Shutting Up: On writing, audience, and representation

Every writer has a pile of drafts that have never been published. Some of it just doesn’t deserve to see the light of day, but other drafts? Some of them are held back because we as writers just aren’t ready for the sort of attention that it would inevitably bring. Some of them are about topics we aren’t quite able to focus on long enough to bring to completion, because they are topics that sap so much mental and emotional energy that they would leave little room for the rest of… well, life, and especially enjoyment of it. Sometimes it’s a topic that has to be thought through very carefully in order to reach any sort of clarity about it, and that thinking-through period can last months or even years, well before the actual process of writing things down begins. Some writers like to go on about how nothing except the part where you actually sit down and do the writing counts as writing, but I disagree. I think the part where you do research and careful critical thinking about the subject you’re planning to write about is just that—critical to the process of writing. Writing without the benefit of reflection results in very shallow words that don’t offer anything truly insightful. Writing without being (or while trying not to be) vulnerable results in similar shallowness, and when your writing is very personal, you can end up with layers of dishonesty—unintentional, probably, but nevertheless real.

I’m going through a weird transitional phase right now as a writer. I’m not a student anymore, but I’m also not quite at the stage of publishing anything that will give me any sort of royalties, although I’m certainly working on it. At the moment, I’m trying to figure out how to support myself while working on it, which projects to work on, and how to find the support and self-care methods I will need to get through it.

This post is partly for the August 2014 Carnival of Aces (this month’s theme was the Unassailable Asexual), and partly something I would have eventually written anyway.

[Content Note: The rest of this post discusses sexual violence, minimization and victim-blaming, and vulnerability to abusers, as well as exploitation and privileging of certain narratives over others for the purpose of pushing compulsory sexuality. All links in this post also come with a huge warning. Please be mindful of your triggers and practice self-care. Please let me know if you think anything else needs to be included here.]

The Memoir

My primary project for the past 3-4 years has been a memoir on my experiences as an asexual woman, as filtered through the lens of one particular bad relationship. Why? Because this person went right down the list of how not to treat someone who is asexual, and then invented some new categories, which are now clichés in their own right. It’s an easy focal point for dismantling arguments that asexuality “can’t exist,” and it doesn’t stop there. All the abuse I’ve alluded to over the past several years of writing here—which, by the way, I denied for the first twowill be described and examined in detail. It’s very much like self-eviscerating and laying out your own organs for public consumption. Not fun work at all, but the worst parts of it are already done (writing-wise, anyway).

But for now, I’m icing it. The amount of vulnerability involved in even privately writing down these sorts of experiences is extreme. To open up any of that to the public without extensive preparation, just-so arrangements of museum-like perfection, and carefully crafted kyojitsu himaku puppets that might actually begin to rival their flesh-and-blood counterparts… It’s unthinkable. And not the least bit so because the subject of this case study is part of the public, and may very well read anything I say.

Sometimes it seems like people forget or maybe even never consider that aspect of abuse—that someone did this, it wasn’t just something that happened. And that someone is still out there existing somewhere. When you ask victims* of sexual abuse to talk about their stories publicly, you are asking them to make themselves vulnerable to their abusers again

[* I question the use of “survivor” in this context, as it plays nice with the framing of sexual assault as some sort of unavoidable natural disaster.]

