Nothing Gray About This: Re-evaluating Attraction

Last week there was an article posted about gray asexuality which quoted my blog and an older interview I did with the writer. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’ve been taking a blogging break over the past few months, so I’ve been ignoring my blog-related email. As such, I missed her request for a new interview, and the result was that the information is somewhat outdated. It reflects where I was perfectly fine, but not so much where I am now. I’ve been meaning to make a post about this for a while now, and it also fits nicely with this month’s blog carnival theme (attraction), so I may as well do it now even though I’m a little late for the carnival.

I do not identify as gray asexual anymore. At the time when I started my blog, I did, and there were no other blogs or forums out there focusing on gray asexuality, so I decided to start a blog where I could sort of think out loud about it. But after thinking about it for a while, and feeling like my identity was sort of in flux between sexual and asexual, I’ve started realizing some things which have led me to identify as just asexual. I’ve thought about changing the name of the blog, but I don’t know what I’d change it to and the idea of not thinking in black and white is still important to me, plus that would involve a lot of broken links at this point, so I’m leaving it like this for now.

When I started this blog, it was during a time of immense turmoil and stress, in which I had just been subject to a very heavy load of anti-asexualism and some very nasty gaslighting. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it comes from a play called Gas Light in which a man attempts to make his wife think she is going insane by subtly dimming the gas lights and then denying that anything has changed. It’s an attempt to make someone believe that their perception of reality is wrong. Or, in other words: “There are four lights!”

When I started this blog, I didn’t recognize that this was what had been going on. I didn’t know there was a word for it until someone else used it to describe my experiences (this happened more than once, and in several cases I would argue that it wasn’t whatever someone said it was, though now I think their perceptions were accurate while mine were skewed by the gaslighting). I don’t necessarily think it was entirely intentional, and it really doesn’t matter whether it was or not, but throughout the time I knew him, M was manipulating my perceptions of reality. I was already off-kilter at the time because I was in a foreign country, and just from that I was having bouts of derealization (another example of a word I didn’t know until later), but M played the game of doing things behind closed doors and then never acknowledging that anything was going on in public, with the additional standard Pick-Up Artist technique of ignoring/avoiding me and the other girls he must have been treating the same way (several other people told me about them). More importantly for the purposes of this discussion, he led a sustained campaign for nearly a year to convince me that I’m not really asexual, only ever dropping it for long enough that I would let my guard down thinking he had changed his mind.

Which brings me to discussing attraction.

I was attracted to M in various ways. I found him somewhat aesthetically attractive on a visual level (sort of a push-pull sort of thing; if I just saw him in a picture without meeting him I would have thought he was pretty average-looking, though a lot of people seemed to disagree) and considerably more so on a sonic level (he is a musician). I found him intellectually attractive in a way that I know that he understands well because he described similar feelings toward House at one point, albeit in a much more sexualized way than I would have put it. When he wasn’t being a hugely self-absorbed asshole, I enjoyed his company enough that I was willing to overlook his transgressions. I wanted to cuddle with him and kiss him, but I never wanted it to go farther than that. Later on I did sort of want to, but only in a “can I get myself to be okay with this?” sort of way and not in a genuine desire sort of way. I had a genuine desire to be able to be okay with doing sexual things with him, but in reality that wasn’t happening. That got really confusing.

There was another thing, too: I really fucking wanted to scratch him. I’ve always had kind of a thing for scratching, though it’s not something that turns me on, just something I like doing. I’m decidedly more sadistic than I am masochistic. I never asked him if that would be okay because he didn’t foster the kind of relationship where that kind of thing would be acceptable—he never made any effort to gain explicit consent himself, and consequentially he was abysmally bad at sex even when I did unambiguously consent. He made it out like he was so open and accepting of talking about things like that, but he wasn’t. He was blunt and open about talking about sex in public to the point of being considered quite rude, but as far as anything serious or important goes, any time I would try to bring up an issue I was having with him it was always “your problem, not mine.” So something like that was so far off the table I didn’t even consider it.

