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Books are prone to becoming quickly outdated as societal understanding deepens, and even less than a year after its release, there are already some passages beginning to show their age.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

Permission

I’ve wanted to make a post on this topic for a while now. I think I even started writing it before, but never ended up finishing it. Even before my hiatus, ever since I set up my Formspring ask page, I’ve had a lot of people come to me, describe themselves, and then basically ask,

“Hey, do you think I could be asexual?”

Since my blog burnout and subsequent hiatus, I’ve missed so many emails just like this. I regret that I couldn’t answer all of them directly. But my answer would be the same in each case, so I’m going to try to answer them here.

Now, I do think that saying, “If you identify as asexual, then you are asexual” is problematic. For one thing, it’s reductive. Identity is a very complex process, and I think that it can, in fact, be mistaken. In my particular case, I think I was mistaken in the past when I identified as bisexual. At the time, I did not understand sexuality well enough to realize that there was a big difference between being equally attracted to either gender (or all of them), and being equally not attracted to anyone. As my understanding of both what people generally meant by “bisexual” and my understanding of myself grew, my identity changed.

And that’s fine. The thing about identity is that it’s not static. It’s a process. Often, it’s a process of fine-tuning until you find the words that seem to fit you just right (and in some cases, inventing new terms if there are none available that do), and even then, as you grow and change, there will be times when you will grow away from a particular label, and find that what once fit doesn’t anymore. I’ve done this publicly, right here on this blog. I used to identify as gray-ace, and now I don’t anymore.

To all of you coming to me to ask if you might be asexual, I get it. I totally understand your concerns, and I empathize.

There’s a lot of fear, I think, in choosing a label, especially one as misunderstood, maligned, and outright denied as asexual. There are people out there who will actually tell you that it’s harmful to identify as asexual, because of all the ~opportunities you’ll miss~ to explore your sexuality. They’ll say “maybe you’re just repressed, or maybe you have a sexual dysfunction.” For all the progress we’ve made, this is absolutely NOT a thing of the past. I’ve read some articles taking down people saying things like this recently, although I read them on my iPad and now I can’t remember where they were from (if someone could supply links, I’ll happily add them inEdit: Thank you! I was indeed thinking of the posts responding to Matty Silver, starting here).

Be suspicious of everything those people say, because what they are implying is seriously fucked up. Most of them don’t even realize it, and think they are acting in your best interest, but they aren’t.

If you’re not interested in sex, you shouldn’t have to explore it. You DON’T have to explore it. Don’t ever have sex because you’ve been made to feel that you need to explore it for some reason. Really, don’t. You should only do it if you are actually interested in doing that sort of thing!

And realize this: these people who say this sort of thing are failing to understand that you can perfectly well explore your sexuality, including sex itself, while still identifying as asexual. If you want proof of that, read my other posts. There is nothing barring you from it, and in fact exploring your lack of interest should bloody well count as exploring your sexuality! Asexuality is a sexual orientation, and coming to understand yourself as asexual can potentially give you the opportunity to approach sex in a way that is healthy for you. IF you want that sort of thing.

Even when moving past all of that, there is still so much anxiety about choosing an identity. You ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong? What if I misrepresent the community? What if one day I decide I’m something else and then people think that asexuality is just a phase?”

Well, you know what? If people think that way, then they are mistaken. It is not going to be your fault that they are mistaken, not unless you actually go out and tell them that asexuality is not real. (Which some people have done, but if you’re worried about other people thinking that way, I’m pretty confident that you won’t!) And even if one day you realize that you aren’t asexual after all, you can still correct them, and help spread awareness about asexuality! In fact, I think it’s valuable to the community to have people who once identified as asexual and now identify as gay (as the most frequent example) or sexual in some other way, because you can help show the world that we are not in any way telling people to stop exploring their sexuality. We very much encourage continual exploration and growth.

And really, I don’t think there’s an ace person alive who hasn’t thought “What if I’m wrong? What if I am sexual after all?

Self-doubt is very heavily conditioned. There is no escaping it. And even if it weren’t so heavily conditioned, most of us would probably have it anyway, because occasional self-doubt is actually healthy.

My partner said this to me yesterday:

“Do you know what [my therapist] used to tell me? She said that if you don’t have doubt and anxiety at all, that’s what’s really unhealthy, because it means you’re not understanding how big of a deal things are.”

And it is. It’s a huge deal, to start to identify and label yourself as asexual. Even to continually do it, when you’ve been doing it for years, it’s still a big deal.

And being wrong? That’s probably the scariest thing of all.

But you know what?

It’s okay to be wrong. Everyone is wrong sometimes.

If you’re to the point of actually questioning whether or not you could be asexual, then you probably already know the definition. In case there’s anyone reading along who doesn’t, though, it’s a person who lacks* sexual attraction. If you’re not really sure what sexual attraction even means, then chances are, you haven’t personally felt it. I would define it as “a visceral desire to have sex with someone based generally on their looks, voice, mannerisms, or personality traits.”

Does that fit you? I don’t know, and there’s no way that I can possibly know. We are talking about internal experiences here, and there is no reliable way to measure that from the outside. It is totally up to you to decide.

And I hereby grant you permission to do it, even if you might be wrong.


* [Added note in December, 2015:] “Lack” here does not refer to a total, absolute-zero lack. I’ve realized since originally writing this that phrasing it as just “a lack” leads people to interpret it that way, but I meant this to be read as little or no sexual attraction rather than a total lack.

