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.

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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.