Carnival of Aces: Callout for Submissions

This month I’ll be hosting the Carnival of Aces!  As Sciatrix says in the masterpost:

This blog carnival is an effort to encourage a variety of different voices to speak about asexuality from their own perspectives. Anyone can participate, but the responses should deal with asexuality or the asexual spectrum (grey-As, demisexuals) in some way. They should also relate in some way to the theme of each round of the carnival, which will change from month to month and will be chosen by the person hosting the carnival for that month.

The scope of this project is general–any post dealing with both asexuality and the theme of the carnival is welcome. Alternate forms of media are also welcome as long as they deal with the prompt! If you’re not sure whether your piece is okay, submit it anyway and we’ll figure it out.

This month, our theme is going to be re/presentation.

Feel free to interpret this theme as broadly as you’d like.  Here are a just a few ideas.

  • How do you think that those of us who are asexual should present ourselves to others as a group, if we should do so at all, and why?  Do you think that current asexual visibility efforts are working?
  • Are you ‘out’ as an asexual, and if so, how do you present your asexual identity to others?  How do they respond?
  • Have you ever presented asexuality and/or represented asexuals to others?  How did it go?  This needn’t only involve such deliberate things as giving presentations, being interviewed, and the like.  For instance, perhaps you are the only asexual known to your family or friends.  Do such people ever view you as though a representative of all asexuals, even if you intend nothing of the sort?

The deadline for submissions will be January 31st and I should have the roundup posted within a few days after the deadline.  You can leave a link to your submission in a comment here, or by emailing it to me.  (I have a gmail account with the handle heorrenda.)  If you don’t have a blog and would like to make a guest post here, then you can also contact me by either of those methods for us to work that out.

Have fun!

Not Nothing and Other Negations

(This post was written for the December Carnival of Aces, of which the topic was “attraction”.)

Under timely circumstances, some of my friends went to a workshop on campus the other day on the topic of love and “why we all crave it”.  By the sounds of it, I’m glad I didn’t go.  Much of the discussion seems to have been about romantic relationships, how we all (by this account) desire unconditional and everlasting ‘true love’, and how without it we are nothing no matter how much else we might happen to accomplish in our lives.  My aim here isn’t to talk about the workshop: the people who organized it had their own reasons for saying the things they did, and I wasn’t actually there to hear them.  Instead, I want to talk about these ideas of romance, and in particular how they relate to the realities of those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t experience love in such ways.

To make it clear where I’m coming from, when pressed for a one-word description of how I understand myself in terms of romantic orientation, I tend to say that I’m aromantic.  It is perhaps a bit more complicated than that.  I find the whole concept of romance somewhat confusing if not incoherent, particularly once sex has been removed from the equation (since sex can be used to arbitrarily differentiate between romantic relationships and other kinds of close friendships, although even for non-asexuals this doesn’t really work all of the time).  It is entirely possible that I actually do experience what other people might term romantic attraction and so am not aromantic, but the fact is that I don’t find the romantic paradigm useful for describing my own experience or understanding the dynamics of my relationships, seeing as how I find it so confusing.  How can I tell whether I experience romantic attraction if I don’t understand what is meant by ‘romantic’?  I prefer simply to think in terms of ‘closeness’ or whatnot: I feel closer to some people than to others.  It is true that I feel the desire to be closer to some people than to others as well.  This could perhaps be understood as indicating some kind of attraction, but I’m not sure what else to say about it.  Attraction is not by necessity romantic any more so than it is necessarily sexual, and without clearly understanding the romantic I’d be hard-pressed to call such attraction romantic or not.  In any case, none of this is important to my identity: I’d rather just call myself an ‘asexual’ than an ‘aromantic asexual’ or (with the alternative assumption that I do experience romantic attraction) a ‘panromantic asexual’, but I don’t care too deeply about it one way or the other.  Fair enough?

