Writing From Factor X

January 31, 2011

On Being Incapable of Love

This post was originally written for the Spectral Amoebas blog carnival.

I found out about autism when I was twelve years old–young enough to be impressionable, old enough for my life to change. Old enough to go out and do my own research. I promptly started reading everything about autism and more specifically Asperger’s Syndrome that I could. Not that there was much, particularly much that dealt with teenagers instead of children or autistic girls of any age, but I went through everything I could find anyway. In retrospect, that was a recipe for disaster.

See, I kept running into NT stereotypes that claimed that autistic people had a hard time loving others, or caring about them, or expressing love if it was there at all. I even ran into a bunch of people who appeared to be conflating autism with sociopathy and who variously claimed autistic people couldn’t connect to otthers, or didn’t want to, or simply didn’t have “higher emotions” to begin with.

This struck me as a bit strange, because I am not a person who has any difficulty feeling strong emotion. On the contrary: I sometimes have difficulty because of my strength of feeling. I can’t bear to see someone embarrassed or two people arguing. I used to have to flee the room because I couldn’t handle the fear or anxiety I was getting off the characters on a movie screen, and I was supposed to be incapable of strong emotions? Does not compute.

And of course I kept seeing the comparisons to robots, to hyper-logical characters, the stereotypes of being really good at analysis but incapable of feeling anything emotional. Guys, I’m good at analysis and I’m not necessarily great at emotional processing, I usually need either help or a ton of time to analyze emotions when they confuse me–but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

But to continue the story, I kept reading. I started interacting with specifically autistic communities. I got an account at WrongPlanet and started posting on the forums. And I began to absorb the idea that to be autistic, I had to be hyperrational and low on feeling. Besides, I liked the idea that I could be cold and rational all the time. I was getting bullied in some pretty unpleasant ways at the time, and it felt pretty good to pretend that the insults I was getting didn’t bug me, that I couldn’t feel hurt at all.

I turned fourteen. Somewhere in there, I found out about asexuality and about being aromantic, and started sort-of identifying myself as both. Not that I, you know, told anyone about it or spent much time in asexual spaces–I basically ignored that aspect of my identity for a long time, unless someone asked me directly about it. I was focusing on other things, and it didn’t seem important then; after all, I was fourteen and none of my friends were dating anyway.

When I was fifteen I moved. I took some time away from WrongPlanet and I spent most of the rest of high school focusing on other things. I was pretty isolated throughout high school, so I spent a lot of time online or reading books. And all the introspection started making me question the “triumph” of logic over emotion. I certainly started questioning the idea that I was necessarily all that logical. It’s hard to think of yourself as a hyperrational data junkie when you’re freaking out because your routine got destroyed, for instance. With that came disbelief in the “emotionless” paradigm. I was isolated, as I said; well, as I got older I started realizing that not having any close meatspace friends really sucks for me. I need people to care about.

I developed a violent distaste for being told I was cold, robotic, emotionless, or any combination of those things. I started getting particularly upset about the idea that I didn’t care about people, because I do. I care strongly about people, as a matter of fact. And I started getting angry about seeing all those stereotypes applied to me. I’m not a goddamn robot.

Then I went to college and started interacting with people again. I got reminded of why I had an identity to begin with, because I was surrounded by people who weren’t like me at all, and interacting with them made me feel isolated again. Suddenly being on the spectrum mattered, but asexuality really mattered now. I was so different from my friends that I started craving the company of other asexuals just to remind myself that I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t a freak, I wasn’t the only one out there. (I was one of the unbelievably lucky ones; I knew there was a community and I even knew where to find it.) So I came back to AVEN and started talking about being asexual again. And I started talking about being aromantic.

Imagine my frustration when I started hitting stereotypes on AVEN about aromantics being–you guessed it!–emotionless, cold, and devoid of strong emotions for others. I remember threads where posters asked shamelessly whether or not aromantics loved others, whether aromantics were heartless. Aromantic sexuals, where they came up, were almost always discussed as completely feelingless people who knowingly used and manipulated people for sex.

I started to get angry.

I looked at the media and noted that where portrayals of aromantic asexuals existed, they tended to be coded inhuman, alien, and most of all emotionless. Where portrayals of asexuals who cared about other people popped up, they tended invariably to be romantics. I won’t even begin to discuss autistic media portrayals here; they tended if anything to be worse.

I got angrier. And I am still angry.

I am not emotionless. I am not cold. I am not robotic. I am human, I feel things, I care about people. And I am so, so tired of other people trying to take that away from me.

