Confusing Unfamiliar Things

If you’re someone who’s reading this then perhaps you’re already familiar with the ‘asexual bingo’ cards.  (You might want to check them out if you aren’t.  Here is one and here is another.)  They’re of course part of a larger phenomenon in which bingo cards have been made to visualize the many ways in which people respond to ‘abnormal’ aspects of others, by which I mean they concern such things as lie outside the usual/default assumptions that might be made about a (default) person, whether these things are well known and relatively common and generally accepted or not.  While the topics of the cards can be strictly unrelated (genderqueer bingo and atheist bingo, for instance), they all share this aspect, and so it doesn’t come as a shock that many of the items on one card can work just as well on another.

We were talking about this at the asexual meetup a few days ago.  For instance, you can take each letter of LGBT and easily find something from asexual bingo, not even something really multi-purpose like “That’s unnatural”, which is more than merely applicable to a corresponding bingo card.  (L: “You just haven’t been with me yet”, assuming the speaker’s a guy.  G: “But humans are HERE to procreate.”  B: “You are buying into a fad because you just want to be special.”  T: “…I need to know everything about how your genitals work.”)  This isn’t to be unexpected, especially since asexuality is (like L, G, and B) also a sexual orientation, and since the concept of sexual orientation itself is based on sex/gender relations (hence also, in part, the bingo analogy to T).  For the reasons I’ve described above though, it can also work very well for less related things.  As an atheist, I was amused by how well some of the entries would work for an atheist bingo card despite seeming to be specific to asexuality.  Here’s one: “If you tried it and you didn’t like it, you just did it wrong”, where “it” is religion instead of sex obviously.  While unrelated, what asexuality and atheism have in common in this case is that they may both be perceived by someone else as a rejection of something they hold dear and indeed consider important to living a ‘fully human’ life.  The something in question may be considered so manifestly and obviously wonderful that the conclusion no one could truly reject it becomes almost inevitable, and so the strategy of the ‘answer’ as seen on the bingo card is to deny that the other has ever experienced it in a valid way.  (The less ‘charitable’ version of this strategy is to turn the negation of validity from the other’s experience to the other’s very person: their perceived rejection becomes an indication of their alleged inhumanity.  See for instance “You must be damaged in some way” on the bingo card.)

Another one which really jumped out at me, which also brings me closer to the topic of this month’s Carnival of Aces, is a weird analogy to vegetarianism.  I don’t mean the one which corresponds to what I’ve just said about something perceived as being a radical rejection of what is only normal: that wouldn’t be a “weird” analogy but rather a very obvious one.  Not that this one is so obscure: I can point to “It must be some religious thing” on the bingo card and you’ll likely understand what I’m thinking.  To elaborate, not having sex and not eating meat have been associated for millennia around the world.  For instance, ancient Greek Olympic athletes would for a month refrain from both meat (as part of their special diet of cheese and figs) and sex in preparation for the footrace, at least in the earlier history of the ancient Olympics.  Let’s not get into the detailed reasons for this, but suffice it to say that they were religious; the early Olympics were a religious festival after all.  The association between celibacy and vegetarianism in ancient Greek religion influenced certain strands of Greek philosophy too.  This alone might serve to show its relevance to more recent times, but of course it also influenced Christianity (a religion which spent its own formative years largely in the ancient Greek world after all), and early Christian factions and thinkers fought over the particular importance of both.  Again, let’s avoid the details: suffice it to say that even now ‘fasting and abstinence’ go hand in hand in Christian asceticism, and that ‘fasting’ in this context may sometimes mean nothing more than not eating meat.  Moreover, Christianity isn’t the only religion to make the connection between these two things.  For instance, they had a similar significance in ancient India, and from there to religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.  Indeed, while most people where I am are likely to be thinking of Christianity if they dismiss asexuality as just “some religious thing”, they’re more likely to be thinking of Buddhism if they do the same of vegetarianism.

