Asexuality (with Canton Winer & Sarah Costello)

Season 3, Episode 2

This week, we challenge the common perceptions of attraction and explore the complexities of asexuality. Sociology PhD candidate Canton Weiner shares invaluable insights from his research while Sarah Costello, co-host of the podcast “Sounds Fake, But Okay,” opens up about her personal experience being aro-ace, or aromantic asexual. We examine the split attraction model and shed light on various types of attraction, delve into the history of asexuality with pioneers like Magnus Hirschfeld and Alfred Kinsey, and discover how the rise of the internet has shaped the asexual community. This episode challenges misconceptions, explores the intersection of asexuality and other identities like race and gender, and highlights the need for increased understanding and acceptance within the LGBTQIA community.

Check out Canton Winer’s University of Irvine bio and his research.

Listen to Sarah Costello’s podcast Sounds Fake But Okay and pick up her new book, Sounds Fake but Okay: An Asexual and Aromantic Perspective on Love, Relationships, Sex, and Pretty Much Anything Else.

Video version:

Citations and further reading:


Ashley: It’s hard to label a person with a term that didn’t exist until centuries after his death. But that doesn’t stop the internet from trying. Search for lists of famous asexuals from history and you are bound to run into Isaac Newton. You know, the guy with the apple.

Newton actually did way more than come up with a theory of gravity and the laws of motion. He also developed essential theories of calculus. He invented the telescope. He’s the one who theorized that white light was made up of every color of the rainbow. Without him, we wouldn’t have that Pink Floyd album cover and the walls of college dorm rooms would be all the lesser for it.

He did a lot of things in his life, but he didn’t do everything. If you see where I’m going with this. It’s said that on his deathbed at age 84, he admitted that he had never had sex with a woman. Now that leaves room for some interpretation. Maybe he’d had sex with men. But if you look at his life, there’s a good chance that he never had sex with anybody.

He was really busy making groundbreaking discoveries and he kind of kept to himself. In fact, aside from a male roommate situation that most likely was not sexual and later a long period living with his niece and her husband, most of his social interactions, where him picking fights with other intellectuals.

He would have loved Twitter.

What’s interesting is how our interpretation of Newton’s orientation has changed. See, several biographers of Newton have suggested he was gay. But those biographies were written decades ago and times are changing. Today, the internet is full of people claiming that he was probably asexual. Not only did asexuality not exist as a concept when Newton was alive, it barely existed in the 1980s. Even now it’s a niche concept. There’s a good chance you haven’t even heard of it.

But you should. Because asexuality pushes the boundaries of what most people think they know about how attraction works. Like Newton’s prism. It breaks attraction up into every color of the rainbow.

And it might even make you learn something new about yourself. I’m Ashley Hamer and this is Taboo Science. The podcast that answers the questions you’re not allowed to ask.


Ashley: Asexuality is such a niche concept that there’s very little research into it. But lucky for me, I found someone who is studying it scientifically.

Canton Winer: Well, my Name is Canton Winer and I’m a sociology PhD candidate at the University of California Irvine. Specifically I study the relationships between gender and sexuality, and lately I’ve been studying asexuality, which is an umbrella term and a spectrum that refers to people who experience low or no sexual attraction.

The work that I’m doing right now is part of my dissertation. Hopefully I’m done with that in May and moving on in into the world. So I’ll check back in with you. But I, I’ve done 77 interviews with people on the asexuality spectrum, and along with that I did a digital ethnography where basically I find myself interacting a lot with asexual people online, whether that’s on Twitter, on AVEN, or other asexuality centric spaces like subreddits, for example, that focus on asexuality.

Ashley: We’ll get to the importance of AVEN or the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network later on in the episode. So asexuality refers to people who experience low or no sexual attraction. Sounds simple. If a little surprising.

But that simple definition, belies a really complex set of identities.

Canton Winer: Typically I think when people hear asexuality they think, well, first of all, they’ve probably never heard of it at all. But if they have, I think they’re likely to assume it means that’s someone who doesn’t experience any sexual attraction at all. And for some asexual people, that is very much the case.

