Writing From Factor X

June 12, 2011

What I’d Like To See

Filed under: Visibility — Sciatrix @ 8:50 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Last week, the Ace Eccentric asked me on Tumblr what I’d like to see in media in terms of representations of aromantic people. And I got to thinking. (For the purposes of this post I am more or less categorizing my wtfromantic identity under a larger “aromantic” umbrella–I’d count any character who isn’t sure they fit well with the concept of romantic orientation here.) Here’s my list.

0. I want to actually see some aromantic characters to begin with.

I am pathetically grateful to see aromantic characters at all. I very rarely see aromantic characters written from the perspective of someone who is paying attention about asexuality, and I don’t believe I have ever seen a work written respectfully about an aromantic sexual person.

From an asexual perspective, when it comes to writing about asexuality (particularly in fandom, which is currently my main source of writing about asexuals because the writing doesn’t really exist in published fiction), I see a lot of emphasis on writing romantics, which in the absence of writing aromantics can feel erasing. For instance, there’s this project called queer_fest which involves writing about the experiences of queer characters and which this year explicitly welcomed asexuality. When I was watching the prompts go up for it, I noticed that a lot of them used the phrasing “asexual but not aromantic” character over and over and over again–but I never saw anywhere near the emphasis on naming aromantic  asexuals in other prompts.

That said, here’s my wishlist for the characters once I have them.

1. No more aromantic sociopaths. Or inhuman characters. 

Please, please, please. This is an offensive stereotype. Aromantic people are not necessarily emotionless. We are not robots, serial killers, sociopaths, emotionally stunted–we’re just people who don’t grok the romance thing. I would like more aromantic characters who buck this stereotype.

Experiencing romantic attraction does not necessarily make you a good person. It does not necessarily make you emotionally open or a warm person, either. So why do people seem to assume that taking romantic attraction away makes you evil or inhuman or emotionless?

Treating aromantic characters as otherwise normal people who don’t happen to experience this one kind of attraction would be nice. So would making more of them unquestionably human. I’m done with robots and aliens, thanks.

2. I’d like to see more aromantic characters who are not men.

Seriously, what is with this one? I don’t know if it’s a combination of the sociopaths thing with tropes about women being more in tune with emotions or what, but the aromantic characters I’ve seen have been heavily male.

Actually, since women are more likely to be shoehorned into works primarily as romantic interests for male leads, combined with stereotypes about women being more focused on avoiding being single, I think it might just be that fewer women are portrayed as single at all, let alone anything that could be construed as terminally single. It would be nice to see more works that buck that stereotype altogether.

(I’d also just like to see more nonbinary characters in fiction period. Hence phrasing this as “more not-men” rather than “more women.”)

3. I want to see characters that actually read to me as aromantics, not romantics who just so happen to be single at the moment.

I mean. As a person who doesn’t do the whole romance thing? I do not think like a romantic person who just so happens to be single at the moment, okay. My orientation informs how I think and how I plan for the future and how my interpersonal relationships work, as well as a whole other things about my personality.

I’ve noticed this trend where characters, if they’re labeled as asexual, never have the narrative spend much time on what that actually means to them. And this seems to be somewhat worse for aromantics than romantics, in my limited experience. I think a lot of people assume that since aromantics aren’t dating anyone that they have no particular special problems and can be more or less written like a perpetually single romantic character, especially if they’re also asexual. The thing is, it doesn’t actually work that way.

Think about what being aromantic means. You’re generally going to have the same need for emotional intimacy and support, but you’re not going to be able to get it from the same source that society has “set aside” for that purpose. Some people draw their support from communities, either large ones or small ones. Some people draw it from groups of friends of varying sizes or from their families. Either way, I’d like to see aromantic characters being shown finding support from alternate, nonromantic channels.

