Review: The Invisible Orientation by Julie Sondra Decker

Asexual Bingo card

Asexual Bingo card created by the author. Click for a flier with information about her book!

I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time.

Years before it was written, I remember reading a conversation on LJ in which the author, Julie Sondra Decker (also known as swankivy), talked about potentially writing a book like this. Then, when it finally came out, my copy got lost in the mail! It took months for me to get the situation sorted out and actually receive a copy, although part of that was that I was out of town and without internet access for a significant part of last fall.

But it’s finally here, and now that I’ve read it twice, I can say with complete confidence: it’s excellent!

Before we continue, please note: Although I’ve been part of the ace community for a long time, and spent a bit of that time talking to the author several years ago, I was not in any way involved with the creation of this book. I didn’t provide any quotes, nor did I do any beta-reading. Because I took a long hiatus from the community starting in 2012, I didn’t even know that it was finally being written until after a release date had been announced!

So when I read this, I came into it with, perhaps, fewer expectations for exactly what was going to make it into the book than those who contributed to it… and also more criticisms, because one can generally expect most of the contributors’ criticisms to have been addressed before release.

What/Who is this book for?

As stated in the introduction, the book “should function as a starting point for people interested in asexuality.” It’s “for the layperson, written in everyday language” because “everyone will benefit from knowing that asexuality exists, that it isn’t a disorder, and that asexual people can be trusted to describe their own feelings.”

Fair enough! So I’m judging this based on those stated goals. This isn’t supposed to be the be-all and end-all of any writing on asexuality—it’s just a beginning.

And does it succeed at being a good beginning? Yes!

This is the Asexuality 101 book. It’s for laypersons, but I think it should also be required reading for professionals looking to better serve their asexual clients. It’s a starting point for real understanding, and one that outsiders looking in just can’t provide.

Books are prone to becoming quickly outdated as societal understanding deepens, and even less than a year after its release, there are already some passages beginning to show their age. But that’s more about how fast our high-level community discourse moves! On that level, it makes sense to forgive the subtle nuances rooted in older discussions. Here, we find the community’s foundation, preserved by someone who has been part of it much longer than most of us.

On such solid ground, we can now take steps toward further progress.

What Works

First, let’s talk about the best parts.

  • The writing is clear, concise, and casual. It’s easy to follow for a layperson, so it definitely achieves the right level of accessibility for its intended audience—and, crucially, it does so without feeling like it’s talking down to anyone.
  • It has a great hook for anyone starting the book right from the beginning. The author’s personal experiences and history of involvement with the community (pre-dating the establishment of AVEN) contextualize the book, and quickly dispel any notions that asexuality is “what the kids on Tumblr are making up these days” without having to directly address that charge. I particularly appreciate the acknowledgment that she’s been fairly lucky in terms of having “supportive family, unshakable confidence, no serious problems or issues in [her] life, and a thick skin,” because it’s important for readers to know that others haven’t been so lucky.
  • The structure of the book is very well thought out. It is divided into five parts: 1) Asexuality 101, 2) Asexual Experiences, 3) The Many Myths of Asexuality, 4) If You’re Asexual (Or Think You Might Be), and 5) If Someone You Know is Asexual (Or Might Be). This allows a person searching for specific information to pick up the book and flip to the most relevant section. The author also makes very good use of headers, sub-headers, lists, and bold text so that skimming readers will still pick up on the most important points.
  • I love the quotes from other community members highlighted in gray boxes throughout the book. They tie in others’ experiences, clarify concepts, provide illustrations of things described in the main text, visually break things up so that the reader will tend to feel less overwhelmed by walls of text, and serve as extra hooks to draw readers (back) in.
  • My personal favorite highlighted quote is at the top of page 38: It’s an anonymous person’s illustration of their experience with grayness through the metaphor of soda vs. water vs. water-with-a-bit-of-soda-in-it. I think that’s a brilliant analogy to explain experiences of graysexuality not defined by rarity, and I think it will be clarifying for a lot of people. It resists the most common way of explaining grayness, and I think that’s exactly the sort of thing that’s needed in visibility efforts to allow others to really understand these concepts.
  • Many points are supported by footnotes leading to more information, with a great bibliography in the back so that readers can look up the relevant studies for themselves. There is also a large list of other resources in the back—although books can’t keep up with the constant change of the internet, so a few of them have already disappeared.

If you’re a writer, all of the above are great lessons.

