Writing From Factor X

January 24, 2012

This Is Not My “Better Half”

So. That House episode, huh?

I admit, I’m not a regular watcher of House. I don’t watch much TV, honestly. So for those people who haven’t been paying attention, yesterday the television show House aired an episode called “Better Half,” written by Kath Lingenfelter, in which (among other things) in which an asexual couple is heavily featured. A lot of people went into this episode feeling really enthusiastic on the strength of a promotional clip that appeared to treat asexuality positively.

What they actually got was an episode in which two doctors (House and Wilson) make a bet as to whether one can find a medical reason for an asexual patient’s sexuality. In the end one part of the asexual couple is shown to be suffering from a brain tumor and the other is revealed to be faking it to be with him. In the reveal, in fact, Wilson explicitly compares asexuality to homosexuality when deciding whether to attempt to cure the man with the tumor–and House reiterates that they are, in fact, dealing with a brain tumor, not a valid sexual orientation. The narrative supports House, not the first doctor. When the man is presented with the knowledge of his brain tumor, his wife essentially pressures him into receiving treatment despite his discomfort and reveals that she was not only actually ace but that all along she had been craving sex that he couldn’t give her. The storyline concludes with House collecting his money and remarking on the extra win of “correcting two people’s wildly screwed-up world views. Not bad for a day’s work!” I think that more or less sums up the episode’s perspective on asexuality.

I wasn’t surprised by the episode, though (or Moffat’s recent quote on Sherlock’s asexuality, the other current piece of media discussion going on). I have to admit, I expected something like this to happen. Admittedly, I didn’t expect it to be quite this bad, but I was frankly expecting it to be insulting at best and… well, as it was at worst.

I would like to say that I expect more. I would like to say that the one page of positive asexual perspective in Guardian of the Dead didn’t reduce me almost to tears when I read it and nearly made me cry again when that asexual character’s orientation was respected for the length of the third of the story that he appeared in. I would like to say that my favorite ace character, one of the most respectful portrayals of my sexuality I’ve ever seen, isn’t one who is also explicitly portrayed as having that orientation because of a gang rape and a clerical vow. I would like to say that when Poppy on Huge came out as ace two years ago, my heart didn’t leap for joy–and drop just as quickly when the show was cancelled a few episodes later, having never mentioned her sexuality again.

You know, I’d like to say these things. I’d like to say that I treat asexual characters being respectfully portrayed as humdrum, because shouldn’t respectful portrayals of asexuality be the default? Shouldn’t I get to expect basic human respect on the (incredibly rare) occasions when my sexuality turns up in media?

But the fact is, I don’t expect that. What I expect instead is for anyone tangentially mentioning asexuality in the mainstream media to immediately attempt to delegitimize it. I expect to be told that really I must be sick, or repressed, or broken in some way. Characters in media are treated the same way–characters can’t be ace for the sake of it, but they must be inhuman, or ill, or traumatized. And frankly,  given the quality of reactions I expect to hear from people around me when encountering asexuality for the first time, I expect media portrayal to get worse before it gets better. As asexuality becomes more well known, I expect more people to bring it up in media–and I expect more of those people to handle it in an offensive way for cheap jokes, as happened in “Better Half” while the characters got around to showing that really, people who identify as asexual are “either sick, lying, or dead.” (This is a direct quote. Hey, the only one we didn’t get to see in the episode was the dead ace! Maybe next time.)

The writer of the episode, Kath Lingenfelter, has this to say about the very critical reaction aces have had to her work:

I am trying to communicate with several of the people of the asexual community who were displeased, so forgive me if I repeat myself. I did a lot of research on asexuality for the episode. My original intent was to introduce it and legitimize it, because I was struck by the response most of you experience, which is similar to the prejudice the homosexual community has received. People hear you’re asexual and they immediately think, “What’s wrong with you, how do I fix you?” I wanted to write against that. Unfortunately, we are a medical mystery show. Time & again, my notes came back that House needed to solve a mystery and not be wrong. So in THIS CASE, with THESE patients, it was a tumor near the pituitary. But I hoped I could (now it seems unsuccessfully) introduce asexuality to the general public and get them asking questions. All they need to do is one google search and they can see for themselves it’s a real community of great people. Originally, part of my dialog included thoughts about whether as a species we’ve grown past sex. Any time we tackle a subject, we risk the possibility of not doing it justice. I apologize that you feel I did you a disservice. It was not my intent.

[…]

Asexuality is a new topic for me and definitely one I find fascinating. It is a subject I would like to continue to explore here or ..on future shows I write for. I think it speaks to where humans are now and where we are going. I will do my best in the future to do it justice. Thank you for feedback and please share any and all thoughts.

Speaking for myself, the idea of Ms. Lingenfelter tackling asexuality in her work again after this initial showing is something I find appalling. Particularly given the quality of this particular apology, which suggests that Ms. Lingenfelter is “sorry that [asexuals] feel [she] did a disservice.” There is no feeling here. She undeniably did a huge disservice to my community. Instead of writing against the pathologization of asexuals, she used her large and well-connected platform to reinforce and entrench that pathologization.

If Ms. Lingenfelter needed a medical mystery to solve for House, I understand that. What I do not understand is why this mystery had to be directly related to the asexuality of the couple featured on the show. I’m an asexual woman, myself. I’ve been sick plenty of times. Aces are not mysteriously resistant to all unusual diseases except those pertaining to asexuality. Why, if she genuinely wanted to be an ally to the asexual community, did she make the choice to portray her characters’ asexuality as a disease and a lie? Was there some sort of reason that her asexual characters couldn’t have a completely unrelated disorder?

