The False Dichotomy of Repulsion vs. Indifference

This post is for the July 2014 Carnival of Aces.


About a month ago now, as I started trying to catch up on things that had been going on in the asexual blogosphere while I was on hiatus, I came across this post about how sex-repulsed and sex-averse aces are apparently being treated as (per the title of the post) a “dirty little secret” in the ace community (mostly on Tumblr, which is why I haven’t seen it), and that being “indifferent” towards sex is apparently now seen as the “default” or True Way to Be Ace.

My reaction was along the lines of “What the hell? Since when?”

Like I said in my comment to that post, I’ve been part of ace communities (multiple) for ten years now. In 2004, when I joined AVEN, it certainly wasn’t the case that there were way more resources for asexual people who do have sex than for those who don’t. Sex-positive aces felt very much NOT welcome, to the point that in (I believe?) 2007, a bunch of members of AVEN went to form their own forum specifically devoted to creating a non-judgmental space for higher-level discussions of sex, among other things (although this sort of discussion has since migrated off the site). Believe it or not, it was actually to the point where forum posts on AVEN that were about sex, especially asexual people trying to figure out healthy and positive ways to have sex, were regularly derailed with “ew, that’s so gross” and comments both implying and even outright stating that True Asexuals don’t want to have sex, ever.

So from where I’m standing, it’s a complete reversal to hear that now “indifferent” aces are treated as the default at least in some circles, even if that’s not universally true. It’s weird, yo.

And it’s fucked up. 100% stupid.

Do not ever go around saying that people who don’t want to have sex because they feel repulsed/averse to it should go to therapy to “fix” that so that they can have sex. Having sex is not a universal goal. If you have aversion and you want to work through it, then okay! Go work through it! But don’t assume that other people have the same goals as you. They don’t and shouldn’t. Putting that sort of pressure on people is completely inappropriate and harmful in many ways, not to mention counterproductive because it is more likely to increase feelings of aversion that decrease them.

And DON’T think that just because I write resources for asexual people who want to have sex, that I am somehow implying that all asexual people should want to have sex. I didn’t think that was something that I should have to say, but apparently it is.

This post has gotten linked around. A lot. Like, more than everything else I’ve ever written over the past 6 years combined. And while the reaction seems to mostly have been positive, I’m pretty sure that not everybody has read it fully or understood it, and it seems mostly to be an issue of not understanding the audience that it was intended for and weighing their level of interest/engagement against the desire to have everything included, everyone represented, in that particular post. I don’t want to get into a long discussion of this now, although I do intend to talk about it in more detail later. I fully acknowledge that the post is not perfect, there are several ways I have noted that I should edit it. But there are also several criticisms of it that I do not think are valid, and one of them is that I am “contributing to erasure” of sex-averse aces and survivors of sexual violence.

That makes no sense, because I am myself in both of those categories. I made reference to the latter without making it explicit, because it is not something that I am comfortable talking about publicly just yet. Even saying it that explicitly puts me in some danger of private harassment, which is something I’m trying to figure out how to manage. And so for now, I’m not going to go into any more detail than what I’ve already said in previous posts and comments. Also, my blog is not a community. It’s one person, talking about one life, with occasional guest posts. A single voice does not a community make, and even in the educational essays I write there is not room to cover everything. I think to try to cover aversion within the same breath as advising potential sexual partners to asexual people of how to (appropriately) approach sex with those who are interested in having sex is inadvisable, because it would not do justice to either topic, not least because I don’t have the expertise required to write such a thing. At best, I could maybe link to something else about aversion to make the point, but when I wrote it, there was the little issue that I didn’t know of any such posts to link to.

But anyway, let’s get one thing straight here: just because I’ve described myself as being “indifferent” or (more accurately) on the whole pretty much neutral towards sex, just because I can and have enjoyed it in the right circumstances, that does not mean that I don’t also have feelings of aversion or repulsion about it. It’s NOT mutually exclusive, and I think that’s the danger of categorizing ourselves as if we fit into either the Indifferent box or the Repulsed box. Independent of any of this nasty shaming that’s apparently started going on mostly (from what I gather) on Tumblr towards averse/repulsed aces, I’ve felt for the past few years that these categories have outlived their usefulness. What exactly is the point of dividing ourselves thus? For me at least, it’s gotten to the point that I’m more misunderstood for using the label of “indifferent” than I would be if I just dropped it entirely.

