Writing From Factor X

July 18, 2011

Asexuality Was My Sex Ed

So this week I stumbled across this post calling for more asexuality awareness in sex ed. It’s a good post, if very basic and focusing on asexuality 101 more than anything, and I certainly agree that more awareness of the fact that asexuals are present in sex education classes would be nice.

The thing is, I initially got the bulk of my sex ed from the asexual community, with a splash from media fandom. I was one of those children unfortunate enough to grow up with “abstinence-only” sex education, which in my case meant that the sum total of my school sex education came to a list of STDs and a basic grasp of genital anatomy. (Well. Reproductive genital anatomy, anyway–as I recall, the clitoris was entirely absent from the little worksheets.) I didn’t so much as see a condom in person until my freshman year of college.

I should mention here that I happened to be absurdly lucky–I found asexual communities at fourteen, and I essentially grew up knowing that asexuality was a valid option for me. I was also able to access these communities without too much risk of discovery by my parents, especially when I got a little older. So I knew, more or less, what I was when I was very young, and I had reassurance about it. Most aces aren’t anything like that lucky.

So asexual communities became more or less my primary source of sex education. After all, I wasn’t getting it from school, and I found that people on AVEN would discuss more or less anything sexual matter-of-factly, if you asked politely. I learned more or less everything I wanted and needed to know for myself there, plus a lot that I didn’t need at the time but thought was interesting.

Last fall, I took a Human Sexuality course, partly because I wanted to see what “mainstream” conceptions of sexuality were like, partly because I’ve always had a largely academic interest in sexuality itself and partly because I thought the course looked interesting. Besides, I liked the professor.

I definitely learned useful things from that course, don’t get me wrong. Or–well, more accurately, I mostly learned interesting things that weren’t personally relevant to me but would be relevant for most people, because I happen to be more or less celibate without much interest in changing that. (And then there were some things I picked up that were personally useful, like the tidbits about menstruation.)

The portions of the course relating to sexual orientation, though? And relating to fantasies and masturbation? For those, I generally had tools that were as good or better for understanding those things than the tools the class provided me with, tools I picked up in asexual spaces. Often, in fact, I ended up sitting in my chair and thinking incredulously “You think this is complicated?”

In particular, I will never forget the second day of that class when the professor was giving us examples of “tricky” cases of classification of orientation. She broke out her “most confusing” example with the air of someone laying out a trump card, a person whose sexuality was impossible to define: the case of a personal friend of hers, a woman who she described as being almost entirely sexually attracted to women but who only formed romantic relationships with men and who was currently partnered with a man. A person who, in short, someone familiar with asexual conceptions of romantic and sexual orientation would have immediately classified as a heteroromantic homosexual woman.

Asexual discourses have, I feel, a lot to bring to discussions of sexual orientation, particularly in the context of sex education. Here’s the thing: mainstream understandings of sexual orientation, in which everyone can be classified into gay, straight, and bisexual and everyone has the one orientation, do not fit everyone. The people who most need terms like “romantic orientation” and “asexual” are the ones who are seeking education in the first place, the ones who haven’t found communities to explain to them what they are yet.

Here’s another thing about that Human Sexuality course: not only did I find many of its definitions far more simplistic than I was used to, I found many aspects of it actively erasing. I was often forced to lie in order to complete classroom assignments, especially in-class assignments, because there was no answer provided that I could honestly choose. In particular, my professor chose to encourage class participation through the use of a clicker system; she’d post a clicker question in class along the lines of a demographic question, and we’d answer it anonymously. The computer system recorded what clickers had answered the question but not what they answered, and by answering the question in class we gained course credit.

These questions included things like “What age did you first experience sexual attraction?” with instructions to input our answer in the form of a number. (No option was given for “I have never experienced sexual attraction.”) Or “Is the person you are most attracted to the same race/level of education as you?” (The provided answers were “yes,” “no,” and “I don’t know.”)

You can imagine how fun these were to answer as someone who simply doesn’t experience sexual–or even romantic–attraction of any kind. Some I lied on; some I tried desperately to think of something that vaguely counted; some I simply gave up and pressed a random button on. It was very clear to me that the course was not designed with the existence of a person like me in mind.