It is also worth noting that this is not the only definition of asexuality, and never has been. It’s only the most dominant definition in the English-language community. And there is plenty of room for more ambiguous, vaguer definitions.

 

The Passionless Asexual

[Note: I’m swamped with work at the moment, so comment moderation and response may be slow. I realize other people have asked me questions, btw, before the last post went up, and I want those people to know I wasn’t ignoring them. The last few posts were all scheduled in advance so that I would have something going on here while I focus on other things.]

Here’s Amanda Marcotte responding to an article by David Wong on misogyny, wherein he claims that men are just so much more sexual than women, that women can’t possibly understand, and so men tend to think women are conspiring to give them boners in inappropriate settings:

Do you see what I’m getting at? Go look outside. See those cars driving by? Every car being driven by a man was designed and built and bought and sold with you in mind. The only reason why small, fuel-efficient or electric cars don’t dominate the roads is because we want to look cool in our cars, to impress you.Go look at a city skyline. All those skyscrapers? We built those to impress you, too. All those sports you see on TV? All of those guys learned to play purely because in school, playing sports gets you laid. All the music you hear on the radio? All of those guys learned to sing and play guitar because as a teenager, they figured out that absolutely nothing gets women out of their pants faster. It’s the same reason all of the actors got into acting.

All those wars we fight? Sure, at the upper levels, in the halls of political power, they have some complicated reasons for wanting some piece of land or access to some resource. But on the ground? Well, let me ask you this — historically, when an army takes over a city, what happens to the women there?

It’s all about you. All of it. All of civilization.

I don’t realize if Wong gets this, but he basically just argued that since women are just so asexual, we’re also basically unartistic, unambitious, and even though he decried treating women like decorative objects, I don’t really see how we fit into this. We don’t have any desire to impress men and get sex, so we’re never going to build and invent, right?

Amanda is right to call Wong out on his assumption that women just can’t feel as deeply sexual as men can. But whether Amanda meant to do so or not, she also plays into a common trope about asexuals that we’re all passionless, uncreative, and somehow lacking that “spark” of life that sexual people have. To her credit, she at least says “What about the gay artists?” a little later on. I haven’t read the comments, so perhaps she challenges this anti-asexual trope somewhere in there, but I wouldn’t make the assumption that she did. In any case, it’s a big oversight.

Now, Wong’s argument is familiar to me. I encountered a version of it several years ago:

9/7/2007  9:13:09 PM  M: it’s considered unnatural, because for many people, sexuality is the central driving force behind our decisions, endeavors, and pursuits as human beings
9/7/2007  9:13:17 PM  M: and for someone to step and say they dont have that
9/7/2007  9:13:31 PM  M: a “normal” person can’t comprehend that
9/7/2007  9:14:08 PM  M: and a truly asexual person, will never be able to truly understand what it means to be sexual
9/7/2007  9:14:28 PM  M: that person will never know what it’s like to have a mind that is sexually driven,
9/7/2007  9:14:47 PM  M: and by no means is it a simple, oh i like women/men and i act on it once in a while
9/7/2007  9:14:54 PM  M: it’s an all-encompasing process
9/7/2007  9:15:01 PM  M: that drives every single thought
9/7/2007  9:15:31 PM  M: to a sexual, an asexual claiming their asexuality sounds like claiming you can have fire without fuel

It’s one thing to feel like your own sexuality is the central driving force behind all of your own behavior. But there are a hell of a lot of people out there who don’t feel that way, even among *sexual people. Ask my partner, for one. Moreover, there are a lot of male *sexual people who don’t feel that way, too. Are they not “normal” because their feelings aren’t the same as yours?

Failing to recognize that other people feel differently from you, failing to recognize that other people can be motivated by things other than the things that motivate you, is an egocentric fallacy. Failing to recognize that creativity and passion can come from avenues other than sexuality is a huge chasm in your ability to understand others.

You want an example of a fantastically creative person who isn’t driven by sexuality? Look at Emilie Autumn. Hell, look at me. I haven’t got much published yet besides this blog, but I am furiously working on it. I have to create, you guys. I have to write. I am passionate about making the world a better place, and to that end I will strive to annihilate misunderstandings and create human connection through my writing, even to the detriment of other areas of my life. How dare anyone call me passionless.

I think a big part of the reason why people think that asexual people are passionless is that they’re unable to conceive of passion in a non-romantic context, and also to a large extent, unable to fully separate love from sex. They’re different processes. I would suggest that love, being a neurochemical brain state similar to OCD, is as much if not more likely to be the motivation behind great works of art. For a lot of people, it’s probably motivated by both, but which is the stronger of the two? I argue that for many people it’s actually love, but it gets subsumed under the heading of sexuality without recognition that while the two often go together, they really are separate processes.

But you know what? Even if the definition of “passion” is strictly confined to sex, I’ve still got it. Don’t make the assumption that asexual people are cold fish in bed. We’re not limp robots, as long as we want to be doing it and have enough experience to know what to do. And if we are? Then there’s something wrong, and you better find out what it is and try to fix it.

