Writing From Factor X

June 2, 2011

How Ableism and Sexualnormativity Reinforce Each Other

Filed under: Intersections — Sciatrix @ 9:17 am

This post was originally written for the second edition of the zine Asexual Feminism. Since that edition came out six months ago and has never been available online, I’m posting this now for archival purposes. The rest of the zine can be purchased for a few dollars here

The last time I wrote for Asexual Feminism, I wrote about intersectionality. As it happens, since I think that one of the most pertinent intersections asexuality has is ableism, I plan to examine that particular intersection more fully here. In short, ableist memes intersect unfortunately with sexualnormative ones to create a system in which persons with disabilities are desexualized while asexual people are assumed to be disabled in some way and medicalized.

Firstly and most obviously, there is a long tradition of desexualizing and sterilizing disabled people, particularly people with mental disabilities. I do not plan to discuss in depth that here, as better minds than I have already done so. It is enough to know that this tradition exists, and that a long-running method used to oppress persons with disabilities by erasing many PWDs’ sexualities has created an oppressive association between disability and celibacy/presumed asexuality.

Furthermore, many of the most common attempts to discredit asexuality are rooted in the presumption that asexuality is or derives from some kind of mental or physical disorder. In fact, a glance at the Asexuality Troll Bingo Card1 shows that a full third2 of the spaces include comments asserting or implying that asexuality is some sort of disorder, mental or physical. This includes the free space (“Get your hormones checked”) which is traditionally given to the most common response encountered. There is a perception that any difference from the culture at large must be the result of a disorder somewhere along the line.

Even within asexual spaces, attempts are often made to argue that asexuality stems from this or that neuro-atypicality. The autism spectrum and depression are common candidates, as is schizoid personality disorder and occasionally sociopathy. It is interesting that people with ASDs are often stereotyped as being devoid of empathy in much the same way that asexuality, particularly aromantic asexuality, is. In much the same way, schizoid personality disorder is actually characterized by this lack of empathy. It is possible that some of the attempts to draw a connection between these things may reflect internalized stereotypes about autistic and asexual people both.

Asexuality is also often compared to disability by nonasexuals people in an attempt to express how horrifying the nonasexual person thinks the concept of not experiencing sexual attraction is. This reaction melds ableist assumptions that persons with disabilities ought to be objects of pity with, well, assumptions that asexuality is a disability. Ignoring the fact that no one really wants to be treated as pitiable for existing, this sort of response is problematic in that it conflates two very different experiences and assumes that one must be at all like the other. It also imposes a very sexualnormative view on sexuality, framing any deviation from this norm as a disability rather than a difference in its own right.

The existence of so-called psychiatric disorders such as Hyposexual Desire Disorder and Sexual Aversion disorder act to further build upon these conceptualizations of asexuality as a disability, but they do not create them. Rather, they simply reflect this assumption that not experiencing sexual attraction—or primary sexual desire—is necessarily indicative of some disease or disorder. Psychologists are not immune to being influenced by assumptions, after all.

The end result of all of this is that tension is created and exacerbated between anti-ableism and asexual communities, while those unfortunate enough to occupy an intersection between the two are left with unpleasant worries about “letting the side down.”

1 For the unaware, the Asexual Bingo Card is part of an Internet social justice tradition of listing common troll responses to particular axes of oppression in the style of a bingo card, thereby allowing commenters to call “bingo!” to especially offensive comments or posts. For screen readers, an image description of the card can be found here

2 “You’re just depressed,” “You must be damaged in some way,” “Get your hormones checked,” “You were probably abused,” and “You’re crazy not to use your genitals.”

March 13, 2011

On Romance in the Media

This week, I’m going on a road trip. I actually finished it yesterday and am on vacation now, but preparing for the road trip reminded me of an incident that happened on a similar trip I made some years ago. I was driving down south at the time with a couple of friends and one of them joked “If this was a spring break summer flick, who would be the hero?” And I thought immediately, “Not me. There couldn’t be a romantic subplot.”