Cover of The Invisible Orientation

Cover of The Invisible Orientation

I also appreciate the minimalist cover, because it really mirrors how minimized and, indeed, invisible asexuality tends to be. Technically, that’s not part of the writing, and probably not something the author could control. Many people will tell you “don’t judge a book by its cover.” But I think that people also tend to greatly underestimate how important packaging really is in whether or not a book will sell. And considering that this is supposed to intrigue people enough to introduce them to asexuality for the first time and legitimize the orientation in their minds, in this case a professional look is especially important.

What Doesn’t Work

Now, I was all set to rate this five stars… but upon rereading the first half of the book and counting up the places where there are serious issues, I have to take it down to four. These are issues that (mostly) seemed very minor to me… until I really started thinking about the implications of them. I summarized these in my Goodreads review, but here I will fully explain them.

If these points seem to take up too much space, that’s only because they are such subtle points that I have to use a lot more space to explain! I’m citing specific examples with page numbers so that everyone can see what I’m talking about for themselves and come to their own conclusions. I think we can apply the lessons we learn from these examples to other visibility efforts. Continue reading

The False Dichotomy of Repulsion vs. Indifference

This post is for the July 2014 Carnival of Aces.

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About a month ago now, as I started trying to catch up on things that had been going on in the asexual blogosphere while I was on hiatus, I came across this post about how sex-repulsed and sex-averse aces are apparently being treated as (per the title of the post) a “dirty little secret” in the ace community (mostly on Tumblr, which is why I haven’t seen it), and that being “indifferent” towards sex is apparently now seen as the “default” or True Way to Be Ace.

My reaction was along the lines of “What the hell? Since when?”

Like I said in my comment to that post, I’ve been part of ace communities (multiple) for ten years now. In 2004, when I joined AVEN, it certainly wasn’t the case that there were way more resources for asexual people who do have sex than for those who don’t. Sex-positive aces felt very much NOT welcome, to the point that in (I believe?) 2007, a bunch of members of AVEN went to form their own forum specifically devoted to creating a non-judgmental space for higher-level discussions of sex, among other things (although this sort of discussion has since migrated off the site). Believe it or not, it was actually to the point where forum posts on AVEN that were about sex, especially asexual people trying to figure out healthy and positive ways to have sex, were regularly derailed with “ew, that’s so gross” and comments both implying and even outright stating that True Asexuals don’t want to have sex, ever.

So from where I’m standing, it’s a complete reversal to hear that now “indifferent” aces are treated as the default at least in some circles, even if that’s not universally true. It’s weird, yo.

And it’s fucked up. 100% stupid.

Do not ever go around saying that people who don’t want to have sex because they feel repulsed/averse to it should go to therapy to “fix” that so that they can have sex. Having sex is not a universal goal. If you have aversion and you want to work through it, then okay! Go work through it! But don’t assume that other people have the same goals as you. They don’t and shouldn’t. Putting that sort of pressure on people is completely inappropriate and harmful in many ways, not to mention counterproductive because it is more likely to increase feelings of aversion that decrease them.

And DON’T think that just because I write resources for asexual people who want to have sex, that I am somehow implying that all asexual people should want to have sex. I didn’t think that was something that I should have to say, but apparently it is.

This post has gotten linked around. A lot. Like, more than everything else I’ve ever written over the past 6 years combined. And while the reaction seems to mostly have been positive, I’m pretty sure that not everybody has read it fully or understood it, and it seems mostly to be an issue of not understanding the audience that it was intended for and weighing their level of interest/engagement against the desire to have everything included, everyone represented, in that particular post. I don’t want to get into a long discussion of this now, although I do intend to talk about it in more detail later. I fully acknowledge that the post is not perfect, there are several ways I have noted that I should edit it. But there are also several criticisms of it that I do not think are valid, and one of them is that I am “contributing to erasure” of sex-averse aces and survivors of sexual violence.

That makes no sense, because I am myself in both of those categories. I made reference to the latter without making it explicit, because it is not something that I am comfortable talking about publicly just yet. Even saying it that explicitly puts me in some danger of private harassment, which is something I’m trying to figure out how to manage. And so for now, I’m not going to go into any more detail than what I’ve already said in previous posts and comments. Also, my blog is not a community. It’s one person, talking about one life, with occasional guest posts. A single voice does not a community make, and even in the educational essays I write there is not room to cover everything. I think to try to cover aversion within the same breath as advising potential sexual partners to asexual people of how to (appropriately) approach sex with those who are interested in having sex is inadvisable, because it would not do justice to either topic, not least because I don’t have the expertise required to write such a thing. At best, I could maybe link to something else about aversion to make the point, but when I wrote it, there was the little issue that I didn’t know of any such posts to link to.