Ashley: Some asexual people like Sarah Costello. She’s the co-host of the podcast Sounds Fake, But Okay, and most recently co-author of the book of the same name. The podcast looks at love, relationships, and sexuality through the lens of asexuality and a romanticism. And Sarah identifies as a romantic asexual or aro-ace.

Sarah Costello: So I don’t experience romantic attraction to any people of any gender, and I don’t experience sexual attraction to any people of any gender. I am the type of aro-ace person who’s not interested in like, pursuing romance or sex anyway, because some people are like, that’s still something they want, even if they don’t feel the attraction necessarily.

Uh, but for me, that’s just like something I’m not interested in. So I’m, I’m just, you know, vibing. Single, single for ever.

Ways to be asexual

Ashley: But you can certainly be a sexual and still feel some amount of sexual attraction.

Canton Winer: For many people on the spectrum, they actually do experience sexual attraction, but it might be just at very low levels or in very context dependent situations. So the term demisexuality is often used to refer to that type of experience.

Ashley: Demisexuality refers to a lack of sexual attraction to anyone you don’t have a strong, emotional connection with. It’s different than waiting to have sex until you have a deep bond with someone, since in that case, most people feel a sexual attraction, but just hold off on having sex. Demisexuals feel very little or no sexual attraction to anyone until they’ve formed a strong emotional connection with someone, which is the only time they feel sexual attraction.

That’s why demisexuality lands squarely on the asexuality spectrum

Canton Winer: There’s a ton of variety, right? Both in how people experience attraction and on what people’s sexual activity is like, what their relationships are like, whether they experience other types of attraction such as romantic attraction.

And it’s really exciting. It, it’s these very different ways of thinking about sexuality than I think most people are used to, but they’re really useful even for people like me who don’t fall on the asexuality spectrum.

Split attraction model

Ashley: One of the most useful concepts I’ve learned while making this episode is the split attraction model. This basically says there’s no one type of attraction. You can be sexually attracted to someone without being romantically attracted to them. You can be romantically attracted to someone without being sexually attracted to them. You can be attracted to someone in all sorts of other ways.

Canton Winer: There’s sexual attraction, but also romantic attraction, platonic attraction,

Ashley: That’s an interest in being friends with someone.

Canton Winer: Aesthetic attraction,

Ashley: And appreciation for someone’s good looks.

Canton Winer: Sensual attraction

Ashley: Uh, desire to physically touch or be close to someone in a non-sexual way. Like cuddling.

Canton Winer: We could probably spend the entire podcast talking about all of the different categories.

The reason why the term split is used here is, is pretty simple actually. It’s just to convey this idea that these various different types of attraction don’t necessarily need to align with one another.

Sarah Costello: like as someone for me who’s like an aro-ace person who can still look at someone and be like, that is a really hot person.

I like looking at that person. like for me, I’m like, oh, that’s like an aesthetic sort of thing. I have always been pretty involved in like, fandom and, uh, so, you know, seeing other people in the fandom being like, oh my God, so-and-so person is like, so hot.

And I’m like, you know what? I agree. I have no urge to have sex with them. I have no urge to make out with like none of those things I’m interested in, but I could just stare at this photo of them all day and I will. Like seeing like a really amazing photo of Zendaya.

Like people are like, oh my god, I wanna have sex with her, and I’m like, I just wanna just, I just wanna burn this into the inside of my eyelids.

Learning about the split attraction model is really just learning that not all attraction is in one big bucket and it can be separated out. If you want to view it in one big bucket, you can, but just accepting that not everyone views it the same way.

Ashley: As an allosexual — that’s the word for people who do experience sexual and romantic attraction — I absolutely understand this concept. There are people that I’ve felt anesthetic attraction to, and that’s as far as it goes. There are people I’ve felt a platonic attraction to, and just really wanted to be their friend. There are people I’ve felt a sexual attraction to, because they looked exactly like Michael C. Hall, but they listened to a lot of Alex Jones and believe 911 was an inside job, so the romantic attraction just isn’t there. But I hope his music career is going well.

History of asexuality

Ashley: While asexuality and the split attraction model are incredibly new as concepts, they describe phenomena that have been around as long as humans have. And there are scientists who have described things like asexuality for centuries.