Our textbook was the third edition of Jannell L. Carroll’s Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity, which while in other ways not a bad book, has this to say about my sexual orientation:

“A final type of gender category is asexuality. On occasion, usually because of a mother’s hormone use during pregnancy, a child is born without sexual organs of any kind. This means that the child has no ovaries, uterus, or vagina; has no penis or testicles; and usually has only a bladder and urethra ending in an aperture for the elimination of urine. Although such a child has a genetic gender (that is, has XX or XY chromosomes), the child has no biological gender. Most are assigned a gender in childhood, are given hormones, and live as male or female.

In 2001, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) was founded to facilitate the growth of the online asexual community and help build acceptance and discussion of these issues. Over the last few years, a growing movement in support of asexuality has been building, helping to develop programs for asexuals and foster research (Prause & Graham, 2007). Today AVEN is the world’s largest asexual community.”

You will forgive me if I am unimpressed by the quality of information provided here, or if I felt largely contemptuous of Dr. Carroll’s research credentials upon encountering this passage. If she could be this wrong about a sexual orientation despite clearly being aware of AVEN and its purpose, what other misleading and inaccurate information lies between the pages of this book?

This class also included a number of in-class activities, one of which was to write down two lists of characteristics: one for a person you’d want to marry, and one for a person you’d like to have sex with. Given that I have very little interest in either activity, filling these lists out would have been a challenge in and of itself–except that we were then supposed to break into small groups of students and discuss our respective answers. I am a very poor liar. I ended up outing myself and running Asexual 101 rather than participate in the activity the way it was designed, because it was not designed in such a way that I could honestly take part in it.

I could, quite frankly, list examples of asexual erasure in this class and other classes I’ve taken that focused on gender and sexuality for quite a while longer. Frankly, from my perspective, sex education outside of asexual spaces is both largely irrelevant to me and has often made it clear to me that my experiences are, from the perspective of the persons constructing the course, so alien as to be inconceivable. This is not the best feeling to get when one is trying to learn valuable information.

I’m glad, then, that the asexual community has been there for me. Where else would I have found acceptance along with the knowledge I was looking for?

April 2, 2011

If You Can See The Invisible Elephant, Please Describe It

Sam posted a piece last week about the limits of “sexual attraction” as a term, and I’ve been feeling confused and ranty ever since. It’s a good piece, and you should read it, but mostly what it’s done is remind me why I get frustrated a lot by discussions like this.

See, I’m one of those really analytical people who likes to quantify things. I like to have certainty. I like to have operational definitions for my terms so I’m sure what we’re all talking about. I like to be clear about things. Most of all, I like to be fairly sure that I know what we’re talking about when I have conversations.

There is a large part of me that reacts to something that says “well, actually, this term is squishy and imprecise” with flailing and dismay, and then my natural tendency is to start trying to construct better definitions. Unfortunately, when you have no actual personal experience of the thing you’re trying to describe and you’re trying to define a feeling, constructing better terms is fairly challenging.

It’s like this: you’re born into a world where, upon maturity, everyone gets a pet elephant which is invisible to everyone but themselves. Society is structured around the needs of peoples’ elephants. People talk about the elephants and their foibles incessantly. The mass media includes the elephants in every story ever as major plot points. Until you hit the age where you get your own elephant, you can’t see them, but you’re assured that you’ll get your own when you grow up and then you’ll understand everything.

So you grow up, you reach the Age of Elephant Acquisition, and… no elephant. You infer that elephants exist–after all, people keep insisting they must, and people your age have started talking about their elephants and how wonderful and interesting they are, and also people with fairly unusual elephants are willing to do truly baffling things for the elephants’ sake. Probably, you think, the elephants exist, but you’re not sure, because you’ve never experienced anything that seems like an elephant of your own, and couldn’t it be possible that this is some sort of elaborate plot or mass delusion or something?

