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.

November 5, 2011

Fuck Yes, I Have Pride

Filed under: Anger,Fitting Sideways,Reacting To Assumptions — Sciatrix @ 10:36 pm
Tags: , , ,

I feel the need to tell a story about pride. (This is bouncing off a post Ily recently wrote, which, again, is fantastic and which you should read.)

One day, I was having lunch with a friend. And at this particular lunch, the topic of some personal insecurities of mine came up. It had been a pretty bad day, and I was in the middle of one of my figuring-out-how-my-affectional-orientation-works-and-freaking out phases, and the topic of autism had come up in a most faily way earlier, and I was tired.

So I complained about how badly, some days, I wish I could just fit in; how much I sometimes wish I could be normal, just so I didn’t have to deal with certain kinds of shit. Being different: it’s exhausting. Microaggressions are exhausting! Existing in a world that is adamantly not set up for you is exhausting! Always being the only one in the room is exhausting! And some days, the prospect of getting to stop being exhausted is a really tempting one.

And she was completely flabbergasted. “How can you ever want to be normal?! You always seem to take such pride in being different!”

I paused for a moment, looked at her and answered: “Of course I take pride in being different. It’s that or hate myself.”

I’ve never forgotten this exchange, because it illustrates something that’s pretty fundamental to the way I work.

Every time I say “I’m proud of who I am,” I’m also saying: “Fuck you, world, for telling me I should ever think differently.” Every time I say “being ace is awesome” I’m also saying “and fuck anyone who says otherwise.” Every time I say “I wouldn’t change my autistic status for the world” I also say “and fuck all of you who would rather seen a child dead than see it born autistic.”

My pride is a reaction to an entire lifetime of being told to be ashamed of who and what I am. To being told that I should hide away, should pretend to be something different, so that other people can be more comfortable. Or less bored. Or something, anything, but forced to consider that I exist.

I have encountered a lot of people, over the years, who see my existence as something to grieve over; whose first response to hearing about people like me is unthinking pity or scorn. I have encountered a lot of people whose first reaction to me telling them about an essential part of myself is to ask me if I’ve looked into curing it, if I’ve sought treatment, if I’ve tried to make that part of myself go away. I have encountered people who are completely baffled by the idea that I would find attempts to make sure no children like me are ever born again offensive.

I’m also a naturally contrary, angry person. And there has been nothing in my life as freeing as the realization I had a while ago, that I can say “fuck them.” That for every person I come across saying my asexuality is something pitable, for every fucking Autism Speaks bumper sticker I come across, I can stand up and say “I’m fucking awesome, just the way I fucking am.” And I can say: “I’m proud of who I am, who I am is great, and if you think otherwise you can go screw yourself.”

I don’t know that I would be as proud of what I am, of who I am, if so many people hadn’t attempted to make me feel otherwise. But I do know that if it’s a choice between being proud and taking joy in who and what I am and listening to the people who tell me I should be ashamed and hate myself?

I’ll take the pride every time.

May 22, 2011

Writhing in the Throes of Unrequited Like

I’ve been thinking a lot in terms of my romantic orientation lately. I keep seeing things that invite me to discuss them based on whether I identify as romantic or aromantic, for one thing.

The trouble is, I’m not always entirely sure what my romantic orientation is, or even how to define romantic attraction to begin with. I have asked a lot of people to explain how the difference in feeling is so I can tell, and I haven’t really gotten anywhere. I don’t actually expect to any more at this point, to be honest. I usually put myself in the category “aromantic” under the theory that if I was experiencing something that felt like romantic attraction which was qualitatively different from desire for friendship that I definitely experience I would almost certainly notice. Maybe.

It would probably help if I subscribed to a binary understanding of friendship/romance, wherein you have a bunch of friends who you’re rather fond of and like to hang out with sometimes and, basically, like, and then you have your romantic partners who get to cuddle with you and matter more than everyone else and whom you love. Except I don’t, because that trivializes friendships and also would mean that I am dating about ten people by now, some of whom are in monogamous romantic relationships with other people. And I don’t think I am anyone’s secret hidden love affair.

So okay, I tend to identify as aromantic when I’m feeling easily categorizable and wtfromantic when I’m feeling frustrated and cranky. (I don’t actually like greyromantic because it’s not a matter of experiencing romantic attraction rarely or only in certain situations or whatever, it’s a matter of not being sure I even know what romantic attraction or, for that matter, a romantic relationship even is. I can only rely on what other people tell me and a lot of it is contradictory or feels very, very weird.) I can live with that, even if it’s a little unusual. Besides, I know several other people who feel pretty similarly to me, and talking to them helps a lot. (Hi, guys!)

