The False Dichotomy of Repulsion vs. Indifference

This post is for the July 2014 Carnival of Aces.

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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.

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Guest Post: Interview with K on Female Sexual Dysfunction

This past June, as some of you will remember, I posted a link to a petition to stop the FDA from approving Flibanserin, a drug the media repeatedly called a “Viagra for women.” I did so with the assumption that my readers would follow the link and read what the advocates who created this campaign had to say about it, rather than taking my short comments as a full explanation of my concerns. It seems that many misunderstood my position. Andrew Hinderliter of Asexual Explorations then made a series of posts all over the asexual communities explaining in more detail the reasons why we should be concerned, which sparked an unexpected explosion of controversy. My own view on the subject boiled down to this: given the lack of proof that the drug actually worked as advertised, and given the great potential for harm that would come from an advertising campaign not just to asexuals who would be falsely targeted by it, but also to women who might be offered this drug as a cure for their genuinely unwanted condition only to find that it doesn’t work, I felt it was appropriate to support such a petition. I had little faith in the FDA to make the correct choice without a strong case against it, as they have been known to screw up on occasion, and so I felt it would be helpful to bolster the cause by showing the FDA how many people were concerned what effect Flibanserin’s approval would have. Had the drug been proven to have a more significant effect, I would have supported it, and focused instead only on the advertising campaign and spreading asexual awareness, but all the evidence I encountered suggested otherwise.

What I did not realize at the time was that the New View Campaign, the force behind this petition, has had a history of alienating women with sexual dysfunctions. As I was shocked to discover, some of us in the asexual community (as well as the feminist community) also have tendencies not only to alienate, but to outright marginalize women with sexual dysfunctions in our attempts to advance our own goals (not that we all share the same goals; we’re too diverse for anything remotely resembling an “agenda” but the point still stands). This was never my intention, and I want this blog to be a safe space for women with sexual dysfunction as well, and so I asked K of the Feminists with FSD blog to make a guest post here to highlight these issues. Due to my unexpected hiatus, this post was long delayed. It was originally written shortly after the Flibanserin fiasco, and has subsequently been edited by K.

Some ground rules for comments: this should be obvious by now, but I will tolerate absolutely no disparaging, insulting, or ablist comments. I would also like this not to get derailed by arguments about Flibanserin itself—that’s old news and we don’t need to rehash it here. (If you really want to talk about it, I guess you could dig up the dead threads on some forum, but I wouldn’t recommend that either, honestly.) What I’d like to see addressed here is how our communities can become aware of and accepting of one another, so that we can work together without any nastiness coming from either side. Whether deliberate or otherwise. So please, by all means, check your privilege before posting a comment.

(By the way, I’d also like to mention that if you are a person who is both asexual and also has a sexual dysfunction, I’d like to hear from you, too!  Please contact me at grasexuality [at] gmail.com if you would be interested in making a guest post.)

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I am a feminist blogger living with female sexual dysfunction, specifically the pain category of FSD. I have vulvodynia, specifically vulvar vestibulitis, (though at the current moment it is fairly well managed,) and some residual pelvic floor dysfunction/vaginismus. I have been blogging about feminism and sexual dysfunction for two years, in part motivated by frustration with mainstream depictions of sexual dysfunction (or the complete lack thereof.) I approach these topics from the perspective of a white, cis het woman. I am not a doctor or therapist in any way shape or form, so most of what I know comes from personal experience (mine and that of others) & what I’ve read. While I feel I have made good faith efforts to do my homework, what I say should still be taken with a grain of salt, and I do not claim to speak for anyone save myself. Today I am here to try to answer some questions about sexual dysfunction that were raised on a+, regarding sexual dysfunction and flibanserin.

In my spare time, I enjoy video games and cartoons.
Some basics:
What is Female Sexual Dysfunction? What kinds of FSD are there?

Female sexual dysfunction is a broad term encompassing several types of sexual problems with a common denominator of personal distress. A good overview of sexual dysfunction can be found at harvard.edu. When discussing FSD in general terms it is important to remember there it is not limited to one specific manifestation. In addition to sexual medicine, there’s a lot to talk about with regard to female sexual dysfunction.

