Writing About Asexuality in a Classroom Setting

Cross-posted to the The Asexual Agenda.

Earlier this month, I wrote about some of the trouble I encountered in creative writing classes here [tw: verbal abuse by teachers, domestic violence mentions]. Consider this post a sort of follow-up to that one. It is also my official submission for the March Carnival of Aces, although I think most of what I wrote about this month is on-topic enough to include even though it wasn’t specifically for the carnival.

Last time, my focus was on trouble with teachers, and how as a survivor (and secondarily, as an ace) sometimes creative writing classes are especially difficult. This time, I want to focus on reception of different types of work about asexuality specifically, and mostly from peers rather than teachers.

Essays

I first started writing about asexuality in essays, for your basic English 101 class—the slightly advanced version, I guess. This was in 2005, which was well before our movement had gained most of the momentum we now have. It was a basic 101 class, and a basic 101 essay. Continue reading

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On “Better Half” – Gregory House Is Not Infallible

…Or at least, that’s how it should be written.

I’ve been watching House for years now. When I first started watching, it was sometime between the end of season two and the beginning of season three, and I burned through the first two seasons very quickly and then showed it to my best friend and then-roommate, K, who eagerly awaited season 3 with me. We would stop all our other activities and watch it together when it came on. Sometimes other people would come over to watch it with us, and we’d have little “House parties” but more often, we’d just shut the door and get quite annoyed when other people would disturb us in the middle of the show. As the seasons have worn on the show has held my interest, but it’s been waning more and more. I no longer eagerly await each episode and watch it as soon as I am able. Now weeks or months will pass before I think about getting caught up again. But I’m still watching, even though I am losing confidence in the writers.

Last week, I happened to check the AVEN home page as I (too infrequently) do, and saw that an upcoming episode of House would feature an asexual couple. I watched the preview clip with a mix of hope and deep, cynical dread. I wasn’t surprised at all to see House opposing the existence of asexuality. I was glad that Wilson said it was a “valid sexual orientation,” although the preview (terrible as usual) proved to be misleading, because he was quoting a magazine article when he said that. The show’s formula includes House being nearly always right—could the writers really take the risk of showing House being wrong about this? (Spoilers below the cut.) Continue reading

Book Review: No Touching by Aileen Deng

This book leaves me with one burning question. I have got to know: What the heck is the deal with cherry pies?

The main character mentions cherry pies about 20 times in a 237 page book (I skimmed every single page to count, but I was tired so I am sure I am slightly off), way more often than any other mention of food. There are an additional four or five mentions of cherries not in pies, which means that if they were evenly spaced, you’d get a mention of cherries about every ten pages. Now, it’s one thing to have a motif, but the way that this one was implemented was awkwardly inappropriate. The main character seems to have this weird obsession with cherry pies that arguably borders on some kind of sexual fetishism. I’m not kidding. Check out this passage:

“Mom goes to get the cherry pie from the oven. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Homemade cherry pies are the best. The sweet smell grows stronger as Mom brings it out and cuts us each a big piece. I seem to be getting high just from the sight of this treat. As soon as I get my piece, I dig in shamelessly. The cherries taste perfect as the warm juice gushes out. The crust is crispy but blends in softly with the filling. I put one cherry aside to save for later as the ultimate dessert. I’m having ten orgasms at the same time.” (page 74-75)

There is no qualification that Tiffany is using such sexual language as a joke, so it seems that she is working herself into a genuine sexual frenzy, here. Now of course this isn’t what every mention of cherry pies is like. Most of it is stuff like this, from page 72: “Dinner is delicious as usual. My parents are great cooks. I am very excited about the cherry pie in the oven.” (No kidding!) But she doesn’t actually introduce the motif by telling the reader that cherry pies are her favorite (actually on page 194 she says her favorite is cake and ice cream… oh really?), she just starts mentioning them a lot, in rather inappropriate moments. For example, upon hanging out with a guy she’s only very recently met, she begins mentally making a list of their future dates, and the only item on this list that she bothers to mention is to “bake a cherry pie together” (page 122). I can only conclude that cherry pies are supposed to symbolize SOMETHING, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what, and Tiffany never elucidates us.

