Writing From Factor X

July 18, 2011

Asexuality Was My Sex Ed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. I actually wanted to take this class while I was at UGA but I could never fit the pre-req into my schedule. But now I’m kind of glad that I couldn’t. I don’t think that the clicker questions would have bothered me that much, but the in-class activity listing desireable qualities… I think that would’ve been walk-out-of-class horrible. Or I would’ve melted at my desk from sheer terror. So it’s nice to think that the things I talk about just out of sheer interest with people on WordPress and Tumblr and Dreamwidth are a good substitute for study (at least for that particular class).

    I do remember the Red & Black published an editorial from someone saying, “How DARE students look away from porn shown in this class? They should be totally comfortable with all material and pay complete attention because they signed up for the class!” which did not exactly give me the impression that the class would be a welcoming environment. (The next day there were several editorials criticizing that position, at least.)

    It’s so strange to me that the professor couldn’t come up with “homosexual heteroromantic.” I mean, that seems like a very clear pattern. She’s sexually attracted to women but romantically attracted to men. There’s probably something to be said for how long I’ve been surrounded by ace discourse that I can’t figure out why that seems confusing to other people. 😉 I mean, uncommon, perhaps odd if they’re judgmental, but “most confusing”?

    Also considering I would actually appreciate having “no sexual organs of any kind” (although I imagine there might be some unmentioned physiological side effects to that, but I got a B in biology for not-science-people) … I don’t know, somehow that just makes the textbook confusion even more eye-rolling. And just, don’t textbooks have fact-checkers? Doesn’t someone read these things over? *shakes head*

    It is an intriguing idea that some day the stuff that’s so easily talked about in ace communities could be a common conception of sexuality. That things discussed on the internet and between people could infiltrate academia to that degree, I guess. Especially since most of academia seems so very removed from ace continuum right now, as your textbook shows. Although I can easily imagine you on a list of influential asexual writers.

    Considering the stuff about having ace programs at conferences and getting an ace conference together has been on my dash recently, too, this is giving me Ideas, although I’d be totally unqualified to execute any of them.

    Comment by ace eccentric — July 19, 2011 @ 1:15 am | Reply

    • Technically the in-class activity was my Psychology of Women course, which recycled a lot of the same material–I should probably have mentioned that. (On the other hand, it was an activity for a class with the same professor that was still on the sexual orientation module for that course, so I don’t feel too bad about including that story.) And yeah, I think this incident ranks as hands-down my least favorite coming out experience ever. And yet it was not the episode in that class that actually induced a minor panic attack in the middle of class! I have had some shitty experiences with asexual erasure in psychology courses, let me tell you.

      ….I did not see that editorial. I am suddenly especially grateful that I do not read the Red & Black. (Also, I totally did not look too hard at the porn in class–which was still sketches of people having sex in various positions, not actual video porn–and in fact ended up spending large portions of that class surfing the Internet and paying peripheral attention to what was going on. WHOOPS. To be fair, I tend to do that in most of my psychology courses.)

      I guess without the background it didn’t seem like an obvious distinction to make? I do think that compartmentalizing orientation into several related-but-discrete kinds of orientation is something I rarely see outside of asexual spaces, and if you’ve never encountered that way of doing things it must be pretty difficult to come up with it from scratch.

      Being asked about the state of my genitals or my gender identity is actually not an uncommon reaction for me when I come out, so I tend to get fairly aggravated about that particular mis-definition because I get hit with it a lot and for me, it’s wrong. I’m cisgender, and while I don’t mind being asked to clarify it does aggravate me when people immediately think I’m talking about my gender identity when I come out about my sexual orientation.

      The thing that got me about the textbook is that apparently whoever wrote it couldn’t be arsed to read the website–or, frankly, the paper they were citing. I mean, sexual orientation is right there in the keywords! Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy work. Did no one review this thing before it was published?

      I would kill to see some of the common ways that asexuals discuss sexuality and sexual orientation filter into more not-specifically-asexual spaces. I think they could be pretty helpful to a lot of different people, ace and non-ace alike. And thank you for the compliment! I’m honestly not planning to touch academic writing on asexuality myself–I’m mostly interested in the activism side of things and have settled on quite a different topic for my actual academic aspirations–but I’m glad that people like Andrew Hinderliter and the Asexual Sexologist are engaged with working on that side of things.

      I was batting around ideas for an asexual conference, but I don’t think I’m at all qualified to set that up myself, unfortunately. I do like the idea of centering it shortly before a major Pride event so as to get as many asexuals into one place to start with that I saw mentioned, though.

      Comment by Sciatrix — July 19, 2011 @ 10:15 pm | Reply

      • Ahh, I see. Well, that would probably be my least-favorite coming out experience too if I had to go through it. From what you’ve said here and before, and from what I’ve heard from other people, it seems like psychology has a lot of stomping-on-asexuality moments. Hopefully the efforts of psychology-minded ace continuum people (or people friendly to us) will start to turn that around.