There are a few different ways of looking at FSD. The two ways I’m most familiar with looking at FSD are through the medical model and the social construction model.

The medical model is probably the most widely recognized way of looking at FSD. The medical model of FSD looks at sexual difficulties as problems to be addressed medically. It is derived from Masters & Johnson’s work on the Human Sexual Response Cycle. To refresh your memory, the cycle goes arousal, plateau, orgasm, resolution. Deviations from this cycle may be viewed as problems.

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What to Do About Detachment?

There’s been some discussion in a couple of comment threads on here about the problem of gray-asexuals feeling particularly detached from the rest of the asexual community. It seems that most of us, including myself, have a sense of not being fully welcomed by the rest of the community, and may not be able to easily find support for whatever sexual problems we are likely to encounter. I’d like to address this problem and propose some potential solutions, so that perhaps we all might be able to figure out what is most likely to work and take some steps towards implementing at least one of them.

Part of the reason I started this blog in the first place was because my sense of propriety told me that it was not appropriate to discuss what I wanted to discuss here on AVEN, where many members find sex gross and/or just don’t ever want to talk or hear about it at all, whether because it makes them uncomfortable or because they just aren’t interested. Aside from that, I was weary of reading debates about whether grays or just plain sexually sexually active asexuals should be considered “true” asexuals or not. I didn’t want my threads to be derailed by that sort of discussion, as I’d seen some very thoughtful and interesting posts get dragged down like that in the past. In fact, I didn’t care all that much about discussion at all because my thoughts were more introspective and less audience-oriented anyway, so it would have been kind of silly on that level to make them as forum posts, really, but just pretending that I did have some particularly pressing need for support about a sexual issue (from an asexual perspective)—where would I post the topic?

Let’s just consider AVEN for the moment. I can see three main possibilities: the Asexual Relationships forum, the forum for Sexual Partners, Friends, and Allies, and the Q&A. The Q&A is a bit of a stretch, because it is usually used for the most basic questions about asexuality from the newest of newbies, and a quick perusal of the current topics confirms for me that it is still used for that. Since it’s so much like a FAQ, when I used to spend time on AVEN I would always ignore it. So I can’t imagine it attracting the attention of very many thoughtful posters who are knowledgeable about sex and can give helpful suggestions. More likely, you’d attract the attention of those people in the Sexual Partners forum, but you might end up a little lean on responses from the asexual side, and some people may feel somewhat ill at ease posting in that forum because it is supposed to be for allies getting support, and so it may seem inappropriate to post something like that there. Depending on your purpose, though, it might be a good place to go, although there’s no getting around that it’s still AVEN, and even that forum will still boast its fair share of nay-sayers (as SlightlyMetaphysical recently pointed out here). Or if it’s also somewhat of a relationship problem, as the vast majority of sexual problems most likely are, it could go in the Relationships forum. That one is probably the one I would choose, but it’s still a slanted decision because what if the problem isn’t really with the relationship but more like the logistics of sex? To post something like that in the Relationships forum would perhaps encourage the wrong lens with which to view the problem, as people go to the relationships forum to discuss relationships, not sex. And there’s no real guarantee you’d attract the attention of the posters with the most knowledge and insight about such issues when posting in that forum. There’s no guarantee you’d even attract the attention of users who can bear to read about sex, much less those who have even the slightest interest in it. So where can you go?

There is a fourth possibility at AVEN that I didn’t consider at first because it is fairly new: the Tea & Sympathy forum. I’ve never glanced at the topics until now, but it appears to be mostly for very general emotional support, and so there is still the problem of not necessarily attracting the attention of the right set of people. Especially, in this case, because it seems to be geared towards garnering sympathy, and not so much insight or problem-solving suggestions, so someone looking for that might just get a lot of responses like, “Aww, that sucks! I hope it gets better for you!” Which is fine if that’s what you want, but not really what I would be looking for, if it were me. I don’t care about sympathy for its own sake; I can get that from any clueless friend. If I’m posting on a forum, I’m looking for insight, not a one line piece of empty cake somebody is using to up their post count.

