The #1 thing I want people to do this week to support ace survivors

[mild tw: survivor-exclusive ace 101]

If you’re giving an Asexual Awareness Week presentation or doing any kind of 101 panel this week, here is the number one thing I want you to do to include and support ace survivors:

Tell people how incredibly inappropriate it is to ask others about their sexual abuse history because they came out to you as asexual. Tell people how damaging/hurtful it is for anyone who is actually a survivor to have to deal with that. Encourage people to have some empathy instead, or at least stop being assholes.

Don’t accept the terms that people are trying to set for you when they suggest that people cannot be “real” asexuals if it’s possible that trauma might have caused it. Don’t let them frame the discussion without challenge, and then say things like, Continue reading

Nobody has a responsibility to come out.

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

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

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

The other day, Rachel Maddow said this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

A (Not So) New Cause

So, yesterday was a long and exciting day. Among other things, it was my first day at my new job and my first day doing a panel for my university’s Sexual and Gender Diversity Resource Center. What a panel is, for those of you who don’t know, is basically a group of people (in this case LGBTQIAlphabet soup-affiliated people) who sit down in front of a class and answer questions about their experiences. So, I got to come out to a lot of people I don’t know. So about 20 more people know about asexuality now, though I’m not sure how well we explained it. It was a University 101 class, so most of the people there didn’t care too much about it. The focus was mainly on homosexuality rather than asexuality, and to be honest, that’s where it needs to be. When someone comes out as asexual, although people are much less likely to have ever encountered the term before, the reactions that people get are by no means analogous to the extreme hostility that gay people are likely to experience. Although there is certainly a measure of denial and pathologization of asexuals, we are not generally considered to be evil or immoral (even if some people insist we are “rejecting God’s gift”); however invisible we are, we have the advantage of not being demonized, or even suffering from idiotic stereotypes.

Somehow, even in California, an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage passed. I’m disappointed, but I know there are already people who are taking up that fight. I’ll help out where I can, but it’s not my battle. I’m connected to it, I’m potentially affected by it, but my real concern is with another community that is often forgotten (or even intentionally excluded) by LGB people: the trans community. I have a lot of experience with this community, having had two transgendered significant others (my current is male-to-female), and a number of trans friends over the past six years. I’ve seen what intense anguish they go through, only further intensified by the casual hatred leveled at them on a day-to-day basis (the dehumanizing stares and whispers, the tactless comments, the refusal to even attempt to use the correct pronouns), the institutionalized rejection (most insurance policies won’t cover transsexuals, in many states they can’t get their genders changed on their birth certificates), all on top of the body issues they already have. It’s no wonder there’s such a high suicide rate–I’d be considering it, too, if I were in that position. How can my pithy little (lack of a) sexual orientation even come halfway close to comparing to something as heavy as that?

It’s difficult for me to write about, because I do have such a personal stake in this. But at the same time, I don’t have the experience of actually being transgendered, so I don’t feel I have the authority to speak about trans issues. Still, I really want to do something to help alleviate the pain my girlfriend, my ex, and all my friends (past and present) who are trans have had to deal with, and continue to deal with on a daily basis. I want to do some kind of activism, try to get more people to understand. I want to live to see a day when the newly-elected President will mention transsexuals in his (or her) acceptance speech. I want to see a day when people can show a little compassion.

If I were single, or at least not currently involved with a transgirl, I’d be more than willing to jump right in with the activism (though I admit that strongly wanting to protect her is a huge motivating factor). Since I’m not, there are a lot of real-life complications and logistical problems that I would have to deal with if I did that. I haven’t yet decided if and how and under what circumstances I will be doing any real-life trans activism, but I would like to start writing about what issues I, as a SOFFA (Significant Other/Friend/FAmily member), face due to my association with transgendered people here, at least. It will give me a place to talk about it other than with my girlfriend, and a sense that at least I am doing something to help, if only a little. I also know that there is quite a bit of overlap between the transgender and asexual communities, so perhaps this will be of interest to some of my readers. Next time I will (pick a narrower subject and) go into a little more detail, but for now… This is the kind of issue that’s currently going on in my (suddenly busy) life lately.

On a tangentally related note, I don’t know how I am going to manage this, what with how busy I’ve become lately, but I have been planning to give speech about asexuality to my local QSA, hopefully by next Wednesday. We’ve been having some inclusion issues in that group lately, which perhaps I will talk about later. I’ll report back on how that goes as soon as I can get the time!