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).

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Why Trendy Bisexuals Are Dangerous to Asexuality

Over the years, a bunch of people have made the point that asexuals have something to add to discussions of sexuality, because their differing perspective on the topic lends an ability to see certain points that others miss. Since I’m currently incapable of forming any coherent thoughts on the topic of asexual gender variation, I thought I might try to add my perspective to an essay that I recently stumbled upon: Sexa Rubelucia’s Defense of Trendy Bisexuality, wherein she attempts to do just that.

She makes a few good points in the essay, but my main issue with her argument is that, while she seems at least aware of the difference between sexual attraction and sexual behavior, she does not acknowledge its relevance to the topic at hand. This is an issue with the definition of bisexuality. This is about what it means to be bisexual, or not. And the commonly accepted definition of any sexual orientation is based on attraction, not behavior, although many people seem to have a muddled and inconsistent understanding of this, including the author of this essay. Reading the essay, I have no clear idea of what her actual views on “real” biseuxality are, though she offers the following definition of fake bisexuals:

Trendy bisexuality is … the kind of bisexuality in which a girl has sex with, hooks up with, or makes out with, other girls to arouse/get the attention of a guy (or guys) watching, or because she wants to be able to say she’s bisexual as she knows it makes her sound sexier to guys, or just because she’s heard that it’s cool to be bi now. It’s distinguished as “trendy” bisexuality to indicate that these girls only do it because it’s “cool” and because lots of other girls do it. The term “trendy bisexuality” is meant to be insulting, and women who self-identify as “trendy bisexuals” only do so in a self-effacing, deliberately ironic way.

It’s clear that she understands what the difference is between so-called “trendy bisexuals” and real bisexuals–that is, the motivation for their behavior. However, she curiously does not address the distinction between orientation (a relatively set pattern of gender-based attraction) and behavior, which is being clarified by people who use the terms “trendy” or “fake bisexuals”–clearly, people question whether such people ought to be calling themselves bisexuals at all. She seems to go back and forth on this, acknowledging her own low level of attraction to women and how that qualifies her to claim the label “bisexual,” and then later saying that a woman who has had sex with other women’s claim to be straight is somehow suspect. Instead of looking at the very obvious definitional qualms that people have with trendy bisexuality, she focuses on feminist objections to the phenomenon of, as she so aptly calls it, “female/female sex as a performance.”

Far be it from me to claim that sex as a performance is a necessarily bad thing (especially considering my own advice on the topic), but some of her claims are a little suspect. I’m sure there’s something to the whole feminist “sexual expectation double-standard,” but her emphasis on how people who object to this on feminist grounds must be man-haters is a little overblown, in my opinion. Some people simply don’t like the idea of performing to fulfill a man’s fantasies, and I don’t think it necessarily means that they hate all men (or even all heterosexual men) because of that. When their fantasies are about women existing as objects meant for their use, it’s understandable why some women would be uncomfortable with that. I, personally, wouldn’t go so far as to say that other women shouldn’t ever engage in any erotic activities with other women solely with the intent of arousing men, but I still find this practice distasteful because there is such a heavy cultural bias towards the fulfillment of male fantasies (which she does mention), and I think that distaste is very much legitimate. I also do think it is interesting that in the same breath as she dismisses others’ claims that straight girls engage in bisexual behavior because they have low self-esteem, she writes off people who have a repulsion to and/or ideological problems with society’s conception of sex as having low self-esteem:

Girls who have low self-esteem do a lot of things. Some girls have low self-esteem and therefore have promiscuous sex. Some girls have low self-esteem and therefore refuse to have sex at all and write feminist theory about why all sex is bad and wrong and evil.