Wong’s theory is a bad one, and while Amanda’s response didn’t quite cover all of the reasons why, she is absolutely right to say this:

I have a counter-theory. I don’t believe that men build civilization to impress lazy women who keep saying no to sex, because we don’t understand what it’s really like to want it. I believe men built most things because women were shut out of political power, job opportunities, and education for most of history, and instead forced into servitude towards men in the home. I believe my theory has a lot of evidence for it, in the form of all of history. Plus, this theory doesn’t do much to explain all the gay men who have been creators throughout history, of which there have been many. You know, it’s not like Michelangelo was rumored to be doing the Sistine Chapel to catch a lady’s eye. His theory doesn’t really explain how it is that women, once given the opportunity to be creators, take it.

Guest Post: Curiosity, Exploration, and Self-Discovery

The following is a guest post for the Carnival of Aces by henshin, who describes herself thus:

I’m a 28 year old bio female, I identify as homoromatic or queer. It took me a long time (about the age of 25) to realise I was asexual because I had always assumed that sexual desire would come with age or sexual experience. It also took me a long time to realise I was interested in the same sex (say 22) because I was never interested in anyone in a sexual way. Once I came to terms with my ‘sexuality’ I started a relationship with a girl who was unsure of her sexuality and our sex life was very exploratory, neither of us were massively interested in sex. After that relationship I had a couple of casual flings where sex was the main focus and then started seeing my current partner who is sexual but with whom I have a mutually satisfying sexual relationship.

The post was edited for typos and the title was chosen by me, but otherwise, all words are hers.

————

I’ve never been squeamish about sex. I guess my parents helped with that. I know about all the STIs, how to put a condom on, teenage pregnancy and consent issues. Without even trying I’ve just gained this knowledge from friends and their dilemmas, school, and my own research because of the fact that even if I am asexual, sexual situations will probably crop up in my life.

My first sexual experiences as a teenager were pretty negative. They were always with guys who were trying to push me further than I was comfortable, I would have preferred to just hang out, listen to music, and play games, but apparently when we hit 13 I became a different species and being friends was no longer enough. I’ve always been a tomboy and I never really grew out of it. I was a pretty clueless teenager, I didn’t know what people wanted from me and I didn’t care to find out. That changed when I started University as a 19 year old and I met my best friend. She taught me how to express emotion, how to listen to people, how to have a deep and meaningful relationship. Of course I fell in love with her, and of course I didn’t realise this for many months because I didn’t have any sexual thoughts about her, it was all about how I wanted to be close to her, share her bed, have her confide in me, touch her back, hug tightly.

It was off the back of this unrequited love that I finally determined I was probably homosexual. After that I forced myself to get over my bff and move on. The first girl I had a relationship with refused to declare her sexuality, she claimed it didn’t matter, that she was just interested in people, not their genitals. I sympathised but I couldn’t understand. The first time me and this girl got intimate, while fully clothed, I could feel the warmth between her legs as she got aroused and it was the most exciting thing I’d ever felt. I think that feeling is the basis for how I’ve built my sexuality.

We were together for almost a year but neither of us cared about sex really, we argued once because she felt pressured into sexual activity by me. I think I was feeling socially pressured to be interested in sex now I had a partner, but also I was curious. I always was curious about sex because it seemed like such a big deal culturally, but I never got it, I could never make myself like it, and my attempts to make sex into a big deal for me just ended in hurting my girlfriend. I was pretty confused.

In between then and now I had 2 pretty casual relationships. The first was with a girl who asked me out. I get really nervous when people are interested in me in that way. I feel like I have to pre-emptively stop them liking me because I won’t want to have sex with them. I feel like if I kiss them I’ve somehow given them reason to believe they’ll get all the way with me. Anyway when this girl asked me out I felt like I should say yes, and then when she kissed me I didn’t protest, and when she initiated sex I didn’t say no but I had to stop her because, oh yeah I didn’t mention this, I have never had an orgasm, and I find it hard to deal with sex, especially lesbian sex, when you know you won’t come but your partner is desperately trying to make you. Anyway, she wasn’t too impressed when I stopped her. But we still went out for a while. She eventually cheated on me with a guy, she was a very sexual person so I don’t blame her, it was evidently never going to work. But it bugged me that she didn’t even try to comprehend my point of view, she just thought I was a problem to be fixed. Sex with her was mechanical and dull.

I should probably take a second here to point out that sex between two girls is not, obviously, penile-vaginal sex. We take turns predominantly, we arouse each other, make each other come, then switch roles. This means that I can have sex with someone without having to have my own genitals stimulated. A blessing really.

My next fling was with a girl I really liked. We were friends for a while, and she was even going out with someone else. What can I say? I was the other woman. I was never primarily interested in sex though cus, y’know, asexual. But I thought that having sex with this girl would make her want to be with me. Turns out that wasn’t the case. We had sex a good few times, I was flattered by the attention and thought it meant more. I’m willing to give my body in exchange for romantic affection, I guess that sound bad but I think it’s just human. Anyway I did get some sexual pleasure from her touching me, but it never lasted long. I think it helped that she was a cool feminist and never saw the point of sex as orgasm, unlike the previous fling. Still it ended soon enough because we both felt too bad about her girlfriend. Judge me I guess, I just feel like we’re all fallible.

It was just before this last girl that I had started exploring asexuality. I remained friends with her after our fling and we talked about my asexuality a number of times. This girl maintained I wasn’t asexual because I had become physiologically aroused when we had sex. I never had the heart to tell her that my heart was never in it, or that all I ever wanted from her was a cuddle and a kiss and some reassurance. She tried to convince me that she only wanted to have sex with people she liked and that this wasn’t so different from what I felt, and therefore my claims of asexuality were over the top. I just stopped trying to explain after a while.