I’m not a writer, but it took me about thirty seconds to come up with a plotline that simultaneously included a respectful portrayal of an asexual character and a medical mystery for House to solve: An asexual character presents with assorted symptoms. House assumes the asexuality is a symptom and comes up with a list of disorders based on that as his primary symptom. Turns out it’s none of those, and instead is a completely different disorder unrelated to the character’s sexuality. Whoops, they wasted all that time on trying to diagnose a character’s sexuality when really the actual problem was something totally different! It’s not only respectful, it’s an accurate portrayal of the issues that asexual people going to the doctor for anything experience. She could have made social commentary on asexual pathologization a central part of the storyline. Instead, she chose to make the storyline pathologize asexuals explicitly.

You know, maybe I’m a bit sensitive about this because the last time I was told that I should have my asexuality checked out by a doctor was three weeks ago. By my mother, no less, to whom I’ve been out for years, and who knew this was an offensive thing to say to me when she said it. It’s not the first time I’ve been told to have my sexual orientation investigated by a physician, and it won’t be the last. In fact, after this I’m more or less expecting to have pathologizing responses increase in frequency, which means I (and other aces like me) will be saddled with the thankless task of undoing the misconceptions this episode spreads so gleefully.

I’m disappointed that a popular television show has chosen to encourage people to pathologize asexuals and treat our community with such disrespect. Ms. Lingenfelter?

If this is the best justice you can do asexuality, please stay the fuck away next time.

November 16, 2011

Let’s Not Generalize, Please

So right now, Tumblr is my primary ace community. I haven’t been too active in the blogosphere recently, mostly because of work. And I want to talk a little bit about some things I’ve been noticing–mostly in this community, but this is something I think is relevant to all ace communities. It’s not like I didn’t see similar dynamics during my time at AVEN, for one thing.

I keep seeing things in the ace tag like people saying “aces don’t get sex jokes!” or “aces don’t think about sex so they’re surprised when other people bring it up!” And “all aces are totally grossed out by sex all the time!” And people making jokes about “asexuals love cake so much it’s like they’re sexually attracted to cake!”

And I was thinking about community norms, and the kinds of people who tend to speak up in the ace community. And in particular, lately I’ve been wondering exactly where our sexually active aces are, and thinking about the ways in which people might feel more or less comfortable about speaking up in our community. I had a conversation recently with a close asexual friend of mine who has sex, who enjoys sex, and who often feels uncomfortable discussing their experiences in ace spaces, and that worries me. That tells me that there is a problem that we should be working on.

Look. When you say “you know you’re ace when someone makes an innuendo and you think of something completely unrelated to sex?” That erases the experience of a lot of aces. Mine, for one–I usually see the innuendo. Or not being able to comprehend “sexy”–oh, come on, I can tell when someone is gorgeous and I’ve never had any trouble understanding what “sexy” means, if only from the way others use it. Hey, we keep talking about the fact that there are asexuals who have sex and asexuals who enjoy it! Let’s remember that when we’re talking about what an asexual experience is. Even in jest–jokes do a lot to set the tone and culture of a particular space.

Can we please try, when we discuss ace experiences and in particular asexual experiences, to remember that asexuality comes alongside with a host of very different experiences? Generalizing one’s own experiences and tendencies onto an entire sexual orientation, particularly one with the level of diversity we have, is a bad idea. People are going to feel erased. They are going to feel uncomfortable, and they are going to feel less likely to want to speak up. Communities should be safe for everyone, and part of that is not constantly joking that a particular subset of ace experiences are the only or even the main ace experiences.

And admittedly, walking that line between catering too far to one subgroup of aces in a community space is hard to do. But I think it can be done. There has to be a line between saying “repulsed asexuals are really all mentally ill, not actually asexual” (which I have seen), and “asexuals who have sex are not asexual, they are at best grey-A” (which I have also seen). There has to be a place in  the middle ground where all experiences of being asexual and grey-A can be affirmed in at least some space, even if it takes multiple spaces to do that. And I do think that multiple spaces might be what is required here.

Tumblr happens to be terrible for creating clearly defined spaces for discussion, which is one of the things I miss about forum formats. Elizabeth wrote a really important post about defining the purpose of spaces for discussion a while back, and I think that post is very applicable for ace spaces, too. Face it: ace spaces must serve conflicting community needs. Some aces, particularly asexuals who feel pressured to have sex they don’t want, need a place to blow off steam and bond about their lack of interest in sex. I’ve written about detoxing and why it’s important to have spaces where that can happen. On the flip side, though, we need spaces for people who are dealing with the issues that being a sexually active asexual can bring–issues like negotiating compromise, affirming asexual identities, and discussing personal experiences with sex.  And some of these spaces need to have warnings: detoxing can feel very hurtful to sexually active aces and *sexuals, for example, and repulsed aces should have the option to avoid graphic material they may or may not be comfortable with.

What can we do to solve this? For myself, I think that the best thing to do is try to make clear decisions about the kinds of discussion a given space is set up for. Let people know ahead of time whether a space is going to be a place for detoxing or whether it’s a safe space for emotional support or whether it’s a place to discuss issues of personal sexuality or what. I think the blogs actually do a better job at this than any other space I’m part of–I know, for example, that when I go to Verbs, Not Nouns I’m going to see discussion of kink from an asexual perspective. And for general spaces–treat them like general spaces that are set up to welcome and address all ace perspectives.

