Writing From Factor X

April 10, 2011

Newsflash: There Are More Than Two Rules

So I’ve been seeing this list around lately that claims to explain the root of all unpleasantness around sexuality in mainstream culture with two simple rules:

  1. It is simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable for a woman to have sexual desire.
  2. It is simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable for a man to be sexually desired.

And you know, I see a lot of excitement around it! I keep seeing people exclaim that it totally explains everything! So it’s a pity that I think it’s horseshit.

I’m not going to go into much detail on the second point, the one about men, because I’m not male and don’t have much personal experience there. I will point out that all those super-masculine images of the Stud, who has All The Girls, is presumed to be sexy and handsome and at least attractive enough not to have to actually pay women to have sex with him. Seriously, you think women aren’t supposed to find Manly Men attractive? Really?

But you know, it’s the second contention–women aren’t allowed to express desire–that really amuses me. Because I’m a woman, and I don’t experience sexual attraction and therefore don’t exactly go around saying “mmm, you hot thing, I would totally like to sleep with you!” You’d think that society would be all over me as the Perfect Woman from that list!

And you’d be wrong.

Even before I was out as asexual, I was generally pretty open about not being interested in anyone. I didn’t go around proclaiming my asexuality, but when people asked me direct questions I answered truthfully. So I’d be asked whether I found specific boys attractive and I would say “no.” And instead of going “well done then!” and getting social brownie points as this little set of rules assumes would happen, I get suspicion. I am told that I am broken either in my body or my mind. I am told I must be lying. In short, the reactions I get for not expressing sexual desire for anyone are a far cry from accepting, let alone praising.

It’s funny how according to this, mainstream society finds it inconceivable for a woman to be different from me.

It is not okay within mainstream society for a woman to never express sexual desire. It is certainly not okay to be openly, loudly asexual, and it is damn well not the ideal for women to be asexual. Where do you think the term “frigid” comes from? Did you think it was a compliment?

I have a problem with the kinds of discussion I often see in sex-positive spaces, and things like this are an excellent example of why. I find that sex-positive spaces often set themselves in opposition to a presumed sex-negative mainstream, as if the nasty dynamics surrounding sexuality in mainstream were as simple as black and white. They’re really, really not.

For instance: women are supposed to have sexualities. Sexualities directed, I might add, specifically at men. They’re just not supposed to take charge of them or express them openly. Which is probably a large part of the reason that asexual women–I repeat, women who don’t express sexual desire for others because they don’t experience sexual attraction–come in for so much crap, because women who identify as asexual are already stepping out of the narrowly constricted boundaries for female sexual expression and owning their own sexualities.

The thing is, it would be one thing if all that came out of this depressing tendency to oversimplify the fucked-up attitudes that culture has to sex was that asexual people get to trip over works assuming that we’re what the mainstream wants and laugh until we choke. That would be obnoxious, but manageable and at least entertaining. But that’s not actually the worst of it.

See, if we’re being held up as “what the mainstream wants,” if people are hanging out in circles that espouse this kind of thinking, they’re likely to think of us as part of the problem. If the problem is that mainstream culture doesn’t like sex, then clearly people who also are not particularly interested in sex must be collaborators in oppression!

And that’s where I think most of the terrifying anger you see at asexuals in feminist and queer spaces–those most likely to identify as sex-positive–comes from. After all, if you’re dealing with a ton of crap about your sexuality and you’re being told it’s the fault of all those people who (gasp!) don’t like sex, of course you’re going to get angry when people stand up and claim to not experience sexual attraction and furthermore explain that this is not actually an enviable state of affairs.

It’s a pity that so much anger comes out of such a fundamental oversimplication of what Western culture really thinks people “should” do about sexuality.


  1. 1-2 are at very best gross oversimplifications. However as it happens I don’t think the frigid slur is necessarily inconsistent with 1. Actually in some ways they re-enforce each other. As in, “you don’t want it? Women aren’t suppose to want it anyway, but they’re supposed to just get on with it regardless.”

    Comment by flergalwit — April 10, 2011 @ 7:01 pm | Reply

    • You actually have a point there. Which is a whole new level of screwed up, really.

