Writing From Factor X

January 23, 2011

How Inclusivity Fails On Asexuality

Filed under: Anger,Feminism,Intersections — Sciatrix @ 4:44 pm
Tags: , , , ,

So I got linked to on Feministe last week. And if you haven’t read the post there, you really should, because it’s notable for a) being written by someone who is clearly trying to be a clued-up ally, and b) having a comment section that is remarkably well-behaved, probably more due to some awesome moderation than to actual niceness on the part of the commentariat.  The post is about how asexuality tends to get ignored by the broader social justice movement, and how this is not, in fact, a good thing.

I’ve actually been thinking about this post for a long time, because the search term most often used to find this blog after its name is “asexual feminism” and variations on that theme. I’ve been feeling a little obscurely weird about that, because while I am a feminist and my writing is certainly influenced by broader social justice concepts, I don’t tend to write about issues of sexism here. Elizabeth at Shades of Gray has done a lot more of that in her archives than I have. When I wrote “Asexual Feminism,” I felt strangely about it, because my feelings are that asexuality has more in common with broader social justice movements.

So let me start again. Why I think that the social justice movement ought to pay more attention to asexuality: because asexuality is an oppressed class, dammit. Asexuals are pretty used, as a whole, to being ignored. That would be because one of the main mechanisms of asexual oppression is invisibility. (The other big one, I would argue, is medicalization. When we’re still in the freaking DSM, under the same criteria last applied to ego-dystonic homosexuality in 1973, I think claims to asexuality being a privileged identity fail to hold water.)

When I say asexuals are oppressed by invisibility, I don’t only mean that the usual state of things is, right now, for asexual people to grow up without even the simplest words to describe what they are, even to themselves. I don’t only mean that for asexuals, it is not uncommon to expect to spend our lives lying about what we are, or hiding. I don’t only mean that seeing the word “asexual” outside of our own spaces, used in the sense of sexual orientation, is cause for minor celebration even if it’s a bad definition.

I mean that when you try to break that invisibility, mainstream culture comes down on you like a ton of bricks. “You can’t be asexual, you must have diabetes or autism or some kind of hormonal disorder.” “You can’t be asexual, that doesn’t exist–everyone wants sex.” “You can’t be asexual, you must have some kind of specific mental disorder instead.” “You can’t be asexual, all you need is a good raping.” When “do you reproduce like an amoeba?” is among the better responses one can get, I have a hard time believing that asexual invisibility persists only because of a temporary ignorance.

Generally, asexuals think that we’re doing pretty well if people know what asexuality is, sort of. Never mind actually paying attention to asexual issues, it’s generally enough to make people rejoice if we get added onto a list. Speaking for myself, my first reaction to Chally’s post was astonishment, followed by being grateful–oh my gosh, someone from a mainstream social justice blog actually deigned to discuss asexual issues, and oh my gosh she actually implied that we’re a real orientation that counted, do you know how rare that is? I have seen a post on a social justice blog discuss issues of asexuality exactly once before in my entire life, on a guest post that Kaz did at FWD. FWD in general was pretty asexual-friendly, in fact, but it recently shut down.

Aside from that, Shakesville is the only blog that I know that tries to make an effort to be asexual-friendly, and even that only extends so far as not letting asexophobic trolls go unremarked and occasionally mentioning asexuality on lists. Chally’s post was remarkable for being the only non-101 asexuality post outside of asexuality-specific space I have ever seen discuss my orientation as self-evidently real.  I’m far more used to seeing asexuality come up in broader social justice spaces, usually in the comments of other posts, and have to flinch because the hatred comes out of the woodwork. If it doesn’t in the main post, the concern trolling and the medicalization always pops up on the comments over and over and over again.

It sucks to see places that claim to focus on all social justice issues continually ignore asexuality. It’s depressing to see worse reactions to asexuality crop up in ostensibly feminist sites, in fact; the worst examples of asexual fail I have seen have been on… Feministing and ontd_feminism.  It frustrates me that I feel grateful because I see my orientation listed instead of omitted completely, but never discussed at all. And it saddens me that posts like Chally’s are so very, very rare. I’m so used to being ignored by the broader social justice community that I started this blog in part to discuss asexuality from that standpoint–because if no one else was, at least I could start doing it.

I’m used, in short, to assuming that I don’t matter to the social justice community. And I have no idea how to go about changing that.


