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.”

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* 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.

Confirmation Bias and Anti-Asexual Sentiment

I was going to start off this post by linking to an excellent post by Charlie the Unicorn, but that post seems to have disappeared. It still exists on my google reader feed, which is the only reason why I knew this was going on at all, because I don’t have a Tumblr, and don’t care to make one.

So, the last homosexual survivor of the Holocaust has died at age 98. And one asexual person, for some reason, decided to say this:

This is so touching. This guy seems like he was a pretty awesome dude.

But… and is it just me… or do people say a lot about the LGBT people who were oppressed during the Holocaust but not a whole lot about the asexual and demisexual victims? I AM NOT SAYING IT’S NOT AWFUL WHAT HAPPENED TO GAY PEOPLE BACK THEN. I’m panromantic myself. I just… I know that people on the asexual spectrum were targeted too, and I wish we had more of a voice.

This is of course grossly inappropriate, and was swiftly debunked by other asexuals. No, people on the asexual spectrum were not targeted. At best, that comment shows a deep ignorance of historical facts. The original comment has been deleted, and so the only way you can see it now is via the people who reblogged it, one of whom was Sciatrix, who said:

I…. what? What?

This is seriously not okay. For one thing, asexuals weren’t targeted as asexuals the way that gay people were. And for another, this is not a horrific event in history that had anything to do with asexuals—of course people are not going to discuss us. No one was out as asexual in the forties! No one knew it we existed—even the Kinsey Reports hadn’t been done yet. And frankly, this particular incident in history would have been a time at which I would have been grateful to be invisible.

I just. I have no words. This, here? This is not a place where it’s appropriate to bring up asexuality at all. Seriously, no. Not our history, not our suffering, not our place to speak up. This is a time to listen to other people’s histories.

You can read the discussion of this here, and Sciatrix’s response to it here. As this got reblogged by more and more people, somehow that one offensive comment, which was refuted by other asexuals, became representative of the entire asexual community’s views, at least in the minds of people who hate asexuals. At the very least, of those who reblogged from Sciatrix’s comment, even if hers was the only comment by another asexual that they saw, they had to ignore her comment to do so.

This is called confirmation bias. It’s when people selectively pay attention to only the things that confirm what they already believe—in this case, that asexual people are just trying to co-opt other people’s oppression. That several other asexuals have called this comment out themselves doesn’t matter, because that fact is being deliberately ignored. Or maybe not deliberately in all cases; it’s possible that the people reblogging this just didn’t read Sciatrix’s comment closely enough to notice that she used “we” and “our” to refer to asexuals, thus marking herself as asexual to anyone who didn’t know that already. Still, either way, they are ignoring the bulk of the evidence in favor of the one comment that supports what they’ve already decided is true.

We should call out this behavior whenever we can, because hopefully if we can introduce enough cognitive dissonance, people will change their minds. That’s why when Jay announced his intention to stop talking in the comments to this post, I still replied, even though Jay hasn’t been back to the site since, so unless he turned on comments notifications, he didn’t see any of the replies to his comment. Hopefully some people like him did see it and were, if not convinced immediately, then at least made less sure of their position.

The thing is, if a member of a group that is not a minority says something offensive, it’s attributed to that individual. People don’t assume that all other members of that group are the same. If a white person says something stupid and offensive about the Holocaust, it’s just that person being stupid and offensive. If a black person says something stupid and offensive about the Holocaust, then it’s seen as a bad reflection of all black people everywhere, and there will be people who say that all black people are stupid. All evidence to the contrary will be ignored.

The same phenomenon is happening here, only with asexuals. In any group, there will be people who step out of line, and say offensive things. But to say that all of us are like that, especially when in order to even see the comment in question you have to go through other asexuals who are calling that person out, is pretty ridiculous. And it’s especially so because this exact same phenomenon happens to gay people, too.

If you don’t want one gay person who says something awful to represent all gay people, don’t think that one asexual person who says something awful represents all asexual people, either.