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.

Seduction and Its Nasty Implications

[Trigger warning for sexual assault.]

When I posted How to Seduce an Asexual, I left out a lot of things about seduction that I have a problem with. Namely… well, the entire system of ideology that’s behind it.

I had an extended conversation with C about it after I made that post, and the conclusion we both came to is that ultimately, seduction comes down to placing blame. Or credit, as the case may be—boys patting themselves on the back for having “scored” with so-and-so, bragging about it to other boys.

Historically, it has probably been more about blame than credit. Here are the definitions of the verb “seduce” given by the OED:

1. trans. To persuade (a vassal, servant, soldier, etc.) to desert his allegiance or service.

2. In wider sense: To lead (a person) astray in conduct or belief; to draw away from the right or intended course of action to or into a wrong one; to tempt, entice, or beguile to do something wrong, foolish, or unintended.

3. trans. To induce (a woman) to surrender her chastity. Now said only of the man with whom the act of unchastity is committed (not, e.g., of a pander). Cf. DEBAUCH v.

4. To decoy (from or to a place), to lead astray (into). Obs. exc. with notion of sense

5. To win by charm or attractiveness. Obs. rare

Inherent in most, if not absolutely all, of these is a value judgment: sex is bad, it is the wrong course. For the seduced, having sex is foolish or at the very least unintended. According to C’s way of thinking, you cannot be seduced if you set out originally to have sex with whomever you happened to have sex with. You might say that you were seduced, but I think most people would agree that if you intended to do it from the outset, you weren’t actually seduced. So that means that at least in some sense, having sex would be something negative. Maybe that means you have “chastity”—some kind of innocence or purity which can be given away. A virginity, whatever the heck that means, that you are protecting by not having sex. You’re trying to hold to these principles, and you wouldn’t normally do it, but someone came along who was just so amazingly tempting that you had to give in. He seduced you. Notice who is both the subject and the agent of that sentence. It’s not you, it’s him.

Or maybe you’re not a virgin. Maybe you’re married. If you’re committed to a monogamous relationship, then it’s wrong to have sex outside of that relationship. You do it anyway, and when your partner finds out, you say, “She seduced me.” Whether or not that’s true, if you can get your partner to believe it, it may shift some of the blame onto the “seductress.” While you may not be absolved of blame in the public eye, the focus shifts. Google Michelle McGee, for instance, and you’re likely to find blog posts about her where people have had to use a disclaimer: “Of course Jesse James is also in the wrong, but…”

Seduction is inherently about manipulation, even if the result is framed as something which is liberating. It is about strategizing, cajoling, overcoming resistance—even if that resistance comes from “unfounded fears” or negative ideas about sex, and results in a welcome removal of such fears. It is a choice made under pressure deliberately calculated by the seducer, if it does constitute a choice at all. It’s not really even framed as a choice; it’s framed as something that was done to someone.

And it’s scary, because a person in “seduction mode” will likely not recognize very obvious signs of non-consent and back off. M laughed at me once for pulling his hand out of my underwear, and then put it back. He thought of my actions as if they were a move in a game, apparently, when really I wanted him to stop, and it would be hedging to say I was merely “uncomfortable” with what he was doing. I was scared. I could tell he would be able to overpower me, and most likely nobody would take my side. He didn’t respect me or the knowledge I had about my sexual orientation—not that he even listened to me when I tried to explain and make my boundaries clear. I thought that if I could just communicate to him what asexuality really means, he would stop violating them, and start to take me seriously. That never happened. He was convinced that I was “not really asexual” and apparently thought that he was sweeping me off my feet, getting rid of my “unfounded” fears, and so on.

Why is it that consent is allowed to be implicit—indicated by anything from the clothes a victim is wearing to his/her previous history and character—but there is no room for implicit non-consent? Why does a lack of a no apparently mean yes? Why does Cathy Young say that requiring initiators to seek explicit consent for sexual activity:

“infantilizes women (while the policies may be gender-neutral on their face, they generally presume men to be the initiators in heterosexual encounters). Are women so weak that they can’t even say ”no,” or otherwise indicate their lack of consent, unless the man takes the initiative of asking?”

