Writing From Factor X

July 11, 2011

My Thoughts on the Word “Zucchini”

So I lurk around discussions a lot, and lately I’ve been seeing a bunch of people discuss “zucchini” used in a queerplatonic context. Which is really really awesome. I can’t even begin to explain how awesome I find that. But one of the things I also see a lot is people looking at the word “zucchini” in particular and going “that’s just silly!”

Okay. The thing about “zucchini” is that it’s meant to be a little silly. Here’s a situation between two people that the English language has absolutely no words to describe it. There aren’t even good roots to use to make a short, unwieldy, easy-to-say alternative (although “queerplatonic” is a good try). So we use a random vegetable, because why not?

Actually, let’s give out a short history of the word “zucchini” in this context, because it seems to me that a lot of people don’t know where it comes from. Last December, Kaz wrote a post discussing zer confusing, blurring-the-lines romantic orientation. In the comments, ze and meloukhia (who also goes by s.e. smith elsewhere on the internet) got to discussing the total lack of words available for talking about relationships that blur the lines between what is traditionally considered friendship and what is traditionally considered romantic relationships. Meloukhia made a joke (“Ok, I am now referring to these kinds of relationships as zucchini. This is official, and so shall it be.”) and the word took off.

Let me repeat that: the word “zucchini” used in a relationship context started as a joke.

Half the fun of “zucchini” as terminology (and “squash,” and other puns) is that it’s totally silly. It doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s slangy and fun and absurd and colloquial. It makes no sense when you think about it. And that works, because there actually aren’t words in the English language that do make sense when you think about them for the kinds of relationships we’re discussing–everything either gets subsumed under the devaluation that gets attached to words like “friend” or has been taken to refer to romantic relationships. “Zucchini” isn’t entirely meant to take itself seriously in the first place.

And yet on a different, deadly serious level I am ridiculously attached to the word “zucchini.” Seriously, any time I see it criticized as a silly, unnecessary word I wilt a little and get defensive–including, for crying out loud, when Elizabeth described an entirely hypothetical person who thought it sounded stupid in her recent communities post.

So let me talk about why that is here.

I have spent an absurd amount of time questioning and re-questioning what my romantic orientation is in the past three years. I have sat up nights wondering if I’m lying to myself about my romantic feelings, if I’m repressing romantic attraction and the way I feel about my friends is just that bleeding through. I have spent hours and hours trying to figure out what I am, who I am, because the kinds of relationships I want don’t seem romantic and trying to shove them into the boxes my culture assigns to “romantic relationships” seems unpleasant and strange–but they don’t into fit into the boxes it assigns to “friendship,” either.

I have never wanted to be uncategorizable. I know that some people enjoy the opportunity to cast off labels, but I have always preferred to find a succinct descriptor of myself. Labels mean that I can find other people like me to share my experiences with–being so unique that I can’t be labeled is a nice idea, but it also means being isolated and alone. I hate feeling alone.

The discussions that have been happening in the past six months about queerplatonic relationships and zucchinis and squashes have been the first steps that have helped me to figure out what I actually am. Even better, they’ve shown me that I’m not alone–that I’m not the only person who wants relationships like this. My most heartfelt fantasy is in essence a Boston marriage, and the discussions I’ve been having recently have shown me that I’m not the only person in the world who thinks like that.

And even better, words like “zucchini” and “squash” have given me vocabulary to talk about my dreams and my hopes and my current relationships so much more effectively than I could otherwise. I mentioned a few weeks ago that there’s a relationship in my life that is not going well–well, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s been going on with this relationship for three years now, and developing terms like these is what has given me the tools to understand what’s happening. (They’ve also given me the perspective to walk away, because in many ways this relationship is badly unbalanced and I keep getting hurt on it. Without understanding why those balance problems persist, I would probably keep emotionally hurting myself over and over as I have been doing for, as mentioned, years.)

That’s another thing: words shape our thoughts. If no word exists in a language to describe a thing, it’s almost impossible to discuss that concept, at least not without convoluted circumlocutions. Lack of words becomes a way to silence minority viewpoints.

Right now, “zucchini” is the only word I can use to describe these kinds of relationships, except possibly the unwieldy “person I am in a queerplatonic relationship with.” I’m attached to “zucchini” because these discussions are very, very important for me to have. It’s a silly word on the surface–but under that surface, I’m deadly serious when I use it.