      On the other hand, if the point is that women aren’t supposed to want sex, why would not wanting sex be an insult per se? I think it makes way more sense to interpret that insult as “hey, you’re not having sex when I want to have sex with YOU–stop taking control of your own body!” Which is somewhat implied by the “supposed to just get on with it regardless” bit. Even trying to reinterpret the slur to match the rules takes you back to agency, not to desire itself.

      Comment by Sciatrix — April 10, 2011 @ 8:54 pm | Reply

  2. I haven’t had the chance to thoroughly look through the comments, but are they along the lines of that many unpleasantness/problems are the result of the pervasiveness of these incorrect assumptions? Because if so, I would agree.. somewhat..

    I myself have also heard the notion that asexuality is more acceptable in women by mainstream culture, and I have to honestly wonder where that idea come from, because as you suggest, it’s certainly not asexuality that is encouraged, but sexual chastity. Women are expected not to actively seek out sex, but if someone wants to have sex with a woman, the answer they want (the acceptable answer, because patriarchal society yada yada yada) isn’t “sorry, I’m not interested in anyone”

    But yes, being female myself, I agree with alot with what you say here. Whilst anybody who says they don’t express sexual/romantic desire get viewed with suspicion, I get the impression that females get a harder brunt with it, if mainstream culture and society is any indication.

    In any case, alot of problems boil down to the concept of women and choice. The problem is, I think many people forget that the choice to not have sex, as well as the choice to have sex, are two sides of the same coin which isn’t discussed thoroughly enough.

    Comment by Sy — April 10, 2011 @ 8:12 pm | Reply

    • Honestly, I don’t think it’s more or less acceptable for any gender to be ace, although I do think there are differences in how people attempt to discredit asexuality based on gender. The suspicion is constant, but the forms it takes change.

      And yes. Agency and choice are very important.

      Comment by Sciatrix — April 10, 2011 @ 11:37 pm | Reply

  3. Hi Sciatrix,

    First of all whenever I introduce the Two Rules trope I make sure I point out they’re bogus. Not just because they’re really, really common tropes in society (although they are) but also because it would be silly to treat them any more seriously than would, say, Murphy’s laws or the rule of threes.

    That said, flergalwit does get pretty close to the mark that Rule #1’s presumption that women should behave as if they don’t really desire sex masks the feelings of asexual women who actually really don’t want to have sex. Just one more reason the rules are bogus. And flergalwit is right that a too-common attitude is that if all other “proper” women are holding their noses and completing the “transaction” of transactional sex, then what makes you so special that you shouldn’t have to. Or, to echo an all-too-common accusation leveled against asexuals, that there must be something really wrong with you — hormones, genes, religion, a history of sexual abuse, pickiness, “just haven’t met the right girl/boy,” selfish, etc.

    As for Sy’s point, I agree with you, Sciatrix, that it’s as unacceptable for men to be asexual as it is for women. The main difference is that since men are never supposed to be asked (that would be Rule #2) they’re far less likely to be put in a situation where they have to explain that they’re, literally, not interested. But yeah, if I was going to add another rule to the list of bogosities it would be #3: It is simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable for anyone to be healthy and asexual.

    Finally, I agree that “sex positive” is often used pretty casually or outright abused to mean “maximum sex.” But speaking for myself on my blog and in other venues both online and in real life, I’ve always been adamant that, to the extent “sex positive” really meant acceptance of any kind of sexuality, it should bloody well mean acceptance for the full spectrum of asexuality. Going one step further I strongly believe that recognition of asexuality is a benchmark for assessing whether someone’s authentically sex-positive.


    Comment by figleaf — April 11, 2011 @ 3:56 am | Reply

    • See, that’s the thing–I’m not interpreting them as real things, I’m criticizing them as an oversimplification of what the culture actually does. In other words, I’m not arguing whether the trope is real, I’m arguing that either the rule misunderstands the trope or that the trope exists alongside contradicting oppressive tropes about women and sexuality.

      I’m not actually convinced that women are supposed to act as if they don’t want sex, and that’s the root of my problem with this rule. Because not wanting sex and acting in line with that is no more supported than wanting sex and taking action to make that happen, I think that the actual trope is not that women are not supposed to desire, but that women are not supposed to have sexual agency. That women are meant to be blank slates for whatever men want to project onto them–which is not the same thing as saying that women do not have sexual desire.