But people keep insisting that the elephants are totally real, and everyone else your age has started talking about how their elephants are doing. And you’re seriously the only one who is confused by the elephants thing, so you maybe try to casually bring it up–maybe you sort of try to ask people how their elephants look in casual conversation, because it’s possible that you do have an elephant and you just haven’t noticed! Possibly they are in fact very small and hard to see, but they cause a lot of mischief! After all, sometimes funny rustling things happen around you, too, just like they do to people who do have elephants. So you try to ask around, in case it’s something that you can miss, or you’re not interpreting things right, and you look very hard for things that can be interpreted as being sort of vaguely elephantine. But when you do ask them, people give you funny looks and treat you as if you’re stupid for asking, because duh they know what an elephant looks like. Everyone has one! All you have to do is look, it’s not like they’re hard to see!

You see how this can become frustrating.

Eventually you assume you are, in fact, different and not just unobservant, and try to construct the image of what an elephant looks like so that you can understand properly. But no one who has one will sit down with you and answer your questions and help you understand, even if you’re really stubborn and you ask a lot of people a lot of questions. You end up having to construct your understanding of the elephant from tiny snippets, little bits of information you can coax out of normal people before they get aggravated and change the subject. And of course everyone emphasizes different parts of what the elephant is, because everyone is different and thinks about things differently, and you have to try to pick at the distortions as best you can.

That’s what it’s like, being asexual and trying to define sexual attraction on its own. Or being aromantic-ish, and trying to define how romance works. I suppose being agender and trying to suss out gender identity is similar, and I bet there’s other parallels to make. The thing is: you don’t have something, and you’re trying to understand how it works, and no one who says they understand will try very hard to teach you what it’s like.

The thing is, you could say that my innate need to define things is fairly unproductive, and that human sexuality is so varied and complex and squishy that operational definitions are useless. You might also say that there’s no point to defining things well enough to have labels, because that gets in the way of celebrating our Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Except I’m not going to say that, because I think operational definitions are really useful even if you don’t have an innate desire to categorize everything properly so you can understand it better.

For one thing, operational definitions are sort of necessary to having conversations about things. If no one is quite sure what the terms we’re using actually mean, conversations usually end up confusing a whole lot of people. Especially if someone asks for a bit of clarification and no one is able to provide it.

You know who else operational definitions are really useful for? Questioning people. No, seriously, if you’re questioning whether a particular label works for you or not, or how you should identify, or whether you “count” with a specific group, it really helps to be able to point to things and say “well, I have that, and that, but not that.” How can we use terminology that says “asexuals don’t experience sexual attraction” without explaining what sexual attraction is? How can we expect questioning people to make a decision about whether a term fits them when the definition of that term is unclear?

I have been trying to figure out how romantic orientation theoretically works so I can decide what mine is for, oh, two years now, because there is no concrete definition anywhere and every time I corral a bunch of romantic asexuals into a corner and demand that they explain I get shrugs and “I don’t know, you just know.” (Well, when I’m not getting outright condescension, anyway. That’s always fun.) Asking people who haven’t spent a lot of time around the asexual community is arguably worse, because they’re prone to giving silly explanations like “friendship but with sex!” and that’s clearly wrong because the category of friends with benefits also exists, and also there are longstanding romantic relationships which are without sex–lesbian bed death, anyone?–even outside the asexual community. No matter how much I ask this question of people who use these terms I never get any answers.

So how on earth are we supposed to get people who actually do claim to see the invisible thing to describe it? Because if those of us who can’t see are trying to paint around the invisible thing–well, it’s clear we’re missing something, even if we’re not quite sure what.

The problem is that people who aren’t missing that feeling are considered to be the default. So there’s no incentive for them to define the modular feeling that some of us are missing–be it sexual attraction, or romantic attraction, or other things. No matter what they do, on that aspect of their sexuality they get to be easily understood and mainstream. Why would they spend their time defining what an elephant is? From their perspective, all they have to do is invoke the concept of “elephant!” and everyone will understand them! Except those of us who don’t have the elephant to begin with, and we’re in the vast minority.

Here’s the thing. If painting around an invisible concept doesn’t grasp the whole of the thing, perhaps someone who actually experiences the invisible concept should define it. Until then, those of us who aren’t “default” and need to explain how ought to continue to try. It would be good to have the help of people who do experience these forms of attraction. But if they’re not going to work on a definition, the rest of us need our painted edging to get by.

