transsexuals range from 1 to 3 percent of the poplulation,” and it is estimated that one in five hundred people in the U.S. are transsexual. However, there aren’t any statistics that measure how many transgendered people there are, as this survey was meant to do. That number is estimated to be higher, although I would suspect that our number is probably still higher than that.
  • Unsurprisingly, no one who identified themselves as transgendered said they had moderate or weak gender identity. Most said their identity was very strong, while the rest said it was somewhat strong.
  • Females are significantly more likely to have weaker gender identification, and also significantly more likely to identify themselves as androgynous.
  • Males tend to conform more to their assigned gender, and are less likely to be comfortable with transgendered people than women are. The highest number (39%) said they would be unwilling to date a trans person even if they were romantically oriented (one commented that he was only interested in romantic relationships with women, not realizing perhaps that many trans women are indistinguishable from cis women, though maybe reproduction is an issue). However, it is worth noting that 26.8% said that they would be willing to date a trans person, which, although I’m not sure there are any statistics out there about that, is probably a MUCH higher percentage than those of the general population. It is also worth noting that only one said he wouldn’t even be willing to be friends with a trans person.
  • Females show a very strong preference for a society with a non-binary gender system (61.5%), with an egalitarian society with binary genders and a post-gender world respectively being a distant second (19.9%) and third (14.9%). VERY few females (3.6%) were satisfied with the current gender system.
  • The men were much closer to evenly split on the question of which society would be most ideal. However, they still follow the general trend of preferring a non-binary gender system (36.6%). There were more who wanted an egalitarian society (24.4%) than who wanted a post-gender world (22%). A conservative view was in the minority, but still significantly higher than the percent of women who held such a view (17%).

I’m going to have to split up this post into a series to cover everything that I want to, because this is getting way too long. Later, I will post more about the results, including some of the comments I received, and discuss some of the issues that I ran into while doing this survey. Until next time!

Why Acronyms are a Bad Idea.

Lately there’s been a bit of a stir around this blog post, wherein some gay dude rants about how asexuals aren’t worthy enough to add a letter to his sacred acronym, because we’re disabled, repressed, traumatized, pitiable, not oppressed enough, and dammit, we all just need to stop being anti-sexual prudes and get laid. And some other ignorant drivel that’s really not worth repeating, and has already been well argued against.

For some reason (likely because I’m bored and bed-ridden, and can’t do much of anything else), I sat there skimming over the comments today, unable to get myself riled up about any of it.

I found the most salient comment of that entire discussion to be the one about how the guy doesn’t seem to care about the trans community either, which rings true with my own experience of GL(bt) groups. Frustrating as it is, there is a ton of in-fighting and prejudice within these types of groups, especially towards the most minor of the minority groups. Nobody gives a thought to asexuals, and trans people are the first to get jettisoned should the group face any major resistance to whatever law they’re trying to pass (case in point: the ENDA debacle).

I know not everyone thinks like this, as I have had some success at getting asexuality included within a few local queer groups, although it is still largely ignored until one of the active asexual members brings it up. As for trans stuff, they will mention whatever PFLAG is putting on, or the things they do every year (out of habit, by this point), but they don’t seem to know or care exactly what it’s about. Mostly, they just seem to care about parties (and fundraising for them). It’s all about social events, and has very little to do with real activism. At this point, people have gotten so fed up with the incompetence and petty drama that the group split into different factions, and active members (which once filled the tiny room we are assigned to bursting) are down to a small handful.

The main problem I have had with these groups (aside from general incompetence) is that they are so very self-interested that they fail to see the larger picture. I think in large part this has to do with the group’s focus, which is reflected quite clearly in the name. I would argue that not only does the intended focus of the group contribute to its name, but that the name also shapes its focus, sometimes in a way that can be quite detrimental to its ability to get anything productive done.

