Updating the Map: Romantic Attraction and Friendship vs. Romance

This post is for the October 2015 Carnival of Aces. The theme is aromanticism and the aromantic spectrum. Cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.

Until relatively recently, I never considered whether I might be on the aromantic spectrum. It was patently obvious to me that I’ve experienced whatever feeling it is that people refer to as “romantic attraction.” It didn’t really matter that I’ve only had that happen (with complete certainty) once—if it happened once, then surely it could happen again. The potential was all that mattered. Except as the years went on, and I tried very unsuccessfully to find someone (else—I’ve been polyamorously partnered for the past seven years) to date, it’s started to seem less and less like that potential feeling is accessible. So after much consideration, I’ve started identifying as greyromantic. Continue reading

Review: The Invisible Orientation by Julie Sondra Decker

Asexual Bingo card

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. Continue reading

The False Dichotomy of Repulsion vs. Indifference

This post is for the July 2014 Carnival of Aces.


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

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

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

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

And it’s fucked up. 100% stupid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The distinction between Verbal vs. Oral

Still too busy to make a proper post, but I wanted to write a response to this comment on my How to Have Sex With an Asexual Person post that I just saw on Tumblr:

This is a great article aside from the emphasis on exclusively verbal communication. I agree that clear communication and having a complete understanding of how and when a person(or persons) is ok with what is entirely necessary; however, it is also important to remember that there are other entirely unambiguous forms of communication that some people use that are nonverbal.

You mean communication like signing, right? Thank you for the reminder, and sorry for not picking that up. I’ll try to keep this in mind.

I do mean communication like signing, using an communication board, using a pen or pencil and paper, using a tablet pc, using an alphasmart or any other adaptive technology. Just because someone is nonverbal (to whatever extent and for whatever reason) doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t give consent and frequently the sex education and consent education that any nonverbal (for reasons of disability) people receive is inadequate or nonexistent. This is related to the lack of disability related material on this subject overall but is also of course related to the general forced desexualization of disabled bodies.

I think there’s a miscommunication in how we’re defining terms. I’m a little confused, here. How is writing something down using any of those different methods, or signing or using a “talker” (this is what we’ve called them in my family), non-verbal communication? Is sign language not still a language? Verbal, to me, means using language. Sign language and written communication are INCLUDED under the category of “verbal communication.” At least under my definition!

Here’s what is NOT included under the (very broad) category of “verbal communication” by my definition: sighing, facial expressions, what clothes you’re wearing, that you have gone home with someone for a night, that you had coffee with someone, etc. Basically, any kind of assumption that someone might make about whether or not you want to have sex without asking you in some form of direct language whether you want to or not.

I was quite deliberate about the word that I chose, because I wanted to avoid this exact miscommunication.  If I wanted to refer ONLY to spoken communication, I would have said oral communication.

However, I probably should have consulted the dictionary before I posted, because I was not aware that one of the definitions referred specifically to oral communication. Every definition but the third one refers ONLY to words. So I see where the confusion came from, and I apologize for causing it. My intent was not to exclude anyone with a disability.

Is there some phrase more specific than “verbal communication” to refer to a BROAD UMBRELLA of different types of communication that include words? Or do I just have to go back and elaborate on what I mean every single time? How can I make this more inclusive when I revise it?

Edit: I also touched on this in my last post responding to Tumblr comments, but it bears repeating: The person who is being asked for consent can give it with a clear nonverbal signal, like a thumbs up. But the person who INITIATES must use some kind of direct, unambiguous language to do so rather than relying on assumptions based on body language or circumstance. (Unless, of course, what is and is not okay has already been pre-negotiated, using words. You still should check in to make sure it’s still okay every now and then, though.)

Why I Identify as Sex-Postitive, Despite Seeing Sex as Neutral

Author’s note, August 2015: This is an old blog post that no longer reflects my current views. I no longer find it useful to identify as sex-positive, especially in asexual spaces, although many of my political views still align with the goals of sex-positive feminism.

I regularly see asexuals saying that they don’t identify as sex-positive because they don’t see sex as an inherently positive thing. They often feel alienated and attacked by people who identify as sex-positive, because sex is good and people who aren’t interested in having sex therefore must have something wrong with them. But while I know that people who say this do exist, I think they’re wrong about what being sex positive actually means.

Sex is not inherently positive. It CAN be positive. It CAN be a fantastic, mutually enjoyable experience. It can even be something that inspires feelings of transcendence in people. But it isn’t always. A lot of sex is painful, coerced, deeply terrifying and traumatic. And sometimes sex that feels good at the time can bring all kinds of awful consequences.