My point is that people are usually carrying heavy cultural baggage with them when they think about choosing not to eat meat and choosing not to have sex, since the objects of both choices have been considered base desires of the flesh which stand in the way of spiritual fulfilment.  This is relevant to me because I do asexual visibility work and am also involved in ‘animal rights’ (in the looser sense of the term) projects.  Do I want to confuse people when I tell them I’m a vegetarian?  Then why not tell them also that I’m not interested in having sex with anyone?  If I say too that I’m an “asexual”, then they’re almost certain to mistake asexuality for celibacy, and from there suppose that I must be an aspiring if not accomplished ascetic.  In the process, they’ll learn almost nothing about either what asexuality actually is or the reasons why I’m a vegetarian.  After all, these things aren’t really related: vegetarianism is a dietary choice I’ve made for ethical reasons, while asexuality is simply my sexual orientation.  When speaking of myself I can confidently say that one didn’t cause the other, and I see no reason to suppose that they flow from the same source in any way other than my being that source.  All they have in common is that a complete stranger is unlikely to assume either of me.

Admittedly, there are reasons why I’m not all that worried about confusing people in this way.  Setting aside the fact that I don’t dress like an “accomplished ascetic” of any quality, it happens that if I do so much as mention asexuality, then it is likely that I’m in the process of speaking about it at length (since I don’t tend to mention it in passing when I’m not speaking to people who already know me).  When that’s the case, I can try to explain things properly so that people who know little about it will understand.  Furthermore, since asexuality and vegetarianism aren’t related, the latter isn’t so likely to come up when I’m speaking in detail about the former.  Similarly, asexuality tends not to come up when I’m talking about vegetarianism and related matters.  At the same time though, I don’t really want to bring it up even in the event that it wouldn’t be inappropriate: precisely for the reasons I’ve described, to mention in passing that I’m asexual in such a context might require me to say quite a lot about asexuality in order to clear up the misconceptions I would have just reinforced.  It is as though it were irresponsible to only mention asexuality without saying quite a lot more about it.  That’s the problem of asexuality not being well known, and the resulting reluctance to speak about it doesn’t make it any easier to make it known.  I find myself inclined to think though that part of the solution to this is to be less guarded, more willing to mention asexuality in passing, as appropriate of course.  That at least might lead to greater visibility.  After all, do I really suppose that anyone has come to understanding from ignorance without the passing of an interval of confusion?

Naïveté

As part of an event being run on campus by the Freethought Association, the other day I found myself involved in an argument over the existence of God.  That wasn’t anything unexpected given the circumstances.  However, what was unexpected was how utterly I forgot one of the most basic ‘laws’ of such discussions: there is no shortage of people willing to bring out the most worn-out and thoroughly overthrown arguments as though no one had ever heard them before.  I don’t merely say this as an atheist making fun of certain arguments for the existence of God that ought to have been laid to rest centuries ago (although that is what I’m doing here): I’ll admit that some of my fellow atheists are also willing to make silly arguments which ‘the other side’ have in fact answered more than adequately.  –Personally, I think it all goes a long way to supporting a claim made by Thucydides millennia ago: despite the passage of time, people are people and so they inevitably do the same basic things that they’ve always done.  The great historian’s claim is that history inevitably repeats itself (and therefore that, not unrelatedly, there is use for us historians).–

Here’s what happened.  We were sitting in two groups facing each other: atheists on one side and theists on the other.  The people on the theist side were, I think, all Catholic with the exception of this one fellow.  When he said that he could prove to us that there was a God, no one on either side knew what he was going to say next.  I’ll skip past the details of what he did first, which was to attack our club’s name.  He next held up three objects, an orange peel, a plum pit, and some other thing from the produce aisle which I’ve since forgotten: he said that he would use these simple objects to make his point.  I was actually excited to hear what he was going to say next: I had no idea where his train of thought was going, as though I had forgotten everything I’ve ever learnt over these past few years of getting into such arguments.  I thought I was really going to hear something new, something interesting.  Do you see already where he was going though?  These were not his exact words, but they’ll have to do: “Behold the peach, so finely designed for an animal to eat its fruit to free its seed.  Behold the orange leaves, which know to arrange themselves so as not to block sunlight from the orange.  Design implies a Designer, etc.”  This was simply a rather dated version of the argument from design, one that predates the modern evolutionary theory by which it is well answered.  There were audible groans from the atheist side of the room, and I saw people on the theist side looking deeply annoyed as well: I don’t think anyone was impressed.  As for myself, I felt rather let down at first, and then irritated that I’d been so naïve as to have expected that he really was going to present something which no one had ever heard before.  At the very least I should have seen it coming once he pulled out the produce.