Except I keep running into things where people say they wish they were aromantic and asexual because that seems like it would be so much emotionally easier, and it must be really nice not to have to ever deal with unrequited love, and aromantic people are so lucky to be able to avoid that! And then I have to laugh, and laugh, and laugh, and then sometimes go hit something.

For those people who are allergic to tales of personal woe, you may wish to turn back now.

Background information: the kind of relationship I actually want involves a bunch of things, but it boils down to having a friend who is close enough to me that I get to see them all the time and either live very close to them indeed or live in the same home. I don’t really want to share a room or a bed, just live in close proximity and do things like cook dinner and bicker over terrible television and shove books at one another and, you know. Share my life with someone. In short, I would like to have a zucchini one day. I really don’t care if said zucchini dates anyone else or gets married or anything like that, as long as they don’t either leave or make me leave. Most of what I want can be found under the TV Trope Nakama, which makes it really awesome that the trope description includes this sentence:

This sort of group dynamic appeals to younger audiences who are unfamiliar with romance, and appeals to older audiences who live in a world of complex relationships and convenience masqueraded as false friendship, who are feeling nostalgic about the times when friendship meant a lifelong bond.

Yeah, either I’m an immature child who doesn’t know what real romance is yet or else I’m… nostalgic for oversimplified, easy relationships from a time in my life I haven’t actually experienced. Ever. It really gets you coming and going–either you love this trope because you’re too naive to understand it’s not real, or you love it because you’re too cynical and embittered to like romance the way it is! Wow, I love reading that sentence, it makes me feel invisible and insulted all over again every time I see it. That’s quality erasure right there.

Anyway, I am unfortunately no more logical and in control of my emotions than any romantic person is, and I have been fixating on a friend of mine and wanting her to be my zucchini for a depressingly long time. (Because I like puns and neither “crush” or “squish” seem to work–I don’t want to date her and we’re already friends–I think of this as an unrequited squash.) This is almost certainly not going to happen, which does not prevent my friend from giving me the mother of all mixed signals every time we have a discussion about our relationship. It is very painful.

In a lot of ways, I actually would rather that I had an unrequited crush on my friend, because then (assuming I could get the courage up), I could say “I have a crush on you, and I need you to know this so that I can take some time to avoid you for a little while until I get over it.” And then I could flee until the waves of embarrassment subsided and eventually we might have been able to be friends again properly. At the very least, in that situation I could say that sentence and the mixed signals would probably go away.

In the situation I have now, before I could say that sentence I would need to have a protracted and extremely painful discussion of romantic orientation in general, mine in particular, several months’ worth of conversation with other like minds, my own personal dreams for the future and depressing certainty that they are unlikely to come to pass, and also my complicated and apparently one-sided feelings for her. And then I would need to gamble that she a) understood and b) believed me and also c) did not take this as an opportunity to send me even more mixed signals and then not actually follow up on them.

Things are not exactly going well. So, you know, if I hear one more romantic person say they want to be in my shoes because my emotional life must be so much easier than theirs I might have to scream. After all, from where I’m standing at least romantic people can expect everyone to understand what they’re talking about when they complain about their personal problems.

April 10, 2011

Newsflash: There Are More Than Two Rules

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

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

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

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

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

And you’d be wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 19, 2011

Why I Hate Ticky Boxes

There’s this piece about asexuality that’s just been published: Asexuality–Not Just For the Amoebas: What It’s Like to be “Ace” in College. It did not go on the linkspam. Admittedly, part of the reason for that is that I found it shortly after the linkspam went up, but even if I’d known about it weeks ago it wouldn’t have gone on the linkspam, because this piece is everything that is wrong with articles sexuals write about asexuality. It’s not even original in its failure, in fact, which is why I’m going to specifically critique it here. I may as well get some use out of its mediocrity.

First, way to cast suspicion on aceness as an identity right there in the title by calling us quote-unquote “aces.” That sets the tone for the rest of the piece, in fact; nothing asexuals have to say about themselves in the piece is treated as above challenge. We don’t even have the right to our own words without air-quotes.

And then we have the tired old trope of calling up a “sexologist” to explain why asexuality isn’t really real. This is what really gets me, folks, because it shows up in just about every damn article or TV discussion of asexuality you can name. But oh, the media have to provide a balanced opinion, as if there really are two legitimate sides to every issue, so of course they need to dig up someone to prove us wrong in our silly little self-identifications! It’s not like we can be definitive experts on our own experiences or anything!