My current girlfriend is a bit of a godsend. We met at Pride and she hit on me shamelessly. I don’t know why but my typical reticence when being hit on faded. I was embarrassed sure, but I think I’d been reading a lot about asexuality and consent recently and felt confidently armed with the ability to say No. Anyway we stayed up really late, I told her at some point that I was asexual, she told me she was in an open relationship. It seemed like a fair exchange of secrets. We shared a bed that night, hugged and kissed and had fun but we didn’t do anything sexual. She was very concerned that I didn’t feel pressured to have sex and I had never felt so respected or cared for in a sexual situation before.

Fast forward a few months and this wonderful woman is my girlfriend. We have sex regularly; like I mentioned above, sex can be nice and one sided in lesbian relationships when your partner knows you’re asexual. And I still love most feeling the heat between her legs when she’s aroused and watching her orgasm. Sometimes I laugh out loud for the pure joy of it, which, to her credit, she’s never interpreted the wrong way.

We’ve had a number of discussions about my asexuality, we’ve gone through the phase where she doesn’t think I’m really asexual, and now we’re at a place where she’s accepted that I don’t feel the same emotional connection and vulnerability during sex that she does, but that I love it in other ways that are important to me. And very recently I’ve started missing her in an emotional way if I don’t get to experience her body in a sexual way for a while (we are a bit long distance and only see each other once a week or so). This is the biggest revelation to me so far and I know it makes her happy to think that maybe I’m changing in how I view sex but I don’t think I’ll ever be fully like her. But as long as we have mutual respect and we can communicate with each other I am pretty confident in our relationship.

If anything I think that being asexual has made me better at relationships. I mean, I guess it’s a combination of that and my personality but I guess I stopped believing in a normal life path a long time ago and I dedicate a lot of energy to reading about and thinking about alternative sexualities and ways of being. I’m never going to fall in love, have a normal sexual relationship, get married, have kids and live happily ever after. Some of that is being gay, some is being asexual. Either way I’m glad I had to stop believing in that path because it has made me more grateful for what I’ve got and more free to move around the boundaries of normal existence than I otherwise might have been.

And the best thing about being in a relationship with someone you can trust is the option to explore your sexuality not only with another person as your experimental partner, but also as an emotional safety net when you don’t know what the hell you’re getting into. I am nothing if not open minded about my future and the future of my relationships.

Guest Post: Why Date An Asexual? An Interview with C

Since I started hosting guest posts, I’ve been bugging C (aka Cat Pajamas), my partner of roughly 3.5 years (and now gayancée), to write one for me. She couldn’t come up with any ideas for the longest time, and so to help her out and make it more comfortable for her, I sent her a bunch of interview questions to answer. If the questions don’t seem to flow from one to another very well, that’s because they were asked in no particular order, just as I thought of them, over email and rearranged later. She’s really worked hard to get her thoughts down and then organize and clarify them better. I’m afraid she found my questions rather frustrating, because they were hard to answer without writing book-length responses. I love that her tendency is to go into great detail about these things… and scribble huge diagrams on my white board about them, too! <3

We don’t often hear much from sexual partners of asexual people, so my hope here is to do a little bit to fill that void. C has another post that she’s working on about sexual attraction as well. If anyone has questions for her that aren’t answered here, feel free to ask in the comments!

From here on out, my questions and comments will be in purple text.

*************

Hi, I’m a 26 year old MTF.  I love to talk about sexuality and some other topics.  I believe I have a very in depth experience with both sexes because I’ve gotten to experience being gay/lesbian/bi in both genders, which is pretty cool and fun to talk about since I think it’s a perspective not many people get to fully experience.

So, if you read that the same way I did, that means I’m at least 200% gay.

Besides sexuality, I have a rather large interests in PC gaming and some outdoorsy hiking/camping stuff.

Can you briefly explain how we met, and how we sort of accidentally ended up in a romantic relationship?

We ‘met’ through a mix of an LGBT group at the university we both went to and me messaging you on OKcupid. Sadly I don’t remember why I messaged you initially, although I do know I was fairly curious about asexuality. We talked online for a time before we decided to go see a movie as friends. The movie wasn’t supposed to be romantic (kung fu panda) and my plan was to just take you back to your place afterwards, but you wanted to just sit around and talk. So we went to a uh, tea/sandwich place that’s kinda artsy and we just sat around and talked.

As it turns out, if you go to see a movie with someone and then talk to them for about 5 hours afterwards and you can’t say good bye, you’re probably doomed to start some sort of romance, whether you intended to do it or not.

Before you met me, if somebody had asked you, “Would you ever date an asexual?” how would you have responded?

I would probably respond with “I’m not sure.” At the time I wasn’t really aware of asexuality and without some information about it or the person, I would probably not do anything. Although I like people that are different from the norm.

If someone asked me that before I started transitioning, I probably would have said “no” since I was quite a bit more sexually active at the time (and ignorant). Once I started transitioning, it would have certainly been closer to a yes (still based on ignorance).

What did you think when you first encountered my profile on OKCupid, and in the early part of our relationship thereafter? Why did you contact me?

