For the asexually curious and the curiously asexual

Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

You make yourselves another: On make-up and power

“God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another”

-Mysogynistic rant in Hamlet, III i.

So while catching up on the blogs I lurk, I discovered S. E. Smith on feminism and make-up:

Few feminist conversations confuse me as much as the one surrounding makeup and beauty standards, a reminder of my outsider status in the feminist community in a lot of ways because of my gender and socialisation. This conversation is conducted in a way that assumes everyone is on the same page, everyone is thinking the same things, everyone has the same experiences, but that’s not actually how it goes. With the makeup conversation, there are some of us who feel really, really at sea, and it’s hard to express it in a way that doesn’t come off strangely, evidently.

 

Read the rest. Something about this really struck me, so much that I needed to talk about it even though I don’t think S. E.’s personal blog allows comments, and it doesn’t properly fit with the theme of this blog, though I manage to shoehorn asexuals in later.

Firstly, my experience is of agreeing with S.E. I’m young enough not to have encountered the middle-class job-market sexism yet, but the only people among my friends who feel they have to wear make-up are goths. I can name at least 3 ciswomen friends who I know for a fact have never worn make-up a day in their lives, several more of the gothy persuasion who have never worn ‘respectable’ make-up. A lot of people I know simply don’t wear make-up in their daily lives and it isn’t a problem.

And this reaction sounds a lot like “I haven’t experienced it, so it’s not a problem,”- the standard reaction of the privileged. I can’t comment on the lived experience of people of a different class, generation, culture and gender to me, who I’ve never met. If they say expectations of wearing make-up are a problem for them, I’m going to believe them. What I don’t like is the assumption that everyone else’s experiences are the same, because a lot of people really don’t have that problem.

I’m going to go further than S. E. and argue that make-up can, in some circumstances, be a source of power. S. E. points out that transwomen are under expectations not to wear make-up. As a cisguy, if the walls of gender expectation came tumbling down tomorrow, I would rush out and buy make-up. Partly because I love the performativity, partly because the simplest contouring and eye-shaping makes my face into what I want it to be, not what it is. I’ve mentioned on yadaforums a group of people who I hang with who tend to do the whole ‘getting ready for a night out’ thing with a massive amount of clothing and hairstyling for both genders, and how comfortable I feel with them. The same group of people also often spend hours sitting in a circle and, unigenderedly, putting on theatrical make-up. Again, I feel so comfortable.

So, yeah, make-up is something I want, want, want, and am never going to be able to have, and I’m going to spend as much of my life as possible appropriating that privilege at halloween and Pride marches until I’m too old for that to be acceptable. And I’m slightly bitter.

That’s not to say that you’re not allowed to complain about unfair cultural expectations on you. I am entirely sympathetic, and will fight for your right not to wear make-up. But when you consider that, in my experience, make-up is entirely a choice for all women who aren’t in the fashion buisness, your cries of “Oh god, it’s so DIFFICULT being able to do this thing that you’re NEVER going to be able to do!” are not going to make me like you.

Lots of people are not allowed the privilege of make-up. At the time when asexuals were the big ‘trend piece’ in the media, I recall there being some talk about a programme where asexuals were presumed not to want the make-up which would make them look good under the studio lights. Asexual people were refused this marker of performativity, attractiveness, which everyone else was expected to want. Asexual people apparently do not have the privilege to wear make-up, to re-invent themselves, to be whatever they want to be. Asexual people, the station presumed, are less-than-normal.

Make-up can be oppression. Make-up can be objectification. Make-up can be privilege. Make-up can be power.

Don’t assume your reality is worth more than mine.

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On Static Content

So this comes apropros of two things, both of which have been discussed particularly recently. Firstly, as we’ve mentioned, there is uncertainty about the role of AVEN. Is it a place for visibility? 101? Community? Discussion? I know I’m not the only person who feels uncomfortable linking someone to AVEN when I don’t know what sort of discussions are going on there, what the current mood of the site is. And yet AVEN has, like, ALL the static content in the asexosphere. Apart from AVEN, there’s the wiki, which I find much harder to navigate than specifically written FAQs, and the collection of academia on Asexual Explorations, which is hardly the first thing the general public would look for.