So, AVEN as it is currently is probably not the place you’d want to go to post a topic like that. But where else could you go?

My number one suggestion would be to go to Apositive… or at least it would have been, like two years ago. Part of the reason why Apositive was created in the first place was because of the anti-sexual mindset of a lot of people on AVEN. Apositive was meant to be a place for intelligent discussion that gets beyond the “asexuality 101” aspect of AVEN and the bias against discussion of sexuality, and as such there were some very interesting threads about the logistics of sex and dealing with sex as an asexual. Unfortunately, a lot of the initial enthusiasm for the forum wore off, and it’s been hard to keep discussion active. I think a lot of this has to do with the format of the information being displayed, and the fact that not too long after Apositive was created, the asexual blogosphere began to really expand, diverting a lot of topics that otherwise might have been started on Apositive to the blog circuit. So, while I think Apositive was an ideal environment for this kind of discussion in spirit, unless it goes through a big revival, it may take a long time for a person looking for support to get any responses.

Now, blogs have several advantages over forums. They are easier for people to keep track of because of RSS feeds, for one. I have heard that it’s possible to follow forum posts via feeds, but I have no idea how to set that up myself, and I imagine most people are in a similar boat. (EDIT: Nevermind, I’ve figured it out… however, it does seem weirdly clunky and I’m willing to bet most people still don’t know that it can be done. It just doesn’t seem to lend itself well to RSS feeds.) With blogs, RSS feed links are usually very easy to find, and it takes only a few clicks to set them up. Blog posts also have more longevity, because posts don’t tend to get buried within the archives just to eventually vanish into the ether. Forums are more difficult to maintain compared to blogs and face more risk of data loss and down time, and they tend to be more expensive as well. On blogs, there is a system of tagging and categorizing which most forums lack, and the interactive content is immediately available rather than taking several clicks to get from the static home page to the forum, which you have to join before you will be able to post to anyway. In that way, they are more readily available to the outside community, and especially so since most blogging sites have ways of advertising your content to other people, like the sitemap pings and automatically-generated links to similar posts that WordPress does. I also mentioned earlier that there is a level at which you can be more introspective in a blog post than in a forum post. You don’t have to worry (to the same degree, at least) about whether anybody in the community will care about what you’re saying; you can create your own space to connect with whoever wants to listen. You don’t have to hem and haw over which sub-forum is most appropriate for your discussion to happen in, or whether you’re following all of the community’s conventions. And unlike a forum, which will die out if there are not enough people to create discussion, it only takes one person to maintain a blog. And since it takes only one person, all of the responsibility is also on that person, so you can’t just say to yourself, “I’m sure someone else will have something interesting to post,” to dissuade yourself from taking the trouble to say something like you can on a forum. All of that makes the blog format more productive by putting the focus on the content, rather than the community.

However, the focus on creating content for others to consume is also one of the major drawbacks of a blogging format. If it’s just one person talking about a bunch of stuff, that person can probably get support from the readers for their own crises, but who else can benefit from that? Since I started this blog I’ve had a couple of people write to me for advice on some problems they were having, and I’ve done the best I can to provide honest and helpful advice, but what I can do is limited. I suppose it is one option to start an advice column on a blog, but getting only one opinion in a crisis situation might not be casting your net wide enough, and it also tends to take a while for a response. Of course, the amount of time it takes is often warranted because a good advice columnist will take the time to weigh the situation carefully, do a little research if necessary, and provide as good and fully fleshed-out a response as possible. That opinion may be worth more than the opinion of the average joe who just types out a response as soon as he sees the question based on his own prejudices. But just because a person’s opinion is more widely respected, does it necessarily mean that they will give a better response? I think that there is something to be gained from an advice column, sure, but in a lot of cases it’s just not the kind of support that a person may be looking for. And it may end up being just a tad too public as well, which is why the practice of pseudonyms is so common.