When I first encountered it? Who knows! At this point, I’m not sure if there was a reason I messaged you for reasons other than “I don’t know what asexuality is” and I think we had some music groups in common.

I’m pretty sure the reason I messaged you was mainly because of asexuality, since I wasn’t really aware of it and I wanted to know more. I don’t recall wanting to date you. ;)

How did you expect things to proceed? What things surprised you?

Well, ignoring the whole “What? We are dating?” thing… I fully expected the relationship to develop very slowly sexually, so I tried my best to go very slowly. Since usually my relationships have a very sexual nature to them.

What surprised me is how comfortable you were with certain kinds of play. Also how open you were/are to various sexual activities. Based on my (old) knowledge of asexuality, I would have imagined you to be a uh, prude. Thankfully that’s not the case.
Continue reading

Safe Spaces

Consider this a follow-up of sorts to my post on privilege and the tumblr crap that’s been going on lately. Most of what I was going to add to that post I already said in the comments, but I want to highlight one part of the discussion. Jay, who showed up in that post to uh, “defend” the Privilege-Denying Asexuals tumblr (but actually ended up just proving the point of my post), said this:

It’s pretty obvious that you didn’t, as you say, follow the debate on tumblr, because *several* people shared their experiences of asexuals in LGB+ spaces expressing disgust at sexual displays (like kissing) and making the spaces uncomfortable in other ways. Ridiculous as that might seem to *you*.

To which I responded:

You and the other people who have met people like that would do well to keep in mind that not all asexuals are like that, and attacking all of us is unwarranted. I also hope you keep in mind that there are LOTS of people who are NOT asexual who also bring hostile attitudes into queer communities. I’ve encountered tons of biphobia, transphobia, and even blatant homophobia within queer settings. But the gay people who denounce trans people are not excluded from the group on the basis of not being queer. They are still assumed to have a history with and understanding of both queerness and prejudice, and yet they turn around and spread that vileness themselves. The queer community is not and never has been a safe space for everyone, despite our lofty goals. It is at best a very loose coalition of people who may or may not be supportive of one another, and often undermine one another instead of doing anything useful. My experiences with local communities is so bad I just gave up on them, personally, and none of that had anything to do with their acceptance of asexuality at all. I don’t see why problems with asexual members of the group are any different from problems with any other members in that regard.

Let me repeat that: The queer community is not and never has been a safe space for everyone.

There is not even one “queer community” to begin with. Talking about it like it’s a monolithic entity is hugely inaccurate. We refer to it like there is one for simplicity’s sake, but in reality it’s just a bunch of related groups with vaguely similar goals. Sort of. Actually, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Each queer group needs to specifically delineate its goals and guidelines so that members know what to expect, and most of them (at least in my experience) fail to do so.

So take any given queer group, and then ask yourself: what is this group for? What purpose does it serve? Is it supposed to be a group that takes political action? Is it supposed to be a support group where people can go to feel safe and accepted? Those are two VERY different goals, and they can be at odds. Taking political action often requires people to be out, and exposed to public discourse in a way that threatens the sense of safeness and acceptance that would come from a more support-oriented community. This is especially true when there is pressure from the group to present yourself in a certain way to the media so that your message would be likely to be more palatable to the majority. These are common problems with establishing the safeness of spaces in queer groups of any kind, even the groups who focus on one single letter of the alphabetsmoosh.

Let me give you an example. Say a group is tabling for some political goal or another, like encouraging people to vote down something like Prop 8. But the group’s leaders are concerned that they will appear threatening to straight people, so they tell you that you can only approach people of the “opposite” sex. Girls approach guys, guys approach girls, and that’s it. Doesn’t that intrinsically send a homophobic message to the members of the group, who are supposed to be safe and protected by that group’s leaders? That’s not even mentioning the complete erasure of the trans members of the group. So, is this group a safe space? Not really. (This is a real-world example, by the way; it actually happened, and in a group that was supposedly more oriented towards support, at that.)

Now, obviously expressions of disgust at sexual displays would be bad for a group that’s specifically designed to be a safe space to express sexuality. But then the question is, has that group specifically delineated such a goal for its members? If the group is actually meant to serve some other purpose, especially if that purpose is more of a professional one in nature, then it could be argued that any member (including members who aren’t asexual) might find it unprofessional and tasteless to do more than maybe a quick peck on the lips in that setting. Context really matters, here. It could be that someone just finds public displays of affection of any kind inappropriate, and it’s especially likely that they would think that if they are from a country/culture where PDA is discouraged. Jay’s comment seems to imply, however, that the people who experienced that assumed that their sexual orientation is what caused the disgusted reaction, and not the person’s feelings on PDA in general. Whether they actually know the reason or not, it seems to have emotional resonance with the idea that they are disgusting and bad, because same-sex desires are disgusting and bad. I’d say that these people were triggered by that reaction, in the parlance of PTSD/survivor-type language; in other words, they have internalized messages that they are bad/disgusting because of their sexual orientation, and the negative reaction to PDA caused them to be reminded of those messages, whether or not that reaction has anything to do with their sexual orientation at all.

