Review: The Invisible Orientation by Julie Sondra Decker

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Asexual Bingo card created by the author. Click for a flier with information about her book!

I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time.

Years before it was written, I remember reading a conversation on LJ in which the author, Julie Sondra Decker (also known as swankivy), talked about potentially writing a book like this. Then, when it finally came out, my copy got lost in the mail! It took months for me to get the situation sorted out and actually receive a copy, although part of that was that I was out of town and without internet access for a significant part of last fall.

But it’s finally here, and now that I’ve read it twice, I can say with complete confidence: it’s excellent!

Before we continue, please note: Although I’ve been part of the ace community for a long time, and spent a bit of that time talking to the author several years ago, I was not in any way involved with the creation of this book. I didn’t provide any quotes, nor did I do any beta-reading. Because I took a long hiatus from the community starting in 2012, I didn’t even know that it was finally being written until after a release date had been announced!

So when I read this, I came into it with, perhaps, fewer expectations for exactly what was going to make it into the book than those who contributed to it… and also more criticisms, because one can generally expect most of the contributors’ criticisms to have been addressed before release.

What/Who is this book for?

As stated in the introduction, the book “should function as a starting point for people interested in asexuality.” It’s “for the layperson, written in everyday language” because “everyone will benefit from knowing that asexuality exists, that it isn’t a disorder, and that asexual people can be trusted to describe their own feelings.”

Fair enough! So I’m judging this based on those stated goals. This isn’t supposed to be the be-all and end-all of any writing on asexuality—it’s just a beginning.

And does it succeed at being a good beginning? Yes!

This is the Asexuality 101 book. It’s for laypersons, but I think it should also be required reading for professionals looking to better serve their asexual clients. It’s a starting point for real understanding, and one that outsiders looking in just can’t provide.

Books are prone to becoming quickly outdated as societal understanding deepens, and even less than a year after its release, there are already some passages beginning to show their age. But that’s more about how fast our high-level community discourse moves! On that level, it makes sense to forgive the subtle nuances rooted in older discussions. Here, we find the community’s foundation, preserved by someone who has been part of it much longer than most of us.

On such solid ground, we can now take steps toward further progress.

What Works

First, let’s talk about the best parts.

  • The writing is clear, concise, and casual. It’s easy to follow for a layperson, so it definitely achieves the right level of accessibility for its intended audience—and, crucially, it does so without feeling like it’s talking down to anyone.
  • It has a great hook for anyone starting the book right from the beginning. The author’s personal experiences and history of involvement with the community (pre-dating the establishment of AVEN) contextualize the book, and quickly dispel any notions that asexuality is “what the kids on Tumblr are making up these days” without having to directly address that charge. I particularly appreciate the acknowledgment that she’s been fairly lucky in terms of having “supportive family, unshakable confidence, no serious problems or issues in [her] life, and a thick skin,” because it’s important for readers to know that others haven’t been so lucky.
  • The structure of the book is very well thought out. It is divided into five parts: 1) Asexuality 101, 2) Asexual Experiences, 3) The Many Myths of Asexuality, 4) If You’re Asexual (Or Think You Might Be), and 5) If Someone You Know is Asexual (Or Might Be). This allows a person searching for specific information to pick up the book and flip to the most relevant section. The author also makes very good use of headers, sub-headers, lists, and bold text so that skimming readers will still pick up on the most important points.
  • I love the quotes from other community members highlighted in gray boxes throughout the book. They tie in others’ experiences, clarify concepts, provide illustrations of things described in the main text, visually break things up so that the reader will tend to feel less overwhelmed by walls of text, and serve as extra hooks to draw readers (back) in.
  • My personal favorite highlighted quote is at the top of page 38: It’s an anonymous person’s illustration of their experience with grayness through the metaphor of soda vs. water vs. water-with-a-bit-of-soda-in-it. I think that’s a brilliant analogy to explain experiences of graysexuality not defined by rarity, and I think it will be clarifying for a lot of people. It resists the most common way of explaining grayness, and I think that’s exactly the sort of thing that’s needed in visibility efforts to allow others to really understand these concepts.
  • Many points are supported by footnotes leading to more information, with a great bibliography in the back so that readers can look up the relevant studies for themselves. There is also a large list of other resources in the back—although books can’t keep up with the constant change of the internet, so a few of them have already disappeared.

If you’re a writer, all of the above are great lessons.

Cover of The Invisible Orientation

Cover of The Invisible Orientation

I also appreciate the minimalist cover, because it really mirrors how minimized and, indeed, invisible asexuality tends to be. Technically, that’s not part of the writing, and probably not something the author could control. Many people will tell you “don’t judge a book by its cover.” But I think that people also tend to greatly underestimate how important packaging really is in whether or not a book will sell. And considering that this is supposed to intrigue people enough to introduce them to asexuality for the first time and legitimize the orientation in their minds, in this case a professional look is especially important.