And, related, I’m starting to see the phrase “Sex-Favorable” come up in various places around the asexual community. I missed this word being coined during my absence, apparently, so I’m just catching up on its usage now… but from a lot of the comments I’ve received and seen on various other sites where I’ve been linked to, I seem to be categorized as sex-favorable more often than anything else (even before this word was coined). Just because I make efforts to say that, contrary to popular assumptions by those unfamiliar with asexuality, attraction and desire are not the same thing, and asexual people can enjoy sex. Those are things I have devoted a lot of my writing to talking about, because I saw that it was lacking, and I saw that people unfamiliar with and even within ace communities assume that by default, asexual people are sex-averse/repulsed (and still do, as some comments I recently deleted attacking other commenters on my previous posts indicate). So yeah, since that’s what I talk about, that’s how I seem to be perceived a lot of the time.

And… no, I don’t think it fits well. Some of my experiences with sex have been favorable, yes. But me, myself, the whole of my experiences? No. Certainly not, and especially not in the past couple of years. My overall interest in sex has greatly decreased. Fortunately for me, so has my partner’s. There have been no freak-outs about how I “can’t do this anymore,” nothing like that. Instead, my partner tells me, “I’m glad you’re asexual, I don’t know how I could date someone who isn’t right now.”

So there isn’t a label that fits me. It’s inaccurate to say I’m indifferent, and it’s also inaccurate to say I’m repulsed. I can’t categorize myself on a scale between Averse-Neutral-Favorable, because I range at different points on that scale at different times, depending on my mood. It doesn’t even make sense to me to make it a scale. I feel like what gets subsumed in this sort of discussion, even when there is an acknowledgment that these categories are not mutually exclusive, is an understanding that it should be expected that people in general, not even specifically asexual people, will tend to have different feelings about sex at different times throughout their lives. There are times when I can consent to it enthusiastically, and there are times when I can’t. The default assumption should always be that a person doesn’t consent until they explicitly give permission, and as a matter of sexual safety, there should be check-ins if it ever becomes unclear that someone is enjoying it. There shouldn’t be any situations where people’s consent gets thought of as a “give once for all time” sort of thing, because it should be understood that people’s moods change, and sometimes suddenly without warning. Aversion and repulsion can just suddenly happen in the middle of sexual activity that was previously fine, even if most of the time it’s not enough of an issue to even discuss it. And they can even happen at the same time as sexual desire, just as you can hit the brakes and the gas at the same time in a car, because desire and aversion work on different mechanisms.

So for me personally, while I could maybe oversimplify to describe myself as sex-favorable (as I might have in the past), sex-neutral, or (as I have in the past for lack of a better word) just indifferent… it still doesn’t work, because it loses that nuance. And while I’m not one to decry labels (they’re useful and necessary, and I’m not having that argument here, I’m sick to death of it), these particular ones leave me feeling uneasy in general, even though I’m not using them myself. This sort of categorization still gets applied to me as people read my posts and assume I’m “erasing” sex-aversion/repulsion and such just because I’m not talking about those topics right then, and they do sometimes lash out at me for that perception, in exactly the sort of dynamic Siggy described here.

And for that reason, I’m left wondering… Is there some better way we could possibly describe this sort of thing? Something that encapsulates this sort of shifting, ambivalent experience? Something that could express more diversity, more variability, while also allowing space for people who find themselves at both ends of the aversion/desire “spectrum” (for lack of a better description) consistently enough to identify as sex-averse or sex-favorable, without encouraging so much conflict?

Having separate communities for many different groups of aces would be a start, of course. Focus groups, if you will. But for someone like me, while I would probably take a sex-favorable community over one focused on aversion (mostly because I think my personal experiences of training myself to tolerate sexual touch would be seen as anathema to people seeking to avoid being pressured to do that very thing), I don’t think I would really feel at-home in either type of (hypothetical) community.