But anyway, let’s get one thing straight here: just because I’ve described myself as being “indifferent” or (more accurately) on the whole pretty much neutral towards sex, just because I can and have enjoyed it in the right circumstances, that does not mean that I don’t also have feelings of aversion or repulsion about it. It’s NOT mutually exclusive, and I think that’s the danger of categorizing ourselves as if we fit into either the Indifferent box or the Repulsed box. Independent of any of this nasty shaming that’s apparently started going on mostly (from what I gather) on Tumblr towards averse/repulsed aces, I’ve felt for the past few years that these categories have outlived their usefulness. What exactly is the point of dividing ourselves thus? For me at least, it’s gotten to the point that I’m more misunderstood for using the label of “indifferent” than I would be if I just dropped it entirely.

And, related, I’m starting to see the phrase “Sex-Favorable” come up in various places around the asexual community. I missed this word being coined during my absence, apparently, so I’m just catching up on its usage now… but from a lot of the comments I’ve received and seen on various other sites where I’ve been linked to, I seem to be categorized as sex-favorable more often than anything else (even before this word was coined). Just because I make efforts to say that, contrary to popular assumptions by those unfamiliar with asexuality, attraction and desire are not the same thing, and asexual people can enjoy sex. Those are things I have devoted a lot of my writing to talking about, because I saw that it was lacking, and I saw that people unfamiliar with and even within ace communities assume that by default, asexual people are sex-averse/repulsed (and still do, as some comments I recently deleted attacking other commenters on my previous posts indicate). So yeah, since that’s what I talk about, that’s how I seem to be perceived a lot of the time.

And… no, I don’t think it fits well. Some of my experiences with sex have been favorable, yes. But me, myself, the whole of my experiences? No. Certainly not, and especially not in the past couple of years. My overall interest in sex has greatly decreased. Fortunately for me, so has my partner’s. There have been no freak-outs about how I “can’t do this anymore,” nothing like that. Instead, my partner tells me, “I’m glad you’re asexual, I don’t know how I could date someone who isn’t right now.”

So there isn’t a label that fits me. It’s inaccurate to say I’m indifferent, and it’s also inaccurate to say I’m repulsed. I can’t categorize myself on a scale between Averse-Neutral-Favorable, because I range at different points on that scale at different times, depending on my mood. It doesn’t even make sense to me to make it a scale. I feel like what gets subsumed in this sort of discussion, even when there is an acknowledgment that these categories are not mutually exclusive, is an understanding that it should be expected that people in general, not even specifically asexual people, will tend to have different feelings about sex at different times throughout their lives. There are times when I can consent to it enthusiastically, and there are times when I can’t. The default assumption should always be that a person doesn’t consent until they explicitly give permission, and as a matter of sexual safety, there should be check-ins if it ever becomes unclear that someone is enjoying it. There shouldn’t be any situations where people’s consent gets thought of as a “give once for all time” sort of thing, because it should be understood that people’s moods change, and sometimes suddenly without warning. Aversion and repulsion can just suddenly happen in the middle of sexual activity that was previously fine, even if most of the time it’s not enough of an issue to even discuss it. And they can even happen at the same time as sexual desire, just as you can hit the brakes and the gas at the same time in a car, because desire and aversion work on different mechanisms.

So for me personally, while I could maybe oversimplify to describe myself as sex-favorable (as I might have in the past), sex-neutral, or (as I have in the past for lack of a better word) just indifferent… it still doesn’t work, because it loses that nuance. And while I’m not one to decry labels (they’re useful and necessary, and I’m not having that argument here, I’m sick to death of it), these particular ones leave me feeling uneasy in general, even though I’m not using them myself. This sort of categorization still gets applied to me as people read my posts and assume I’m “erasing” sex-aversion/repulsion and such just because I’m not talking about those topics right then, and they do sometimes lash out at me for that perception, in exactly the sort of dynamic Siggy described here.

And for that reason, I’m left wondering… Is there some better way we could possibly describe this sort of thing? Something that encapsulates this sort of shifting, ambivalent experience? Something that could express more diversity, more variability, while also allowing space for people who find themselves at both ends of the aversion/desire “spectrum” (for lack of a better description) consistently enough to identify as sex-averse or sex-favorable, without encouraging so much conflict?

Having separate communities for many different groups of aces would be a start, of course. Focus groups, if you will. But for someone like me, while I would probably take a sex-favorable community over one focused on aversion (mostly because I think my personal experiences of training myself to tolerate sexual touch would be seen as anathema to people seeking to avoid being pressured to do that very thing), I don’t think I would really feel at-home in either type of (hypothetical) community.