PSA: Attraction and Desire are Not Synonyms

So there’s a new study out about asexuality (which is free to read, and available here), and I’ve barely started reading it, and I’m already annoyed. Check this out:

“[AVEN] holds that an independence from sexual desire is the key feature of asexuality, claiming that ‘an asexual is someone who does not experience attraction.’ Asexuals might choose to develop an emotional closeness to particular individuals that is devoid of sexual contact. Or, they might engage in sexual behavior, but experience no desire or pleasure in the act.” (emphasis mine)

But… but… that’s not what it says at all! Not experiencing sexual attraction is NOT the same thing as being independent from sexual desire! And asexuals CAN take pleasure from sexual behavior.

Look, really, what is so hard to understand about this? It’s possible for an asexual person to experience non-attraction-based desire for sex. Nothing about my partner (or anyone else) is sexually attractive to me, and yet I still sometimes think, “Oh, that would be nice.” Because it’s pleasurable. Imagine that.

I am so sick of this misconception being perpetuated. I really wish people would cut it out.

Reading further, their measure of whether a person is “behaviorally asexual” (i.e. whether they are virgins, though they refer to it as celibacy even though it is a measure of lifetime rather than current/recent sexual activity) is 1) for males, answering “no” to the questions a) “Have you ever had vaginal sex with a female?” and b) “Have you ever had anal or oral sex with a male?” and 2) for females, answering “no” to the questions a) “Have you ever had vaginal sex with a male?” and b) “Have you ever had sexual contact with a female?” Meaning that apparently, males and females who have had anal or oral sex with one another still count as celibate? What? No. Stupid.

I find it really bizarre that there are such vastly different standards for what counts as homosexual female sex vs. heterosexual sex. I mean really, any sexual contact vs. specifically PIV sex? And why exactly doesn’t anal or oral sex count if it’s between a male and a female? But it does for any other combination of participants? Plus there’s the issue of manual stimulation, which counts as sex, but only if you’re a girl with another girl. What’s up with that?

I also just don’t think that trying to retrofit some old demographic survey to figure out how asexuals might have responded is going to result in any meaningful data at all, considering that there weren’t any responses provided with the idea of asexuality in mind. Make new surveys with new response options, and THEN analyze the data. Even if their definitions of what constitutes asexuality weren’t so ill-conceived, this is really just grasping.

I am not impressed.

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The Vaginal Corona

I don’t have much time to blog lately because I’ve got a bunch of mid-term essays to write, but I wanted to at least pass on this link.

Last year I read Virgin by Hanne Blank (which I highly recommend) and had been trying to collect my thoughts to make a post on virginity, but that never really materialized. Basically, I am convinced that the concept of virginity, or at the very least all the emphasis on the supposed “purity” of virgins, is an archaic concept that no longer makes sense in a society with DNA testing and birth control—and especially not in a world where women are no longer considered property passed on from fathers to husbands. I should hope that we are moving towards a society where women’s choices about their bodies are valued and respected (though we are not there yet), where neither a woman’s choice to have sex NOR her choice not to have sex are something for which she is shamed.

The idea of this membrane that has two possible states—intact/unbroken or damaged/torn—and that first-time penetration inflicts a wound to the woman which can be measured in blood, is extremely problematic, and has been used as a way to sentence countless women (some of whom were undoubtedly still virgins despite the lack of blood) to slavery, imprisonment, rape, mutilation, or murder. We may want to believe that we are more civilized than to kill, maim, or torture a girl because she has lost her virginity, that this just doesn’t happen in our society and that the most that we have to contend with is slut-shaming, but here’s a news flash: in 2004, a twelve-year-old girl was forced to drink bleach by her own mother because the mother believed she had lost her virginity.

So I am all for the idea of changing the terminology we use to describe this highly misunderstood part of a woman’s anatomy. The more education there is about this, the better. And changing the name to something more accurate is bound to catch people’s attention, and allow for more widespread education about what women’s bodies are really like.

Baseball is Creepy!

The baseball metaphor, that is.

While messing around on the intarwebs tonight, I came across this article about finding a positive sexual metaphor. I’d highly recommend that everyone go take a look! In the first part of the article, the author examines baseball as a metaphor for sex in American culture, and just how insidious this metaphor really is:

Baseball is fundamentally oppositional. Both teams can’t win. One team wins and the other loses. As sex, that’s about one partner “gaining” something, and the other partner “losing” something. In our culture, women tend to lose status when they have sex, and there’s a lot of hubbub about women “losing” their “precious virginity.” Men, on the other hand, gain status and respect from sexual experience. This aspect of the model also serves to reinforce gender stereotypes, which are rarely conducive to safe, empowered and satisfying sexual encounters.

Could this have had anything to do with my own fairly intense fear of rape? I was born into the losing team, after all. And the message that I will lose out if I have sex is everywhere, as is the message that the “opposite team” is out to get me–to force or coerce me into having sex without regard for my own feelings about it. In a lot of cases, that really does happen to people, and when it does, doesn’t the baseball metaphor for sex provide the perfect excuse for the assailant? After all, it’s just how you win the game. No wonder there are so many rape apologists!

