Writing From Factor X

October 28, 2010

Won’t Someone Please Think of the Adolescents?

Let’s talk about age and identity policing.

See, there’s this very common thing I see when a teenager, particularly anyone under 18, enters an asexuality space to say “I think I’m asexual.” And you’ll see people just lining up to tell them that they can’t be sure of themselves, that they might be mistaken. That they might simply be late bloomers. That they ought not to hold onto the identity too tightly until they’re older, and they can be sure it’s not a phase.

I see this within the asexual community. You’d assume that a group founded on trying to acquire acceptance for everyone who identifies as asexual wouldn’t be so invested in essentially invalidating someone’s identity, but that’s what I’m seeing.

This is particularly interesting given that the average age of sexual attraction is ten years old. And this holds true for all sexualities except, for obvious reasons, asexuality. The standard deviation appears to be about three years. For the curious, that means that of the people who eventually go on to experience sexual attraction, 84% of them will have done so by age 13, and 97.6% of them will have done so by age 16. Those are some absurdly high numbers. What, given that, makes people think that teenagers are unlikely to be aware of what their sexual orientation is? If you’re not experiencing sexual attraction and 97% of your peers have done so, don’t you think that you’d notice that something was perhaps a little off?

And now let’s talk about me. It’s my blog, I’m allowed to be a touch narcissistic. I am twenty years old, folks. What’s more than that, I’ve been past teenagerdom for slightly over a month. I am very young for this sort of thing. It seems that according to some, I’ve finally hit the magic age where I can be certain. And according to others, I’m still in phase territory–I’ve heard some people, all in their forties of course, set the bar as high as twenty-five. Awesome. I can’t tell you how pleased that makes me to hear when I come across it.

I found out about asexuality when I was fourteen years old. I joined AVEN when I was fifteen. At the time it was essentially the only place besides the Livejournal community to discuss asexuality at all, and I didn’t know enough about LJ to navigate it at all. And you know, I don’t remember it being nearly this ageist then. I remember a focus on using identities as tools, yes, and on discarding them if they no longer became useful. But I don’t remember being told within the community that teenagers couldn’t know for sure if they were asexual yet.

That was then, and this is now. I think we’re worse off for it. Now it’s hard to see the acceptance for the identity policing. For the admonitions that you oughtn’t come out, or let the label ‘asexual’ mean much to you, because you just might be a late bloomer. Never mind the relative likelihoods of actually being a late bloomer or just being a baby ace. Just the chance means that you can’t embrace the label too tightly, lest it be wrong.

Folks, I knew that that label of asexuality was me when I first saw it at fourteen. And I knew what I was before even that. I found AVEN in the first place because I was beginning to get the idea that maybe everyone wasn’t like me, and I was trying to figure out what sexual orientation I was. It’s been five years, now, and I’ve never encountered any significant thing to make me need to re-evaluate that identity. And even if I had, just having the identity, just knowing that asexuality was even an option, and that it could be me… well. That was knowledge I cherished, growing up, because it meant that I wasn’t a freak. It meant there was nothing wrong with me. And that gave me all the courage to be myself I needed.

Even if the late bloomer model were common–and I am unconvinced that it is–impressing on every single teenager who wonders whether they might be entitled to call themselves asexual that they shouldn’t do so because they might develop another sexual orientation does a hell of a lot of harm to those of us who aren’t late bloomers. It sends a message to younger people that this community isn’t for them. That this label isn’t for using, and neither is the support that comes with it.

And given that a fuckload of visibility and community work is done by those of us who are in our teens and twenties, I think that alienating those of us who are younger members of the asexual community is likely to shoot the community as a whole in the foot. If you’ve found out asexuality exists when you’re young but you got heavily reminded that it might not be for you by the very people you’re reaching out to for support, it’s hardly likely you’ll be involved enough in its work to do any kind of activism.

If people identifying as asexual realize that they’ve changed, or that they were mistaken about their feelings for others, by all means drop the label. If an identity stops working or worse, becomes restrictive, than by all means drop it in favor of one which does work. There’s nothing wrong with broadening your understanding of yourself, or finding that you have changed over time.

But don’t tell someone that they can’t pick up that identity, which might be so important to them, for so paltry a quality as age.