And then there is this little gem:

The overarching answer to the concern of “someone will get hurt” is that it’s sex!  Someone always gets hurt!  It feels really great, and then it confuses you, and then someone gets hurt, and then everyone deals with it.  There’s pretty much nothing you can do to prevent that. (emphasis hers)

Um… what? I mean, first of all, from that previous quote, she acts like sex is so wonderful that anyone who has problems with it must have low self-esteem… and then she says this? I sure HOPE people don’t ALWAYS get hurt when they have sex! Even I, an asexual woman, am not so cynical as to say such a thing, and you know? I guess you could call me naive if you want, but that hasn’t been my experience, either. There was a time when I wondered if I would ever be able to get through sex without pain, but I have since discovered that I am perfectly capable of it, on both an emotional and a physical level. There ARE precautions that people can take to keep themselves from being hurt, and even those who are acting outside of their orientation can benefit from them. I wonder, that this woman would say such a thing, especially in this context. I understand very well how a lack of experience and understanding about one’s own desires (or lack thereof) might lead to less-than-stellar communication (been there, done that!), and I don’t think people should be vilified simply for that. However, this reeks of an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s actions. If people are not up-front and honest about their intentions, including whether or not they are experimenting, then things are likely to go wrong, and if somebody gets hurt because the other person wasn’t honest, you can’t claim that it was the fault of the person who WAS honest. Of course, when entering into any kind of relationship, there is always the risk of being lied to, or hurt in any other way. But just because someone understands that they are taking that risk, does that mean that it is acceptable for people to do manipulative and unsavory things to them? Should people just never trust anyone, ever? How about: “Well, it’s your fault you got raped, because you knew there was a chance I might have been lying to you!” No. This is just a way of avoiding blame.

That’s not to say that ALL “trendy bisexuals” engage in this behavior, because some people, I’m sure, are actually up-front about the fact that they are just experimenting, or solely interested in sexing women because they want to attract men. Those who aren’t, however, incur the displeasure of those they mislead for a very good reason. Either way, this argument just barely misses, and then dismisses, the real issue:  that trendy bisexuals are MISLEADING PEOPLE by calling themselves bisexual in the first place (and do note, I didn’t say they are “using” people, because I agree, that’s a useless phrase, and plus, it’s such a narrow term it misses some of the broader implications). They aren’t actually bisexual, even though they engage in sexual behavior with people of both genders, and tend to claim that label (the writer of that essay is an uncommon breed in that she actually calls herself a trendy bisexual; usually, that is a label that only other people use to describe someone, while the person being called a “trendy bisexual” just calls herself bisexual).  And this can potentially hurt both the people with whom they are intimately involved, and the wider bisexual, lesbian, and even asexual communities due to its spreading of the misinformed conflation of behavior with a label that’s not about behavior at all.

She continues:

But really, what sinks this complaint is that trendy bisexuals are pretty clearly distinguished from serious lesbians, usually by the fact that their boyfriend is standing no farther than a few feet away.

I doubt this very much, as in my experience (as a biromantic asexual woman partnered to a bisexual passing trans woman–meaning, we look, act, and are treated like lesbians in public), many men seem to assume that most, if not all, out lesbians (who are attractive, at least), are just trendy bisexuals, and would be receptive to their frequent catcalls and offers for threesomes. I really can’t stress enough how frequently this happens. In fact, just a few hours ago, as my girlfriend and I were walking back to our car, just holding hands and not being overtly (or even covertly!) sexual at all, some guy ran into a curb because he was too busy staring at whooping at us to pay attention to the road. You could argue, perhaps, that these men aren’t really seriously harming us by expressing their interest, but the degree to which (even the smallest amount of) female-female affection is sexualized makes me think there is something more insidious going on. My (non-sexual) affection for my girlfriend is routinely trivialized and cast as a simple ploy to gain male attention, when in reality, it has nothing whatever to do with either men OR sex, at all. This is indeed an example of male narcissism, but I am deeply concerned with the idea that this narcissism is harmless. It represents society-wide beliefs that have real-world consequences, which trendy bisexuals may not be aware of because they play into and reinforce the beliefs that other people hold, but women who are seriously committed to one another are much more likely to encounter. The main issue, aside from the demoralizing assumption that women exist for men and the extreme focus on sex, is that we lose credibility. We are much less likely to be taken seriously, as people will assume this is “just a phase” that women go through in college… and if, for example, my mother thinks this way, I may have a disaster on my hands when I finally come out to her, since I am still financially dependent on her and she has quite a bit of power over me. Is this not a legitimate concern?