There’s something wrong with storytelling when you can’t tell a story without your main character falling in love. Movies are hands down the worst genre about this, but it’s pervasive in all media: it seems like a story isn’t deemed complete if there’s no Designated Love Interest for the main character.

Especially if you’re not male. Women are often tokenized and thrown into these stories specifically so that the (invariably male) main character has someone to fall in love with. So if you’re ace and male, you might be able to find a hero who isn’t displaying interest within the story–but women in fiction? Almost always the love interest for somebody, even when they’re meant to be the hero in their own right, and often as not there will be only one. (If you’re nonbinary, you’re shit out of luck; generally media is pretty sure you don’t exist.)

This state of affairs actually sucks for a whole lot of people. It sucks for queer people because this focus on romance is usually intensely heteronormative, meaning that same-gender relationships are generally conspicuously absent while romance is lionized. It sucks for women because it reinforces the message that dating and theoretically marrying someone is the highest possible goal for a woman, one that every woman must aspire to. It sucks for romantic asexuals because romantic relationships are usually constructed in these narratives as specifically sexual. It sucks for anyone who is currently single because it constructs anyone who is single for any reason as essentially incomplete. The whole thing sucks for polyamorous people, it sucks for kinky people, and frankly there are a whole lot of reasons why the mass media focus on one specific type of opposite-gender relationship leaves a whole lot of different people out in the cold.

But it really sucks to be sitting here and thinking “awesome. No story without a romance is important, and I don’t do romances.” What does that say about my stories? About how important I am as a person? Can someone like me ever be a hero in my own right?

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that every confirmed asexual main character so far is romantic. Romantic relationships are constructed as a way to humanize characters–or rather, their absence is constructed as dehumanizing, because romantic is the default. Characters who don’t experience romantic relationships in fiction are almost uniformly portrayed as sociopaths, and in some cases even have their sociopathy mitigated by falling in love with the right person. There are some nasty tropes here, guys.

The desexualizing and arguably deromanticizing influence applied to several minority groups in fiction–other types of queer people, people of color, disabled people–reinforces this tendency to equate lack of romantic relationships with dehumanization, because in the shorthand conventions of fiction you can’t be a fully realized center of a story without a significant other. Unfortunately, while going “fully realize characters like us by giving us more screen time of them dating!” is a pretty natural response to that, it’s also pretty upsetting when you don’t fit into that paradigm of discussing who matters. If I never run across another person talking about poor media representation of minority characters by decrying the “asexual” nature of these characters, it will be too soon.

Even characters we can initially read as aromantic get significant others as they get a bit more authorial limelight. As soon as the narrative cares about you, the burgeoning love interest lurks in the background. The Big Bang Theory in particular has been a shining example of this: as the Sheldon character gets more and more focus within the narrative, the show introduced a “girlfriend” for him. It’s not enough to exist on your own; you have to have a “significant” other to complete you properly.

So what do we do about it? Frankly, I have no idea. I’m not a writer of fiction. I try to support works that don’t do this by buying them, but I’m a college kid and my wallet is generally pretty lean.

I just want to talk about it, because remembering that knee-jerk reaction hurt. And I’d like a world in which other aces’ response to that question–“we’re in a movie? Who’s the hero?” wasn’t immediately “Not me.”

January 23, 2011

How Inclusivity Fails On Asexuality

Filed under: Anger,Feminism,Intersections — Sciatrix @ 4:44 pm
Tags: , , , ,

So I got linked to on Feministe last week. And if you haven’t read the post there, you really should, because it’s notable for a) being written by someone who is clearly trying to be a clued-up ally, and b) having a comment section that is remarkably well-behaved, probably more due to some awesome moderation than to actual niceness on the part of the commentariat.  The post is about how asexuality tends to get ignored by the broader social justice movement, and how this is not, in fact, a good thing.

