Positive Metaphors: Chandelier Culture

This post has been a long time coming. I first thought of this, oh, maybe last February? Possibly late January. At the time, though, I was much too busy with school to pursue the idea further, but I’ve been turning it over in my mind since then. Now, I’m finally ready to share.

I believe the asexual community, as a community that has sprung up around a negatively-defined orientation that is considered unthinkable by the larger community, suffers from a negative conceptualization. In plainer English, because we spend so much time trying to explain ourselves (and hopefully legitimize ourselves) to the rest of the world, and because in doing so we focus so much on what we lack compared with them, we are often put in a precariously defensive position. We have to keep saying, over and over again, “No, there is nothing wrong with us. We’re fine the way we are.”

Yet a lot of the metaphors that we use to explain asexuality would seem to contradict that, which weakens our position. Actually, I don’t think I have ever even heard of a positive metaphor for asexuality (granted, I haven’t lurked on AVEN or Apositive in quite a while, so I may have missed something, but…). They all focus on something that we lack, and of course, there is really no way around that because after all, it is a negatively defined orientation. But what I want to point out is, in grasping for an easy way to explain asexuality to sexual people, I think a lot of times we come up with overly simplistic, somewhat inaccurate figurative speech that, rather than making things clearer, actually obscures the meaning we intend to convey.

Let’s look at a couple of metaphors that turn up so frequently in the asexual community that they might well be called “memes” in internet speak: colorblindness, and football.

First, colorblindness. This one usually comes up in some discussion about how sexuals are illogical and we cannot possibly understand the way they think. For them to try to explain, it’s the same as trying to explain red to a colorblind person. Yeah, okay. I get that it’s very difficult for them to explain their mentality to us, especially since sexuality is certainly not rational, but… Um, aren’t we supposed to be trying to refute the claim that there’s something wrong with us? This is akin to saying that asexuality is a disability, and so naturally, it was one of M’s favorite ideas. Honestly, I think it’s a cop out. Instead of saying something like, “I don’t know how to explain, it’s just intuitive to me,” this is turning it around and saying that we couldn’t possibly understand, because there is something inherently wrong with us. Instead of saying that sexuality is not rational and not well understood (by anyone, really), it becomes an us/them dichotomy, and puts asexuals right back in that defensive position they started in. Of course, then some asexual will chime in helpfully with the fact that due to their inability to rely on color, colorblind people are excellent at distinguishing different shades of gray.

Honestly, I’m shocked that there are asexual people who are actually going along with this. It demonstrates exactly the kind of sexual-normative thinking that we are trying to unite against, and making light of the apparent metaphorical color deficiency by saying we can better distinguish shades of gray is not actually addressing the underlying negative way of thinking. It’s still saying we have a deficiency. It’s still saying that their way is normal and right, and we’re not. It is inherently divisive, because it not only establishes that us/them dichotomy but also asserts that sexual people are not only culturally but biologically superior. It does not do anything to cultivate understanding on either side; rather, it dismisses the possibility, and reinforces the notion that we are somehow to be pitied. A world without color is, to a normally-sighted person, a dull prospect. Color is seen as something vibrant, beautiful, and wonderful; gray scale is associated with depression and misery. And because this way of thinking is naturally dichotomous, it does not support the idea of sexuality as a continuum with asexuals at the extreme low end of the bell curve. It dismisses all of us, together, without considering the possibility that there may be some “almost-sexuals” among us who can, at least to some extent, understand. There is no room for a gray area here (nor lilac, cornflower, or any other pastel for that matter); it is completely black and white. The idea of colorblindness as a metaphor for asexuality is therefore completely unproductive, and I think we should excise it from our collective vocabulary immediately.

The second metaphor is not quite so insidious. This is one that asexual people tend to come up with by themselves, rather than one they just go along with. It compares sex to football, and explains asexuals as people who are Just Not Interested. There are many, many variations on this one; really any non-essential item or activity can be substituted for football. The essential component is the lack of interest. But I think this is actually a little misleading, because not all asexuals are disinterested in sex. Even if you make the distinction that they can be interested in watching football (i.e. intellectual interest in sex) but not playing, this still isn’t exactly accurate. Although it’s often the case that asexuals are not interested in engaging in sexual activity, it isn’t always. To explain it as such is to obscure what asexuality really is all about. Although it is better than equating sex with food, I’ll give it that much.