If the group actually is supposed to be a support-oriented safe space, then ground rules need to be established that take these concerns into consideration. I’ve done group therapy, and let me tell you, ground rules are incredibly important in order to help everyone feel safe and avoid triggers. It should explicitly be established that people should suppress their negative reactions to PDA, or refrain from showing PDA, depending on what the group decides on. And yes, different groups may need to form to cater to different individuals’ needs with regard to feeling safe. There is nothing wrong with coming together for political action with one group, and having different groups (or sub-groups) for supporting different kinds of people. It’s not at all uncommon to have a support group (or two) just for trans people, or just for lesbians, or whatever. What’s wrong is to try to force every queer community to be everything to everybody at the same time, as if there is just one thing called “the queer community” that has whatever goals you say it has… and then use that as an excuse to exclude people you don’t like.

Jay’s comments do not demonstrate any understanding of the complexity both of goals and of composition of the various queer communities, or even that we have more than one queer community for good reasons in the first place. I suspect that the people who have had experiences with asexuals triggering them in that way simply assumed that the group was supposed to be a safe space, and even if it was specifically stated that it was supposed to be a safe space, I doubt that much consideration went into planning ground rules designed to make it safe. If there had been such consideration, the offending member would simply have been asked to stop what they were doing or leave, because they were violating the ground rules. A good response in a support group where that issue unexpectedly came up would be to talk about what happened, why it made some members feel unsafe, and decide what action should be taken so that such an issue wouldn’t come up again. That may include coming up with a new ground rule about it, or even a member leaving because that particular group doesn’t really fulfill their needs.

A good response to this issue does not, however, involve deciding that because some members’ needs are in conflict, therefore only such-and-such group of people is queer, and the rest do not get to call themselves that or be involved with ANY queer group (except as an “ally”) because then they would be “appropriating” space. There’s plenty of conflict between members of groups traditionally considered queer all the time, and also between groups composed only of people of the same letter that try to fulfill different goals at the same time as well. There is no monolithic space to appropriate. There are only individual spaces belonging to different communities, each with different goals (that ideally should be clearly delineated).

Overlap

As I understand, there’s been some hullabaloo lately on tumblr about whether or not asexuals, by virtue of being asexual, are allowed to call ourselves queer. I don’t have a tumblr, so I haven’t been following what’s going on too closely, but I understand there’s a group called Privilege-Denying Asexuals that insinuates that there’s some sort of… well, it certainly can’t be asexual privilege, because for that to exist, other people would have to know and understand what asexuality is. But, they’re basically saying we have straight privilege because apparently we all pass as straight (yeah, whatever, meet my lesbian lover), and the ways in which we don’t experience straight privilege that don’t involve passing as straight don’t count (e.g. media representation), and by the way, none of us ever have sex ever (obviously they’ve never looked at this blog. I recommend this post for starters. It’s been consistently popular since it was written, so I must not be the only asexual who has sex out there). So we’re “appropriating” their queer spaces that we apparently have easy access to even though this kind of viewpoint is WIDESPREAD, and often we are harassed or otherwise unwelcome in queer spaces.

There have been numerous posts trouncing this already, the best of which I’ve read is by Mary Max (you may remember her as Venus of Willendork). I think that one is the best I’ve seen so far because it gets to the root of the problem, the very definition of privilege, that they get so very, very wrong. There are far too many posts about this for me to link to every post, but look around and I’m sure you’ll find more. Check out the linkspam posts at Writing From Factor X, for starters.

That’s not the only thing that’s been going on at tumblr lately. Asexuals over there have been attempting to compile a sexual privilege list, and our opponents have replied with a list of things that they insist we provide before they take that list seriously, debunked by Asexy Miri here. This list is quite obviously a set of ridiculously high hurdles they’re making up so that they can justify continuing to drive asexuals out of “their” community. I want to take a few of her points a step further. Hang on, guys. This will be a long post.

One thing I’d like to ask is how the existence of gray asexuals or demisexuals invalidates the basic concepts of asexuality to the extent that their acceptance of asexuality is contingent on a clear and consistent definition of grays/demis? A gray-area asexual is someone who feels they’re somehow in between being asexual and being sexual, since the two are viewed as poles on a continuum rather than binary opposites, and the “how” varies from person to person, because it’s an issue of personal identity. I think that’s a fairly consistent and clear definition. (By the way, I do not identify as gray-asexual anymore, so please don’t assume that just because of the name of this blog.) I personally will be the first to admit I don’t understand what precisely is meant by demisexual, because I am not demisexual, and sure, they (by that I don’t mean AVEN, which btw is not the place to go for information beyond the most very basic stuff; AVENwiki is a terrible source that is still being updated and reconstructed to make it less so) could come up with a clearer definition that doesn’t hinge on Rabger’s model, which I reject because it’s convoluted. But since I’m not demisexual, it’s unfair to ask me to come up with a definition. It’s not my field of expertise, and demisexuality isn’t written about very often, so I don’t have much to refer to in order to get a better idea. And since they’re different things, you do not need to accept demisexuality to accept asexuality; there are even some asexuals who don’t. Besides which, looking for very specific subsets of people and using them to discredit a larger group of people is a key part of how prejudice and discrimination perpetuate themselves. I hope I don’t need to elaborate on this. Sometimes it’s unconscious and people don’t understand how they’ve made a mistake (confirmation bias), but other times it’s deliberate. This strikes me as more likely to be the latter. What they’re saying about it is wrong anyway, as others point out.