So, let’s return to the ideas about romance which I mentioned at the start.  I won’t say anything much about the idea that it must be unconditional: I think the problems with this are obvious enough to (well, almost) anyone who stops to think about it for about for a moment.  What about ‘true love’?  At the risk of sounding terribly unromantic, I’m going to say that this term is poorly defined and can be unceremoniously discarded for the purposes of our discussion.  (And don’t say anything about ‘the one’ either!  That’s an unabashedly supernatural notion I’ll have no truck with.)  That leaves one thing, the idea that we’re nothing, or at least incomplete, without romantic love.  Before even speaking about the idea itself, it’s obvious enough that this can be an annoying if not hurtful claim to aromantic asexuals.  If we don’t experience romantic attraction, but need romance in order to be ‘complete’, then we’d find ourselves in a situation where we’d be at a great disadvantage in living meaningful lives, were we not to simply be declared ‘broken’ by our own nature from the start.  The more basic problem with it though is probably one that is familiar to many asexuals: substitute the word ‘romantic’ with the word ‘sexual’ and it should be clear why.  (“You must experience sexual love to be complete as a human being.  Your relationships aren’t the real thing otherwise.”)  It is a clear privileging of certain forms of affection over others.  (I’m not saying that this is a problem at the personal level: of course we value certain things above others.  The problem though is saying that other people must follow suit when the values in question are simply our personal preferences.  This holds true even of preferences that are generally shared among one’s peers or by society at large, which may indeed be socially conditioned.)  Anyhow, another problem might by now be obvious.  The idea that we need to experience romance in order to be complete is a form of the idea of true love, which has in fact crept back sneakily into this discussion.  “You must desire this kind of love.  You must experience this kind of love.  This is true love!  Without this you are altogether lacking.”

I make no claim to be a complete and perfect human being and am willing to accept that I am quite deficient in certain respects, but in certain other respects I think I actually have much to be proud of.  I think it’s fair to say that I amount to more than nothing.  Yet for the reasons explained, I have not experienced the kinds of love described here.  Someone then must be wrong, and I don’t think it’s me…

But there’s more to it.  When I say that “I’m glad I didn’t go” to the workshop I don’t mean that this is because I think the people presenting the workshop were simply mistaken, and if I thought that the ideas about the importance of romance which I’ve mentioned here were merely incorrect then I wouldn’t have anything much else to say about them.  The fact is though that these ideas have a way of playing to one’s insecurities.  Consider that one of the positive things about an asexual identity is that it can help replace the idea that one is defective for not experiencing sexual attraction: this seems to describe the experience of more than a few of us.  Now what of romance and those of us who are aromantic and don’t experience romantic attraction or (aromantic or not) simply don’t seem able to make sense of romance or connect with people in that way?  To say that it’s just how we are and it’s fine and we can still live fulfilling lives is reassuring.  It also flies in the face of almost everything our society says about love.  After all, a quick look at popular culture shows us that romance (and sex too) is held in very high esteem, and more than that, is thought to be a considerable part of what makes us who we are.  It’s something we should have, or at very least want (and be inconsolably miserable without).  To simply say that this isn’t so for us is perhaps to say that it needn’t be so for others.  It’s a challenge of sorts, and it is not made against one found to be resourceless.  After all, how can I even write this without feeling just a little bit like some sort of loveless orc?  How can I even try to dodge the charge that I must just be a bitter person who’s chosen to denounce (what is held to be the only meaningful kind of) love for want of its experience?  But no one has told me these things: I am rather giving voice to my own doubts, which exist in light of social expectations of the universality of romance and sex.  In truth, I don’t even think I’m saying anything that radical.  “I still desire love and affection, just not of those sorts.”  In this respect I see little substantial difference between myself and anyone else who desires love, who feels any sort of attraction to others.  But I’ve set a distance between myself and the forms of affection commonly designated as especially important.  Some sort of difficulty is to be expected.  So be it.

There is a remedy for this, but whether it is an easy one I can’t altogether say.  We have to consider where our expectations come from and try to evaluate them on their own merits.  “Does it really make sense to say that I am flawed if I do not desire love in such-and-such a way and broken if I do not even desire it?”  When we’re talking about sex and even romance, I don’t think that it does: to me it would not seem reasonable to say otherwise.  Have I reasoned correctly?  Then all I have to do is actually believe what my reason tells me is true.

