Writing From Factor X

December 16, 2010

Let’s Get Mad

So the asexual community has a problem. Well, several problems, really.

We need to stop catering exclusively to sexuals. And by that, I mean that asexuality discussion cannot keep being limited by the need to do 101 constantly, or to drop everything and rush to educate if someone asks a question.

I am not a visibility robot. If I educate someone, that’s a service I’m doing, that’s something I choose to do. And I choose to do it a lot. But it’s not an obligation I have, and I should also have the right to say “No, I am not going to drop everything to tell you about my sexuality, make friends with Google” if I am for whatever reason not interested in playing teacher that day. There are a lot of reasons and a lot of education opportunities; if I took all of them, I would be perpetually exhausted and also bored silly.

And if someone tells me something offensive, that is not a “golden education opportunity”, because I have plenty of those to begin with. That’s a cue for me to say “hey, that is offensive” and make it clear that that behavior is not acceptable. Arguably that reaction is a form of education on its own, since certainly the person is learning something new and unpleasant, but it’s certainly not the polite and friendly of form education that I see prioritized in the community. And damn straight am I not going to be grateful for the opportunity to educate that has suddenly come up with that offensive comment, either. I’ve heard that one before from other asexuals, and I do not have words for the levels of fuck that I feel in response. People saying offensive things about asexuality ruins my day, okay, it’s not something I should ever have to feel grateful for. Or feel any other positive emotion about, for that matter. If you can find the silver lining in the pile of shit, awesome for you. It’s still a pile of shit to me.

Why the fuck are asexual communities centered around educating sexual people anyway? By this I mean watering down our dialogue, our main community for years and years focusing primarily on education and not, say, issues of what we face, issues by which people try to silence us and continue to make us invisible. We do this, and we send the message: we are only important insofar as we relate to nonasexuals. We make ourselves smaller than we are, we minimize our issues and the ways in which we redefine relationships and community and sexuality; we dumb ourselves down to make ourselves more understandable.

And on tone: There is a place both for polite and reasoned requests to take asexuality seriously and for angry, sharp-tongued demands to take asexuality seriously. There is a place for both friendly approachability and for angry implacability in activism.

Except our ratio is way skewed over to the polite and friendly side. Our communities are full of appeasers, but there are almost no nukers at all. And that is a problem. That is not a cue to say the asexual community is awesome because it’s so nice and polite, guys. Nice and polite doesn’t get things done. Nice and polite is easy to ignore, okay? One of the biggest problems I have with AVEN and which I have had is that it wholeheartedly buys into the tone argument. AVEN’s culture is very firmly on the side that to get any activism for asexuality done, we must be polite. We must be friendly, we must be approachable, we must be willing to educate at the drop of a hat. And we must smile while doing it. Or else nonasexuals will write us off as sick and diseased, or they won’t ally with us, or they won’t welcome us into their exclusive clubs. Or something.

This is bullshit. The tone argument is a fallacy. It has a long history of being used to silence activism. And it does this because it lets majority people, particularly those who are not actually interested in being allies to begin with, tell minority people that their arguments aren’t worth listening to. Not because of any actual content within those arguments, mind you. No, the tone argument argues that if the minority could only be nicer, easier for the majority to interact with, then and only then will they exert themselves, just a little, to help you out. They promise that if you’re nice enough, they’ll let you play.

But the bar for “nice enough” gets lowered. And lowered. And pretty soon, you’re trying to be so goddamn nice and polite that no one has to listen at all if they don’t already want to. Where’s the activism in that, again?

We’ve bought into it. Wholesale.

And there’s another problem with the prioritization of friendly, approachable teaching over other forms of activism within the community. Some people are naturally suited to different activism styles. I, for one, am not an appeaser. I find it much easier to teach people that certain attitudes are not acceptable around me by displaying visible anger when they come up than I do to be friendly and approachable, especially if I am limited on spoons. I like to argue for the observer, not the opponent. I’m sarcastic and I swear a lot and I’m way more concerned with the feelings of people who are dealing with oppressive frameworks than the feelings of the person stepping in it.

That’s me. It might not be you. And that’s okay. Everyone’s style is a bit different. But we need a variety of styles to make this work. We need to start being more concerned with getting angry at people who push us back. We need to stop listening to people who demand that we be nice to them before they accept us.

And that means focusing on ourselves as worthy of real activism. Not “we don’t have it so bad because we’re invisible.” (Because I’ve seen asexuals threatened with rape, my own self, for breaking that invisibility.) Not “we only want to be mentioned.” (Because I’ve seen us mentioned in the same breath as calling us sexless and genitalless.) We are a real minority sexual orientation. It’s time we believed in that enough to demand respect.


  1. I find it rather redundant to say that I agree with you. I have to admit, I’ll be interested to see what the reactions of people less into SJ are.