What Doesn’t Work

Now, I was all set to rate this five stars… but upon rereading the first half of the book and counting up the places where there are serious issues, I have to take it down to four. These are issues that (mostly) seemed very minor to me… until I really started thinking about the implications of them. I summarized these in my Goodreads review, but here I will fully explain them.

If these points seem to take up too much space, that’s only because they are such subtle points that I have to use a lot more space to explain! I’m citing specific examples with page numbers so that everyone can see what I’m talking about for themselves and come to their own conclusions. I think we can apply the lessons we learn from these examples to other visibility efforts.

The vast majority of the problems I spotted came from part 2 (Asexual Experiences), but some were from part 3 (Many Myths…), and some were more about structural decisions. These are all things that could possibly serve as a barrier to entry for understanding the full range of asexual experiences.

  • The discussion of the “Gold-Star Asexual” (p. 12) could really use some inclusion of other terms for this concept like the “Unassailable Asexual” (or ideal asexual, No True Asexual, etc.)—this is an instance of the text showing both age and familiarity with only one subsection of the community. It’s been relatively rare in the ace spaces I frequent to hear it called Gold-Star, which I usually associate with lesbians. If only one choice must be made, it feels like a bad one; I think it may put some lesbian readers on the defensive, because they may feel it is appropriated from them. There’s also significant dissent about whether “Gold-Star” even means the same thing as how it is described in the book within the ace community itself. It seems to be a much more divisive term than the other ways we’ve described that particular issue over the years, so I question whether widely introducing it to the rest of the world will help them understand the concept better, or end up creating more barriers as we have to explain how the term is outdated.
  • On the list of romantic orientation terms (p. 20-26): I feel like some of the less well-known terms could really use some clarification that even fellow asexuals don’t always know or understand these terms, and that new identity terms are always being coined… and often failing to catch on. It seems like a frequent misconception about the community that we “overthink things,” “invent too many (stupid) words,” and that all of us are very invested in them. For example, I personally don’t get why anyone uses pomosexual/pomoromantic, since inventing a label to describe how you don’t need labels seems pretty pointless to me. In reality, any given neologism has proponents and challengers. Acknowledging that up-front would both challenge those assumptions and provide some leeway to prevent the book from feeling too dated as it ages.
  • The discussion of polyamory (p. 33) lacks any sort of real introduction to what poly even is. While the book is not about polyamory, this is still a very non-normative concept, and I feel like not introducing it at all, even briefly, really presumes a specific type of reader who will already know about and be fully supportive of poly. So more monogamous (and probably typically more conservative) readers will be left out, and still feel like they really just don’t get asexuals, and maybe even decide that they couldn’t be comfortable identifying as asexual themselves. The community already seems to have this bias; such a thing will only exacerbate it. [The graph of religious identification from the community census shown during the FTBcon panel is relevant here.]
  • The discussion of demisexuality (p. 38) is possibly too rooted in more outdated explanations of demi? The primary vs. secondary sexual attraction thing comes from a very old model (“Rabger’s model,” from like… 2004? ish? In quotes because Rabger felt it was an inaccurate representation), and while I’m not familiar enough with demi discussions to say with certainty, I think many people who identify as demisexual avoid explaining it in those terms? Maybe demis can weigh in below.
  • The discussion of asexuality and LGBT/queer (p. 45-67) as a whole feels WAY too focused on heteroromantic and aromantic aces, with not enough acknowledgment that even they might STILL not “pass” as straight. Sciatrix’s highlighted comment on page 48 addresses that somewhat, but in the main text, there’s not really anything addressing it effectively. It sort of feels like this section is extremely influenced by the discussions that happened in 2011, and only reflects a particular narrow view of them. I feel like the author got a bit lost here; her usual bright clarity falters, probably because it’s just an area she is less familiar with. To be fair, it is especially difficult to navigate. This section is the one I had the most problems with, so I’m going to break it into separate points.
  • Oppression is not defined, and I think it needs to be. But whatever definition is employed here is clearly not one that I share (my definition: prolonged unjust/cruel/burdening exercise of power—sociological understandings of power apply). I don’t agree with the statement that “some will say that enduring invisibility isn’t the same as ‘oppression’—and they’re right” (p. 48)—this presents the discussion as having way more consensus than it really does. I’ll agree that invisibility is not overt oppression… But I do think that being systematically excluded and regularly dehumanized does constitute covert oppression (that can veer into overt territory). So while it may be true that we (or more like hetero-/aromantic aces only) don’t tend to experience the same kind of overt oppression that LGBT people do as often because asexuality isn’t as well-known, and we certainly aren’t comparing experiences and claiming ours is worse… well, we still do experience both kinds of oppression, it just tends to be expressed in different ways and denied more often. The covert stuff is frequently considered “not real” oppression for both ace and LGBT people (let me tell you about covert employment discrimination on the basis of being in a lesbian relationship and how many people saw that as “real oppression”—oh wait, I can’t talk about that). And the overt stuff is just flat-out denied and silenced [tw: sexual violence]. It seems that (in general, throughout the community) there may not be enough understanding of the way that, when these discussions happen, survivors (with good reason) tend to withdraw, so the dominating voices will tend to be the luckier, more privileged aces.
  • Which brings me to sexual violence [tw: denial/erasure]. There is very little mention of it throughout part 2, and there really should be. I can see the logic behind that decision, because there is a decent chunk of discussion about it in part 3 (starting p. 102)… but the problem is, part 2 is called Asexual Experiences, and part 3 is called The Many Myths. So here, we see full discussion of sexual violence (not as an aside to a larger point) only as it relates to being a myth about asexuals. And while that section does acknowledge that yes, it happens to aces, and no, it doesn’t mean you can’t be asexual just because it may have happened to you… Only doing that in one section when the book is actually structured so that people can skip around? And only in a section aimed primarily at people who don’t already identify as asexual? Not good. Real discussion of our experiences and challenges should be incorporated into part 2, in its own section. Otherwise, someone only flipping through, looking to see if their experiences match up will probably feel excluded and maybe think that the asexual community is not for them. It isn’t uncommon for survivors to freak out and put a book back down if their experiences seem erased, so one shouldn’t assume they’ll even make it to part 3.
  • On page 56 (in the oppression discussion), there is some discussion of [criminal] sexual assault and how some people will say “that wasn’t anti-asexual violence, that was because of [x]”—which is very good and necessary to point out, but it lacks an acknowledgment that sometimes people will flat-out refuse to believe an asexual person [tw on link: verbal domestic violence, corrective rape mention] about their violent experiences, even when they would have much less trouble believing, say, a lesbian woman who said the same thing.
  • There also should have been some mention of sexual violence and how trauma counselors, specifically, can compound instead of reducing survivors’ trauma in the section on discrimination by mental health professionals (p. 59-60). That section as worded currently fails to acknowledge that asexual survivors exist. Expansion would be appreciated, but I know that there’s not much data on how those things can happen yet (I’m working on it!).
  • Finally, a minor point: on page 104 [tw: passage is about corrective rape] the phrase “may even be in a relationship with them” comes across to me as actually code for romantic relationships only—this is probably just a habitual phrase that nobody noticed during editing—or maybe it was edited to read that way—but it equates romantic relationships with the only “real” relationships by implication. I’m sure it was 100% unintentional. It may also be worth noting that generally speaking, the vast majority of the time, the victim is in some sort of relationship with the perpetrator, romantic or not. We do not have any statistics to point to, but my private investigations indicate that this is the case.

