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?