For the asexually curious and the curiously asexual

Archive for June, 2011

The asexual community and rape culture

Remember that awesome post by Ozymandias that I reacted to by being incredibly overemotional?

It’s now a blog. Check it.

I appear, for reasons either inexplicable or Semiel-based, to be one of the few people on their still-young blogroll. And one of the first, due to the way asexual issues tend to be adressed first in alphebetised systems (damn my asexual privilege). I am so glad I was halfway through a relatively coherent post about asexuality and feminism.

Also, obvious trigger warning is obvious, though I’m keeping mostly academic.

This idea was sparked when I read a post critiquing parts of the asexual community a while ago (yeah, I’m pathetically slow at the whole blogging thing). Part of the argument was that the way the needs of sexuals were discussed in some parts of the asexual community equated, to feminist eyes, to something that looked a lot like rape culture.

I should start by pointing out that I’m really not happy with the way sexual attraction is presented to asexuals (often by other asexuals, who, to be fair, don’t know much better). Sex is presented as something that no-one who isn’t asexual can live without. This is just another example of that self-creating denial of reality I mentioned. It ignores the fact that large swathes of the human population wait until marriage before sex, many of them because it’s ‘nice’, rather than out of fear. It ignores the fact that a surprisingly large percentage of college graduates are still virgins. It ignores direct evidence that a lot of ‘normal’, non-asexual people just aren’t that bothered.

So sexual attraction is described as a rampant animal. It cannot be controlled. It cannot be reasoned with. And it is normalised- 99% of the population go around with this all day, every day, in the same way that we’re told that all (non-asexual) men think about sex so often that they would never be able to, for example, go on a game show and concentrate on naming items on a conveyor belt or steering metal around an electrified wire without connecting the circuit, because they’re thinking all the time about sex.

So I’m a man who experiences sexual attraction. I’m calling bullshit on that myth now. If you, dear reader, genuinely feel that you have a very high sex drive, that you couldn’t be in a monogamous relationship with someone who doesn’t want sex, for example, then feel free to express that. But don’t express your desires as universal desires. Because all you’re going to do then is deligitimise your own opinion. Sexual attraction doesn’t work as a raging beast of hunger for most sexual people, or for most men.

The next step in the promotion of rape culture is moving responsibility onto the asexual person. First, it is assumed that asexuals, by seeking out romantic relationships, have themselves to blame for any compatibility issues. Then it is assumed that the asexual person has to be the one to deal with the beast they’re unleashing, a beast that is pretty much fictitious.

For anyone who has a good idea how rape culture works, hopefully your mind is racing to this conclusion. Asexual people and women are both seen as a sexless class (though this is not exactly true of asexuals, and very much not true of women). A myth of an unquenchable sexuality is created and this sexuality is normalised. Then the sexless class is given responsibility for maintaining a sexuality that they cannot comprehend or predict.

The effect is different. In mainstream rape culture, it leads to victim blaming, rapists as a force like gravity, one which it is your duty to protect yourself against. When used against asexuals, it tends not to justify rape, but to encourage ‘compromise’ in romantic relationships, and to discourage any notion that non-sexual romantic relationships can work.

I am still unsure as to how this similar but different experience of rape culture can inform feminism. Perhaps it reinforces the idea that normalising female sexuality, making sure women are allowed to feel desire and say yes, stops women being responsible for the bugbear of male sexuality. Perhaps the asexual community can say something new about relationships- about how compromise works in mixed-libedo relationships and what happens when compromise is impossible. There’s something to be learned here. Even if it’s just the disheartening realisation that the right to say no is just the beginning.

Coding

I’m gong to keep this quick, because I have an unbelievable amount of newly unfinished or newly planned posts.

I’ve not watched the Big Bang Theory in over a year. My friends flicked an episode on this week, which started with Sheldon having a quasi-romantic adventure with a woman. I assumed that this was the later series, with the relationship I’ve been told is readable as zucchini. It was, in fact, the first time I’ve ever watched the ‘Sheldon has no deal’ episode that’s famous in terms of canonical asexual representations.

It was hardly a bad outing. They referenced mitosis within seconds of the famous line, meaning ‘asexual’ was all but said. The speculation felt hurtful. Some of my friends pretend to indulge in that speculation when I’m present, in an amusing pastiche of bigotry. Others, I’m pretty sure, indulge in that speculation behind my back, genuinely erasing my identity and making me something weird and broken.