It seems to me that there is an unwillingness to accept the fact that lesbians even exist, and that it is not at all clear (especially not immediately so) whether any given female-female couple are actually lesbians (this goes back to the issue of orientation vs. behavior, and how that is likely to contribute to the invisibility of groups like asexuals and bisexuals). Although there will certainly be people who assume they are lesbians, people also tend to see what they want to see. The fact that trendy bisexuals exist lends credence to heterosexual males’ wishful thinking, and though that may not actually be what the trendy bisexual is aiming to do, it is understandably annoying to lesbians that this happens, especially since it happens with such frequency. It also undermines the credence that people are likely to give to actual bisexuals, a group that is presumed to an even larger extent than lesbians not to even exist. Again, going back to visibility issues and the damage that defining orientation by behavior does. The writer of this essay seems to be aware of the behavior/attraction distinction, but she is blantantly dismissive of it:

I’ve heard plenty of women say “Oh, I’ve had sex with girls but I’m straight” (note: That is a pretty ridiculous statement), but I can’t even imagine a man saying the same thing about having had sex with a man.

Why is it ridiculous for a girl who has had sex with girls to claim that she’s straight? She is basing her statement on her patterns of attraction, and NOT on her behavior. It is a perfectly legitimate statement. I am asexual, but I have had sex, and that doesn’t make me any less asexual. That I have had sex does not automatically mean that I experienced sexual attraction (contrary to popular belief, I’m sure), because arousal can be a purely physical response to stimuli, that does not spring from any sexual attraction. If it’s possible to be aroused without feeling sexual attraction at all, it’s certainly possible to be aroused by an attraction to something else (in this case, the men that are turned on by lesbians) and then have sex with someone who did not inspire the initial attraction.

The author goes on to explain that that statement would be even more ridiculous in reverse, with a man insisting that his having had sex with a man does not make him gay, and rightly so. To most people in our culture, that would seem like a contradiction, but there have been other cultures where male homosexual interactions were even institutionalized, as mentor-student relationships that were considered a rite of passage. I am thinking of the ancient Greeks and Tokugawa-era Japan, here. As I understand it, it was quite normal in those cultures for men to have sex with other men without being presumed to be homosexual, as those men usually also took wives. There was no stigma attached to this, as there is in our culture, which is probably the reason why our men are so afraid of doing anything whatsoever that might lead others to assume that they are gay. That a man has had sex with another man, in my eyes, would not automatically mean that he is gay, except that since that assumption is so prevalent throughout this society, and since there is so much stigma attached to that act, so much homophobia running rampant throughout society, it would be quite a stretch to think that a heterosexual man would be so willing to experiment that he would even be willing to subject himself to that stigma.

To be gay is to lose social status. For men, who are ascribed a higher social status than women, it is a very, very bad for their image to appear effeminate in any way. Having sex with other men is seen as a marker of effeminacy, because of the way that society conceives of the power structure that is built into sex. To be a bottom in an act of gay sex is to act as a woman, and in so doing, sacrifice one’s (ever-fragile) masculinity. Which is, of course, probably the reason why, as the author observes, there is no male equivalent of the trendy bisexual in American culture (though there is something similar in Japan, but it is usually outright acknowledged that the guys are doing it solely for the girls’ benefit, instead of them claiming to actually be bisexual). Curiously, she fails to comment on that power structure, but she does point out some of the differences between gay male sex and lesbian sex:

Lesbian sex is far less necessarily physically threatening than gay male sex.  Penetration isn’t a requirement for two women to have sex with each other, whereas a man who identifies as bisexual is basically saying he’s willing to take it up the ass.

