Writing From Factor X

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.

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 14, 2011

They Still Don’t Care About Us

Filed under: Anger,Visibility — Sciatrix @ 9:30 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

So reviewing the Dan Savage commentary from his admittedly fucked-up recent post about fat marriage in the general social justice blogosphere has been illuminating. Namely, people are talking about it. Big-name people. Small people. My Google reader exploded! People care about the fact that fat people maybe don’t deserve to be vilified for the fact of their bodies. Awesome, fantastic, this is a topic that needs to be talked about!

His equally fucked-up commentary about “minimally sexual” and asexual people in the same week, on the other hand? Absolutely zilch. Except coming from asexual people ourselves, of course. It’s been a slap in the face, actually. It’s a remainder that no one gives a damn about asexuals but ourselves. Savage can say whatever the hell he likes about asexuals, and who we should and shouldn’t inflict ourselves on, and no one will speak up for us but ourselves. Other people have allies who leverage privilege in their behalf. We have nothing.

In fact, I bet some of the asexuals reading this are thinking “we should expect other people to speak up for us?” and looking gobsmacked, because the belief that we can trust others to know and care nothing about asexuals is that ingrained. And it’s not an irrational belief, either; it’s not like experience teaches us otherwise. I suppose I’m the irrational one, in fact, for believing that people ought to care about asexuals.

Actually, you know what? At this point, I don’t even care whether you do care about us. I’m just tired of seeing people throw asexuality in as an aside without ever actually backing up the word with a breath of actual conversation about asexuals.

Shakesville, in particular, if you want to call yourselves asexual-friendly? You want to call yourselves allies?

Don’t just slap a cutesy “the cultural narratives surrounding romantic relationships assume you’re sexual” on your post and never mention the existence of asexuality again on a post, please. In fact, at this point? Either find someone to say something tangible about asexuality from a social justice perspective, or stop putting us in your so-inclusive lists and go back to pretending asexuals aren’t important. That we’re not worth talking about. Everyone else is doing it, you won’t even have to feel bad about it, but it would be a damn sight better than this bait-and-switch thing you’re doing.

I am sick and tired of seeing asexuality listed in groups of marginalizations–if I’m even that lucky–and never seeing people even stop to educate themselves once.  I am tired of never seeing issues that relate to people like me come up, ever. I am particularly sick of seeing lists that pat themselves on the back for being inclusive and never follow up that promise of inclusivity with action.

I am sick and tired of people putting asexuals on those lists, and then never actually so much as trying analyze a single issue from an asexual perspective. Because actually, the existence of asexuality could enrich discussions of consent, medicalization, ignoring boundaries, rape culture, concern trolling about one’s health, anything–even an aside that makes it clear that one is actually considering how a given issue might affect asexual people.

I am sick and tired of flinching when I come into social justice spaces when my own damn orientation comes up because I am waiting for the flurry of insults, concern trolling, and general demands to prove my existence in spaces that are ostensibly supposed to be safe for queer people. In fact? I flinch worse in queer spaces.

The omission is getting obvious. And you know, I’m greedy, and I do expect more. I’m tired of handing out cookies. Either be actual fucking allies and say things of substance when tangible issues of asexual oppression crop up, or stop putting on the pretense. But right now? I’m feeling pretty fucking slapped.

January 17, 2011

Saying The Words

Filed under: Coming Out,Visibility — Sciatrix @ 1:26 pm
Tags: , , ,

I have noticed that it is easier to talk about asexuality if I avoid the word “asexuality” in my daily life. I’d like to consider why here. (And it’s even easier to try desperately to pass for a straight person who’s just mysteriously not interested in anyone that way, which is an extension of what I’m talking about here.) If I am quiet, and act vaguely ashamed or pretend not to have thought about it, pretend to simply have been too busy to have the time to notice anyone, things get a little easier.

That is, people seem to understand better–or at least be more polite–if I say “I’m really not interested in dating anyone” than they do if I say “I identify as asexual because X.” They’re also a lot less likely to be dismissive if I don’t take on the mantle of asexuality, if I pretend that my sexual orientation is an individual quirk and not a thing that other people have.

I don’t think that this is coincidental. I think it’s an extension of the way that people react when asexuals begin to talk about asexual issues in spaces that aren’t ace-designated, in fact–the first reaction, always, is to start dismissing.