Hey, I tried to indicate my lack of consent. It didn’t work. And having heard from 90 people so far (and still counting) about their experiences with rape and sexual assault, I realize that it is a common phenomenon to have one’s boundaries treated like they are a joke, even in cases where the victim very explicitly said no.

Actually, up to 88% of those who have been sexually assaulted experience some degree of involuntary temporary paralysis during the assault. It doesn’t make them weak or infantilize anyone, male or female; that’s just the way that most people (and other animals) instinctively respond to such a threat. In fact, it is probably adaptive and helpful, since resistance may only make an attacker more violent, and do more damage.

Treating sex like it is a game to be played out, especially a game wherein one party is expected to be the gatekeeper, and show resistance that is supposed to be overcome… well, I think it’s awful. Especially so for those who are assumed to be consenting when they are not. And even when the sex IS consensual, framing it as seduction removes the implication of free choice from the “seduced” and places the blame/credit on the “seducer.” And I wonder why, if you really made a fully informed and free choice to have sex, you wouldn’t want to give yourself credit for making that choice.

I just wish that we could get away from a manipulative model of how sex works and put everything out in the open. There is nothing wrong with having sex if you want to, and there is nothing wrong with not wanting to, either. I mean seriously, what is with all this sneaking around? Why is it such a huge problem to just outright ask if someone wants to do it or not, and then honor their wishes?

How to Seduce an Asexual

[NOTE: This post is more than five years old, and should not be taken as if it is recent. If you are looking for a guide to having sex with an asexual person, that is here. This one is just ridiculing the idea that having sex with an asexual person counts as seduction. Original text below.]

***

“Get her a kitty,” C quipped, when I quoted this search term [the title of this post, “how to seduce an asexual”] that somebody used to find my blog. (There used to be a website out there called Asexual Porn which mainly featured pictures of cats, but it’s gone now.)

I am amused at the idea that somebody out there is seriously trying to seduce an asexual. Like, what? Leaving aside the problematic parts of the first response to that question for the moment, I have a hard time believing that it’s actually possible to seduce an asexual person even if you do have sex with them.

Because if you do, it’s not technically seduction.

Seduction implies an attraction so strong that you give in to suppressed (not repressed, but suppressed) desire despite misgivings. It’s not just “I got her to have sex with me.” That’s agreement, but it’s not seduction. Seduction is something more than that. Seduction implies coquetry. Seduction implies baseball theory.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this is one definition of the verb seduce: “To win by charm or attractiveness.” This is a more obscure definition not directly related to sex, except by its figurative suggestion of the more common definitions. Still, it seems to take a key part of what it means to seduce (in terms of sex) and generalize it to a broader sense. If something is seductive, then it means that thing is alluring. Thus, it seems that seduction necessarily involves charm and attractiveness.

Asexuals, by definition, don’t experience sexual attraction. So while you very well might be able to say that an asexual person is “seduced” by something in the much broader sense of the word (maybe), it doesn’t translate well to a sexual context. Asexual people may be just as subject to charm and attractiveness on various other levels as sexual people, but the thing is, it doesn’t lead to a desire to have sex. Now, of course, you have to keep in mind that when I say “desire to have sex” here I’m referring to a strong emotional desire which springs directly from the person’s attractiveness; anyone (including asexuals) can want to have sex for many other reasons besides feeling such sexual attraction, and some asexuals do choose to have sex, so it’s certainly wrong of the first person to say that it’s only possible to get an asexual person to have sex “through illegal means.”

But because of the disconnect from the decision to have sex and the various types of attraction that asexual people feel for the people they decide to have sex with—or in other words, the lack of a sexual kind of attraction—it’s difficult to see the concept of seduction as appropriate to apply to the case of the asexual. If it could be considered appropriate in any case, it could only be applied in a gray or anomalous area, and even then only by asexuals themselves. I consider it absolutely and unequivocally wrong for a person who has had sex with an asexual to go around saying that they’ve “seduced” that person, because they are applying assumptions about that person’s reality which ultimately amount to a denial of their asexuality.

