Writing About Asexuality in a Classroom Setting

Cross-posted to the The Asexual Agenda.

Earlier this month, I wrote about some of the trouble I encountered in creative writing classes here [tw: verbal abuse by teachers, domestic violence mentions]. Consider this post a sort of follow-up to that one. It is also my official submission for the March Carnival of Aces, although I think most of what I wrote about this month is on-topic enough to include even though it wasn’t specifically for the carnival.

Last time, my focus was on trouble with teachers, and how as a survivor (and secondarily, as an ace) sometimes creative writing classes are especially difficult. This time, I want to focus on reception of different types of work about asexuality specifically, and mostly from peers rather than teachers.

Essays

I first started writing about asexuality in essays, for your basic English 101 class—the slightly advanced version, I guess. This was in 2005, which was well before our movement had gained most of the momentum we now have. It was a basic 101 class, and a basic 101 essay. Continue reading

Tentative Revisions

[TW: corrective rape implications, compulsory sexuality, mentions of violent search terms & comments]

A few of you may have noticed that I revised the introduction to How to Have Sex with an Asexual Person. I haven’t touched the rest of it yet, although I do plan to once I get more time to focus on it properly.

Before we continue, some context about that post for people who may not know, just in case this gets picked up on tumblr:

  • The title is the exact wording of a SEARCH TERM that led someone to this blog. I didn’t just make it up.
  • I know the title is triggering—it was for me too when I first read it. I was directly addressing the creepy people who got here by searching that. I’m sorry that I had to use the search term as the title, but otherwise, I wouldn’t reach those people.
  • I am a survivor too, but back then I wasn’t open about it. Please don’t forget that.
  • We are in a pretty different place in ace discourse now than we were three years ago.
  • This is a strategy of harm reduction. In a better world, I wouldn’t have to say this.
  • The intended audience of the post is limited, although the script being offered can be applied in many other contexts—and it is being applied in a much wider context than originally intended.
  • I tried to reach those people who are already determined enough to try to get an asexual person to have sex with them that they’re researching how to do that. Saying “don’t try to have sex with asexuals” is not going to work with them, so my goal was to at least provide an alternative model they could use to be better (as in, more decent towards aces, not better at being horrible).
  • If that search space wasn’t taken up by me, something much worse would fill it instead.
  • This article attracts perpetrators (as intended), and I regularly get people trying to tell me how awful and “self-centered” I am to dare suggest that they not rape whatever asexual person they are trying to “have sex with.” This is a bare minimum, yet they can’t stand it. I do not publish those comments. Some of these people will never listen, and will do everything in their power to twist my words to support their own compulsory sexuality.
  • At the same time, there are a lot of people who DO change their approach after reading! And it’s not perfect or 100% pressure-free, but at least it’s less bad. (I tried to encourage people to aim higher than not bad, but there is not much space for it—still, that’s about the 3rd most clicked outside link on this blog.)
  • Originally, I had planned to write a series of additional articles to reduce pressure. More needs to be written; it just doesn’t all fit in this one article.
  • But the response to that article was so overwhelming that my blog became an unsafe place for me. That is the biggest reason this re-examination of that post has been so long delayed.

That said, let’s move on. Continue reading

Blog Rants: Introduction

Cross-posted to Asexual Agenda.


Do you want to start a blog about asexuality? Do you already have a blog, but want your posts to hit harder, better, faster, stronger? Are you on tumblr but considering joining WordPress? Or do you just want to critically examine the way that ace community discourse has been shaped? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then this is for you.

Continue reading

The Trouble with Creative Writing Programs

[TW: domestic violence mentions, normalization of child abuse, marginalization of survivors.]

I’m a writer. I’ve dedicated years to learning my craft, and continue to practice daily. Eventually, I’d like to be able to subsist solely off of royalties, but I know that isn’t likely to happen in the next decade. I’ll probably linger in relative obscurity forever. I have a fairly realistic view of my situation, I’d like to think.

When I was in school, I waffled about trying to decide on a major. Computer science? Sociology? Linguistics? Women’s Studies? Japanese? I had many interests, but none of the above captured my attention quite as much as creative writing. When my school developed an undergraduate English program focused on creative writing, I switched over.