Fortunately, there is a site which combines the benefits of blogs with the community aspect of forums, and adds a level of privacy to boot. The Asexuality Livejournal community is probably the best place to go currently for support on issues having to do with sex. It is generally pretty supportive, has a fairly wide user base (1,891 members), and because friends lists (the primary way in which LJ users view recently updated posts) are very similar to an RSS feed, people will tend to see the post right away and respond quickly. Because it’s not a forum style, there’s also no incentive to post one-liners just to raise one’s post count or anything like that, so I’ve noticed a smaller amount of shallow replies on LJ, and usually the people who are disgusted by sex will have the sense not to click the LJ-cut, or at the very least not to respond. Of course, there are idiots and trolls on LJ too, and from time to time there is drama, but compared to AVEN (and a lot of other LJ communities), the asexuality comm is pretty relaxed. I think there are a lot of people on the LJ community who mainly spend their time there instead of AVEN because it is a more welcoming and often more intelligent environment. And since the group of people who are more likely to engage in sex, be okay with sex, and identify as gray-asexual, demisexual, etc. are less likely to feel welcome on AVEN, I think it makes sense that you will find more of those people seeking refuge on LJ. So if you’re looking for a quick response from that group of people, the asexuality LJ community is the place where you will most likely find the best support.

The drawback is that it does require you to make an LJ and know how to post to communities (and learn how to use an LJ-cut! If you don’t use them appropriately when posting to communities, you will soon find out why you need to learn that tag by heart). Another drawback is that people who aren’t on LJ or don’t check it regularly won’t see the post, but with so many members that’s not much of a drawback. But it’s a somewhat insular community, and people who aren’t on LJ already and don’t know about the community may never find out about this avenue of potential support. Because I lived on LJ for so many years, I used to take it for granted that people knew about it, but in a lot of cases that isn’t really true. I am hoping that people who are looking for this kind of support but don’t know about the community will see this post and learn about it, and hopefully get the support they need.

However, I also think that we need more options. That AVEN, the first site that comes up on google when you search for asexuality, can be such a hotbed of resentment, derision, elitism, and general nastiness towards sexuals, sexuality, and “gray-ness” is awful. Is it any wonder that people think that asexuality means hating sex? To some extent it is understandable that there would be a lot of members there who do not want to hear about sex, but I think there really ought to be a sanctuary somewhere on AVEN for asexual people who DO want to discuss it. Maybe it would be worthwhile to create a new forum on AVEN specifically for questions about sex/sexuality, wherein it should be acceptable and expected to be a bit more frank and explicit than it would be on the rest of the forums. This might reintegrate some of the people who have left because they didn’t seem to relate to the community mindset so well, and it would have the added advantage of being easy to find.

This might, however, be somewhat to the detriment of any other websites that attract their user bases from people who left AVEN to look for other sources of support. But I think it’s more important to have that support available wherever we can create it, and I think it is actually kind of shameful that we don’t have that support available in a place where it should be so obvious. (Likewise, I think it is shameful that there is no forum specifically for aromantics, and I hope that will also be rectified at some point.) AVEN has more resources devoted to it than any other community for asexuality, and it also tends to be more support-driven than other places in asexual internet land. Why such a huge oversight?

I am also asking myself: What can I do to help rectify this situation? How can I provide anything beyond my own perspective? I have done something for this more often maligned part of the community (though when I started this it was really more for myself than anything else) by making the various intersections between asexuality and sexuality the focus of my blog, but what else? I don’t have the resources to start a new forum for this kind of support, especially since there already are venues for that. I suppose I could open my blog for questions and advice, though I am not sure I am qualified to give it. If people want to ask me, though, I will answer. I could also open up the blog to guest posts. Does anyone have anything to say about being gray-a, demisexual, or just a sexually active asexual here? I like the idea of hearing from other people on here, so if you’ve got something, please drop me a line!

If anyone has any more ideas, let’s hear them!

Policing the Definition: Is There a Gold Standard?

