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.

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.