If we’re claiming to be talking about all asexuals? Let’s remember that the only thing tying us together as a community is that lack of sexual attraction thing. Everything else is open for debate.

August 21, 2011

Starved For Recognition

Filed under: Asexual Community,Visibility — Sciatrix @ 10:46 pm
Tags: , ,

This post was originally written for the Carnival of Aces. This month’s prompt is “media.”

Last week, as I was checking my Tumblr feeds, this showed up in the asexuality tag. I was very excited at first–not even because I expected a story about an asexual character, but because of the way the creator described the project he was working on.

I was excited, you see, because the way this interview framed asexuality as an actual sexual orientation. I don’t get to see that very often. And so you’ll forgive me if I was fairly upset to note, after checking the source and doing a little bit of Googling, that the entire thing was a hoax. (I do not have enough fuck you in the world for the original poster.)

Most asexual characters seem to have been created by accident. The creators were looking for that extra special touch of inhumanity, or playing up stereotypes of the socially awkward genius or sociopathic serial killer. And when the asexual community, which is starved for representation and for acknowledgement, makes itself known–well. Their reactions tend to not be very pleasant. Even when, in my experience, all asexual people are doing is expressing slavish gratefulness for the crumbs they throw us.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock, responded to an asexual fan thanking him for the work he’s done for the asexual community by saying “How? He doesn’t get out much.” Cumberbatch has also suggested that Sherlock’s sexuality is the result of being “burned by a woman.”

Steven Moffat, who writes both Sherlock and Doctor Who, both of which contain asexual icons, has said

“On the subject of the Time Lord’s perceived asexuality, Moffat has this to say: “I think that his asexual nature was perhaps read into the series by its more asexual fans. If you look at the old show, it’s not true. At some stage the Doctor had a wife and a family, because he’s got a grand- daughter. He likes everything: he drinks, he eats, why wouldn’t he date?”

Chuck Lorre, who works on The Big Bang Theory and is the creator of Sheldon Cooper, had this to say:

Lorre says it’s unlikely questions surrounding Sheldon’s sexuality will ever be answered. “Why would we have to [brand him ever] if the character is so thoroughly focused on his work?” he argues. “If touching other human beings of any gender is irrelevant to him, why label the thing? Why can’t there be a third gender — male, female and Sheldon?”

Awesome. So we have “no they’re not asexual” over and over again, we have conflations of asexuality with being burned on relationships, and we have the conflation of asexuality with gender and workaholism.

I thought–for a second when I saw that Tumblr post, I thought we had a writer who realized that asexual people exist. I thought a writer realized that we are people, and that he was kind enough to stand up and say “yes, this character is.”

I was so excited to see a creator commenting on an asexual character while acknowledging that asexuality is a sexual orientation. Seriously, that tiny thing alone had such an impact on me. It’s so, so rare to see asexuality treated like a sexual orientation anyone can have in non-asexual spaces. If it is mentioned, it’s always in the context of an individual character’s individual quirks, something that can be explained away as part of the weirdness of that character. (And the characters are always framed as weird.)

You see this in-story, but if anything it’s more pronounced when creators are asked about the asexuality of the characters they work on. Often, creators react with contempt and derision when made aware of fans who have asexual identities. It is so often clear that I am not included in the audience.

It saddens me to realize the things that so excited me about the original post are the same things that should have clued me in that it was a hoax.

Can’t we have creators who acknowledge asexual fans, too?

August 13, 2011

Building A Path

Filed under: Asexual Community — Sciatrix @ 9:54 pm
Tags: , ,

A little while ago, I got my internet back after moving. I checked Queer Secrets, as you do, and I stumbled across this. It hit me pretty hard at the time, which I mentioned in a couple of spaces. I didn’t take the time to elaborate then on why it hit me, though, and I’d like to do that now. So the explanation goes like this:

I am often gut-wrenchingly terrified when I think about the future.

I am a person who takes solace from tradition, at least when that tradition isn’t harming anyone. I like to know that other people have walked the same paths before me and I like to know that they came out fine in the end. I like to know that happy endings exist, that what I’m trying to do has precedent, that it has worked in the past. I draw strength from my ancestors, from my elders, from those who came before me.

No one seems to have come before, here. Oh, I don’t mean that no one like me has ever existed–I don’t think asexuality is a new thing even if the identity itself is only about ten years old. But I mean that we have no role models, really. We don’t have older asexuals saying “this is what it was like for me, and I turned out fine.” The last time I talked about this, a friend of mine mentioned that she had considered naming me as an asexual role model. I love the compliment, but I’m twenty years old and I haven’t managed to figure out anything yet and I think I might have my relationships figured out a little bit but I have to figure out how to move to another continent before I’ll really believe it and–well, I don’t view myself as someone who’s really figured out how to make this work in the long term quite yet.

And there’s another fear. If our relationships–no matter what they eventually come to look like–fail to pan out, what then? If we manage to construct something that works, knowing what the odds are, what if it doesn’t work? What if they end–or actually, more realistically, when they inevitably end (as they will for some people) how do we negotiate that?