I am loathe to write about this, really I am. But I’ve been surprised several times over the past two or three months by certain high-profile members of the community referring to asexuality using a definition that I was under the impression that we had a fairly common consensus going that asexuality is not. I’m not talking about new people who don’t yet understand what we mean when we talk about asexuality, here. It is to be expected that we would always have that kind of conversation going on at AVEN’s forums, as new people come in and rehash old conversations that they haven’t participated in yet. But I generally don’t go on AVEN because I had those discussions six years ago, and at this point I don’t usually find anything new and interesting on the forums. That’s not what I’m talking about.

No, I’m talking about stuff like a casual remark that if a person is asexual, that means that they don’t like sex. Around here, I would think that kind of assumption would be considered quite silly. Is it not? I mean that as a serious, earnest question: is it not? Even among asexuals who have been around the block a time or two, is that question really, seriously up for debate?

A while ago, during a privately conducted debate, I had a disagreement with Pretzelboy on the issue of how asexuality is defined. I had taken it for granted that we were debating with the definition “an asexual is a person who lacks sexual attraction” specifically in mind (I’m taking it for granted also that the “lack” is relative rather than absolute, and whether it is distinct enough to warrant the asexual label can only be determined by the person experiencing it), but apparently that was only my own assumption. He raised the idea that some asexuals actually define themselves as “not sexual” which, not to put too fine a point on it, to me seems just as much a so-vague-it-becomes-nonsensical definition as it would be to claim a definition of sexuality so broad as to make it possible to claim that all humans are sexual (in a non-scientific context).

I dropped the argument at that point, because I couldn’t see how we could get past that point to discuss what we had really been trying to talk about, if we cannot even agree on a standard definition. But it’s been niggling at me for a while since then, and I have started thinking about the topic again recently after reading the discussion about masturbation going on in the asexosphere as of late, as well as this post from Asexual Curiosities. I’d like to highlight one comment that stood out to me, made by Siggy on Ily’s first post:

Well, no one says that asexual means utterly lacking in anything sexual whatsoever.

Except that they do. Because isn’t that exactly what so many sexual people tend to think when they first hear the word asexual? They think asexual = not sexual = lacking anything sexual whatsoever. Because to them, sexuality is a broad term which encompasses EVERYTHING sexual. And to a lot of people, that even includes the physical reality that human beings are a species that is sexed, and reproduces via sexual intercourse. And yes, that definition of what it is to be “sexual” does make sense in at least one context, although I think it is kind of silly to use it just to state the obvious well-known fact that humans reproduce sexually.* And Siggy is right (I hope?) that asexuals have not asserted anything of the sort, but that’s the key misunderstanding, isn’t it? They really think that’s what we’re saying. That is, they think that we are saying that we are utterly lacking in anything sexual whatsoever, something that would necessarily make us not human. They really, honestly think that’s what we’re saying!

* In many cases, I think they are using this statement to infer something else (that it is impossible for a person not to experience sexual attraction given the way that humans reproduce sexually), but that assertion does not logically follow from what they are saying. After all, just because people may experience some aspects of what would be called “sexuality” it doesn’t mean that they must experience all of them (in fact it’d be pretty hard to find someone who does, if you consider how many kinks there are out there). Since it is not a valid assertion and that has been covered extensively elsewhere, I am not talking about it here. I am only talking about the ones who assert that we are not asexual because we experience any one thing that could be considered an aspect of sexuality (including but not limited to the fact that we exist because of sexual reproduction).

Part of the problem, of course, is that the only other exposure people have to the word “asexual” comes from biology class, so in that context it becomes understandable when the idea of hermaphroditic self-fertilizing species or amoebas comes into play. But even when it is understood that we are using a different definition which does not include some new form of human reproduction, people will still tend to think of the word’s meaning in terms of what its root components mean: not sexual. What does that mean? It’s still confusing, because “sexual” is an adjective that is applied to a very broad range of situations and activities, including things (like kissing and dancing) that fall in some sort of gray area where there is no consensus that it should be applied. So, people will tend to understand the word “asexual” each in their own individual way, depending on what they consider sexual. Even if their definition of “sexual” is not so broad as to include the basic physical fact that humans are a sexed species, the vast majority of people will consider acts which physically engage and stimulate the genitals to be sexual even if they do not fit whatever criteria that person thinks of as qualifying as sex. Therefore, to most people it would make sense to consider the masturbating asexual (or the sexually active asexual, for that matter) to be a paradox, and thus conclude they are not really asexual at all.