Canton Winer: The very famous sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, for example, who’s working in Germany at the, the turn of the century, so like, late 18 hundreds, um, we have notes from him that explains he’s interacting with people who don’t really experience sexual attraction. He doesn’t use the word asexuality to describe that, but it’s probably what we would call it today.

Ashley: Magnus Hirschfeld developed pioneering theories on sexuality and was one of the first to promote the idea of trans identities and the gender spectrum. In like 1910. The book burnings you’ve seen photos of from Nazi Germany? A lot of that was his research.

Canton Winer: And then a little bit later in the 1940s and the 1950s, another sexologist, Alfred Kinsey, which people might be a little bit more familiar with, he also actually documented people who did not experience sexual attraction.

Ashley: Alfred Kinsey is obviously famous for the Kinsey Scale, which says that heterosexuality and homosexuality aren’t the only options. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

Canton Winer: But what we talk about less when we talk about Kinsey is that he also had a category X that just doesn’t fall on that scale at all.

And again, he wasn’t using the word asexual to describe these people, but that’s probably how many of them would identify if that language had been available to them at the time. So he did two different studies actually, one on men, one on women, and he found that about 1% of the men who he interacted with fell in this category X and almost 20% of women, which is interesting to say the least.

Ashley: That’s a statistic that holds up. Men are the minority in the asexual community.

Canton Winer: We do have some data already, a large scale survey data sets that show women far outpace men in identifying as asexual. So it tends to be that surveys find that about 60% of people who identify as asexual also identify as women, only 10% as men. And then the remaining 20 whatever percent as something else, right?

As non-binary, to put a simple term on it. So men are outnumbered by all other gender categories in a sense, which is very interesting.

Ashley: Despite the Magnus Hirschfelds and the Alfred Kinseys of the world, asexuality as a concept didn’t really come about until the rise of the internet. Yeah. Asexuality is newer than the animated GIF. Yes. That’s how I say it. Moving on.

Canton Winer:

So it’s like the late nineties. We really see a, a big consolidation of, of people who are using this term to describe themselves.

In 2001, David Jay founds the Asexuality Visibility in Education Network, or AVEN, which continues to be a really important focal point on the internet for asexual people. The asexual community continues to this day to be a highly online community, and so when we think about the rise of asexuality, uh, as something that people are aware of and using as an identity to understand and explain themselves, we also have to think about the internet.

Ashley: Many asexual people go their whole lives without being able to identify their asexuality. Canton Weiner has written about how a lot of asexual people start out as identifying as bisexual or pansexual, just because they feel the same low or non-existent level of attraction to people of all genders.

And often once they discover asexuality and start identifying that way, they continue to use those earlier labels too. But the internet, and AVEN in particular, are often the only way they even know asexuality exists.

Sarah Costello was lucky enough to encounter the concept of asexuality pretty young. But even she went through a journey to label herself that way.

Sarah Costello: I was a child of the internet, I was a child of Tumblr, and so I had seen these terms online when I was in like high school. But I, I didn’t identify with them right away For a while I was like, oh, well maybe I’m like, demisexual, which falls under the asexual umbrella.

But then I was like, no, that’s silly. I’m not. I’m not that. You know, when I was in high school, I challenged myself a lot academically. I did a lot of sports as I was just like busy, right? And so a lot of my other friends were the same way. And so I was just like, I don’t have time to date. And so, on the occasions that someone might ask me out, I would just like come up with an excuse, and I was just like, you know, I’m just, I’m too busy for that. Like, whatever, like it, it’s not of interest to me right now, and that’s fine.

And then I got to college my freshman year and I started being like, even if I were a late bloomer, I feel like it would’ve happened already. Like I feel like I would’ve been interested in sex and romance by now. And so that’s when I kind of returned to those terms that I had heard of years before. Asexual, I was able to kind of land on that pretty quickly. Aromantic took me a little bit longer to be sure about. Because like, what is romantic attraction?

Like it’s all very loosey-goosey. But like, by the end of my freshman year of college, I had kind of landed on those terms and I was like, okay, that’s where I’m at. And I have been there ever since.

Attraction vs action

Ashley: Something that took me a long while to wrap my head around for this episode is that many asexual people still have sex lives. Hell many even masturbate. And that’s because, well, I’ll let Sarah recite this honestly brilliant slogan.