(I’m just coming off an end to a relationship that I don’t quite have words to describe, except ouch. I’m not even sure how to talk about it, not sure how to explain the depth of my feeling or what those feelings are or what words to use. It’s hard enough to talk about relationships that blur the lines when they’re going well–talking about them when they fail is infinitely worse, I think. And overlaying all that confusion and hurt and upset is the fact that I am pretty sure that discussing the whole thing in public spaces would result in being dismissed and told that my feelings were nothing, because this relationship was a friendship, not romantic.)

To me, it feels like this: straight people have got this road well travelled to walk their lives down. It’s a wide road, well paved and well maintained, and it’s mostly flat and easy to walk down. Many people have walked down it, many people have used it, and mostly people have a good idea as to where that road ends up. (Or the places it can end up, really.)

And other queer people have got a different road for their lives. It’s not as wide, and it’s got dirt instead of pavement and a lot more hills and rocky places, but people have gone over it enough now that it’s easy to see from a distance. And people who use that road change it as they walk down it; there are people trying to fix the rocky places and keeping plants from growing in it. With every person who walks down the path, it becomes more solid, more strongly defined, easier to see.

We have a goat track up the side of a mountain. A very few people have gone up it, but not enough to widen it much. Branches are growing across the trail and sometimes sharp rocks stick out of the ground and sometimes the trail vanishes altogether and we have to try to guess where it goes.

I desperately want–I want it to be twenty years in the future, really. I want to know where I’m going. I want to know the path I’m trying to walk doesn’t fall off a cliff somewhere. I want a lot of things, but most of them boil down to a degree of certainty, and I’ll never have that.

So I’m scared of being alone,  too. I’m scared of a lot of things about being asexual.

The thing is–and, o anonymous writer, thank you–I’m still asexual, too. I have occasionally been tempted to recant–to try to pass for something I’m not my whole life, to pretend just hard enough to take the safer road, the one that’s proven to work. Most of the time it works, anyway, for most of the people.

Except trying to do that wouldn’t change who–and what–I am. Standing up, then, and saying “I’m scared, but I’m not stopping”–that’s a powerful image for me. “I’m scared, but I’m doing this anyway.” “I’m scared, but I believe in this.”

And I do believe in what I’m doing.

So I stand up and I talk and I come out over and over again and I say what I am, I talk to my community and I wail about my fears and my anger and above all I speak. I try to take the first halting steps down a path I can live with, try to clear away the debris as best I can and leave it a little wider for the next traveller.

One day, I hope our roads will be wider and easier to walk down. If not for us, than for the children who will follow.

June 26, 2011

On Community

This post was originally written for the Carnival of Aces. This month’s prompt is “community.” 

When I first saw that Siggy had chosen the topic of community for this month’s carnival, I was excited. I could do this one! I’d been meaning to write a post about community anyway!  I could share my feelings about how important community is to me!

And then I promptly got distracted and forgot to actually write the post for several weeks. Whoops. (In fairness, I am less late than I have been with the two other carnivals I’ve written things for, when I ended up writing posts on the evening before. I’m not great with deadlines.)

The thing is, I think community is really, really important. Especially if, as with asexuality, you’re banding together around an identity that’s generally rendered invisible in every aspect of our lives. When you’re dealing with people telling you all the time that you can’t exist, it can be lifesaving to have people who not only say “yes, you are real,” but “and I’m the same way.”

I’ve gained a lot from interacting with asexual communities over the years. Just the knowledge that I’m not alone is very important to me. I can’t stress that enough; knowing you’re not the only one out there

But it’s stronger than that. It’s things like–when I was beginning to figure out what I wanted in terms of relationships, when I was confused and upset and trying to understand what I wanted, I had people who would tell me that it was okay, they wanted that too. And I had people explaining what they wanted when I asked, and trying to explain what they felt when I asked to know that, and telling me that however I ended up it was okay. Even when I didn’t ask, reading the explanations other people wrote of the kinds of relationships they wanted and didn’t want helped me to understand what I wanted, too.

When I’ve said I’m scared for my future, people have crowded around to tell me they understand, they’re scared too. Or that they’re optimistic that things will get better. Or even just that they hear my pain, they acknowledge it, and they wish the world was a better place.

When some asshole on the Internet says something nasty about asexuals, I know that I’m not the only person who will stand up for us. When I complain about being depicted as sociopaths in media, I know that other people will band around me to share in my anger, and when I’ve needed to vent about experiences that have left my hands shaking and barely holding back tears, I have had people who will bandy around me and tell me that what happened was wrong, but not my fault.

Community is important. Standing up for each other is important. Alone, I am easily ignored; with community standing behind me, we can begin to change the world a tiny bit.

When the Ace Admiral wrote this post about responsibility for one another some months ago, I nearly applauded before I remembered I was sitting at a laptop. Because I fundamentally agree with the central argument of the post: we have a duty to one another. Not a duty that asks for more than we can give, no. But I think that we owe it to each other to pay support forward at least a little. And I think we have an obligation to help each other as best we can.

One of my primary goals in creating this space is to try to engender a sense of community in the asexual/aromantic blogosphere. It’s why I run linkspams: I want everyone’s voices to be heard, not just a few voices. It’s why I started the Carnival of Aces to begin with–I wanted to come up with a way to encourage people to start sharing their thoughts. It’s why I’m experimenting with open threads right now. I want people to discuss their problems and feel comfortable bouncing ideas off each other and find support with each other. I want people to feel comfortable writing their own blogs or sharing their experiences or speaking their minds in any format they like.