Quiet Condemnation

Last week our freethought group on campus met with some representatives of Campus for Christ.  A friend of mine, blogging about the experience here, was taken aback by the fact that they really do believe in Hell and eternal damnation, that we actually “spent most of the evening sitting and having a civil and polite discussion with some nice, fairly intelligent people who sincerely believe that I and my friends will be in eternal agony after death.”  Put like that, I can recognize how strange it was, yet all the same I didn’t find it strange.  As I told him then, I’m used to those doctrines.

To explain, I was raised in a fairly devote Catholic family.  While the doctrines concerning Hell were never emphasized in the way that is stereotypical of Catholicism, they were there.  At Mass they did sometimes teach the concept of mortal sin, but I relied on books to follow its course of logic to the end and learn among other things of the damnation on account of such sin of those who understand that they scorn the faith.  (These books, some admittedly rather dated, “taught” me many things besides this, but that’s perhaps a subject for another time.)  I came to believe that “the damned” were all around me, in my community, my school, my church, and that I might even be one of them should I fail to behave in accordance with God’s will.  Unbelievers seemed to be a particularly bad sort in light of the nature of their rejection, but as far as I could tell, most of the people I knew were unbelievers.  I was very reserved though, so I never tried to evangelize to them or anything like that.  I merely became used to having ‘civil and polite discussions with nice, fairly intelligent people whom I sincerely believed were (probably) going to be in eternal agony after their deaths.’  So I’ve been that person who thinks this way.  I know well that such people exist.  Their experience is too familiar to be strange to me.

I was able to persist in such belief for several years, longer than I think should have been possible.  There were two main reasons for this.  The first is probably applicable to many: the belief that being good requires a certain degree of orthodoxy means that challenging the orthodox doctrines of Hell was out of the question, since believing such doctrines and not challenging them was one of the things necessary to being good and thereby being saved.  (Duh!)  The other reason is probably common as well, but by nature not something easy for others to notice: as I said, I seldom talked about these beliefs.  In fact, I didn’t talk much about my beliefs at all.  The result is that they received little direct challenge.  How could they?  But I was sensitive to those devilish sentiments which made their way in my general direction by less direct routes, and the basic dissonance inherent in believing in the probable eternal damnation of seemingly-decent people around me gradually became too much to remain acceptable.  Something had to give, and in the end it was my belief in Hell (and its God).  I have to thank everyone who ever said that it is a foul doctrine, and so I don’t hesitate to join them now.

What I really want to talk about though is the basic social dynamic involved in situations like these, where (let’s say) two people can sit around having a friendly discussion while each quietly believing that the other is fundamentally wrong on some important matter.  After all, believing that one’s interlocutor surely faces eternal damnation while not saying much of it to them is just one of the more excessive forms of this pragmatic civility.  I’m sure that it’s something we all do in other forms.  Here are just a few examples that come to mind from my own experience.

1) In a certain community organization I find myself working with people with whom I share rather different political views, and by that I mean I often find their views quite repugnant.  But we have things to do together and fighting each other for political reasons wouldn’t seem to be productive, so I simply do what I can to avoid political discussion.  (I admit that I could be mistaken on that last point about avoiding conflict, especially because it leaves open the risk that the inaction of people like me will passively allow the group to move in a distasteful direction.  Case in point: ‘doing what I can to avoid political discussion’ has increasingly meant simply being less involved in the group.)

2) For mainly ethical reasons, I’m a vegetarian.  Most people aren’t, including the majority of my friends.  We tend to avoid the topic.

3) Someone is wrong on the internet, but I don’t hit ‘reply’ because I have things to do.

What should I do in these situations?  They’re not entirely comparable, but what they have in common is that they all involve silent inaction for practical reasons in the face of a situation which might seem to call for something more from anyone with a conviction that they’re in the right.  More generally, what is the proper response to such situations?  This is a difficult question and I won’t pretend to have the answer, even if I assume that the context underlying the situation is always one in which it is safe to speak.  (It’s also problematic for me because I tend to be somewhat shy.  This means that the fundamental reason for my saying nothing in such situations is sometimes only that I find myself too unassertive to say anything when the occasion surely calls for speech.  I can then rationalize my failure by saying that it was a sound tactical decision on my part when it was merely a thoughtless reaction.  Separating good reasons for inaction from such rationalizations adds another level of difficulty to this situation, and I’m sure that many people face the same difficulty.  Shyness is after all something that may vary with context.)  I suppose it’s something to think about.