Claiming an asexual identity is a shot across the bows: it means that I have just said that I don’t intend to be dismissed. And more, it means that I have just said that I don’t think that I am experiencing a phase, or a temporary aberration from the norm (for this is my norm) or some form of disability.

So let me talk about why I use the words “aromantic asexual” to describe myself, why I try to label myself where I can even though that makes my life more difficult than it would otherwise be. Let me explain the reason I cling to public labels as well as private ones.

When I own the word “asexual” to describe us, I tap into a community. I name myself, and in doing so I reify my orientation; I assert that I am not alone, and that people like me are common enough to justify a word all our own. I become that much more difficult to ignore.

I think some people find that threatening. Actually, scratch that, I know people find that threatening. Because it’s so much easier to be dismissive when it’s only a single person, floating by like a twig in the river of heteronormative, mainstream society. It’s harder to be dismissive about a whole clump of twigs creating a dam, which might eventually direct the river in a new direction. The dam has power in a way that the twig doesn’t.

This is, incidentally, a reason that I get really excited by coming-out scenes in media. (Yeah, I’ve only seen two of them so far. That doesn’t mean I don’t love that they exist.) Way more excited than I do about asexuals in the media who are just “known” to be asexual, whose sexuality is treated as a personal quirk. Because I can see the twigs building when people come out in a way that I can’t when the quirky ones pretend it’s a personal idiosyncrasy. I have seen some people talk about how they wouldn’t like to see characters getting up and shouting about their orientations, and I feel very differently.

I want to make it clear that all of this is an explanation for me, and for me alone–I won’t try to tell anyone else how to navigate the personal calculus of their own lives. But for me, I find power in publicly claiming an asexual identity. I think it does good things for the world. And I continue saying the words.

December 31, 2010

What Are You Writing For?

Filed under: Asexual Community,Fitting Sideways,Visibility — Sciatrix @ 11:18 am
Tags: , ,

I’ve been writing here for about three months now. What started as an experiment to see whether I could sustain commentary about asexuality for an extended period of time seems to have lasted. And it’s the New Year. I have time to navel-gaze.

Anyway, I want to talk about why I write.

One day, I would like to see academic discussion of asexual identities. Almost every paper I see right now is attempting to answer the question of whether we exist at all and whether our experiences are valid, and frankly I’m not actually all that interested in proving my own reality. I want to talk about what that reality is like.

I see so many people come into asexual communities and ask for places they can get information about asexuality besides the bare-bones Asexuality 101 FAQs. I see them asking for things like asexual history, asexuality literary criticism, asexuals in stories, or even just a whole book about what it’s like to be ace. Right now, there’s nothing there. Those books don’t exist. Oh, you might have a book on celibacy here or a paper on Boston Marriages there, but asexuality? No.

I’d like, one day, for Asexual Studies to exist. And the best way I can see to build up those kinds of discussions is to have the larger ones here on the blogs and on the communities and on the forums. I hope that in twenty years asexual_fandom might have started a tradition, that something like Asexual Feminism might be bound up in hard copy and still running. I hope Andrew’s resource pages will have grown tremendously.

I hope that the questions I ask here might eventually play some small part in shaping such discussion.

Because I think that this–talking about alienation, about identities, about representation–I think that this is a form of activism just as important as Visibility and Education. Visibility is important, but it can’t be everything we have. We need to have deeper discussions. If visibility is all we have to share, then our identities must be pretty small to begin with. I do not believe that this is the case.

And more, I want to see asexuality discussion decentralized. I want to see communities with the level of discussion that AVEN has. I want to see more people coming into asexuality who aren’t immediately influenced by AVEN culture, because the culture of one board should not be the culture of an entire sexual orientation. I want to see diversity in activism, and I want to see more asexual activists who have learned from other social justice movements. I want to see different voices heard.

I want to see asexuals thinking of themselves as a real orientation which demands real respect. I want to see less justifications for why asexuality isn’t “really” an oppressed sexuality. I want to see less internalization of asexuality as a model minority for queerness. I want to see us taking ourselves seriously.

Mostly, though, I write because I want to see more asexuality discussion. And the only way to get that is to start speaking up yourself.

December 16, 2010

Let’s Get Mad

So the asexual community has a problem. Well, several problems, really.