May 25, 2011

We’re All In This Together

So in the wake of the shitstorm that’s been happening on Tumblr this week I’ve seen one thing over and over again, and it bugs the shit out of me. It happens basically whenever the policing of asexual queer identities comes up, actually, and it hasn’t gotten any less obnoxious over time.

Sexual people, you actually don’t have the right to tell asexuals that our primary identity is “really” whatever our romantic orientation is. No, not even if we’re identifying as queer.

Some asexuals identify first and foremost as asexual. Some don’t. And that goes regardless of what romantic orientation any given asexual may or may not have. (Hey, some of us don’t have romantic orientations that make a lot of sense! It’s funny how life is confusing that way!) You don’t actually get to tell anyone that their primary identity is totally invalid and they have to use a secondary one (or even a different but related one) because it’s easier for you to understand.

And even for those who don’t put any different weight on either their sexual or romantic orientation, erasing asexuals’ identities as asexual is still absolutely not okay. A heteroromantic asexual person is not the same thing as a straight person. A homoromantic asexual person is not the same thing as a gay person. The experience of being a romantic asexual is different from the experience of being a person with a matching sexual and romantic orientation in a whole bunch of ways.

I think it’s telling, in fact, that when asexuals do divide themselves based on romantic orientation, the usual divide is between people who identify themselves as unambiguously romantic and aromantic or confused people. Within romantic asexuals, I almost never see people dividing themselves between heteroromantic, biromantic, or homoromantic, and the similarity of experiences between these groups is almost always emphasized.

I am really sick and tired of sexual people trying to ignore the reality of asexual identities by pretending that they don’t exist. Because that’s exactly what’s going on when these people try to claim that heteroromantic people are really straight and homoromantic asexuals are really gay. Instead of engaging with the reality of asexuality as an identity in its own right, these people think that they can just sidestep the issue by claiming that asexuality itself doesn’t matter, romantic attraction is the real identifier of queerness or not-queerness!

(You will notice that these people never engage with the reality of aromantic asexuals, except sometimes to put us in the box marked ‘straight’ with no discussion or explanation. You know, it’s funny but I thought that to be a straight girl I actually had to like cock. It’s good to know I was wrong about that!)

Of course, if you brought up the reality of aromantic heterosexual people to these Lord Gatekeepers of the Word Queer, I bet you dollars to donuts they’d claim that those people are also Totally Straight. Yes! Apparently if you’re heteroromantic asexual, romantic orientation is the really important part, but if you’re aromantic heterosexual, sexual orientation is far more important.

The thing is, this is a great way for sexualnormative queer people to avoid having to actually engage with the idea of asexuality as a queer identity. It provides them with a tailor-made way to pretend that asexuality itself is unimportant and that asexual concerns can be dismissed as so much unimportant whining. After all, if you’re saying that the only important problems asexuals have come from their association with The Gay (or, in very slightly more enlightened circles, The Bi), then you can dismiss asexuality itself quite easily from the lists of things that you should probably pay attention to.

Unfortunately for them, the reality of asexuality is much, much more complicated than that. There’s a reason that asexuals discussing sexuality amongst ourselves don’t divide our experience into the “really straight” ones and the “really queer” ones amongst ourselves. That’s because when we share our experiences amongst ourselves, the similarities between us are far more starkly evident than the differences.

Besides, there are a lot of queer issues that apply to heteroromantics specifically because of their asexuality. Ace Admiral recently dug up the Queerness Invisible Knapsack and pointed out that fully 36 out of 40 points can apply just as much to asexuals–including heteroromantics–as they can to other kinds of queer people. Now, if you’re an identity-policing queer person, you get to make a decision here. Do these things matter in terms of oppression, or do they not? Is being “accused of being abused, warped or psychologically confused because of my sexual orientation” important? Because that’s something almost every asexual I know has encountered at some point. How about being able to “count on finding a therapist or doctor willing and able to talk about my sexuality”? Important or no? Does it matter when it happens to aces, regardless of any other aspect of their identities, or only when it happens to gay people?

I’m open to discussion of the use of “queer” by asexual people. But that discussion needs to refer to all asexual people, regardless of their other characteristics. And it needs to engage with asexuality as a primary identity on its own first. This divide and conquer bullshit is just that–bullshit. And it needs to stop right now.