So, now that we’ve determined that there is a problem with the figurative speech we use to explain ourselves, what should we do about it? Ideally, come up with a more accurate metaphor that reflects a different way of thinking about asexuality to introduce to asexual discourse. Preferably one that does not reflect a heteronormative way of thinking, and is both sex-positive and asex-positive. After some careful brainstorming, I’ve come up with something.

Let’s imagine sexuality as a chandelier. A chandelier is a complex structure composed of many lights hung in the center of a room, which serves both the functional purpose of providing light, and the aesthetic purpose of giving the person in the room something beautiful to look at. They come in many different styles; there are traditional grandiose ones, stark ones, simple and elegant ones, fun and funky and interesting ones, nerdy ones, even one made out of gummy bears! Chandeliers are a magnificent celebration of life, light, beauty, and decadence. But I don’t have one hanging in my house.

There’s nothing wrong with that. I have other light fixtures in place, and they can be just as stylish and beautiful as a chandelier, if not, perhaps, usually as grandiose. We all know that, because we live in a culture that has a wide variety of different light fixtures, most of which are not chandeliers. But imagine a culture so obsessed with and full of chandeliers that most people have never even heard of a house without one, and would scoff at the idea. Add to that a bunch of warring ideas about style and use, with the religious right denouncing all but the most humble and traditional chandeliers, as well as grand parties and flagrant displays of decadence, and well. That’s pretty close to what we have right now, with sexuality.

I want to take the metaphor a little bit further. I chose chandeliers in particular because they are generally placed in the center of a room and serve as the main focus, they’re closely related to aesthetics and style, they’re a source of light (which is intangible, associated with happiness, and is an essential part of life), and they’re made up of many little lights. Each of those lights can represent a different type of attraction, a fetish, or what-have-you. They are all interconnected by and part of this single structure (which is equivalent to the mental construct of sexual identity), but they can also be distinguished from one another, if you look closely enough. However, it is easier to distinguish one light from another when they are each on opposite sides of the room, and that seems to be the way that many asexuals have their houses set up. Because there is no centralized sexuality driving us, we can much more easily tell the difference between other types of attraction, and discern a romantic orientation as distinct from sexual orientation (at least those of us who are not aromantic anyway).

Just because we don’t have chandeliers in our houses doesn’t mean we are sitting alone in the dark. We just don’t have the same mental constructs in place, if you will—we don’t have the same mindset; our lives do not revolve around sexuality. Although we all got here because at some point, our parents had themselves a little party (of a very specific kind), and we could surely throw that same kind of party ourselves if we wanted, we’re just not quite so “party oriented” as our chandeliered compatriots are. We’re a social species, so in order to survive as a species some of us do need to throw parties, but in order to survive as individuals? Sure, it can be a fun way to relax, and there are certain health benefits associated with it, but really, it’s extraneous. Not to mention some people (even some people who do have chandeliers) find parties quite stressful, so parties really are not so inherently wonderful all the time, for all people.

This is starting to turn into a silly bit of innuendo, so I’ll wrap it up here. I just want to make one (admittedly corny) final point: whether your house has a couple of sensible lamps or is strung up with hundreds of twinkling Christmas lights, you don’t need some opulent crystal chandelier in order to be happy—just be yourself, do your own thing, and let the world make room for you.

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6 thoughts on “Positive Metaphors: Chandelier Culture

  1. I have the bias here of being a bit metaphor-obsessed, but allow me to say this has got to be one of my favorite posts on asexuality. I love your critique of color-blindness, and I am a huge fan of the chandelier metaphor. I think it’s especially important what you mentioned about asexuals (and other folks close the asexual end of things) having “other light fixtures in place.” There are other forms of intimacy; there are other ways of illuminating our relationships, and I think that’s an important thing for people to remember. But seriously, fabulous post.