    And I’ve been thinking more about how visible we are. It really seems to me that the “OMG, asexuals are mentioned!” response I get every time I hear the word is actually getting quite redundant. An awful lot of people in my wider social group already know about asexuality. And the visibility will just grow naturally as we get more of us out of the closet, involved in asexual visibility and lgbt and such. We really need to ditch the visibility model. Like, yesterday, preferably.

    Comment by SlightlyMetaphysical — December 17, 2010 @ 1:43 am | Reply

    • I’m seeing more and more just… mentions of asexuality in culture, lately. Often they don’t actually go into asexual issues, or discuss how asexuality relates to whatever the topic is, but I see ourselves mentioned. Which… isn’t enough. Mentioning is fine, but now I want to see discussion.

      I mean, my Human Sexuality textbook mentioned asexuality. It even mentioned AVEN and told the reader where AVEN could be found. And it also defined asexuality as a lack of physical genitalia. Mentioning isn’t enough if you don’t also have accurate and useful information.

      Comment by Sciatrix — December 17, 2010 @ 1:51 pm | Reply

  2. My perspective on tone is greatly influenced by my previous experience in atheist activism. In atheist discourse, tone comes up far, far more often than it ever does in queer or asexual discourse. Seriously, the atheist blogosphere blows up about it every few months. After about five years of this, I feel a little jaded about the whole topic.

    Part of the reason it comes up so often is because tone is a major component of atheist stereotyping. Let’s take a moment to be grateful that in being a nuker/appeaser, you are neither confirming nor disconfirming any asexual stereotypes.

    Another big difference is atheist activists want to persuade people to atheism, while queer activists mostly want to persuade people to acceptance of queers. Censoring oneself may help queer activism, but ultimately the entire point is to have people accept you uncensored. Contrast with atheist activism, where the main point is that the supernatural doesn’t exist.

    For atheists, the de facto strategy is to allow different styles for different people (and then endlessly quibble about it). For better or for worse. This really seems to me like the natural state of things, and I think it’s odd that asexual activism isn’t like that. Where are all the asexuals inclined towards angrier styles? Are they biting their tongues? Why?

    (Note that I’m only discussing tone with respect to activist goals, and I’m leaving out discussion of the times when we want to get on with our lives instead of playing activist.)

    Comment by Siggy — December 17, 2010 @ 12:48 pm | Reply

    • Whereas my experience listening in on feminist and social-justice-mishmash activism types, mostly through fandom, has basically left me with a lot of contempt for being asked to moderate tone. And then I bring that back to the asexual community and go “…hang on.” Because it comes up fairly often in activism in general, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a critical analysis of the tone argument come up in a hugely asexual space. It’s very uncommon.

      Well, yeah, because we don’t actually have any stereotypes about asexual activism except possibly “whiny and making a big deal about nothing.” Which, hey, applies to atheists as well!

      Speaking for myself, as someone who is inclined towards angrier styles, when I so much as breathed irritably about people who were failing on AVEN I tended to get jumped on–even if I actually was heavily moderating my tone. AVEN is not asexual culture, but it does have a lot of influence on asexual culture, and it’s pretty common for people writing about asexuality and doing visibility work to have been heavily influenced by AVEN. So frankly, I think that the reason that asexuals inclined to angrier styles seem to be missing is that culture-wide buying into the tone argument and self-policing within asexual spaces by other asexuals. The atheism movement really does not seem to have that level of self-policing. The other reason I think angry asexuals tend to be very below the radar is that we’ve internalized a lot of this self-policing–especially since it seems to me that a lot of asexual people don’t have that much experience with any other kind of activism. Where I run into other asexuals who do have some experience with something like RaceFail or social justice culture, I tend to see anger as being more acceptable than I do from asexuals who mostly or only have experience with asexual activism.

      I do agree with you on the difference between atheism and queer activism with respect to tone stemming from the differences in goals, though. For atheists who are essentially attempting to spearhead an ideological change in culture, appearance and… mmm, friendliness are much more important than they are to forms of activism centered around acceptance. Because really, the point of activism for acceptance is to stop doing something–stop being offensive, stop furthering oppressive ideologies, whatever, and making it uncomfortable to keep doing that is actually just as good a way to achieve that goal as convincing people to stop more nicely. (And having both KINDS of convincing–carrot and the stick–works even better.) Whereas atheism activism with respect to trying to discourage belief in the supernatural is centered around trying to get people to do something for themselves and make personal decisions. One’s much more concerned about behavior than the other, and behavior is of course easier to modify than modes of thought.

      Comment by Sciatrix — December 17, 2010 @ 1:49 pm | Reply

  3. I also agree with much of what has been said. I’m on a vegan Livejournal community and there are often debates there about nukers vs. appeasers. And I’m betting the same thing happens in lots of other groups I’m not a part of. I believe most people are somewhere in the middle.

