For the asexually curious and the curiously asexual

Archive for November, 2010

Saving Spaces

EDITED TO ADD A DISCLAIMER: I’ve come under severe criticism for being so blindly supportive of sex-positivism in this post, which I think is pretty fair. The problem is, up until this was pointed out to me, I’d always gone with the sex-positive movement’s rhetoric of assuming that sex-positive is a synonym for non-judgemental. I’m not going to edit anything out of this post, but for now, please read ‘non-judgemental about people’s sexualities’ where I’ve written ‘sex-positive’.

Not been writing much recently, restraints of work, and all, but every few days, I seem to stumble across new cool asexy blogs. My list has increased almost exponentially. Check out the list to the left-hand side if you’re interested.

One post in particular, from Dreki’s archive, has just got my head spinning.
If you’re interested in (post-101) asexual community building, you must read this.

(It’s so important that I’m not going to summarise what they say. I’m going to wait here until you’ve read it. Done? Good. I’ll carry on).

I’m still really not sure if I want to believe Dreki is telling the truth. On the one hand, they argue well, it is, for example, kinda weird that the only safe space on AVEN is for sexuals. There’s a whole thing about asexual investment in sexual pain which is another issue entirely- I think a lot of it stems from romantic clichés of bodies burned by the irresistible forces of lust, and unavoidable hyperbole when sexual people try to describe sexual attraction.

My biggest argument against them is that asexuality is fundamentally different from most other minority groups. We live in societies that are cissexist, ablest, racist, ect, but we also live in societies that are often quite anti-sex. When some other minority talks in a way which might be called ‘un-PC’, the privileged can ignore them. That’s what the privileged do anyway. When asexuals talk with a hatred of sexuality, that hatred is fuelled by the strong political groups which invest in creating hatred of sex, in breeding judgement and human misery. That hatred is also picked up by the same currents in society. These are horrible lies, I don’t want to see them spoken at all, let alone by people in a group that theoretically represents me. I’ve always seen sex-positive conformity as an acceptable price. True, it means we can’t say what some of us think, but it also means we’re not feeding straight into the judgemental power games of the natural opponents of alternate sexuality. Asexuals should be held to the same standards as others when making judgements about the moral value of sex.

These were my initial thoughts. Essentially, this is what I think the chief difference would be if AVENites stopped self-policing so rigorously. There would instantly be a lot more of the vile sex-negative threads that pop up occasionally, and there would be no stopping them. All the good work of AVEN would be wiped clean, massive asexual loss of credibility, planes falling out the sky, etc. And I don’t think it would help if we had safe spaces, because I still don’t want that filth in my community, thanks.
But then, re-reading and re-reading, I realised that this doesn’t answer the entire charge. In a slight twist to the Ideal Asexual idea, Dreki asks; why is it that transpeople and people with mental health problems and non-neurotypical people (three communities which appear to have a larger incidence in the asexual population than the general population), have to be hidden away? What sort of positive community can that make?

And are we limited to sitting around for an eternity saying “Jolly good lark, this asexuality business! Such fun!” while we secretly blog and queersecrets and PM our (perfectly valid) questions about intersectionality? That’s why I like the blogosphere and apositive, we can talk without worrying too much what the sexuals will think. When I posted a series of angsty cries for help because the loss of my assumed privilege as a romantic person hurt Too. Damn. Much, a month or two ago, I found myself supported by other bloggers going through the same things as I was. It’s comforting, and a conversation which probably couldn’t have happened on AVEN, where there’s suggested censure at your unhappiness, and no way you could have a proper discussion about romantic privilege.

Dunno. What do you guys think?

"I sometimes think no poetry is read…

…save where some sepultured Caesura bled.”
A letter to a living poet, Rupert Brooke

So I found an ancient (given as a gift in 1944) copy of the complete works of Rupert Brooke in a charity shop for 50 pence. And oh my god.