And secondly, I know a couple of other bloggers are starting to consider how we might more closely emulate other social justice movements (feminism, LGBTQ, civil justice, etc), I don’t know how quick this is going to be, but I think some serious trolling and fail will emerge at some time within the next three years. Up till now, we’ve largely been doing our 101 seperately, adressing different things in different blog posts, and linking back to them when needed. What I’d like is a comprehensive and easily navigable pool of resources that we can link people to quickly, which is off-AVEN. What I want, essentially, is this.

I’m considering calling it Awesome! An Asexual 101. Yes, it’s a complete rip-off of Finally, Feminism 101. That’s intentional. It’s a homage to those aspects of social justice we want to adopt.

I’m going to be honest, part of the reason I want this is because I think the non-AVENites have been dithering over whether to create static content, or whether that’s outside our bounds, for a long time now, and this is possibly the simplest way of getting it off the ground. What we’ll essentially have is an average blog, to which I encourage other asexuals who are interested in the scheme to contribute. I’m looking for good summaries of asexual phrases and our responses to typical attacks in a short, sweet writing style, with just a hint of “F*** off” when needed. Also, links to other posts where we discuss the same issues but more in-depth/more ranty/more personal would really help.

Anyone else interested in collaborating with me on this one? I’m kinda scared of starting it all by myself, partly on the ‘presuming to speak for all asexuals’ basis and partly on the ‘running two blogs while also doing lots of essays’ basis.

Smiling through the happiness

Ok, I’ve been spending way too long writing about asexuality. The reason I know this? I saw an advertisement today for eye-drops, which said “You may be up for the christmas party, but your eyes won’t show it!” or something similar. The idea being that you have to look smiley and happy. Looking happy being prized over being happy (especially for women, whom the advert was aimed exclusively at) is a big issue in itself, but my immediate thought was to the implications this has for asexuals.

The first of these is that we always have to seem happy in our sexuality for our sexuality to be recognised. Technically, an awful lot of asexuals could count as HSDD if it wasn’t for the ‘distress’ criterion. Distress is held up as the thing separating asexuality from HSDD, but I don’t know a single asexual who has never experienced distress over their orientation. That’s perfectly natural, it’s a new orientation, and the complexities of living as asexual can get really, really overwhelming, but asexuals have to smile through it all. If not, our sexuality is judged to be destructive, unhealthy, and the books even back it up. What’s worse, since the community is so focused around visibility, this pressure to smile at the world comes from inside the community, too. It would be nice if the world would give us space to not enjoy every minute of the ride.

I think asexuality gets a particularly bad deal here because aromantic people as seen as single, thus ‘Bridget Jones’; people who don’t want sex are seen as broken, unhappy, unconfident. I don’t know how our heteronormative world took the word ‘No’, one of the most powerful things you can do in the bedroom, a ‘no’ which is routinely scorned, cajoled and belittled, and turned it into a mark of lack of confidence.

And this segues rather nicely into my second point- consent. I’ve long realised this is (/would be, chance would be a fine thing) an issue for myself, but I’ve somehow never thought to associate it with all the other asexuals who want to/ wouldn’t mind getting frisky. The model which we’re told to want is the enthusiastic consent model. In its extreme, the progression went:
No means no (basics of consent, but lacks awareness of situations in which consent is impossible)
Yes means yes
OH, YES, GOD YES! means yes (enthusiastic consent)

Reading Emily Nagoski (awesome writer, maybe too heavy on bodily fluid discussion for the repulsed, a little gender-essentialist for me) recently, I was struck by the consent issues that her view of responsive desire brings up. How does someone with responsive desire ever say “OH, YES, GOD YES!” at the start of a sexual encounter? The only things they can say are no, maybe and a relatively unenthusiastic yes. She breaks it down:

The idea that functional sexual desire requires wanting sex out of the blue is bullshit – pervasive and intractable bullshit, but bullshit nonetheless.