        I can’t remember when it was published. But let’s just say that that’s the typical caliber of editorials. I remember once some guy was ranting about feminists based on an ‘interview’ of two Women’s Studies majors, and the next day they had an editorial saying that they’d never said any of that to him and he’d lied. Stellar journalism! (I had wondered how useful commercial porn could possibly be, but figured that porn was the subject of study that day. Lol, I had a lot of classes that ended up with me absolutely not paying attention.)

        I guess once you’ve gotten used to thinking a certain way it’s hard to remember that other people have never heard of the way that you think. Also I’ve never really engaged with discussions about sexuality in spaces that aren’t using our compartmentalization techniques.

        I haven’t come out that often, but that is one response I’ve never gotten. Which is odd, considering that I might actually confirm some stereotypes (I think there is one asexual bingo card with “all asexuals are genderless” on there). I suppose if I ever start coming out more often I’ll run across that response at some point. I really don’t understand the conflation of sexuality with gender, but maybe that’s because I’ve known about trans* people for a long time at this point. I do know that I could never understand why anyone would ask anyone else about their genitals outside the context of “we’re talking about possibly having sex” or being in that kind of a doctor’s office. It’s so unbelievably rude.

        Considering how many errors get by in printed news… I’m guessing that any editors of the material didn’t care enough to check it out thoroughly. That’s not exactly a typo that you just reflexively gloss over as you read.

        I would kill to see some of the common ways that asexuals discuss sexuality and sexual orientation filter into more not-specifically-asexual spaces. I think they could be pretty helpful to a lot of different people, ace and non-ace alike. And thank you for the compliment! I’m honestly not planning to touch academic writing on asexuality myself–I’m mostly interested in the activism side of things and have settled on quite a different topic for my actual academic aspirations–but I’m glad that people like Andrew Hinderliter and the Asexual Sexologist are engaged with working on that side of things.

        I think they could be helpful. I’ve already seen them start to seep into Queer Secrets posts from people who aren’t asexual. And it’d be interesting to see how much more diversity there is in experience than we can tell right now. Academic writing is important, yeah, and I’m glad they’re doing that — but I also think that non-academic writing is going to become important for people to reference. I mean, one day the post and comment inventing the word zucchini may be immortalized in a research paper.

        I feel like I could help with one but I wouldn’t be able to do much to set it up. Having it near a Pride event would be nice. Given the nature of travel and the online nature of ace communities, I think it would be nice, if there ever was one, to stream as much of it as possible and to put videos up (with good captions, maybe in multiple languages if we could find volunteers) for those who couldn’t attend.

        Comment by ace eccentric — July 20, 2011 @ 8:04 pm | Reply

  2. I wonder if we’re officially the ‘experts’ in sexuality models now.

    “Is the person you are most attracted to the same race/level of education as you?”
    I find it difficult to believe that asexuals would be the only people who would struggle to answer this with a yes or no. For a start, there’s the dodginess of being able to decide who you’re most attracted to. Even in non-poly, non-ace theory, the majority of people still accept that there’s different types of attraction, don’t they? Like, you’d know that a college-age straight girl might feel INCOMPARIBLY differently about her boyfriend and about Johnny Depp, which of those is the ‘most’ attraction? And if you’re just trying to get to ‘significant other, or, for singles, person you’d most like to be your significant other’, then you’re assuming that single sexual people constantly have one person clearly at the top of their list. No-one told me that’s how it worked. In fact, Bridget Jones and Austin-era precursors directly rely on the fact that this isn’t the case as a major plot point.

    Then, assuming you can pinpoint that one person with accuracy, what happens if they’re a different race but the same level of education? Which is actually pretty damn likely, as most college students date in college, and some of those relationships are mixed race. Or if they’re the same race but a different level of education, also not particularly improbable? Why are race and level of education synonymous anyway? And what happens if one or both of you are mixed race, so you share about 50% of a racial heritage?

    In short, it’s an inconceivably BAD question, and the idea that you had to answer it for course credit shows an incredible carelessness in the way the course was put together. The answer ‘don’t know’ softens it slightly, but ‘don’t know’ is never the same as ‘other’, which is BASIC survey-making, and ‘don’t know’ can’t translate directly to ‘I reject every premise of your question, because it’s so chock-full of fail. Try again.’ That would be my preferred option.

    /OT rant.

    Comment by slightlymetaphysical — July 19, 2011 @ 6:07 am | Reply

    • I don’t know if we’re experts, but I feel like the asexual community definitely spends a lot more time theorizing and trying to work out the grey spaces than mainstream sex-positive spaces seem to. We do a lot of painting around the invisible elephants, as it were.

      I was actually irritated enough by this question that I wrote it down in class so I wouldn’t forget it, because it was so totally unanswerable by me. (I think I either used my squash as an answer or put down “don’t know.” Possibly both.) I often got the feeling that these questions were mostly intended to be fluffy discussion-starters or illustrations of points the lecture was making, but that one was particularly annoying for me to deal with.

