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Books are prone to becoming quickly outdated as societal understanding deepens, and even less than a year after its release, there are already some passages beginning to show their age.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

Confirmation Bias and Anti-Asexual Sentiment

I was going to start off this post by linking to an excellent post by Charlie the Unicorn, but that post seems to have disappeared. It still exists on my google reader feed, which is the only reason why I knew this was going on at all, because I don’t have a Tumblr, and don’t care to make one.

So, the last homosexual survivor of the Holocaust has died at age 98. And one asexual person, for some reason, decided to say this:

This is so touching. This guy seems like he was a pretty awesome dude.

But… and is it just me… or do people say a lot about the LGBT people who were oppressed during the Holocaust but not a whole lot about the asexual and demisexual victims? I AM NOT SAYING IT’S NOT AWFUL WHAT HAPPENED TO GAY PEOPLE BACK THEN. I’m panromantic myself. I just… I know that people on the asexual spectrum were targeted too, and I wish we had more of a voice.

This is of course grossly inappropriate, and was swiftly debunked by other asexuals. No, people on the asexual spectrum were not targeted. At best, that comment shows a deep ignorance of historical facts. The original comment has been deleted, and so the only way you can see it now is via the people who reblogged it, one of whom was Sciatrix, who said:

I…. what? What?

This is seriously not okay. For one thing, asexuals weren’t targeted as asexuals the way that gay people were. And for another, this is not a horrific event in history that had anything to do with asexuals—of course people are not going to discuss us. No one was out as asexual in the forties! No one knew it we existed—even the Kinsey Reports hadn’t been done yet. And frankly, this particular incident in history would have been a time at which I would have been grateful to be invisible.

I just. I have no words. This, here? This is not a place where it’s appropriate to bring up asexuality at all. Seriously, no. Not our history, not our suffering, not our place to speak up. This is a time to listen to other people’s histories.

You can read the discussion of this here, and Sciatrix’s response to it here. As this got reblogged by more and more people, somehow that one offensive comment, which was refuted by other asexuals, became representative of the entire asexual community’s views, at least in the minds of people who hate asexuals. At the very least, of those who reblogged from Sciatrix’s comment, even if hers was the only comment by another asexual that they saw, they had to ignore her comment to do so.

This is called confirmation bias. It’s when people selectively pay attention to only the things that confirm what they already believe—in this case, that asexual people are just trying to co-opt other people’s oppression. That several other asexuals have called this comment out themselves doesn’t matter, because that fact is being deliberately ignored. Or maybe not deliberately in all cases; it’s possible that the people reblogging this just didn’t read Sciatrix’s comment closely enough to notice that she used “we” and “our” to refer to asexuals, thus marking herself as asexual to anyone who didn’t know that already. Still, either way, they are ignoring the bulk of the evidence in favor of the one comment that supports what they’ve already decided is true.

We should call out this behavior whenever we can, because hopefully if we can introduce enough cognitive dissonance, people will change their minds. That’s why when Jay announced his intention to stop talking in the comments to this post, I still replied, even though Jay hasn’t been back to the site since, so unless he turned on comments notifications, he didn’t see any of the replies to his comment. Hopefully some people like him did see it and were, if not convinced immediately, then at least made less sure of their position.

The thing is, if a member of a group that is not a minority says something offensive, it’s attributed to that individual. People don’t assume that all other members of that group are the same. If a white person says something stupid and offensive about the Holocaust, it’s just that person being stupid and offensive. If a black person says something stupid and offensive about the Holocaust, then it’s seen as a bad reflection of all black people everywhere, and there will be people who say that all black people are stupid. All evidence to the contrary will be ignored.

The same phenomenon is happening here, only with asexuals. In any group, there will be people who step out of line, and say offensive things. But to say that all of us are like that, especially when in order to even see the comment in question you have to go through other asexuals who are calling that person out, is pretty ridiculous. And it’s especially so because this exact same phenomenon happens to gay people, too.

If you don’t want one gay person who says something awful to represent all gay people, don’t think that one asexual person who says something awful represents all asexual people, either.