She suggests further down that ‘desire’ should be replaced with ‘willingness’, and that suits me. A lot of asexuals are physically incapable of desire for sex, it doesn’t stop them being willing. Bottom line- enthusiastic consent is a barrier too high for a lot of people to live up to.

And yet- and here’s the issue- it’s fairly important as a notion. The idea that you have to actually want it and not just be coerced in some way is something I’d love to fight for, especially when not-really-consent is an asexual issue too. ‘Willingness’ is something which can be manipulated, ‘desire’ can’t. And I’m lost. How can we create a definition which helps those who don’t pass the desire criteria while still making sure that the system works for the majority?

When I told Sciatrix I was writing this post, she linked me to this conversation. There’s some interesting stuff going on in there, and I especially like the conversion of ‘green-yellow-red’ (yes, go carefully, stop), which I tend to hear in a BDSM context, for asexual uses. The very concept of ‘yellow’, that there is consent which isn’t enthusiastic or total, is likable, and it keeps the power of consent in the hands of the consentee, while other non-enthusiastic, non-total consent mechanisms can be more easily abused.

So, I leave you with this. A world in which displaying our emotions labels us mentally disturbed, and bottling them just makes us more damaged. A world in which we have to confront bigots daily without anger. A world in which we’re encouraged to smile when we don’t want it, but can’t manage a smile if we do.
And even if we get out of this still happy, we have to keep smiling through the happiness.
Till next time, folks,
Keep smiling

"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.

On redefining queer, and who’s allowed to use it

First off, a quick asexy link, courtesy of my friends at American Virgin. I think I’ve heard about this film before, and I’m guessing the first place they came to fundraise was AVEN, but, in case you haven’t heard the trailer, go and take a look.

Anyway, I forgot to write down the big list of topics I had to write about, so now I’ve forgotten them all, and I’m back to writing whatever comes into my head.

How does this reclaiming the word queer thing work, guys? Are we still meant to be slightly disapproving of anyone who uses it and doesn’t fit in the LGBTQ crowd? Does it still hurt too much that we don’t want to give others a free pass to use it?

I ask because I may one day decide that asexual is too confusing a shorthand for demisexual etc, and decide queer would be better. If I label myself queer, am I defining myself by a word that over half my friends can’t even say? Cos that sort of sucks for them. It sort of sucks for me, as well, when they try and explain what I am, and can’t use the actual word that I find most helpful.

Is it free to use, but you have to be prepared to grovel the instant any non-hetero-cis person takes offense?
Or is it based on how progressive you are? Feminists and sex-positive people get in free? Do you have to donate a certain amount to gay rights organisations (in which case, I’m not entitled, and won’t be until I have some actual disposable income, in several years time [hopefully])?
Maybe you have to have a seal of approval by an actual queer person. If so, we could get little cards printed. That would definately save on confusion.

Or maybe we could just say ‘ok, a word’s a word. What’s more, it’s the only word we’ve got for a concept that needs expressing*’. If it’s used in hate, sure, point out the hate, same as you would if someone viciously spat the word ‘gay’ at you, but just agree that the word itself isn’t offensive any more.

*And a concept that needs expressing is a concept that EVERYONE needs to be able to express.

The asexual revolution

So in this blog-post, I’m going to share some ideas about the importance of the asexual lifestyle. If you want to be picky about lexicon (which I do), it should probably be called the ‘non-sexual’ or possibly ‘de-sexual’ lifestyle. After all, the celibate lifestyle is one that I, as an asexual, have no particular desire to keep in the long-term, and lots of sexual people clearly do. The basic premise is not of what would happen if everyone stopped having sex, but what would happen if everyone wasn’t assumed automatically to want sex. If sex wasn’t actually a big deal.