Spectral Amoebas Guest Post

Filed under: Spectral Amoebas — Sciatrix @ 7:05 am
Tags: , , , ,

This is a post submitted for the Spectral Amoebas carnival for which the writer wished to remain anonymous. It is therefore being hosted here according to the writer’s request.

by Anonymous

If I was forced to make a guess about someone’s sexual orientation, knowing nothing more than that they were born the same year and in the same country I was, with the same number of X chromosomes as me, I would guess that that person was heterosexual. Statistically, the rates of heterosexuality are quite high, and with no other information than basic demographic categories I would be most inclined to make such a guess.

Perhaps, given more information about this person’s life, I could make my guess more informed. If I knew that the person in question was in a romantic relationship with someone of the opposite sex, I would at least be relatively confident that they were neither homosexual nor asexual (though I’d be at a loss as to how to determine whether they were strictly heterosexual rather than bisexual). Even if I didn’t have access to that sort of information, I might be able to weed out some possibilities.

On the other hand, knowing that the person in question had not been in a romantic relationship with someone of the opposite sex wouldn’t necessarily help me either. Unfortunately for budding investigators, describing sexual orientation is not simply a question of “the more information, the better”. Plenty of facts about some arbitrary person’s life—the length of their hair, their favorite kind of food, their native language—don’t provide useful information as to their sexual identity.

The ultimate case of inconclusivity is my self-non-identification. I have far more access to my own mental states, desires, and feelings than anyone else does, but I cannot categorize myself as a-, bi-, hetero-, homo-, or any other kind of -sexual. Nor can I rule any of them out; unlike my hypothetical counterpart from paragraph two, I have no history of romantic relationships or sexual activity that make me inclined to eliminate some categories from consideration. (At one point, aged thirteen, I thought I might have had a crush of some sort; this was, in retrospect, a desire to develop a closer relationship with someone of the opposite sex but did not feature any desire for physical contact of any sort. Happily, we did indeed become closer friends later down the line, an arrangement with which I remain quite satisfied.)

Thus, I have no more reason to believe I am hetero- than homo- or bisexual, other than statistical extrapolation. However, I don’t self-identify as asexual either, and I believe that my reluctance to make any claim in this manner is in some sense a function of my Asperger’s Syndrome. In particular, linguistic pedantry, physical epistemology, and a broader pattern of social non-involvement impede the process of labeling myself.

I should disclaim that, for one thing, it’s already risky to attribute these features of my mind to Asperger’s Syndrome; I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and my mind is in some sense a unit, so I can’t really weed out “what’s due to Asperger’s and what isn’t”. Nevertheless, particularly in the latter cases, I get the feeling my experience is sufficiently atypical to assume that Asperger’s is at work.

Let’s start with the first; I am relatively sensitive to specific meanings of words. When asked, say, “Do you need to stop for ice cream?” I usually respond “No”—I don’t need to, and don’t follow it up. (Sometimes, it sounds really good, and I’ll rephrase the answer as “Ice cream sounds good” or “I’d want to pick some up, yeah.”) So while I’m able to function day-to-day, even if I’m inwardly taking things unusually literally, I wouldn’t want to adopt a label for myself unless I was highly confident it really described me. I put a premium on exact correctness. Which brings me to the second problem: how could I know if I was asexual?

I am unusually bad at analyzing the inner workings of my body, unable to recognize things that others take for granted. Like most people, once I eat a lot of food, I feel full; not only does my stomach react in a certain way, characteristic of having eaten a lot of food, but my brain recognizes this reaction and identifies it as “the feeling of fullness”. This identification wasn’t something I was taught to recognize; it simply came “built in,” like it does for most other people.

Similarly, I assume that if I go a long time without eating, my stomach reacts in a characteristic way, similar to the behavior of other people’s stomachs. Other people’s brains recognize this situation and identify it as “the feeling of hunger” which came “built in” to theirbrains. Mine, however, does not. I eat meals at relatively consistent times each day and stay relatively healthy as a result, so once again there’s no significant impact on my life, but I don’t have the mental information to recognize hunger. Likewise, I’ve always been able to recognize the pain I feel from stubbing my toe, but only recently developed the ability to identify a “sore throat.”

Thus, by comparing my experience to neurotypicals’, I know there are some types of signals from my body I’m good at recognizing and some that I’m bad at, and there’s no clear-cut way to determine which type of signals are which. In particular, I cannot decide whether a lack of perceived sexual and romantic desire is,

a) like my perceived lack of hunger, a faulty perception due to processing atypicality caused by Asperger’s Syndrome (I might well be hetero-/homo-/bisexual and have experienced sexual desire, but didn’t know it)
b) a true lack of desire, due to asexuality
or c) a true lack of desire, due to not having met the right people to spark such desire

nor, bar the right people coming along to stimulate such desire, do I expect to ever have the information to make such a decision. Someone more willing to cut corners might say “Look, once you’ve reached the age of X or so, you’ll have probably met N people along the way, and if none of them have stimulated such desire, C really can’t be the case.” But this comes back to the pedantry issue, because this sort of argument is unsatisfying to me. I’m quite a “stickler”, preferring arguments as rigorous as possible to such generalizations. In the end, although asexuality seems as if not more plausible than any other sexual identity for me, I don’t have a compelling reason to use such terminology when describing myself.