December 24, 2010

It’s Easy To Pass When You’re Invisible

One of the biggest criticisms I’ve seen from the queer community regarding asexuals identifying as queer, particularly aromantic and heteroromantic asexuals, is that we have this awesome “passing privilege” thing. The theory goes that apparently, because we are not in same-sex relationships, we pass for straight. Of course biromantic, panromantic, and homoromantic aces “count,” because it’s like they’re bi/pan/homo-sexual! And heteroromantic is the same as heterosexual! And aromantics–well, uh, uh, they don’t do the same-sex dating thing so THEY MUST BE STRAIGHT.

(And of course asexual people for whom the romantic orientation concept doesn’t work very well are made twice invisible. Awesome.)

In particular, I find that it’s not uncommon for queer people to say things like “the mainstream wants you to be asexual.” This latter is usually a good indication that the person in question has never talked to an actual asexual person in their life, but I digress.

And I have a lot of problems with this. For one thing, not everyone actually passes consistently for heterosexual. I don’t. Before I started coming out on a regular basis, people assumed I was a closeted lesbian. I can be out honestly, or I can have people try to help me out. This is my experience.

Besides, not everyone wants to pass in the first place. Passing is soul-killing. Passing means lying to others, it means hiding yourself, it means pretending to be something you aren’t. It means pretending to be straight, because in this heteronormative world, you’ve got to be heterosexual to get by. Not asexual, because asexuality does not confer privilege. Let me point out that that is not the same thing as being heteroromantic. It’s not enough to not be interested in same-sex partners. You have to be interested in opposite-sex partners as well, and you’d better display sexual interest in them while you’re about it. Passing means displaying that interest, even if it isn’t there.

It means… closeting yourself, in fact. (Wait. Hang on–you mean that asexual people might have closets, too? Perish the thought.)

But hey, I’ll buy that gender-conforming asexuals often do pass fairly well when they’re not being open about their identities. When you’re single and not dating someone, you must be straight, right? So heteronormativity goes. And it’s not like there’s acedar to match gaydar in mainstream culture, right? Well, there’s a reason for that.

Mainstream people don’t tend to pick up on cues that a person might be asexual because asexuals are invisible to the mainstream. Invisibility is not passing. There’s a choice involved in passing: you can choose whether or not to lie about who and what you are, even if it’s only a lie of omission. There is no choice involved whatsoever in being invisible. Invisibility exists to make it impossible or difficult to speak up about who and what you are.

Invisibility is trying to be honest about who you are and being told that you don’t exist, that you’re lying, that you’re deluded. It’s trying actively not to pass for straight, because you’re not straight, and being told that you’re wrong about your own feelings.

Invisibility is growing up never knowing that you could exist. It’s trying to find communities of people like you and failing, because no one else is ever like you. It’s listening to a thousand different ways to plan a life, and not fitting into any of them.

Invisibility is not having words to describe what you are. It’s making words up or pretending you’re something different than you are. It’s endless questioning because none of the available options fit. It’s finally finding a word that fits and seeing that word used mostly in ways that hurt. It’s trying to answer a form about your sexual orientation honestly and having to lie, because no ticky-box exists for you.

Invisibility is forced silence because speaking up about asexuality has consequences, even if it’s only to say “we exist.” It’s never having a place in discussions of sexuality. It’s feeling painfully grateful to see just the word “asexual” in a list of queer or variant sexual orientations. Not a discussion of that word, or any explanation of what it means, but only the word itself.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m not all agog at the idea that as an aromantic asexual, I’m “privileged” in this sense. Invisibility is not a fucking privilege. Stop trying to make it into one.

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.

December 11, 2010

Call For Participation: Spectral Amoebas – A Blog Carnival about Asexuality and the Autism Spectrum

So there has been some discussion lately about asexuality and the autism spectrum in the blogosphere. And I think this is a fantastic development, and clearly I am not alone in this.

To that end, Kaz, Ily and I are organizing a blog carnival about asexuality and the autism spectrum.

A blog carnival is an event where various people write posts around a single topic and link them together at the end. The topic of this carnival is the intersection of asexuality and the autism spectrum.  The scope of this project is general. Any topic that deals with the intersection of asexuality and autism fits within the aegis of the carnival. If you’re not sure, submit it anyway and we’ll figure it out.