But is this really what he is saying, or is this just what people assume he is saying? What about a bisexual man who is strictly a top? And since when is penetration required for gay sex? I have known gay couples who never engage in penetrative sex because they don’t enjoy it, but do have other kinds of sex. Obviously, one alternative is oral sex. I also remember reading about one society (maybe the Romans? but I can’t recall which) that considered the anus dirty, and instead of having anal intercourse, they would engage in frottage–i.e., men would rub their penises between the closed thighs of other men. This statement highlights how incredibly phallocentric and extremely focused on penetration our society is. Even though anal intercourse is not the only form of gay male sex out there, it is the only form that society recognizes as such (and furthermore, people specifically focus on the bottom without considering the top, which shows how much focus there is on the person who is being “emasculated” and stripped of their social status).

An asexual perspective might be useful here, because in searching for an alternative form of sexuality that might be more tolerable to us than the usual penetrative kind of sex, we often realize how incredibly narrow society’s definition of “sex” is. There are many, many other ways to do sex than just penetration. In the case of lesbian sex, too, this must be acknowledged, because not all lesbian sex involves a strap-on. It is interesting to me that the author of that essay acknowledges that penetration is not required for lesbian sex, but doesn’t realize that it isn’t required for gay male sex either. It strikes me as something of a double-standard. After all, lesbians can and do penetrate each other–why, then, with all this focus on penetration, is that not considered THE way that lesbians have sex? In fact, to many people who hold such a penetration-centric view of sex, it is not even obvious that women CAN have sex with each other, because most women haven’t got a phallus–at least, not one that’s biologically attached.

In short, her arguments leave me unconvinced.  I wonder whether she has ever heard of asexuality, and what her reaction to it would be.  She doesn’t really seem the type who would take well to the idea, what with her comments about self-esteem and how “ridiculous” it is for girls with a history of having sex with other girls to call themselves straight. I would expect her to dismiss my experiences, claim I am insecure, and say I must be a man-hater because I dislike the way men sexualize me and trivialize my emotions (to say nothing of the actual objectification). I do have a problem with trendy bisexuals, but not because I think they shouldn’t act the way they do, on feminist grounds. My problem is that they are straight women who call themselves bisexual, and thus spread misinformation about what a sexual orientation even is, which can be harmful to ALL non-heterosexual orientations. It would be fine with me if they would at least acknowledge that they are not really, or only barely, attracted to women, and are mainly turned on by them because it turns on men. (I can, after all, understand enjoyment of others’ sexual reactions, as that is the main reason why I even have sex at all.) But most of them don’t (and actually, I wouldn’t call anyone who did a “trendy bisexual” at all; in my eyes, she would just be a straight woman who engages in bisexual behavior), either because they don’t understand what the term “bisexual” means themselves, or they are simply not willing to say they engage in behavior that is viewed negatively, even though that is the truth. They either do not realize the harm that they are doing to the larger community by spreading misinformation, or are not willing to take responsibility for misleading people. I don’t think these concerns are off-base; in fact, her essay only serves to trouble me more.

I don’t have a gender! According to Stupid.

Breaking my short hiatus to report that, according to some friends of an acquaintance, I’m not asexual, I’m bisexual. Because if I were asexual, I wouldn’t have a gender.

Right… What? I don’t even actually know how those two things are supposed to be related, because even if they were mistaking sex for gender, how would that make me bisexual? What, am I automatically bisexual now just because my girlfriend is MTF? Nevermind that asexuality has nothing to do with gender, and that there actually already is a word for people with no gender identification (a few of them, in fact).

I should start keeping track of these stupid assumptions, then go back over them after a year or so and give out awards for the most idiotic.

Mixed vs. Uniform Relationships

According to this article, there is now some scientific evidence that same-sex couples tend to find it easier to relate to one another than do heterosexual couples.

It makes sense. Heterosexual couples have long been plagued by gender inequality, as has the wider world. In fact, if I recall correctly, the ancient Greeks believed that due to this inequality, true love could only exist between members of the same sex. And I can tell you from personal experience, there is a distinct difference between the way that women relate to one another in a relationship, vs. the way that men relate to women. There is a marked difference in perspective which must be overcome in order for men and women to establish and maintain a deep bond.

Thinking about this hurdle has always made me a little leery of the idea of getting into a heterosexual relationship. Continue reading