Passing

Apositive member Heligan wrote something interesting on there the other day:

I think for lots of people all they really want is for how they feel to be seen as a legitimate way to feel, certainly the ‘no sex asexuals’, have a harder time trying to fit into society; so maybe we should start with them. Lets face it Grey-As can ‘pass’ as sexual in most cases.

She had lots of other good points to make (you can view the full post here), but it’s the part about grays passing that really got me thinking.

Could I pass as sexual? I can’t say the thought has never occurred to me to try it before, but I have always dismissed the idea because in the first place I don’t want to, and in the second, I see it as unethical to try. I still think it’s unethical, at least in a romantic setting, and not only that but it probably wouldn’t be the best thing to pursue for my own personal well-being, but for now I want to put those considerations aside, and try to follow the idea through to a conclusion about whether it’s even possible.

I think, first of all, we have to consider what is meant by “passing.” Usually this is used in the context of transsexuals presenting themselves in such a way that they convince others that they are the sex that they weren’t born into, and thus assuming that social role. How well one “passes” refers to how easy it is to get other people to confer that social role based on the appearance and behaviors one presents to them. I think central to the concept of “passing” is the idea that it is intentionally sought, rather than something that is conferred by default.

Therefore, even though most people assume I am sexual, I am not really passing because that is the default assumption. In order to pass, I would have to intentionally do things to support that assumption, even well past the point at which most people would start to question my orientation. That means we’re talking about convincing people with whom I’m in fairly intimate relationships, here, certainly lovers and in some cases (depending on what type of subject comes up), close friendships as well.

In my case, this would include friendships (maybe not even particularly close ones, as long as they’re sustained for a certain length of time), because people of my generation typically talk about sex quite often. I wouldn’t have to convince them I’m sexual, since that that is the default assumption, but I would have to go along with it and do things to maintain that assumption. I would either have to come up with some other explanation for my fairly obvious disinterest in sex, or feign some interest. Either case would involve lying, but the latter would be more difficult, since it would have to be a fairly consistent effort at acting, meaning I would have to know, first of all, how to act. Among friends, there are two scenarios that I would have to know how to act in: one, when they ask about sexual experiences/desire for sexual experiences; and two, casual observations of other people’s attractiveness.

At my age, it’s expected that by now I probably have some sexual experience, and also that I have an interest in pursuing more sexual experiences. Otherwise, people will try to figure out some reason why I don’t. They will tend to guess that I’m either celibate (for religious reasons or because I have a really serious personality), really picky and waiting for the right person to come along, or (this seems to be the favorite) a lesbian. Since I’m do have some sexual experiences, I could either decide to talk about them or lie and say I don’t (might be the easier option). If I talk about them honestly (and I would be needled to do so), it would generally be assumed that M was just really bad at sex (which I don’t think is a fair claim given the circumstances), wasn’t the “right person” at the right time (which he was), wasn’t somebody I was attracted to (ha!), or that I’m not the kind of person who can comfortably have sex outside of a committed relationship. All of which are assumptions I’m not comfortable with other people making, so if I were trying to pass as sexual, I would rather them think I’m still a virgin (and there are people whom I don’t think it’s appropriate to inform that I’m not, but those don’t include my friends). It would be easiest all around to feign innocence and prudishness.

The second problem would probably pose less of a dilemma now than it would have (well, did) when I was much younger, but I would still be expected to regularly rate the attractiveness of certain people. I could probably get along fairly easily by pretending that my friends mean aesthetic/sensual attractiveness rather than sexual attractiveness, but it might still be a little odd since I am really not attracted (even just aesthetically) to all that many people. I would seem very picky (which I guess I am). There would probably still be a lot of questions around my orientation because I tend to find women more physically attractive than men, in general, but these would be questions about the direction of my attraction rather than whether it’s sexual in nature, so I suppose that doesn’t really count. Still, it’s interesting that I could probably pass as a lesbian so much easier than I could as a straight woman, and given my rainbow support ribbon and attendance at campus QSA meetings, it would be even more so.