Because up until now, I’ve only read one poem of Brooke’s. I think it was his last, before he died in his early twenties, in World War 1. “If I should die, think only this of me…” (watch as I completely disobey that instruction). The poem is pompous, patriotist, and famous. In my opinion, it’s one of his worst works. The poetry of Brooke seethes with passion and life, even as the things he agonises about are melodramatic, teen poetry.

Here’s the one I’d like to discuss today:

Thoughts on the shape of the human body:
How can we find? how can we rest? how can
We, being gods, win joy, or peace, being man?
We, the gaunt zanies of a witless Fate,
Who love the unloving and lover hate,
Forget the moment ere the moment slips,
Kiss with blind lips that seek beyond the lips,
Who want, and know not what we want, and cry
With crooked mouths for Heaven, and throw it by.
Love’s for completeness! No perfection grows
‘Twixt leg, and arm, elbow, and ear, and nose,
And joint, and socket; but unsatisfied
Sprawling desires, shapeless, perverse, denied.
Finger with finger wreathes; we love, and gape,
Fantastic shape to mazed fantastic shape,
Straggling, irregular, perplexed, embossed,
Grotesquely twined, extravagantly lost
By crescive paths and strange protuberant ways
From sanity and from wholeness and from grace.
How can love triumph, how can solace be,
Where fever turns toward fever, knee toward knee?
Could we but fill to harmony, and dwell
Simple as our thought and as perfectible,
Rise disentangled from humanity
Strange whole and new into simplicity,
Grow to a radiant round love, and bear
Unfluctuant passion for some perfect sphere,
Love moon to moon unquestioning, and be
Like the star Lunisequa, steadfastly
Following the round clear orb of her delight,
Patiently ever, through the eternal night!

I think it might have been the second poem I read. I loved it from the moment I read “who love the unloving and the lover hate.” Such a simple illustration of the cruelty of human relationships.
To briefly explain where I think Brooke is coming from, he was part of a movement which abandoned chaperones, went on long, mixed-sex walks, slept naked under the stars (he went skinny-dipping with Virginia Woolf), but never had sex before marriage. You can kinda see it in his poetry, it’s all about attraction and kissing and mystery- part of what I like about Brooke is that the beautiful, classical language flows from a guy who is seriously horny quite a lot of the time, and willing to talk about it using a form often reserved for true love.
Brooke was also incredibly pretty. Half his friends, by most reports, were friends with him not because of his amazing wordcraft but because he was devilishly handsome. I want to know what would happen if Brooke took up modern day feminism, because a lot of his poems contain, between the lines, this cry of the objectified male. The objectified male who is so, so scared of growing old because all he has are his looks, because he refuses to validate desire when it doesn’t come from someone classically good-looking.

And so we get back to this poem. “Kiss with blind lips that seek beyond the lips.” We try to know people through sex, through intimacy, the act is never the act but some frustrated attempt to connect, to feel like you really, truly know someone when it is truly impossible to. The body is a clumsy metaphor, its own isolation unit.
“Who want, and know not what we want, and cry,
With crooked mouths for heaven, and throw it by.”
Don’t tell me you’ve seriously never felt like this? Me and Brooke can’t be the only ones.

“we love, and gape,
Fantastic shape to mazed fantastic shape,
Straggling, irregular, perplexed, embossed,
Grotesquely twined, extravagantly lost
By crescive paths and strange protuberant ways
From sanity and from wholeness and from grace.”
Here, he’s describing the body as imperfect, monstrous, an illusion of what we truly are. And it’s so fucking queer. “Grotesquely twined, extravagantly lost.” Since reading this poem, I’ve genuinely considered replacing my ‘questioning’ label with that phrase. There is something I find so beautiful, so human, in imperfection.
The imagery here is astounding. Last year, I was doing art (as I think I mentioned), and for his final piece, one of the guys took close-ups of people’s faces and then zoomed in so much on the corner of a nose, the fold of a brow, that they became abstract, hauntingly beautiful patterns of sumptuous flesh. Reading this poem, those photographs are what burn themselves into my mind.
“By crescive paths and strange protuberant ways,” the human body, coming to terms with it, loving it, is a journey. You can literally lose yourself.