November Carnival of Aces: Gender

(This post was written for the November Carnival of Aces, of which the topic was “gender.”)

“You are a male, and so I’m asking you…”

This was the voice of a caller asking me about something to do with asexuality when I was on the radio.  I don’t quite recall now what his question actually was though, because I didn’t entirely understand it then.  The way he introduced it disoriented me.  Yes, I am a male.  But what was he getting at by that?  What seemed like it would be a simple question was being carefully framed in terms of my sex, and I wasn’t sure what were the implications of this.

Presumably though it had something to do with gender.  There are broader questions that are often asked about asexuality and masculinity, questions like, “How can you be a guy and be asexual?  Isn’t that some kind of contradiction?  Don’t all men want sex?”  It probably doesn’t come as news to anyone actually reading this that these are common sentiments.  Some people ask them and are legitimately willing to hear the answer that no, asexual men do in fact exist.  (Tada!)  Others though are suggesting one of two possibilities: either the ‘asexual man’ in question isn’t really an asexual, or he isn’t really a man: he’s really just a fraud, whether to others or to himself.

What can I say in reply to that?  This is, after all, the question at the root of many others which may be asked of me: I ought to have an answer readied.  I’m going to focus on those who say that asexual men aren’t really men, since I think the other claim tends to boil down into the claim that (cis)males who aren’t interested in sex cannot exist, which is easy enough to refute.  So, I guess we have to start by specifying exactly what masculinity is.  Unfortunately, that’s a bit hard to do simply.  Different men give different answers which may or may not be carefully considered, and even matters of general consensus may change over time and place.  For instance, here’s what Xenophon (or more accurately his Simonides in the dialogue Hiero), from late Classical Athens, has to say (Xen. Hiero 7.3):

καὶ γάρ μοι δοκεῖ, ὦ Ἱέρων, τούτῳ διαφέρειν ἀνὴρ τῶν ἄλλων ζῴων, τῷ τιμῆς ὀρέγεσθαι. ἐπεὶ σιτίοις γε καὶ ποτοῖς καὶ ὕπνοις καὶ ἀφροδισίοις πάντα ὁμοίως ἥδεσθαι ἔοικε τὰ ζῷα: ἡ δὲ φιλοτιμία οὔτ᾽ ἐν τοῖς ἀλόγοις ζῴοις ἐμφύεται οὔτ᾽ ἐν ἅπασιν ἀνθρώποις: οἷς δ᾽ ἂν ἐμφύῃ τιμῆς τε καὶ ἐπαίνου ἔρως, οὗτοί εἰσιν ἤδη οἱ πλεῖστον μὲν τῶν βοσκημάτων διαφέροντες, ἄνδρες δὲ καὶ οὐκέτι ἄνθρωποι μόνον νομιζόμενοι.
“For indeed it seems to me, Hiero, that in this man differs from other animals—I mean, in this craving for honour. In meat and drink and sleep and sex all creatures alike seem to take pleasure; but love of honour is rooted neither in the brute beasts nor in every human being. But they in whom is implanted a passion for honour and praise, these are they who differ most from the beasts of the field, these are accounted men and not mere human beings.”

Notice anything?  I don’t simply mean that wanting sex doesn’t seem all that important to this definition of manliness, although that is interesting.  What I want to draw attention to is the distinction he makes between “men” (andres) and “humans” (anthropoi).  The distinction Xenophon is making here is not simply that some humans are men but others are women, but rather that not everyone, even among those born male, is necessarily a man.  (For those interested, you might want to look up the term “cinaedus” or rather κίναιδος: this was their idea of the deviant unmanly male.  John Winkler’s The Constraints of Desire would be a good place to start.)  This was probably a basic aspect of the definition of masculinity in Xenophon’s society, and it does perhaps accord with the sentiments motivating the questions above as well.  The underlying idea is that masculinity, whatever exactly it is, is an achieved state, and something to be asserted.  This helps to explain the thoughts of those willing to accept the existence of asexuals but not of asexual men: an asexual (cis)male fails to achieve their idea of masculinity, or in other words, he does not fulfil the expectations of the gender role assigned by them to him.

