Updating the Map: Romantic Attraction and Friendship vs. Romance

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

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

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Policing the Definition: Is There a Gold Standard?

I am loathe to write about this, really I am. But I’ve been surprised several times over the past two or three months by certain high-profile members of the community referring to asexuality using a definition that I was under the impression that we had a fairly common consensus going that asexuality is not. I’m not talking about new people who don’t yet understand what we mean when we talk about asexuality, here. It is to be expected that we would always have that kind of conversation going on at AVEN’s forums, as new people come in and rehash old conversations that they haven’t participated in yet. But I generally don’t go on AVEN because I had those discussions six years ago, and at this point I don’t usually find anything new and interesting on the forums. That’s not what I’m talking about.

No, I’m talking about stuff like a casual remark that if a person is asexual, that means that they don’t like sex. Around here, I would think that kind of assumption would be considered quite silly. Is it not? I mean that as a serious, earnest question: is it not? Even among asexuals who have been around the block a time or two, is that question really, seriously up for debate?

A while ago, during a privately conducted debate, I had a disagreement with Pretzelboy on the issue of how asexuality is defined. I had taken it for granted that we were debating with the definition “an asexual is a person who lacks sexual attraction” specifically in mind (I’m taking it for granted also that the “lack” is relative rather than absolute, and whether it is distinct enough to warrant the asexual label can only be determined by the person experiencing it), but apparently that was only my own assumption. He raised the idea that some asexuals actually define themselves as “not sexual” which, not to put too fine a point on it, to me seems just as much a so-vague-it-becomes-nonsensical definition as it would be to claim a definition of sexuality so broad as to make it possible to claim that all humans are sexual (in a non-scientific context).

I dropped the argument at that point, because I couldn’t see how we could get past that point to discuss what we had really been trying to talk about, if we cannot even agree on a standard definition. But it’s been niggling at me for a while since then, and I have started thinking about the topic again recently after reading the discussion about masturbation going on in the asexosphere as of late, as well as this post from Asexual Curiosities. I’d like to highlight one comment that stood out to me, made by Siggy on Ily’s first post:

Well, no one says that asexual means utterly lacking in anything sexual whatsoever.

Except that they do. Because isn’t that exactly what so many sexual people tend to think when they first hear the word asexual? They think asexual = not sexual = lacking anything sexual whatsoever. Because to them, sexuality is a broad term which encompasses EVERYTHING sexual. And to a lot of people, that even includes the physical reality that human beings are a species that is sexed, and reproduces via sexual intercourse. And yes, that definition of what it is to be “sexual” does make sense in at least one context, although I think it is kind of silly to use it just to state the obvious well-known fact that humans reproduce sexually.* And Siggy is right (I hope?) that asexuals have not asserted anything of the sort, but that’s the key misunderstanding, isn’t it? They really think that’s what we’re saying. That is, they think that we are saying that we are utterly lacking in anything sexual whatsoever, something that would necessarily make us not human. They really, honestly think that’s what we’re saying!

* In many cases, I think they are using this statement to infer something else (that it is impossible for a person not to experience sexual attraction given the way that humans reproduce sexually), but that assertion does not logically follow from what they are saying. After all, just because people may experience some aspects of what would be called “sexuality” it doesn’t mean that they must experience all of them (in fact it’d be pretty hard to find someone who does, if you consider how many kinks there are out there). Since it is not a valid assertion and that has been covered extensively elsewhere, I am not talking about it here. I am only talking about the ones who assert that we are not asexual because we experience any one thing that could be considered an aspect of sexuality (including but not limited to the fact that we exist because of sexual reproduction).

Part of the problem, of course, is that the only other exposure people have to the word “asexual” comes from biology class, so in that context it becomes understandable when the idea of hermaphroditic self-fertilizing species or amoebas comes into play. But even when it is understood that we are using a different definition which does not include some new form of human reproduction, people will still tend to think of the word’s meaning in terms of what its root components mean: not sexual. What does that mean? It’s still confusing, because “sexual” is an adjective that is applied to a very broad range of situations and activities, including things (like kissing and dancing) that fall in some sort of gray area where there is no consensus that it should be applied. So, people will tend to understand the word “asexual” each in their own individual way, depending on what they consider sexual. Even if their definition of “sexual” is not so broad as to include the basic physical fact that humans are a sexed species, the vast majority of people will consider acts which physically engage and stimulate the genitals to be sexual even if they do not fit whatever criteria that person thinks of as qualifying as sex. Therefore, to most people it would make sense to consider the masturbating asexual (or the sexually active asexual, for that matter) to be a paradox, and thus conclude they are not really asexual at all.