I don’t know how many other people on the autism spectrum have similar experiences, because autism can take so many forms. What I do know, however, is that many people on the autism spectrum are relatively strong in some areas and weak in others. Our strengths might be different—I’m a good mathematician but another autistic person might far outshine me in mental arithmetic, a third might be a fantastic visual artist (I am not). When there’s a subject we know a lot about, many of us can spout off fact after fact, reflecting rather consuming passions rather than lower degrees of interest—for someone it’s train schedules, for someone else it’s dinosaurs, for another sports statistics, for a fourth, astronomy.

But our weaknesses are relatively similar—most of us have difficulty interacting in social situations, are unsure how to behave alongside others, and tend not to develop the same kinds of relationships as others in the same ways they do. Like any other person, those of us on the autism spectrum have our own patterns of strengths and weaknesses—but there are some broader commonalities for autistic individuals.

In August 2008, the asexy beast blog defined “mountainsexual” as “people who may or may not actually be asexual, but they have an interest that is so all-consuming that sex becomes irrelevant.” From my place on the autism spectrum, I know all about having all-consuming interests and not placing much relevance in common social interactions. In my case, however, it’s not a function of the first crowding the second, but both springing from my underlying neurology, and I’d be willing to bet that there are many other people on the autism spectrum in the same boat. In particular, if my lack of interest in pursing a sexual or romantic relationship to date is in fact unusual, I’d rather attribute it to Asperger’s Syndrome than to some particular sexual identity. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think it’s possible that there are plenty of people on the autism spectrum who don’t know—or particularly care—whether they’re asexual or not.

January 25, 2011


Filed under: Signal Boost — Sciatrix @ 7:29 pm
Tags: ,

Because really, there have been some wonderful and often heartbreaking pieces written about asexuality lately, and more people should read them.

From Swankivy: Asexuality is Not Antisexuality

What sexual people need to understand about asexuals is that we are not against sex and that we do not wish to be perceived as being “better than you.”

From Capncosmo: On The Elusive Asexual Oppression and Visibility

You guys, I don’t think we should let hypothetical death threats that may or may not materialize scare us into being willing to live with the nightmares, or the regrets, or the silence, or the lies.

From Elizabeth-Hoot: The X Factor

I was what I was. I wanted what I was to be acceptable. I wanted to be me, with my books and my cat and the piano, without being the embarrassing bachelor uncle – or, more appropriately, the eccentric spinster aunt. My “condition” – if that’s what it was – didn’t distress me in and of itself. Feeling my experience of life constantly erased, dictated to me by people who didn’t share it, feeling myself an aberration of nature – those distressed me.

College Women Speak: None of the Above

I think sexual liberation needs to be about the freedom for all individuals to make their own choices about how, when, and with whom they want to have sex, without fear of stigmatization or their choices being seen as a personal failure. Even if their choice is “none of the above”.

From Asexual Cupcake: Asexuality, Oppression, and Placement

As for the argument that asexuals may suffer from oppression, but not systematic oppression, which is somehow the only important kind? I remind you that many of the problems and discrimination asexuals face is from society as a whole, and from other people. Social oppression is a form of systematic oppression.

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.

January 17, 2011

Saying The Words

Filed under: Coming Out,Visibility — Sciatrix @ 1:26 pm
Tags: , , ,

I have noticed that it is easier to talk about asexuality if I avoid the word “asexuality” in my daily life. I’d like to consider why here. (And it’s even easier to try desperately to pass for a straight person who’s just mysteriously not interested in anyone that way, which is an extension of what I’m talking about here.) If I am quiet, and act vaguely ashamed or pretend not to have thought about it, pretend to simply have been too busy to have the time to notice anyone, things get a little easier.

That is, people seem to understand better–or at least be more polite–if I say “I’m really not interested in dating anyone” than they do if I say “I identify as asexual because X.” They’re also a lot less likely to be dismissive if I don’t take on the mantle of asexuality, if I pretend that my sexual orientation is an individual quirk and not a thing that other people have.

I don’t think that this is coincidental. I think it’s an extension of the way that people react when asexuals begin to talk about asexual issues in spaces that aren’t ace-designated, in fact–the first reaction, always, is to start dismissing.

Claiming an asexual identity is a shot across the bows: it means that I have just said that I don’t intend to be dismissed. And more, it means that I have just said that I don’t think that I am experiencing a phase, or a temporary aberration from the norm (for this is my norm) or some form of disability.