But anyway. We’ve got our sexologist out to prove asexuals wrong. Her name’s Dr. Patricia Fawver, in fact, and it appears that she’s Dr. Joy Davidson, Round Two: a self-proclaimed expert who is dead-set on hiding her refusal to accept asexuality as a valid identity beneath a heavy layer of concern trolling. Again: not original. Davidson did it four years ago; you’d think they’d have learned something new by now, but apparently not. Davidson, incidentally, has since had the gall to express surprise that asexuals don’t like her. Wanna bet this lady does the same thing down the road?

Fawver, I might add, appears to have no idea what we mean when we claim “asexual” as a label, which would call her status as an expert on sexuality (or at least asexuality) into question if we were discussing any other topic. However, we’re discussing asexuality, so her assertion that “asexuality” means “without sexuality” goes totally unchallenged. In fact, the piece immediately follows this up with the line “In some ways, it is difficult to argue with Dr. Fawver.”

Yes. It is totally difficult to argue with Dr. Fawver. The fact that she’s setting up a complete straw argument about the nature of asexuality goes completely unnoticed and undiscussed, of course. So does the fact that she’s apparently never heard of asexuality or what it means before this conversation, since the fact that we’re discussing lack of sexual attraction rather than total lack of sexuality appears to have flown over her head. But her arguments are so good, guys! She’s totally a credible expert on this topic!

Then the article moves on to discussing whether or not asexuals actually exist. This is treated as a topic worthy of serious discussion. I don’t even have words. For the record? I exist. Fuck anyone who tries to say otherwise. This is another one of those “no, actually, there are not two legitimate sides to the story” topics.

Fawver returns later on in this one with a stern warning to the rest of us not to identify as asexual without checking all the laundry list of causes that could potentially have done it. For crying out loud, we’re discussing an orientation, not a symptom of disease! This is what I mean by concern trolling, by the way: Fawver is covering up her insistence that no one identify this way by insisting that making people jump through a ton of hoops before identifying as asexual is for our own good. As a special bonus, she hits most of the common stupid explanations for asexuality on her way down. Apparently that old whine about claiming to change one’s sexual orientation because of a bad break-up could be true, guys!

Of course, the flip side to the “two sides to a story” malarkey is that the article’s got to present the pro-asexuality side, too. Which it does by… citing possibly the worst research paper on asexuality ever published. Seriously, they’re claiming that the fact that 5-6% of Americans are still virgins has some kind of useful relevancy to asexuality, despite the fact that asexuals are generally quite happy to say “asexuality is not the same thing as celibacy” until we’re blue in the face. The author, who is writing from a college campus and therefore almost certainly has a lot of access to actual academic journals, presumably cited this pile of steaming academic fail because it’s available free on the Internet.

Finally, halfway through the piece, it goes on to detail what a real asexual person actually has to say about the experience of being asexual in college. I don’t have anything much to say about that; it’s pretty unobjectionable, but the fact that it took a solid page and a half for the author to get around to asking an asexual person what their experiences have been like is fairly significant. It demonstrates exactly whose opinions on asexuality are important here: nonasexuals’.

The piece’s ending makes this particularly clear, because it concludes firmly on an anti-asexual note. First, it stresses that asexuality is totally fluid and subject to change, comparing it to other “identities” rather than other sexual orientations. Again, this is telling. Asexuality discussion is particularly prone to stressing the potential changeability of sexual orientation and explaining that this is why someone shouldn’t take on an asexual identity–after all, one’s asexuality could change any moment! Of course this is never applied to other sexual orientations like identifying as straight or gay. Those are legitimate, cast as unchanging; asexuality is framed as a temporary state that could change at any moment, despite being no more fluid than any other sexuality.

Also? Apparently we shouldn’t “pre-diagnose ourselves with a trendy label” before we’ve thought very hard about who and what we are. There’s a bargain–two commonly used tropes to dismiss asexuality in one phrase! We’ve got “pre-diagnose,” which harkens back to the framing of asexuality as a sort of mental or physical illness, and then we have “asexuality is a trendy label,” which implies that we’re all just mindless fashionistas adopting the word because it’s cool. I don’t know what planet the author lives on where being ace is the next big thing, but I’d love to live there. The planet I live on, as a person who is actually an out asexual, is the one where being ace is a thing coated in obscurity and treated with condescending distaste under that. Hers sounds way more fun.