The part that really got to me this time was Sheldon’s insistance on a contract of friendship, for both sides to honour in its minutiae. I’d forgotten about this repeated joke during my blissful not-watching, but something in it brought back that time I almost cried when a friend read extracts from Barney’s book. Rather painfully. The book, in case you don’t know, is called the Bro Code, and reads very like a sexual, neurotypical, gender-essentialist version of Sheldon’s Roommate Code.

Barney and Sheldon are two of the major represented aromantics who aren’t magical aliens. I keep trying to positively re-appropriate them because they both have, to my warped view, an incredible depth- you can weave out of either of them a story of strength, coping strategies, positivity and ingenuity.

Which is why it hurts all the more when they do something you see as very reasonable, at least completely understandable, and you realise that the world is laughing at their coping strategies.

Sheldon and Barney desperately cling to a friendship bureaucracy because communication in their primary relationships is denied to them. Their rules speak right to the heart of aromantic needs- friendships with structure, support with commitment. They are a little ridiculous, but so eminently sensible.

And people keep on laughing.

Minority report

This is a post about privilege. YAY!

For once, I’m not actually attacking the idea vehemently. It sounds weird after the recent issues where there has been so much painful misuse of the idea of privilege, where people have been using the idea to create complex and semantic arguments entirely divorced from reality. We in the asexual community have seen the idea of privilege thoroughly misused, reasoned backwards and used to oppress, and I now feel slightly Cassandraic. But it’s difficult to tell if the terrible and judgemental semantics are a necessary part of privilege or just a necessary part of the internet. When all that is cropped away, I really like the idea because it helps explain oppression to the majority culture in terms they can accept. If certain people hadn’t been ignorant hypocrites (or, potentially, trolls), the ‘privilege’ theory that they love so much would have been screaming out at them; “Maybe, if we’re creating accounts just to harrass people, if we’re screaming down a community, most of whom we profess to support, without listening to how they define themselves and how they allow each other to identify, if we’re taking traumatic events in these people’s lives and taking the ability to tell their own stories away from them and re-interpreting these events to support our judgements- maybe we should stop and think for a little bit about whether we’re actually the privileged ones here.” With a genuine understanding of privilege, used as a medicine and not a weapon, the signs were pretty big.

Privilege, when it works, is about accepting that minority cultures will know their own experiences better than you, and that you should let them speak and really listen. It also carries a built-in system for accepting your mistakes- there have been times I’ve been criticised, I’d have probably lashed out and attacked if I hadn’t internalised, to some extent, the model which tells you to go “I’m being attacked. I’m gonna sit back, listen, think, and acknowledge if there’s any privilege going on.”

Where I’ve got more uncomfortable with privilege since this debarcle is the idea that the model of privilege doesn’t allow any deviation from its rules. It’s played often as a zero-sum game- either you are privileged class or you are unprivileged class. The people who see this as unnecessarily reductionist tend not to weaken this statement, but modify it with lots of different types of privilege. A heteroromantic asexual might have hetero privilege, modified by their lack of sexual privilege, modified by their passing privilege, modified by their lack of visibility privilege.

So I’m going to go out and say it: According to the systemic model of ‘privilege’, if applied to the real world, asexual people have SOME privileges over sexual people. People of ethnic minorities have SOME privileges over white people. Queer people have SOME privileges over straight people. These privileges may often only occur as long as you play up to stereotypes, or they may be privileges that exist because of there being dedicated communities that the majority culture has no equivalent for. If there is any way being the minority is better than being the majority, that’s a systemic advantage ie. a privilege.

(Of course, the standard academic argument against this is that the systemic advantage must also play into dominance and power structures within society. That strikes me as the equivalent of the idea that a sexual dysfunction sufferer ‘must experience distress’. It sounds like a helpful addendum, but it actually becomes the whole of the definition to the point where privilege becomes ‘that thing the powerful have’ more than ‘a systemic advantage’, especially since people tend to look at privilege to decide who is dominant and who is oppressed, making the arguments pretty circular.)

On to the main point of this post (don’t worry, it’s short). A link to this landed in my feed today (I always sound like a horse when I say that). Criminally, I’ve not read Ozymandias very much, but I know she’s good friends with two of the only blogs I still frequent that are about primarily feminism and gender studies- The Pervocracy and Figleaf’s Real Adult Sex. Notably, they all have quite graphic content. I think this is because they’re what you might want to call ‘third wave’, and that tends to be tied in with sexual liberation.

