Writing From Factor X

September 24, 2011

Pulling Out the Brain Worms

Filed under: Fitting Sideways,Growing Up Asexual — Sciatrix @ 7:09 pm
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A while ago I was tossing around post ideas on my tumblr and mentioned dealing with the nasty brainworms that growing up as asexual has left me with. So. This is that post. This one is going to be very sensitive for me.

One of the biggest things I have been trying to convince myself of lately is that I have a shot at a meaningful personal life. Because the thing is, growing up I have had no meaningful models in my life of adults with strong emotional relationships besides their spouses. My parents move every four or five years; they keep in touch with a few old friends through email, but they see each other perhaps once in ten years at reunions.

Okay, that’s not quite true. I’ve also seen adult role models in my life rely on extended family! Except the whole thing where I don’t fit very well into my family at all rather puts a crimp into that. (Besides the whole sexual orientation thing, I also manage to be the political black sheep of a very politically active extended family on my paternal side. They’re strong Republicans. There are also some interpersonal dynamics that make relying on extended family rather uncomfortable for me.)

So I internalized the idea that I couldn’t really have much in the way of emotional connection. After all, every adult I was intimately familiar with growing up relied heavily on their spouses for emotional support. And I don’t think I ever met adult close friends more than once or twice across the span of my entire childhood, and I’m counting my teenage years. Everyone I met who interacted with the adults in my life was either related to them or married to them. Occasionally I met boyfriends and girlfriends.

I figured that at some point you got too old for real friendships. Oh, you might have long-distance correspondences, but you don’t get to have people drop by and say hello, you don’t get to go eat dinner with them or celebrate birthdays or really spend any off time in their company. You don’t get to have friends who actually stick around in your life as an adult, is my point.

(This is where I just completely boggle at people who react to the idea of queerplatonic relationships as more or less already what people mean when they talk about friends. Because I never so much as met an adult with personal friends they regularly hung out with, as a child. I’m sure that adult friendships that are closer than that exist, but when we’re talking the things I saw growing up, the things I internalized and incorporated into my vague sense of How the World Works? Yeah, there was nothing.)

Add to this the fact that I am naturally a bit of a workaholic and a perfectionist. This isn’t all that unusual; my parents are both similar types and so is at least one of my siblings. I like to work on things I’m good at, and I like the things I make to be as good as I can make them.

I decided that the solution was to make my professional life take the place of my personal life.

Specifically, I decided that if I could find a career I thought was interesting enough and high-powered enough, I could spend more or less my entire life in it. I figured I could spend however much time I needed to at work to forget that I didn’t actually have anything to go home to. If I started feeling lonely or noticing that I had no personal life to speak of, I could always work harder until there was no energy left for noticing what my emotions were doing!

This is some seriously fucked-up shit, guys.

I should add something here that illustrates the environment I grew up in and the attitudes my family has to friendships. My mother in particular has always seemed a little baffled by the level of closeness I have with my friends and generally reacts in a horrified fashion if I mention actually sharing some insecurity with them. So a few months ago, when I was discussing my asexuality with her, I mentioned this–I mentioned that I was afraid for the future, I mentioned that I was scared of being alone and that I thought it was probably how things were going to turn out. I was hoping a little that she’d tell me I was wrong and reassure me.

What she actually did was nod matter-of-factly and told me I’d need to keep in close contact with my sisters, because no one else would ever be there for me. And the thing was, I believed her. Part of me still does. (And another part of me is pretty sure that my sisters won’t necessarily be there for me, either.)

I look around me at people who have their personal lives all planned out and I laugh, because I never thought I’d have a personal life to plan out. I thought I’d have to bury it in a career so I wouldn’t ever have to remember I was alone. I more or less planned to have nothing, because I never expected to have a shot at anything else.

When I was sixteen, I did an internship class which involved spending a lot of time sitting around and thinking about my future career choices. One of the things they wanted us to do in this class was detail where we wanted to be five, ten, fifteen, and twenty years from that point in terms of our careers and also in terms of our personal lives. I had spent most of my life up until then carefully not thinking about the future of my personal life, and I’ve spent most of the intervening years continuing to carefully not think about that, but I had an assignment to complete and I had to write something.

I have never forgotten looking down at that piece of paper and having absolutely nothing more personal to write about my hopes for the future than a desire to have a couple of dogs. Seriously, I had to fill in the section on where I planned to write about my expectations–no, my hopes–for my personal life, for things that should have been filled with dreams about family, I had to fill that in with ramblings about dogs. Because I figured having a couple of dogs, that was actually attainable. You can have dogs, as an adult. I didn’t think you could have any kind of family if you were like me.

I am still endlessly grateful that we received no commentary on that assignment. Because I can’t imagine any commentary from my teacher that wouldn’t have been salt in my wounds.

So I wrote this to mention that I’m trying to get rid of that conditioning. And it’s slow, and it’s painful, and incidentally it’s very much tied up with all the conversations I’ve been having in various spaces about queerplatonic relationships and other people who are more or less like me, who have similar wishes for the future. I still plan to have nothing, but hope is beginning to creep in around the edges. Part of me finds this absolutely terrifying–because hope means I might have something to lose.

But it also means I might have something to gain.

July 18, 2011

Asexuality Was My Sex Ed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 1, 2011

Edging Out Of The Closet

This post was originally written for the Carnival of Aces.

When I first identified as asexual, I swore I’d never be out.