So how could it possibly be useful for any one of us to define asexuality as simply “not sexual” if that is the conclusion that the majority of people are going to draw from it? Even if people do realize that “asexual” is meant to refer to one specific aspect of sexuality, there is nothing in that definition to indicate which aspect that would be. Why wouldn’t people assume it refers to behavior?

Maybe masturbation is something that may or may not be considered a form of sex, depending on what you think “sex” means. And maybe it’s something that may or may not be considered “sexual” depending on what “sexual” means. But that’s a moot point. It doesn’t matter, because the definition of asexual that we are using isn’t really “not sexual,” it’s “lacking sexual attraction” specifically. Even if we contend that masturbation does not have to be considered sexual, what criteria are we using to determine that? From what I can gather from that discussion, it’s the lack of sexual attraction or interest/enjoyment which leads to that conclusion. You can certainly masturbate without experiencing sexual attraction—at least I sure hope so, because otherwise how could we explain the masturbatory practices of children? I doubt there are many who would contend that a child’s masturbating experience contains sexual attraction to anyone, but people still call it a sexual experience. So we must ask ourselves: are we using the same criteria that most people are using to determine what is or is not “sexual?” Probably not. Most likely, they will stick with their own definition because it makes the most sense to them. If a person defines physical stimulation of the genitals (for purposes of arousal and especially orgasm) as sexual, it is not very convincing to say that it is not sexual just because the component of attraction is missing. Attraction is more of a side point to the physical act, under this definition. I have met sexual people who don’t specifically think of any attractive people while masturbating, but they still consider masturbation to be sexual in general.

Likewise if we say that masturbation isn’t sexual in some cases because the people who are doing it don’t enjoy it, and are doing it only to “scratch an itch” or feel obligated to keep it up for health-related reasons. Let’s replace “masturbation” with “sex” then. Sometimes sex isn’t enjoyable. Sometimes people feel obligated to have sex because they want to maintain the health of their relationships. But does that mean that sex is no longer a sexual experience?

I hope I am mostly preaching to the choir here, but if there really are asexuals out there who say that asexual means “not sexual” in any sense except to explain its component morphemes, I’d like them to consider this: if we use a definition that is so incredibly vague, how can we make important distinctions like the difference between asexuality and celibacy? And how do we avoid non-inclusive, elitist statements like “you’re not really asexual if you have sex/masturbate/like sex” if we use a definition that is so open to interpretation about what is and is not sexual?

On AVEN, that attitude is very much discouraged. Nobody likes it when somebody starts saying “you are not asexual because you do x” and the admod team is quick to warn people who do. That is why I had thought that there was indeed basically a consensus among at least the more weathered members of the community that we are going by the “lack of attraction” definition; if we use the other one, then honestly? We have no business telling anybody to stop telling other people that they aren’t asexual because they do things that those people think of as sexual. By defining an asexual person as simply “not sexual” with no other qualifications, we would be encouraging other people to fill in the blanks with their own ideas. Which may or (more likely) may not match the meaning we intend to get across.

I find it really weird, then, to discover that we have this kind of contradictory state of affairs within the community with regard to our standard definition. Truthfully, it made me wonder whether my perspective is really welcomed by the community or not. If people do accept this definition, then am I not asexual enough? Pondering this question has left me somewhat unwilling to make any blog posts lately.

I think this is where the idea of policing each other comes into play. Nobody likes it (except those who are doing the policing) when people police others’ “rights” to call themselves asexual based on their own definition of what is or is not sexual. I think maybe this desire to be inclusive is so strong that many of us don’t want to say, “No, your definition is wrong.” (Yet clearly we do engage in some sort of policing, and attempt to keep people who make such statements out of the community.) So we shoot ourselves in the foot by being so open to whatever way that people want to define themselves that it hurts efforts at making a consistent, coherent, and cohesive education effort. We cannot expect other people to understand what we are talking about if we do not apply a critical standard to our own definitions/discourse as rigorous as the standard that outsiders will most certainly be holding us to.

Honestly, I think that “asexual” is a misleading term, and the only reason why it makes sense at all is in the context of other words that refer to an individual’s sexual orientation, like homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual. If we had a different cultural context which did not include those concepts, most likely none of us would have come to identify as asexual in the first place. Actually, all four of those words sound quite silly if you don’t have any knowledge of their context. I mean, really? Bisexual? What could that mean, that you’re double-sexual? But if you know that “sexual” in this context refers to an individual’s sense of sexual attraction, and if you know that the prefixes all refer to the gendered direction of that attraction, then you begin to be able to decode the word. (Although even once you’ve got that down, you have to also understand why “homo-” and “hetero-” are used instead of “andro-/gyno-” which would make more sense in a non-homophobic culture.) Only then does it become intuitive to invent the word “asexual” to describe a lack of sexual attraction!