And for the most part, it was wonderful. I learned a lot about writing, especially the importance of revision. It was great to meet other writers and be part of a critique circle. Some of them in particular were so good, their work was a real joy to read. I felt honored to be able to do so. The creative writing program’s teachers were knowledgeable and quite genuinely very nice, and for the most part perfectly willing to accommodate me when I (inevitably) succumbed to symptoms of PTSD. Some of them didn’t even need to hear a reason for my absences or late assignments; they just worked with me.

Except one. Continue reading

Thoughtfully Advocating for Inclusion

This post is for the Carnival of Aces. This month’s theme: Cross Community Connections.


Whenever an asexual person reaches out to engage with another community and advocate for an approach inclusive of asexuality, it’s always risky.

Reactions can range from eager acceptance, to confused tolerance, to a civil refusal to engage because it would constitute “mission creep,” to indignant outrage that anyone would dare suggest that even a small fraction of the community’s time could be spent on asexuality, to even—sometimes—outright abuse.

I’ve seen all of these and more over the past ten years. Lately, I’ve seen more success than failure.

Frequently, communities have no unified front. Different members have different reactions, and whether or not you make any headway largely depends on which people are in charge. If you get a bad response, it can sometimes be worth it to try again after the leadership changes. People do learn from their experiences, and although you can’t count on it, it’s possible that once a leader has seen membership drop due to intersectional frictions that were never addressed, they may become more willing to consider dealing with such issues.

Tenacity is important for making progress, but must be tempered with sensitivity. If leaders see you as someone who busts in like the Kool-Aid Man or pesters like a Sea Lion—someone with a pet issue trying to force the rest of the community to accept you as a member without regard for others’ boundaries—they may get defensive and become less likely to consider your points.

Sometimes their perceptions are unfair. Sometimes they want to exclude. Sometimes there are good reasons for them to do so. We should respect that decision even if we don’t understand or agree.

A thoughtful approach can make all the difference. To determine the best approach, I ask myself these five questions:

1. What are the community’s stated goals?

This can take the form of a mission statement, but some communities don’t have anything that clearly defined. Sometimes community leaders have inherited a mission statement, but want to take a different direction. Sometimes leaders have no clear goals, or don’t agree with each other. If you’re not sure about what a leader’s vision for their community is, ask them to tell you more about it. Try to find out whether their focus is broad or narrow—for example, is it just for lesbians, or is it meant to be for any “queer” person? Consider whether they are more interested in political change, providing support, or whether they just want to make friends. A support group may need to be very narrow in order for the members to feel safe enough to talk about their issues—try to find out what kind of support they provide, and what might be unwelcome. A political group may be focused on only one or two issues, and unwilling to address other issues for fear of narrowing their base.

2. Is the community inclusive?

What does the membership look like? Is it mostly white men, or is the group mixed along racial and gender lines? Does it reflect the demographic distribution of your area? This can tell you a lot about the group’s focus and outreach efforts.

Read the rest of this post at The Asexual Agenda.

And consider this my official announcement that I am now a contributor there! This should allow me to have a bit more room to separate my more personal posts from activism posts, so expect the scope of this blog to expand a bit.

Fun fact: This particular post was dreamed up like four years ago as a follow-up to my post linked above, but I never actually got around to posting it. I have a backlog of around 40 drafts of random things that I never finished and posted, so it’s often really hard for me to remember what I’ve said before and what I ultimately decided not to post.

Disingenuous, Shallow “Support”

[Warning: contains discussion of sexual and domestic violence, gaslighting, and disingenuous infiltration of communities by abusers (macktivists) co-opting the language of consent; mention of intra-community violence.]

Last week, two articles caught my eye.

First, let’s talk about this:

No More, the NFL’s Domestic Violence Partner, Is a Sham – Diana Moskovitz examines how several brands have decided that the reason why domestic and sexual violence persists is because these issues “don’t have a strong enough brand. So, to help get America talking about these issues, the brands created a brand, and partnered with other brands to promote this brand.” Upon asking their marketing director, Virginia Witt, to estimate how much money No More had raised for non-profits, the answer she received was… well, you can read it yourself at the link, but I think her assessment below says it all:

“Read generously, this is just marketing jargon (“brands … an asset … consumer engagement”) wrapped around an admission that no one has any idea whether or not No More actually does anything tangible for groups fighting domestic violence and sexual assault. Taken at face value, as it probably should be, it suggests that the measure of success for No More isn’t whether it actually directs new funding to, say, hotlines, shelters, and lawyers, but whether those who are already fighting domestic violence use No More branding in their own fundraising operations.