The main point I want to address with this post is this, though:

-Be able to illustrate how each instance of asexuals being “oppressed” is specific to those who identify as asexual and does not apply to women with FSD, people low sex drive due to long-term depression or other health reasons, people who abstain from sex due to trauma, gender dysphoria, or any other deeply personal reason, sexual people who are nonetheless alienated by dominant sexual culture, etc.

This is not how privilege works, and this bullet point illustrates a particularly obtuse, deliberate misrepresentation with an obvious exclusionary goal. You see, there’s this thing called intersectionality. It means that, among other things, more than one group can experience the same kind of oppression for different reasons. I contend that if you insist that asexuals remove every instance of sexual privilege from the list that is also experienced by non-asexuals, then in order to be logically consistent, you also would have to remove items from your own list that are shared with other privilege checklists. Otherwise, you’re making a special exception for asexuals just to be exclusionary.

So let’s look at some evidence. This straight privilege checklist comes from Queers United. Bolded are the items that also apply to asexuals, generally speaking; italicized are items that apply to some asexuals but not to others, or are otherwise borderline. A few items have been reworded or had minor additions, all of which are marked. Continue reading

Nobody has a responsibility to come out.

When I heard that the topic of the blog carnival hosted at Writing From Factor X would be about coming out, I was a little dismayed. I’ve likened National Coming Out Day to Valentine’s Day before, and I think with good reason. I’ve become so tired of hearing people harping on the importance of coming out, especially qualified, as it so often is in the asexual community, with some kind of statement like, “Of course, coming out for asexuals is easy, all we really have to deal with is people saying annoying things.” So, I don’t much like to talk about it.

That is demonstrably untrue, by the way. And if the only responses you’ve received when you came out were just a little bit annoying? You’re a lucky one. Not everyone has it so easy, and it’s a privilege to be surprised that they don’t.

Really though, I think that many of the responses that people categorize as “annoying” are actually instances of emotionally abusive statements that go unrecognized for what they are due to a “sticks and stones” tough attitude that many people have. Since abuse is often thought of as only physical, it’s often hard to recognize it when it happens, especially when society agrees with the sentiment. One single instance is relatively easy to brush off, but the cumulative effect of the majority of people claiming that “there must be something wrong with you” is not.

The other day, Rachel Maddow said this:

I’ve long held three basic beliefs about the ethics of coming out:

  1. Gay people — generally speaking — have a responsibility to our own community and to future generations of gay people to come out, if and when we feel that we can.
  2. We should all get to decide for ourselves the “if and when we feel that we can” part of that.
  3. Closeted people should reasonably expect to be outed by other gay people if (and only if) they prey on the gay community in public, but are secretly gay themselves.

I also believe that coming out makes for a happier life, but that’s not a matter of ethics, that’s just corny advice.

Now, I’d agree on numbers two and three, but that’s it. Frankly, I think it’s very naive to assume that coming out would make everyone’s lives happier. Some people (and I wouldn’t say it’s impossible that any asexuals are among them, even if I’ve never heard of such a case to date) actually lose their lives after coming out, and I think it’s good to keep that in mind. I found Lena Chen’s response to Maddow’s statement particularly on-point. Much as I usually admire and appreciate the work that Maddow does, in this case I think she’s got too much privilege to see this clearly. I find it inconsistent to claim that queer people (of any stripe, including asexuals) “should all get to decide for ourselves” if/when to come out, while also claiming that we have a responsibility to do so. Saying it’s a responsibility heaps a whole lot of pressure on people to come out, thus making number two ineffectual. If it’s really meant to be our own decision, shouldn’t it be as un-coerced as possible?

In practice, though, I do see a lot of coerced unclosetings happening throughout the queer community. Sometimes this is accomplished through persistent nagging and guilt-tripping. Sometimes people just tell others without their permission. Sometimes it’s a case of a significant other going, “I won’t let you tell your family I’m your friend.” That last case is the only time that I think this kind of behavior is marginally acceptable, because it does affect the significant other’s life too, but even then, it has to be handled delicately.

And you know what? I don’t see all that much of a difference between people saying that queer people have a responsibility to their community to come out, and people saying that married people have a responsibility to their spouses to have sex. Education of the privileged about the lives of the marginalized, like sex, should be a freely given gift. Turning it into a duty makes that gift meaningless.

The asexual community, being invisible and obscure, does need people who are willing to educate others, spread awareness of our existence. But you know what? There are enough people who freely volunteer to do that. We don’t need to make it a responsibility. So let’s try to avoid that mindset.

Book Review: Gunn’s Golden Rules

Many of you are probably aware that Tim Gunn recently sort of “came out” as asexual, or at least described himself as asexual several times. Ily announced it here, and you can find several quotes from a magazine article that were almost direct quotations from his book, Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making it Work, here.

I’ve been a fan of Tim Gunn for several years, ever since I discovered Project Runway. A lot of that is that he does have an asexy vibe, but it’s also because I find him, more and more, to be the lone voice of sanity on the show. His critiques of the designers’ work are incredibly astute, although he doesn’t know what the judges are going to say, especially since lately they’ve been smoking crack (Really? Gretchen?). Another reason I identify with Tim is that he clearly reads a lot, and has a very large vocabulary. You see, I’m the type of person who relatively frequently uses words that others around me don’t know as well… and I get similar reactions to it. I also just find him overall very kind and generous and joyful, and that is the spirit of this book.