October 25, 2010

Queer as Ace

I want to talk about passing, and queerness, and how asexuality fits into that. Or more specifically, my particular aromantic brand of asexuality, since that’s the only one my experiences apply to.

One of the charges leveled against (aromantic and heteroromantic) asexuals identifying as queer that I saw most often in the recent brouhaha at ontd_feminism had to do with two contentions: one, that we pass as straight and therefore don’t count, and two, that we don’t experience our own personalized forms of oppression, at least not on the scale of homosexuality. And I think both of these charges are bullshit.

In particular, the first time I saw the bit about asexuals passing for straight so easily, I was a bit flabbergasted. Because I don’t pass as straight for any length of time. My experience throughout high school always came back to carefully guarded questions and tentative attempts to get me to come out. And those were the polite ones. Growing up, much of the bullying and harassment I dealt with came down to bothering me about my sexual orientation. The one incident of street harassment I’ve suffered to date occurred when I was out walking my dog and some assholes in a car drove up right next to me, yelled “FAGGOT!” and drove away. When I started coming out as asexual for the first time, it was because I was sick of people getting it wrong.

Some of this is my particular gender presentation. I’m cis, but I freely admit I’m not the most femme cis girl out there. But a lot of it comes down to the fact that I never expressed any interest, sexual or otherwise, in anyone. And in this culture, not experiencing interest in opposite-sex people automatically means you must be interested in same-sex people. I freely admit it’s not every asexual’s experience, but it’s mine. In my experience, I can choose to come out as asexual and be honest about who and what I actually am, or I can be regarded as a lesbian in a closet so transparent that people feel entitled to try to “help” me come out of it. Passing as straight for anyone who knows me well enough to ask about my personal life has not been something I have been able to do well since I hit puberty.

Okay. So it’s possible that asexuals don’t always get passing privilege.  Even if we’re not bi/pan/homoromantic. And for the record, I know a heteroromantic fellow who gets coded gay as often as I do. This isn’t necessarily an aromantics-only thing. But what about the contention that the oppressions we face which are specific to asexuality (e.g. not homophobia misapplied) are so weak and easy compared to homophobia that we’re making a big fuss over nothing?

Well, anti-asexual sentiment is really fucking similar to biphobia, for one thing. One of the things asexuals share with bisexuals is the fact that many people seem to have problems with the idea that one’s orientation is not actually the same thing as the gender of the person one is dating. (Or not dating, as the case may be.) I have seen the very same accusations of attention-seeking and oversensitivity directed at asexuals as I have at bisexuals. As well as the very same charges of appropriativeness. After all, there are plenty of bisexual people who end up in opposite-sex relationships, or even who tend to experience sexual attraction to more opposite-sex people than to same-sex people. Not every bi person is a Kinsey 3, after all.

So why is bisexuality A-OK as a form of queerness,  but asexuality is not?

October 18, 2010

A Work In Progress

Filed under: Asexual Community,Signal Boost — Sciatrix @ 7:36 am
Tags: , ,

Short and frankly rather disjointed update this week, because I’m up to my ears in writer’s block and some of that pesky non-ace classwork besides.

I’m also trying to write a “How to Respond Politely If Someone Comes Out As Asexual” post, but that’s likely to be a work in progress until I figure out how to be all engaging and 101-like. (Which, speaking of, please give me suggestions!) Not so much something I can throw together in a couple of hours.

And the other project I’m working on that is eating my time right now is working on a transcript of an excellent podcast that swankivy and David Jay did about a month ago on the subject of asexuality. It should be done by the end of the week–it’s an hour long podcast and I’ve been working on the transcript for a long time now–but if you haven’t heard about it, you can find the recording here or here. There’s a lot of really interesting stuff in it.

EDITED: It’s finished now. If you’re like me and have issues processing auditory media, you should be able to view the transcript as a Google document here. Be warned–it is a good 18 pages long in Word and will probably take some time to read.