And I want them to have different spaces to have those discussions in. I am a big believer in decentralized communities and having multiple spaces devoted to particular topics. I’ve seen many new community types spring up in the past year, from vlogs like HPOA to a slew of new blogs in the blogosphere to the active Tumblr scene to at least three or four new forums. Having a lot of different spaces to interact with serves a variety of purposes. Some people are more comfortable interacting with people in some formats than others; I, for example, really dislike dealing with video, so spaces that are more text-oriented work much better for me. And the different cultures that form in different spaces even within the same medium can create niches for different people.

I’d like to see more kinds of spaces for asexuals yet. I’d like to see more offline spaces, just for starters. Most of all, though, what I want to see is asexual communities decentralizing. I’ve seen communities take huge, bounding steps in this direction in the past year, and that fills me with joy. Because here’s the thing: Lots of smaller communities are more likely to be able to serve everyone, or almost everyone, than one big community.

April 17, 2011

Dealing With Pain

A warning: this post discusses suicide and asexuality.

Recently there have been a couple of posts about violence against asexuals. They both went on linkspam, but if you read nothing else I put on linkspam you should read these because they are important. And in the comments on Kaz’ post, Siggy made a point about looking hard at suicide rates for asexuals.

And I started thinking. I run linkspams–well, what that means is that I go looking in a whole bunch of places for keywords that clue me in that someone’s discussing asexuality. “Asexual,” “asexuality,” that sort of thing. I look on Twitter, Tumblr, and two different blog searches, and I see a whole lot of stuff. Some of it is very cool, and I pass that on to you guys. After all, that’s why I spend the time to do this in the first place.

A lot of it isn’t so cool. I see so many sentences like “HATE EVERYONE, BE ASEXUAL” and “How do I break from this awful phase of asexuality? I really want to want to love again.” I see so many things that equate “asexual” with “unfuckable” and “ugly” and “unlovable.”  I see sexual people react to asexual people sharing their issues with instant wrath, and I see sexual people accuse asexual people of trying to entrap other sexuals into romantic relationships. Occasionally I get to see huge, vicious, clusterfucks where sexual people feel free to deride asexual people as liars, attention seekers, whiners, and worse. One of those happened last week. Stumbling across it was fun.

(And yes, I’m not linking to any of these for a reason. I am not inclined to hurt myself more by going out looking for them a second time and I don’t want to increase their traffic. If you want to see them for yourselves, feel free to make friends with Google.)

I also see very personal and painful posts about not wanting to be asexual, about thinking that asexual people are doomed to die alone, about wanting very badly to find a cure for asexuality. I see posts from people who are trying to come to terms with asexuality and people who are bone-deep terrified about identifying as asexual, because that means that they’ll never be normal. I don’t link to those either, because that’s private and I don’t link to outpourings of personal pain unless there’s some indication that the post is meant for public consumption.

I see a lot of painful things about asexuality, is my point. I link to a tiny proportion of what I run across, and it’s not because I’m sitting on a hidden treasure trove of awesome.

Let’s just say that I would not be surprised if asexual people do have a higher rate of suicide than average. We’re by nature cut off from a huge, culturally-sanctioned source of support, either by being aromantic and not seeking romantic relationships or through being romantic and having drastically reduced access to these kinds of relationships. We can’t even seek psychiatric treatment without being told that our asexuality itself is the problem, that we have a mental disorder for being asexual, and that the way that the outside world treats us for being asexual is entirely right and just.

Our community is almost entirely online–well, we can reach a lot of people that way, yeah, but people also feel more emboldened to say hateful things. We are isolated, and many of us are invisible to ourselves. We are surrounded with cultural imagery that tells us that it is impossible to be as we are.

And when asexuality does come up, it is often attached to very painful things. I write about pain here a lot, and I’m sorry for that; sometimes that feels like the most salient part of my identity.

I would like to be a beacon of hope, someone who’s figured out to do it right, someone who can say “it gets better, and this is how.” I’m not that person, and I don’t know who is; we’re too young a movement to have many people who can say “this is how you be an asexual without lying to yourself or hiding; this is how I survived.” We have so few role models, particularly if we don’t fit into the monogamously romantic paradigm. And we’re so very different that any role models who do exist don’t apply to everyone.

Combining pain with isolation is not a recipe for good mental health, is what I am saying. And given that isolation is such a big thing–well, I don’t think it’s surprising that we hear so few well-publicized stories of asexual suicides. After all, we hear so few well-publicized reports of asexual anything. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

April 2, 2011

If You Can See The Invisible Elephant, Please Describe It

Sam posted a piece last week about the limits of “sexual attraction” as a term, and I’ve been feeling confused and ranty ever since. It’s a good piece, and you should read it, but mostly what it’s done is remind me why I get frustrated a lot by discussions like this.

See, I’m one of those really analytical people who likes to quantify things. I like to have certainty. I like to have operational definitions for my terms so I’m sure what we’re all talking about. I like to be clear about things. Most of all, I like to be fairly sure that I know what we’re talking about when I have conversations.

There is a large part of me that reacts to something that says “well, actually, this term is squishy and imprecise” with flailing and dismay, and then my natural tendency is to start trying to construct better definitions. Unfortunately, when you have no actual personal experience of the thing you’re trying to describe and you’re trying to define a feeling, constructing better terms is fairly challenging.

