Writing From Factor X

February 27, 2011

Let’s Have a Conversation About Compromise and Consent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 23, 2011

How Inclusivity Fails On Asexuality

Filed under: Anger,Feminism,Intersections — Sciatrix @ 4:44 pm
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So I got linked to on Feministe last week. And if you haven’t read the post there, you really should, because it’s notable for a) being written by someone who is clearly trying to be a clued-up ally, and b) having a comment section that is remarkably well-behaved, probably more due to some awesome moderation than to actual niceness on the part of the commentariat.  The post is about how asexuality tends to get ignored by the broader social justice movement, and how this is not, in fact, a good thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 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.

October 1, 2010

Asexual Feminism

Filed under: Feminism,Intersections — Sciatrix @ 12:01 am
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So I’m cheating a bit on the content here. This was actually a piece I wrote in June for the first edition of Asexual Feminism, a zine about… well, asexual feminism. It’s quite well named that way. I will actually put something new up on Monday, but given that it’s been about two months since this was first published, I thought I would add this to my blog now as well. Asexual Feminism is a great zine–if you want to read the whole thing, which I highly recommend, I host the PDF here with permission from the publisher and the relevant AVEN thread is here. (The zine does not have its own website, which is a shame in my view.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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