The problem, of course, is that other people tend not to understand this context at first, and think we are saying literally what the root components of the word mean. But that doesn’t make sense. We can’t (and don’t) argue that we do not experience anything that could ever be considered sexual whatsoever, so why do any of us even continue to engage in debates over what is and is not sexual, when it comes to explaining to outsiders why asexuality is possible? Why do some of us accept “not sexual” as an appropriate definition, if it is so vague that it could mean anything? Especially, why accept it while still clearly being influenced the pervasive norms of the asexual community, and apparently still using an operative definition that equates “not sexual” with “not having sexual attraction?”

Is our disidentification with sexuality so strong that we are reluctant to admit that any part of our experiences might be considered sexual at all, ever? Is it a reluctance to admit that they might have a point, if we were actually saying that? Are we just being drawn into a straw man debate?

It all boils down to this: if we are to have a chance at being accepted within the wider community—the community of non-asexuals, or those who do experience sexual attraction—then we’ve got to recognize that the binary distinction asexual/sexual that we often use to refer to insiders vs. outsiders is not a literal reference to people who experience aspects of sexuality vs. people who don’t. We need to acknowledge how broad a category “sexuality” is, and make it clear to everyone that we are only referring to one aspect of that, the only one that it seems we really have all got in common: a relative lack of sexual attraction, distinctly low enough to warrant such a classification. If we can’t come to any sort of consensus about the basic definition of “asexual” within our own community (which is completely based around that term!), how can we expect others to begin to understand? How can we expect them NOT to dismiss us as a bunch of people who can’t possibly have a point because we are saying contradictory things?

On “Creepy Asexual Guys,” Porn, and Misogyny

Occasionally, people will use search terms to find this blog that pique my curiosity. I had never heard of a gray fetish until today, but apparently someone else has. I also sometimes get search terms including words that I know I’ve said before in the same post, but not together, not as the topic of the post. Today, someone viewed my blog after searching for asexual guys, and I was curious to see what else was out there about asexual guys, so I looked, too.

Of course, there were the usual posts about people seeking to date asexual guys, and those with people wondering whether some male relation of theirs is asexual or gay or just socially awkward, but then there was this strange offering by Rabbi Schmuley Boteach. Confused by the title, “Asexual men and the creeps who live on campus”–since when are asexual men associated or equated with creeps?–I clicked the link. The Rabbi’s main argument seems to be a variant on the idea that rampant sexual debauchery leads men to become desensitized to the point that they are no longer attracted to most normal women, but rather only to a very specific type of woman (presumably strippers and porn stars), and to a very specific type of violently misogynistic situation. I have a few problems with this. Number one is the way he defines asexuality:

The male overexposure to women has even led to the death of the heterosexual man as we know him. If the definition of a heterosexual man is a male who is attracted to women, then most men today are barely heterosexual. Think about it. Nearly all the men I know are only attracted to about one in 10 women, that is, the 10 percent of women they consider “hot.” The other 90 percent leave them cold. Doesn’t that mean that they are 90 percent asexual? And I’m not trying to be funny. If a man is not attracted to a woman, then he is not heterosexual. Period. And if he only attracted to a small fraction of the women he meets, then he is fractionally heterosexual.

Although I can follow his logic, I find that logic flawed on the level that this makes no distinction between a person who is asexual, a person who is just extremely picky, and a person who has a fetish. Now, that word has several different meanings, including two that are non-sexual (an asexual might have “an irrational or abnormal fixation or preoccupation” with something that does not arouse them sexually, for instance). By fetish here, I mean an extreme sexual interest in something to the point that the person cannot get off at all without the presence of that thing. I think what the Rabbi is really meaning to refer to here is the development of such a fetish for the demeaning situations (allegedly, at least–as I have limited experience, I wouldn’t know) shown in porn, and the type of woman who looks like she belongs in one.

The problem is, the way this is worded indicates to me that this has not been thought through and articulated carefully and with a clear understanding of what he is literally saying. He talks of an overexposure to women, for one–how can men be overexposed to a group of people who comprise roughly half of the population? Is he suggesting that we should all be wearing burqas, here? On the contrary, I would infer that he is talking about an overexposure to fantasy women (and any women willing to cater to male fantasy), and an underexposure to real-life women (who are not willing to cater to male fantasy). But this is not made clear in that sentence, so it makes little sense taken on its own.