A lot of the other feminism blogs started to feel like not-awesome-spaces. I’ve been afraid to say this, I’ve almost been afraid to acknowledge it, because it sounds like a lot of MRA crap, but a proportion of the feminist internet nowadays doesn’t feel like an especially safe space for men.

I’m not talking about any really direct hostility. I’m not talking about there being a class of people whose lived experiences are denied and ridiculed, whose needs are reacted to with hostility. Not today.

The feeling is subtler than that, so subtle that I only really noticed when I started to read Holly and Figleaf regularly, and felt incredibly happy because I never felt like I was being told I wasn’t a human being. They write a whole lot of amazing things, some of which I disagree with, some of which has me giving my computer screen a standing ovation, but throughout the entire time I’ve been reading them, they’ve never made me feel like I, as a man, am not a person. Both writers believe at the core and at every layer up to the surface that men are real people. Yes, this presumption of inhumanity is probably something that many women experience regularly in non-feminist spaces, but, no, its not, therefore, something we should place on men when we finally have the chance. Two professions of inhumanity do not help anything.

Its an impossible claim to prove, and I know this is easy to scorn, but you’re going to have to believe me (even though I’m in the dominant culture- you’re going to have to respect my narrative) when I say that I catch my heart rising in an updraft of joy every time they don’t fall for the same reductionism that I’ve come to expect, every time they fail to meet the expectations I hold for my humanity in feminist spaces. And then, as I analyse the joy, an incredible sorrow that I’ve come to expect so little.

Power to the poly

This is another post in which I talk about repulsed romantics, which is what a lot of people mean when they say ‘asexuals’, and the nature of sexual compromise in any relationships they may have with sexual people. I am not a repulsed romantic, I am neither repulsed nor romantic. But we as a community need to talk about this, and my blog seems to be mostly useful as a sounding board for cleverer, more productive people to take up the issues. My not-so-secret plan is to continue talking about repulsed romantics in sexual relationships, a subject I’m totally unqualified to talk about, until I offend enough repulsed romantics that they start being vocal in the asexosphere telling me how wrong I am.

So a lot of advice I’ve seen for repulsed romantic people involves non-monogamy as a major component of working around incompatibility. On the one hand, I really like this. The idea of a polyamorous polygon in which not everyone is having sex (and possibly one in which not everyone is having traditional romantic relationships) appeals to me enormously. And it’s good that the asexual community tries to be actively supportive of non-monogamy.

But I often see polyamory as the first advice given. I think it’s a useful sideline (‘Well, there’s always polyamory, doesn’t hurt to consider it for five minutes), but as a main piece of advice, I think it’s useless. A lot of people reliably inform us that being poly isn’t for them, many after genuine and serious consideration. I don’t understand this, but I’m going to accept it as reality. So we could be really alienating the monogamous repulsed romantics by suggesting that you need to be open to polyamory if you’re going to have a successful relationship. In extreme cases, it could even be akin to saying that asexuals being in relationships with people forces suffering upon that person, and the asexual has to do everything possible to alleviate this.

Then we get to practicality. Those who have a general non-monogamous bent might manage to find themselves in polygons where some of the sides are sexual relationships, some are romantic, and some are both. But polyamorous partners don’t exactly drop out of the sky for a lot of people. In many communities, trying to solve an asexual’s number problem by saying “There you go! You can now date not just asexual people, but also any polyamorous people you find who are understanding enough to start a relationship with you!” could increase the prospective number of compatible, likable partners from 0 to… 0.

And taking a traditional monogamous relationship and outsourcing the sex works for some, but has its own practical problems. The polyamorous community tends to be wary of primary relationships where a secondary person is seen as expendable, and the asexual – sexual – bit on the side relationship is capable of becoming notorious for that. Alternatively, there’s a temptation for asexuals to say “You can have sex with whoever you  want, but only a romantic relationship with me.” I’m wary of putting any sort of restriction on emotional intimacy anyway, but this seems to allow the asexual to pretend to get rid of any responsibility while not actually creating another workable option(note: the ‘responsibility’ here is NOT the responsibility to appease your partner sexually, but the responsibility to communicate and make sure the relationship is workable for both partners, which MIGHT include acknowledging that your partner needs to be appeased sexually or the relationship must be let go, depending on the strength of the partner’s feelings).