You want to get an asexual person to have sex with you? Well then, the best idea of how to go about it is certainly not to ride roughshod over every part of their autonomy, choice, and competence. You’d better respect their ability to know themselves. You’d better not go into it assuming that you are somehow special, and that you are going to be able to convert them from their misguided belief that “[insert misunderstood interpretation of what asexuality means here].” You should give up on the idea of seduction, because that’s not going to happen. You should even give up on the idea that sex will happen, unless you are specifically and directly negotiating the possibility (and not non-verbally, as there is far too much potential for confusion). And you should understand that even if it does, it’s not going to be because you’re just that sexy. At best, you will get agreement, and that will be based on merits other than your level of sexual attractiveness.

And at worst? It’s called coercion, and there’s nothing seductive about that at all.

Update: New post on the model of seduction here. Please do read it if you’re interested, as it explains more about seduction and why I worded this post the way I did.

Update #2: This post is about what NOT to do, but if you really want to learn what you SHOULD do instead, due to sustained interest in this topic, I have written a new post up that is an in-depth guide: How to Have Sex With an Asexual Person.

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?

Wanting It (Indifferently)

There’s a new article out that addresses hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) and the DSM-V: Women Who Want to Want.

There have been comments already about the article’s odd non-mention of asexuality and the strange mantra that Lori Brotto tells her patients to repeat (“my body is alive and sexual”) whether they believe it or not. There’s concern about the possibility of pushing people too strongly to be sexual, and I share those concerns.

Somewhat related, I was also amused at the article’s mention of something that (via my close associations with transitioning people and the trans community) is already well-known to me: the placebo effect of taking hormones. You start taking hormones, and suddenly every zit is a sign that it’s working. You get comments like, “My skin feels softer already!” and “I think my hair is growing slower!” from people who started taking hormones only a few days ago. Which is of course nonsense. Those things do happen, sure, but not THAT fast! Of course people are going to think T is giving them zits when they’re not even on it!

Brotto’s mantra seems to me to be working with that same effect. And maybe for some people it can be useful… but for others, it might seem like something that is working for a while, but then end in disappointment when they realize that there is not really all that much of a difference, and their problem is still there. And is it really a good idea to continue to conflate the concept of life with sexuality? Because even if we use the broadest possible definition of “sexual,” there are plenty of living things which are not sexual in any sense of the word. It’s stupid, of course, to say “my body is alive” if the state of aliveness is actually what is being referred to, because that’s bleeding obvious! So of course I think she should change that word. But it’s also possible to be vigorous and effervescent, if that’s what’s meant by “alive,” without being sexual at all. I realize it is aimed at helping patients harness a certain “sexual energy” or whatever, but I still think it’s an ill-conceived and inappropriate metaphor all around. Do we really need any more of a push in the direction of “nonsexual = dead”?

Really, though, I wasn’t all that bothered by or interested in that part of it. I was too distracted by the ideas presented by Basson to pay much attention to Brotto:

A different manifestation of desire — not initial hunger—– appears about two-thirds of the way around Basson’s circle. There, in the diagrams she began publishing in obstetrics and sexuality journals 10 years ago, come the words “responsive/triggered desire.” For Basson, this is necessary to satisfaction. But it comes after arousal starts. So a typical successful experience might proceed something like this: first a decision, rather than a drive, to have sex; next, as Basson puts it, a “willingness to be receptive”; then, say, the sensations of a partner’s touch; next, the awareness of being aroused; then the “responsive desire” along with increasingly intense arousal; and at last the range of physical and emotional payoffs that sex can provide and that offer positive reinforcement leading back to the top of the diagram, to the reasons for setting off on the circle to begin with.