I think the fallacy with regard to asexuality and heterosexuality is that he is defining them based solely on the percentage of the time that a person is attracted or not attracted, without any regard for the intensity of that attraction when it is experienced, the feelings and attitudes that a person has towards sex, or the fact that these words are labels that refer to the way a person is categorized, rather than indicators of that person’s actual levels of eroticism towards any particular group of people.

For things like this, it usually helps to have a visual model, so let’s use the Storms model. According to this, heterosexuals are people who are high in hetero-eroticism but low in homo-eroticism, homosexuals are people who are high in homo-eroticism but low in hetero-eroticism, bisexuals are high in both, and asexuals are low in both. This seems similar enough to what the Rabbi is saying, but the problem here is in defining what constitutes “high” and what constitutes “low” levels of eroticism.

According to him, if you find 90% of the people around you sexually unattractive, then you are 90% asexual.

However, the people he is talking about devote an extraordinary amount of time thinking and fantasizing about, planning, and engaging in sexual activity. According to him, they have even gone to college expressly for the purpose of indulging in sexual debauchery. You could say that (at least) 90% of their lives are devoted to the pursual of sexual activity. Perhaps they have an extremely narrow idea of what constitutes a sexually attractive woman, and are unable to explore sexuality with the vast majority of the women around them, who do not indulge them in their misogynistic fantasies, but they are still absolutely obsessed with sex. To me, that indicates high levels of eroticism. It’s only a very specific kind of eroticism–as previously stated, a fetish.

So to call them asexual, even while acknowledging that they are “10% sexual,” is highly inaccurate. They would likely not self-identify in that way, and would have very, very little in common with people who do, since usually those people do not miss the sex they are not having, and don’t feel the need to actively pursue sexual activity. Of course, there are people who identify as asexual who might experience sexual attraction a very low percentage of the time, and still consider themselves asexual. I have never heard an estimate of ten percent, and that’s probably quite high, but theoretically, such a person could exist. That’s because these words are labels that are meant to express how people are the vast majority of the time, without getting into very fine details like that one man a lesbian might fall in love with. The Storms model might more accurately look like this (image originally found in this thread)–a blur of different colors with no clear lines in between. There is no simple litmus test that people can take to determine their sexual orientation, and how much a person is attracted to x gender alone is not the only factor that goes into its determination. For those who exist in the borderlands, there may be many more things to take into consideration aside from attraction to people.  There are objectum sexuals, and people who are aroused by certain situations but not by the appearance of other people, to take into consideration as well.

In short, being a sexual person does not mean that you want to bone EVERYONE, or even everyone of a certain gender, and being asexual does not necessarily mean that you NEVER feel sexual attraction. Although the main factor for determining sexual orientation is the level of attraction one feels for other people, and which gender those other people are, it cannot be said that men who are only attracted to women 10% of the time are only 10% heterosexual, because that shows a lack of understanding of how self-identification and use of a label that describes sexual orientation works.

And, just for further clarification, I’ll repeat an example I used a long time ago about the availability of attractive women:  In a country with an extremely skewed gender ratio like China, where there are so many more boys than girls, a heterosexual male might only encounter a small percentage of women he is attracted to on a day-to-day basis, but does that mean he is not heterosexual? Not many people would answer yes to that question, but if you follow the Rabbi’s statement through to its logical conclusion, then he must.

I have many more thoughts about this, but I’ll have to cut it short for now. I may return to this topic in a future post, though.

Edited to add: I’ve made a second post about this: Dismantling Emotional Flatulence.

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.

Romantic Confusion

I got to thinking a little while ago about how we usually talk about asexuals having two distinct orientations (asexual, x-romantic). According to this way of thinking, asexuals then fall into two categories: romantic, and aromantic (with further categorization of the former according to gender preference, but those are the basics). I’ve always found this categorization system rather confusing, because it’s not clear at all what we mean by “romantic.” Romance means different things in different contexts, and in trying to apply this word to a new context, we get confused about which definition we’re trying to apply.

Obviously, it’s clear we’re not talking about styles of prose or poetry, nor does this have anything to do with the Romans. We all know we’re in the general ballpark of love, but beyond that, there are several different ways to interpret it.