So how could it possibly be useful for any one of us to define asexuality as simply “not sexual” if that is the conclusion that the majority of people are going to draw from it? Even if people do realize that “asexual” is meant to refer to one specific aspect of sexuality, there is nothing in that definition to indicate which aspect that would be. Why wouldn’t people assume it refers to behavior?

Maybe masturbation is something that may or may not be considered a form of sex, depending on what you think “sex” means. And maybe it’s something that may or may not be considered “sexual” depending on what “sexual” means. But that’s a moot point. It doesn’t matter, because the definition of asexual that we are using isn’t really “not sexual,” it’s “lacking sexual attraction” specifically. Even if we contend that masturbation does not have to be considered sexual, what criteria are we using to determine that? From what I can gather from that discussion, it’s the lack of sexual attraction or interest/enjoyment which leads to that conclusion. You can certainly masturbate without experiencing sexual attraction—at least I sure hope so, because otherwise how could we explain the masturbatory practices of children? I doubt there are many who would contend that a child’s masturbating experience contains sexual attraction to anyone, but people still call it a sexual experience. So we must ask ourselves: are we using the same criteria that most people are using to determine what is or is not “sexual?” Probably not. Most likely, they will stick with their own definition because it makes the most sense to them. If a person defines physical stimulation of the genitals (for purposes of arousal and especially orgasm) as sexual, it is not very convincing to say that it is not sexual just because the component of attraction is missing. Attraction is more of a side point to the physical act, under this definition. I have met sexual people who don’t specifically think of any attractive people while masturbating, but they still consider masturbation to be sexual in general.

Likewise if we say that masturbation isn’t sexual in some cases because the people who are doing it don’t enjoy it, and are doing it only to “scratch an itch” or feel obligated to keep it up for health-related reasons. Let’s replace “masturbation” with “sex” then. Sometimes sex isn’t enjoyable. Sometimes people feel obligated to have sex because they want to maintain the health of their relationships. But does that mean that sex is no longer a sexual experience?

I hope I am mostly preaching to the choir here, but if there really are asexuals out there who say that asexual means “not sexual” in any sense except to explain its component morphemes, I’d like them to consider this: if we use a definition that is so incredibly vague, how can we make important distinctions like the difference between asexuality and celibacy? And how do we avoid non-inclusive, elitist statements like “you’re not really asexual if you have sex/masturbate/like sex” if we use a definition that is so open to interpretation about what is and is not sexual?

On AVEN, that attitude is very much discouraged. Nobody likes it when somebody starts saying “you are not asexual because you do x” and the admod team is quick to warn people who do. That is why I had thought that there was indeed basically a consensus among at least the more weathered members of the community that we are going by the “lack of attraction” definition; if we use the other one, then honestly? We have no business telling anybody to stop telling other people that they aren’t asexual because they do things that those people think of as sexual. By defining an asexual person as simply “not sexual” with no other qualifications, we would be encouraging other people to fill in the blanks with their own ideas. Which may or (more likely) may not match the meaning we intend to get across.

I find it really weird, then, to discover that we have this kind of contradictory state of affairs within the community with regard to our standard definition. Truthfully, it made me wonder whether my perspective is really welcomed by the community or not. If people do accept this definition, then am I not asexual enough? Pondering this question has left me somewhat unwilling to make any blog posts lately.

I think this is where the idea of policing each other comes into play. Nobody likes it (except those who are doing the policing) when people police others’ “rights” to call themselves asexual based on their own definition of what is or is not sexual. I think maybe this desire to be inclusive is so strong that many of us don’t want to say, “No, your definition is wrong.” (Yet clearly we do engage in some sort of policing, and attempt to keep people who make such statements out of the community.) So we shoot ourselves in the foot by being so open to whatever way that people want to define themselves that it hurts efforts at making a consistent, coherent, and cohesive education effort. We cannot expect other people to understand what we are talking about if we do not apply a critical standard to our own definitions/discourse as rigorous as the standard that outsiders will most certainly be holding us to.