Traditionally, of course, cherries and cherry pies are symbols for the vagina, loss of virginity, and promiscuous women. Food more generally is also often sexualized. Given this history and the overtly sexual way in which the pies are described, it strikes me as incredibly inappropriate to pick as a motif for a character who is supposedly asexual. What does it symbolize? What purpose does it serve? It seems only to misdirect the reader to make a more sexual interpretation of the main character, perhaps to think she is not really asexual, but just repressed or has some kind of sexual dysfunction. I assume we are NOT supposed to make such an interpretation, since the book is actually marketed towards asexuals, and the author seems genuine in her desire to portray an asexual character. However, it is not easy to take this character seriously. Because… well, I’ll just come out and say it: Tiffany is insane.

It takes a seriously unhinged person to imagine that your pillow is your imaginary boyfriend, make up a detailed back story about this boyfriend, and make out with your pillow-boyfriend so often that the seams on the pillowcase actually begin to come apart. And then, upon getting a real-life date, to feel like a guilty cheater for not telling him about the imaginary boyfriend. How are we supposed to sympathize with this character? Honestly? She seems to be a psychotic loser. I may be asexual too, but that is no basis for feeling empathy for an unlikeable character (much like mutual asexuality is no basis for forming a relationship with someone who is otherwise incompatible), especially when that character is somewhat questionably asexual in the first place; if the book had been marketed differently, I would assume that this is a classic case of an unreliable narrator, because of her penchant for lies and very shallow level of self-examination springing from her unwillingness to face uncomfortable truths (she thinks that she is sane because she knows that she is insane… how does that work?). Instead, I will assume that this is a case of the author not doing enough research. Amusingly, there is a little cafe in this book where asexuals go to hang out, and a couple of other asexuals just walk up to the main character and ask her if she is asexual the very first time she goes there, with no prior planning on the internet. Wish it were that easy to meet other asexuals in real life!

I really dislike the way that asexuality is defined in this book as a lack of sexual DESIRE, not attraction, and equated with the stereotype that asexuals don’t or can’t enjoy sex. That’s a cop-out definition which ignores the existence of people like me, who are asexual but CAN enjoy sex. In fact, the whole character seems to be based on the stereotypical idea of what an asexual person is like, with an especially negative twist. Tiffany is insecure, socially awkward and even succumbs to an anti-sexual superiority complex:

“I evaluate my asexuality to figure out whether it’s done more good or bad to my life. On the surface, it doesn’t seem too appealing. It’s almost as if I were built differently. I don’t feel what I think I should feel. However, this misfortune sometimes makes me feel better than everyone else. In a weird way, I’m above the level of needing physical pleasure, which is philosophically ranked the lowest in human nature by Plato. Material possessions and bodily pleasures are shallow and mindless, having the power to slowly destroy the human race, to reduce us to nothing but slaves to non-living objects, and to weaken our noble mentality and willpower. What is most sublime and should be focused on is human knowledge, which inspires the never-ending quest for information to enlighten our mind and soul.

“I feel like a saint now. I am not degraded by desperate, sexual urges. I am virtuously unaffected by the most basic human need. I am a goddess. I stop myself before becoming convinced that I possess magical powers to heal the poor human sex slaves around me.” (page 89)

Imagine what sexual people would think of asexuals if they read this book! I’d also like to point out that Tiffany masturbates (she even says she can get herself off within seconds!), and that eating food (for enjoyment, which she clearly does) is just as much a “physical pleasure” as having sex, so it is incorrect for her to claim she is above the level of physical pleasure. And there are tons of scenes with her eating way more food than the situation warrants or fantasizing about eating lots of food; she does truly seem to need cherry pies as some sort of emotional comfort. There is no mention of her having a fast metabolism or anything like that, and there is never any physical description given of her besides the fact that she is Chinese and other people say she is pretty. And she says at one point that she feels “a hundred pounds lighter,” so I suppose that we are meant to assume that she weighs a lot, too. Which I think is also part of the stereotypical idea of what asexuals look like.