  1. Hey, I’m glad you liked the post. Surprisingly, the commentariat were actually well behaved, and there wasn’t a lot of moderating to do on that thread. I was one of the founders of FWD, too, actually, but I think I only wrote one post there that discussed asexuality myself (though, as you’re clearly aware, we had asexual writers on there, too).

    Anyway. It must be just awful to have to be grateful for scraps. I’m seeing asexuality become a little more widely discussed in my networks, though maybe just because I just hang out with a number of asexual people. I hope it filters through to the wider social justice blogosphere very soon!!

    Comment by Chally — January 23, 2011 @ 5:41 pm | Reply

    • I’m actually pretty surprised by that, because I’ve seen other commentaries on social justice blogs that mention asexuality, and they tend to get really nasty really fast. Given that the last time I saw asexuality come up in Feministe comments, Amanda Marcotte said something really vicious that went almost completely unremarked, I was figuring that there was probably a lot of fairly horrible stuff that we weren’t seeing behind the scenes and feeling really grateful for not having to see it for once, which I figured was largely down to you guys. Usually, I see the worst of the lot right out in the open under the guise of “open debate.” If the comments were really good, I think I put that mostly down to the very, very asexual-friendly tone of the original post, which maybe warned some of the asexophobes that their viewpoint was unwelcome? And that in itself is SUCH a change in what I’m used to seeing.

      And yeah, I hope it filters out soon, too! I’m not really optimistic, to be honest; I’m actually getting used to worse responses from the social justice sphere, especially sex-positive-identified people, than I see in more mainstream spheres.

      Possibly this is because of the framing of the world as sex-negative in sex-positive discourse, under which philosophy asexuals seem to be what the broader culture “really” wants people to be–but in reality, from an asexual point of view? That’s totally untrue, lack of sexual attraction and lack of sexual interest are very medicalized, and sexless long-term relationships are very devalued. Mainstream culture is not sex-negative per se; it’s just insistent that sex be limited to a very constrained set of social situations, and breaking those constraints either in the direction of “too much” sex or “too little” sex opens you up to all kinds of smackdowns.

      Comment by Sciatrix — January 24, 2011 @ 8:41 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you for this post. You know, I had never really thought about asexuality in terms of oppression. I knew that as an asexual, most people would not know what I was, that people presume I’m either a closeted lesbian or a victim of childhood sexual abuse. I have come to *expect* that others will give me blank looks, will presume that asexuality is just another type of sexuality, etc.

    This post really opened my eyes. I don’t know what to do to promote more awareness either. I’ve started speaking up more on online forums…i.e. I might say, “Well, I’m asexual” and explain that as the beginning of a response to a post on a related topic on reddit or Facebook.

    I think the key is to stop being complacent and stop accepting ignorance as status quo… it may be likely but I need to stop ignoring it or keeping quiet about who I am in front of sexual people.

    Comment by Stephanie Silberstein — January 23, 2011 @ 10:16 pm | Reply

    • Part of what made me write it was seeing people–often, as I said people from the queer and/or feminist communities–excoriate asexuals “appropriating the rhetoric of oppression” for even bringing up asexual issues as slightly real or worthy of discussion. And seeing asexual people backpedaling and yelping “Well, we’re not really oppressed, but–”

      Which made me think: not all oppression is violent. And also, if asexuality were all that privileged an identity? We could talk about our problems in public, non-asexuality-designated spaces without immediately getting dismissed and shut down. We wouldn’t have to spend our lives hiding. Our relationships wouldn’t be constantly belittled and undermined at every turn–and I speak for both aromantics and romantics with that. And so forth.

      And just… I have no idea what to do about anything, except to speak up where I can. I don’t even think visibility on its own will solve the problem, because attempts at visibility often get harsh reactions from nonasexuality attempting to shut down asexual voices. I’m not kidding when I say that people are not always passive about enforcing asexual invisibility.

      But yes, on stop accepting ignorance as the status quo. I think that for me, much of the goal I have for discussing asexuality comes from expecting more. I often think that the bar set by asexuals for “ally” is depressingly low–often, as I said, mentioning asexuality as a real thing once in a great while is enough to qualify you. Like, people were all excited and thanking TEVA for removing the word “asexuality” from that awful ad campaign, even though the broader problems with the campaign were completely unaddressed and the “apology” letter was a sad excuse for a “we’re sorry you’re offended” non-apology. We need to expect more if we’re going to get anywhere, I think.