      Comment by Sciatrix — July 19, 2011 @ 10:16 pm | Reply

  3. This is interesting. My friend and I are planning to take a Human Sexuality class as soon as we can fit it into our schedules. I really appreciate this post because now I know what to expect, and I can mentally prepare myself. I wish that I was one of those people who could raise my hand and say, “This question is wrong because I don’t fit into any of these categories. I defy your system of classification! Mwahahahaha!” Okay, maybe without the evil laughter. I think there are some people in the ace community who could, and would, take a class like that and turn it into Asexuality 101 for everyone else, even the teacher. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. I would be way, way too scared. I don’t think this will stop me from taking that class, though, because it is a subject I find interesting, and I also had the, “If you have sex, you’ll get syphilis and DIE!!!!” version of sex ed, with the added bonus of friends who had more important stuff to talk about than sex, and without the asexual community until very recently.

    Comment by Emerald Girl — July 19, 2011 @ 8:18 am | Reply

    • Mental preparation is always good! I have to say, I was not the person who could raise my hand and say that in class, either–partly because it would have required me to out myself in front of eighty people as well as the professor, and… no, I’m not quite that brave, or that prone to derailing classes either.

      I did write several papers focusing on asexuality while I took the course, and the clicker questions got more inclusive over time…. probably because I spent some time ranting to a friend about them as we were packing up to leave class and I sat in the front row almost directly next to the professor’s desk.

      The “If you have sex, you’ll get syphilis and DIE!!!!” version of sex ed sucks mightily. I really wish people would clue in to the fact that it doesn’t actually work for anyone.

      Comment by Sciatrix — July 19, 2011 @ 9:36 pm | Reply

      • It has just occurred to me why, exactly, I was so disappointed in my sex ed classes. I always sort of looked forward to them because I knew I was missing something that everyone else understood and I wanted to find out just what the big deal was. I was too embarrassed to ask my parents or my friends. I suppose I could have looked it up on-line, and I intended to, but I just never seemed to get around to it. I was hoping that sex ed would tell me why everyone was making such a big deal out of it. Instead, I got diagrams of reproductive organs, horrible pictures of STDs, and a video showing how babies were made, during which all I could do was wonder why anyone would let someone put cameras up there. I finished that class with the conclusion that sex was just as icky as I had previously thought and that everyone else in the world was just weird.

        Comment by Emerald Girl — July 20, 2011 @ 7:40 am | Reply

  4. I too grew up the abstinence only sex ed (actually, since it was Catholic school, it was more like ‘don’t have sex, if you do have sex you will be punished by STD and pregnancy, but don’t have an abortion no matter what because that is a one way ticket to H-E-L-L). When I took a sexuality course in undergrad, I’d never heard of ‘asexuality,’ but my awesome prof had us do the most awkward activity ever, where we had to place ourselves on the spectrum of homosexual——-bisexual——heterosexual. But because she was awesome, she had an ‘other’ category. After I put myself there and explained I had no clue what I was because I didn’t really want to have sex, the word asexuality was mentioned and, after a google search, I found AVEN and even did a presentation on asexuality later in the course. Frankly, I am very grateful to that course. Not only did it solve a mystery, I came out as asexual to a very supportive group. And, I got to be in a drag show.

    Comment by KJ — July 19, 2011 @ 4:05 pm | Reply

    • Oh, man, my actual Catholic sex ed–because I experienced that one when my mother hauled me to church for it–is something I remember fondly to this day for being so ridiculously awful. They were so vague and focused so much on the “special connection” that forms between a man and a woman when they have sex that I was left with the impression that sex conferred telepathic lifebonds on its practitioners. To be fair, I’d been reading a lot of Mercedes Lackey at the time, but still.

      I’m glad that your class was supportive of asexuality, though!

      Comment by Sciatrix — July 19, 2011 @ 9:53 pm | Reply

  5. I’m hoping to find a human sexuality course and take it spring semester, so we’ll see how that goes. If it’s a small, seminar-type class, then I am very much the kind of person who can go, “None of these answers apply” but in lectures I’m not, so it all depends.

    I do remember in high school in what passed for sex ed we had to do the, “list the top three things you look for in a partner” thing. I ended up listing things I look for in friends and was then astonished by how many people cared /deeply/ about things like height and eye color. People confuse me.

    Comment by namipuffin — July 19, 2011 @ 6:53 pm | Reply

    • Yeah, as I think I mentioned above this was not a small, seminar-type class–the professor did her best to make it interactive and engaging, but there were eighty or ninety students in it, and standing up and saying “actually none of these apply to me” in class was really not an option. Hence the anonymous clickers. (I did often rant to a friend immediately after class, and after a while of this there started to be answers I could give honestly that were clearly shoehorned in at the last minute–one about the age of your first crush, I think it was, that had “if you have not experienced this, put age 0.” Which was better than nothing.)

      Comment by Sciatrix — July 19, 2011 @ 10:22 pm | Reply

  6. Asexuality was also my sexual education, and I discovered it at 26. Biology aside, I think I only got two dashes of sexual education. They were in high school and dealt mostly with counterconception and AIDS prevention. Catholic teachers only spoke against abortion and what I got in summary is that unwanted pregnancies can be avoided. I never got any message against counterconception from the Catholic rank and file.

    Comment by Isaac — August 3, 2011 @ 6:33 am | Reply

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