Sarah Costello: The way you identify is about attraction, not action.

And so you can still enjoy the action of having sex even if you don’t feel sexual attraction to someone, because if you think about it, there’s no way everyone on this planet has been sexually attracted to everyone they’ve ever had sex with.

Like there’s just no way.

Ashley: That’s the truth.

Sarah Costello: But you can still have had a good or a decent time, you know, because it is just a physical thing that you can do that brings pleasure to some people. You can choose to still have sex. A lot of times if people do experience romantic attraction and they have a romantic partner and their partner is interested in sex, and they’re like, I’m down for it, like they might have sex with their partner or they might just have sex because it feels good.

Like there are so many reasons to do something. It’s just an activity you can do in the same way that like, you can shake hands with someone, like you can masturbate, you can have sex with someone. Like, it’s just, it’s just an activity that you can do that you might enjoy.

Canton Winer: one thing that I quickly found is that many asexual people are, are really tired of being asked about their sex habits, including masturbation, which totally makes sense, right?

I think it’s often the first place that people who are allosexual or, or not asexual, often gravitate to. But that said, something that I’ve learned by doing this research on asexuality is that libido and sexual attraction and even sexual desire are three different things, right? And so we often use those terms interchangeably, but there are subtle, but I think important differences between them.

So the reason why, in a nutshell, many people on the asexuality spectrum do still masturbate, uh, is related to, to still having a libido, even if you aren’t necessarily experiencing sexual attraction.

Ashley: Sex feels good. You don’t need to feel sexual attraction to feel sexual arousal. Sex also works as a release valve, which is another reason an asexual person might want to do it.

Sarah Costello: Like they have the sort of urge that they feel like they need to get out of their system, you know? And so that’s another reason why someone might masturbate or have sex with other people, even if they don’t experience attraction, because libido and attraction are not necessarily the same thing.


Ashley: But the assumption that asexual people don’t have a sex drive, and worse that they’re not interested in human relationships at all, that can be really harmful.

Canton Winer: If we live in a society as we do, that assumes that everyone does and should experience sexual attraction. That can cause problems for people who, although they’re asexual, still want to be in a romantic relationship. Right? Many people who are on the asexuality spectrum still want romantic relationships, and many don’t, right? Both experiences are valid and common in the asexual community, but I think for many it can be really difficult to date, for example, to find someone else who’s going to accept you, as an asexual person when you’re trying to date. And since asexual people make up only a very small portion of the entire population, we don’t know for sure what the number is, but it’s around 1% is what most people tend to estimate.

You can’t just rely on dating other asexual people, especially if you aren’t living in a large urban area. So I think intimacy, forming intimate relationships can be a big challenge, and it’s certainly something that comes up quite often in my interviews.

Ashley: is one misconception that people have that maybe it’s it’s lonely.

Sarah Costello: Yeah, absolutely. Um, especially for aros in particular, or, when people assume that asexual and a romantic are, you know, synonymous, they’re like, oh, so like, you’re like a robot. You don’t experience love, and it’s like, that’s not true at all. You know?

People think that the be all, end all is like a romantic sexual partner. Like, it’s like you gotta find the one. It’s so important. There are absolutely people who, once they find that partner, they’re like, I’m done. That’s it. And then they kind of throw their other friends away and it’s like, what are you getting out of that? Like now you just have this one person and if something goes wrong with that person, or even if you just wanna talk about something that they don’t understand, like having full relationships and platonic friendships is so important.

You don’t have to automatically prioritize your romantic sexual relationships just because they’re romantic and sexual. If you look at all your relationships and you’re like, this is the most important to me, great, sure, that’s fine, but it’s about not having an automatic hierarchy.

Ashley: Some asexual people, even one have children and families and some don’t. You know, Like the rest of humanity.

Sarah Costello: Wanting to have kids has nothing to do with your sexuality. There are straight people who don’t want kids. There are gay people who do want kids. You know, it’s, it not connected at all. Um, but for me, like I had to see that that was an option and then I was like, oh yeah, no, I don’t want to get married. White picket fence. Like, that’s not for me.

When it’s pushed on to you so much as a kid, like again, that’s why representation and having a robust community is so important so that people can see like, oh, there are other ways of doing things that are also totally fine and totally great.