And so you all can see how I’m habitually very critical of others’ writing, but I hope that all of this comes across as constructive criticism! I’ve done a lot of (unpaid, non-professional) editing over the years, so my eye for subtleties has gotten pretty refined.

And these really are very understandable things to make mistakes on, especially given that our discussions within the ace community advance so quickly. Please note that most of the things I linked to were published after the book’s release, or after the final edits were made. There were no resources to consult addressing these problems at the time the book was written—or if there were, they were hard to access due to the particularly dispersed nature of discourse in our community. There still aren’t enough resources addressing these issues. Many of them would have to rely on knowledge of personal issues that we have very good reasons not to discuss.

So while these things are problematic… they also are reflective of prevailing attitudes in the community—or at least, parts of it—at the time of writing.

Just the Beginning…

These things can be corrected in future editions of the book—there will be a paperback version coming out! In the meantime, I want to invite readers to come have discussions with the ace community, even if you don’t identify as asexual yourself.

If you’ve found this expanded review, then you’ve already found the community discussions. Check out some of the links in the sidebar for more!

And if you’re already part of the community… what do you think? How can we apply lessons from The Invisible Orientation to other visibility efforts? Are there specific ways you can think of to counteract these biases?

Queenie also brought up some similar criticisms to mine about The Invisible Orientation, so here’s her review. Check it out!

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5 thoughts on “Review: The Invisible Orientation by Julie Sondra Decker

  1. As I’m currently still waiting for my own issue, I can’t say much about it, but still, the points you made are extremely helpful to remind anyone writing about asexuality what possible pitfalls there are.

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  2. Pingback: Julie Sondra Decker | Review (Prismatic Entanglements): The Invisible Orientation

  3. Pingback: Linkspam: February 13th, 2015 | The Asexual Agenda

  4. “Note: I’ve searched for a while and can’t find the blog post I wanted to link here; it was something about conservative Christians being less likely to ID as asexual—if you know where it is, please link it in the comments!”

    I guess it’s lucky I happened to skim this post then, since I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of this.

    And I agree with your assessment; that’s certainly something a lot of people would balk at or be confused/unfamiliar with.

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    • Thanks! I think I must’ve just been looking in the wrong place, because for some reason I had been thinking there was an older post (not the Asexual Explorations one that you linked) on the same topic, but my saved links just kept leading me to deleted blog posts. I’m admittedly terrible at remembering exactly who wrote what and when.

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