Honestly, I think that “asexual” is a misleading term, and the only reason why it makes sense at all is in the context of other words that refer to an individual’s sexual orientation, like homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual. If we had a different cultural context which did not include those concepts, most likely none of us would have come to identify as asexual in the first place. Actually, all four of those words sound quite silly if you don’t have any knowledge of their context. I mean, really? Bisexual? What could that mean, that you’re double-sexual? But if you know that “sexual” in this context refers to an individual’s sense of sexual attraction, and if you know that the prefixes all refer to the gendered direction of that attraction, then you begin to be able to decode the word. (Although even once you’ve got that down, you have to also understand why “homo-” and “hetero-” are used instead of “andro-/gyno-” which would make more sense in a non-homophobic culture.) Only then does it become intuitive to invent the word “asexual” to describe a lack of sexual attraction!

The problem, of course, is that other people tend not to understand this context at first, and think we are saying literally what the root components of the word mean. But that doesn’t make sense. We can’t (and don’t) argue that we do not experience anything that could ever be considered sexual whatsoever, so why do any of us even continue to engage in debates over what is and is not sexual, when it comes to explaining to outsiders why asexuality is possible? Why do some of us accept “not sexual” as an appropriate definition, if it is so vague that it could mean anything? Especially, why accept it while still clearly being influenced the pervasive norms of the asexual community, and apparently still using an operative definition that equates “not sexual” with “not having sexual attraction?”

Is our disidentification with sexuality so strong that we are reluctant to admit that any part of our experiences might be considered sexual at all, ever? Is it a reluctance to admit that they might have a point, if we were actually saying that? Are we just being drawn into a straw man debate?

It all boils down to this: if we are to have a chance at being accepted within the wider community—the community of non-asexuals, or those who do experience sexual attraction—then we’ve got to recognize that the binary distinction asexual/sexual that we often use to refer to insiders vs. outsiders is not a literal reference to people who experience aspects of sexuality vs. people who don’t. We need to acknowledge how broad a category “sexuality” is, and make it clear to everyone that we are only referring to one aspect of that, the only one that it seems we really have all got in common: a relative lack of sexual attraction, distinctly low enough to warrant such a classification. If we can’t come to any sort of consensus about the basic definition of “asexual” within our own community (which is completely based around that term!), how can we expect others to begin to understand? How can we expect them NOT to dismiss us as a bunch of people who can’t possibly have a point because we are saying contradictory things?

Dismantling Emotional Flatulence

A few days ago, I posted about Rabbi Schmuley Boteach’s bad definition of asexuality. Now, I want to address the main point of his article.

As Ily has observed, his argument makes no sense. It is inarticulate and illogical, and there are so many gaps where he has jumped from one assumption to the other that the article is quite difficult to follow without making great leaps of inferences.

Essentially, this is an emotional argument, and it must be dealt with as such. There is a sort of reasoning to it, but it’s not the same kind of reasoning as an argument based on logic. The Rabbi looks around him and sees that a good chunk of the population does not share his values, and so he fears that society is gradually becoming more and more immoral. This rant of his (for really, that’s what it is) is just the expression of that fear. It doesn’t amount to anything else, because he has not taken the trouble to check his facts; the entire rant is based solely on his own perceptions of the world around him.

Emotional arguments are very tricky, because unlike simple misinformation, they arise from some sort of emotional need, and serve as a defense mechanism which, when taken away, would leave a person vulnerable.  Franklin from Xero Mag wrote an essay which does a great job of explaining this. I don’t usually like to challenge emotional beliefs, because it tends to lead to a great amount of hostility, and it rarely accomplishes anything, since the person whose beliefs are being challenged will tend to just sit there and vehemently deny everything that I am saying. If a person is very invested in their emotional belief, it is extremely rare that anyone will be able to get through to them. This is why arguments between atheists and Christians (for example) are almost always futile. The only thing that they can usually accomplish is to change the opinion of someone who is sitting on, or very close to, the fence.