I had all of these different sorts of attractions to him at varying levels of intensity, and I was being constantly told that I was not really asexual to the point that I began to question whether all of those things added up to what people call sexual attraction after all. The kinky attraction was particularly confusing to me because of how intense (and intensely physical) it was. But the thing is, I still did not want to have sex with M. In an ideal situation, yes, I think I would have wanted to eventually, and had he been the kind of person who would ask me what I wanted and listen to me instead of telling me I was wrong, I probably would have found it enjoyable. But had he been that kind of person, he would have accepted that I’m asexual, if not from the beginning then at least after a certain point. Not having such intense pressure to think I’m “not asexual enough” would have made me considerably less likely to identify as gray in the first place.

At the time when I first started this blog, there had been a lot of arguing around AVEN about who counts as asexual and who doesn’t, with I think some members accusing moderators of not being “real” asexuals. Maybe it’s just that I stopped going to the AVEN forums, but in the three and a half years since I started this blog, I’ve seen a lot less of that kind of elitism. I’ve also, through blogging and also from conversations with my partner (who still needs to make a guest post here about it), come to the realization that desire and attraction are quite separate things, and wanting to have sex does not make you not asexual. I did sort of recognize that before, because obviously you can have sex with people you’re not attracted to, but I didn’t live it until after I met C. Since I saw so many more comments judging other asexuals for being sexually active and (gasp!) enjoying/desiring it back then, and since I was already inclined to doubt my own perspective due to the gaslighting, I internalized those stereotypes too much and thought I was further in the gray area than I actually was.

There’s still room for me to change my mind, of course. The nice thing about the asexual community is that we don’t deny that phases of sexuality exist, and we don’t consider it less valid to identify a certain way for a period of time and another way later. But for the past… mm, roughly two years, the “gray” part of my identity has become less important and fallen away. I’ve stopped hedging and doubting myself.

Now, I’m just asexual. And there really are four lights.

Wanting It (Indifferently)

There’s a new article out that addresses hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) and the DSM-V: Women Who Want to Want.

There have been comments already about the article’s odd non-mention of asexuality and the strange mantra that Lori Brotto tells her patients to repeat (“my body is alive and sexual”) whether they believe it or not. There’s concern about the possibility of pushing people too strongly to be sexual, and I share those concerns.

Somewhat related, I was also amused at the article’s mention of something that (via my close associations with transitioning people and the trans community) is already well-known to me: the placebo effect of taking hormones. You start taking hormones, and suddenly every zit is a sign that it’s working. You get comments like, “My skin feels softer already!” and “I think my hair is growing slower!” from people who started taking hormones only a few days ago. Which is of course nonsense. Those things do happen, sure, but not THAT fast! Of course people are going to think T is giving them zits when they’re not even on it!

Brotto’s mantra seems to me to be working with that same effect. And maybe for some people it can be useful… but for others, it might seem like something that is working for a while, but then end in disappointment when they realize that there is not really all that much of a difference, and their problem is still there. And is it really a good idea to continue to conflate the concept of life with sexuality? Because even if we use the broadest possible definition of “sexual,” there are plenty of living things which are not sexual in any sense of the word. It’s stupid, of course, to say “my body is alive” if the state of aliveness is actually what is being referred to, because that’s bleeding obvious! So of course I think she should change that word. But it’s also possible to be vigorous and effervescent, if that’s what’s meant by “alive,” without being sexual at all. I realize it is aimed at helping patients harness a certain “sexual energy” or whatever, but I still think it’s an ill-conceived and inappropriate metaphor all around. Do we really need any more of a push in the direction of “nonsexual = dead”?

Really, though, I wasn’t all that bothered by or interested in that part of it. I was too distracted by the ideas presented by Basson to pay much attention to Brotto:

A different manifestation of desire — not initial hunger—– appears about two-thirds of the way around Basson’s circle. There, in the diagrams she began publishing in obstetrics and sexuality journals 10 years ago, come the words “responsive/triggered desire.” For Basson, this is necessary to satisfaction. But it comes after arousal starts. So a typical successful experience might proceed something like this: first a decision, rather than a drive, to have sex; next, as Basson puts it, a “willingness to be receptive”; then, say, the sensations of a partner’s touch; next, the awareness of being aroused; then the “responsive desire” along with increasingly intense arousal; and at last the range of physical and emotional payoffs that sex can provide and that offer positive reinforcement leading back to the top of the diagram, to the reasons for setting off on the circle to begin with.