It’s like this: you’re born into a world where, upon maturity, everyone gets a pet elephant which is invisible to everyone but themselves. Society is structured around the needs of peoples’ elephants. People talk about the elephants and their foibles incessantly. The mass media includes the elephants in every story ever as major plot points. Until you hit the age where you get your own elephant, you can’t see them, but you’re assured that you’ll get your own when you grow up and then you’ll understand everything.

So you grow up, you reach the Age of Elephant Acquisition, and… no elephant. You infer that elephants exist–after all, people keep insisting they must, and people your age have started talking about their elephants and how wonderful and interesting they are, and also people with fairly unusual elephants are willing to do truly baffling things for the elephants’ sake. Probably, you think, the elephants exist, but you’re not sure, because you’ve never experienced anything that seems like an elephant of your own, and couldn’t it be possible that this is some sort of elaborate plot or mass delusion or something?

But people keep insisting that the elephants are totally real, and everyone else your age has started talking about how their elephants are doing. And you’re seriously the only one who is confused by the elephants thing, so you maybe try to casually bring it up–maybe you sort of try to ask people how their elephants look in casual conversation, because it’s possible that you do have an elephant and you just haven’t noticed! Possibly they are in fact very small and hard to see, but they cause a lot of mischief! After all, sometimes funny rustling things happen around you, too, just like they do to people who do have elephants. So you try to ask around, in case it’s something that you can miss, or you’re not interpreting things right, and you look very hard for things that can be interpreted as being sort of vaguely elephantine. But when you do ask them, people give you funny looks and treat you as if you’re stupid for asking, because duh they know what an elephant looks like. Everyone has one! All you have to do is look, it’s not like they’re hard to see!

You see how this can become frustrating.

Eventually you assume you are, in fact, different and not just unobservant, and try to construct the image of what an elephant looks like so that you can understand properly. But no one who has one will sit down with you and answer your questions and help you understand, even if you’re really stubborn and you ask a lot of people a lot of questions. You end up having to construct your understanding of the elephant from tiny snippets, little bits of information you can coax out of normal people before they get aggravated and change the subject. And of course everyone emphasizes different parts of what the elephant is, because everyone is different and thinks about things differently, and you have to try to pick at the distortions as best you can.

That’s what it’s like, being asexual and trying to define sexual attraction on its own. Or being aromantic-ish, and trying to define how romance works. I suppose being agender and trying to suss out gender identity is similar, and I bet there’s other parallels to make. The thing is: you don’t have something, and you’re trying to understand how it works, and no one who says they understand will try very hard to teach you what it’s like.

The thing is, you could say that my innate need to define things is fairly unproductive, and that human sexuality is so varied and complex and squishy that operational definitions are useless. You might also say that there’s no point to defining things well enough to have labels, because that gets in the way of celebrating our Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Except I’m not going to say that, because I think operational definitions are really useful even if you don’t have an innate desire to categorize everything properly so you can understand it better.

For one thing, operational definitions are sort of necessary to having conversations about things. If no one is quite sure what the terms we’re using actually mean, conversations usually end up confusing a whole lot of people. Especially if someone asks for a bit of clarification and no one is able to provide it.

You know who else operational definitions are really useful for? Questioning people. No, seriously, if you’re questioning whether a particular label works for you or not, or how you should identify, or whether you “count” with a specific group, it really helps to be able to point to things and say “well, I have that, and that, but not that.” How can we use terminology that says “asexuals don’t experience sexual attraction” without explaining what sexual attraction is? How can we expect questioning people to make a decision about whether a term fits them when the definition of that term is unclear?

I have been trying to figure out how romantic orientation theoretically works so I can decide what mine is for, oh, two years now, because there is no concrete definition anywhere and every time I corral a bunch of romantic asexuals into a corner and demand that they explain I get shrugs and “I don’t know, you just know.” (Well, when I’m not getting outright condescension, anyway. That’s always fun.) Asking people who haven’t spent a lot of time around the asexual community is arguably worse, because they’re prone to giving silly explanations like “friendship but with sex!” and that’s clearly wrong because the category of friends with benefits also exists, and also there are longstanding romantic relationships which are without sex–lesbian bed death, anyone?–even outside the asexual community. No matter how much I ask this question of people who use these terms I never get any answers.

So how on earth are we supposed to get people who actually do claim to see the invisible thing to describe it? Because if those of us who can’t see are trying to paint around the invisible thing–well, it’s clear we’re missing something, even if we’re not quite sure what.

The problem is that people who aren’t missing that feeling are considered to be the default. So there’s no incentive for them to define the modular feeling that some of us are missing–be it sexual attraction, or romantic attraction, or other things. No matter what they do, on that aspect of their sexuality they get to be easily understood and mainstream. Why would they spend their time defining what an elephant is? From their perspective, all they have to do is invoke the concept of “elephant!” and everyone will understand them! Except those of us who don’t have the elephant to begin with, and we’re in the vast minority.

Here’s the thing. If painting around an invisible concept doesn’t grasp the whole of the thing, perhaps someone who actually experiences the invisible concept should define it. Until then, those of us who aren’t “default” and need to explain how ought to continue to try. It would be good to have the help of people who do experience these forms of attraction. But if they’re not going to work on a definition, the rest of us need our painted edging to get by.

March 23, 2011

Changes Round The Blog

Filed under: Asexual Community — Sciatrix @ 9:52 pm

So there was a ton of interest in either having a long-term blog carnival or setting up an asexual group blog on last week’s post. Awesome!