I also have very little sympathy for Tiffany because she seems to get teary-eyed about EVERYTHING. In fact, all of the characters do, except for Peter (who is happy all the time). The author seems to rely on tears and cliches as a shortcut for showing emotional pain, when really, people don’t act like that. And this truly cripples the book. All of the characters’ behaviors are extreme, to the point that they can’t be taken seriously; however, I think these would be plausible situations if they were toned down somewhat (except for the imaginary boyfriend part). This book actually would work really really well as a comedy. As it is, it’s very funny, but it’s funny in about the same way that The Room is funny. If this book, as it is now, were actually meant to be a comedy, though, I would feel a bit insulted because it would come dangerously close to satirizing asexuals. However, I think it was really meant to be a positive portrayal, but the author just didn’t quite make it to a level of deep emotional honesty with regard to the characters’ actions.

The fact that this book was self-published speaks volumes about its quality. It reads like a rough draft. What it really needs is revision: the attention of a ruthless editor and some asexual beta readers would have done wonders for it. It really does have potential, because it’s a good set-up. The storyline and plot twists are pretty great. It needed to be critiqued by an intelligent and thoughtful group of people knowledgeable about the process of writing, who wouldn’t sugar-coat things and just stroke the author’s ego several times before being published, pushing each successive revision to the next level. I feel somewhat bad for probably really damaging the author’s ego as it is, but harsh criticism really goes with the territory when you put yourself out there like this, and I think it’s more important to be completely honest in a review. I really, really wanted to like this book… but unfortunately, I just couldn’t. However, on the positive side, I did greatly enjoy the author’s sense of humor, and I think she has a knack for comedic situations. Dialogue especially is her strong point. I hope that she will hone this talent and keep on writing.

In conclusion, I have very high standards. I give it 1 star out of 5.

Asexual Character Spotlight: Data

So, I’m a nerd. And I’ve been rewatching Star Trek TNG lately because the gf hasn’t seen it yet, which is just not acceptable for someone as space-nerdy as her. She seems to like it, while I am rediscovering my love for my favorite asexual character.

When I still browsed AVEN a lot, I saw a few people who had avatars or quotes of Data, and seemed to identify with him like I do. Data is very much a classic character, so I expected as much. I feel like, if anything, I’m just going to be rehashing things people already know. But after doing a quick google search, it doesn’t seem like it’s anything that’s been discussed a whole lot, so I thought I might as well talk about him a little.

Like most asexual characters currently out there in the media, Data is not human, though he desperately wants to be. The very fact that he is not human is one reason why asexuals, as well as other people who feel alienated or outside of society in some way, are more likely to identify with him. But the anatomically correct android takes it several steps further than a cute, appliance-like robot character like WALL-E could, for one because he is in a show that is much more adult and thus has the possibility of actually exploring sexual themes; and two, because his goal is to become as close a facsimile to humanity as he possibly can. He fervently explores humanity and tries very hard to understand “the human equation” as best he can.

I particularly identify with this attitude because that is exactly my attitude towards sexuality. Like Data (who engages in sexual activity with Lieutenant Yar, telling her that he is “programmed in multiple techniques”–and taking into account his performance at every other task, we can be sure that he functions more than adequately), I can and have engaged in (enjoyable, even) sexual activities, but I still fail to understand the human urge or “need” to have sex, because I do not experience it. I’ve had people go so far as to tell me that I cannot possibly be human and still feel this way, though obviously since I am human, those people are mistakenly twisting the facts to fit the theory, and not the other way around. Clearly human sexuality is in actuality more varied than most people would like to think, but my main question (unanswerable though it may be) is why do other people feel this way? How does it affect their perspective on love, the way they feel towards their crushes, and so on? I have a tendency to drive people crazy asking them endless questions about how they think about love, sex, intimacy, and other related topics, which I think is frustrating to them mainly because they’ve never thought about it before, or certainly not in such detail as I request.

Essentially, I want to know what other people feel. It’s not that I want to change myself to feel the same way they do, because I’m perfectly happy with my own lack of… not interest, because I am certainly interested in human sexuality. From a distant, analytical perspective. Sound familiar?

If I were denied the full range of human emotions, I would yearn to be human, too. But I already am human, and I have those emotions. Why should I want to feel a form of desire that would only continue to frustrate me?

One very intriguing thing that Star Trek implies about sexuality is that it is contingent on having emotions. Anyone who hasn’t seen First Contact and doesn’t want to be spoiled, please refrain from highlighting the following text: Remember that creepy scene with the Borg Queen? She turned on Data’s emotion chip and then tried to seduce him, and seemed to be succeeding. In effect, before the emotion chip is activated, Data is asexual. After? He may well become borderline sexual, and able to experience sexual attraction, although he would still have no particular need to have sex.