Don’t misunderstand: my complaint isn’t simply that his argument was old.  Many such arguments lose none of their force as time passes.  My complaint is simply that this wasn’t one of them.  It is the year A.D. 2012: presenting an argument which lost any power which it might ever have had by the 19th century doesn’t make for a very interesting discussion.  But what can be done?  Obviously not everyone knows that these arguments really are so obsolete.  I suppose that those of us who are so inclined can keep trying to get it through their thick skulls help them to understand.  It doesn’t always work, but the fact that we’ve seen it work sometimes (i.e.: there really are people who listen) shows that it isn’t necessarily a useless struggle.  I remain doubtfully optimistic, picturing Sisyphus watching his boulder roll down the hill yet again and wondering if maybe, just maybe, it’ll stay there at the top next time.

Visibility Goals: Missing Out

I found myself giving an interview a few weeks ago on the subject of asexuality and the activities of ‘Asexual Montréal’ (the name for the unofficial meetup and workshop-giving group here).  I think it went well: it’s nice to see at first hand that there are people in the media who can deal well with these sorts of things.  Anyhow, I wanted to share one of the questions I was asked, because while it is very simple in one sense, it still raises a number of issues which need thinking about.  “What is the most important thing you’re trying to achieve through (asexual) visibility work?”

I brought that question to the meetup yesterday.  In terms of the basic answer there wasn’t any disagreement: we’re seeking acceptance.  Asexuality currently isn’t normative.  Most people don’t seem to have heard of it, and when introduced to it many are strangely hostile.  The thought that such people as asexuals could exist is like a threat to some.  So, we’d rather it were otherwise.  That’s simple enough.

But when we say that we’re seeking acceptance, what exactly does that entail?  There were two main sets of misconceptions which stood out in our discussion as challenges to be faced.  The one is, as I’ve put it before, the idea that asexuality is just a natural phase experienced by some people before they reach (hetero-) sexual maturity.  This isn’t a new idea.  It happens to be how what we’d now call homosexuality was once, and to some extent still is, commonly understood.  Furthermore, I’d assume that it resonates with the usual experience of non-asexual people: they didn’t feel sexual attraction when they were quite young, but they began to do so at some point when they were growing up.  It is therefore pretty well inevitable that some of them will suppose asexuality to ‘really’ be a sign of incomplete or disordered maturation, something to be ‘fixed’ at best.

People who make this accusation can do so from the comfort of knowing that they cannot easily be proven wrong to themselves, even were every single self-identified asexual to testify against them, since for the most part it seems to me that they’ve defined maturity to include a ‘sexual awakening’ of the sort asexuals don’t experience.  In other words, they’ve assumed their conclusion from the outset, having defined maturity in a way that precludes asexuality, or at least in any way that wouldn’t make asexuality a thoroughly second-rate experience.  The most obvious way to confront this circular argument is probably just to point out that our lived experience itself contradicts their assumptions, though in practice the resulting discussion may end up looking something like the Monty Python sketch about argument and contradiction…  (I imagine one person saying that maturity entails the experience of sexual attraction.  The other says that maturity needn’t be defined as such.  They proceed to disagree back and forth with each other.)  I think that a better tactic would involve confronting the concept of sexual orientation itself and situating asexuality there, but that’s a subject I’ll return to some other time.

