Not Sexual: Exploring Asexuality Across Disciplines
Asexual reproduction is primarily defined by what it is not. It is not sexual reproduction in which the gametes and genetic material of two individuals combine to generate an offspring. Instead, a single asexual organism can divide, bud, extend, fragment, or clone itself, all without the need for sex. The various forms of asexual reproduction are happening all around us, all the time—albeit mostly microscopically. Curiously, it is only when animals we expect to have sex, but don’t, that this form of reproduction becomes a source of fascination. Crayfish, snakes, lizards, and sharks, among others, each find their way into the headlines when it has been discovered that a female has somehow managed to give birth without the presence of any males.
Asexual animals come into the scientific and public imagination as dead-ends, scandals, ghosts, invaders, thiefs, parasites, amazons, representatives of women’s liberation, or the embodiment of feminist utopias. In this way, these animals become aberrations, small minorities and exceptions, caricatures, rather than indications of how the forms and modes of reproduction do not always fit neatly into the categories delineated by scientists. Hidden within the dominant narrative that systems are either sexual or asexual is a tacit acceptance—and reliance—on a binary that ultimately reduces awareness and acceptance of the variation in reproductive modes.
This binary construction of reproductive modes—”sexual” and “asexual”—is largely maintained despite the identification of species that fall outside of or in between these categories. For example, through facultative parthenogenesis, an animal can switch between sexual and asexual reproduction. In hybridogenesis, meanwhile, asexual animals may require mating, fertilization, or even the formation of hybrids with closely-related sexual species, but they may not undergo the requisite genome mixing for actions to qualify as “sex.” These forms and variations of reproduction, and their many different names, are even more numerous among non-animal organisms.
Queer and feminist theory critiques of the cultural norms entrenched in sex-related scientific research have helped introduce scientists to new ways of thinking, describing, and engaging with various aspects of sex and reproduction. However, these works continue to primarily focus on sexual species. As a result, asexual reproduction has often been overlooked in these conversations, mirroring the similar exclusion that asexuality has often experienced on the spectrum of queerness. In other words, the tensions of trying to engage in the full possibilities of asexual reproduction within a prescriptive scientific context rooted in sexual reproduction have many parallels in the discourse around asexuality, too.
The work of both the asexuality community and scholars across multiple disciplines has made it possible to question the centrality of sexuality/sexual reproduction and, in turn, more fully understand asexuality/asexual reproduction. Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality scholar Kristina Gupta, for instance, has developed the term “compulsory sexuality” as an analytical tool to interrogate how sexuality is culturally presumed and enforced. Gupta and other scholars also recognize that while sexuality is mandated for some groups or individuals, it is simultaneously denied to others, such as plants.
The idea of compulsory sexuality can be used to re-examine scientific descriptions that refer to asexual animals as “chaste,” “abstinent” or “virginal.” These words have deep historical and cultural meanings associated with individuals who desire sexual experiences, but either choose not to pursue them or are restricted from doing so. Even though these animals are not sexual, they are still subjected to culturally complicated Euro-American emotions about sex and sexuality. If there is no sex required for these animals, these descriptors have no biological meaning—only cultural ones. Asexual theory draws a distinction between such terms and the absence of desire.
Researchers also impose compulsory sexuality in other ways in the case of hypersexualized descriptions of “lesbian lizards.” These parthenogenetic whiptail lizards have a particularly interesting biology in which the initiation of their asexual reproduction requires stimulation from behavioral interactions that, on the surface, look very similar to the mating behaviors of closely related sexual species. This passing resemblance often leads researchers toward identifying hormonal regulations underlying the expression of “male” or “female” behaviors. When researchers continue to use this binary terminology, they constrain these animals to a sexual structure—curtailing any imagination of new language, relationships, and interactions possible outside of a sexual system.
The trappings of compulsory sexual binaries is perhaps most apparent in the ubiquitous references to asexual animals as “females,”“virgin mothers,” and “daughters.” This language and mindset is so dominant that some species of lizard are interchangeably referred to as unisexual because of their resemblance to the egg-producing females of closely related sexual species. But, female is a sex designation with a meaning exclusively related to sexual reproduction—one that does not apply to these animals. By giving in to easy terminology, scientists reveal how sex is deployed outside of strict biological definitions, pervasive even when specifically studying asexual reproduction.
Presumed sexuality has also fueled a temptation to uncritically accept sex as inherently beneficial, which subsequently implies that there must be something deviant or precarious about any animal that does not have sex. The ethos of the benefits of sex (specifically, the mixing of genomes) has emerged out of the paradox of sex—that is, the reason sex would evolve despite how costly it can be. The properties of sex, specifically recombination, are held separate and aloft, as if it were something that did not occur by other means. Hence, when bacteria acquire genes from each other via horizontal gene transfer, contention remains about whether it is best described as sex, not sex, or something in between (“parasexual.”) These grey areas between two fallible categories, the joining of two distinct concepts such as “sex” and “reproduction,” both with unclear definitions in themselves, leave the forms of reproduction open to interpretation.
Using the most appropriate language for asexual animals shows how even key biological concepts can be ill-fitting in some contexts. For example, the term “species” is rarely used for asexual animals because definitions of species often rely on sexual reproductive barriers to distinguish populations. Groupings of asexual animals are instead awkwardly referred to as “lineages” or “unisexual biotypes.” Similarly, organisms with asexual reproduction complicate definitions of “individual”; if the asexual organisms are genetically identical, it becomes difficult to delineate where an individual begins and ends. The conflict of language that arises when sexual reproduction is not present reveals just how reliant we are on sex to understand the world. Questioning the supremacy of sexual reproduction encourages us to embrace alternative modes of “reproduction” and highlights new areas for exploration, including multispecies interactions in reproduction.