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.