“Oh there are other people just like me? I’m not so weird after all”: the internet, social change and social integration

I’ve been preoccupied recently by parallels I keep observing between common features of asexual biographies and those of other groups who share a common trait. In the case of asexuality this ‘common trait’ is not experiencing sexual attraction. Exactly what this entails about the individual’s experience and what, in turn, this experience has come to mean to them biographically is a more complex issue. But underlying the diversity which exists within the asexual community there does seem to be a common set of experiences. This ‘lack of sexual attraction’, whatever causes it if indeed such a question is meaningful, is rendered problematic through the normative pressures which are enacted with concrete others (peers, friends, family etc) whether directly or indirectly. This brings about an experience of feeling ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ and self-questioning as to why this might be the case i.e. “what’s wrong with me? why aren’t I interested in sex like everyone else?”. The biographical specifics can be very variable from this point onwards and, given this is the starting point of a blog post rather than its main topic, I’m going to sidestep them somewhat. Suffice to say, if someone does come to identify as asexual (at least post 2001/2002) then they probably did so either through stumbling across it in the media or as a result of encountering asexual blogs, forums, videos etc online (with the former in fact often leading to the latter).

What has always fascinated me is the experience that comes next, as something that had been self-interpreted as pathology comes to be reinterpreted as a non-pathological characteristic which is shared with geographically remote others. Exactly what this means is again biographically specific. For some people it’s just a useful label to make sense of oneself and convey that understanding to others. For others it can lead to the emergence of a deep sense of collective identity. But what I think unites the range of responses people have to this discovery is the transformation of a difference into a commonality. Within their local context and existing social networks, this characteristic of ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’* has been rendered problematic by the explicit judgements and implicit attitudes encountered in other people. It thus emerges as a difference which interrupts a shared frame of reference. It will intrinsically generate a tendency towards introspection because, given that this recognition of difference is provoked by experience of implicit or explicit censure, it will become decreasingly less attractive to try and talk through this difference (“why am I this way? what’s wrong with me?”) with others who, inductively, can be expected to only confirm the assumption of pathology and thus intensify distress.  Their pool of available interlocutors shrinks dramatically as a result which, in turn, leads them to seek alternative routes towards self-clarification. This might be to consult expert systems (go to a doctor, to a councillor, to a sex therapist) or, more likely, it’ll be to go online. if you go to google and type in ‘does not experience sexual attraction’ then you will immediately find a whole plethora of asexual resources. This allows what was a difference (in relation to the immediate context) to instead be established as a commonality (in relation to this dispersed reference group). To summarise:

  1. The local normative environment rendered P’s experience of X problematic (“Why am I X when everyone else seems to be Y!? What’s wrong with me?”)
  2. This experience of normative censure dramatically reduced the pool of available interlocutors with whom P could talk about X (“I can’t talk about X with anyone. They’ll just think I’m weird”)
  3. P looks beyond the normative environment with the aim of coming to a better understanding of X (“Why am I X? What could be making me this way?”)
  4. P finds others who share the trait X and recognises her own experiences in those she encounters, either directly or indirectly, outside the local normative environment (“Oh there are other people who are X? I’m not so weird after all!”)

What emerges as a difference at (1) becomes a commonality at (4). As well as the application of this biographical model to other forms of experience, I’m interested in how processes of this sort can be understood at the macro-social level. If I’m right that the underlying mechanisms at are at work in other spheres (i.e. the expanded pool of interlocutors offered by the internet allows what would otherwise be a proliferation of differences to instead becomes the emergence of new commonalities) then this is a really interesting route into debates about the internet, social change and social integration. It raises obvious empirical questions about the nature of these ‘new commonalities’ and the similarities and differences which in turn obtain between them. Do they provide a basis for the establishment of ‘new continuities’ as Archer would put it? Or simply represent a fragmentation that exists at the level of groups, self-defined in a particularist and experiential way, rather than of individuals? Is it even meaningful to talk about ‘groups’ in this sense? Subcultural social worlds is a concept I’ve been playing with recently to make sense of this, seeing them as emergent but heterogeneous spaces of meaning and practice which are constituted through biographical interweaving and amenable to the further emergence of networks acting in relation to values and ideas within this ‘social world’.

*I keep writing this in inverted commas because I think it’s a conceptualisation of a difference and that its objective basis varies a lot. The category of ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’ emerges from the relation between particular constellations of norms about sexuality and an individual who, for whatever reason, does not meet the expectations implied by them. The ‘for whatever reason’ is the objective underpinning of that experience for any particular individual and it needs to be analytically distinguished from the biographical process of coming to understand oneself which it indirectly brings about. It’s a necessary but insufficient condition for the emergence of an asexual identity because the characteristics it is generative of need to be rendered problematic at the social level for them to be in any way significant. This is why I think studying the aetiology of asexuality is conceptually confused – ‘asexuality’ is a deeply socio-cultural phenomenon and it’s too broad a category upon which to base an investigation of what underpins it causally.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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