The idea of asexuality as a ‘thoroughly second-rate experience’ though happens to be the other main point that came up in the discussion.  In this case, someone may or may not claim to be accepting of asexuality, but it’ll be followed up by a remark about how much we’re missing out on.  Where above the problem was that we weren’t fully mature, here the problem seems to be that we aren’t fully human.  It’s nonsense of course, but it may be much harder to deal with.  After all, how are we to go confront it?  There seems something rather tactless about saying, “No, actually.  In its own right, this thing that means so much to you means nothing at all to me and indeed need not mean anything to anyone at all, and so it is pointless to tell me that I am wanting in my inexperience of it.”  More to the point, it’s not comparable to telling someone that you don’t care for some hobby or other which they might enjoy: such things aren’t considered a universal and important aspect of being human.  But isn’t that very idea which we’re trying to challenge?

In one way, our situation here is very much like that of everyone else who isn’t heterosexual (or more precisely, of everyone who asserts the validity of any other orientation).  If I think of how they’ve asserted the validity of their experience though, one of the main messages seems to be to point out that they still feel (sexual) love like ‘everyone’ else.  That obviously won’t work for us.  Even though I don’t think it is typically deliberate, I have sometimes seen asexuals convey the similar message (i.e. be understood as though they are saying) that our experience is just as valid because we still feel (romantic) love like ‘everyone’ else.  While that might achieve something, it certainly won’t do, since it’s ignoring the not-insignificant number of us who are aromantics and the like.  The fact is that sexual and romantic relationships are considered very important in our society, and I don’t think our society is particularly unique in this regard.  Would it really be unbelievable to say that there might be a fairly simple biological basis to these cultural phenomena?  If that’s what we’re confronting, then to say that we may have our work cut out for us would I think be a severe understatement.  I can’t realistically imagine this changing.  (Is that simply a failure of my imagination?)  What am I saying then?  It’s not that I don’t think we shouldn’t be working towards gaining acceptance: of course we should.  But I don’t think our goals should be at odds with reality.  Perhaps acceptance would mean carving out something of an outsider identity and having the validity of that be recognized.  Yet how would that actually work, and would it really be acceptance?  I’m not sure.  This is very much an idea I’m tossing around in my head right now though, which is why I’m posting it here instead of keeping it to myself.

Carnival of Aces: Roundup

While I chose the topic for this month’s Carnival of Aces some time ago, I suppose it ended up being rather timely.  I’m thinking of course about the recent representation of ‘asexuality’ on House that so many of us have blogged about.  Sciatrix has a roundup of posts on that topic here, which I’m including both because of its relevance and because a few of the submissions for this month can be found there.

Here are the other submissions.

Ace Amoeba writes about “dropping the A Bomb” on people and what is helpful to let them know that one is not simply The Asexual.

Elizabeth writes about stereotypes of asexuals and how they ought to be dealt with for a proper representation of asexuality in the media.

Heorrenda (that being me) writes about the fear of showing any weakness when presenting oneself as an asexual, and what to do about it.

Pip writes about the nebulousness of the asexual community and the implications of this concerning any shared objectives.

Sciatrix writes about why it can be much easier to talk on a panel about asexuality than it can be to talk to friends about it.

Thanks to everyone who submitted!  If you’re a bit late and would  still like to send something then go right ahead.  You can just post it as a comment below or email it to me, and I’ll include it in the list above.

As for next month’s carnival, I’m afraid all I can do right now is refer you to the masterpost, where you can see that we still need someone to volunteer to host the next one!

EDIT: Elizabeth will now be hosting the carnival for next month, on the topic of sexual exploration.

Presenting, the Asexuals!

What led me to choose the topic “re/presentation” for this month’s Carnival of Aces was my recent experience working on various asexual visibility projects.  I’ve been involved with giving a few workshops in the community, a radio interview, and a film screening on campus.  Having never really done this sort of thing before, I’ve been made more conscious of matters concerning both how I present myself as an individual and how I simultaneously represent others in doing these things, and I’ve been interested to hear from other people to know their own experiences.