I took the No More pledge on their website. Since then, the only thing I’ve received from them is an email from Randel asking me to please share their advertisement on Facebook.”

Ah, yes. Facebook Activism. Because sharing something on Facebook for others to automatically click “like” without even reading is clearly the most effective way to promote real engagement with anti-violence work, and genuine support to survivors.

The idea that a brand is all that’s needed to get others to care, rather than something that is just there for others to adopt in order to look like they care, is so incredibly vile to me.

There are four lights

A Cardassian torturer famously tried to gaslight Captain Picard. His direct approach didn’t work. Successful campaigns are usually more subtle, and sustained for longer.

Why? Because it’s exactly the sort of thing that makes it easier for abusers to gaslight their victims.

Gaslighting is a tactic of presenting false information with the intent to confuse a person, and convince them that their accurate observations are wrong. Persistent, long-term gaslighting campaigns can really make someone feel like they’re going crazy, and severely cripple their ability to trust their own discernment.

No More’s logo requires absolutely no commitment to actually fighting domestic and sexual violence. Sporting it can make you look more saintly, and probably would make you feel good since it gives you the impression that you’re doing something, but it pretty much means nothing. But looking good—and silencing critics—is all the NFL cares about. This is an intentional marketing strategy meant to keep people just satisfied enough that they won’t dig too deep.

Can we really expect perpetrators—especially those who like football—to just ignore this potential tool for silencing their victims? I think not. I think some will use it to perpetuate. I think they’ll use it to project an image of caring about domestic violence and then turn around and say that what they’re doing can’t be real violence, because a person who “cares” about stopping such violence can’t be a perpetrator of it.

Which brings me to article #2.

This one is titled, What Happens When a Prominent Male Feminist is Accused of Rape? It relates the story of a group of feminists coming together to expose self-proclaimed “male feminist” Hart Noecker. It describes how he co-opted feminist discussion of consent, and used it to gaslight his victims: Continue reading

Review: The Invisible Orientation by Julie Sondra Decker

Asexual Bingo card

Asexual Bingo card created by the author. Click for a flier with information about her book!

I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time.

Years before it was written, I remember reading a conversation on LJ in which the author, Julie Sondra Decker (also known as swankivy), talked about potentially writing a book like this. Then, when it finally came out, my copy got lost in the mail! It took months for me to get the situation sorted out and actually receive a copy, although part of that was that I was out of town and without internet access for a significant part of last fall.

But it’s finally here, and now that I’ve read it twice, I can say with complete confidence: it’s excellent!

Before we continue, please note: Although I’ve been part of the ace community for a long time, and spent a bit of that time talking to the author several years ago, I was not in any way involved with the creation of this book. I didn’t provide any quotes, nor did I do any beta-reading. Because I took a long hiatus from the community starting in 2012, I didn’t even know that it was finally being written until after a release date had been announced!

So when I read this, I came into it with, perhaps, fewer expectations for exactly what was going to make it into the book than those who contributed to it… and also more criticisms, because one can generally expect most of the contributors’ criticisms to have been addressed before release.

What/Who is this book for?

As stated in the introduction, the book “should function as a starting point for people interested in asexuality.” It’s “for the layperson, written in everyday language” because “everyone will benefit from knowing that asexuality exists, that it isn’t a disorder, and that asexual people can be trusted to describe their own feelings.”

Fair enough! So I’m judging this based on those stated goals. This isn’t supposed to be the be-all and end-all of any writing on asexuality—it’s just a beginning.

And does it succeed at being a good beginning? Yes!

This is the Asexuality 101 book. It’s for laypersons, but I think it should also be required reading for professionals looking to better serve their asexual clients. It’s a starting point for real understanding, and one that outsiders looking in just can’t provide.

Books are prone to becoming quickly outdated as societal understanding deepens, and even less than a year after its release, there are already some passages beginning to show their age. But that’s more about how fast our high-level community discourse moves! On that level, it makes sense to forgive the subtle nuances rooted in older discussions. Here, we find the community’s foundation, preserved by someone who has been part of it much longer than most of us.

On such solid ground, we can now take steps toward further progress.

What Works

First, let’s talk about the best parts.