And then he goes a bit crap and wusses out and says that it would be better if there were no such things as bodies, these perfectly imperfect forms of wonder and delight, because it would be better if we all connected spiritually, throw in a random classical reference, bob’s your uncle, another Romantic poem churned out.

Which is where I get annoyed with Brooke, because he always has such great potential. He definitely wasn’t afraid of breaking the rules of his day, and his poetry seems, when it’s really flowing from him, so transgressive, so full of fire and change, that even a century after he lived, the world still trembles from his vision.

And then something pulls him back. Whether it’s the fact that he’s essentially writing emo poetry about the latest girl to dump him, moping around in his room at the age of 16, or the fact that he’s stuck in the Romantic framework, where there are easy answers and you have to prescribe to them, or because it was Edwardian times, and there simply weren’t the words, or because he was so young that he never got to realise that he could be more than an object, that desire isn’t something you have to justify.

Poetry changed, months after he died. Possibly the most poetry has ever changed. It became about raw power, emotion that could cut through the heart, mockery of those in command, it became a tool for radical critique of society. Brooke died in the old system, and is remembered by it. He is remembered by silly poems about the honour of death and the romance of war, couched in pretentions. Had he lived even three years longer? I think the world could be very different today.

Operational definitions: Where things get technical

First- time for a short squeal of delight. A personal first: Someone I know mentioned the split between romantic and sexual attraction without being asexual or, to my knowledge, knowing an asexual. This made me fiercely happy. It also gave me the perfect conditions with which to bring up asexuality for the first time with my LGBT, but various people interrupted and the topic moved on to something different.

Anyway, I’ve been stumbling across a new way of defining myself for a while now, and I think I’ve finally got it sorted. It reconciles asexual and homosexual in a way that demihomosexual never did for me.
It’s based on the idea that sexuality has a number of ways of defining it, subtly different in ways that normally don’t matter. The three which I’m largely thinking of are:

The social constructionist:
Sexuality is defined by identity, feelings, belonging. It isn’t prescriptive or intuitive. Whatever labels fit, stick. It’s also very generic and vague, offering absolutely no definitions of what sexuality is, how important sexual attraction is, etc. In being open, it is blurred and unspecific. According to this definition, I’m asexual.
The asexual:
A definition of sexuality created by people who were told about sexual attraction in the assumption that they’d already know about it. A logical, thorough image of sexuality, like painstakingly painting around something invisible. Very much based on the word attraction. Compartmentalised, due to the difference in the romantic and sexual feelings of many of its creators. I’m guessing I’ll get a bit of flak for saying that asexuality doesn’t reflect reality, but my point is that nothing does. Not completely. I think the asexual theory is utterly awesome because it’s the only one that really looks deep into the complexities of what orientation means. Under the asexual definition, I’m homosexual.
The behaviouralist:
Defined entirely by how you act/want to act. A pretty sucky approximation for orientation, but it has in its favour the fact that it’s actually more important than orientation, in a real-world kinda way. In this sense, I think I’m bi.

The nice thing about this is that it gives me a reasonably succinct description of my sexuality that invites dialogue and hints at the complexities involved, while referencing all the identities that are important to me (my preferred label, my technical label, my behaviour). It’s way better than the “Don’t know, not sure how to say it” that I’ve been trying for recently, which is so difficult to make not sound defensive. Instead, I’ve got “depends on what definitions you use. From a general understanding, I’m asexual. From an asexual understanding, I’m homosexual. From a behavioural understanding, I’m bisexual.” Which is- well, it’s the most compact I’ve got it since I gave up being asexual, and it makes me feel so much happier than any partial label.

Witness the awesome power of synoyms!