February 19, 2011

Why I Hate Ticky Boxes

There’s this piece about asexuality that’s just been published: Asexuality–Not Just For the Amoebas: What It’s Like to be “Ace” in College. It did not go on the linkspam. Admittedly, part of the reason for that is that I found it shortly after the linkspam went up, but even if I’d known about it weeks ago it wouldn’t have gone on the linkspam, because this piece is everything that is wrong with articles sexuals write about asexuality. It’s not even original in its failure, in fact, which is why I’m going to specifically critique it here. I may as well get some use out of its mediocrity.

First, way to cast suspicion on aceness as an identity right there in the title by calling us quote-unquote “aces.” That sets the tone for the rest of the piece, in fact; nothing asexuals have to say about themselves in the piece is treated as above challenge. We don’t even have the right to our own words without air-quotes.

And then we have the tired old trope of calling up a “sexologist” to explain why asexuality isn’t really real. This is what really gets me, folks, because it shows up in just about every damn article or TV discussion of asexuality you can name. But oh, the media have to provide a balanced opinion, as if there really are two legitimate sides to every issue, so of course they need to dig up someone to prove us wrong in our silly little self-identifications! It’s not like we can be definitive experts on our own experiences or anything!

But anyway. We’ve got our sexologist out to prove asexuals wrong. Her name’s Dr. Patricia Fawver, in fact, and it appears that she’s Dr. Joy Davidson, Round Two: a self-proclaimed expert who is dead-set on hiding her refusal to accept asexuality as a valid identity beneath a heavy layer of concern trolling. Again: not original. Davidson did it four years ago; you’d think they’d have learned something new by now, but apparently not. Davidson, incidentally, has since had the gall to express surprise that asexuals don’t like her. Wanna bet this lady does the same thing down the road?

Fawver, I might add, appears to have no idea what we mean when we claim “asexual” as a label, which would call her status as an expert on sexuality (or at least asexuality) into question if we were discussing any other topic. However, we’re discussing asexuality, so her assertion that “asexuality” means “without sexuality” goes totally unchallenged. In fact, the piece immediately follows this up with the line “In some ways, it is difficult to argue with Dr. Fawver.”

Yes. It is totally difficult to argue with Dr. Fawver. The fact that she’s setting up a complete straw argument about the nature of asexuality goes completely unnoticed and undiscussed, of course. So does the fact that she’s apparently never heard of asexuality or what it means before this conversation, since the fact that we’re discussing lack of sexual attraction rather than total lack of sexuality appears to have flown over her head. But her arguments are so good, guys! She’s totally a credible expert on this topic!

Then the article moves on to discussing whether or not asexuals actually exist. This is treated as a topic worthy of serious discussion. I don’t even have words. For the record? I exist. Fuck anyone who tries to say otherwise. This is another one of those “no, actually, there are not two legitimate sides to the story” topics.

Fawver returns later on in this one with a stern warning to the rest of us not to identify as asexual without checking all the laundry list of causes that could potentially have done it. For crying out loud, we’re discussing an orientation, not a symptom of disease! This is what I mean by concern trolling, by the way: Fawver is covering up her insistence that no one identify this way by insisting that making people jump through a ton of hoops before identifying as asexual is for our own good. As a special bonus, she hits most of the common stupid explanations for asexuality on her way down. Apparently that old whine about claiming to change one’s sexual orientation because of a bad break-up could be true, guys!

Of course, the flip side to the “two sides to a story” malarkey is that the article’s got to present the pro-asexuality side, too. Which it does by… citing possibly the worst research paper on asexuality ever published. Seriously, they’re claiming that the fact that 5-6% of Americans are still virgins has some kind of useful relevancy to asexuality, despite the fact that asexuals are generally quite happy to say “asexuality is not the same thing as celibacy” until we’re blue in the face. The author, who is writing from a college campus and therefore almost certainly has a lot of access to actual academic journals, presumably cited this pile of steaming academic fail because it’s available free on the Internet.

Finally, halfway through the piece, it goes on to detail what a real asexual person actually has to say about the experience of being asexual in college. I don’t have anything much to say about that; it’s pretty unobjectionable, but the fact that it took a solid page and a half for the author to get around to asking an asexual person what their experiences have been like is fairly significant. It demonstrates exactly whose opinions on asexuality are important here: nonasexuals’.