  • The writing is clear, concise, and casual. It’s easy to follow for a layperson, so it definitely achieves the right level of accessibility for its intended audience—and, crucially, it does so without feeling like it’s talking down to anyone.
  • It has a great hook for anyone starting the book right from the beginning. The author’s personal experiences and history of involvement with the community (pre-dating the establishment of AVEN) contextualize the book, and quickly dispel any notions that asexuality is “what the kids on Tumblr are making up these days” without having to directly address that charge. I particularly appreciate the acknowledgment that she’s been fairly lucky in terms of having “supportive family, unshakable confidence, no serious problems or issues in [her] life, and a thick skin,” because it’s important for readers to know that others haven’t been so lucky.
  • The structure of the book is very well thought out. It is divided into five parts: 1) Asexuality 101, 2) Asexual Experiences, 3) The Many Myths of Asexuality, 4) If You’re Asexual (Or Think You Might Be), and 5) If Someone You Know is Asexual (Or Might Be). This allows a person searching for specific information to pick up the book and flip to the most relevant section. The author also makes very good use of headers, sub-headers, lists, and bold text so that skimming readers will still pick up on the most important points.
  • I love the quotes from other community members highlighted in gray boxes throughout the book. They tie in others’ experiences, clarify concepts, provide illustrations of things described in the main text, visually break things up so that the reader will tend to feel less overwhelmed by walls of text, and serve as extra hooks to draw readers (back) in.
  • My personal favorite highlighted quote is at the top of page 38: It’s an anonymous person’s illustration of their experience with grayness through the metaphor of soda vs. water vs. water-with-a-bit-of-soda-in-it. I think that’s a brilliant analogy to explain experiences of graysexuality not defined by rarity, and I think it will be clarifying for a lot of people. It resists the most common way of explaining grayness, and I think that’s exactly the sort of thing that’s needed in visibility efforts to allow others to really understand these concepts.
  • Many points are supported by footnotes leading to more information, with a great bibliography in the back so that readers can look up the relevant studies for themselves. There is also a large list of other resources in the back—although books can’t keep up with the constant change of the internet, so a few of them have already disappeared.

If you’re a writer, all of the above are great lessons.

Cover of The Invisible Orientation

Cover of The Invisible Orientation

I also appreciate the minimalist cover, because it really mirrors how minimized and, indeed, invisible asexuality tends to be. Technically, that’s not part of the writing, and probably not something the author could control. Many people will tell you “don’t judge a book by its cover.” But I think that people also tend to greatly underestimate how important packaging really is in whether or not a book will sell. And considering that this is supposed to intrigue people enough to introduce them to asexuality for the first time and legitimize the orientation in their minds, in this case a professional look is especially important.

What Doesn’t Work

Now, I was all set to rate this five stars… but upon rereading the first half of the book and counting up the places where there are serious issues, I have to take it down to four. These are issues that (mostly) seemed very minor to me… until I really started thinking about the implications of them. I summarized these in my Goodreads review, but here I will fully explain them.

If these points seem to take up too much space, that’s only because they are such subtle points that I have to use a lot more space to explain! I’m citing specific examples with page numbers so that everyone can see what I’m talking about for themselves and come to their own conclusions. I think we can apply the lessons we learn from these examples to other visibility efforts. Continue reading

Trigger warnings: when to use them and why they help

The following is a comment I posted here about trigger warnings—proceed with caution, the link includes some pointed barbs and many commenters who really miss the point.  The post was specifically about whether or not authors should use trigger/content warnings for books.

Here are my thoughts:

As a person with PTSD, I think that generally, people really, really don’t understand why trigger warnings are important, and in what situations they are helpful.

A trigger warning is there for those of us with such psychological disabilities (and yes, it is that severe that many of us have to go get declared as having a disability in order to participate in things like university classes—especially when sometimes, being enrolled at a university is the only way to get access to treatment). It’s there because CONTROLLED EXPOSURE to triggering material is important in mitigating the impact that PTSD has on one’s life. That’s not to say that we don’t ever read triggering materials. We do, and sometimes it’s actually *helpful* to read them. Engaging with triggering materials can sometimes be GOOD—but only when we’re in the frame of mind to be able to do that. Only when it’s NOT likely to completely take over and make it so that we can’t complete the other tasks that we are supposed to do. If I had adequate warnings, I wouldn’t engage with triggering materials right before I have some sort of deadline, for example.