In primary school (dunno what non-UK equivalents are. Kindergarten?), they told us never to use the word said. Or nice. We had a big list of synonyms up on the wall, and we were told synonyms had power. Synonyms were strong and had specificity (my new favourite word).
So we, as asexuals, have the generic word ‘friend’, which we’re trying to extract highly varied, nuanced and specificitised (sorry) meanings from. And we’re having as much luck as juicing a stone. Time to turn, as my teachers would be glad to hear me say, to the awesome power of synonyms.

As a thought exercise, inspired by a comment from WritingFromFactorX, I’m going to list a variety of synonyms and the meanings we might have a chance of getting them to have:

Someone I know- Less formal-sounding than acquaintance, without the commitment of friend.

Acquaintance- A fairly simple one. It’d be nice if we used this more. If you ‘Acquainted’ someone on facebook. It would remove a lot of the extreme end of the devaluation of friend. However, it sounds rather frosty. It’d be tricky to use often in real life without people thinking you were standoffish. Which you especially don’t want to do when you’re forming your Awesome Circle of Asexy Intimacy.

Associate- Someone you associate with. Someone you work as a team with? Would be useful, if it didn’t sound as if you were threatening corporate takeover every time you used it.

Mate- Still fairly casual. To me implies someone you spend time with, but it doesn’t run that deep. Banter and paintball, not soul-searching and commitment. Alternatively pal, buddy, etc.

Confidant- A nice word, indicating a relationship very deep but not romantic or necessarily committed. I think this could be one of the more useable ones on this list, especially if you find yourself with an inner circle who you tell everything to.

Companion- You could get it to imply some sort of faithful commitment outside of sexual/romantic relationships. There’d be a bit of the romantic idea brought it. I think this word would only really be useful if you had a few strong, primary relationships, romantic friendships, binary-blurring stuff, and decided together that you would actively use the word ‘companion’ instead of ‘partner’, to indicate the different nature of your relationship.

Partner- A good fallback for a primary relationship that’s still not best described by standard labels. However, it’s a bit too monogamous.

Darling, dear, treasure, honey, pet, duck- Said with a bit of humour, I think meaning could underlie the joke. If there’s someone with whom you’re very intimate in some way, constantly referring to them as ‘my darling’ (both in first and third person) could show a little more flexibility in the status of the relationship than just ‘friend’. Definitely that you see your relationship as important enough to give them their own unique title.

What do you think? What words do you want in your vocabulary?

PS. The online thesaurus has girlfriend as the antonym for boyfriend. How peculiar.

Asexual literary criticism I: “How would a gay person read this?”

Note on the series: This started off as one post, but it’d be fiendishly long if I did that. I’m now considering doing it in three, this introduction and comparison to homosexual criticism, then a post linking to various worthwhile pieces of asexual criticism, then a conclusion on what asexual literary criticism might look like. I could take this series down another aromantic, non-binary route, but I’m going to try my absolute hardest to drag it back to standard, possibly romantic, asexiness. Which basically means screeching the blog to a halt and turning it back the other way again, but these things have to be done.

Note on homosexual literary theory: I don’t actually dislike it. It’s because I respect it that I am especially disappointed when it descends to laughableness. I did a whole essay on the homoerotic themes in Hamlet last year. Along with one about the stagnancy of traditional romantic models in Brideshead Revisited, and another about the heteronormativity of WWI literature. Looking back, I wonder what my teachers made of me.

This is based on the summary of literary criticism in my English textbook, and, more specifically;

What lesbian/gay critics do:
[points summarised in brief]
1. Identify lesbian/gay authors
2. Identify lesbian/gay pairings in mainstream work, and then discuss them as such, as opposed to reading same-sex pairings in non-specific ways
3.Set up an extended, metaphorical sense of ‘lesbian/gay’, so that it connotes a moment of crossing a boundary.
4. Expose the ‘homophobia’ of mainstream literature and criticism.
5. Foreground homosexual aspects in literature which have been glossed over.
6. Foreground literary genres which influenced ideas of masculinity and femininity.