4. I want to see the long-term effects that being aromantic has on a person.

I actually don’t know any aromantic or wtfromantic people who are all that enthusiastic about the future of their personal lives. I’ve written before about how I plan to be alone, and that hasn’t changed–I’m sufficiently pessimistic about my chances at getting to have friendships that last, particularly in meatlife, that I assume it’s not going to happen. (I have gotten very slightly more optimistic in the past month, but not much.) And okay, maybe I just hang around with pessimistic people, but that planning to be alone is something that every aromantic or WTFromantic person I know does to a greater or lesser degree.

I also want to see characters who worry about losing friendships or having friendships with unequal emphasis on the importance of the relationship. If you’re trying to rely on friendships for emotional support and your friends all happen to be romantic and subscribe to a model of friendship that says “friends are back-ups for when your romantic relationship isn’t working,” there’s going to be an imbalance between your view of what the friendship is “for” and theirs. That can be painful, and I’ve written about that to a limited degree before, too.

I want to see what the effect of being told that you’re basically inhuman for not experiencing the whole romantic attraction thing is. Because I’ve seen that over and over again, including people telling me that to my face when I explained what my orientation actually is. And it’s actually, as far as I can tell, worse for aromantic sexuals in this respect. That kind of thing takes its toll, and everyone reacts differently to it.

5. I want to see the aromantic character’s extant relationships acknowledged as important.

This doesn’t mean a queerplatonic relationship, necessarily (although I’d love any author who gave me one for ever). But it does mean that I want to see the relationships the character has acknowledged as important. I hate the “we’re ‘just’ friends” phrase in all situations, but I would be especially upset to see an author frame friendships or other platonic relationships as unimportant with an aromantic character. I don’t care how the aromantic character derives their emotional intimacy, be it a queerplatonic relationship or several friendships or larger communities or something totally new, but I want to see their relationships treated with respect.

6. I’d like to see happy endings in there somewhere.

This isn’t so much a realism point as a personal wish list. Going back to that fourth point about a lot of the aromantic and wtfromantic people I know being pretty pessimistic about their long-term chances… well. This is contradictory to a point with the rather gloomy things I’ve discussed there, but it would be nice to see works that tell aromantic people that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and that good things are possible.

Besides, in my experience happy endings in fiction tend to go right along with finding a romantic partner to settle down with, possibly with children involved. It’s a type of ending that is almost perfectly geared to leave aromantics out in the dark.

That’s my wish list. Anyone have more points to add?

December 18, 2010

FAIL, Teva.

So this morning I finally heard about this awesome new ad campaign that Teva Pharmeceuticals is running for Plan B. There are a ton of things to criticize about this campaign, and I’ve done my bit by writing a letter explaining them to the representative listed in very small words. (Among other things: if you seriously think asexuality implies asociality, I’m going to have to question whether you sleep with everyone you’re friendly with, right down to family members.) There is a lot of fail, lots of people are talking about the fail, awesome. There’s more than enough fail to go round.

The thing is, the campaign actually plays into existing use of the word “asexual” as a pejorative. See, one of the things I do as a blogger is keep tabs on what people are saying about asexuality. I use a couple of blog tracking sites to find out what people are saying, and I read just about everything that’s not clearly about bacteria and also isn’t in Spanish.

And I have noticed a growing number of people using the word “asexual” to mean “ugly.” “Unfuckable.” “Unattractive.” “So ugly I think of them as genderless” is a particularly frustrating minority usage. I’ve had that one used on others around me, by people I considered actual friends and whom I was out to. I was not pleased then, and I’m damn well not pleased now.

I think it’s actually possible that Teva Pharmaceuticals didn’t know about asexuality as an orientation before they orchestrated their ad campaign. (Although Ily has some compelling arguments that they might have, most notably the grey-and-purple color scheme, and you ought to go check that out. Certainly I’m not inclined to take not knowing as an excuse.) I think they’re using “asexual” in terms of the popular pejorative meaning I’m beginning to see. To wit: they’re using it as an insult. An insult which is meant to make women yelp “Oh, I’m not like that!” and use their product. Which is really, now I think of it, a slightly more subtle insult to women.