Okay, so obviously that’s changed considerably in the intervening years. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I identified as asexual for about three and a half years before I felt brave enough to come out to anyone. I admire anyone who is brave enough to come out in high school; I’ll tell you right now that I wasn’t one of them, despite the fact that I was pretty sure what I was and even had the words before I’d finished my freshman year of high school.

I was terrified to explain, you see.

I’d spent quite a bit of time watching discussions about asexuality online after I thought “oh, that’s me,” and I hadn’t failed to notice that claiming asexuality in those spaces didn’t exactly get you friendly, polite reactions. And okay, it’s not like I particularly trusted anyone with that information. My parents weren’t overtly homophobic–but they reacted to any hint of queerness with giggling discomfort, and that seemed like a bad omen. As for my friends, well, I moved a few months after I started identifying myself as asexual, and there was no one at my new high school that I trusted not to react badly.

Also, I was pretty sure that no one would believe me. When I found out about asexuality for the first time, I was fourteen–and I was already accustomed to being told that no, eventually I would totally change my mind and want to marry a boy some day. (I even believed it some of the time. Not that I was actually changing my mind for the moment, but that I would eventually.) To add insult to injury, by that point my mother had spent years insisting that I definitely had a secret crush on one of my two male best friends, despite the fact that I hadn’t seen either of them since I was ten. I was pretty sure that if I couldn’t even get people to listen when I said I wasn’t interested in a specific person, they weren’t going to listen when I said I wasn’t interested in anyone.

So I decided coming out wasn’t worth it. But the idea of trying to hide, of feigning crushes on boys or trying to feign an actual relationship, seemed anathema. I don’t lie if I have any choice at all, and I certainly don’t lie if there’s a chance of hurting anyone as a result, and in any case I’m quite bad at lying to begin with. So I figured that if I pretended that being myself was just a subset of me being a bit weird, that if it was just an individual idiosyncrasy, I’d fit better–or at least I wouldn’t stand out quite so much.

At this point another fact about me needs to be mentioned: although I’m a cis woman, my gender presentation is not exactly femme. And in fact, as I was easing into identifying as asexual to myself, I was also easing into the kind of gender presentation that made me feel most comfortable. I cut my hair shorter and shorter, despite my parents’ increasing objections and nagging. I wore baggy T-shirts a lot. My gender presentation was ambiguous enough that it wasn’t unusual for people to assume I was a boy or to try to guess my gender while talking to me.

It’s perhaps not surprising in that light that a lot of people started to assume I was gay. I must have been asked up front about my sexual orientation dozens of times before I came out with varying levels of politeness and tact. In middle school, before I even knew what I was, I think it was mostly an attempt to hurt me; by high school the questions tended to be more polite, but I still found them annoying. My parents sat down with me and attempted to coax me into confessing my possible gayness several times, alternating between “if you are gay, we’ll support you” and “if you don’t act more girly, a lesbian might hit on you, and that would be terrible!” The mixed messages that came out of those talks weren’t precisely encouraging.

I am not good at passing for straight, is what I am saying. And the net result of all the questioning is that I started to get aggravated. For me, saying “I’m just not interested” and leaving it at that doesn’t seem to be an option, at least not for people I spend any length of time with. Besides, as all this was going on I was starting to feel more secure in my orientation itself, and I was starting to think more about what being asexual meant to me. There were times when I really wanted to talk to someone about what being asexual meant to me, and anyway I was sick of not sharing all of myself with people I cared about. Also, I was really getting tired of the thinly-veiled attempts to figure out whether I was secretly a lesbian.

So in the summer after my senior year, I decided that when I went to college I was going to be out, at least to my friends, if only to make the “are you really gay?” questions stop happening. And in the fall, a few weeks after meeting the people I ended up being friends with, I came out in meatspace for the first time. All at once, so I didn’t have to hunt people down later. I remember being prickly and sharp and making it very clear that this was not a subject open to debate, and I remember being absolutely blindsided by the immediate reaction of one person, who exclaimed “Man, that’s awesome, now I know someone from every sexual orientation!” That experience went well, although not all of the later ones did.

Coming out didn’t solve everything, though. It didn’t necessarily let me talk more about what my asexuality meant to me. It didn’t solve all of the misconceptions people, including friends who knew me well, had about who I was and what I wanted out of life. And it didn’t stop me feeling terrified every time I did try to mention asexuality. So eventually, after a year or so had passed, I resolved to actually talk more about asexuality and be more open about what I was–not just coming out, but discussing my sexuality past that point and sharing some of the things going on inside my head with the people I care about.

I told a friend why Mercedes’ Lackey’s Oathbound books were so important to me, and I talked about what the publication of Guardian of the Dead meant to me when it came out for the first time and I bought it. I lent it round to everyone I knew, too.

I came out in the middle of a class to explain my asexual perspective on the discussion topic, and then brought up asexual perspectives later on over the course of that semester. (Another person came out right back to me. It was exhilarating once I got past the fear.)

A year ago, I finally bought a black ring. I was so nervous about it that I waited to purchase one until I made a solitary out-of-state road trip, and then bought one from a rock shop on my way home. I went through several before I got the one I have now.

I started this blog, and a few months later I mentioned that I was writing it to my friends. I don’t think any of them reads it now, but I know that two of them have looked at it.

A month ago I finally got around to explaining the joke about the name of the show “Ace of Cakes.”

I’m not to the point where I want to be yet, but I’m getting there. And even though it’s scary for me to keep talking, I’m glad I started. For me, being able to share all of who I am with people I care about is worth it.

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.

October 28, 2010

Won’t Someone Please Think of the Adolescents?

Let’s talk about age and identity policing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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