What can I say to them?  Now I’m back to where I was earlier, but hopefully we know more now about where that is.  Assuming that I actually want to try to answer the question, there are a few basic strategies of response which I can take.  These are as follows, rather simplified and ranked in a sort of ascending scale:

  1. “Frankly, you’re right.  I don’t measure up.”
  2. “You’re mistaken, because your idea of masculinity is misguided.  Mine is better.”
  3. “Your words mean little to me, because the basic idea of masculinity itself is misguided.  It should be discarded.”
  4. “You suck.”  (Or in other words, I can call him a κίναιδος.  This happens to have been a basic strategy of legal debate in Xenophon’s time, making it a literal classic of manly discourse.)

#4 is perhaps the easiest.  Fight fire with fire, as they say.  However, it is not terribly persuasive, and so I think it is best to resort to such strategies only when there is little hope of fruitful conversation and a quick exit is desired.  Admittedly, I have never taken this route.  I tend to be less confrontational than that.

#2 is probably more common.  The idea here is basically that rigid conceptions of masculinity (and genders more generally) aren’t to be desired and ought to be replaced with more flexible ones.  People can define themselves as they like, to the extent that this is possible.  Perhaps then men needn’t want sex, or at least those men who don’t want sex can still be fully masculine.  (In case it isn’t obvious, the distinction there is between removing the desire for sex as something necessary to masculinity as broadly understood on the one hand and allowing for men to do so acceptably at the individual level on the other.)  I think there’s something to be said for this strategy.

#3 is more radical.  The idea here is roughly that the gender binary itself is deeply problematic to the point that it ought perhaps to be nuked from orbit (just to be sure, as they say).  I think of #2 as reform and #3 as revolution.  It goes without saying that there is something of a grey area between the two.  Both strategies respond to the challenge to one’s own masculinity by turning the challenge against masculinity itself.

#1 is I suspect something more commonly thought than spoken.  In a sense, this one is also easy: it does not turn the challenge made against it against masculinity itself but rather, in the terms of the challenge, concedes defeat.  I can imagine this being done in distress or apathy.  If it could be done in high spirits, then in effect it would probably be quite hard to distinguish from #2.  In any case, a lot of asexual men probably confront this one, given that it is I think the answer most readily provided for us by the gender norms of our society.  Many probably move from there to #2, whether or not they can leave #1 altogether behind.  That said, from my own experience I think the difficulty this one poses for men is quite apparent when looking at asexual communities: there don’t seem to be a lot of guys around.  (For instance, the Asexual Awareness Week census data just released indicate that a full 14% of respondents were guys!  While this probably says something more about the people who found and took the survey than it does the asexual population, it remains quite striking.)  They’re probably out there, doing what they can to keep their (a)sexuality to themselves.  Moreover, I suspect there are also many who would identify as asexual but don’t precisely because of the challenge they find it poses to their own understanding of masculinity.  While they mightn’t be thinking of it in these terms, they may in effect be trying to change their own sexual orientation.  I think that’s a problem.

So, what can we do about this?  I suppose it’s obvious that we should keep working on visibility efforts so that asexuality will become more acceptable for everyone, guys included, and that the feminist cause is a good one for us, since its purpose is largely to overhaul the old gender norms which happen to be the cause of this problem in the first place.  As for how an individual might deal with things on a more day-to-day level, I may have something more to say about that later.

Better than the Others

This is a response to this post (which is itself a response to this one).

“But the sheer condescending dickery on the post above isn’t a lack of polish. It’s indicative of one of the worst tendencies of the atheist community – to be smugly superior. Think Dennett’s attempt to create a “Bright’s” movement. It thankfully never took off, but there is a tendency in certain quarters to assume being an atheist automatically makes you cleverer than anyone else. I can see where this might crop up, especially in the States, if the only religious people you ever encounter are Tea Party-esque evangelicals, or Bill Donohue of the Catholic League. But for the most part, atheists are not smarter than anyone else, just (in my view) right about a single thing.”