But most of the time, you don’t get any sort of warning. And saying “oh, well you have a responsibility to research it beforehand” isn’t really helpful, because while I do try to do that, it’s not always something that’s actually possible. For example, say I watch a TV show regularly, and in general I’ve found it to be completely fine, with no triggers. But suddenly, there’s a plot twist which now DOES involve a triggering subject. This is the first time the episode has aired, so I wouldn’t be able to rely on other people to tell me before that comes up. So the plot twist happens and now I’m already triggered, but I have a choice: keep watching, or stop? If this is a show I’m watching as it airs, then I’m pretty invested in the show, so most likely I’ll keep going unless it’s really, really bad. But I’ll start to get more wary of the show, and treat it with greater caution in the future.

And there are of course triggers which are personal, and it’s totally unreasonable for me to expect anyone to know about, or warn me of. I would suggest that the only triggers we should reasonably expect others to care about enough to warn people about are the ones that are very common—especially various types of violence and abuse.

But all of those unexpected triggers ADD UP. And they’re pretty frequent, even if they’re minor. It’s a death-by-a-thousand-cuts type of scenario.

So while you’re not *required* to use trigger warnings, you really should be advertising what sort of content your book includes in SOME way (good blurbs don’t require trigger warnings, because they’re descriptive enough that it becomes redundant information). If you don’t, I’m gonna think you’re either bad at blurbs or kind of a dick (being too scared of “spoiling” your work to adequately advertise what kind of content it contains is kind of narcissistic, in a way—it assumes that everyone reads books for the same reasons, or the same reasons every time), or possibly both. (And btw, I should note that I’m using a general “you,” not talking about you specifically—the blurb for Atlanta Burns was fine as far as I could tell without reading it.)

The situation is different when it comes to blogging and assigning books in a classroom setting.

People blog because they are having discussions within their communities. Not using trigger warnings–or making fun of them–is a passive-aggressive way to marginalize people with PTSD, and edge them out of their own communities. It reduces trust, and makes talking about trauma with the community harder.

Teachers at universities have a responsibility to keep in mind the needs of disabled students, including those with PTSD (who again, may only be still enrolled because they need to stay there in order to get treated at all). That means being flexible enough to have alternative assignments available, allowing students with issues like PTSD to turn in assignments late, having ground rules about content warnings in creative writing workshops, and yes, providing warnings when the assigned material is especially likely to be triggering to students with histories of trauma. I’ve had many teachers not only fail at accommodation in that way, but also create a hostile environment by perpetuating rape myths and making other very inappropriate comments (these not just from literature teachers but also from things like Human Sexuality 101 teachers, who should *really* know better). Being in a hostile environment that you really can’t escape like that REALLY marginalizes people who have ALREADY been victimized. Many bright students just have to drop out because of this.

So… yeah. Trigger warnings are most appropriate for discussion settings like blogs, and especially important for classroom settings. Smart writers can certainly get by without resorting to using them if they’re good enough at blurbs, but the content SHOULD be advertised in some way—or else you’ll just marginalize readers who shouldn’t have been your target audience anyway, and probably get some bad reviews.

Some further thoughts:

  • Trigger warnings have nothing to do with censorship, and they shouldn’t be used to censor.
  • They aren’t about things that people merely find uncomfortable. They are about showing care and concern for those with serious mental illnesses—trauma, eating disorders, things like that. It’s about actively including instead of marginalizing those readers/community members.
  • And it’s SUCH bullshit to call someone “weak” for having any mental illness, and make fun of them for wanting to manage it better, and have the support of their communities in doing so. Also bullshit: centering an author’s goal to “challenge” readers at the expense of those who would re-experience their trauma by reading the material. Challenging material is not automatically better than other material. That’s just elitism. Personally, I like to have a variety of material available.
  • Again, this is especially important in communities and discussion settings, like blogs and panels. And we’re aware that you may not know all of our personal triggers—we don’t expect you to. But there are some things that are pretty widely known to be triggering, and that’s what we want others to try their best to warn us about.
  • It is worth being more specific than just whether or not sexual violence is discussed. That is a broad topic, and can contain many different triggers of varying degrees. Is it just a discussion, or is there actually a rape scene? It can be hard to tell.
  • It’s worth mentioning things that could be triggering to some readers in book reviews—or if you are the author, making spoiler-tagged statements about what sort of triggering material readers might come across.

So what are your thoughts? Are there any specific trigger warnings that would be helpful, but you find often go unmentioned? I’d like to compile a list of trigger warnings for others to consult before publishing blog posts, to make it easier for those with no experience with trauma or other mental illnesses to actively include and show support for us.