      Also, most of the “there must be something wrong with you” accusations I see center around not asexuals’ lack of willingness to have sex but their lack of ability to experience sexual attraction (and/or their libido or lack thereof). Hormones, for instance, make absolutely no difference as to whether or not a woman will actually have sex, only whether she experiences sexual desire. Ditto genes, ditto pickiness, ditto haven’t met the right person yet. Of your examples, only abuse and religion strike me as having nothing to do with wanting to have sex and everything to do with actually having it. Since I’ve seen those accusations directed at asexual women specifically and at asexuals more generally, I am rather doubtful that they can be traced back to “you’re too stuck-up to have sex you don’t want like a good woman should.”

      The thing is, tracing everything back to those requires that you use a lot of rather convoluted logic on some things. If there’s that much resentment towards the idea that women are not sexual beings from women and men, is this trope really that pervasive? How does this square with old rape-culture chestnuts like “she really wanted it, even though she said no?”

      Adding “it’s simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable for anyone to be healthy and asexual” as a rule either conflicts directly with rule 1 or else it redefines women as not anyone, because asexuality is in large part defined by not experiencing sexual desire for anyone.

      Thank you for the commentary on asexuality in the sex-positive community and the point about trying to make sex-positive spaces welcome for asexuals. I have to say, I’ve been burned often enough by people who identify as sex-positive that I generally don’t trust “sex positive” to mean “asexual friendly” outside of, paradoxically enough, the asexuality community (where there is actually a lot of pressure to identify publicly as sex positive). It’s good to know that there are people working within the sex-positive community to make it more welcoming to asexuals.

      Given that I’ve often seen sex-positive people claim that asexuals are being brainwashed by oppressive paradigms–especially asexual women–and that’s why we’re asexual, I have to say that I think that framing those two rules in that way without explicit clarification is not ace-friendly. It’s far too easy for people who are not accepting of asexuality to read that in a way that reinforces their negative views of female asexuals.

      Comment by Sciatrix — April 11, 2011 @ 1:54 pm | Reply

    • Sciatrix above me took the words right out of my mouth (text right out of my hands?). People don’t call asexual women broken, sick, unnatural, impossible, etc. because we don’t have sex (yes, I know, some of us do), but because we don’t want it. We tend to get hit with these things immediately when we say we don’t want sex, not if/when we say we don’t have it. Even an asexual woman who *has* sex will get these comments. Sexual women who are celibate do get some stigma from that (particularly if it’s long term), but from what I’ve seen, it’s not the same stigma attached to not wanting sex. Certainty there are overlaps (“you’re just too pathetic to get a man!”), but sexual celibate woman don’t get regularly accused of being physically or mentally ill, for instance. Or non existent. Or fundamentally broken and inhuman.

      I’ve been a lurker/occasional commenter in the asexual community for a number of years now, and I try to keep an ear to the ground in terms of outsiders’ reactions to asexuality. The overwhelming portion of the negative reactions are about desire, not actual sexual activity. In fact, I had to think for a moment to even recall an instance where women were criticized for not having sex they didn’t want, and none of the examples I can remember even mentioned asexuality. They were all about straight women who didn’t have much sex with their husbands or boyfriends.

      So no, I don’t think those two rules are accurate, and I think they can be very dismissive of asexuals’ experiences. Believe me, if women were socially valued for not desiring sex, I’d have a much easier time of things!

      Comment by Miriel — April 12, 2011 @ 4:50 pm | Reply

  4. Ok, so I agree with you about the two rules being a very oversimplistic expression of the varied sexual performances heteronormativity expects us to make. I agree about the stupid arguments between ‘America is a sex-negative society, it hates me for being too sexual’ and ‘America is a sex-overenthusiastic society, it hates me for being not sexual enough’ just needing to stop happening.

    But do you have to take on one of my favourite non-asexual SJ bloggers on my FIRST DAY of enforced lack of internet? Sometimes I think you do it just to vex me, Sci. ;D

    Comment by SlightlyMetaphysical — April 11, 2011 @ 9:38 am | Reply

  5. All I can think when I read those rules is that whoever wrote them must have never read a book, watched a TV show, or actually talked with another human being.

    Even in older media men have certainly been portrayed as sexually desirable; I agree that it’s all about controlling women’s sexuality. Women that openly lust or don’t desire the ring & marriage bed are portrayed as villainesses, morally comprimised. The celibate girlfriend or love interest is not portrayed as lacking sexual desire or interest; she is simply a good woman and thus is not sexually active before marriage.