Still, I think it’s important to talk about stuff like this. There are a lot of people out there who might start to become aware of the emotional undercurrents in their own heads which are undermining their statements. I think it’s important for people to challenge their own emotional beliefs, and not let their emotional landscapes twist facts way out of proportion. This kind of thinking affects everyone, including the asexual community. Specifically, I see certain similarities between the Rabbi’s beliefs and their rationale, and those held by some asexuals. Continue reading

Asexual Elitism

It bothers me when I hear some asexual saying that they feel like they’re somehow above sexual people because they have no interest in sex. Um… what?

Usually, I’ve noticed, this attitude is held by asexuals who are disgusted by sex. And it makes sense that the two would go hand-in-hand, because it’s usually the disgusted ones who are the most sex-negative, and the most likely to adopt a dichotomous, divisive way of thinking. Not that this is always true, of course; some disgusted A’s still manage to maintain a sex-positive attitude.

I’ve seen all manner of different kinds of claims about how asexuals are better than sexuals, but the one that gets me most is the claim that asexuals are more intelligent than sexuals. There seem to be a lot of imagined correlations (not even false correlations, because there hasn’t been any research yet to create those, as far as I know, unless you count Bogaert’s census study, which is probably highly inaccurate) about asexuality floating around out there, but even if there were a study that found that asexuals had a statistically significant, overall higher level of intelligence than sexuals (and assuming that this study took into consideration possible false correlations such as the intersection between asexuals and people who like to spend a lot of time on internet forums), why get all elitist about it? In truth, such a correlation could possibly exist, we don’t know; but even if it did, it doesn’t mean that we are all smarter than all sexuals. In fact, by taking an elitist attitude, you would be proving yourself to be unable to grasp what correlations actually mean, and thus… You’d look stupid.

Another form of asexual elitism worth mentioning is when people say that asexual love seems more pure or true, but I think Spin from Apositive.org already has that topic covered. ;)

Positive Metaphors: Chandelier Culture

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. Continue reading

Virgins

A month or two ago, I remember reading a thread (or part of one anyway) on AVEN started by an asexual who is attracted to virgins. Several others piped up, saying that whenever they found out that someone wasn’t a virgin, they were immediately turned off by that person.

One member in particular had an unreasonable, extremely negative, judgmental view of anyone who had ever had sex, and the thread quickly devolved into an argument with this person (who IMO made a total ass of him/herself). The thread was at least six pages long, so I didn’t read all of it. I read just enough to get the gist of the argument, and see that it wasn’t going anywhere–it was like arguing with a fundamentalist. This person was beyond being disgusted by sex. S/he HATED sex, and seemed to put a great deal of time and effort into avoiding it. Such an extreme viewpoint, to my mind, casts doubt on a person’s claim to be asexual. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say this person might actually be a person suffering from sexual anorexia, or just regular old sexual repression. It seemed dubiously similar to the kind of fortresses that people in denial build to keep reality out. This sort of “us and them” mentality, this militant rejection of ANYTHING sexual, is something that I think damages our cause. After all, how are we ever going to get sexual people to accept us if we won’t accept them? For this reason, I think it’s important for asexuals to be sex-positive.

But enough about that. What I wanted to talk about was virgins. Continue reading

Being Alone

As of this moment, I am alone.

I am alone in a physical sense, because there is no one else here in this room with me.

I am also alone in the sense that all my friends are relatively far away–not as far as they were when I was living away from my hometown, but still. Most of them live in other towns, and many of the ones I talk to regularly live more than 500 miles away. Of those friends, the number is dwindling. I talk to them less and less frequently, because they are busy with jobs and school and having to visit family. I can still count most of them as friends, but not only am I physically distant, but I feel distant from them emotionally as well.

I feel this way because I’m pretty sure they do not totally understand me, or most of them don’t anyway. This all sounds pretty emo, really, but I am actually quite calm about it. There is no sense of self-pity in my words; I banish that emotion because it is worthless. Instead, I am using my solitude in a positive way. I am using it to create. I am using it to express, so that I might be understood. I am calling out to the void, and maybe one day, I will hear an answer. Continue reading