The piece’s ending makes this particularly clear, because it concludes firmly on an anti-asexual note. First, it stresses that asexuality is totally fluid and subject to change, comparing it to other “identities” rather than other sexual orientations. Again, this is telling. Asexuality discussion is particularly prone to stressing the potential changeability of sexual orientation and explaining that this is why someone shouldn’t take on an asexual identity–after all, one’s asexuality could change any moment! Of course this is never applied to other sexual orientations like identifying as straight or gay. Those are legitimate, cast as unchanging; asexuality is framed as a temporary state that could change at any moment, despite being no more fluid than any other sexuality.

Also? Apparently we shouldn’t “pre-diagnose ourselves with a trendy label” before we’ve thought very hard about who and what we are. There’s a bargain–two commonly used tropes to dismiss asexuality in one phrase! We’ve got “pre-diagnose,” which harkens back to the framing of asexuality as a sort of mental or physical illness, and then we have “asexuality is a trendy label,” which implies that we’re all just mindless fashionistas adopting the word because it’s cool. I don’t know what planet the author lives on where being ace is the next big thing, but I’d love to live there. The planet I live on, as a person who is actually an out asexual, is the one where being ace is a thing coated in obscurity and treated with condescending distaste under that. Hers sounds way more fun.

And Fawver gets the last word, as always in articles like this; heaven forbid we end on a positive note about asexuality from our own perspective. Apparently we’re supposed to “claim our sexuality and be proud, but understand it’s a choice not to engage with another person”. Does Fawver have a functioning grasp of logic? How do I claim my sexuality for what it is while simultaneously writing it off as a choice that I’m making? Unless of course that I’m supposed to understand that the choice is for me to own my innate sexuality, which duhthat’s what I’m doing when I identify as asexual. Which we’re not supposed to do. Why is this person held up as an expert, again?

So seriously, fuck Her Campus. Dr. Fawver may be an arrogant twit when it comes to asexuality, but they were the ones who gave her a platform in the first place. As an asexual in college, all this article is telling me is that Her Campus doesn’t actually care about or respect college asexuals. Instead, it’s telling me that Her Campus cares more about what nonasexuals think asexuality is than listening to what we have to say about ourselves. And honestly? That’s worse than not helping. If we’re going to have pieces on asexuality, can we maybe find some that aren’t packed chock-full of dismissive language and interviews from uninformed, pontificating “sexologists” who have never studied asexuality in their lives?

February 12, 2011

It’s Not About You

So Dan Savage has been showing his ass in public again. Apparently we’re not supposed to “inflict ourselves on normal people” or something. And the thing is, this isn’t the first time Savage has been hateful towards asexuals and it won’t be the last. But I wanted to comment on it anyway, because I think it showcases a reaction that’s all too common when the discussion of asexuals dating comes up.

Every time I have seen asexuality discussed in a space that is not heavily frequented by asexuals, someone pops up and feels the need to say that they could never date an asexual, even when the original context has nothing to do with asexuals dating. (That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that same person then going on to discuss how asexuals who date nonasexuals must be horrible people who are deliberately entrapping nonasexual people in manipulative, painfully sexless relationships against said nonasexuals’ will. Apparently the concept of breaking up never occurs to these people.)

Every damn time. I don’t know why these people think this is a useful and valid insight. I don’t know what they think they’re contributing to the conversation. I don’t know if they seriously think they’re saying anything new or useful. I don’t know if the people doing it know just how hurtful it is to always see that. And I’m not sure they care if they do. Because the impact of seeing that over and over and over again hurts.

I don’t even want to date anyone! My relationships are strange and painful, all the more so for being rather outside the monogamous romance situation. And I still get upset at seeing this, because it’s a tangible remainder that the most important relationships in my culture are set up to exclude asexuals. I can’t imagine what a romantic asexual must feel at seeing these responses every time asexual discussion comes up.