We need to stop catering exclusively to sexuals. And by that, I mean that asexuality discussion cannot keep being limited by the need to do 101 constantly, or to drop everything and rush to educate if someone asks a question.

I am not a visibility robot. If I educate someone, that’s a service I’m doing, that’s something I choose to do. And I choose to do it a lot. But it’s not an obligation I have, and I should also have the right to say “No, I am not going to drop everything to tell you about my sexuality, make friends with Google” if I am for whatever reason not interested in playing teacher that day. There are a lot of reasons and a lot of education opportunities; if I took all of them, I would be perpetually exhausted and also bored silly.

And if someone tells me something offensive, that is not a “golden education opportunity”, because I have plenty of those to begin with. That’s a cue for me to say “hey, that is offensive” and make it clear that that behavior is not acceptable. Arguably that reaction is a form of education on its own, since certainly the person is learning something new and unpleasant, but it’s certainly not the polite and friendly of form education that I see prioritized in the community. And damn straight am I not going to be grateful for the opportunity to educate that has suddenly come up with that offensive comment, either. I’ve heard that one before from other asexuals, and I do not have words for the levels of fuck that I feel in response. People saying offensive things about asexuality ruins my day, okay, it’s not something I should ever have to feel grateful for. Or feel any other positive emotion about, for that matter. If you can find the silver lining in the pile of shit, awesome for you. It’s still a pile of shit to me.

Why the fuck are asexual communities centered around educating sexual people anyway? By this I mean watering down our dialogue, our main community for years and years focusing primarily on education and not, say, issues of what we face, issues by which people try to silence us and continue to make us invisible. We do this, and we send the message: we are only important insofar as we relate to nonasexuals. We make ourselves smaller than we are, we minimize our issues and the ways in which we redefine relationships and community and sexuality; we dumb ourselves down to make ourselves more understandable.

And on tone: There is a place both for polite and reasoned requests to take asexuality seriously and for angry, sharp-tongued demands to take asexuality seriously. There is a place for both friendly approachability and for angry implacability in activism.

Except our ratio is way skewed over to the polite and friendly side. Our communities are full of appeasers, but there are almost no nukers at all. And that is a problem. That is not a cue to say the asexual community is awesome because it’s so nice and polite, guys. Nice and polite doesn’t get things done. Nice and polite is easy to ignore, okay? One of the biggest problems I have with AVEN and which I have had is that it wholeheartedly buys into the tone argument. AVEN’s culture is very firmly on the side that to get any activism for asexuality done, we must be polite. We must be friendly, we must be approachable, we must be willing to educate at the drop of a hat. And we must smile while doing it. Or else nonasexuals will write us off as sick and diseased, or they won’t ally with us, or they won’t welcome us into their exclusive clubs. Or something.

This is bullshit. The tone argument is a fallacy. It has a long history of being used to silence activism. And it does this because it lets majority people, particularly those who are not actually interested in being allies to begin with, tell minority people that their arguments aren’t worth listening to. Not because of any actual content within those arguments, mind you. No, the tone argument argues that if the minority could only be nicer, easier for the majority to interact with, then and only then will they exert themselves, just a little, to help you out. They promise that if you’re nice enough, they’ll let you play.

But the bar for “nice enough” gets lowered. And lowered. And pretty soon, you’re trying to be so goddamn nice and polite that no one has to listen at all if they don’t already want to. Where’s the activism in that, again?

We’ve bought into it. Wholesale.

And there’s another problem with the prioritization of friendly, approachable teaching over other forms of activism within the community. Some people are naturally suited to different activism styles. I, for one, am not an appeaser. I find it much easier to teach people that certain attitudes are not acceptable around me by displaying visible anger when they come up than I do to be friendly and approachable, especially if I am limited on spoons. I like to argue for the observer, not the opponent. I’m sarcastic and I swear a lot and I’m way more concerned with the feelings of people who are dealing with oppressive frameworks than the feelings of the person stepping in it.

That’s me. It might not be you. And that’s okay. Everyone’s style is a bit different. But we need a variety of styles to make this work. We need to start being more concerned with getting angry at people who push us back. We need to stop listening to people who demand that we be nice to them before they accept us.

And that means focusing on ourselves as worthy of real activism. Not “we don’t have it so bad because we’re invisible.” (Because I’ve seen asexuals threatened with rape, my own self, for breaking that invisibility.) Not “we only want to be mentioned.” (Because I’ve seen us mentioned in the same breath as calling us sexless and genitalless.) We are a real minority sexual orientation. It’s time we believed in that enough to demand respect.