I am not the first to recognize the trouble with acronyms; many groups have seen that, not only is there a linguistic hierarchy clearly visible in the structure of the name (Gay > Lesbian > Bisexual > Transgender > * > * > * etc.) that reflects badly on the group because it points out a real underlying hierarchy with regards to the weight of importance given to the issues of each respective smaller community, but that it quickly accumulates into an unpronounceable alphabet soup in any attempt to include additional minorities. Some people, like the above-linked blogger, seem to take issue only with the latter problem, and advocate a non-inclusive approach. Others have decided, instead, to change the name of the group to one that’s both easier to keep track of and more inclusive: Queer-Straight Alliance, or QSA.

That’s a bold move, because “queer” is a very broad term. It can be re-envisioned to mean almost anything that goes against the norm, although in this context, I would assert that it was originally meant to include not only minority sexual orientations (challenging heteronormativity), but also those challenging sex (as in male/female) and gender norms–because athough you might take a narrow view and claim that trans people automatically challenge heteronormativity just by switching genders, that argument is specious because for such a long time, trans people were only considered to have transitioned successfully if they were straight in their target genders. There is also the issue of the inclusion of an I for intersex, which, while it isn’t universally accepted, also makes it clear that an essential component of this definition of “queer” is the challenging of gender norms, not just heteronormativity.

It has been argued that asexuality is not or should not be considered queer by this definition, and I think a key point here is that gender norms are being challenged on two different dimensions: 1) on the level of the physical self, self-expression, and gender roles; and 2) the idea that the only right way to do things (sexually, but also implies romantically) is to have a male-female couple. A lot of people don’t seem to fully grasp the enormity of what it means to challenge these norms, focusing solely on the male-female couple bit. I think this is why trans, intersex, and asexual people so often get left out, and especially so for asexuals. Some asexuals are accepted as queer on the grounds that they form same-sex couples (with or without sex), or because they are trans or intersex, but cisgendered heteroromatic and aromantic asexuals may find themselves excluded because they are otherwise considered straight (by secondary orientation or by default). So, some asexuals may be considered queer for other reasons, but asexuals, simply by virtue of being asexual, often are not. I would argue, however, that such a view misses an essential part of what it means to be queer, what it means to challenge this particular set of societal norms.

To express the big picture to its fullest: What all of these minority groups have in common is that they challenge the idea that male and female are mutually exclusive categories, which are pairs of opposites, and thus naturally complete one another through (penis-in-vagina) sexual intercourse.

Therefore, any of the following is not natural and constitutes a pathology or defect: a same-sex couple, a transgendered person, an intersexed person, or any person sincerely not interested in copulating (not making the choice to abstain, but sincerely uninterested).

What I am saying, here, is that this set of norms has a specifically sexual component, and to be asexual is to challenge the part of that idea which says that people are completed through sexual intercourse. And so, we should be able to legitimately call ourselves queer. It is, admittedly, a less gendered part of the equation, which is probably why it so easily gets overlooked. But we ARE challenging heteronormativity, even if we don’t directly challenge gender norms (although many of us certainly do). Because the idea that men and women are complementary opposites that complete each other implies that men are supposed to be sexually attracted to women and vice versa, but if there is a naturally-occurring segment of the population which does not experience attraction to either, well. There you go.

In the interest of brevity (ha!), I won’t argue the point too finely, because I’m sure I’m pretty much already preaching to the choir, here. I’m sure there will be people, both asexual and not, that continue to say that asexuals should not (by virtue of being asexual alone) be considered queer, but I wanted to point out that it’s all in how you define things. If you take a broad view, we fit. If you take a narrow view, we don’t–but personally, I think if you’re going to take a narrow view, you ought to just stick to the acronym approach. I think even many of those who have accepted the QSA approach, though, are still thinking strictly in terms of same-sex couples, and not about the larger implications of using the term “queer.” The ugly hierarchies still exist, and many gays and lesbians even question the validity of bisexuality, never you even mind transgender, intersex, or asexuality. I think it’s time for people to stop using acronyms, stop thinking like they’re still using acronyms, and truly give some deep thought to what it really means to be queer. If we’re going to have a more inclusive community, then both the name and the focus of the community ought to reflect that–and that means being more sensitive to the more minor minorities involved. That way, hopefully the members will actually stick around.