17 thoughts on “The False Dichotomy of Repulsion vs. Indifference

  1. “just because I’ve described myself as being “indifferent” or (more accurately) on the whole pretty much neutral towards sex, just because I can and have enjoyed it in the right circumstances, that does not mean that I don’t also have feelings of aversion or repulsion about it.”

    This. Yes.


  2. I know why I haven’t joined the recent discussion. The reason is: I have no trouble with written porn or writing porn. (Visual is just boring.) I’m not afraid of sex, but I certainly won’t go looking for it, because, ick. Meaning: I don’t seem to fit the proposed scale, either. But if someone finds it useful… As long as I don’t have to put myself on it. (Just like wtf-romantics do this for romantic attraction?)


  3. “What exactly is the point of dividing ourselves thus?”

    Not sure how well I could answer this question, but I do believe there’s some benefit to it for some people — 1) because people at both extremes need reassurance and acknowledgement, and 2) because there are people for whom being 100% sex-repulsed/averse or sex-favorable is a constant state rather than something that fluctuates. One of them should weigh in on this, however.

    For my own part, I’m in the same (or a similarly-built) boat as you, not able to sum myself up with any of those labels (though I’m fully in support of other people using them, of course). Sex-variable, you might say. If subcommunities or subspaces were formed, I’d like to have the freedom to hop around to each of them as it suits me.


    • Right, yeah, I can certainly understand that. The wording of the question comes off a little too strong I think, and I worried about that when I posted it… but I was more going for the feeling of what’s been going on inside my own head, and how I try to pinpoint exactly why it helps for some people, so that maybe I (or we, more like) can potentially figure out a different way of framing it that still captures the way it’s useful for the people who do use those labels already, and also allow people like me to enter the conversation in a way that feels authentic. I hope it doesn’t end up being read as something very judgmental, it seems like one of those phrases that won’t translate well to a format like Tumblr.

      Sex-variable is an interesting suggestion. I kind of like it and kind of don’t also, because I wonder if it’s something that’s going to be intuitively easy enough for others to understand without lots of explanation. It sounds very technical and I think out of context it might alienate new readers because they think it has something to do with sexuality research.

      I think if I had to choose a label along these lines I’d probably say something like sex-ambivalent. But to a certain extent it feels like a band-aid, and not necessarily something that addresses the underlying issue I have with the whole scheme of this sort of categorization.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “It sounds very technical and I think out of context it might alienate new readers because they think it has something to do with sexuality research.”

        Ahaha. Good point.

        “I’d probably say something like sex-ambivalent. But to a certain extent it feels like a band-aid,”

        Hmm, I can see that having a similar issue. It’s technically accurate, since ambivalent means “of two minds”, but the word also tends to get interpreted as meaning “unsure” or even something neutral.

        But, like you say, is finding another label even the goal? I’ll have to keep thinking on it.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. When I read Queenie’s post about sex-repulsed aces being a dirty little secret, I actually had similar thoughts to you. I didn’t really see it that much – the main area I did see it in was in outreach/awareness stuff in the outside media. There is a bit of a ‘oh but I am perfectly sex-positive’ thing going there, mainly I suspect to counter the automatic ‘you’re just repressed/sick’ idea. But yeah, I like this post a lot, because it really does seem that everyone has this different idea of who is the focus of the ace community and who isn’t. Tbh though, I actually think the ace community that I am involved in is quite good at being diverse and inclusive. Maybe because I don’t really hang around AVEN and tumblr, but more in the blogging arena.


    • Yeah, blogs definitely have some advantages over the AVEN/Tumblr formats in that you can curate your own content, and you just don’t end up seeing a lot of the really offensive opposing views coming at you all the time. In a way, that can be a bad thing, too. It can end up feeling a bit like an echo chamber sometimes, just because the people who disagree don’t really reach you, because they’ve taken their comments somewhere else. But you know, if it means I don’t have to slog through the sorts of triggering crap that seems to get posted so often to Tumblr, I’ll take it!