The rules that are quoted on the back cover of the book are almost all related to Project Runway and the one that isn’t is related to the wider fashion world. I realize that is a good marketing strategy, but I think that kind of misrepresents what the book is about as a whole. It’s not all catty gossip about Isaac Mizrahi and Anna Wintour; while he does critique their behavior, it is not in a gossipy or malicious way, but rather a critique that because they live in such an elite world, they have become out of touch with reality, and because of that they behave badly. The book’s themes revolve around being humble and not an elitist, being kind and courteous to others, and finding personal strength and joy even when things are tough.

This last theme seems to be the one that is most often discussed around these parts. He discusses hard issues like his suicide attempt and various conflicts with his family over his sexual orientation. I believe at one point, I think in a v-log, he said he shares that information in order to let anyone who is in a similar place know that it does get better. Now, I’ve had some concerns with the It Gets Better project because so many of the messages are centered around very mainstream norms that don’t take asexuality, aromanticism, or celibacy into account—they assume that everyone wants a romantic partner, a marriage, a family, etc. But Tim Gunn’s message is overall very asexual-friendly: Continue reading

IDAHO: A Plea for Honest Initiatives

So today is apparently the “International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia” aka IDAHO. Which is all well and good… except wait a minute, what? Why is transphobia tacked on to the end, there? Shouldn’t it be IDAHOT, if anything? Well, no, not really. Not only does it make the acronym less “catchy” (uh, if you could ever really call it that), but there doesn’t appear to actually be any appeal to transphobia being made here, at all.

You see, the big event for this day is a same-sex Kiss-In, which… yep, you guessed it, doesn’t address transphobia at all. And the reason why May 17th is being celebrated in the first place? Because it’s the day that twenty years ago, the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality—homosexuality, and not transsexuality—from its list of mental health disorders. Gender Identity Disorder is still an institutionally sanctioned diagnosis of mental illness in America as well as much of the rest of the world, and will remain so under the new name of “Gender Incongruence” with more extensive coverage, according to the DSM-V’s Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders workgroup’s current proposal.

Yeah, but who cares about that, right? Not the group behind IDAHO. I haven’t seen anybody talking about that at all, except for the excellent coverage going on over at Asexual Explorations, which is of course completely unrelated to this event. [Edited to add: Check out this link, if you haven’t already; it’s a letter by Dr. Allen Frances to the APA Board of Trustees on what is going wrong with the DSM-V—as Andrew says, “When the heads of DSM-III and DSM-IV are going ‘Holy shit! Holy shit!’ you know things aren’t going well.”]

So why the hell is transphobia being included at all?

This is just one instance of a larger trend within the GLBT community of tacking trans issues on to the discourse as an afterthought, without really doing anything to help alleviate them. It’s kind of like, “Oh yeah, and transphobia is bad too.” It’s a disingenuous way of making nice, and while the people involved might actually honestly believe that they are doing something to be inclusive and helpful… they’re not.

Transphobia and homophobia are very much separate issues, and that is a point that most people don’t seem to understand. Trans people can be homophobic (take Christine Jorgensen for example), and lots and lots of gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals are transphobic. Gender and sexuality are two different things. Some members of my girlfriend’s family approve of me because they think it is somehow a sign that she isn’t trans after all, that eventually she’ll come around to lead a straight life as a man. That’s not going to happen, because she’s trans whether or not she decides to date girls or boys. Yet because “transsexual” sounds like “homosexual” and “bisexual,” and because the T is tacked on to GLBT without acknowledgment that trans issues are different from issues of sexual orientation, people seem to see connections between the two that aren’t there.

I mean, at the very least, if you’re going to say you’re against transphobia, wouldn’t you try to at least discuss the issue? The closest IDAHO gets to that is some petition they’re creating against homophobia and transphobia in religious discourse. Which, uh, yeah… fat lot of good that is going to do. I mean what are they going to do, hand it to a bunch of religious leaders? Yeah, I can’t see someone like Fred Phelps buying it, can you? Or the Pope. Or much of anyone else, except for religious organizations that already support gay (and maybe trans) rights.

It’s all well and good to have a day set aside to celebrate the removal of homosexuality as a diagnosis of a mental disorder, and promote acceptance of that. But it’s totally dishonest to claim that this has anything to do with transphobia, which isn’t even mentioned at all on the page which explains the origins of the event, so I have no idea at what point somebody decided it would be best to add it. So why do it? If it’s a move to be inclusive or politically correct, it’s a bad one, because simply mentioning that something is bad without taking measures to stop it doesn’t really constitute inclusiveness in a political sense. It may even do more harm than good, because saying that you’re fighting transphobia while you’re only really focusing on homophobia creates the misconception that the two words are synonyms.

Let’s be honest: it was never about trans issues, and it still isn’t. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; there can be other days set aside for trans stuff, where the focus is not split by another, more well-known issue. But if you’re going to say you’re fighting transphobia, then it’s best to actually do it.

Edited to add: I realize now that apparently, last year’s IDAHO was more focused on transphobia. And individually, some people have chosen to focus their own efforts on it this year. However, I still feel that this is not sufficient. I think it’s still problematic to call attention to the issue once and then go back to focusing almost solely, on a collective official level, on homophobia. Transphobia needs to be given an equal level of acknowledgment every time the day comes around, or else it becomes support in name only, and that is not good enough. We should not let trans people be kicked to the curb again and again and again, as they have been so many times already. In order to be true allies, we need to have higher standards than that.