Like pretty much everyone in and out of the asexosphere, I’m still thinking about the LJ ontd_feminism wank. (Yes, it was a whole week ago now. That is forever in Internet terms. It’s still relevant!) And, well, I have a lot of things to say about it, but they’re mostly rehashes of things I’ve said in other areas discussing asexuality. Suffice it to say that among other things, I am still not a fan of Oppression Olympics.

asexual_fandom has an asexual manifesto project going on, in which people volunteer every week to write about why they view particular characters as asexual–even if they’re not canonically so. I’m pretty excited about seeing what people come up with once it gets launched.  (First manifesto is due next week!) We don’t see anywhere enough asexual characters, as far as I am concerned. If so little for us is going to get published, I for one am all for reading existing characters as ace and writing stories based off of that reading.

October 14, 2010

Asexual Forum Recommendation

Filed under: Asexual Community — Sciatrix @ 6:52 pm
Tags: ,

Not an actual post today–that’ll have to wait until Monday. I’m trying to keep up posting weekly and I think I’m doing pretty well at it given my current life circumstances, but things are likely to be late rather than early for a while yet.

I wanted to post a link to Knights of the Shaded Triangle, which is intended to be a new forum for discussing asexuality which is more of a safe space in contrast to AVEN. If you’re interested in 102/safe-space discussion of asexuality, go over and check it out.

October 11, 2010

Invisibility Internalized

Here is my great problem when talking about asexuality: I find it much easier to talk about being asexual and what that means to be on the Internet, with people who do not know me in meatspace*.

I’m dealing with that for my project for National Coming Out Day. I am not actually coming out per se to anyone. Rather, what I will be doing is making a Facebook post inviting anyone who wants to talk to me about asexuality to do so at any time over the course of the week, and I will make a concerted effort to answer any questions they might have.

But I’m not talking about that here. Instead, what I want to talk about is why I find it so difficult to talk about asexuality outside of asexual spaces, especially off the Internet. My asexuality is a fairly important aspect of my identity. It colors how I perceive the world and it impacts the way I view my relationships with friends and family. And, as this blog evinces, I spend a lot of time thinking about asexuality and its place in the world. I care enough about this topic to write an essay on it every week. It’s a big part of me.

And yet I don’t talk about it much. Oh, I’m out, and I’m feeling more and more comfortable coming out as asexual fairly casually. I joke about it sometimes, or other people do.

I still don’t bring up issues related to asexuality much in conversation. My meatspace friends don’t know this blog exists, for instance. Not because it’s a secret, but because I don’t talk about it. They barely know AVEN exists, mostly because occasionally I will mention it if a discussion off AVEN is really upsetting me.

There was an exercise I did last week in my Human Sexuality class. We were asked to write three important parts of our self-identity on a piece of paper and go and talk to a total stranger without giving any hints to them about what we had written on our papers. And you know, the hardest part of the whole exercise was letting the person I was talking to know I was ace at the end of it. Dancing around my identity? Ignoring the entire question of sex, romance, of dating and of life plans? It was easy. I do it every day.

When the topic of sexuality comes up, I am often afraid to speak up because I feel that, for some reason, my opinion doesn’t “count.”

My orientation is something to joke about on occasion, and that’s pretty much it with some rare exceptions. It’s not something I discuss seriously. Because that would make it real.

And this… I think this is because I have internalized the broader culture of asexuality as being something which is not quite as real as other orientations. After all, it’s very rare to hear asexuality discussed in the context of anything outside of specifically asexual spaces. When I do see it outside of our discussions–even so much as a mention that asexual people exist, without any discussion of actual asexual experiences–I am taken aback. Shocked, really, at least for a second. Seeing asexuality so much as mentioned is an acknowledgement that our issues are important, even among people who are not themselves asexual.

I’m not the only asexual person I have talked to who does this, either. Even within the ace community I see many people arguing that, for instance, visibility efforts are a waste of time. Or coming out is, because no one needs to know about asexuality but asexual people. Or that we don’t really experience any hardships, so we ought to just be quiet and keep our asexuality to ourselves, and save the real discussion for people who have sexualities that are oppressed.

I think: invisibility is stifling. It is having one side of me focusing on one part of myself, and another side to show the people outside of my community. It is downplaying something which is important to me.

And yet breaking that invisibility is terrifying. Especially when I have seen, so often, attempts to raise dialog about asexuality in non-asexual spaces dissolve into concern trolling about health, or anger about appropriating the struggles of others, or being told that we’re upset about nothing. That this isn’t a problem. It isn’t simply a matter of irrational fear.