  5. I have a bunch of thoughts about this, so forgive me if this gets long.

    I see a lot of people who don’t identify as sex-averse/sex-repulsed saying, “Yeah, I don’t identify as that ’cause I’m not repulsed by all sexual things/I’m not repulsed all the time/I’m not always 100% squicked out by sexual activities, not like those sex-repulsed people over there.” The problem is that a lot of the time “those sex-repulsed people over there” aren’t repulsed all the time/by everything/in all situations either. I’m often one of “those sex-repulsed people over there,” and I’m not repulsed by everything all the time in all situations. In fact, if it doesn’t involve me, it doesn’t really matter how graphic it gets, ’cause I’m not gonna get squicked out (unless it involves sexual violence, but that’s a trigger not a squick). I also somehow became the person all my friends come to for sex ed advice. Beyond that, I’ve had periods of my life when I’ve been really repulsed, and then periods where I’ve bordered on indifferent. I’ve had periods where I’ve seriously considered just saying that I’m stone butch, because during those periods I *could* be stone butch and be in a sexual relationship as long as my partner didn’t want to reciprocate past a certain point. (I then realized that there was a non-zero chance that would end in bloodshed and screaming and, hey, if a week from now I had another really repulsed period, that wouldn’t go super great for me. Plus, I’m not a fan of being less than 100% honest with my partner(s).) I also know of people who identify as sex-averse or sex-repulsed and are okay with sexual activity as long as it’s not X, Y, or Z. (Example: (Also perhaps relevant to this discussion:

    For me, the reason why I continue identifying as sex-repulsed is not because when I see something sex-related I am suddenly thrown across the room into a wall by my extreme repulsion; it’s because I’ve found it a useful word in describing my baseline attitude toward sex. Some of that is a product of sexual violence, and some of that is that I pretty genuinely don’t want anyone’s genitals near mine. And, yes, there are a whole range of sexual things I could do that don’t involve my genitals and anyone else’s genitals getting intimate, but I’m pretty unexcited by those even if I don’t have a visceral “do not want” reaction to them. Plus I’ve found that if I say, “I’m an ace who doesn’t want to have sex,” I’m much more likely to get a “but aces can have sex! Have you tried it? What about sexually experimenting? It’s just physical sensation!” reaction than if I say, “I’m a sex-repulsed ace.” (Maybe it’s worth noting that I didn’t start self-describing as sex-repulsed until I got on tumblr and saw a bunch of the “aces have sex, yeah!” stuff I linked to in my earlier post.)

    If you don’t want to use a term, don’t use it. That’s legit. But I think there’s a lot more diversity within a label than is commonly discussed. Part of that may be that if you’re feeling vulnerable about your identity (which it seems like everyone on every side does), you’re probably not going to want to go into specifics; a lot of the conversations I’ve had about sex-repulsion have been in private, with people saying, “Okay, I say I’m sex-repulsed, but actually I’m okay with X, Y, and Z, and it’s really only W that sets me off and sometimes K in really specific situations and L this once but I don’t want to talk about that publicly because I feel weird about it!” There are also a lot of people who self-describe as partially averse or averse in certain situations or to certain things or with certain people, which might be a way you find useful to self-describe? But I don’t know. I just know that even among people who self-describe as “sex-repulsed” or “sex-averse” or even “sex-favorable” there’s a lot of variation and I’m not sure there’s anyone who is 100% one thing.

    The second thing I wanted to say is actually something I touched on in a comment on another post, but I think, maybe even before sub-spaces, people need to be aware that not everything written about aces is about every ace ever. I think that’s part of the problem you’re running into–people assume that anything written about asexuality should mention every possible permutation and configuration, so if you’re only writing about aces who have sex you’re “erasing” aces who don’t have sex, and if you’re only writing about how compulsory sexuality affects aces who don’t have sex, you’re “erasing” aces who do. This is something I see a lot of with regards to posts on compulsory sexuality, especially; someone will write a really thoughtful post on how compulsory sexuality has impacted them as an ace who doesn’t want to have sex will have people reblogging their post to add, “But aces have sex!” as though that invalidates everything they just said. There’s a big difference between “Aces have sex, because it’s about physical stimulation, not attraction!” and “This is a resource for aces who want to have sex,” and I think sometimes people forget that distinction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really appreciate your thorough response! And your post for the carnival, too, because it hit on a lot of the things I was also thinking about when I wrote this post (especially that repulsion/aversion is not limited to asexuals and that there should be a place to discuss it in the culture as a whole, not just asexual spaces).