Even if there is no possibility whatsoever that the perpetrator might read what you are writing, publishing anything about it is still something that makes you vulnerable. Saying anything about it at all, even if it isn’t a personal confession, is always a risk. Even in the context of something like a (usually) friendly online gaming guild where nobody knows your real identity, when one member has just trivialized rape and nobody else seems to understand why it’s hurtful (or at least no one comments on it if they do), it’s still very risky for a survivor to try to call out that sort of behavior. There is this expectation that if it “offends” you (every reaction somehow gets classified as being offended), you have to be the one to tell everyone why. You have to lay your own personal trauma out on the table, or else you’re just being “oversensitive” or “too PC” or “white-knighting” something that supposedly isn’t an issue for anyone present. Instead of making the statistically sound assumption that there very well might be players in their midst who aren’t going around telling everyone their personal traumas, and creating rules that would protect anyone in that situation from the start, guild leaders/officers put the onus on the victims to try to change the social dynamics around them. And most tellingly, the expectation that the “offended” person must call out such behavior in order to have their concerns respected allows members to note who it was who asked and simply wait until they sign offline, and then carry on with their bad behavior. In such a situation, every person with similar issues must voice their concerns, and in doing so they are forced to confront the very real possibility that they will be argued with about their experiences, told that their pain is not “real” or any number of other victim-blaming things, and just generally find a complete lack of support. So is it any wonder that people decide not to speak?

There are similar dynamics happening in asexual communities, which Queenie just described very well:

If you’re one of those people complaining about how nobody talks about this and someone should talk about it, you are demanding that people highlight their vulnerabilities and open themselves up to attack from both inside and outside their communities.  Are you prepared to defend us?  How invested are you in our stories, if you can’t be bothered to go looking for them?  How interested are you in supporting ace survivors, if you aren’t making any effort to make space for us to feel safe telling our stories?  Is it just that it’s easier to ask why nobody is doing the thing than it is to consider why nobody’s doing the thing? Is it because it’s easier to complain about things that don’t affect you than it is to actually do something to support ace survivors?  If you’re angry that “nobody” is talking about and supporting ace survivors (false), are you doing anything with that anger or are you just angry to prove that you’re socially engaged?  Do you only want us to come forward so you have more trump cards or do you actually want to do something to help and support us?  Because, from where I’m standing, I see a whole lot of talk and not much else.

Please go read the rest of her post and click through the links, especially her series on challenges faced by asexual spectrum survivors of sexual violence. But please remember, if you have triggers related to such things, you need to make sure you’re practicing self-care. Taking care of yourself comes first.

Writing to a Specific Audience

I find myself in a strange position, here.

In case you’re a first-time reader, some context: in late March of 2012, I posted an article called How to Have Sex with an Asexual Person. It was an attempt to specifically target people who I had discovered finding my blog by typing a phrase like that into Google, and introduce them to an affirmative consent-based, pressure-free (as much as possible, anyway) model of approaching the asexual person that they want to have some sort of sexual relationship with. It spiked my page views up to 23k for the month of April as it got linked around pretty much everywhere, and it currently makes up 47% of this blog’s traffic for this year alone, and 25% of all traffic since I first started posting in 2008.

That’s mostly a good thing, right? It means at least people are seeing it, even if it’s not well accepted. At the very least, it means that the people who have read it no longer have the excuse that they didn’t know what a model of real, good consent looks like. Unfortunately, I have already seen at least one specific example of someone reading the post, praising it as useful for everyone even if they’re not dealing with asexual people, and then going on to commit an assault anyway. That’s not something I can stop, but at least it’s not something that can be blamed on a lack of education. This person knew what she should have been doing to make sure that sexual encounter was safe. She knew it was her moral responsibility in every sexual situation to make sure it was safe. Or at least she said she did. But given her actions, I really start to wonder if she might have been lying about reading the entire post, and only praised it to gain social approval.

That’s not the only time when I’ve wondered if people are even reading that post. I’m specifically not calling out anyone in particular on this here, just observing that some of the responses to it have been confusing, from my perspective. At around seven thousand words, it’s a long post, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people skim through without reading all that carefully. So I really wonder just how much of an impact it has made with its target audience, the Googlers. My site statistics suggest that they are the ones who most frequently click on the post, but I’m not very likely to get feedback from them unless they either love it or hate it. I suspect I see more hatred than appreciation from that group, overall. While there are a lot of appreciative comments, they mostly come from people who are already involved in or allied to the asexual community in some way. Also worth noting is that I do not engage most hateful comments because it’s a lot of stress that’s unlikely to have much of an effect, given that there’s very little chance that the people who leave such comments would care enough to check back for a response (especially after such a long hiatus). So due to comment moderation and a large group of people reading from the asexual community who already agree with me, it probably looks like it’s received a much more positive response than it really has. But who knows whether my target audience is even reading it through?