Sex involves another person consenting, and the only way to get that reliably is through sex workers. In a lot of places, this is illegal and very morally questionable, in others, the sexual partner may still not want to visit prostitutes, and it’s quite a large-expenditure solution over the long term. Alternatively, the sexual partner could rely on whatever casual sex they can aquire in bars. Which will involve a lot of nights when they’re forced to choose between snuggling down with the asexual or trawling for one-night stands that might never happen, not to mention the fact that one-night stand communication is notoriously bad, and you end up responsible for the well-being of not just one other person in the relationship, but possibly hundreds of incidental faces.

Hopefully the Craigslist Revolution, combined with a more enlightened sexual attitude, will flourish to the extent that, in 5 years time, the idea of anyone not being able to find a simple and well-communicated purely sexual relationship will be laughable. In the meantime, the ‘open relationship’ model requires a lot of work.

In short, non-monogamy has its drawbacks. By offering it as one of the first and most major ways asexuals can make it work, we’re enforcing the idea that asexuals are responsible for taming this uncontrolled beast of sexual attraction, a beast that I’ll soon argue is fictitious. Non-monogamy is simply not a practical option for a lot of asexuals, and we need to address that.

Unfortunately, that means talking seriously about sexual ‘compromise’, what it really means and how it’s done. And what happens when there is no ground to compromise on- what relationship models do we propose for the totally-repulsed-and-unable-to-recontextualise monogamous romantic?

Pax Victoriana

I’m going to write a post about how asexual and homo (/bi/pan, but I’m not going to write that every time) sexual needs conflict. It has absolutely nothing to do with recent controversies. I’m just very, very bad at timing.

The actual reason I’m writing this post is because I had an exam earlier this week on queerness in Victorian America (ok, it was on Turn of the Screw. But they’re basically the same thing). This was then compounded by a certain show doing a breathtakingly good realisation of a queer couple in Victorian London (no spoilers, I promise. Apart from that one).

It’s a stereotype of asexuals that we want to reverse sexual ethics to the way they were in Victorian times (NOTE: For this post, I’m going to assume Victorian America and Britain were a monoculture, and conveniently ignore everything that was going on in the rest of the world). While most asexuals are sex-positive, and would hate to see a return to the judgement of 19th Century morality, it’s difficult to argue strenuously against. Because, well, the Victorians were surprisingly amazing at coming up with alternate relationship forms to the traditional sexual and romantic man and woman.

Let’s define some of the things we’re looking at here.

The basic Victorian ideal was a romantic friendship. This was a relationship, normally between two people of the same gender, either or both of whom could be married. It involved a deep friendship, normally the primary relationship of both people involved, which extended to gestures a 21st Century audience would see as sexual- kissing, sharing a bed, but didn’t involve any sexual attraction. In New England, this idea evolved into a Boston marriage, where two women lived together as if husband and wife. The idea evolved in a time when spinsterhood was likely and eternal, a married woman couldn’t have a career, and a household without a man was seen as incomplete. There is a certain air of neccessity around the Boston marriage. Wordsworth, for example, describes an old, poor woman:

“By the same fire to boil their pottage,
Two poor old Dames, as I have known,
Will often live in one small cottage,
But she, poor woman, dwelt alone.”

There is a strong sense of economic justification, of necessity, to the Boston marriage, even though there is evidence that many of the Bostonians were what we would term proto-feminist in their outlook.

There are some very good ideas in these lifestyles. Romantic friendship can involve the re-classification of many of the elements we think of as being part of capital R Relationships. There are elements of touch and sensuality in there, but, most importantly, there are elements of commitment and prioritisation. The Boston marriage, while coming from a deeply patriarchal place, confirms that a partnered existance has significant material benefits, cheaper living, company, someone to look after you in case of illness, etc. It allows people who can’t neccesarily access these benefits in the way they’re normally procured, through significant romantic and sexual relationships, access. It’s been mentioned before that such benefits can be really important to aromantic people.

So Victorian breaking of the friendship/relationship binary can be incredibly helpful and relevant to the modern aromantic. The traditional models we have for ‘non-traditional’ relationships are largely same-sex, which I think further alienates hetero-aligned people who have few models and lots of other issues to contend with. But it’s worth asking why they’re same sex. And I think this is because the models I love have long been features of homosexual oppression.

Because no-one in the 21st century seriously believes that everyone in a romantic friendship or a Boston marriage wasn’t fucking. Because it’s kinda obvious that these relationships were the last escape of people whose love was illegal or shameful.

We’ll find our inspirations, a hope for a new future buried deep in our past, are built not on the noble premise that relationships can be taken apart and re-assembled, that love is user-servicable, but on the idea that some people’s lives are too shameful to countenance. The question about Victorian morality is harder than we thought.

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