Along the way I’ve met what Sciatrix calls the unassailable asexual, one whose asexuality cannot be doubted by anyone for any reason.  Particularly in the case of the radio show, which involved a late-night interview with a sex therapist, I felt a tremendous pressure to be the unassailable asexual.  I don’t mean, of course, that anyone ever told me to be that person.  It just sort of happened that way, where by “sort of” I mean “inevitably”.  Why would that be?  Perhaps it has something to do with watching bits of interviews which people like David Jay have given on TV, where they’re often asked any number of shocking questions with the assumption that their identification as asexual cannot possibly be valid and so the hidden Truth of their sexuality must be discovered and made known.  Perhaps it has to do with the frequency at which these exact same sorts of questions are being asked when asexuals come out in more ordinary situations.  There’s also the matter that as ‘the asexual’ on the show I knew I wouldn’t only be speaking for myself: many people would be listening who’d never have heard anyone say that they’re asexual before, and so many of them probably couldn’t help but to see my own situation as somehow representative of all asexuals, and so any personal weakness I might show could be generalized and applied to all asexuals.  At least that’s what I was worried about, as invalid as the generalization would be.  Whatever the reason though, I assumed the worst and so armoured myself as though preparing to be the direct target of some kind of nuclear inquisition.  It’s not that I planned any sort of deceit.  I didn’t say to myself anything like, “I don’t have absolutely no libido, but I’ll present myself as though it were the case so that they can’t try to undermine me”.  Rather, under the pressure I felt and my own insecurity in confronting it I managed to tell myself who I was and would be as I felt was necessary.

(As it would happen, the host turned out to be reasonably well informed on asexuality.  She knew what sorts of questions would be considered rude and didn’t ask them, and more importantly it was clear that I hadn’t been invited simply as part of a demonstration on the absurdity of identifying as asexual.  The main difficulty I had turned out to be in covering all my talking points, since I’d prepared each of them as a defence against a particular attack.  I’d come prepared for all-out war and found myself unready for peace!  But I think we managed to have a nice discussion in the end, one of the callers aside maybe.)

True, this might be a common way of dealing with things like this, and more generally, to some extent I hear that we all build a number of personae for social interaction.  But I feel like I may as well have been wearing a mask for parts of the discussion.  While I talked about how much diversity there is in what is termed ‘asexual’ and the many ‘shades of grey’ that there are, I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that I was thus described.  For ‘me’ there was no ambiguity, no trace of a loose thread from which my asexuality might be unravelled.

I don’t mean to say that I’m really so doubtful of my being asexual, far from it in fact.  But asexuality isn’t normative.  Most people haven’t heard of it.  When they do, many respond by saying that there’s no such thing.  A few people are accepting, and I doubt I’m the only one to whom it means a lot that they are.  It remains though that I can’t look to the world outside, the world from which I come and am a part, and find much acceptance of an important part of myself in it.  Some insecurity, at least a lingering doubt, is almost inevitable.  Add to that the fact that what I’m describing now is just the way things are all the time: presenting this aspect of oneself to others brings with it the added concern of how they’ll respond, and from this follows the reluctance to show anything which they could interpret as weakness.

Hopefully it’s just the jitters of a sort: with more experience I might become more comfortable speaking about this kind of thing.  However, the underlying problems I’ve described are systemic and won’t just go away on their own.  At the heart of it is probably the fact that our identities as asexuals are for the most part either invisible or erased.  The only way to deal with this is by gaining visibility, and so it seems that the solutions to the problem at both the individual and the societal level may really be one and the same.  Each of us being as we are, it’s important to talk about who we are.  We need to be bold.  Let’s.