I think it’s worth doing, even if it is terrifying. I hope I have less to fear than I think.

*I consciously use the term “meatspace” rather than “real life” to refer to spaces off the Internet, because I don’t think Internet interactions are any less real than off-Net ones. Especially for people whose primary source of social contact is through the Internet–and I’ve been there and probably will be again–I think the term “real life” trivializes the important relationships that form and the conversations which happen using the Internet as a medium.

October 6, 2010

The Politics Of Being Out

So, National Coming Out Day is coming up, and I’m still planning what, exactly, I am going to do for it.

I am somewhat conflicted about coming out, largely because for me the process of outing myself is still often fraught with anxiety. Much of this comes down to the fact that not only does coming out for me  entail the usual worries about how the person will react and whether they will show themselves to be a total douchecanoe, but also worrying about asexual-specific coming out issues. You know: whether I have the resources necessary to provide an explanation of my orientation. Whether I can explain my sexuality to someone and get it across without too many lingering misunderstandings. Whether I’m going to put up with the dreaded Masturbation Question. Whether I am going to be asked if my sexuality is a disease, or told to check up on my hormones “just in case.”

Neekabe recently posted a really awesome essay on why it’s often difficult to come out as asexual, even if you’re actively trying to do so, and one of the things she said really resonated with me:

As a sexual person, all you have to do drop the word of boy/girlfriend, and/or a casual mention of a person being attractive to you, and you’re basically done. Or you have a variety of slang terms that you can use if you want to be more explicit. Being out may not be a good thing, but society has gotten to the point where it is possible to come out without turning it into a Thing unless the other person chooses to turn it into a Thing through their reaction.

As someone who’s asexual, it’s virtually impossible to accidentally out yourself. The casual hints “I’m just not wired for relationships” (my favourite line) or “Not really interested/looking” tend to be just read as typical avoidance. Slang terms aren’t understood. I could tell someone I’m ace, or a gray-A(*), but they’re not going to get what that means, they’ll have to ask, and then it becomes a Thing.

If I could come out just by mentioning I was ace, without having to make a big show of it… well. I’d come out more often, for certain. If I could come out just by hinting, I’d be out to everyone. (Hell, I’m blindingly obvious if you know what to look for. The fact that people don’t usually just means that I either ping gaydars or get reclassified into this mysterious not-gendered-not-sexual category.) But that’s not where we are right now.

Right now, coming out entails playing educator, representative of my sexuality, and terrified person trying to share something important all at the same time. (I try not to show I’m terrified.) Have I ever mentioned that it is difficult to play educator when you’ve just bared a secret, important part of yourself and you know that total confusion is one of the best-case scenarios?

I have also had incidences where I was essentially given the choice between coming out or lying. In class, no less. That one was fun. I suck at lying. Let me tell you, as stressful as coming out can be when you get to pick the time and consider when to bring it up, it is a thousand times worse when you get totally blindsided. Especially when you’ve just gotten invisibled on top of that and are dealing with realizing “oh, awesome, you assume either I don’t exist or that I’m not here.”

So given that I think coming out is stressful and scary and difficult much of the time, why do I do it?

Partly, it has to do with my ability to pass as heterosexual, which is the usual “default” assumption. Which is to say, I suck at it. I do not particularly experience crushes, I tend to go silent when people are around me are discussing hot people of the appropriate genders, and I often don’t have anything to share when the inevitable dating talk goes up. Besides, people who know me well and hang around me a lot tend to notice when you never display any interest in anyone, ever. I experienced enough probing questions about whether I was gay or not in high school, especially from my parents. Coming out is a much better way to give people an explanation for why I am generally not dating or looking to date than just letting them come up with their own explanations, I find.

But that’s not my whole reasoning. I firmly believe there is a political aspect to being out as asexual. Well, to coming out in general, actually, but especially coming out ace. Coming out is the single most powerful means of forwarding visibility. Even aside from the fact that it is an act of visibility in itself, and a powerful one, coming out as asexual humanizes us. It puts a face to what we are. It makes it impossible to divorce the concept of asexuality in general from this person, right in front of me, who is herself asexual. (Or himself, or themself, or zirself.)