      Comment by Sciatrix — January 24, 2011 @ 8:34 pm | Reply

      • The gushing reaction to how TEVA dealt with that ad campaign was what caused me to quit AVEN. Maybe a little melodramatic, but I really didn’t feel like hanging out somewhere where, as you put it, the bar is set so low.

        Comment by Finbarr Ryan — January 26, 2011 @ 5:45 pm | Reply

  3. This post really speaks to me. I rarely bring up asexual issues, and whenever I do I immediately feel as though I’m on a hobby horse. I thought it was because I’m trying to avoid people seeing asexuality as the entirety of my identity, but after reading this I’m wondering if I may have internalised the idea of asexual oppression not being ‘real’ oppression. It’s something I really need to work on. Though it doesn’t help that once or twice just mentioning asexuality has earned me teasing comments with a ‘get off your soapbox’ subtext from some of my friends. Sometimes I’d rather stay silent than deal with that crap. :(

    Comment by Finbarr Ryan — January 26, 2011 @ 5:56 pm | Reply

    • Oh, yeah–I know exactly what you mean by “get off your soapbox.” It’s almost impossible sometimes to say anything without incurring the “you’re talking TOO MUCH about asexuality!” thing.

      Comment by Sciatrix — January 26, 2011 @ 8:06 pm | Reply

      • I’ve experienced this as well. Once I posted a status on my Facebook that mentioned asexuality and immediately someone commented, “We all know you are asexual. Why don’t you talk about something else?” It was a WTF moment for me, especially since it was the first time I’d ever been open about my sexual orientation on my FB before.

        I got pretty angry, though. I don’t see why asexuals should feel wrong at all about talking about who we are. Nobody gets on people for talking about their significant others and other topics of interest to them; why shouldn’t we talk about who we are and what’s important to us, just because it’s different?

        Comment by Stephanie Silberstein — January 26, 2011 @ 11:27 pm | Reply

  4. [...] Sciatrix gives an excellent description of what invisibility entails for asexual people: When I say asexuals are oppressed by invisibility, I don’t only mean that the usual state of things is, right now, for asexual people to grow up without even the simplest words to describe what they are, even to themselves. I don’t only mean that for asexuals, it is not uncommon to expect to spend our lives lying about what we are, or hiding. I don’t only mean that seeing the word “asexual” outside of our own spaces, used in the sense of sexual orientation, is cause for minor celebration even if it’s a bad definition. [...]

    Pingback by A vow « Tboy Jacky — January 26, 2011 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

  5. [...] pretty much forgotten all this, but I was reminded of it when Sciatrix said: When I say asexuals are oppressed by invisibility, I don’t only mean that the usual state of [...]

    Pingback by Leave us our words « an asexual space — January 27, 2011 @ 3:53 pm | Reply

  6. I’ve read all this with interest and agreement. I’ll just say that the main problem I have is a relentless assumption that I’m gay and closeted and in denial. I make an effort to counter this by coming out (again and again and again), and usually people are polite, but I know that a certain percentage of them go away thinking that I’m gay and closeted and DEEPLY in denial.

    And yeeess, this pales in comparison to what other queer groups had and have to endure, I don’t have to be told. But it is a real problem, and “putting it in perspective” doesn’t make it go away.

    Comment by Sam — February 20, 2011 @ 8:35 am | Reply

    • And I should add, that lesbians and gays are, in my experience, MORE likely to jump to the conclusions I mentioned above than a straight ally. And I’d also say that bisexual and trans people are much LESS likely. This isn’t a scientific survey, of course. Just my individual impression.

      Comment by Sam — February 20, 2011 @ 8:38 am | Reply

  7. [...] not an oppression of phobia against but an oppression of complete lack of acknowledgment. And yes, that is still oppression, though no one is comparing it with more violent expressions of oppression or suggesting we have it [...]

    Pingback by How to Be an Asexual Ally (Part 1) | Good Vibrations Magazine — July 11, 2011 @ 4:24 pm | Reply

  8. [...] do without being damaged or sick. It’s not an experience of outward oppression so much as it’s an experience of omission. Aromantic asexuals get to go through life with queer and non-queer populations alike making [...]

    Pingback by Are Asexuals Queer? | Good Vibrations Magazine — August 23, 2011 @ 10:21 pm | Reply

  9. […] Sciatrix gives an excellent description of what invisibility entails for asexual people: […]

    Pingback by A vow | Jacky with a Y — January 6, 2014 @ 4:59 pm | Reply

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