Ashley: I don’t know about you, but a lot of this makes sense to me. There are so many cultural norms we just accept as the way things have to be. And sometimes it takes people who don’t align with the majority to show that there’s another way to do things. That’s exactly why Canton wanted to study asexuality in the first place.

Canton Winer: I’m really convinced by this lesson that black feminist scholars have shown over and over and over again that when we focus on the margins of society, we, we certainly learn about the margins themselves, but we also learn a great deal about the center. And so asexuality exists at the margins of both the heterosexual and the queer worlds, making it this really analytically and theoretically important place for us to focus our attention.

So I, I’m looking at the margins because I think it’ll tell us about the margins and we, we don’t know enough about that, but we’ll also learn about more central experiences. We’ll learn about heterosexuality, we’ll learn about other experiences of queerness.

Discrimination and erasure

Ashley: But like other experiences of queerness asexuality can come with its share of discrimination. I mean, we already covered the way it’s nearly impossible to even know asexuality exists unless you’re in the right corners of the internet. But even when people do know about it, Many on the outside. Don’t believe it’s real.

Canton Winer: In my work I asked people about asexual erasure and what that means, what it looks like, and people said, well, it means that people assume it’s impossible to be asexual. And then I asked well, do you think that gender influences the way that this happens?

And at, at this point, many of the people who are women or their assigned gender at birth is female, they said, well, yeah, actually, I guess the assumption is like, how does that make me different from other women? Right? All women experience low sexual desire, and so what that means is that for men, asexuality is largely erased through impossibility, and for women, it’s largely erased through unremarkability. Which I think also reflects some very negative cultural frameworks about sexuality, where we deny women sexual agency.

Ashley: Gosh, and that I can imagine is a slippery slope. Because if a woman says that she’s asexual and you assume that she’s just like every other woman, that means that you know, maybe she could be convinced to have sex with you eventually. And that is, that gets to some dangerous territory.

Canton Winer: Exactly. It’s a window in into rape culture in a word. Right. It, it shows basically that if you’re assuming that it’s not unusual for women to experience low sexual desire, but you still feel entitled to having sex with them. What does that tell you about our attitudes towards sexual agency and consent?

It, it’s very troubling.

Ashley: And women aren’t the only group who gets stuck with these harmful stereotypes.

Canton Winer: Many people who are racialized as people of color say that that racialization makes it harder in many ways to identify as asexual.

And there are various reasons for that. One of them is that many people of color are basically stereotyped as hypersexual. So for example, black people in the United States, this is a negative demeaning stereotype that many black people are, are forced to deal with. And when you’re framed as being hypersexual, I think it can make it even less believable sometimes to other people that you are indeed asexual.

Meanwhile, there are other racialized statuses that have kind of the opposite problem in some ways of being framed as like absent of being sexually desirable, as hyposexual in a way. Like Asian men, for example, in the United States, are often framed this way.

And that can still create challenges in identifying as asexual because it’s like, well, you aren’t asexual. That’s just normal for people in that sexual category, which is of course untrue, but very challenging for people who are members of those groups.


Ashley: But what may be worse than someone saying you don’t feel the way you do is someone saying you shouldn’t feel the way you do.

There’s a diagnostic label in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders or DSM. Known as hypoactive sexual desire disorder or HSDD. Psychiatrists use this label to diagnose asexual people, even though there are specific differences between asexuality and HSDD. For one, the DSM itself says that HSDD causes quote, marked distress or interpersonal difficulty, end quote, which wouldn’t apply to asexuals who are happy and just, you know, vibing.

And second. Hypoactive sexual desire disorder is about sexual desire. We’ve already addressed how asexuality doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of desire or libido. It’s just a lack of sexual attraction, but that doesn’t stop psychiatrists from putting asexual people through some really traumatic stuff.

Canton Winer: We live in a social world that assumes that everyone does and should experience sexual attraction. And so many people in the asexual community refer to this as like compulsory sexuality, right?

That you need to be sexual, you need to experience sexual attract. and so many people who I’ve spoken with talk about going to physicians, going to counselors, therapists, and basically being told that they have a disorder, um, that they’re sick and that they have a problem that needs to be fixed rather than just having a legitimate sexual identity.

there’s a history of this, unfortunately, within psychology as a field where, you know, homosexuality was also deemed a disorder in something that should be fixed.