I’ve noticed this.  There is certainly a tendency among some in the atheist community to think that we’re smarter than everyone else.  But, I don’t think this problem of feeling smugly superior is at all unique to us.  Let’s review.  People can be atheists for all sorts of reasons: the only significant generalization that can be made about us is that we don’t believe in any god.  However, there is more that can be said about people involved in the atheist movement than can be said of atheists generally.  This is a community which defines itself largely in terms of a shared epistemology: we value reason, critical thinking, freethought, scepticism, and that sort of thing.  We value these things because we think they are useful for ascertaining the truth of matters of a certain sort and for recognizing claims which are false.  As a community we distinguish ourselves from others on the basis of these things.  It’s no wonder then that there are many within the community who think that we’re smarter than everyone else, since we define our community –a process of setting ourselves apart from others– in these intellectual terms.  This is therefore not simply a matter of atheists in our view being “right about a single thing,” since we are speaking about the atheist community and not merely everyone who happens to be an atheist.  As a community we define ourselves as a group who are right about a number of things on account of our superior epistemology…

Of course, that last bit isn’t quite true.  For it to be true we would have to assume that humans are internally consistent in their thoughts, entirely rational, etc, and these things are demonstrably false.  It is by recognizing our limitations that we can realize an expressed commitment to a certain method of ascertaining the truth does not inevitably mean being right about anything at all, and in this, perhaps somewhat regrettably, lies the escape from a misguided feeling of smug superiority.

If what I’m saying is at all true, then it would follow that other communities may also feel superior to others on the basis of those things by which they define themselves as a group.  Based on my own experience in some of these communities, I would say that this is indeed so.  A good example can be seen in the vegetarian/vegan/animal movement.  Once again, the only generalization that can be made of all vegetarians is that they don’t eat meat.  There are any number of reasons why people mightn’t eat meat, and so little else of any significance can be said of them.  But once again, there is more that can be said of people involved in the animal movement.  This time, we define ourselves largely in terms of a shared ethics, or rather that we largely share an ethics which grants more consideration of a certain kind to animals than is usually done.  The reasons for this are actually rather varied, probably much more so than the reasons for which people in the atheist movement value scepticism and whatnot, and so generalization is somewhat more difficult.  Whatever the reason, the community defines itself largely in ethical and moral terms, and so it is not surprising that there is a tendency among some to feel morally superior to everyone outside the movement.  (Of course, some of this is related to the religious reasons for which some people are part of the movement, since religion is itself another way in which communities are defined.  Even in the West, where most religious discourse has not encouraged vegetarianism for a very long time, there is still a powerful narrative of purity originating in part from certain strands of religion in Antiquity that did, ready to be tapped by anyone.)

This is why the stereotypical animal-rights activist has a marked holier-than-thou attitude, and it is for the same basic reason that the stereotypical atheist is a snob who thinks he (I think the stereotypical atheist is a guy) is smarter than everyone around him.  For the reasons described, there are people like that.  That said, there is also an extent to which these stereotypes emerge from people outside the communities involved.  For instance, if I tell someone who isn’t an atheist that I’m an atheist, then at least implicitly it is probably clear to that person that I think they’re wrong about something: I can’t help but have something of an oppositional stance when I do this.  My interlocutor may then make a similar mistake to the smug atheists and assume that, because I think I’m probably right about these matters for the reasons mentioned, then I must think that I’m smarter than everyone else.  In other words, to someone to whom I say that I’m an atheist, I could be thought to be deeply conceited either because they’ve encountered other atheists who are, or simply because they think it must follow inevitably from atheism.  Or both.  In any case, it wouldn’t follow: it would be a mistake to assume this of someone for such a reason as that.

So, while I agree that there is a problem with some people in the movement thinking they’re smarter than everyone else, I think this is simply the particular manifestation of a more widespread phenomenon common to (among others) self-selecting communities seeking social change, arising from the way in which these communities define themselves in relation to others.  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t resist this tendency to have misguided feelings of communal superiority, nor that I think there is anything wrong with having activist movements like the ones I’ve mentioned, but merely that to be effective we have to keep in mind what sort of a deep-seated human tendency we are probably dealing with here.