Let’s start with the obvious- relationships would change. Too often around me (mostly on TV but worryingly in real life as well) I see opposite-sex relationships that are based on stereotypes of what each gender is. Both people just slip, unconsciously, into gender roles which don’t really fit them. Key to this is sex- the boyfriend/husband, the sexually motivated one, makes overtures of intercourse constantly, in the hope that a few will get through. This system is similar to the way an airline sells more seats than it actually has- it is impossible to gauge how much sex the man actually wants, because he pressures for so much more than he needs. This turns the man into the ‘one who wants sex’, which, in turn, provides the man with all these handy excuses to deny what he feels in a relationship. It’s far too easy, at the moment, for men to escape into the realm of sexual objectification, far more easy, in some cases, than it is for them to show genuine affection.
The woman’s role is harder to define, what with the Madonna/Whore traditionalism and the various waves of feminism all with subtly different expectations. Still, the woman is seen as a prize to be won for the man. This is so easy to convert into terms of sex- if you pork her, you claim her.
Take away the idea that all women are going to want sex, or that all men are going to want sex, and it becomes so much more difficult to be that objectifying in a typical relationship. “Yeah, we sat up and talked all night. I’m such a stud. That bitch was so into me, she really opened up in a way she never has with anyone else.” More trust=less ownership.
It would be too Dworkin to suggest that sex is the essence of objectification. It’s generally something both people want to do. But the fact that a man can enter into a relationship and be reasonably sure of getting sex, the fact that he can dump a girl if she isn’t responsive enough to his propositions and still make her out to be the unreasonable one, all of this helps to maintain the heteronormative standard where men can hide behind sex while using it to ‘take’ women. I’d suggest it would be better for relationships in general if women couldn’t be ‘taken’, just communicated with.

Perhaps it’s too much to hope, but the second great effect of society’s realisation that sex isn’t something everyone wants may be that sexual minorities get greater equality. I’m not too sure about this one, because a lot of people are just randomly bigoted, whatever the facts are. Still, I have a suspicion that genitals are pretty important in a lot of homophobia. Take away the sex, after all, and it just becomes love, which doesn’t really change based on the genders of the participants. Gay men stop being told “that’s dirty, things aren’t meant to go up that way” (and yes, I have heard that one). Lesbians stop becoming the fantasies of random guys, and no one assumes that they’re the way they are because they didn’t meet a man who was good enough. Bisexuals aren’t seen to be in it for the promiscuity. For asexuals, the benefit is obvious.
It seems to me that a lot of the pressure is taken off ‘controversy’ if the controversy doesn’t involve sex.

And then we get to our sex lives. Can I really claim they could be improved if we scrap the assumption that we all need sex?
“OMG, sex” seems to be the order of the day (no pun intended). The multi-billion dollar industry telling us exactly how to get our kicks in bed provides us with all the pills, instructions, body image role models and toys that are so clearly necessary. And it can’t just be me who feels really insulted. Perhaps its because I know that one day I’m hoping to have to sift through all these disparate shards of sexuality with some equally confused partner, trying to figure out which bits of what we’re told we need we actually want. But it still strikes me that sex should be something wonderful and individual, something we all figure out for ourselves. Perhaps it’s the incredibly individualist culture of the asexual community, but I don’t want to be spoonfed someone else’s idea of sex.
All models of sex, though, have one thing in common. They say that sex is enjoyable, and that it’s of crucial importance. Even the fundamentalist sex-negative view acknowledges that these two generalisations are true of everybody.
Which is, of course, why asexuals are so damn scary. If it isn’t enjoyable and it isn’t important, WHAT THE HECK IS IT? And the answer has to be; sex is whatever it means to you and whoever you choose to practice it with. Go out and non-conform. Because everything you’ve been told about what you have to need is a lie. Just have fun.

This prediction is, of course, a fantasy. There will never be enough people saying “Actually, I never really saw why it’s worth the fuss” to significantly change the views of that proportion of people I call ‘heteronormative’. The vast majority of the world does want sex, and, quite rightly, want to identify by that desire. Even if they didn’t, the old-fashioned ways of thinking would find ways to cling on. But, in small, open-minded pockets, I think asexuals can really make a difference. We can, just by our existence, truly challenge most of the great beliefs about sexuality. So maybe just a small revolution, or a series of them. Maybe revolutions that, like the asexual community itself, are more about individuals than about groups.

/muse.

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