The thing is, I’m not yet quite sure how I’d go about setting up a group blog or finding people who are used to posting regularly without trying to steal writers from other, existing blogs. So what I want to do on that front is this: I’m soliciting guest posts for Writing From Factor X. If you’d like to write a guest post on asexuality for the blog, please contact me at sciatrix@gmail.com and we’ll work something out. If you’re interested in writing about asexuality but don’t have the inclination or ability to do it on your own or run your own blog, this might be a good alternative.

The blog carnival idea is easier to deal with. I’m willing to host the first one here and solicit posts for it. However, usually the way that long-term blog carnivals work is that they travel: different people volunteer to host the carnival for each installment, which means that whoever is hosting collects the posts for that installment. The person who is hosting also usually picks the installment’s topic. Would anyone be willing to volunteer to host future rounds of this carnival? I’ve been thinking in terms of perhaps a monthly or bimonthly event.

More on that in a few days, when I’ve written the introductory post for the carnival out properly.

March 17, 2011

Try This At Home

Filed under: Asexual Community,Reacting To Assumptions — Sciatrix @ 12:51 am
Tags: , ,

Last week when compiling my linkspam I ran across this. I wanted to respond to it, frankly because it both hurt me (as someone who asks for these conversations fairly frequently) and because it made me rather angry. I haven’t done it before now because I’ve been exhausted and my life exploded, to be honest, and I simply haven’t had the energy to discuss it before. But I want to talk about it now.

When I ask to see discussion or post about something, I’m trying to have that conversation right there, in the initial post. Anything I write about, I hope will spark conversations. I hope people will respond in comments, or on their own blogs, or on forums. When I say “I want to talk about this,” what I want to see is people saying in response “well, have you considered this?” and then we’ll be off. I think that any post about a given subject, in fact, is trying to start a conversation about that topic–that’s what comments are for.

The thing is, I think my major problem with wanting to see discussion is this: it’s hard to have a discussion by yourself. I can post about something, certainly. I even get more comments on a regular basis than I think any other asexuality blog–certainly I regularly get more comments than any other blog dedicated solely to asexuality that I know of. This is not a difficult competition. On an average post of mine, maybe five or ten people might comment. And then a few days pass, and the comments stop coming, and then the conversation dies because no one is keeping it afloat. I can’t post over and over again about the same thing to keep the conversation going without feeling really, really repetitive.

Here’s the thing: long-term conversations need meatier posts than that to keep going. They need more people to think about the topic and say, “well, I’m not sure you’ve considered this,” either in a comment or in their own space. They need people to go away and think for a while and then post again when they’ve chewed over the topic. And they need different perspectives to really be able to fully discuss the topic. For instance, it’s very unlikely that I am going to end up in a traditionally romantic sexual/asexual relationship because of the way my romantic orientation works (or doesn’t, or mystifies me). I’m seriously uncomfortable with trying to have a discussion about the challenges of traditional romantic sexual/asexual relationships without soliciting the opinions of the people who are most likely to actually be involved in that particular type of relationship. And the same goes for a whole host of other topics–there are a whole ton of ways to be asexual, and they all bear on specific topics of conversation.

In short, what long-term conversations need is community. I’m not convinced that a community of people who are interested in a) discussing asexuality in b) the context of social justice exists as of yet. If it does, it is small. Small groups of people don’t make for nearly the level of good conversation as large ones do. This is one thing AVEN has in its favor: it is very, very large and has a ton of people on it, which means that there is a ton of discussion that goes on there. There are lots of big conversations on AVEN because there’s lots of people to have them there.

The trouble is that AVEN isn’t, in my experience, very used to thinking about asexuality in terms of other social justice discussions. And more, its moderators don’t always make the space safe for everyone. I spent two years trying to discuss asexuality in the context of social justice there and feeling that the tone of the site was really not suited to having the conversations I wanted to have, because I’d say things like “so could we maybe discuss why this discussion is problematic?” and then get derailed all to hell. So one of the things I want to do with this site is to create a community at least large enough to actually have discussions of these things without being bogged down by derailings and general fuckery.

Blogs might not be the best medium for this, I don’t know. The yadaforum is wonderfully acefriendly but no good for actually starting up long-running serious conversations about asexuality, and Knights of the Shaded Triangle is fairly good for conversations but has too few people for very much that is truly interesting to crop up. Anyway, half the posts there are by me and I already have a blog. I can’t generate content for a forum on top of that. So I write my blog, and I run linkspams. (More linkspams in a few days. I’m currently on vacation and would rather make the most of the city I’m visiting just at the moment.)

I’ve thought about trying to construct a group blog that updates more often than once a week; maybe that would be better for community-building. ‘Course, then you’ve got the same problem: you’ve got to have people to write the blogs and people to write the comments.

But the bottom line for me is this: I want a community of asexuals who are influenced by general social justice discourse. Well, okay, the best I can do is talk a lot and see if anyone wants to join in. And people have, and this is fantastic, I get to talk about things I think are important with people who think they’re important too. I’ve seen a whole bunch of new blogs springing up like grass lately and I try very hard to link to everything new I stumble across, because I want to see lots of different voices getting heard. I’ve been pretty bad at commenting elsewhere lately, largely because I’ve had a lot of non-blog work to do in the last month, but I can at least try to make sure that everyone knows what interesting things other people are saying.