I’ve actually been thinking about this post for a long time, because the search term most often used to find this blog after its name is “asexual feminism” and variations on that theme. I’ve been feeling a little obscurely weird about that, because while I am a feminist and my writing is certainly influenced by broader social justice concepts, I don’t tend to write about issues of sexism here. Elizabeth at Shades of Gray has done a lot more of that in her archives than I have. When I wrote “Asexual Feminism,” I felt strangely about it, because my feelings are that asexuality has more in common with broader social justice movements.

So let me start again. Why I think that the social justice movement ought to pay more attention to asexuality: because asexuality is an oppressed class, dammit. Asexuals are pretty used, as a whole, to being ignored. That would be because one of the main mechanisms of asexual oppression is invisibility. (The other big one, I would argue, is medicalization. When we’re still in the freaking DSM, under the same criteria last applied to ego-dystonic homosexuality in 1973, I think claims to asexuality being a privileged identity fail to hold water.)

When I say asexuals are oppressed by invisibility, I don’t only mean that the usual state of things is, right now, for asexual people to grow up without even the simplest words to describe what they are, even to themselves. I don’t only mean that for asexuals, it is not uncommon to expect to spend our lives lying about what we are, or hiding. I don’t only mean that seeing the word “asexual” outside of our own spaces, used in the sense of sexual orientation, is cause for minor celebration even if it’s a bad definition.

I mean that when you try to break that invisibility, mainstream culture comes down on you like a ton of bricks. “You can’t be asexual, you must have diabetes or autism or some kind of hormonal disorder.” “You can’t be asexual, that doesn’t exist–everyone wants sex.” “You can’t be asexual, you must have some kind of specific mental disorder instead.” “You can’t be asexual, all you need is a good raping.” When “do you reproduce like an amoeba?” is among the better responses one can get, I have a hard time believing that asexual invisibility persists only because of a temporary ignorance.

Generally, asexuals think that we’re doing pretty well if people know what asexuality is, sort of. Never mind actually paying attention to asexual issues, it’s generally enough to make people rejoice if we get added onto a list. Speaking for myself, my first reaction to Chally’s post was astonishment, followed by being grateful–oh my gosh, someone from a mainstream social justice blog actually deigned to discuss asexual issues, and oh my gosh she actually implied that we’re a real orientation that counted, do you know how rare that is? I have seen a post on a social justice blog discuss issues of asexuality exactly once before in my entire life, on a guest post that Kaz did at FWD. FWD in general was pretty asexual-friendly, in fact, but it recently shut down.

Aside from that, Shakesville is the only blog that I know that tries to make an effort to be asexual-friendly, and even that only extends so far as not letting asexophobic trolls go unremarked and occasionally mentioning asexuality on lists. Chally’s post was remarkable for being the only non-101 asexuality post outside of asexuality-specific space I have ever seen discuss my orientation as self-evidently real.  I’m far more used to seeing asexuality come up in broader social justice spaces, usually in the comments of other posts, and have to flinch because the hatred comes out of the woodwork. If it doesn’t in the main post, the concern trolling and the medicalization always pops up on the comments over and over and over again.

It sucks to see places that claim to focus on all social justice issues continually ignore asexuality. It’s depressing to see worse reactions to asexuality crop up in ostensibly feminist sites, in fact; the worst examples of asexual fail I have seen have been on… Feministing and ontd_feminism.  It frustrates me that I feel grateful because I see my orientation listed instead of omitted completely, but never discussed at all. And it saddens me that posts like Chally’s are so very, very rare. I’m so used to being ignored by the broader social justice community that I started this blog in part to discuss asexuality from that standpoint–because if no one else was, at least I could start doing it.

I’m used, in short, to assuming that I don’t matter to the social justice community. And I have no idea how to go about changing that.