In its literal sense, baseball can be a fun game, but unlike its literal counterpart, when we’re talking about sex as baseball, there is almost never a switch-up between which team is batting and which is on the field–there is not supposed to be; you are born as either a batter or an outfielder, and that’s where, at least in theory, you stay.  That takes all the fun out of it, doesn’t it? Because if sex happens, somebody loses, and that loser is determined before the game even starts. It’s a predictable, rigid social role. To win the game says nothing about whether the sex was enjoyable for either party. It’s just about whether or not it happens.

This underlying way of thinking has shaped my experiences with heterosexual men, and that’s not to say that they all thought that way themselves, but that this unhealthy power dynamic exists at all has made me extra wary of dealing with “the opposite team”–to the point that I, for the most part, choose to simply opt out of dealing with them entirely, and instead I generally only play with the queer team. It just removes that whole level of uncertainty, that vague sense of wondering whether this person is playing against me, that sense of always having to be vigilant, just in case. Queer people can’t play the game like everyone else anyway; they aren’t allowed to be included in it in the first place.

The article goes into a lot more detail about that, and also proposes an alternative metaphor for sexuality: eating pizza. It’s definitely a much more ace-positive model, since nobody assumes that everybody must eat pizza; while they may be rare, there are just some people who don’t, and that’s fine.

I do think, however, that the metaphor starts to break down a little here:

Eating pizza with a partner is also not a radically different experience from eating pizza alone. The pizza model deflates the myth that masturbation is a lesser sexual experience than partnered sex. Eating pizza alone encompasses the complete pizza-eating experience, just as masturbation is a complete sexual experience. When we do it it with someone else, the fullness of the experience doesn’t change, we simply add communion with our partner(s) to the experience. What’s different is the companionship, intimacy, variety, and possibly the fun of having someone feed you for a change.

I am not sure whether we should classify masturbation as a purely sexual experience. After all, there are plenty of asexuals who masturbate but do not necessarily consider the experience sexual. To some, it may be. To others… the very reason it might be considered okay is because it seems to be a lesser sexual experience (though even then, many find it bothersome). It really isn’t all that involved, when compared to partnered sex, whereas when eating pizza, aside from the initial negotiation of toppings, the actual act of eating the pizza is not different when doing it alone or with a partner. More is required of the person who is having sex with a partner, as opposed to the person who is masturbating. In many cases, a lot more is required. I just don’t think the difference translates well, when we use this metaphor as a vehicle for expression.

I guess the question is really about whether we consider something to be sexual based on sexual appetite, or whether we consider it to be sexual based on which body parts are involved. It seems that people define things as sexual using both of these determinants in different situations. For example, some people think that kissing is sexual–for them, perhaps, it arouses a sexual appetite. But then, to continue the metaphor, people can still eat something even if they have no appetite. Is it the physical act of sex that defines it? If so, which physical act(s) are we talking about, here? Or is it more about the mental aspect of it, the desire/appetite? In some cases, it’s clear how to define it, but in other cases, like this one, it really isn’t.

I also usually have a problem with food-based metaphors for sex because of the idea that having sex is a need, in the same sense that it is a need for humans to eat. I will admit that there is a need for people to procreate, but it is not an individual need, it is only a collective need. Every individual member of a species does not need to procreate in order for the species to survive. However, every individual must eat in order for the individual to survive. So you really have to be careful not to take a comparison of sexual desire with hunger too far. In this case, though, I think the metaphor of sex as eating pizza works okay, on that level, because it refers only to a specific kind of food, and not to food in general. People who don’t eat pizza can thoroughly enjoy other foods, and that’s not weird at all. Likewise, people who don’t enjoy or engage in sexual activities can get plenty of fulfillment from other activities in life!

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Edit from the future: For further reading, check out this post by figleaf.

So what is a sex drive, anyway? What does “libido” mean?

Both are questions considered so basic and well-understood that most people would scoff at hearing them asked, but actually, this concept is not so well defined as people would think.

It’s pretty clear that both refer to a desire for sex or sexual acts strong enough that it becomes a motivating force. The problem word in this definition is “sex.”

A few weeks ago, I was playing Truth (we are too lazy to come up with dares) with a couple of friends of mine, and, not being able to think of anything else to ask, I fell back on the standard, “How many people have you had sex with, and how many were guys, and how many were girls?”

The friend I was asking shrugged his shoulders in honest confusion. “Well, what counts as sex?”