The point of sex positivity is acknowledging that sex isn’t inherently negative. It’s not saying that ALL sex is positive. It’s saying that it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s how Carol Queen, one of the leaders of the movement*, defines it:

It’s the cultural philosophy that understands sexuality as a potentially positive force in one’s life, and it can, of course, be contrasted with sex-negativity, which sees sex as problematic, disruptive, dangerous. Sex-positivity allows for and in fact celebrates sexual diversity, differing desires and relationships structures, and individual choices based on consent.

Emphasis in original. This quote is from wikipedia, as access to the original interview is restricted.

There are cultural forces out there that are strongly anti-sex. To people who buy into them, sex is seen as inherently bad, dirty, and shameful. It is only acceptable within a very narrow set of circumstances. That set of circumstances is seen as being narrower or wider according to different people, but it’s all relatively narrow. Primarily, the people who see it this way are religious. It makes sense, right? They want to make you feel guilty for sex you will still be having anyway**, so that then you’ll feel the need to keep coming back to confess your sins to them.

Sex positivity is a response to that. It’s a philosophy that says that, hey, there’s nothing wrong with having sex before marriage, or sex with someone of the same sex, or a million other kinds of sex, as long as that’s what you both want. Consent is key. And so is the idea that everyone is different, and it’s totally okay for different people to want different things.

If you don’t want to have sex, then don’t have sex, because having sex that you don’t want is bad for you. That is what a sex-positive person should be saying.

“Yeah, I’m totally ace-positive … You’re aromantic, ew that’s unnatural.” From here.

So those nominally sex-positive people who say that everyone should want sex, because sex is good? They’re doing sex positivity wrong, because they’re forgetting about both consent, and the tenet of individual preference.

I see these people as a breed of Disingenuous Liberal, essentially. These are people who have thought about sex positivity just enough to start labeling themselves as such, but not enough to have actually thought through their positions and arrived at a reasonable, logically consistent conclusion. These are people who are still having knee-jerk reactions against religious conservatives saying that sex is inherently negative, and as such, their reactions lack nuance. They are basically saying, “NUH UH, SEX IS GREAT!” without considering how it isn’t always the best thing for everyone. They have challenged whatever sex-negative attitudes they previously held enough to start identifying as sex-positive, but not enough to actually stop telling other people how they should feel about sex.

These are the people who tend to assume that asexuality is the same as being anti-sex. These are the people who are likely to equate asexuality with a “purer than thou” religious attitude towards sex, and attack it on that basis. They are still fighting their own battle with sex-negative conditioning, so they assume we are saying that we’re somehow “better than” them, for not feeling sexual attraction.

These are the people who are most likely to say we’re “just repressed” and push concern-trolling ideas like how we should go get our hormones checked.

But, as Natalie Reed said yesterday, people who see themselves as liberated and enlightened can easily fall into the trap of thinking that they are much more so than they actually are, and stop actually examining their words and actions, because of course they are so enlightened that nothing they say can actually still be enforcing sex-negativity. They have fallen for the Dunning-Kruger effect, and they genuinely think they know our feelings about sex better than we do.

But sex positivity is about cultivating positive sexual experiences, and reducing harmful ones. Pushing asexual people to have sex that they don’t want is pushing them to have harmful, deeply negative sexual experiences. Telling us that we’re “just repressed” is an aggressive attempt to frame any conversation about asexuality through a lens in which we don’t actually exist. It’s an attempt to marginalize us based on our different sexual preferences. It is not an act that is in any way sex positive.

Then there are other disingenuous liberals, like this recent commenter, who insist that they think that asexuality exists, but that our definition of asexuality is wrong, because it’s “too broad.” This is still an attempt to marginalize. It’s still a direct attack on someone’s identity, despite her attempt to cloak it in the abstractions of semantics. When you’re the signified, discussing how the signifier is wrong to include you is still pretty personal. And, unsurprisingly, she replied once and then after that didn’t bother to come back to see what else I said. This isn’t someone who is actually interested in interrogating her own biases. This is someone who is only interested in telling me how I’m wrong.

Like I said to her, it doesn’t matter whether you see a need for someone to identify as asexual or not. What matters is that THEY see that need. And asexuality is not only entirely compatible with sex positivity, but sometimes understanding yourself as asexual is what it takes to be able to have positive sexual experiences.