December 6, 2010

Ace On the Spectrum

Ily recently posted a call for discussion between the autistic and asexual communities. I am all in favor of this–actually, I can’t express how much in favor of this I am. I wonder if doing a blog carnival on the topic might be feasible, even a very small blog carnival. There are a lot of us who are both out there. And if anyone wants to write about it but doesn’t have a blog, I would love to host guest posts on this subject.

I am on the spectrum. Specifically, I am diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome; I was diagnosed when I was twelve, and I consider that one of the most unbelievably lucky things that ever happened to me. (One day I will write about what finding out about the spectrum was like. In many ways, it was far more important, more worldshattering an event to me than discovering the word “asexual” ever was.)

My experience being on the spectrum in the ace community is, to be honest, tainted with the constant and innocently asked question “Is there a connection between being autistic and being asexual?”

No. And yes.

The way the question is usually meant implies something about causation, that autism might cause asexuality in some way, that my asexuality might be attributable to the fact that I am autistic. And that question fills me with rage and frustration. Of course, the way AVEN–for years the most active asexuality community I was part of–is set up, the relatively high rate of turnover means that that question gets asked a lot. It took me a while to understand why it bothered me so much.

See, what that innocent question implies is that without my autism I’d be some shape of sexual. It implies that my orientation might be less real because it derives from autism, so I find it offensive from the perspective of an asexual person. (No one ever asks straight autistics if they’re straight because they’re autistic.) And I find it offensive from the point of being on the spectrum, because the question also implies that my sexual orientation has an inherently different cause from that of neurotypical people. (No one ever questions whether neurotypical people have their orientations because they’re neurotypical.) So I find that question deeply offensive and unpleasant, because in my experience being in asexual communities it is always tainted with causation.

However, there’s a dimension of “yes” to the question, too. My experiences being autistic have certainly shaped my experience of being asexual, just as they have shaped everything else about me. It is well-nigh impossible for me to separate out either aspect of myself because both are integral to me; a neurotypical or nonasexual version of myself would not be me.

For instance: I don’t get flirting very well. It flies over my head when it happens to and around me, and I really don’t understand what constitutes flirting and what constitutes being friendly. If I hadn’t had the concept explained to me and it wasn’t such a cultural touchstone, I would never have come up with the idea on my own.

Does that stem from being autistic and not getting implied social cues, or from being asexual and not understanding flirting because I don’t catch sexual/romantic overtones unless I’m paying attention? Or from both?

It’s impossible to tell, because both autism and asexuality are part of me. They aren’t discrete modules of identity that can be separated from my experience of being myself. I’ve never not been autistic, and arguably I’ve never not been asexual. (Or aromantic.) I have no experience of being otherwise to contrast myself with.

Being autistic has impacted my experience of being asexual. For instance, my gender presentation shapes others’ perceptions of my sexual orientation. Part of that presentation is down to sensory issues. Having short hair means that I don’t have to shower immediately when I wake up because the feeling of greasy hair on the back of my neck is impossible to tolerate. I also have short hair because I like short hair. But being able to laze about in the morning without showering a little longer before sensory issues kick in is nice, and it plays a factor.

As for being asexual–well, aromantic asexual, because I can no more separate my experience of my romantic orientation from my sexual orientation than I can separate out my gender–has impacted my experience of being autistic. For one thing, it’s sensitized me to heteronormativity in autistic spaces and in works discussing autism. In particular, the cheerful “but your children can grow up to have a normal life and maybe even get married!” sentiment present in a lot of the books about autism sets my teeth on edge.

So yes, in that sense my neuro-atypicality and my asexuality are connected through me, just as every other pervasive aspect of myself connect to one another. It would be nice to discuss that intersection without my hackles rising at the constant causation question.

Who else wants to join the conversation?

October 28, 2010

Won’t Someone Please Think of the Adolescents?

Let’s talk about age and identity policing.