I have sometimes wondered if I might consider myself sexual if I had been presented with a different model of sexuality than the one that society adopts. And under this model, I might be considered so.

This describes pretty much exactly the way that I myself navigate sexual activity. It was never about desire to begin with; it has always been a conscious decision to go ahead with it, for me. Of course, it isn’t true that I decide I’m going to have sex before I find myself in the middle of foreplay every time. But it is true that I made the decision to have sex with my partner, and gave her my implicit consent to initiate if she wants to, told her that it is generally okay for her to touch me in ways meant to arouse me, and I’ll stop her if I don’t want her to do it right then. Almost always, I end up aroused and able to enthusiastically consent. Of course, it helps that C is good at reading my signals (which are subtle and probably difficult for most people to read), and that she knows what I will respond to. She doesn’t push beyond my limits, is careful to stop whenever I say it’s getting painful, and also checks in with me whenever my facial expression is so ambivalent that she is not sure how I am doing. Over time, we’ve built up a safety net that allows me to be receptive to her as a general rule. And because that safety net is in place, I’m able to relax and follow my body’s cues to experience this sort of arousal-desire that Basson is talking about.

And so I think she is onto something, here. Society’s model of sexuality really is very attraction-focused, but the truth of it is that attraction often has very little if anything to do with enjoyable sex. Lots of people, probably women more so than men, find it pretty easy to have sex with people they are not attracted to. Of course there are people who say that they can’t imagine having a sexual relationship with someone they don’t find sexually attractive, but a lot of them settle anyway. Sometimes it takes a bottle of alcohol and a sense of desperation to get them to do so, but other times? I know a guy who met a girl a while back that he kept saying he wasn’t attracted to because according to him she is a “hambeast,” and now they’ve been together for six months or so, and live together as well. And I wonder how many married couples there are who don’t find each other sexually attractive anymore, but are still perfectly able to enjoy having sex with one another? Maybe some of them stop having sex for that very reason, but I suspect a lot of them keep on going at it–a little less like bunny rabbits, maybe, but still!

However, as much value as I see in Basson’s approach as described here, I don’t think it covers everything. There’s still the idea of lust–a concept I feel greatly removed from. I don’t really get it. At all. I never find guys hot in a “check the oil” sort of way. Or girls, for that matter. The attraction part of it is just missing for me, and even if it is an overblown cultural ideal more often than it is a reality, I still feel pretty alienated when I’m the only one in the room who doesn’t get it, which happens pretty frequently.

So I call myself asexual. And although my moniker hints at me being in the gray area between sexual and asexual, and I guess since I find sex enjoyable then according to some people I would be considered sexual, I’m really not feeling particularly “gray” lately. I don’t think that having sexual desire pretty much only when it is sparked by physical arousal is very strong evidence of being sexually attracted to people, and that missing attraction is (for me) what asexuality is all about. That’s the only definition that makes sense to me, and during the years that I have identified as asexual, despite my frequent reevaluations and openness to new experiences, my own asexuality has only become increasingly clear to me.

In Flux: A Gray Manifesto

It occurs to me that although I started this blog specifically to talk about issues that affect gray-asexuals, I haven’t actually addressed the issue directly, except on my about page.

So to rectify this, I want to go into more detail about my personal identity, my political identity, and my reasons for choosing to present myself to the public the way I do, even though that public identity is too stark to match up with my true identity.