Before I realized I was asexual, I was celibate, and completely closed off to the idea of having sex until such time as I started spontaneously wanting to have sex (which has still never come even though I’m in my mid-twenties, because I’m not a “late bloomer”). Realizing that I’m just not attracted to people in that way has allowed me to think about whether or not I wanted to have sex anyway, and under what circumstances. When I had a partner who didn’t accept me as asexual, the sex was bad. Like, the stuff of nightmares bad. But when I met C, she actually listened to me and tried to understand what my experience was like. She didn’t pressure me. At times I still felt like our relationship was moving too fast, but we always negotiated what was and wasn’t okay sexually, and we’ve been able to have some very positive, mutually enjoyable sex.

Sex isn’t for everyone, though. Some people just don’t want it. And that’s okay.

Sex positivity is all about recognizing that different people have different preferences, and that’s okay. It’s about recognizing that sex isn’t always bad, but not all sex is good sex, either. Sex has to be entirely consensual, or it won’t be any good, and people also need to understand and have access to ways to prevent negative consequences of sex like STIs and pregnancy. Sex positivity is about recognizing that when those criteria are met, sex has the potential to be very positive. Living a sex-positive life means finding ways to have a positive relationship with sexuality in your personal life, even if that means saying, “Hey, it can be great for other people, but it’s not for me.”


* Several years ago, DJ interviewed Carol Queen about asexuality and the sex positive movement. There are two installments, and it’s well worth a listen.

** Researchers have found that religious people have sex at the same rates as non-religious people. Abstinence-only sex education is ineffective. There are plenty of studies about this, but one particularly interesting one compares the sex lives of secular people with those of religious people.

Sex With Friends: An Asexual Perspective

I planned to write my post for the Carnival of Aces quite a while ago, but something came up this month that made me reconsider what I had planned to write about. I’ve decided to go with the original idea, but make it more generalized than I had originally planned. My blog is receiving a lot more attention lately (by several orders of magnitude!) than it normally does, so I’m being more cautious about what I talk about here.

Today, I want to talk about having sex with friends, and how while it may not seem intuitive, it might be a choice that some asexual people do want to make, and they can come out of it just fine. But the language we use to describe relationships like that tends to exclude asexuals, so it can be an even more difficult minefield to navigate than engaging in sexual activity while in a romantic relationship.

Back when this blog post by Snowdrop Explodes* about the phrases “friends with benefits” vs. “fuck buddies” was written, I stuck a link to it in a draft and decided to come back to it later, but then forgot about it until now. In it, Snowdrop says that he prefers the term “fuck buddies” because it is more honest than the euphemistically named “benefits” that also imply that friendships don’t normally come with benefits. In his words:

So how come the only “benefits” that are worth mentioning, or making special mention of, are sexual favours? Why is the rest of it considered not to be benefits of friendship, such that the only friends who come with benefits are the ones who’ll let you fuck them? Do you think that it is too literal-minded of me to suggest that “friends with benefits” means that all other friends are “friends without benefits”?

I don’t think it’s too literal-minded at all. At the very least, it shows that everything else in a friendship is being taken for granted. I think it’s very much worth considering the implications of the language we use to describe relationships like this on a literal level, because it says something about how we value certain things and devalue others. If on a cultural level we truly valued friendships as highly as sexual relationships, the phrase “friends with benefits” wouldn’t sit right with most people, and it would fall out of use.

I disagree with Snowdrop’s use of the term “fuck buddies” as basically a synonym for FWB, since I think (and he does note that this is how he sees others using the terms) they do indeed refer to different kinds of relationships, or at least, the same relationship viewed with very different emphases. If you say you have a “fuck buddy,” then you are saying that the primary activity that you do with that person is fuck them, just like if you say you have a “drinking buddy” or a “knitting buddy,” you’re saying you primarily drink or knit with that person, respectively. The activity is the focus, not the friendship itself. If anyone describes a friend as a “_____ buddy” to me, I will assume that they do hardly anything else but [fill in the blank] together. With the phrase “friend with benefits,” however, you indicate that the friendship comes first, and the “benefits” are an added bonus, although the fact that this particular thing is the only thing that gets to be called a “benefit” still devalues friendship.

The other term that I think really needs mentioning is “casual sex,” which wikipedia informs me has no set, commonly agreed-upon meaning. The way I tend to view it is as a wide umbrella term for different kinds of sex outside the context of a romantic relationship, including both one-time encounters with strangers and, on the other side of the spectrum, habitual encounters with friends. So both fuck buddies and FWBs are engaging in a type of casual sex, and while the relationships may be similar, the two phrases have a different emotional tenor.