Which is not to say that outing oneself past endurance is a good thing. Quite the opposite: if you don’t have the mental resources to come out or do not feel safe doing so, then coming out is probably not a good idea. There are people I have decided do not get to know I am asexual, for example. Barring a serious change in the current state of affairs, I have no intention of allowing them to know. There is a balance.

October 1, 2010

Asexual Feminism

Filed under: Feminism,Intersections — Sciatrix @ 12:01 am
Tags: , , , ,

So I’m cheating a bit on the content here. This was actually a piece I wrote in June for the first edition of Asexual Feminism, a zine about… well, asexual feminism. It’s quite well named that way. I will actually put something new up on Monday, but given that it’s been about two months since this was first published, I thought I would add this to my blog now as well. Asexual Feminism is a great zine–if you want to read the whole thing, which I highly recommend, I host the PDF here with permission from the publisher and the relevant AVEN thread is here. (The zine does not have its own website, which is a shame in my view.)

So I kept meaning to write this Asexuality and Feminism thing. And the thing is, asexuality and feminism, on first glance, don’t seem to meet up too well at all. They’re quite different spheres, at least on the face of it.

But there’s this concept called intersectionality, and it’s rather important to my feminism, which is very wrought up with ableism and heterosexism (because those are the other two I have personal experience with) and also with racism, classism. That’s the most obvious way for the two frameworks to interact.

In a lot of ways, I relate asexuality most strongly to heterosexism and ableism, and only pull it back to feminism insofar as it’s another axis of oppression which is a Bad Thing and should be targeted. See, I’m specifically aromantic, asexual, and autistic, and those things are a more pertinent intersection in a lot of ways than the fact that I’m female. It also makes a pretty good explanation of how intersectionality works. For instance, one of the prevailing media stereotypes about autistic people is that we are somehow cold or emotionless. That also happens to be a common misconception about asexual people, which means that people who meet me and find out both qualities tend to get funny ideas about my desire for social contact. That’s an example of stereotypes behaving in cumulative fashion, but such intersectionality also works in conflicting ways.  As an example, the stereotypes surrounding aromantic asexuality and autism both tend to also be coded strongly male while I am female, so the expectations I am hit with differ strongly depending on whether someone is focusing on my femaleness or my autism or my asexuality.

But even aside from questions of intersectionality, asexuality and feminism have a lot of things to contribute to one another. For instance, asexuals inherently challenge gender roles by not living up to heteronormative ideals of femininity and masculinity. Asexual men in particular challenge the patriarchal ideal of men being obsessed with sex however they can get it, and romantic asexual men take this a step farther by rejecting the patriarchal idea that men put up with romance only to get sex out of it. But asexual women challenge the status quo, too.  Asexual women regardless of romantic orientation often have much more nuanced views of romantic relationships than the general culture would determine, because for us a romantic relationship is usually fraught with dealing with orientational mismatch. And all of that doesn’t even get into how asexual people with queer romantic orientations or gender identities challenge the strict gender roles demanded by patriarchy.

Then there’s rape culture. Asexual women in particular benefit from feminism and concepts like “no means no” because the concept of frigidity combined with the perception that sex isn’t a thing for women to begin with is particularly likely to pressure asexual women into having sex that they don’t necessarily want to begin with. The narratives surrounding men who might not want to have sex are even worse, however—asexual men may feel particularly confused by cultural conditioning that men are up for sex at any time and be just as likely to be pressured into unwanted sex.

Feminism also benefits from the asexuality movement simply by acknowledging asexual perspectives in feminist thought. For instance, it is entirely possible when considering asexuals to have a person who is sex-positive in theory, when considering the needs of other people, and yet completely personally disgusted by the idea of sex as it relates to them. The problem with some current mainstream feminism views on sex is that often they forget that not all people do have sexual desires, that the problems surrounding sex in this culture can’t all be solved by getting everyone in tune with their sexual selves, and that a person can be repulsed without being repressed. Asexuals serve to remind social thinkers that people are more and less comfortable with sex, and that this is okay.

Asexuality and feminism have a lot to teach each other, even if they appear to be unrelated at first glance. I greatly look forward to seeing the thoughts of other writers working on this intersection in the future.

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