I am out as an asexual to everybody I associate with for long enough that the subject comes up (which is usually fairly quickly, though not in the case of professional associates and extended family members). I am out as gray-asexual to only a select few. This is because most people do not have enough of a conceptual background in asexual discourse to understand what I’m talking about, and do not care to acquire it. Which is just as well, because most of the time I am not willing to spend so much time educating others on the particulars of my existence, especially when they would like as not reject it anyway. I only trust those details to those few who are either asexual themselves, show a keen interest in asexuality, or those I would be intimate with. In that latter case, I will quite patiently and persistently attempt to build understanding, but it’s an absolute deal-breaker if I ever determine that it’s impossible to create. No exceptions.
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Almost-Sexual Frustration

Excerpt: As the title suggests, I have been feeling increasingly frustrated for the lack of physical contact with any other human being. Not sexual contact, but intimate contact: kissing, spooning, hearing someone else’s heart beat, feeling their skin beneath my nails, and pretty much anything that, according to popular ideas, is supposed to lead up to sex. Hell, I wouldn’t even really mind having sex, though it’s the part that comes before that I truly enjoy. Among asexuals, I seem to have a pretty broad view of what borderline acts are acceptable and enjoyable. This is why I sometimes call myself and almost-sexual, because if the definition of sexuality were broadened enough to include them, I might be able to identify as a sexual person. Although I still doubt whether even under the ideal circumstances, it would ever occur to me to initiate sex as it’s usually defined (i.e. intercourse, oral, manual). Point is, I still have a drive to be physically intimate with people even if I couldn’t care less about actually having sex with them. The only word I have to describe my feelings when that drive is frustrated is “sexual frustration” but it’s not quite that.
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Acting Like an Asexual

I think it’s weird when people talk about “asexual behavior.”

I have no idea what that phrase means. For that matter, I don’t really know what “sexual behavior” means either, since that can cover such a broad range of activities—even ones that are fairly harmless, like dancing, can be described as sexual.

But it bothers me. There are so many things out there that are so associated with sexuality, that if an asexual (or at least a known asexual) does it, it’s considered to be contradictory to their asexuality. Flirting, for instance. I have always tried pretty hard not to say things that could be considered flirting, because it makes people assume that I’m sexual (and interested in them). But maybe I want to show romantic interest in someone… How do I do it? How can I do it without leading someone to assume that I’m sexually interested in them as well? Honestly, the fact of it is, since I’ve always avoided flirting, I have no idea how to do it, period, let alone make that distinction clear.

Another thing is making sexual jokes. For years and years, I would laugh at others’ jokes, but never say what I was thinking myself for fear of whatever they might think. I’m sure I probably came off as prudish, but I’m not really. I’m not squeamish about sex at all. In fact, I’m fairly desensitized to it. I find it kind of fascinating, in a distantly intellectual way. Ironically, I have an acquaintance who often comes to me for advice about sex, because I know more about it than she does herself, even though she is sexual.

Oh, and then there’s the big one: having sex. And one step up from that, enjoying sex. Like, if I’m asexual, and I have sex and don’t find it completely repellent, then I’m not a “true” asexual or something. Whatever. Asexuality is not celibacy, we all know that, but for the sake of the people who wander in here from google, I’ll say it again: asexuality is a preference, celibacy is a choice. I prefer not to have sex, I don’t find that it comes naturally to me. Even when I’m bed with the most attractive guy I’ve ever met, whom I’m completely in love with, I’d rather just sleep with him literally. But if he wants to have sex, I’ll do it (provided he will look out for me). And, although this hasn’t matched my actual experience yet, I believe that on some level, it can be enjoyable for me. There was that one time that if it weren’t for the physical pain that inevitably comes with not being used to it, I probably would’ve found it mildly pleasant. But I just don’t feel a need for it, and I don’t think I ever will.

I really do wish that people understood asexuality a little better, because I find myself being less than completely true to myself with other people because most people have a much more rigid view of asexuality than I do. There’s a public face and a private face, and the public one is oversimplified so that I can get along a little easier. It’s like wearing a mask of my real face, with certain features exaggerated, and others covered up. I guess it’s more like makeup than a mask. But it’s tiring to keep up sometimes, and it makes me break out under the surface, so here, I take it off. Here at least, I can recognize that although I’m close enough, I don’t completely fit the definition, and certainly not anyone’s ideas of how people that do fit that definition can or should act.