November 19, 2010

Labels Are For Soup Cans (And People, Too)

I see a lot of people disclaiming the usefulness of labels. (Especially, for some reason, people who have a perfectly good label for themselves complaining about other people making up new words to describe their experiences.)

So I want to talk about why labels are important to me.

My experience growing up as asexual was, I feel, an incredibly lucky one. I found out that asexuality existed and that an asexual community existed absurdly young. I was fourteen when I found the label, and so I essentially went through adolescence knowing that there was a place for people like me, that there was a name for people like me, and that it was okay if I didn’t have any interest in anyone else that way. Note the bit about having the name. It’ll be important later.

I didn’t necessarily take advantage of the community at the time. From about ages 15 to 18, I essentially abandoned the asexual community, such as it was. I was more interested in focusing on my autistic identity then, and was actively posting on WrongPlanet rather than AVEN at the time. Community itself simply wasn’t an issue for me, at least not about my sexuality. After all, I first had a group of friends who didn’t seem to care either, and then I had isolated myself in large part from my peers, and there was no reason for the whole tangled web of sexuality to really enter my life if I didn’t want it to.

No, the important part was simply knowing that the label was there. That it was real, that I had validation to be this way, that there were other people using this label.

I am not entirely sure that I would have been one of the people who independently makes up the term “asexual” without access to a community first. I rather doubt it. My adolescence was a period during which many, many (straight) people seemed to think I was a young lesbian, and were quite invested in trying to draw me out of my closet. And I’m not actually that immune to suggestion. I certainly would have gone through a period of extremely confused questioning, which would have been wrought with anxiety, and I probably would have gone with the flow and come out as gay because at least it was an answer. As it was, I was too terrified to come out of my closet until I went away to college, but at least I knew my label described who I was well enough. Even if I wasn’t brave enough to actually share it with people, I could be pretty sure I knew what I was, and if I changed so be it.

I could not have had that certainty without the existence of a label and a group of people who used it. For me, it was the difference between relative calm and frustrated anxiety. And all for the sake of a single word.

And here’s the other thing that labels do: they give us a community of other people who use that label to connect with. They give us a language to speak to others about ourselves, language with which we can come close to describing our experiences. And they provide a means to connect with one another.

It’s hard for me to think which comes first: the labels or the communities, since discussions within communities invariably lead to ever more finely gradated labels and more complex identities as people seek shorthands for concepts which recur over and over again. That’s what these words are, in essence: useful shorthands to communicate. And if they’re not acceptably fine-tuned, well, that’s a good reason to make a new one.

November 15, 2010

Reflections

Growing up, this book was one of the most important things in the world to me. And it’s not because it was a perfect representation of asexuality or anything, because holy shit is it ever not. Among other things, most actual asexual people have neither been gang-raped or sworn a holy vow of celibacy. (And yet Tarma was the only asexual model I had growing up, particularly in that strange twilight between which I started getting an inkling that I was not like all the other girls and when I found the words “aromantic asexual” to describe myself.)

When I wrote about asexuality as portrayed in media, I was focusing on the works themselves. Now I would like to focus on the way we react to those works.

I think communities like asexual_fandom and, more broadly, lgbtfest do a great service to the rest of us, that way. I think transformative works have a lot of potential to help us tell our own stories in our own way, because the cost of entry for derivative works is so very low. It’s so much harder to get an actual publisher to take up one’s work than it is to merely publish it on the Internet, for one thing.

I wonder, sometimes, how to strike that balance between wanting to see more asexual characters and wanting to see more asexual characters who aren’t embodying an offensive stereotype. (And perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to it, being autistic and having serious issues with the similar conflation of autism and sociopathy.) Because there are so damn few of us out there, and almost none of them are actually written by asexual people. In fact, most of them don’t even seem to have been written by people who made a half-assed attempt to connect with actual asexual people.

It makes me angry that I have to make that trade-off. It reminds me of my reaction to reading Guardian of the Dead, in fact, which has a semi-minor asexual character and did it right. I’d gotten the book, read it, and cycled through elation and excitement and then grateful. Really grateful. And then, being myself, into anger, not at Ms. Healey but at the whole world. Because what kind of world is it where I feel grateful for reading a single book? What kind of world is it, where seeing a character with the same orientation as me is an occasion for great joy, where the sudden cessation of invisibility is a moment for wonder?