To demonstrate… if I were in a relationship that I considered basically a FWB-type arrangement (for lack of a better term), I would be hurt if I found out I was being described as a “fuck buddy” to others by my FWB. Because to me, that means they consider the rest of our friendship to be shallow, nearly meaningless. It strongly implies to me that should the sex ever stop, so would our friendship.

I personally can’t imagine a situation in which I would be okay with having a relationship that focuses solely on sex. I always want to be friends first and foremost, and that includes in romantic relationships. I’m not the type of person who would be comfortable having sex with strangers, since there are so many considerations that I need my sexual partners to keep in mind about me in order to have a truly positive sexual encounter.

But with a friend? Maybe that’s possible.

Continue reading

Things we don’t have words for

C and I made this observation over lunch today:

We have a word for someone who abstains from sex (celibate) and the idea of abstaining from sex in general (celibacy). Actually, we have two words for it if you count abstinent as well.

But as far as we know, there isn’t really a word for someone who has decided not to pursue romantic relationships for whatever reason (whether they’re celibate during this period or not). The closest we have (as far as I am aware, at least) is aromantic, but that’s different. The vast majority of people who don’t pursue romantic relationships are not aromantic, they’ve just decided that now is not the time, for whatever reason. Maybe a bad break-up, maybe they have career goals that they don’t want to be distracted from, maybe they just want to spend time single to get to know themselves well and gain a sense of independence. It’s the same as the difference between asexuality and celibacy, only with aromanticism and… a person who is abstaining from romantic relationships, I guess. You see what I mean? We have a description, but not a word.

Has anyone heard of such a word? It gets rather unwieldy to say that every single time when you’re trying to have a conversation about someone who is intentionally, purposefully single like that. I guess there’s “independent,” but that’s more of a general personality trait used as a euphemism than an actual term for it. Since it has that general meaning as well, if you say that without explaining what exactly you mean, other people are liable to get confused. You can say, “She’s very independent” about a married woman, too.

And what does it say about our culture’s values that people have never thought to name this concept? It’s like the idea of people being single on purpose is considered so wrong that people don’t even consider naming it, even though it’s not unheard of. It always seems to be considered just a temporary thing that requires explanation.

Willing Consent

[Potential trigger warning for extended but non-explicit discussion of consent.]

Enthusiastic consent is probably a concept you’ve heard about if you’ve been hanging around here for a while. It’s a term that was coined in an attempt to raise the standard of consent, in order to avoid allowing rapists to defend their actions by claiming that they were simply a “misunderstanding” as well as to remove any form of coercion as socially acceptable to use when pursuing sex. The idea is that all sex should be wanted sex, that a “yes” can never be assumed unless explicitly stated (unless perhaps you know your partner VERY well and have already discussed where each of your boundaries are), and that if anyone is being pressured to have sex, then the deal’s off. I think it’s a very good idea, and if it was expected that everyone follow this protocol when seeking consent, we’d all be much better off.

However, I realize that a lot of asexual people have a problem with the way that enthusiastic consent is framed. There seems to be an expectation of a certain level of desire there, and the word “enthusiasm” throws people off. It seems to be interpreted as pressure to “be sexual” if you will, or in other words to not be asexual (and indeed some people probably do intentionally mean to pressure others to reject asexuality because they view it as some kind of unhealthy “repression” but many who embrace the concept have explicitly clarified that they are not), though personally I don’t interpret it that way because I think desire and sexual attraction are independent of one another. Tons of people, including my own partner, have sex with people they are not sexually attracted to, but desire nevertheless. You can be asexual (and for the inevitable confused googler who will eventually arrive here, I’ll say that asexuality only means not experiencing sexual attraction, not to be confused with anything else) and still have some desire for sex. So I think that yes, asexuals can very well enthusiastically consent.

Still, for those who don’t particularly desire sex, it may seem like too high a standard. Ironically, a standard designed to remove pressure may actually be causing some people to feel pressured, so it may be a good idea to start using a new term in addition to enthusiastic consent. A couple weeks ago, Emily Nagoski made a post on different types of consent, proposing a new category of willing consent:

Enthusiastic consent:
When I want you
When I don’t fear the consequences of saying yes OR saying no.
When saying no means missing out on something I want.

Willing consent:
When I care about you though I don’t desire you (right now).
When I’m pretty sure saying yes will have an okay result and I think maybe that I’d regret saying no. (edited from the OP, see comments)
When I believe that desire may begin after I say yes.

