On March 30, UB’s Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies hosted Ianna Hawkins Owen, assistant professor of English and African American Studies at Boston University, for a free Zoom lecture.
Owen managed to surprise an audience not only with her researched studies, but also with her presentation format.
“‘No New Watchword’: Asexuality, Incarceration, and Freedom” followed Owen’s research into the intersectionality of asexual studies and critical race theory. Owen’s lecture wasn’t for the faint of heart and set precedence for these topics to be discussed at UB. Kari Winter, professor of global gender and sexuality studies, says the lecture was the first she could remember to discuss asexuality on such a scale at UB.
Winter has organized many events similar to this one, and says she noticed that many people came out, even though it was held over Zoom.
“We had over 70 registrations and they kept coming in, even from UCLA,” Winter said.
Winter, who set up the event and sent out Zoom links to interested attendees, says she was able to sense enthusiasm for Owen’s speech when attendees emailed for Zoom information. She says one attendee even mentioned supporting asexual studies programming financially, which signifies interest in the field.
By itself, asexual studies isn’t a big field.
Talk of asexual identities has existed for decades, but has only really been considered in the mainstream discourse in recent years. Winter says her first solid proof of the theory came in the 1980s when she read a Carrie Holmes novel, which she says has stuck with her ever since. She’s even taught it a few times to her BU students, as she finds the female protagonist and author to represent asexuality in a way that some humans can identify and embrace. Even so, she still feels the topic is underutilized, both in discussion and conversation.
“Everyone who is working in this field is really eager to connect with other people who are doing work in the field,” Winter said.
Winter and Owen’s relationship goes back a couple of years to when Winter first heard Owen talk about critical race theory and the similarities she found in the preconceived notions of sexualities.Winter wasn’t quite as experienced in the studies on both asexuality and incarceration as Owen was, but she ultimately felt Owen’s works conveyed concepts that needed to be said aloud.
Winter called up Owen so she could bring a new perspective to the table. The goal is to push the audience to understand what humanity and freedom is.
“I was really intrigued to meet a scholar who’s thinking productively about the reality of race and sexualities,” Winter said. “How both have become uncontested [in the U.S.].”
“I focused on refining my thinking about [former Black Panther Ericka] Huggins and about the possible synergies of asexuality and abolition — specifically, I wanted to think more explicitly this time about what asexual analytics can offer abolitionist thought,” Owen wrote in her description of her presentation.
To be specific, Owen talked in excerpts from her works, quoting some leaders in both asexuality studies and civil rights movements, but ultimately combined her own words to create speech worth listening to on both the dark history of the two studies and the hope the future brings for them.
Attendees didn’t have any PowerPoint slides or visuals to process, with Owen choosing to keep the audience focused on her for the duration of the Zoom call, as she led attendees through excerpts from her works.
Sydné Jackson, a junior theater performance major, says the lack of a straightforward presentation was not what she was expecting, but it pushed her to follow along with the citations in the chat and listen to Owen.
“I wanted to know more about it because it sounded really interesting,” Jackson said. “I know she just touched the surface of it during her presentation.”
Owen had been thinking about this project as early as 2010 and hit the ground running with her work in 2017. This involved looking back at her previous research into activism, including her interview with Ericka Huggins, a former leading member of the BPP. Owen’s audience heard only the beginnings of what her research has found, and the delivery of it calls for a continuation just for her speech.
When she led the presentation last Tuesday, Owen said she felt “intimidated and invigorated.” But, regardless of her personal feelings, Owen’s clear and concise speech created an engaging hour for those who came to watch, if the audience’s numerous applause icons were any indication.
The Q&A session following the event will help her improve her research, Owen said.
“During Q&A, I received thoughtful and rigorous questions that, with more research, will make this a stronger project,” Owen said.
Owen wasn’t the only one to find value in the Q&A session.
Jackson also found inspiration in the direct conversations.
“I think the Q&A afterward resonated with me because Owen mentioned different models like Yasmin Benoit, who were asexual and how we can look at people without a sexual gaze,” Jackson said, “ I kept looking up the different people that were mentioned so I could learn more about the topic.”
Jackson was not alone in this feeling, as the citations posted in the chat were used by audience members as a companion to go along with Owen’s lecture. Owen already has plans to improve the visual aspect of her presentation for the future.
Owen says she would “definitely” consider working with Winter for another event like this one, something Winter agrees with. Winter says she wants to continue to hold nuanced discussions about these topics.
“I’m really concerned about ways in which discussions can just descend into pieties and directives that don’t really get to the deeper issues,” Winter said about whether or not UB talks about these issues.
Jackson says she wants to see more of these events at UB.
“Someone in the class didn't even know asexuality existed, so the UB community would absolutely benefit from more talks like this,” Jackson said.
In the present, Owen leaves UB students to consider their own investments in carceral and the things that hold them back in the fight for abolition.
“The root of your nonsexual desire for belonging, kinship, and connection can be the starting point for understanding the stakes of prison abolition in your own life and contributing to its realization,” Owen said.
Owen’s own past with asexuality studies influences her perspective, her struggles having made her into the professor she is today. As she discussed in the presentation, freedom isn’t constructed as equally available to everyone; the freedom of some is entangled with the unfreedom of others.
Owen chose this message of collective liberty to convey to UB students, mirroring Winter’s message on the need for freedom.
“Please feel free to be yourself, be the agent of your desires,” Winter said. “Don’t let other people coerce you into things you don’t want.”
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