After all, it’s not like other romantic asexuals are easy to find. Say you’re a heteroromantic asexual woman and you want to date only other asexuals. Assume that the often-cited figure claiming asexuals make up 1% of the population is correct. Pretend that half of these are men*–well, that leaves you with 0.5% of the population who might possibly be in your dating pool. Now take out all the ones who are aromantic or homoromantic–according to the 2008 AVEN census, about 17.5% of the asexual population identifies as aromantic and 6.5% identify as homoromantic, so that’s 24% of the community which is off limits because of romantic orientation, meaning that 76% are theoretically available**.

So that’s 1% of the population at large x 50 % of these being an acceptable gender x 76% having a compatible romantic attraction, which comes to a whole 0.38% of the population you might be compatible with on the basis of romantic and sexual attraction alone. Forget the vagaries of personality and whether you can even get along with any of these people–that’s what you have to work with. Oh, and just to make the picture a little more bleak, the invisibility of asexuality means that it’s likely that a large chunk of your possible dating pool have no idea what asexuality is or what they are, making them impossible to find. As an extra-special bonus, the fact that so much of the asexual community is online means that if you do manage to meet someone you’re compatible with and have enough in common with him to fall in love with him, it’s likely that he’ll live nowhere near you.

That’s if you’re heteroromantic–the pool gets even smaller if you’re homoromantic asexual, for instance. Or if you’re transgender and have to deal with cissexism from potential partners. Or if you’re non-binary identified in terms of gender. Or disabled, or anything else that often counts as a “dealbreaker” in the dating pool–my point is, the asexual romantic dating pool is tiny and, as everything dealing with asexuals tends to be, isolated. (Invisibility rears its see-through head again!)

So it is not unprecedented that asexual people might try to date nonasexual people now and again. Of course, this brings its own nasty problems along for the ride–to “compromise” on sex or not? Is compromising enough for the sexual partner? Is the asexual partner okay with the sex even long term? Can compromising be a free choice at all, given the odds on finding another asexual partner and the pressure not to end up alone? Is a choice between having so few dating options and having sex you don’t want still an entirely uncoerced, free choice?

And the options for asexuals are further constricted by the way that intimacy and long-term commitment are assumed to be a feature of romantic relationships only, nothing else. What this means is that if an asexual person decides that romantic relationships are unworkable, either through not experiencing romantic attraction or through not being able or interested in “compromising” on sex and not being able to find an asexual partner, you’re almost-but-not-quite Shit Out Of Luck. One of the things this does is place much more pressure on asexuals to try to make romantic relationships that do work, because this is one of the only societally-approved ways to find long-term emotional intimacy.

I’m not criticizing the personal decisions made by anyone; far from it. In general, honesty is the best policy at all times, particularly when considering matters of relationships with other people. But in a conversation about the possibility of asexuals dating nonasexuals? My sympathy is not with the poor nonasexual person, who after all always has the choice of saying “I can’t handle this” and moving on. It’s with the asexual partner, who has so many fewer options.

I’m not even going to discuss the Othering of asexuals (how strange, how broken these people must be) that often occurs alongside these responses. I’m not going to discuss how hateful they are, how they presume maliciousness to asexual people, how they often assume that asexual people are trying to entrap or trick their partners. I’m not even going to bring up the fact that I often see assumptions that asexual people magically know they’re asexual from puberty or something, despite the fact that invisibility conspires to leave us without the words to describe ourselves and the bravery to speak them aloud.

I’m only going to say this: You, the nonasexual person, have many more options than asexual people do. Kindly do not rub that in the face of the people who are most acutely cognizant of that fact.

*Not that that “half” number is likely to be accurate, since for one thing there are a ton of people who don’t identify within the gender binary within the asexual community, but we’re being as broad and generous with our data as possible.

**In fact, that same census details several types of responses that are uncategorizable as heteroromantic, homoromantic, bi- or panromantic, or aromantic, so the numbers may actually be less comforting than this. In order to be as generous as possible, I assumed that answers like “unsure of romantic orientation” and “do not believe in a distinction between romantic and nonromantic attraction” might possibly count and so I excluded only “homoromantic” and “aromantic” answers from the original analysis.

