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.