At the same time, it’s received a lot of criticisms coming from within the asexual community, usually along the lines of “this sort of experience isn’t included.” Everyone wants their experiences represented… but there isn’t that much space. If I thought I could hold the attention of a random Googler long enough to give many examples of what a sexual situation/relationship with an asexual person could look like (both good and bad), I would try to include more. But given that I doubt that people are even reading it all the way through as it is, I want to try to keep it as simple as possible. At the same time, though… I think there’s a lot more that can be written on the subject, and I see a lot of demand for it as well. I’m not sure that a blog post, or even a series of blog posts, is the best way to try to write anything more comprehensive on the subject, because it’s likely to get mostly ignored. I am thinking lately that it would be better to write it out as a proper book. I’m not sure if that’s a project I’m ready to take on just yet, but I’m heavily considering it.

So if you’ve been wondering exactly what the hold-up is when it comes to revising that blog post, it’s this: I am trying to figure out what I should be doing with it first. Because that post has grown to encompass a wider audience than what I was trying to write to initially, and it doesn’t serve the needs of that larger audience particularly well. It is just supposed to be a basic guide to approaching the topic of sex without hurting anyone, but people need more than that. So I need to figure out how I can provide more without sacrificing the original goals.

 The “Right” Kind of Narrative

Meanwhile, I am also noticing some misconceptions about this article and about me, specifically. People assume I am not a survivor of sexual violence, and they assume I do not experience any sort of aversion to sex, just because I mention that I have enjoyed sex in the past. I won’t rehash that point too much, since I already wrote about it.

What’s worse, some people seem to have taken my article about how to safely have sex with asexual people and generalized it to this idea that if you’re asexual, you should still have sex. Nowhere in the article did I ever say that. I said that it’s possible that some asexuals might be open to it, so here’s how to not hurt them if you happen to find one who is. The point that sex is not something that anyone “should” do seems to not be sinking in properly. It’s something that you can choose to do, if and only if you actually want to.

Basically, I feel like my writing has been co-opted for purposes that I am explicitly against.

Is it a failure of representation, or is it a failure of reading comprehension?

Or is it something else entirely?

Obviously, there needs to be better incorporation of sex-averse viewpoints into visibility work as a whole. That includes my article. But at the same time, there are good reasons why I have shied away from the topic.

The most prominent one being: my own personal narrative is privileged over others’ narratives. When I speak, people tend to listen to me more than they would to other asexual people. Why? Probably because I’m an attractive white girl who talks about learning to have positive sexual experiences despite lacking sexual attraction. I’m palatable to people looking to compel other asexual people to have sex. Even though I’m against that. People tend to listen to only certain parts of my narrative and ignore the rest.

So if I talk about how I personally have tried to learn to deal with my own sex aversion (caused by trauma) so that I can have positive sexual experiences, there will undoubtedly be people who will want to point to me as an example and say, “See? She did it! You should too!” regardless of what the person they are talking to actually wants.

There is no reason for people to “get over” sex aversion unless that’s what they want to do. But even people within the asexual community tell other asexuals that they should “get therapy” if they’re sex averse, and sometimes go even farther and say, “You’re not really asexual, you’re just scared of sex.” That sort of thing is not okay, and I do not want to contribute to it in any way. And yet I find my writing inadvertently doing so, or being wrongfully used to do so.

That is not even close to the only example of different ways that my own personal story could be used to suppress others’ stories. I can’t really get into details without actually publishing it, however.

When Silence is the Better Option

All of the above significantly contributed to my decision to take such a long blogging hiatus, as well as my decision to delay finishing up and seeking a publisher for my memoir.