In the absence of a better world, I make trade-offs.

I watch The Big Bang Theory, even though I find it problematic as hell. (And growing more so, I think, with the “but they’re REALLY dating” dancing about it has been doing with the Amy/Sheldon arc.) And there are bits of it I like, but there are so many that make me cringe, and cringe, and cringe, but I put up with them anyway because where am I going to find another aromantic character whose orientation is actually sort of slightly respected by the writers and discussed? (Certainly it’s not respected by the fandom.) And I reread Oathbound even though the old hackneyed trope of gang-rape changing a person’s sexuality makes me cringe.

I’d like a world where The Oathbound is a cringe-worthy portrayal of asexuality rather than one of the better ones, please. I think I might be satisfied then.

October 11, 2010

Invisibility Internalized

Here is my great problem when talking about asexuality: I find it much easier to talk about being asexual and what that means to be on the Internet, with people who do not know me in meatspace*.

I’m dealing with that for my project for National Coming Out Day. I am not actually coming out per se to anyone. Rather, what I will be doing is making a Facebook post inviting anyone who wants to talk to me about asexuality to do so at any time over the course of the week, and I will make a concerted effort to answer any questions they might have.

But I’m not talking about that here. Instead, what I want to talk about is why I find it so difficult to talk about asexuality outside of asexual spaces, especially off the Internet. My asexuality is a fairly important aspect of my identity. It colors how I perceive the world and it impacts the way I view my relationships with friends and family. And, as this blog evinces, I spend a lot of time thinking about asexuality and its place in the world. I care enough about this topic to write an essay on it every week. It’s a big part of me.

And yet I don’t talk about it much. Oh, I’m out, and I’m feeling more and more comfortable coming out as asexual fairly casually. I joke about it sometimes, or other people do.

I still don’t bring up issues related to asexuality much in conversation. My meatspace friends don’t know this blog exists, for instance. Not because it’s a secret, but because I don’t talk about it. They barely know AVEN exists, mostly because occasionally I will mention it if a discussion off AVEN is really upsetting me.

There was an exercise I did last week in my Human Sexuality class. We were asked to write three important parts of our self-identity on a piece of paper and go and talk to a total stranger without giving any hints to them about what we had written on our papers. And you know, the hardest part of the whole exercise was letting the person I was talking to know I was ace at the end of it. Dancing around my identity? Ignoring the entire question of sex, romance, of dating and of life plans? It was easy. I do it every day.

When the topic of sexuality comes up, I am often afraid to speak up because I feel that, for some reason, my opinion doesn’t “count.”

My orientation is something to joke about on occasion, and that’s pretty much it with some rare exceptions. It’s not something I discuss seriously. Because that would make it real.

And this… I think this is because I have internalized the broader culture of asexuality as being something which is not quite as real as other orientations. After all, it’s very rare to hear asexuality discussed in the context of anything outside of specifically asexual spaces. When I do see it outside of our discussions–even so much as a mention that asexual people exist, without any discussion of actual asexual experiences–I am taken aback. Shocked, really, at least for a second. Seeing asexuality so much as mentioned is an acknowledgement that our issues are important, even among people who are not themselves asexual.

I’m not the only asexual person I have talked to who does this, either. Even within the ace community I see many people arguing that, for instance, visibility efforts are a waste of time. Or coming out is, because no one needs to know about asexuality but asexual people. Or that we don’t really experience any hardships, so we ought to just be quiet and keep our asexuality to ourselves, and save the real discussion for people who have sexualities that are oppressed.

I think: invisibility is stifling. It is having one side of me focusing on one part of myself, and another side to show the people outside of my community. It is downplaying something which is important to me.

And yet breaking that invisibility is terrifying. Especially when I have seen, so often, attempts to raise dialog about asexuality in non-asexual spaces dissolve into concern trolling about health, or anger about appropriating the struggles of others, or being told that we’re upset about nothing. That this isn’t a problem. It isn’t simply a matter of irrational fear.

I think it’s worth doing, even if it is terrifying. I hope I have less to fear than I think.