So among friends? Yeah, I could probably pass, if I wanted to hide myself. It would be uncomfortable, but I could do it. Among lovers? I don’t think so.

Anyone I ended up in bed with would certainly wonder why I’m not into it. Even if they don’t know what asexuality is, it would be clear there is something wrong (and, most probably, they would take the lack of interest personally). I suppose it would be possible, eventually, for me to learn what I’m supposed to do and do it, without seeming too terribly out of it, but it would be a struggle. I have no instinctive need for sex; what I have learned about it is all entirely external. I know that I am supposed to seek it, I know it’s something that’s supposed to be enjoyable. I kind of vaguely know what to do (more so now than before)—I mean, I know what goes where, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, where I’m supposed to touch, and so on (at least, not when I’m with a man; I’d probably have a better idea with a woman, since I am one)—and on some level I have been able to enjoy it, but I just don’t naturally have that drive to seek it out. If it were up to me to initiate, nothing would ever happen because it just doesn’t occur to me on my own. Plus, I’d be very distracted because to me, it’s boring, and worse, it’s painful (though that is just because I hardly ever have sex). It is hard to keep me engaged during sex, though it can be done.

I suppose I could excuse myself as being just shy, at first, and maybe learn what to do and try to be enthusiastic enough to pass for a little while, but I know eventually my enthusiasm would flag, and unless I’m married at that point, I wouldn’t be able to get away with it. It would cause all sorts of problems within the relationship, and eventually, I think it would come out that I’m asexual. Even if it doesn’t for years, eventually, it would come out, and it would hurt everyone involved.

No one wants to end up in that situation. It would be completely unethical for me to try it because the other person would end up feeling lied to, hurt, trapped; it would break their trust. I strongly believe that everyone should be made aware of what they would be getting themselves into, if they should choose to pursue a relationship with me. It might not be nearly as hard as it would be for other asexuals, because I’m neutral enough to sex to be able to compromise—my boundaries can be (carefully) still further pushed back and if that’s not enough I would certainly allow whoever I’m in a relationship to take other lovers as well, but there are still certain hard limits that any potential partner must be abide by. For some people, that would be fine. For others, not so much. But they have to be given the ability to make that choice for themselves. So I will always make sure to fully disclose to anyone I recognize as potential relationship material, and make sure that they understand before I ever agree to pursue a relationship with them. Maybe that will make it a lot more difficult for me to get into a relationship with anyone, but better that than doom it from the start. At least if they know they can try to approach it in a way that would accommodate me, rather than stifle us both. That’s the kind of relationship that I want anyway, so filtering out the losers fast can only be a good thing!

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7 thoughts on “Passing

  1. I am just SO intrigued by the whole concept of passing, ever since I learned about it in an anthro class– in that case, about light-skinned black people passing as white. It’s funny because I think that I am always passing, even if it’s a default. I want to figure out some way that I can fail to pass, but as long as I look even remotely traditionally feminine, people will probably assume I’m heterosexual. Sigh.
    There’s an interesting book of essays on the topic called “Nobody Passes”.

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  2. Hmm, that’s interesting, I’ve never heard of it in that context before (unsurprisingly, since I’m white). In that case I’d have to rethink my definition of what “passing” means, since those people aren’t attempting to pass as white. Interesting that one example is entirely appearance-based, one is based on both appearance and behavior, and one is based on just behavior (because really, there’s no way you can tell someone is asexual just by looking at them). In the case of asexuals though, since in order to tell if someone is asexual or not you’d have to have observed the absence of certain behaviors for some time, I’d still tend to think that the default assumption doesn’t really count as “passing,” and it’s only after you reach a (nebulous) point at which that immediate first assumption should have been questioned that asexuals can start to truly pass. It raises some interesting questions about visibility–how visible can we really be, after all, if there is no way to indicate (without broadcasting via T-shirt) by appearance alone that we are asexual? Even after we reach a point that asexuality is well-known, we will be facing a similar invisibility problem as bisexuals, because people will continue to assume we are straight (or gay, if we look more like it) until proven otherwise.