And Fawver gets the last word, as always in articles like this; heaven forbid we end on a positive note about asexuality from our own perspective. Apparently we’re supposed to “claim our sexuality and be proud, but understand it’s a choice not to engage with another person”. Does Fawver have a functioning grasp of logic? How do I claim my sexuality for what it is while simultaneously writing it off as a choice that I’m making? Unless of course that I’m supposed to understand that the choice is for me to own my innate sexuality, which duhthat’s what I’m doing when I identify as asexual. Which we’re not supposed to do. Why is this person held up as an expert, again?

So seriously, fuck Her Campus. Dr. Fawver may be an arrogant twit when it comes to asexuality, but they were the ones who gave her a platform in the first place. As an asexual in college, all this article is telling me is that Her Campus doesn’t actually care about or respect college asexuals. Instead, it’s telling me that Her Campus cares more about what nonasexuals think asexuality is than listening to what we have to say about ourselves. And honestly? That’s worse than not helping. If we’re going to have pieces on asexuality, can we maybe find some that aren’t packed chock-full of dismissive language and interviews from uninformed, pontificating “sexologists” who have never studied asexuality in their lives?

February 12, 2011

It’s Not About You

So Dan Savage has been showing his ass in public again. Apparently we’re not supposed to “inflict ourselves on normal people” or something. And the thing is, this isn’t the first time Savage has been hateful towards asexuals and it won’t be the last. But I wanted to comment on it anyway, because I think it showcases a reaction that’s all too common when the discussion of asexuals dating comes up.

Every time I have seen asexuality discussed in a space that is not heavily frequented by asexuals, someone pops up and feels the need to say that they could never date an asexual, even when the original context has nothing to do with asexuals dating. (That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that same person then going on to discuss how asexuals who date nonasexuals must be horrible people who are deliberately entrapping nonasexual people in manipulative, painfully sexless relationships against said nonasexuals’ will. Apparently the concept of breaking up never occurs to these people.)

Every damn time. I don’t know why these people think this is a useful and valid insight. I don’t know what they think they’re contributing to the conversation. I don’t know if they seriously think they’re saying anything new or useful. I don’t know if the people doing it know just how hurtful it is to always see that. And I’m not sure they care if they do. Because the impact of seeing that over and over and over again hurts.

I don’t even want to date anyone! My relationships are strange and painful, all the more so for being rather outside the monogamous romance situation. And I still get upset at seeing this, because it’s a tangible remainder that the most important relationships in my culture are set up to exclude asexuals. I can’t imagine what a romantic asexual must feel at seeing these responses every time asexual discussion comes up.

After all, it’s not like other romantic asexuals are easy to find. Say you’re a heteroromantic asexual woman and you want to date only other asexuals. Assume that the often-cited figure claiming asexuals make up 1% of the population is correct. Pretend that half of these are men*–well, that leaves you with 0.5% of the population who might possibly be in your dating pool. Now take out all the ones who are aromantic or homoromantic–according to the 2008 AVEN census, about 17.5% of the asexual population identifies as aromantic and 6.5% identify as homoromantic, so that’s 24% of the community which is off limits because of romantic orientation, meaning that 76% are theoretically available**.

So that’s 1% of the population at large x 50 % of these being an acceptable gender x 76% having a compatible romantic attraction, which comes to a whole 0.38% of the population you might be compatible with on the basis of romantic and sexual attraction alone. Forget the vagaries of personality and whether you can even get along with any of these people–that’s what you have to work with. Oh, and just to make the picture a little more bleak, the invisibility of asexuality means that it’s likely that a large chunk of your possible dating pool have no idea what asexuality is or what they are, making them impossible to find. As an extra-special bonus, the fact that so much of the asexual community is online means that if you do manage to meet someone you’re compatible with and have enough in common with him to fall in love with him, it’s likely that he’ll live nowhere near you.

That’s if you’re heteroromantic–the pool gets even smaller if you’re homoromantic asexual, for instance. Or if you’re transgender and have to deal with cissexism from potential partners. Or if you’re non-binary identified in terms of gender. Or disabled, or anything else that often counts as a “dealbreaker” in the dating pool–my point is, the asexual romantic dating pool is tiny and, as everything dealing with asexuals tends to be, isolated. (Invisibility rears its see-through head again!)