Unwilling consent:
When I fear the consequences of saying no more than I fear the consequences of saying yes
When I feel not just an absence of desire but an absence of desire for desire.
When I hope that by saying yes, you will stop bothering me, or think that if I say no you’ll only keep on trying to persuade me.

Coerced consent:
When you threaten me with harmful consequences if I say no.
When I feel I’ll be hurt if I say yes, but I’ll be hurt more if I say no.
When saying yes means experiencing something I actively dread.

I think this idea works pretty well. I wouldn’t classify my own consent as willing consent personally, even though I only have responsive desire, because I think it pretty much always meets the qualifications for enthusiastic consent. But if it works for anyone else? Sure, it’s a fine term, although I feel it’s a little redundant because consent means willingness in the first place. But since that has gotten muddied up by people not understanding what consent actually means, the redundancy is okay. I want to put quotes around “consent” for those last two though, because I think they describe compliance, not consent. Calling those things “consent” is harmful, in my opinion, because it may give people the wrong idea of what consent means, and make them think any of those behaviors are morally acceptable just because they think it still constitutes consent, and therefore “it’s not rape so it’s okay.”

I want to point out something else, though: sometimes people both desire and feel repulsed by the idea of having sex, at the same time. Sometimes people are not completely sure if they want to have sex, but do still make an unpressured decision to go ahead with it and see how it goes. I’d call that cautious consent. In that situation, as long as there is no pressure to have sex, no fear of what your partner would do if you said no, and as long as the initiating partner asks for consent explicitly and gives you time to decide, I’d say it still constitutes consent. But if the initiator doesn’t ask for permission and just starts touching before giving you time to make up your mind, if they try to persuade you into having sex, or if they do gain permission but ignore your reservations or limits, I wouldn’t call it consent. In that sort of situation I think it’s best to proceed slowly and carefully, like you’re at a yellow light. It may turn green or it may turn red, so you have to keep checking in to see if it’s still okay.

So, what do you all think? Do you like these terms? Can you think of any better ones?

[By the way, please be patient with me this time, because I’m not at home right now so it may take comments a while to go through.]

PSA: Attraction and Desire are Not Synonyms

So there’s a new study out about asexuality (which is free to read, and available here), and I’ve barely started reading it, and I’m already annoyed. Check this out:

“[AVEN] holds that an independence from sexual desire is the key feature of asexuality, claiming that ‘an asexual is someone who does not experience attraction.’ Asexuals might choose to develop an emotional closeness to particular individuals that is devoid of sexual contact. Or, they might engage in sexual behavior, but experience no desire or pleasure in the act.” (emphasis mine)

But… but… that’s not what it says at all! Not experiencing sexual attraction is NOT the same thing as being independent from sexual desire! And asexuals CAN take pleasure from sexual behavior.

Look, really, what is so hard to understand about this? It’s possible for an asexual person to experience non-attraction-based desire for sex. Nothing about my partner (or anyone else) is sexually attractive to me, and yet I still sometimes think, “Oh, that would be nice.” Because it’s pleasurable. Imagine that.

I am so sick of this misconception being perpetuated. I really wish people would cut it out.

Reading further, their measure of whether a person is “behaviorally asexual” (i.e. whether they are virgins, though they refer to it as celibacy even though it is a measure of lifetime rather than current/recent sexual activity) is 1) for males, answering “no” to the questions a) “Have you ever had vaginal sex with a female?” and b) “Have you ever had anal or oral sex with a male?” and 2) for females, answering “no” to the questions a) “Have you ever had vaginal sex with a male?” and b) “Have you ever had sexual contact with a female?” Meaning that apparently, males and females who have had anal or oral sex with one another still count as celibate? What? No. Stupid.

I find it really bizarre that there are such vastly different standards for what counts as homosexual female sex vs. heterosexual sex. I mean really, any sexual contact vs. specifically PIV sex? And why exactly doesn’t anal or oral sex count if it’s between a male and a female? But it does for any other combination of participants? Plus there’s the issue of manual stimulation, which counts as sex, but only if you’re a girl with another girl. What’s up with that?

I also just don’t think that trying to retrofit some old demographic survey to figure out how asexuals might have responded is going to result in any meaningful data at all, considering that there weren’t any responses provided with the idea of asexuality in mind. Make new surveys with new response options, and THEN analyze the data. Even if their definitions of what constitutes asexuality weren’t so ill-conceived, this is really just grasping.

I am not impressed.