      The whole “I’m not like those people over there” thing is definitely true, and… well, to me it seems like a very unfortunate inherent part of the simplification that using a label necessarily entails. It IS definitely useful to have a shortcut way to describe yourself to others that will get them to leave you alone about [whatever], and I totally understand adopting the label of sex-averse (and similar) to just find some way to reduce that pressure. I mean, I did that myself for many years while identifying as gray-A; I just told people that I’m asexual in order to avoid having my asexuality invalidated just because there were nuances to it. Of course, a big part of identifying as gray in the first place was due to the lack of acceptance of asexual people feeling anything related to sex other than complete revulsion or total indifference. There’s just always been a lot of black-and-white thinking about this issue, throughout the entire history of the asexual community, on both sides of the “divide” that really shouldn’t be seen as such a big one. And to me it just seems like part of the reason it’s gotten this overblown has been the continued framing/perception of these issues as some sort of dichotomy.

      Obviously, we can’t just “get rid” of these labels, because they do serve a purpose. Maybe the only viable answer, then, is that we just have to try to further the conversation as much as we can about all of these things being possible at the same time, and that using one particular label doesn’t mean you feel that way all the time, just enough of it to warrant using a label. That just because you’re talking about one thing right now doesn’t mean you don’t also feel this other thing sometimes, and maybe you just feel ill-equipped to talk about that.

      Vulnerability is a huge issue for me when talking about my own sex-aversion. I haven’t done it because I don’t want to open myself (and by proxy, the entire asexual community) up to the sort of dismissive sex-cheerleading bullshit that I previously thought was mostly perpetuated by the out-group. Especially because my experiences already seem to be perceived by other aces as something like “selling out” when I talk about sexual experiences that I’ve done willingly, and for some reason my narrative ends up being one of only a few that actually get listened to by non-ace people. I am hyper-conscious of and deeply uncomfortable about that fact, and it’s one of the major reasons why I stopped blogging for so long. If people are going to take my experiences as someone who had to train herself to get over traumatic aversion in order to do things that I genuinely wanted to do as “the way to be asexual,” and tell other people they’re doing it wrong… then I don’t want to talk about it at all.

      So I haven’t, and then that also has contributed to a problem. It’s really a damned-whatever-you-do sort of situation. And all very much related to the next carnival topic, which seems particularly timely for me.


      • I don’t know if you saw, but on my earlier post there was some discussion in the comments about fluidity with regards to attitude toward sex (like you’re discussing here). One of the things a couple of people brought up is how often fluidity can be treated as a chance to “change” the ace to having the “right” attitude about sex, because some people hear “I have repulsed periods and indifferent periods” as “I have indifferent periods and if you try hard enough you can get me stuck on indifferent and I’ll have sex with you.” I think that’s one of the major stumbling blocks to getting people to talk about having variable attitudes toward sex. (It’s also a problem when you’re talking about sexual fluidity, to be honest. Or any kind of fluidity.) Why talk about fluidity if that means you might be targeted for “conversion”? Why talk about being indifferent with sex-repulsed periods when sex-aversion is consistently slammed (while sex-indifference is mostly left alone)? Why talk about being sex-favorable with sex-repulsed periods when it’s likely that people will tell you that you’re “confused” or that maybe there’s something wrong with your hormones? (I’ve…actually seen people pull the hormones card on people who are occasionally repulsed. Because that’s how hormones work in their minds, I guess?) So I think there are barriers in the way to talk about fluidity or not cleanly fitting into one group or another beyond “nobody’s talking about it.” (Although, that said, there are a surprising number of recent posts I can think of that address issues of fluidity or not fitting into one group completely, so maybe things are slowly changing…)


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  9. I just finished reading this for the second time and I wanted to share that I really enjoyed this post. I specifically liked when you described how aversion and repulsion can happen at the same time as desire because they work on different mechanisms. That’s something I’ve been feeling and personally working through, but hadn’t come up with a useful way to describe it. While I know that sex aversion, repulsion, and sexual desire are separate, perhaps putting sex-favourable on the same scale as sex averse has obscured for me how desire really isn’t in the same category as repulsion or aversion. Thanks for giving me a lot to think about!


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