See, there’s this very common thing I see when a teenager, particularly anyone under 18, enters an asexuality space to say “I think I’m asexual.” And you’ll see people just lining up to tell them that they can’t be sure of themselves, that they might be mistaken. That they might simply be late bloomers. That they ought not to hold onto the identity too tightly until they’re older, and they can be sure it’s not a phase.

I see this within the asexual community. You’d assume that a group founded on trying to acquire acceptance for everyone who identifies as asexual wouldn’t be so invested in essentially invalidating someone’s identity, but that’s what I’m seeing.

This is particularly interesting given that the average age of sexual attraction is ten years old. And this holds true for all sexualities except, for obvious reasons, asexuality. The standard deviation appears to be about three years. For the curious, that means that of the people who eventually go on to experience sexual attraction, 84% of them will have done so by age 13, and 97.6% of them will have done so by age 16. Those are some absurdly high numbers. What, given that, makes people think that teenagers are unlikely to be aware of what their sexual orientation is? If you’re not experiencing sexual attraction and 97% of your peers have done so, don’t you think that you’d notice that something was perhaps a little off?

And now let’s talk about me. It’s my blog, I’m allowed to be a touch narcissistic. I am twenty years old, folks. What’s more than that, I’ve been past teenagerdom for slightly over a month. I am very young for this sort of thing. It seems that according to some, I’ve finally hit the magic age where I can be certain. And according to others, I’m still in phase territory–I’ve heard some people, all in their forties of course, set the bar as high as twenty-five. Awesome. I can’t tell you how pleased that makes me to hear when I come across it.

I found out about asexuality when I was fourteen years old. I joined AVEN when I was fifteen. At the time it was essentially the only place besides the Livejournal community to discuss asexuality at all, and I didn’t know enough about LJ to navigate it at all. And you know, I don’t remember it being nearly this ageist then. I remember a focus on using identities as tools, yes, and on discarding them if they no longer became useful. But I don’t remember being told within the community that teenagers couldn’t know for sure if they were asexual yet.

That was then, and this is now. I think we’re worse off for it. Now it’s hard to see the acceptance for the identity policing. For the admonitions that you oughtn’t come out, or let the label ‘asexual’ mean much to you, because you just might be a late bloomer. Never mind the relative likelihoods of actually being a late bloomer or just being a baby ace. Just the chance means that you can’t embrace the label too tightly, lest it be wrong.

Folks, I knew that that label of asexuality was me when I first saw it at fourteen. And I knew what I was before even that. I found AVEN in the first place because I was beginning to get the idea that maybe everyone wasn’t like me, and I was trying to figure out what sexual orientation I was. It’s been five years, now, and I’ve never encountered any significant thing to make me need to re-evaluate that identity. And even if I had, just having the identity, just knowing that asexuality was even an option, and that it could be me… well. That was knowledge I cherished, growing up, because it meant that I wasn’t a freak. It meant there was nothing wrong with me. And that gave me all the courage to be myself I needed.

Even if the late bloomer model were common–and I am unconvinced that it is–impressing on every single teenager who wonders whether they might be entitled to call themselves asexual that they shouldn’t do so because they might develop another sexual orientation does a hell of a lot of harm to those of us who aren’t late bloomers. It sends a message to younger people that this community isn’t for them. That this label isn’t for using, and neither is the support that comes with it.

And given that a fuckload of visibility and community work is done by those of us who are in our teens and twenties, I think that alienating those of us who are younger members of the asexual community is likely to shoot the community as a whole in the foot. If you’ve found out asexuality exists when you’re young but you got heavily reminded that it might not be for you by the very people you’re reaching out to for support, it’s hardly likely you’ll be involved enough in its work to do any kind of activism.

If people identifying as asexual realize that they’ve changed, or that they were mistaken about their feelings for others, by all means drop the label. If an identity stops working or worse, becomes restrictive, than by all means drop it in favor of one which does work. There’s nothing wrong with broadening your understanding of yourself, or finding that you have changed over time.

But don’t tell someone that they can’t pick up that identity, which might be so important to them, for so paltry a quality as age.