*I consciously use the term “meatspace” rather than “real life” to refer to spaces off the Internet, because I don’t think Internet interactions are any less real than off-Net ones. Especially for people whose primary source of social contact is through the Internet–and I’ve been there and probably will be again–I think the term “real life” trivializes the important relationships that form and the conversations which happen using the Internet as a medium.

October 6, 2010

The Politics Of Being Out

So, National Coming Out Day is coming up, and I’m still planning what, exactly, I am going to do for it.

I am somewhat conflicted about coming out, largely because for me the process of outing myself is still often fraught with anxiety. Much of this comes down to the fact that not only does coming out for me  entail the usual worries about how the person will react and whether they will show themselves to be a total douchecanoe, but also worrying about asexual-specific coming out issues. You know: whether I have the resources necessary to provide an explanation of my orientation. Whether I can explain my sexuality to someone and get it across without too many lingering misunderstandings. Whether I’m going to put up with the dreaded Masturbation Question. Whether I am going to be asked if my sexuality is a disease, or told to check up on my hormones “just in case.”

Neekabe recently posted a really awesome essay on why it’s often difficult to come out as asexual, even if you’re actively trying to do so, and one of the things she said really resonated with me:

As a sexual person, all you have to do drop the word of boy/girlfriend, and/or a casual mention of a person being attractive to you, and you’re basically done. Or you have a variety of slang terms that you can use if you want to be more explicit. Being out may not be a good thing, but society has gotten to the point where it is possible to come out without turning it into a Thing unless the other person chooses to turn it into a Thing through their reaction.

As someone who’s asexual, it’s virtually impossible to accidentally out yourself. The casual hints “I’m just not wired for relationships” (my favourite line) or “Not really interested/looking” tend to be just read as typical avoidance. Slang terms aren’t understood. I could tell someone I’m ace, or a gray-A(*), but they’re not going to get what that means, they’ll have to ask, and then it becomes a Thing.

If I could come out just by mentioning I was ace, without having to make a big show of it… well. I’d come out more often, for certain. If I could come out just by hinting, I’d be out to everyone. (Hell, I’m blindingly obvious if you know what to look for. The fact that people don’t usually just means that I either ping gaydars or get reclassified into this mysterious not-gendered-not-sexual category.) But that’s not where we are right now.

Right now, coming out entails playing educator, representative of my sexuality, and terrified person trying to share something important all at the same time. (I try not to show I’m terrified.) Have I ever mentioned that it is difficult to play educator when you’ve just bared a secret, important part of yourself and you know that total confusion is one of the best-case scenarios?

I have also had incidences where I was essentially given the choice between coming out or lying. In class, no less. That one was fun. I suck at lying. Let me tell you, as stressful as coming out can be when you get to pick the time and consider when to bring it up, it is a thousand times worse when you get totally blindsided. Especially when you’ve just gotten invisibled on top of that and are dealing with realizing “oh, awesome, you assume either I don’t exist or that I’m not here.”

So given that I think coming out is stressful and scary and difficult much of the time, why do I do it?

Partly, it has to do with my ability to pass as heterosexual, which is the usual “default” assumption. Which is to say, I suck at it. I do not particularly experience crushes, I tend to go silent when people are around me are discussing hot people of the appropriate genders, and I often don’t have anything to share when the inevitable dating talk goes up. Besides, people who know me well and hang around me a lot tend to notice when you never display any interest in anyone, ever. I experienced enough probing questions about whether I was gay or not in high school, especially from my parents. Coming out is a much better way to give people an explanation for why I am generally not dating or looking to date than just letting them come up with their own explanations, I find.

But that’s not my whole reasoning. I firmly believe there is a political aspect to being out as asexual. Well, to coming out in general, actually, but especially coming out ace. Coming out is the single most powerful means of forwarding visibility. Even aside from the fact that it is an act of visibility in itself, and a powerful one, coming out as asexual humanizes us. It puts a face to what we are. It makes it impossible to divorce the concept of asexuality in general from this person, right in front of me, who is herself asexual. (Or himself, or themself, or zirself.)

Which is not to say that outing oneself past endurance is a good thing. Quite the opposite: if you don’t have the mental resources to come out or do not feel safe doing so, then coming out is probably not a good idea. There are people I have decided do not get to know I am asexual, for example. Barring a serious change in the current state of affairs, I have no intention of allowing them to know. There is a balance.

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