If I were to hear someone called “romantic,” the first thing that would come to mind is a personality trait: I would imagine that person as someone with a very idealistic, fanciful outlook on love relationships, which calls to mind princes on white horses. I would think sappiness, naivete, and rescue complex. Red roses, starry skies, candlelit dinners. A person who likes all these things (which are anathema to me). From the context, I can eliminate this interpretation, because I know from my experience with the asexual community that that’s not what we’re referring to, but a person who doesn’t have that background with asexuality would likely be confused. It has always bothered me that the words we use to describe someone like me has this connotation as well, because I am much more of a realist when it comes to love affairs.

But in the context of asexuality, it’s fairly clear that’s not what we mean. According to the AVEN Lexicon, a romantic person is one who experiences romantic attraction (to whatever gender is specified). Okay, then. What’s romantic attraction? According to the wiki:

Romantic attraction is a feeling that causes people to desire a romantic relationship with a specific other person. …

What exactly constitutes a romantic relationship or romantic attraction is difficult to define, and some asexuals reject the romantic/aromantic dichotomy altogether.

See, we even outright acknowledge that it’s not well defined. It seems to me that there are two different components to this so-called “romantic attraction:” structure, and feeling. Continue reading

Doesn’t vs. Hasn’t

I was reading a thread on Apositive a while ago about “romantic”/affectional orientation, and it reminded me why I don’t like defining asexuality as “a person who DOESN’T experience sexual attraction.”

I’ve gone through a lot of different identities, with regard to my affectional orientation. I started out assuming I was bisexual, because at the time I thought that most people are actually bi but due to societal pressure never realize it. Later I changed the label to pansexual/omnisexual to reflect my interest in androgynous, and possibly differently-gendered people. Eventually I realized I was equally uninterested in everyone, and began calling myself asexual, pan-romantic.

A little further down the road, as I finally became interested in pursuing romantic relationships, I noticed a definite tendency to be attracted to women more often than men. For a while, I thought I was just pickier about men, or that there simply weren’t enough pretty specimens in my area. But after the pattern persisted for a couple years, I started seriously questioning whether I would ever be comfortable being with a cisgendered man, due to the power imbalance and lack of understanding of queer issues that I perceived such men to have. I wondered if I shouldn’t just start calling myself a functional lesbian.

Then M fell into my lap, and I realized that I was right the first time, I am just pickier about men. Still wondering if that imbalance and the lack of understanding are surmountable obstacles, though.

So, defining orientation based on not having a certain kind of attraction can be really tricky, as the only time it can be fully determined that one doesn’t experience that attraction or whether one simply hasn’t yet, is on one’s deathbed. It’s understandable, then, though still annoying, when people spout that tired old “right person” rhetoric when we tell them we’re asexual.

And then there are asexuals like me, who aren’t sure whether they’ve ever experienced it because they don’t know how to define it, or know that they have but only ever feel it once or twice in so many years, or even if they feel it, still haven’t felt any desire to act on it, ever, and don’t value sexuality enough that they think it probable that they will in the future. I think determining asexuality is a little more complicated than just “Sexual attraction: ON/OFF.” It’s about the interplay of frequency and level of attraction/desire, value placed on sexual activity, societal influence/politics, identification/disidentification, and probably other factors that I’m not thinking of right now (feel free to throw out suggestions, guys). Lack of sexual attraction is widely touted as the single factor uniting all asexuals, but that’s not really true. The real factor that unites asexuals is identification, which is the result of all these other factors working together.

But I have problems with that idea, too, because it implies that if you don’t identify as asexual at any point in you’re life, then you’re not asexual at that point. I’ve always been asexual. We have to keep in mind that these are terms used to describe ourselves, not terms that necessarily define ourselves. I’ve always known I wasn’t interested in sex, but at different points in my life, my interpretation of that lack of interest has changed. In my youth, I didn’t consider it a significant factor in determining my orientation, but as I got older it became more and more a point of difference between myself and my peers, and as my mindset “solidified,” less and less likely that I would suddenly become interested.

Now, actually, I am interested, but not because I feel any desire to get jiggy with it myself. I just like finding out what it means to other people, because I’m fascinated by personal differences, and want to learn to relate to other people in a way that can include sex. I know I can do it, and I know I can even enjoy it. I want to find out where my limits are, and push my boundaries a little. I want to figure out ways that I can comfortably compromise, and explore different forms of intimacy.

Ultimately, I think it’s all about mindset. That’s not to say that all asexuals have the same mindset, because of course it varies wildly, but there are a lot of similarities with the ultimate result that we all identify as asexual. I could possibly identify as either asexual or hyposexual, but I make the choice to identify as asexual. There are also a lot of potentially asexual people who don’t realize that they have that option, probably because they haven’t heard of it or thought about it much.