This highlights a problem with certain acts being categorizable as either sex or not sex, depending on who you ask. Intercourse, both vaginal and anal, is generally considered to be solidly within the “sex” category. Oral and manual sex (I had to clarify that because he didn’t know it meant fingering/handjob, so I suppose I should here too, to be on the safe side), on the other hand, despite being identified by the word “sex,” are considered sexual acts, but are not necessarily categorized as sex. The same is true of frottage, or dry-humping, which if I remember correctly, was interestingly enough the only kind of sex engaged in by (I believe) Greek homosexual males, because they considered the anus dirty. If these men had a desire only for this specific act, but not for any other sexual act of any kind, would people (according to our cultural mindset) consider that to be a sex drive? I’m not sure.

There is a clear heterocentric bias revealed by the way that people think about sex. It’s all about penetration, and because of this idea that sex is necessarily penetrative, many people think that lesbians can’t have sex with one another. The only reason that they think that gay men can have sex with one another is because anal sex mimics vaginal sex in that sense. When people think of “gay sex,” they automatically think of anal sex, rather than any other sexual act. In actuality, most of my gay friends tell me that they rarely (if ever) engage in anal sex, because they find it uncomfortable. Of course there are plenty of gay men who DO engage in it, but the idea of anal sex as the ultimate gay sex act is pretty overinflated, I think, by those with no experience to the contrary.

All these conflicting ideas come into play when it comes to the question of virginity status. Some people would consider anyone who has not had vaginal intercourse to be a virgin, others would consider anyone who has not had vaginal or anal intercourse to be a virgin, and still others would say that even if you’ve only had oral, you’re not a virgin. Some people try to avoid all this confusion by separating each act into different types of virginity, because focusing on people’s status as virgins or not virgins is not really worthwhile anyway.

I think the biggest definitional point of confusion about having or not having a sex drive, within the asexual community at least, is this: are we referring to a purely physiological drive for physical pleasure when we talk about sex drive and libido, or are we referring to the desire for sexual interaction, too? And if we are not referring to any desire to engage in sexual acts with another person, are we using terms that would make that clear? Are we using terms that would fit in with a typical sexual person’s understanding of those words, or are we causing extra confusion by contradicting their ideas?

Asexuals who masturbate typically say that they have a sex drive, or a libido. They feel physiological, sometimes accompanied by mental arousal, and this drives them to masturbate. The distinction is that they do not feel sexual attraction, so there is no motivation for them to act on it with another person, although they are motivated to (sometimes grudgingly) satisfy it by masturbation, and may be able to enjoy having sex with another person even if they are not attracted to them, depending on how comfortable they are with acting outside their orientation. This makes sense to me, but would it make any sense to someone who is not familiar with asexual discourse? That, I’m really not sure about.

I asked my sister, and she gave me something completely different. She said her definition of a sex drive is the “frequency and intensity of the need for sexual intimacy.” Whoa, intimacy? Now you’re talking about emotions. That’s totally different from what the asexual definition is. The way I see it, sex and intimacy are not necessarily connected at all. I can (and have, once, sort of) felt intimacy during sex, but much more often, I feel distanced from my partner, and I don’t feel intimate because of the sex itself anyway. According to my sister’s definition, then, I cannot possibly have a sex drive, because I don’t even know if I can even experience “sexual intimacy,” much less have a drive to seek it out.

I asked her also if she knew the difference between the terms “sex drive” and “libido,” and she started quoting the dictionary, admitting that she didn’t know. It seems that the terms are used almost interchangeably, but I’d be interested to see a run-down of what subtle differences there are between the two terms. It seems to me that “libido” carries a lot more connotations of weird Freudian “psychic energy,” whatever that means. Freud’s theories, though… interesting, all seem very vague and unprovable, anyway.

Oh, and at the end of my lovely little conversation with my sister, she argued with me about how she doesn’t think asexuality exists, and how I’m just a prude who is totally unqualified to talk about sex because I haven’t experienced it. *cough* Little does she know. Now you see why I post this blog anonymously!

Virgins

A month or two ago, I remember reading a thread (or part of one anyway) on AVEN started by an asexual who is attracted to virgins. Several others piped up, saying that whenever they found out that someone wasn’t a virgin, they were immediately turned off by that person.

One member in particular had an unreasonable, extremely negative, judgmental view of anyone who had ever had sex, and the thread quickly devolved into an argument with this person (who IMO made a total ass of him/herself). The thread was at least six pages long, so I didn’t read all of it. I read just enough to get the gist of the argument, and see that it wasn’t going anywhere–it was like arguing with a fundamentalist. This person was beyond being disgusted by sex. S/he HATED sex, and seemed to put a great deal of time and effort into avoiding it. Such an extreme viewpoint, to my mind, casts doubt on a person’s claim to be asexual. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say this person might actually be a person suffering from sexual anorexia, or just regular old sexual repression. It seemed dubiously similar to the kind of fortresses that people in denial build to keep reality out. This sort of “us and them” mentality, this militant rejection of ANYTHING sexual, is something that I think damages our cause. After all, how are we ever going to get sexual people to accept us if we won’t accept them? For this reason, I think it’s important for asexuals to be sex-positive.

But enough about that. What I wanted to talk about was virgins. Continue reading