December 24, 2010

It’s Easy To Pass When You’re Invisible

One of the biggest criticisms I’ve seen from the queer community regarding asexuals identifying as queer, particularly aromantic and heteroromantic asexuals, is that we have this awesome “passing privilege” thing. The theory goes that apparently, because we are not in same-sex relationships, we pass for straight. Of course biromantic, panromantic, and homoromantic aces “count,” because it’s like they’re bi/pan/homo-sexual! And heteroromantic is the same as heterosexual! And aromantics–well, uh, uh, they don’t do the same-sex dating thing so THEY MUST BE STRAIGHT.

(And of course asexual people for whom the romantic orientation concept doesn’t work very well are made twice invisible. Awesome.)

In particular, I find that it’s not uncommon for queer people to say things like “the mainstream wants you to be asexual.” This latter is usually a good indication that the person in question has never talked to an actual asexual person in their life, but I digress.

And I have a lot of problems with this. For one thing, not everyone actually passes consistently for heterosexual. I don’t. Before I started coming out on a regular basis, people assumed I was a closeted lesbian. I can be out honestly, or I can have people try to help me out. This is my experience.

Besides, not everyone wants to pass in the first place. Passing is soul-killing. Passing means lying to others, it means hiding yourself, it means pretending to be something you aren’t. It means pretending to be straight, because in this heteronormative world, you’ve got to be heterosexual to get by. Not asexual, because asexuality does not confer privilege. Let me point out that that is not the same thing as being heteroromantic. It’s not enough to not be interested in same-sex partners. You have to be interested in opposite-sex partners as well, and you’d better display sexual interest in them while you’re about it. Passing means displaying that interest, even if it isn’t there.

It means… closeting yourself, in fact. (Wait. Hang on–you mean that asexual people might have closets, too? Perish the thought.)

But hey, I’ll buy that gender-conforming asexuals often do pass fairly well when they’re not being open about their identities. When you’re single and not dating someone, you must be straight, right? So heteronormativity goes. And it’s not like there’s acedar to match gaydar in mainstream culture, right? Well, there’s a reason for that.

Mainstream people don’t tend to pick up on cues that a person might be asexual because asexuals are invisible to the mainstream. Invisibility is not passing. There’s a choice involved in passing: you can choose whether or not to lie about who and what you are, even if it’s only a lie of omission. There is no choice involved whatsoever in being invisible. Invisibility exists to make it impossible or difficult to speak up about who and what you are.

Invisibility is trying to be honest about who you are and being told that you don’t exist, that you’re lying, that you’re deluded. It’s trying actively not to pass for straight, because you’re not straight, and being told that you’re wrong about your own feelings.

Invisibility is growing up never knowing that you could exist. It’s trying to find communities of people like you and failing, because no one else is ever like you. It’s listening to a thousand different ways to plan a life, and not fitting into any of them.

Invisibility is not having words to describe what you are. It’s making words up or pretending you’re something different than you are. It’s endless questioning because none of the available options fit. It’s finally finding a word that fits and seeing that word used mostly in ways that hurt. It’s trying to answer a form about your sexual orientation honestly and having to lie, because no ticky-box exists for you.

Invisibility is forced silence because speaking up about asexuality has consequences, even if it’s only to say “we exist.” It’s never having a place in discussions of sexuality. It’s feeling painfully grateful to see just the word “asexual” in a list of queer or variant sexual orientations. Not a discussion of that word, or any explanation of what it means, but only the word itself.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m not all agog at the idea that as an aromantic asexual, I’m “privileged” in this sense. Invisibility is not a fucking privilege. Stop trying to make it into one.

November 19, 2010

Labels Are For Soup Cans (And People, Too)

I see a lot of people disclaiming the usefulness of labels. (Especially, for some reason, people who have a perfectly good label for themselves complaining about other people making up new words to describe their experiences.)

So I want to talk about why labels are important to me.

My experience growing up as asexual was, I feel, an incredibly lucky one. I found out that asexuality existed and that an asexual community existed absurdly young. I was fourteen when I found the label, and so I essentially went through adolescence knowing that there was a place for people like me, that there was a name for people like me, and that it was okay if I didn’t have any interest in anyone else that way. Note the bit about having the name. It’ll be important later.