    Why aren’t people angrier? A weird theory I had: Looking at a poll on AVEN about Meyers-Briggs personality types, the vast majority of people who responded are only two types, INTP and INTJ. I think MBTI is silly, but my point is, people on AVEN are not diverse when it comes to personality types. And since AVEN is the hub of asexual discussion, that might be a factor.

    And of course asexuals internalize social mores, but in our case, maybe there’s not enough tangible community to overcome that yet. Most asexuals are still the only asexual they know. In that case, it’s easy to feel defeated instead of mad. I don’t think visibility and activism are either/or propositions.

    Another idea: We don’t have specific institutions to get mad at, like laws discriminating specifically against asexuals. If we did, it would probably be easier for people to get angry.

    A last idea from the psychological realm (okay, I stole it from the book “surplus powerlessness”, which I’ve blogged about): A lot of people are afraid to get angry, because they feel that once they start, they won’t be able to stop, and their anger will consume them, or they won’t be able to control it. Or something. I wish I owned a copy of that book.

    I hope that in time, we’ll get more of a blend of styles. I’ve been on the other side, as a gentle and hesitant anarchist who doesn’t deal well with change. Now that’s a group full of nukers if there ever was one. And a lot of people wearing black. 😛

    Comment by Ily — December 17, 2010 @ 11:45 pm | Reply

    • I do agree on most people being somewhere in the middle–it is a spectrum, after all. What I’m worried about is the fact that the ace spectrum seems disturbingly narrow.

      Ehhhh, I dunno about the MBTI thing. Among other things, all the descriptions for INTJ specify things like “does not suffer fools gladly.” I could buy a rather narrow diversity of personality types, but it doesn’t explain everything, and the personality types we DO see repeated a lot are often the sort that aren’t necessarily concerned with approval-seeking.

      I think part of it is also the fact that as I said, the most visible and tangible community actively discourages anger in activism and specifically promotes appeasing styles. So not only are we feeling alone and rather discouraged, but the community that most asexual people start out with is saying that we’d better be polite and approachable to get things done. (Interestingly, I think it’s much less of a factor with people who come to asexuality through Livejournal or Dreamwidth. And that has to do with community culture.)

      And we actually do have at least one specific institution to get mad at in the form of the DSM. (No, discomfort with a trait is not actually enough to make it into a mental disorder, but thanks for playing. Not to mention the fact that what-is-now Sexual Aversion Disorder applies to all repulsed aces, bothered by that fact or not.) So I don’t really buy that explanation either. Especially because the general asexual reaction to the DSM has been to put Andrew Hinderliter’s polite letter-writing campaign on it, rather than to start talking about it incessently and getting people loud and angry. Change from above via convincing the DSM, if you will, rather than change from below. And contrary to some of what I’ve heard regarding the DSM, HSDD is not getting modified to exclude asexuality. (It is getting modified, but in ways that don’t actually change the DSM relevance to asexuality.)

      I hope we get a blend of styles, too. I think that to have relevance as a social movement, we’re going to need all kinds of activism, and that means more diversity.

      Comment by Sciatrix — December 18, 2010 @ 8:45 am | Reply

      • Yeah, durr, I forgot about the DSM while I was writing that, which perhaps proves your point.

        –An INTJ who, indeed, does not suffer fools gladly

        Comment by Ily — December 18, 2010 @ 8:05 pm | Reply

  4. Incidentally, a few days after you posted this, I saw a thread on AVEN which demonstrated exactly the problem you’re talking about. A month-long member had decided to leave. In her farewell, she expressed her opinion that the majority of the board was not really asexual, just young and unwise. She also seemed to think that asexuality meant lacking gender.

    Everyone was wishing her luck on her way. I of all people expressed the harsher voice. Me! This is not a role I’m used to. It certainly never happens in the atheist community.

    Suddenly, I’m thinking about what spaces there are to discuss grievances with AVEN. I know there are alternative forums which were created for that purpose, but I haven’t seen many people talking specifically about it. I see complaints most often on blogs, but this is limited to only a few voices.

    Comment by Siggy — December 19, 2010 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

    • …Even secondhand, I’m imploding with rage at that. People were wishing her luck? What the actual fuck? I mean, how much ruder can you get? And you being the harsh voice–wow. That… wow.

      Offhand, I honestly don’t think I’ve seen AVEN critically discussed except on the blogs (there was a post with a lot of criticism and ranting in the comments here recently) and… complaints have been alluded to on KoST, and the most blatant example of that was me, anyway. Mostly it seems to be people on their own blogs talking to one another. And you’re absolutely right that voices are limited there–but then, none of the alternative fora are really unlimited in voice, either.

      Comment by Sciatrix — December 19, 2010 @ 6:17 pm | Reply

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