To which a queer friend responded: “Not all of us!” (by which they meant, ‘Some of us just read and criticise literature while also being gay.’)

Maybe you can see my criticisms of this section of criticism. For a start, it’s trying too hard, mugging the book in favour of the critic’s obscure and unobjective approach (so, in #3, for example, practically any sort of conflict could be seen as ‘gay’. And since conflict is at the heart of literature, the kids at school were entirely right when they told you reading was ‘gay’). From a more asexual point of view, #2 is downright disrespectful- why must you read a relationship as being gay when it is actually a close friendship? That just a) denigrates further the already impotent power of friendship, b) allows no possibility of an asexual reading, c) makes it harder for two people of the same gender to be allowed to be friends without someone reading into it.

And it occurred to me that we already have the basis of an asexual literary criticism (PHD material? That would be kinda cool). A lot of what we do is ‘literary’ criticism (see Ily and Shockrave), Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, Sheldon Cooper, Dexter (wow, writing the names of all those aliens/psychopaths/sociopaths all together made me feel kinda sad).
And notice we’re fighting already against homosexual criticism, gay people and asexuals both laying contradictory claim to Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, even Spongebob Squarepants. We are never given heroes. We must find those we like the best, and then fight like hell to make sure no-one stronger takes them.

And this is part of where homosexual criticism invisibilises us. It’s not just stealing our characters, it’s actually writing us out of existence. In the frantic desire to analyse what isn’t necessarily there, gay critics, hungry for evidence, revert to the following formula:

Absence of heterosexuality = Homosexuality

Gee, doesn’t that look familiar. Where have I seen that before? How about, oh, everywhere?

Gender: Oh yeah, forgot about that

So, in this utopian world with ultra-flexible relationship models that we’re going to create (we being me and the Imaginary Brotherhood of Aromantics that I’m increasingly talking to. All you other guys are just eavesdropping), what do we do about orientation? By which I mean sexual and romantic attraction along gender lines.

It seems to me that those sexualities which disregard gender, asexual aromantics and bi/pansexuals, get to smoosh around with the definitions a bit, play loose and easy with the rules. Which is fun and all (except for, you know, when it’s not), but it leaves the monos playing catch-up a bit. How does a mono-sexual person implement a non-binary approach to relationships? When you clearly don’t have infinite possibilities with fifty percent of the population, do you deal with them the same as the others?

My point isn’t that monosexual people are incompatible with this hypothetical universe, simply that it’s going to seriously change the validity of orientation in everyday life.
Imagine, for example, two straight people of the same gender becoming committed life partners, living together, raising children, sharing hobbies, talking about everything and looking outside their relationship for more ‘casual’ ones, focussed on romance and kissing and sex, and those few things which they aren’t getting from their committed friend. How often would this type of arrangement occur in our hypothetical universe? Theoretically, not that rarely, I think a lot of people have the ability to share incredibly strong bonds with people they’re not sexually attracted to. In fact, I think the idea that the person who really gets you going in bed is the same as the one you can share amazing conversations and commitments with is getting kinda strained. I think a system where sexual intimacy comes relatively detached from everything else would be a pretty useful one for a lot of people.

And this ties in a little with a point I threw hurriedly into my last post– the mechanics of jealousy rely on the idea that you only have to be worried about one gender. The idea that only opposite-sex interactions are threatening. This is convenient because it allows an awful lot of control through wielding jealousy, but it still allows your partner to have someone in their life other than you. And this myth and the myth of the romantic binary prop each other up in loads of other subtle ways. If a relationship with people you’re not sexually attracted to is completely unthreatening, but any relationship with the slightest hint of sexuality is suddenly a massive deal, does that tell us anything important about our culture’s relative valuations of sex and emotional intimacy?

I’d argue, nothing we don’t already know.

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