Identity vs. Labels, Culture, & Change

This post is for the January 2018 Carnival of Aces, on the topic of “Identity.”

This is going to be completely off-the-cuff rambling, so bear with me if you will. There’s some stuff that I’m trying to get at that is very difficult to describe, so I’m doing it in a roundabout way. I’m also barely editing this post before I publish it, because I tried writing about this before and then scrapped the entire draft last minute because I didn’t like how it was going. Instead, I’m just going to do a “thinking out loud” style post.


I don’t really like writing about (my own) identity.

There. I said it.

Maybe that’s surprising to you, I don’t know. Maybe not. It seems like it might be surprising to some, considering that the entire reason I started this blog was to discuss a particular identity, asexuality—and more specifically, gray-asexuality, which I no longer identify with. There, I suppose, is part of the reason I don’t like talking about identity. When you’ve come to be known for having a particular identity, and then that changes? Well… Continue reading

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

Permission

I’ve wanted to make a post on this topic for a while now. I think I even started writing it before, but never ended up finishing it. Even before my hiatus, ever since I set up my Formspring ask page, I’ve had a lot of people come to me, describe themselves, and then basically ask,

“Hey, do you think I could be asexual?”

Since my blog burnout and subsequent hiatus, I’ve missed so many emails just like this. I regret that I couldn’t answer all of them directly. But my answer would be the same in each case, so I’m going to try to answer them here.

Now, I do think that saying, “If you identify as asexual, then you are asexual” is problematic. For one thing, it’s reductive. Identity is a very complex process, and I think that it can, in fact, be mistaken. In my particular case, I think I was mistaken in the past when I identified as bisexual. At the time, I did not understand sexuality well enough to realize that there was a big difference between being equally attracted to either gender (or all of them), and being equally not attracted to anyone. As my understanding of both what people generally meant by “bisexual” and my understanding of myself grew, my identity changed.

And that’s fine. The thing about identity is that it’s not static. It’s a process. Often, it’s a process of fine-tuning until you find the words that seem to fit you just right (and in some cases, inventing new terms if there are none available that do), and even then, as you grow and change, there will be times when you will grow away from a particular label, and find that what once fit doesn’t anymore. I’ve done this publicly, right here on this blog. I used to identify as gray-ace, and now I don’t anymore.

To all of you coming to me to ask if you might be asexual, I get it. I totally understand your concerns, and I empathize.

There’s a lot of fear, I think, in choosing a label, especially one as misunderstood, maligned, and outright denied as asexual. There are people out there who will actually tell you that it’s harmful to identify as asexual, because of all the ~opportunities you’ll miss~ to explore your sexuality. They’ll say “maybe you’re just repressed, or maybe you have a sexual dysfunction.” For all the progress we’ve made, this is absolutely NOT a thing of the past. I’ve read some articles taking down people saying things like this recently, although I read them on my iPad and now I can’t remember where they were from (if someone could supply links, I’ll happily add them inEdit: Thank you! I was indeed thinking of the posts responding to Matty Silver, starting here).

Be suspicious of everything those people say, because what they are implying is seriously fucked up. Most of them don’t even realize it, and think they are acting in your best interest, but they aren’t.

If you’re not interested in sex, you shouldn’t have to explore it. You DON’T have to explore it. Don’t ever have sex because you’ve been made to feel that you need to explore it for some reason. Really, don’t. You should only do it if you are actually interested in doing that sort of thing!

And realize this: these people who say this sort of thing are failing to understand that you can perfectly well explore your sexuality, including sex itself, while still identifying as asexual. If you want proof of that, read my other posts. There is nothing barring you from it, and in fact exploring your lack of interest should bloody well count as exploring your sexuality! Asexuality is a sexual orientation, and coming to understand yourself as asexual can potentially give you the opportunity to approach sex in a way that is healthy for you. IF you want that sort of thing.

Even when moving past all of that, there is still so much anxiety about choosing an identity. You ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong? What if I misrepresent the community? What if one day I decide I’m something else and then people think that asexuality is just a phase?”

Well, you know what? If people think that way, then they are mistaken. It is not going to be your fault that they are mistaken, not unless you actually go out and tell them that asexuality is not real. (Which some people have done, but if you’re worried about other people thinking that way, I’m pretty confident that you won’t!) And even if one day you realize that you aren’t asexual after all, you can still correct them, and help spread awareness about asexuality! In fact, I think it’s valuable to the community to have people who once identified as asexual and now identify as gay (as the most frequent example) or sexual in some other way, because you can help show the world that we are not in any way telling people to stop exploring their sexuality. We very much encourage continual exploration and growth.

And really, I don’t think there’s an ace person alive who hasn’t thought “What if I’m wrong? What if I am sexual after all?

Self-doubt is very heavily conditioned. There is no escaping it. And even if it weren’t so heavily conditioned, most of us would probably have it anyway, because occasional self-doubt is actually healthy.

My partner said this to me yesterday:

“Do you know what [my therapist] used to tell me? She said that if you don’t have doubt and anxiety at all, that’s what’s really unhealthy, because it means you’re not understanding how big of a deal things are.”

And it is. It’s a huge deal, to start to identify and label yourself as asexual. Even to continually do it, when you’ve been doing it for years, it’s still a big deal.

And being wrong? That’s probably the scariest thing of all.

But you know what?

It’s okay to be wrong. Everyone is wrong sometimes.

If you’re to the point of actually questioning whether or not you could be asexual, then you probably already know the definition. In case there’s anyone reading along who doesn’t, though, it’s a person who lacks* sexual attraction. If you’re not really sure what sexual attraction even means, then chances are, you haven’t personally felt it. I would define it as “a visceral desire to have sex with someone based generally on their looks, voice, mannerisms, or personality traits.”

Does that fit you? I don’t know, and there’s no way that I can possibly know. We are talking about internal experiences here, and there is no reliable way to measure that from the outside. It is totally up to you to decide.

And I hereby grant you permission to do it, even if you might be wrong.


* [Added note in December, 2015:] “Lack” here does not refer to a total, absolute-zero lack. I’ve realized since originally writing this that phrasing it as just “a lack” leads people to interpret it that way, but I meant this to be read as little or no sexual attraction rather than a total lack.

It is also worth noting that this is not the only definition of asexuality, and never has been. It’s only the most dominant definition in the English-language community. And there is plenty of room for more ambiguous, vaguer definitions.

 

What Does It Mean to Have a Sexual Identity?

For all its ancient, primal beginnings, sexual orientation is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Perhaps “phenomenon” isn’t the right word. What I mean is, the concept of sexual orientation, as we understand it today, is relatively recent. The word “sex” was coined sometime in the sixteenth century, at which time the word was specific to male/female interactions, which were of course the norm. It wasn’t until 1868 that the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were invented, by a group of Germans speaking out against a proposed “unnatural fornication” law which would prohibit any non-reproductive sexual act. If you’d like to read more about this, check out The Invention of Heterosexuality by Jonathan Ned Katz. Or, for those of you with short attention spans, you can find a much briefer history here.

Now, obviously, for as long as there have been people, they’ve been populating the earth by having sex. But in different cultures and time periods, ideas about sex have varied wildly. Even within a single culture, there are plenty of groups of people with differing ideas—today, we have throwbacks to a more religious era believing that sex is wrong outside of marriage, as well as people who celebrate their freedom to have unattached sex. But the concept of sexuality, this idea that all one’s sexual deeds and desires and whatever else create a definable whole, some basic instinct to have sex with x kind of people from which so many other things sprout, has only been around for a little more than a century. Continue reading