Essentially, I am transitioning from being just a random person who rants on the internet about asexuality to being someone who represents asexuality in a more professional capacity. And also feminism, atheism, survivors of sexual trauma, and so on. That representation has to be considered very carefully, so I am deliberately taking it slowly.

Laying low on purpose to wait for the huge burst of attention my blog got from the How to Have Sex with an Asexual Person article to blow over was very much strategic. Lots of attention, while probably good for the movement overall, is not so good for me. Remember how I said that it’s always a risk for survivors to talk about sexual assault on the internet?

Well, the person I’m writing about is not only still out there, but he may very well be reading along, for all I know.

He contacted me after the House episode aired, to apologize for his “ignorance.” Which is sort of a good thing, except that it pretty much missed the point. Ignorance by itself was not the problem. Ignorance can be solved if someone is willing to listen and learn. But he actively sabotaged every attempt I ever made to educate him and establish boundaries. It was straight-up manipulation and abuse, although it’s quite possible that much of it may have been unconscious.

Still, at least that’s some sort of progress. And to his credit (and ours, as activists), it only took four years. (I’m not actually being sarcastic, here; I expected it to take him more like ten.)

The weird thing about writing about your own life is that you’re not only representing yourself. You’re also representing everyone that you talk about, and characterizing them in words much the same way you would in fiction, except without any of the freedom that fiction affords, because you must tell the truth. And I’m trying to approach this representation with as much fairness and compassion as possible, despite the fact that his behavior was completely out-of-bounds and unfair to me. To talk about only the worst parts of trying to relate to him would play right into cultural tropes that make it seem like abuse (in general) is much more cut-and-dry than it actually is. These tropes keep people, including victims, from recognizing real cases of abuse and holding real abusers accountable because they don’t resemble the stereotypes. So one of my priorities when writing about this is to try to humanize my own abuser to try to counteract the tendency to frame sexual violence, in the words of Anita Sarkeesian:

“as something abnormal, as a cruelty only committed by the most transparently evil strangers. In reality, however, violence against women, and sexual violence in particular, is a common everyday occurrence often perpetrated by “normal men” known and trusted by those targeted.”

It would be dishonest of me to focus on only the worst parts of my experience, just because the better parts are the most uncomfortable to talk about. The truth of it is, I went through two years of not even recognizing that these experiences counted as sexual assaults, much less actually qualifying for the R-word… because it wasn’t “that bad.”

But what I’ve learned from listening to the stories that people have shared with me is that it’s never “that bad,” no matter how bad it is. You can always imagine something much worse than what you experienced, so you can always think to yourself that you’d be doing others some sort of disservice to talk about your own experiences. And there are lots of people out there who want you to do just that, so they will sit there ranking rape in order to make you feel like your experience doesn’t really qualify as “bad enough” to talk about.

I’m well past the point of no return on this memoir project, but the way I’m feeling about it at the moment is that it needs much more time to maturea year or two, at leastbefore it will be ready to start the publishing process. I plan to do traditional publishing because I think it very much needs the extra legitimacy. Considering the glacial pace of traditional publishing and the possibility that my writing process may be interrupted between then and now, I really hadn’t planned to announce it this early. But relevant conversations are happening now. And if writing about this process can possibly help others understand the sort of vulnerability involved, as well as just how much of a minefield it is to navigate the tricky issues of representation involved with this sort of thing, well… it’s probably worth the risk.

We are all assailable. Our words can and will be twisted, because our enemies are real. We should take care with them, because in careless speaking, we can hurt each other. There is value in staying silent, to listen, learn, and figure things out. But to stay silent forever, to silence each other just because people aren’t going to always understand… That’s putting the blame on the wrong people, and cutting out opportunities for understanding to be gained. Our enemies are real, but they may not stay enemies forever. Sometimes speaking is worth the risk of giving them a temporary advantage, so that maybe in the long run we will be able to make more of them our friends.

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11 thoughts on “Shutting Up: On writing, audience, and representation

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