And so asexual people speak about being subjected to conversion therapy, which I think is surprising to many people who aren’t part of the asexual community where basically, um, they’re having interactions with medical professionals, um, or people in the psychology field who are trying to cure them more or less of being asexual.

Ashley: This is not rare. In a survey of LGBT people in the UK in 2018, asexual respondents were the most likely of all orientations to say they had been offered or actually undergone conversion therapy. And yet others on the LGBT spectrum aren’t always a good source of support.

Sarah Costello: If you have straight people who are trying to relate to a gay person, they can say, oh, they’re just like me. It’s just that they experience that attraction to someone of the same gender. Whereas when you look at asexuality and aromanticism, it totally flips people’s worlds on its head.

And they’re like, what do you mean you don’t experience that at all? And so even in like really welcoming queer communities, I didn’t have anyone being like, it’s totally fine and normal if you don’t experience this attraction at all.

Canton Winer:

asexual people exist both at the margins of the heterosexual world and of the queer world in some very important ways. And so there’s this sense that you don’t quite fit within heteronormativity, right?

The expectations of what it means to be a, a quote unquote normal straight person. But you also don’t fit a lot of core assumptions about what it means to belong in, in the queer community. And I think that can be very challenging because you have this almost permanent outsider status no matter what space you’re in.

Um, and I think particularly for the queer community, that’s a really important thing for us to be thinking about because, first of all, I, I think that the queer community is one of the best things about it, to me as a queer person, is it’s emphasis on inclusion and diversity. But we’re failing to be as inclusive and to embrace the diversity of queer experiences as much as we should when we aren’t making an effort to understand asexual experiences.


Ashley: If the stuff in this episode sounds a lot like your experience and you think you might fall on the asexual or a romantic spectrum. First of all, I’m kind of honored that this podcast could do that for you. And I’d love to hear from you, even if it’s anonymously. But second, what the heck are you supposed to do now?

Sarah Costello: It’s tough, and I think the number one thing to tell people is if you are not ready and you don’t think people are ready to hear it, you are not obligated to come out. You do not have to. There are some people who, like, they know their families will not be accepting and that’s, that sucks. It’s, it’s really rough. But if it’s not safe for you to come out, don’t feel like you have to. There are so many other welcoming communities that you can be a part of.

But if you do want to come out and you do want to explain to the people around you, baby steps I think. They’re not going to completely understand it the first time.

We actually have an episode of our podcast, it’s episode 87, that is basically us giving the TED Talk of asexuality, that people can use as a resource to be like, okay, here are the basic things you need to know.

Just generally without diving too much into, like, so do you have sex? Like, what, what? And it’s like not, these are not the questions I wanna be answering right now. But it’s something that it can take time for people to understand and it, that can be really rough. Like if you, if you come out to someone and they just like, don’t get it yet, like, that hurts and that’s not, it’s not a fun experience.

It is something that people can learn over time, but it is such a change in the worldview if they don’t know what asexuality is, that, you know, it just takes time. And I was very lucky in that my parents were like super accepting. My sister was already out, so I never worried about them being accepting, but they had a lot to learn still, and they had a lot of questions. So it was still a process for them, even though they were always like, we support you. We don’t really know what this means, but we support you.

And if you’re lucky enough to have that experience, that’s wonderful. But, even with people who are like so welcoming, it often takes them time to really absorb it. And that sucks, but it is what it is.

And you can really just kind of arm them with resources and the stories of other people so that you can, show them how being aspec can lead to like a really fulfilling and lovely life. Once they get that, then they can be like, you know what? Yeah. Cool. Great. That’s you.

Ashley: Thanks for listening.

Big, thanks to Canton Winer and Sarah Costello. You can follow Canton on Twitter @CantonWiner and find his research through the links in the show notes. Sarah’s podcast is Sounds Fake, But Okay. And her new book is Sounds Fake, But Okay: An Asexual and Aromantic Perspective on Love, Relationships, Sex, and Pretty Much Anything Else.

There’s also a link to that in the show notes.

Taboo Science is written and produced by me, Ashley Hamer.

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