There’s this song by a fellow named Frank Turner that I’ve been listening to while writing this post. It’s about not being intimidated out of doing something you want to and remembering that singers are human, and it ends like this:

So tear down the stars now and take up your guitars, and come on folks and try this at home.

And that’s what I’d love. If you think the asexosphere isn’t writing about the things you want it to write about, or you think that aces aren’t following up on the conversations we ask to have, take up your pen–or your keyboard–and start your own conversations. Actually, even if you think that the current writers in the asexosphere are doing perfectly, think about starting your own blog anyway or even writing a couple of stand-alone posts about things you care about. Because what we need as a nascent community isn’t a few people speaking well about asexuality.

What we need is voices. Lots of them. Disagreeing vociferously and agreeing and seeking clarification and adding the different life experiences of all of us to the pot. Voices to reflect the diversity that is so strong among asexuals, and voices to speak up about all kinds of subjects. We need a whole lot of people to speak about what is important to them. So please, if you’ve ever thought about starting up a blog of your own, think a little harder about giving it a shot.

We need your voice.

February 27, 2011

Let’s Have a Conversation About Compromise and Consent

The discussion on compromise in last week’s comments has got me thinking about compromise as it’s generally discussed in the asexual community, and not necessarily in a good way. However. Before I continue in this vein, I want to make one thing clear: I have no interest in casting judgement on what any individual asexual person chooses to do. Seriously, as I pointed out repeatedly in that comments section, all the options for asexuals trying to achieve long-term intimacy suck. If you, anonymous reader, have found a situation that works for you, excellent! Nor have I any interest in making unilateral, black-and-white statements here. My goal in writing this piece is to create discussion, not to make all-encompassing pronouncements.

That said, there was this piece on Tumblr that made me start thinking about the way we often discuss compromise in the asexual community. It’s called Sexual Ethics As Applying to Asexuality, and what it’s trying to do is apply the principles of enthusiastic consent to asexual/sexual relationships. It’s worth a read, and there’s a lot of things in it I’m all behind. I certainly agree with the original piece that expecting sex from anyone else is wrong, full stop. I don’t, however, agree with it entirely, and I want to talk about why.

Enthusiastic consent as a concept is pretty clearly one of those things thought up by sex-positive people without actually knowing that asexuals exist (or possibly, caring). At first glance, the idea that no one should be having sex they’re not totally into on their own account isn’t a bad idea. After all, what’s rape but sex without consent? And there are a whole lot of different ways that people can be pressured into sex without force, and is that consent truly consent? After all, consent ought to be free in order to count as agreement, not coerced or pressured in any way.

Except… what holding enthusiastic consent to be the gold standard as consent does is essentially tell many asexuals that we can’t consent at all. And that is an implication I am seriously not comfortable with. For one thing, it tells me that we don’t have ultimate control over what happens to our own bodies. It tells me that even if an asexual person does actually want to have sex–and there can be a number of reasons to have sex beyond one’s own personal physical gratification–we still can’t consent on our own behalf.

Do you know who else can’t consent to sex? Children. Drunk and drugged people. Animals. In short, people who can’t be trusted to act in their own best interests regarding their own bodies at the moment. And the thing is, as an adult and sober asexual woman, no one gets to tell me what to do with my body but me. If I verbally make it clear that I have chosen to do something with my body, and if check-ins from my partner make it clear that I’m not in actual distress, I should be able to do as I please without anyone calling it rape because I was not, myself, totally into the activity.

Enthusiastic consent therefore cannot be the only understanding of valid sexual consent without calling personal rights to control one’s own body into question. There needs to be a broader understanding of models of consent. SlightlyMetaphysical recently posted a piece discussing ideas for this which I like–does it count as enthusiastic if the enthusiasm is purely about your partner’s enjoyment, for instance?

Alternatively, consent models could prioritize checking in with one’s partner or increasing the level of verbal communication before and during sex. Or paying attention to body language during sex–obviously, if someone tenses up or looks upset, you should be paying attention. There are a lot of different ways to discuss consent models that go beyond “(verbal) No Means No” without insisting that the only way anyone can consent to sex is to be totally into that sexual act for yourself at all times.

On the other hand, I do think the way I have often seen discussion about compromise go in the asexual community is seriously problematic. My experience is that acquiring intimacy is often discussed in fairly simple terms: either you’re romantic, and you date sexuals and expect to compromise or else you try to run the numbers and date other asexuals, or else you’re aromantic and want only the loose, less close friendships to begin with. And it’s unfortunately so much more complicated than that. We’re a diverse community. There’s about a million different ways to be asexual, and not all of them are served by those three options.

And I worry about pressure to compromise. As I pointed out earlier this month, the numbers are not in asexuals’ favor if the romance/friendship binary is to remain. It’s not hard to calculate the odds. Is the choice to compromise for some asexuals truly free? Pressure can come in many forms, and if you’re raised to think that your main options are being single forever or dating–and then realizing that you’ve almost certainly got to have sex you possibly don’t particularly want if you do date–well. Thinking that you don’t have many other options is a form of pressure to pick the “least worst” all on its own. And shouldn’t we be trying to make better options than that?

There needs to be more discussion of options beyond monogamous romantic relationships and trying to subsist on mainstream conceptions of friendships. Those options do work for some asexuals, don’t get me wrong–but they’re not as workable for all asexuals. There are so many ways to be asexual that no one-size-fits-all approach to asexuality and intimacy could possibly exist. We need to be thinking of ways to create more approaches in order to serve the needs of all asexuals.

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