October 1, 2010

Asexual Feminism

Filed under: Feminism,Intersections — Sciatrix @ 12:01 am
Tags: , , , ,

So I’m cheating a bit on the content here. This was actually a piece I wrote in June for the first edition of Asexual Feminism, a zine about… well, asexual feminism. It’s quite well named that way. I will actually put something new up on Monday, but given that it’s been about two months since this was first published, I thought I would add this to my blog now as well. Asexual Feminism is a great zine–if you want to read the whole thing, which I highly recommend, I host the PDF here with permission from the publisher and the relevant AVEN thread is here. (The zine does not have its own website, which is a shame in my view.)

So I kept meaning to write this Asexuality and Feminism thing. And the thing is, asexuality and feminism, on first glance, don’t seem to meet up too well at all. They’re quite different spheres, at least on the face of it.

But there’s this concept called intersectionality, and it’s rather important to my feminism, which is very wrought up with ableism and heterosexism (because those are the other two I have personal experience with) and also with racism, classism. That’s the most obvious way for the two frameworks to interact.

In a lot of ways, I relate asexuality most strongly to heterosexism and ableism, and only pull it back to feminism insofar as it’s another axis of oppression which is a Bad Thing and should be targeted. See, I’m specifically aromantic, asexual, and autistic, and those things are a more pertinent intersection in a lot of ways than the fact that I’m female. It also makes a pretty good explanation of how intersectionality works. For instance, one of the prevailing media stereotypes about autistic people is that we are somehow cold or emotionless. That also happens to be a common misconception about asexual people, which means that people who meet me and find out both qualities tend to get funny ideas about my desire for social contact. That’s an example of stereotypes behaving in cumulative fashion, but such intersectionality also works in conflicting ways.  As an example, the stereotypes surrounding aromantic asexuality and autism both tend to also be coded strongly male while I am female, so the expectations I am hit with differ strongly depending on whether someone is focusing on my femaleness or my autism or my asexuality.

But even aside from questions of intersectionality, asexuality and feminism have a lot of things to contribute to one another. For instance, asexuals inherently challenge gender roles by not living up to heteronormative ideals of femininity and masculinity. Asexual men in particular challenge the patriarchal ideal of men being obsessed with sex however they can get it, and romantic asexual men take this a step farther by rejecting the patriarchal idea that men put up with romance only to get sex out of it. But asexual women challenge the status quo, too.  Asexual women regardless of romantic orientation often have much more nuanced views of romantic relationships than the general culture would determine, because for us a romantic relationship is usually fraught with dealing with orientational mismatch. And all of that doesn’t even get into how asexual people with queer romantic orientations or gender identities challenge the strict gender roles demanded by patriarchy.

Then there’s rape culture. Asexual women in particular benefit from feminism and concepts like “no means no” because the concept of frigidity combined with the perception that sex isn’t a thing for women to begin with is particularly likely to pressure asexual women into having sex that they don’t necessarily want to begin with. The narratives surrounding men who might not want to have sex are even worse, however—asexual men may feel particularly confused by cultural conditioning that men are up for sex at any time and be just as likely to be pressured into unwanted sex.

Feminism also benefits from the asexuality movement simply by acknowledging asexual perspectives in feminist thought. For instance, it is entirely possible when considering asexuals to have a person who is sex-positive in theory, when considering the needs of other people, and yet completely personally disgusted by the idea of sex as it relates to them. The problem with some current mainstream feminism views on sex is that often they forget that not all people do have sexual desires, that the problems surrounding sex in this culture can’t all be solved by getting everyone in tune with their sexual selves, and that a person can be repulsed without being repressed. Asexuals serve to remind social thinkers that people are more and less comfortable with sex, and that this is okay.

Asexuality and feminism have a lot to teach each other, even if they appear to be unrelated at first glance. I greatly look forward to seeing the thoughts of other writers working on this intersection in the future.

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