We’re not totally invisible anymore, folks. Our orientation is now a bona fide insult. Fuck visibility, we’re out there now, we’re home free–! Oh, wait, now we’re having to deal with other kinds of oppression. Funny how visibility isn’t turning out to be the all-consuming panacea that we’ve all been told about.

December 16, 2010

Let’s Get Mad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve bought into it. Wholesale.

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

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

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

November 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 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.

November 7, 2010

What Fictional Asexuals Say About Us

Filed under: Visibility — Sciatrix @ 1:46 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

The recent popularity of Sherlock in fandom and in the ace community as a whole is making me think: Why are so many asexual icons written as totally alien? This is particularly true of aromantic asexuals. We are sociopaths, or uninterested in connecting with others. Or we are aliens, or we are robots.

I’m not speaking only of the new Sherlock adaptation here. We have Sheldon Cooper, who is consistently described as an alien or as a robot in a human body. We have Rorschach, who is quite literally friendless. I remember when it was Dexter, who is not only a sociopath but a serial killer. Even the iconic Dr. Who is, when you get down to brass tacks, an alien.

(I have tried to figure out whether this is a specifically aromantic or asexual stereotype, with little success because romantic asexual characters are so rare and aromantic sexual characters are essentially nonexistent. SlightlyMetaphysical has pointed out that this may simply be because mainstream culture tends to promote an extremely fused view of sexuality, such that romantic asexuality is not immediately intuitive to people who are not intimately familiar with asexuality. Aromantic sexuality is even less so.)

The fact that many, many portrayals of asexual characters are found in speculative fiction is not, I feel, a coincidence.

Again, the message: You are, to us, unable to connect with us. You are without emotion, without love. You are, in short, inhuman. This is a stereotype. It reflects mainstream society’s belief that experiencing sexual and romantic attraction is central to emotional connection. More, it claims that because of who we are, we wouldn’t have any interest in connecting with other people anyway–and I think the discussions currently happening in the asexosphere put the lie to that.

Why is this important? After all, they’re only stories, and stories written by people who have almost certainly never heard of the asexual community at that. They’re not written for us, after all. They’re written for sexual people.

But they reflect ingrained attitudes about sex and about romance which can hurt us. They reflect and ingrain ideas about what it means to experience intimacy which imply that we do not experience these things. And those ideas written into the heart of mainstream culture can most certainly hurt us. Those ideas can make it harder for us to connect. They can create assumptions about who we are in the minds of those we come out to. Those assumptions can make it so much harder to be out in the first place, or to be out and find intimacy in whatever shape we most crave.

What’s more, these stories help to ingrain those ideas in the first place. We learn about what the world is like through stories. Oh, certainly, we might as adults demand hard statistics and numbers, but the most hopeless rhetorician knows that to really make any lesson or argument take hold, you tell a story to illustrate it. We humans are social creatures. Telling stories about people can humanize them, make them real in the minds of the listeners–and just as surely stories can dehumanize people, too, and make them less real in the minds of the powerful. For in this lens, asexual people–we are not the powerful.

If anyone has ever met an asexual who managed to scrabble to adulthood without hearing the stories of nonasexual people told over and over again, in infinite variety and detail, showcasing the diversity inherent in nonasexual lives–well, I’d love to meet that person, although I confess I would wonder whether they grew up in a windowless cell. By contrast, the number of nonasexual people who have heard the stories of asexual people at all number considerably fewer. You really have to seek us out to find anything at all, and we often live in subtext when we find analogues to ourselves at all. And if you’re part of the mainstream, why would you be seeking out subtext to begin with?

Stories are important. The stories which get told about us reflect the way the storytellers see us. And I for one am not necessarily pleased by the implications I see.

October 1, 2010

Asexual Feminism

Filed under: Feminism,Intersections — Sciatrix @ 12:01 am
Tags: , , , ,

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.

Blog at WordPress.com.