So it is not unprecedented that asexual people might try to date nonasexual people now and again. Of course, this brings its own nasty problems along for the ride–to “compromise” on sex or not? Is compromising enough for the sexual partner? Is the asexual partner okay with the sex even long term? Can compromising be a free choice at all, given the odds on finding another asexual partner and the pressure not to end up alone? Is a choice between having so few dating options and having sex you don’t want still an entirely uncoerced, free choice?

And the options for asexuals are further constricted by the way that intimacy and long-term commitment are assumed to be a feature of romantic relationships only, nothing else. What this means is that if an asexual person decides that romantic relationships are unworkable, either through not experiencing romantic attraction or through not being able or interested in “compromising” on sex and not being able to find an asexual partner, you’re almost-but-not-quite Shit Out Of Luck. One of the things this does is place much more pressure on asexuals to try to make romantic relationships that do work, because this is one of the only societally-approved ways to find long-term emotional intimacy.

I’m not criticizing the personal decisions made by anyone; far from it. In general, honesty is the best policy at all times, particularly when considering matters of relationships with other people. But in a conversation about the possibility of asexuals dating nonasexuals? My sympathy is not with the poor nonasexual person, who after all always has the choice of saying “I can’t handle this” and moving on. It’s with the asexual partner, who has so many fewer options.

I’m not even going to discuss the Othering of asexuals (how strange, how broken these people must be) that often occurs alongside these responses. I’m not going to discuss how hateful they are, how they presume maliciousness to asexual people, how they often assume that asexual people are trying to entrap or trick their partners. I’m not even going to bring up the fact that I often see assumptions that asexual people magically know they’re asexual from puberty or something, despite the fact that invisibility conspires to leave us without the words to describe ourselves and the bravery to speak them aloud.

I’m only going to say this: You, the nonasexual person, have many more options than asexual people do. Kindly do not rub that in the face of the people who are most acutely cognizant of that fact.

*Not that that “half” number is likely to be accurate, since for one thing there are a ton of people who don’t identify within the gender binary within the asexual community, but we’re being as broad and generous with our data as possible.

**In fact, that same census details several types of responses that are uncategorizable as heteroromantic, homoromantic, bi- or panromantic, or aromantic, so the numbers may actually be less comforting than this. In order to be as generous as possible, I assumed that answers like “unsure of romantic orientation” and “do not believe in a distinction between romantic and nonromantic attraction” might possibly count and so I excluded only “homoromantic” and “aromantic” answers from the original analysis.

January 31, 2011

On Being Incapable of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I started to get angry.

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

I got angrier. And I am still angry.

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

December 18, 2010

FAIL, Teva.

So this morning I finally heard about this awesome new ad campaign that Teva Pharmeceuticals is running for Plan B. There are a ton of things to criticize about this campaign, and I’ve done my bit by writing a letter explaining them to the representative listed in very small words. (Among other things: if you seriously think asexuality implies asociality, I’m going to have to question whether you sleep with everyone you’re friendly with, right down to family members.) There is a lot of fail, lots of people are talking about the fail, awesome. There’s more than enough fail to go round.

The thing is, the campaign actually plays into existing use of the word “asexual” as a pejorative. See, one of the things I do as a blogger is keep tabs on what people are saying about asexuality. I use a couple of blog tracking sites to find out what people are saying, and I read just about everything that’s not clearly about bacteria and also isn’t in Spanish.

And I have noticed a growing number of people using the word “asexual” to mean “ugly.” “Unfuckable.” “Unattractive.” “So ugly I think of them as genderless” is a particularly frustrating minority usage. I’ve had that one used on others around me, by people I considered actual friends and whom I was out to. I was not pleased then, and I’m damn well not pleased now.

I think it’s actually possible that Teva Pharmaceuticals didn’t know about asexuality as an orientation before they orchestrated their ad campaign. (Although Ily has some compelling arguments that they might have, most notably the grey-and-purple color scheme, and you ought to go check that out. Certainly I’m not inclined to take not knowing as an excuse.) I think they’re using “asexual” in terms of the popular pejorative meaning I’m beginning to see. To wit: they’re using it as an insult. An insult which is meant to make women yelp “Oh, I’m not like that!” and use their product. Which is really, now I think of it, a slightly more subtle insult to women.

We’re not totally invisible anymore, folks. Our orientation is now a bona fide insult. Fuck visibility, we’re out there now, we’re home free–! Oh, wait, now we’re having to deal with other kinds of oppression. Funny how visibility isn’t turning out to be the all-consuming panacea that we’ve all been told about.

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