A False Confession

While I’m on the topic of coming out, it occurs to me now that I’ve never said anything much here about when I first ‘came out to myself’.  Mine was the relatively common experience of one lacking the vocabulary to properly describe all things non-heteronormative.  I had one word at my disposal back then, ‘gay’, and so I used it.  (It was only later that I’d learn of the existence and meaning of other terms like those which include bi-, pan-, a-, cis-, trans-, -queer, and the like.)  I had many reasons to suppose that I must have been ‘gay’.  Among other things there was, of course, the vague way I didn’t seem to share my peers’ interest in sex.  I remember too an experience I had on a class trip in high school.  We’d gone to a park where there was one of those big human chess boards.  Those of us who were there at the site of the board split into two groups for a match of boys against girls.  I stood at the side and watched, knowing well that I simply had no place on either side.  That was something beyond all doubt.  But what was that?  I later determined that it was of course my being ‘gay’, because really I didn’t have anything else to call it.

I recall now a line from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  It didn’t take me too long to realize that I was mistaken, although it took a few years to understand how I’d been mistaken and to be able to better articulate my understanding.  For instance, like many asexuals I eventually learnt what asexuality is from Wikipedia, where it has for a few years now been listed together with other sexual orientations, and in an important way that is what led me to begin identifying as asexual.  However, before this I had nonetheless perceived that, as I could later say, the whole heteronormativity thing wasn’t working out for me: that is what I had been able to recognize and admit to myself then.  It was frightening.  After all, the most basic assumptions I’d had about what I’d do as an adult involved getting married and starting a ‘traditional’ family and that sort of thing.  It didn’t seem that this would be an option after all.  More generally, there was a sense of what I was expected to do and be which was greatly at odds with my very nature.  That is in fact unchanged, or rather it has grown more pronounced as my adult life has indeed begun to diverge visibly from such expectations.

I’m not complaining about that.  As regards myself, the only thing I wish is that I’d more clearly known sooner, for it would probably have saved me a fair bit of trouble, or at least spared me certain especially useless troubles in place of other ones from which I might have gained something more beneficial.  Things being what they are, I hope now to be able to deal with those troubles.

Outing and the Glass Closet

(This is just a personal rant.  I’ll hopefully have a more interesting post up for this month’s Carnival of Aces shortly.)

I haven’t posted anything new here in two months.  It’s not because I don’t have anything which I’d like to say though.  Instead, it has to do with a reluctance brought about by a funny thing that happened to me recently.  Simply put, last month I was outed to my family as asexual.  (It was a simple matter of an indiscretion of mine being caught by a relation online.  The details aren’t important here.)  That’s not really such a funny thing of course.  Outing people, in this case finding that they have a secret which they’re keeping for some unknown reason and then deciding that whatever the reason might be it cannot possibly be important enough not to make their secret common knowledge, is hardly proper.  I would have thought that such a thing should go without saying, but apparently in so thinking I was neglecting to think about reality.

Of course, I did realize that such a thing could happen to me.  After all, I’ve been giving workshops and interviews on asexuality recently, using my legal name to boot.  I haven’t really been hiding it so much as simply not talking about it when I go back home to visit, that is, if there’s really such a difference.  Nonetheless, knowing that anything I say here might effectively be said to everyone back home, I decided not to say anything for the time being, until I’d have a chance to talk about it all when I’d be over for the holiday.

However, for the entire three weeks of my stay, neither I nor my parents raised the matter.  Perhaps they’re no more keen to talk about it than I am.  Perhaps they simply respect my choice not to talk about it and won’t bring it up themselves.  I obviously don’t really know the reason, seeing as how we haven’t spoken about it.  However, it was kind of awkward because I know not only that they know but also that they know that I know they know.  It’s sort of like I’m in the ‘glass closet’, but only that here other people don’t just see me in the closet but they can also see me looking out at them and carrying on as though I weren’t in a closet at all while clearly knowing otherwise.  Fun.

It’s really quite silly.  I’ll probably raise the issue sooner rather than later, but for the same basic reasons which held me back from talking about it earlier.  “In case of emergency, break glass”, as they say, and so δοίη τις ἀνδροκμῆτα πέλεκυν ὡς τάχος.  Meanwhile, I’ll continue to carry on here as usual.