I have sometimes wondered if I might consider myself sexual if I had been presented with a different model of sexuality than the one that society adopts. And under this model, I might be considered so.

This describes pretty much exactly the way that I myself navigate sexual activity. It was never about desire to begin with; it has always been a conscious decision to go ahead with it, for me. Of course, it isn’t true that I decide I’m going to have sex before I find myself in the middle of foreplay every time. But it is true that I made the decision to have sex with my partner, and gave her my implicit consent to initiate if she wants to, told her that it is generally okay for her to touch me in ways meant to arouse me, and I’ll stop her if I don’t want her to do it right then. Almost always, I end up aroused and able to enthusiastically consent. Of course, it helps that C is good at reading my signals (which are subtle and probably difficult for most people to read), and that she knows what I will respond to. She doesn’t push beyond my limits, is careful to stop whenever I say it’s getting painful, and also checks in with me whenever my facial expression is so ambivalent that she is not sure how I am doing. Over time, we’ve built up a safety net that allows me to be receptive to her as a general rule. And because that safety net is in place, I’m able to relax and follow my body’s cues to experience this sort of arousal-desire that Basson is talking about.

And so I think she is onto something, here. Society’s model of sexuality really is very attraction-focused, but the truth of it is that attraction often has very little if anything to do with enjoyable sex. Lots of people, probably women more so than men, find it pretty easy to have sex with people they are not attracted to. Of course there are people who say that they can’t imagine having a sexual relationship with someone they don’t find sexually attractive, but a lot of them settle anyway. Sometimes it takes a bottle of alcohol and a sense of desperation to get them to do so, but other times? I know a guy who met a girl a while back that he kept saying he wasn’t attracted to because according to him she is a “hambeast,” and now they’ve been together for six months or so, and live together as well. And I wonder how many married couples there are who don’t find each other sexually attractive anymore, but are still perfectly able to enjoy having sex with one another? Maybe some of them stop having sex for that very reason, but I suspect a lot of them keep on going at it–a little less like bunny rabbits, maybe, but still!

However, as much value as I see in Basson’s approach as described here, I don’t think it covers everything. There’s still the idea of lust–a concept I feel greatly removed from. I don’t really get it. At all. I never find guys hot in a “check the oil” sort of way. Or girls, for that matter. The attraction part of it is just missing for me, and even if it is an overblown cultural ideal more often than it is a reality, I still feel pretty alienated when I’m the only one in the room who doesn’t get it, which happens pretty frequently.

So I call myself asexual. And although my moniker hints at me being in the gray area between sexual and asexual, and I guess since I find sex enjoyable then according to some people I would be considered sexual, I’m really not feeling particularly “gray” lately. I don’t think that having sexual desire pretty much only when it is sparked by physical arousal is very strong evidence of being sexually attracted to people, and that missing attraction is (for me) what asexuality is all about. That’s the only definition that makes sense to me, and during the years that I have identified as asexual, despite my frequent reevaluations and openness to new experiences, my own asexuality has only become increasingly clear to me.

Baseball is Creepy!

The baseball metaphor, that is.

While messing around on the intarwebs tonight, I came across this article about finding a positive sexual metaphor. I’d highly recommend that everyone go take a look! In the first part of the article, the author examines baseball as a metaphor for sex in American culture, and just how insidious this metaphor really is:

Baseball is fundamentally oppositional. Both teams can’t win. One team wins and the other loses. As sex, that’s about one partner “gaining” something, and the other partner “losing” something. In our culture, women tend to lose status when they have sex, and there’s a lot of hubbub about women “losing” their “precious virginity.” Men, on the other hand, gain status and respect from sexual experience. This aspect of the model also serves to reinforce gender stereotypes, which are rarely conducive to safe, empowered and satisfying sexual encounters.

Could this have had anything to do with my own fairly intense fear of rape? I was born into the losing team, after all. And the message that I will lose out if I have sex is everywhere, as is the message that the “opposite team” is out to get me–to force or coerce me into having sex without regard for my own feelings about it. In a lot of cases, that really does happen to people, and when it does, doesn’t the baseball metaphor for sex provide the perfect excuse for the assailant? After all, it’s just how you win the game. No wonder there are so many rape apologists!