This implies that sexual attraction itself is an emotion. Is that an accurate presumption? I’m not sure. It could be. Or it could be that the emotion Data was experiencing was purely his intense desire to be human, channeled through a sexual circuit. Is this not similar to what many people do with regards to intimacy?

This is merely an observation, but it seems to me that many sexual people do channel their emotions through the act of sex, as a sort of release for them. I don’t really understand this behavior, (and again, I feel like Data because of it), but I do see that it happens. It seems I’m just not wired to experience sex from an emotional perspective. Would I be, if I were sexual? I wonder.

And so I continue to ponder the puzzle of human sexuality, seeking answers that I will likely never be able to attain. In a way, I think the search is more important than the ultimate conclusion.

News

Well… I was out visiting family last week (so never doing that again, at least not that side of the family), so these past several days since I got back have been spent catching up on things, working on a sewing project, and trying to restore my reserves of sanity. Unfortunately, I haven’t really got back into the headspace that I need to write yet; I have three drafts that I’ve started, and then found myself unable to continue, and then started on a different one, repeat ad nauseum. So instead of doing that I thought I might as well just leave a quick note here on the various recent happenings that are relevant here.

New Zealand Wins Award For Most Asex-Friendly Country of 2008
Okay, there is no such award, but there should be! Probably the biggest news for the asexual community lately is the first ever explicitly asexual TV character. I’m sure almost all of you have heard about it by now, but for the sake of those few of you who don’t read Ily’s blog, I’ll post it here, too. The character’s name is Gerald Tippet, of New Zealand soap opera Shortland Street. I’ve actually known about this for a while, since one of my Kiwi friends is a long-time fan of the show, but what I didn’t know is that the asexuality storyline is now available to watch on YouTube, courtesy of user sootmouthnz, who gains >9000 Ace Points and levels up.

And… that was the good news. Here’s the bad:

U.S. Court Rules Sexual Relations Counts as “Major Life Activity,” Expands Definition of Disability
The story broke here, and Venus of Willendork brought it to our attention here. I don’t have much to say about it other than what I said in the comments, but really, I just didn’t expect M’s ridiculous conclusion to become reality. It hasn’t gotten that far yet, since this is about not being able to have sex rather than not wanting to have sex, but this gives us reason to be concerned. The definition of sexuality used is broad (read: vague) enough that with this precedent in place, it would be easy enough for some sue-happy entitlement whore to come along and say that their “inability to experience sexual attraction” constitutes a sexual disability (nevermind the inaccuracy, we can’t expect the courts to know about that). If that happens, I think I’ll move to New Zealand!

But although on a larger scale we continue to be ignored and invalidated (here in the U.S. at least), on a smaller scale I’ve met some friendly people lately. Some of you may remember my little experiment with online dating. Well, it hasn’t turned up any real prospects yet, but I’ve met a couple of asex-friendly people and had some interesting conversations. It seems awareness has grown, and OKcupid is a friendlier place than it was when swankivy joined, so hey, we are making progress!

Causality

I always wonder why it seems to matter so much (to other people) what asexuality is “caused by.”

Of course, there are a lot of people out there who would say that asexuality doesn’t really exist, and that it’s just repressed sexuality caused by trauma, or “latent” sexuality caused by a lack of appropriate hormones or whatever pseudo-scientific bullshit theory is being spouted these days without any evidence to support it whatsoever.

But my question is not whether or not asexuality is, or can be caused by either of those things (because of course, sexuality in humans is highly complicated and possibly a little bit like HTML—in that if there is even one component missing, it might not work; so there are probably many different potential causes for asexuality), but whether it matters.
Continue reading

Asexual Character Spotlight: Dexter Morgan

What with the relatively few updates this month, compared to last month, I suppose I might be vain enough to suggest that some of you might have been wondering what I’ve been up to, or perhaps wondering whether I’ve rambled myself hoarse (figuratively speaking, of course) and have been starting to run out of steam. Alas, no such luck; in fact I still have a pretty long list of subjects to blog about in the future, whenever I get around to it.

The truth is, this past month I have finally taken one of my (fellow asexual) friends up on a promise I made too long ago to even remember when exactly it was that I made it—that is, to start watching Dexter. Continue reading