We are asexual bloggers on the autistic spectrum who want to explore the intersection between autistic and asexual identities.  The basis of this project is to have a conversation about our unique experiences being autistic and asexual without looking for a “cause”.  We want to create a safe, non-judgmental space to talk about the issues that affect us.  If you identify as asexual (or demisexual, or gray-a) and as on the autistic spectrum (diagnosed or not, AS, autism, PDD-NOS, NLD), you are invited to write a blog post for this project. If you are not asexual and autistic you are welcome to contribute provided you focus on the issues experienced by this particular intersection. The scope of the project is general, and open to any experiences of being autistic and asexual.

However, please keep in mind that asexuality here is to be discussed as a sexual orientation in its own right, not as discussion of the desexualization imposed on autistic people by mainstream culture.

If you want to write a post but don’t have a blog, please contact Ily at sanfranciscoemily@gmail.com or me at sciatrix@gmail.com about doing a guest post.  Please have your post written by 31st January and comment on this post or send an e-mail to me or Ily about your post by then. Note that the hosts reserve the right to reject posts by anyone if they feel they do not follow the guidelines of or are not in the spirit of the carnival. The posts will be compiled on Writing From Factor X for posterity. A post with the compilation will go up here in the beginning of February.  Be a part of this exciting project!
–Sciatrix, Kaz, and Ily

An edit: Possible topics include but are not restricted to coming out experiences (both asexual and autistic), relationships, gender expression, young adult experiences, treatment by medical professionals, integrating identities, or dealing with stereotypes. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, only general ideas.

December 6, 2010

Ace On the Spectrum

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

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

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

No. And yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who else wants to join the conversation?

November 22, 2010

On Pedestals, And Why I Fear Them

I am a young asexual woman. I am not sexually active now and never have been, and I’m not especially interested in ever becoming so. The reaction that some people have been known to have to my sexuality is amusing and infuriating all at once. I have been called “pure,” “chaste,” asked to divulge my magical secret of being able to resist the desires I must surely have.

Which erases the fact of my sexuality, by presuming that I must be resisting anything. It cheapens what I am to assume that it is derives from some sort of act of will; it erases my realness by presuming that no one could ever just be uninterested. But it is the presumption that my asexuality is a sign of some great purity of my soul that angers me most.

I am not pure, particularly not in the sense of transcending human failings. I am as flawed as anyone else. Allow me to make that clear, because purity implies that I am somehow above humanity, not part of it. And that’s a dangerous implication to make, because for better or worse, we cherish those we see as human in ways we do not cherish those we see as otherwise. It is not a coincidence that we anthropomorphize things that we wish to understand, nor that we dehumanize things we wish to destroy.

In the philosophy cherished by such people, asexuals are placed on pedestals, elevated loftily above the impure, filthy masses. We are angels, we are holy, we are good and sweet and light. We aren’t people, though, not people who have a tendency to say ‘fuck’ a lot and a filthy sense of humor and their own opinions on the system of morality we’re being shoehorned into.

Which is wrong in so many ways, really. Sex is not inherently bad. And people oughtn’t be judged on their goodness based entirely on the kinds of sex they like to have or don’t.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about pedestals, it’s that they’re constricting. You have to stand in one place; you can’t actually move about or do anything without falling off. And you will fall off, eventually, even if it only comes down to someone who dislikes you giving you a good shove. The taller the pedestal is, the harder you fall. Fuck that, I say. I’d rather stand honestly on the ground.

Asexual people aren’t devalued in the same way as gay and bi people are by people who hold such sex-negative views. Indeed, we’re prone to receive compliments, or the odd nonasexual person who enters asexual communities asking how they, too, can become asexual. With increasing visibility, I doubt we’ll be declared a sin, nor that we’ll see such hostile anti-asexuality emanating from the socially conservative.

But that doesn’t mean that asexuals will be accepted for what we are. My suspicion is that asexuality is likely to continue to be treated with something akin to benevolent heterosexism as visibility increases. That we’ll be held up as model minorities, the “right” kind of queerness, as long as we stay nicely nonthreatening and quietly out of the way. We’ll be free of explicit pushback if we hold our place on the lovely nice pedestal they’ve built for us; we’ll be lauded, even, for being specially free of such temptation.

Who could be displeased with that?

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


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 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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