    Society plays it’s double standards; as much as it has pretended that women are passive and have no capability of “baser” desires for sex, it also turns around and portrays women as animalistic, in need of male guardianship and control to keep her in line and to guard her chastity and morality.

    Truly I have seen little real evidence that anyone has ever found it intolerable to believe women capable of sexual desire. What I have seen is society twisting and turning every which way to control women. They are foolish/cunning, weak/capable of destroying men if not controlled, asexual/animalistically sexual, innocent/prone to wickedness. Throughout history the people in power (men) have made up whatever they wanted to about women to justify controlling them.

    Comment by Lasciel — April 15, 2011 @ 4:29 am | Reply

    • Lasciel, your comment really, really annoyed me. I’m trying to figure out why, because it was well-written and no part of it was disagreeable.

      I think it’s because your view of gender stereotyping seems so singularly against women. You don’t seem to recognise that society does EXACTLY THE SAME to men- portraying them simultaniously as logical and emotionless, animalistic and lustful. All these contradictions are used to keep everyone where they ‘should be’ (including keeping men controlling women), and your analysis that they exist only to control women troubles me.

      Having said that, I admire your viewpoint for not falling into the ‘society is too anti-sex’ or ‘society is too pro-sex’ camps, and realising that there’s actually a tremendous and contradictory amount of pressure for both.

      Comment by SlightlyMetaphysical — April 15, 2011 @ 4:59 am | Reply

      • I recognize it plenty, and I definitely agree that it’s a double-edged sword. However, I find it a bit like the argument that homophobia hurts heterosexuals as well. Sure, homophobia and a heteronormative culture negatively affects straight people-but the ones who are affected far more are queer people. As a result of spreading the belief that women were weak, in need of controlling, foolish, and stupid, and making sure they stayed in nurturing, passive roles, men made any trait associated with females a negative one. I can’t feel too sorry for men because they made women so loathable that they unintentionally created restrictions on their own behavior. Men may face negative consequences due to society’s misogyny, but like the heterosexual, the problems are almost non-existent in comparison. It’s not that I think neither are a problem; it’s rather that the male & the heterosexual’s suffering is a secondary symptom that will be eliminated by solving the primary disease (homophobia & misogyny).

        Thanks; things are rarely ever black and white but people seem to like trying to fit things into one category or the other without thinking about what ornery, contradictory humans we are 🙂 (and sorry if I’m still annoying in this comment)

        Comment by Lasciel — April 16, 2011 @ 1:56 am | Reply

        • I’m wary of this going massively off-topic from the original post, but I think we’re largely in agreement. I’ve always thought, however, that tackling misandry which leads men to fulfil certain roles is the crucial element in tackling mysogony, and, to a lesser extent, ending heteronormativity will end homophobia, wheras you seem to see it the other way round. Which is ok, because we need a lot of people doing a lot of both.

          You seem to treat ‘men’ as a social class, and not as individuals. For example, one could say “I can’t feel too sorry for women because Eve ate the forbidden fruit and doomed us all to sin,” but, even if you believed it, that wouldn’t tell you anything about all the people who are currently in the class of ‘women’.

          Comment by SlightlyMetaphysical — April 16, 2011 @ 4:23 am | Reply

  6. […] free” card. That’d be swell, but it’s a fantasy. Sciatrix wrote about this in a way back in April, and the point remains – even if you fit into the “category that society […]

    Pingback by Privilege Denying Asexuals… « Charlie the Unicorn, Ace Detective — June 1, 2011 @ 8:49 pm | Reply

  7. […] The problem with this idea becomes obvious when you look at some examples. The idea that women experience slut-shaming and men experience the opposite, for example. Do you agree with this idea? I don’t have any concrete examples of men being shamed for having too much sex (not in ways which don’t combine with things like poly- and homophobia and prejudice against sex workers and such), but do you think that the constant repetition of this idea, that oppression and stereotyping is simple and gendered, helps them at all? And on the other end of the spectrum, the idea that it’s impossible for a woman to feel anything other than slut-shamed in our society, that women can’t feel pressure to be sexual, I think the best thing for me to do would be to link to the words of an asexual woman who laughs bitterly at your hypothesis. […]

    Pingback by Life’s complicated, part II: Gender « asexual curiosities — September 6, 2011 @ 9:21 am | Reply

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