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  3. Hi, I love metaphors too and I think you’re right in saying that expressing asexuality as a grey scale is inaccurate and incomplete. The deepest level of intimacy is the kind that continues in romantic old people who are the still the love of each-other’s lives but are also way past the age of ‘sexuality’ after all :)

    But, if I may, I think there is more to ‘sexuality’ than the act of having sex. After all, the physiology of brain structure and emotional patterns in the two different genders of homo sapiens is very different from birth. So if ‘sex’ is a way to define a marvelous difference which undeniably exists in humans, then sexuality is not dependent on interactions with the opposite sex (opposite because there are two, and the two help each other like two sides of the same scissor :P), but rather in the kind of beauty that is inherent from birth. Obviously not a limiting beauty (in terms of intelligence, ability, any other thing one can think of), and, according to my beliefs, some people really do shine best on their own because they were made to.

    So instead of defining asexuality (defined as not having sex) and sexuality (having sex) as positive or negative, I think they are both just as beautiful in their own way; if we were all plants, then one is a magnolia and the other a forget me not (randomly chosen, I’m no botanist and English is my second language:P). Because in the end, it’s the people and our individuality that makes us beautiful. I believe, imago Dei, and if some people are asexual for whatever reason, I believe God is the creator and he makes nothing but masterpieces.

    I believe we are all beautiful because we’re made to be. I love the way you stand up for who you are instead of letting other people define you, either with names or with labels such as positive or negative. I love the fact that you are combating negativity where you find it <3. But if we could choose, perhaps it is not the most important thing, setting the 'other side' back on the defensive as this, as you noted, only brings about division, but about withdrawing from the match because it is no match; you are who you are and no power in this world can change that.

    In this sense this division is not a division in ideology, (thinking, logic), but two beings arguing which is the way to be. And impossible and moot question.

    I believe in standing firm, and let those who want to fight, fight. It takes two hands to clap and in the end, unless they decide on genocide, they will have to admit that you are happier than they are and, if they cannot become the way you are, they must let you be because you are obviously existing vibrantly despite all their verbal attacks.

    It was not my intention to frown on posts like this, I love posts like this, but I believe an argument is fair game and this is my, hopefully not unhelpful, contribution to it.

    Kudos.

    p.s. I personally am not sexually active, thus perhaps, asexual, but I am certainly not aromantic. When did sexuality stop including romance? When did it become sheer animal nature? Though I consider sex as part of romance, it is certainly more than, or better than , or more important than the romance itself. If sexuality is only sex, then it definitely has no stake on the territory of "love".

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    • I appreciate your words, but I think you’re missing something here…

      “So instead of defining asexuality (defined as not having sex) and sexuality (having sex) as positive or negative”

      If that is your definition of asexuality vs. sexuality, then you and I are talking about two totally different things. When I talk about asexuality, what I mean is a lack of sexual attraction, not a lack of sexual behavior. I’m talking about sexuality in the sense of a sexual orientation, specifically… which is all about attraction and preference, not about how someone chooses to act. It’s a much more narrow definition than what you seem to be perceiving it to be. Not being sexually active isn’t the same as being asexual, in other words. Someone who is sexually attracted to people can be sexually inactive (for many reasons), and someone who is not sexually attracted to other people can still be sexually active (again, for many reasons).

      So, in that light, it seems that some of what you’re saying is kind of moot. But anyway, I do agree that being asexual is no better or worse than being bisexual, heterosexual, or homosexual. They’re just different. I only wish that people who like to say that being asexual is like being blind could see it the same way!

      As far as sexuality including or not including romance goes… It might or it might not, is all I would say. And romance may or may not also include sex. It all depends on the people involved and what they both want. I don’t object to anyone wanting to have sex within a romantic context or anything like that… I was just saying that to say that romance inherently includes sex or else it can’t be romance is very wrong! On this level I think keeping a distinction in mind between sexuality and romance is important, because people vary quite a lot on how much of each they want in their lives, and no one particular way of being should be touted as “better than” any other.

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