In its literal sense, baseball can be a fun game, but unlike its literal counterpart, when we’re talking about sex as baseball, there is almost never a switch-up between which team is batting and which is on the field–there is not supposed to be; you are born as either a batter or an outfielder, and that’s where, at least in theory, you stay.  That takes all the fun out of it, doesn’t it? Because if sex happens, somebody loses, and that loser is determined before the game even starts. It’s a predictable, rigid social role. To win the game says nothing about whether the sex was enjoyable for either party. It’s just about whether or not it happens.

This underlying way of thinking has shaped my experiences with heterosexual men, and that’s not to say that they all thought that way themselves, but that this unhealthy power dynamic exists at all has made me extra wary of dealing with “the opposite team”–to the point that I, for the most part, choose to simply opt out of dealing with them entirely, and instead I generally only play with the queer team. It just removes that whole level of uncertainty, that vague sense of wondering whether this person is playing against me, that sense of always having to be vigilant, just in case. Queer people can’t play the game like everyone else anyway; they aren’t allowed to be included in it in the first place.

The article goes into a lot more detail about that, and also proposes an alternative metaphor for sexuality: eating pizza. It’s definitely a much more ace-positive model, since nobody assumes that everybody must eat pizza; while they may be rare, there are just some people who don’t, and that’s fine.

I do think, however, that the metaphor starts to break down a little here:

Eating pizza with a partner is also not a radically different experience from eating pizza alone. The pizza model deflates the myth that masturbation is a lesser sexual experience than partnered sex. Eating pizza alone encompasses the complete pizza-eating experience, just as masturbation is a complete sexual experience. When we do it it with someone else, the fullness of the experience doesn’t change, we simply add communion with our partner(s) to the experience. What’s different is the companionship, intimacy, variety, and possibly the fun of having someone feed you for a change.

I am not sure whether we should classify masturbation as a purely sexual experience. After all, there are plenty of asexuals who masturbate but do not necessarily consider the experience sexual. To some, it may be. To others… the very reason it might be considered okay is because it seems to be a lesser sexual experience (though even then, many find it bothersome). It really isn’t all that involved, when compared to partnered sex, whereas when eating pizza, aside from the initial negotiation of toppings, the actual act of eating the pizza is not different when doing it alone or with a partner. More is required of the person who is having sex with a partner, as opposed to the person who is masturbating. In many cases, a lot more is required. I just don’t think the difference translates well, when we use this metaphor as a vehicle for expression.

I guess the question is really about whether we consider something to be sexual based on sexual appetite, or whether we consider it to be sexual based on which body parts are involved. It seems that people define things as sexual using both of these determinants in different situations. For example, some people think that kissing is sexual–for them, perhaps, it arouses a sexual appetite. But then, to continue the metaphor, people can still eat something even if they have no appetite. Is it the physical act of sex that defines it? If so, which physical act(s) are we talking about, here? Or is it more about the mental aspect of it, the desire/appetite? In some cases, it’s clear how to define it, but in other cases, like this one, it really isn’t.

I also usually have a problem with food-based metaphors for sex because of the idea that having sex is a need, in the same sense that it is a need for humans to eat. I will admit that there is a need for people to procreate, but it is not an individual need, it is only a collective need. Every individual member of a species does not need to procreate in order for the species to survive. However, every individual must eat in order for the individual to survive. So you really have to be careful not to take a comparison of sexual desire with hunger too far. In this case, though, I think the metaphor of sex as eating pizza works okay, on that level, because it refers only to a specific kind of food, and not to food in general. People who don’t eat pizza can thoroughly enjoy other foods, and that’s not weird at all. Likewise, people who don’t enjoy or engage in sexual activities can get plenty of fulfillment from other activities in life!

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Edit from the future: For further reading, check out this post by figleaf.