    It would certainly be easier if people would just ASK each other what sexual orientation they are, without considering it an insult!

    I’ll definitely have to check out those essays!

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  3. Even after we reach a point that asexuality is well-known, we will be facing a similar invisibility problem as bisexuals, because people will continue to assume we are straight (or gay, if we look more like it) until proven otherwise.

    That’s very true…I’ve been meaning to do some more reading on bisexuality, since it seems like we face some common issues.

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  4. I’ve heard the term ‘passing’ used in the context of trans people trying to convince others that they are the gender they feel they are, and in that context it is a very definite effort. But I’ve also heard it used in gay and lesbian contexts to describe people trying to convince others that they’re straight. For asexuals, I think we can pass passively or actively. I’ve read about people who would pick someone to pretend they have a crush on in order to fit in. This seems to be more common for particularly young asexuals though. I don’t recall ever doing things to convince people I was straight, but I’ve had plenty of experiences where people pick up on the fact that I’m not really all that straight and they assume I’m gay. If I insist I’m not gay, either they don’t believe me, or they do and conclude I am straight after all. If they don’t know what asexuality is or if they don’t believe in it, it’s not that likely that they’ll pick up on us being asexual without very definite coming out.

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  5. “If they don’t know what asexuality is or if they don’t believe in it, it’s not that likely that they’ll pick up on us being asexual without very definite coming out.”

    That is true, but they will likely still consider us abnormal, whether they know about/accept asexuality or not. When I talk about asexuals passing as sexual, I mean passing as “standard” sexual if you will–without any suspicions of homosexuality or repression or whatever, because that indicates that they are picking up on the lack of interest in the gender one is supposed to be interested in, and applying the most likely (in their minds) explanation that they can think of. That’s not passing successfully, in my mind.

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  6. “When I talk about asexuals passing as sexual, I mean passing as ‘standard’ sexual”

    I think that ‘standard’ varies a lot based on who you talk to. Before I found out about asexuality and was questioned as to why I didn’t date, my typical answer was that I just hadn’t found “the right person.” (I don’t use that one so much anymore…) It was the easiest way to get people to leave me alone though I had my doubts if there could be a “the right person.” On other occasions, I’ve been able to use my religion as the basis of not having sex even though I knew that wasn’t the real reason.

    The people I tend to hang out with at school accept the people in our dept. come from a huge range of cultural and religious backgrounds and don’t tend to have lots of expectations of what I’m supposed to be like. I have no idea if they think I’m asexual or what they think but it generally doesn’t come up.

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  7. Well, yeah, of course it varies. That’s why I used the quotation marks. :P In your case, then, the point at which people would question your heteronormativity is significantly later on than it is for me. That, I would just consider default. Situations involving sexuality don’t come up all that often for everyone, but I think it’s exactly those situations that are the true test of whether one can pass successfully or not.

    I mean, you can’t win a game if you don’t play. In a world where everyone plays tennis, maybe people would all assume that you like playing tennis too just because it’s almost inconceivable to them that you don’t. But if they ever invite you to play with them, or start asking you about your experiences playing tennis, or people you’d like to play tennis with, then it would start to become obvious that you’re not interested, unless you’re very good at faking it (and thus can pass successfully).

    When we talk about passing in other contexts, for all three of them, there are certain cues based on appearance (gays and lesbians are no exception due to the strong stereotype of what they look and act like), but with asexuality there is none of that. Just like bisexuals, we are to some extent inherently invisible, because situations in which it would become obvious that we are asexual aren’t all that common. That’s why I don’t think we can treat passing for us the same way as we do in the other contexts.

    I’m enjoying this conversation, it’s helping me articulate things a lot better! :)

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