I didn’t necessarily take advantage of the community at the time. From about ages 15 to 18, I essentially abandoned the asexual community, such as it was. I was more interested in focusing on my autistic identity then, and was actively posting on WrongPlanet rather than AVEN at the time. Community itself simply wasn’t an issue for me, at least not about my sexuality. After all, I first had a group of friends who didn’t seem to care either, and then I had isolated myself in large part from my peers, and there was no reason for the whole tangled web of sexuality to really enter my life if I didn’t want it to.

No, the important part was simply knowing that the label was there. That it was real, that I had validation to be this way, that there were other people using this label.

I am not entirely sure that I would have been one of the people who independently makes up the term “asexual” without access to a community first. I rather doubt it. My adolescence was a period during which many, many (straight) people seemed to think I was a young lesbian, and were quite invested in trying to draw me out of my closet. And I’m not actually that immune to suggestion. I certainly would have gone through a period of extremely confused questioning, which would have been wrought with anxiety, and I probably would have gone with the flow and come out as gay because at least it was an answer. As it was, I was too terrified to come out of my closet until I went away to college, but at least I knew my label described who I was well enough. Even if I wasn’t brave enough to actually share it with people, I could be pretty sure I knew what I was, and if I changed so be it.

I could not have had that certainty without the existence of a label and a group of people who used it. For me, it was the difference between relative calm and frustrated anxiety. And all for the sake of a single word.

And here’s the other thing that labels do: they give us a community of other people who use that label to connect with. They give us a language to speak to others about ourselves, language with which we can come close to describing our experiences. And they provide a means to connect with one another.

It’s hard for me to think which comes first: the labels or the communities, since discussions within communities invariably lead to ever more finely gradated labels and more complex identities as people seek shorthands for concepts which recur over and over again. That’s what these words are, in essence: useful shorthands to communicate. And if they’re not acceptably fine-tuned, well, that’s a good reason to make a new one.

September 24, 2010

Breaking the Chain

So right now I’m taking a Human Sexuality class. I signed up for it in large part because I wanted to learn a bit more about the mainstream conceptualizations of sexuality within psychology. I like psychology, you see (it’s one of my majors), and I wanted to know what the training of the sex therapists you always see on asexual interviews was like. I wanted to see how those conceptualizations differ from the conceptualizations of sex and romance I largely grew up with, which are heavily influenced by the asexuality community. I started lurking when I was fourteen, you see, and I’ve been identifying as asexual free of self-doubt since sixteen, and in a very real way the asexuality community has been my primary source of discussion about how sexuality works. So I signed up for this course, thinking to see how “everyone else” thinks about the whole thing.

Well. In some ways, I’m not impressed. There seems to be this assumption that a lot of things associated with sexuality and romance are always or usually linked together on some basic chain, and that removing one link takes off most of the rest of them as well. The most obvious ones are what asexuals categorize as sexual and romantic attraction, but there even appeared to be an assumption that behavior factors in. Which, no–if you’re studying patterns of sexual attraction, that’s one thing, and if you’re studying types of sexual behavior, that’s quite another. Using the same term for both is just confusing. Moreover, it ignores the fact that while the population of people with a particular attraction pattern and the population of people who actually engage in sexual behavior along those patterns overlap, they are not actually the same thing. Studying behavior is worthy on its own, yes, but I’m confused as to why the terminology seems to confuse these two related but separate concepts.

Asexuals also tend to unlink many different things which mainstream conceptualizations assume always go together: sexual behavior, desire for romantic relationships, desire for emotional intimacy, desire for children, ability to love, experience of infatuation–there’s a lot of it, and I think a lot of nonasexual people could benefit from the understanding that sometimes these things do go together neatly, and sometimes they don’t. The Queersecrets tumblr has been seeing a fair amount of asexual action lately, and after a while of this I noticed that several people had begun posting and identifying in their secrets as homoromantic heterosexual or vice versa. Even in this Human Sexuality class, my professor described a friend of hers who sounded very much like a heteroromantic homosexual, or at least a heteroromantic bisexual-leaning-heavily-towards-women. As she was discussing how unusual and boundaries-blurring such a case study seems, I thought to myself: no, it isn’t. I feel like people with mismatched orientations in general would benefit greatly from discussion of that, just as we who are asexual benefit from discussing asexuality. And I would love to see such conceptualizations of a broken chain become more common in the mainstream.

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