So let me talk about why I use the words “aromantic asexual” to describe myself, why I try to label myself where I can even though that makes my life more difficult than it would otherwise be. Let me explain the reason I cling to public labels as well as private ones.

When I own the word “asexual” to describe us, I tap into a community. I name myself, and in doing so I reify my orientation; I assert that I am not alone, and that people like me are common enough to justify a word all our own. I become that much more difficult to ignore.

I think some people find that threatening. Actually, scratch that, I know people find that threatening. Because it’s so much easier to be dismissive when it’s only a single person, floating by like a twig in the river of heteronormative, mainstream society. It’s harder to be dismissive about a whole clump of twigs creating a dam, which might eventually direct the river in a new direction. The dam has power in a way that the twig doesn’t.

This is, incidentally, a reason that I get really excited by coming-out scenes in media. (Yeah, I’ve only seen two of them so far. That doesn’t mean I don’t love that they exist.) Way more excited than I do about asexuals in the media who are just “known” to be asexual, whose sexuality is treated as a personal quirk. Because I can see the twigs building when people come out in a way that I can’t when the quirky ones pretend it’s a personal idiosyncrasy. I have seen some people talk about how they wouldn’t like to see characters getting up and shouting about their orientations, and I feel very differently.

I want to make it clear that all of this is an explanation for me, and for me alone–I won’t try to tell anyone else how to navigate the personal calculus of their own lives. But for me, I find power in publicly claiming an asexual identity. I think it does good things for the world. And I continue saying the words.

January 8, 2011

Planning For The Long Term

One of the things that always keeps me up at night is thinking about the long term. Thinking about family, about my relationships, about whether people will take their relationships with me as seriously as I take them. Or whether, instead, my friends with gradually pair off and develop “more important” relationships and leave me permanently alone. It hasn’t happened yet, but then I’m a college student. I’m only twenty years old, and I know that I won’t be living close to most of my meatspace friends two years from now; we’re all ambitious enough to jettison our lives here for the shot at a career studying the things we collectively love, and I might end up in a program near one of theirs but I’m not betting on it. Which sucks.

I plan to be single, in fact. No, actually, it’s more complex than that–I plan to be without zucchini as well. I’m a cynic and I plan for the worst case and for me, that is the worst case, but… I suspect it to also be the most likely.

Romantic relationships are always more important than friendships; friendships get devalued and are almost inherently defined as “less-than.” And of course the weird relationships I do want–the friendship that is understood not to end as soon as something more important comes along, the person-I-love-who-becomes-family, the blurred lines–I don’t even have real words for those, they’re so invisible that there’s nothing in the whole language to describe them at all.

I suspect that much of the value that gets placed on specifically romantic relationships rather than friendships is that romantic relationships are assumed to be a prelude to developing a family. The ways in which different kinds of relationships get devalued seems to relate to the “realness” of the families which might result from them–monogamous queer relationships get devalued because of not being able to produce biological children, for example, and friendships and non-monogamous relationships get devalued because of not being nuclear and easily defined. The definition between family and not-family is supposedly absolute, easily understood, with no crossing-over; relationships which do not have the possibility of becoming family are assumed to be inherently lesser at best, and entirely temporary at worst. Or both.

And for me, this is nonsense. There’s more kinds of families than the two-adults-and-children sort. What happened to extended families, for example? Why is this one, constricting model so annoyingly pervasive?

I want a friendship that is taken just as seriously as this culture takes romantic relationships. Or multiple friendships, which would be even better. I want a family of my own, without having to lie to myself or a partner to do it. I want consistency in my life. Ideally, I’d want to live in the same house as someone I cared about; I’ve been living alone for the past six months and it is not my ideal situation. I want someone to share my life with and someone to care about and who cares about me, who is understood to be sticking around and not going to drop me for a real relationship as soon as that comes along. I don’t particularly care about exclusivity, but I care about committedness.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find that kind of a relationship, because so few people are looking for one. Which means that it will be far more difficult for me to form the kind of family I’m looking for. There’s another traditional route to starting a family, though: there’s always children. (Assuming I want or consider myself to be a fit parent, which is an entirely different conversation to have.)

One of the big reasons I personally get worked up about better maternity policies and more parent-friendly workplaces, in fact, is that without such policies it’s nigh impossible for me to have children, because I plan to be single in the long term. The fact that I cynically think that the hell I don’t believe in will freeze over before America institutes enough social policies to make such a situation truly workable means that when I plan for my future, I don’t include children–while not even taking into the consideration the broader question of whether I want to have them. (The answer is a resounding maybe, anyway.) And so romantic relationships, in this culture, are almost necessary to having a family in that respect as well.

I’d like a family, eventually. I don’t plan for one, because like I said, I’m cynical. But I hope anyway.

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