A Sexual Orientation

So, I was on the radio last week talking about asexuality.  I’ll have more to say about that later: I should soon have an audio copy of the program which I can post here, and I’ll share my thoughts on it then.  For now though, there’s something that came up during the show which I want to talk more about.  It’s the answer to a basic question that people often seem to have when introduced to the definition of asexuality and the concept of it as a sexual orientation.  To review, when we define as asexual a person who does not experience sexual attraction, it is necessary to explain what we mean by sexual attraction.  Following what we said at the workshop earlier, I’ve been defining it as directed sexual desire.  This leaves open the possibility of defining as asexual someone who can experience some kind of undirected sexual desire, as it does someone who does not experience sexual desire at all.  The question is, why do we call both these sorts of people asexual?  Since they have such different experiences as regards something as basic as their own sexual desire, shouldn’t we distinguish them in such a way as to not say that they share the same sexual orientation?  Additionally, since the word “asexual” suggests a negation of sexuality, why do we not confine the label to those who experience no sort of sexual desire at all?

The justification for calling both these sorts of people asexual lies I think in the concept of sexual orientation itself.  After all, what exactly do we mean by this?  I’d say that it is a concept referring to our sexual desires in relation to others.  For instance, when we talk about homosexuals we are talking about people who have sexual desires directed mainly towards members of the same sex/gender.  (This is another matter, but I don’t think the prevailing concepts of sexual orientation really distinguish between sex and gender, so I’m going to call it “sex/gender” for now.)  When we speak of asexuality as a sexual orientation we are therefore speaking about a term describing people who have no sexual desires directed towards anyone.  People who experience no sexual desire and those who experience only undirected sexual desire are both then meaningfully described as asexual, since neither experience desire directed towards anyone: their experiences of sexual desire in relation to others are both null, and so both are equally asexual by the standard logic of the terms of sexual orientation.  Of course, it could be objected that despite their shared lack of the experience of sexual attraction, we’re still describing a diverse group of people who differ in many ways as regards their experience of sexuality.  This is true.  However, this is also true of the people described by any other designation of sexual orientation.  For instance, we define as heterosexuals both men who are attracted to women and women who are attracted to men, despite the sex/gender difference in the objects of their desire and even the subjects themselves: the focus of the term is entirely on the relative sex/gender relation.  The language of sexual orientation is generalizing, and if we want to label people with anything beyond their own names then I think that we have to be willing to make such generalizations.

October Carnival of Aces: Addendum

In my last post on asexuality and family I actually left out a rather important detail.  Now that I’ve checked with someone to make sure that they don’t mind me talking about them here, I’d like to make up for that deficiency.

Strictly speaking, I’ve actually come out to very few people as asexual.  The first were people in the local AVEN meetup group: that doesn’t really count as coming out since I was talking to other asexuals, asexuals who were also complete strangers to me at the time.  That was almost a year ago.  I now have a number of friends who know that I’m asexual too, but none of them actually found out about it first from me.  For instance, one of them found out because she happened to read the program of the asexuality workshop which a friend and I gave at Pervers/Cité a few months back: she simply recognized our names and knew, and I afterwards confirmed for her what she already knew.  (She is, by the way, an awesome person, and has also since helped us with organizing a number of other local visibility events.)

There is actually only one person to whom I have ever gone out of my way to tell about my being asexual, and that is my sister.  This happened nearly a year ago.  I’d gone home to visit my family and, since my sister is someone I know I can trust with this sort of thing, I figured that I’d tell her I was asexual.  After all, I wanted someone to know.  Of course, I didn’t feel like just blurting it out at random either.  I waited for an appropriate opportunity to arise.  One came when we were talking about a course I’d taken a few years earlier on matters of sex and gender in Ancient Greece, since it led to the discussion of the concept of sexual orientation in general and also the LGBT movement.  Realizing that a suitable occasion had made its appearance, I prepared myself to discuss my own asexuality, which is something I’d never done with a non-asexual before at that point.  It turns out that I wasn’t going to then either, because my sister began to discuss her own asexuality!  Like me, I can safely say that she did not expect her interlocutor to be so familiar with the idea, nor did she expect that person to say, “Me too.”  It was a pleasant surprise, but since it caught us both unawares we didn’t talk much more about it until the next time I visited, once we realized that what had happened really had happened.  It was rather surprising to learn that there had been another asexual so close all along.  (It also raises interesting questions about the aetiology of asexuality, although it sure doesn’t do much to answer them!)

I’m glad to be able to end that post on family on a more genuinely happy note than I did previously.