Writing From Factor X

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?

April 10, 2011

Newsflash: There Are More Than Two Rules

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

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

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

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

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

And you’d be wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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