aversive asexual erasure: maybe it’s just me?

I’ve been extremely indecisive over writing this post because I feel like maybe I’m just paranoid or imagining all this. It seems like, whenever I see a definition or a discussion of asexuality, there is a lot of effort to point out that “many asexuals enjoy sex!” or “many asexuals compromise and agree to have sex to please their partners!” or even “many asexuals identify as sex-positive!” And of course, all these things are true and need to be said. But there doesn’t seem to be an equal amount of effort in pointing out that “many asexuals are deeply uncomfortable with sex and want nothing to do with it” or “many asexuals are not willing to have sex, even if they’re in a romantic partnership”. Am I imagining this, or does it seem like people don’t talk about aversive asexuals?

Does it seem to anyone else like the asexual movement doesn’t want aversive asexuals to be part of its public face? Like, there seems to be a focus on showing how asexuals really aren’t that different from *sexual people after all? Like there’s a subconscious attempt to “normalize” asexuality by showing off aces who seem “more human” and “less weird” to the *sexual majority?

Or if there are prominent aversive asexuals in the ace community, they don’t talk openly about aversiveness as much as sexually active aces talk about being sexually active and sex-positive aces talk about being sex-positive?

This is actually one of the main reasons I left AVEN. While I never experienced any direct bullying or shaming for being aversive, I also felt like there was a pervasive attitude that indifferent asexuals are the “real” asexuals and aversives are somehow pathological, or are actually sex-phobic rather than asexual as an orientation.

I don’t know. This could all be in my head. I just thought I’d put it out there and see if anyone else has gotten a similar impression.

First published 7 Dec. 2011 on sidneyia.tumblr.com 

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(a)sexual exploration

I didn’t get crushes on boys when my friends did. I didn’t understand the appeal of playing spin-the-bottle at lunchtime. Boys were still yucky. I didn’t understand, either, why my friends read Seventeen, because we were twelve.

Desperate to fit in, I got a boyfriend. He wasn’t a nice person. He told me that he had read that the average age of onset of sexual activity was sixteen, so if we were still “together” – as much as two children who only talk on the phone and had only met face-to-face once, at the mall, could be described as “together” – by sixteen, we were having sex, full stop. I knew a lot could change between twelve and sixteen, but I truly couldn’t see myself wanting to have sex by then, either.

Nevertheless, sixteen implanted itself in my brain as the Magic Number. I knew that everyone developed at different rates, and that there was such a thing as a Late Bloomer. One of my friends didn’t get her period until high school and we knew that was one of many kinds of normal. But sixteen for sex was a deadline I firmly set for myself. I read an article about Sandra Bullock and how she didn’t become sexually active until she was 19 (“Speedactress got off to a slow start”, said the headline) and I thought “Wow, that’s really old.”

Sixteen crept up on me. I had had a few boyfriends in the intervening years, none of them relationships that could be deemed healthy, not even by awkward-teenage-fumbling standards, but those are stories for another time. We had sloppy makeouts and played around with my kinks and theirs. I let someone drink my blood once. But I had gotten really adept at stopping the proceedings before Sex started to happen. I couldn’t handle being touched in those ways, or the thought of being nude with another person, or the thought of being entered by another person. But I wasn’t sixteen yet. I still had time to prepare myself for all those things.

I wasn’t sixteen yet, but then suddenly I was. I panicked. I got on birth control. The rumor around the schoolyard was that getting on The Pill turned a girl into an insatiable sexual beast. I popped pills diligently and waited for that beast to rear its head. Nothing happened.

Nothing continued to happen. My boyfriend got frustrated. I found evidence that he was sleeping with other girls, but I found ways to rationalize it. I took his flimsy excuses at face value. I bought into the folk wisdom that men have to get it from somewhere. I was hurt by his infidelity, but also slightly relieved.

My deadline came and went. I turned 17, then 18. I had let myself down. If it had been a class, I would have failed. If it were a job, I would’ve been fired. I watched my friends’ sexcapades with envy now, rather than detached curiosity. I thought I could force myself to do anything. I wanted to believe in mind-over-matter.

I bought a vibrator. I used it every night. It felt brutish and painful and foreign. It left me sore and frustrated unable to sleep. I started to think my friends, who swore up and down that a regular regimen of masturbation, like taking The Pill, would kick-start my sex drive, might be full of shit.

Then my boyfriend moved out of state, and the pressure was off. I went to college. I busied myself in academics and activism. I became a safe-sex educator. I stopped worrying about whether or not sex might happen to me. I still saw my sex therapist, but we talking about other things.

At last, I found the asexual community by mistake. At the time, it was still just AVEN. I was googling something else entirely and an AVEN thread popped up. There was no question that this thing they described, asexuality, was me. I cried for hours, not wanting to believe it. I wasn’t asexual. I was just a twenty-two-year-old Late Bloomer, waiting for The Right Person to come along. But the more I engaged in intellectual discussions about the nature of sexual attraction, I realized it was something that never existed for me.

Around the same time, I told a friend I was in love with him, but that I wouldn’t be able to have sex with him. He was fine with this. We’re married now. I no longer hold myself to the Someday fallacy and I know sexuality isn’t a one-size-fits-all, linear narrative based on inevitabilities and rites of passage.

I’m still not completely okay with being asexual. I still experience some serious dysphoria relating to my sexual aversion and I still get angry with myself that I couldn’t just bite the bullet and force myself to have sex. But at least I have a label for myself, an identity I can call my own, and most importantly, someone in my life with whom I can be (non-sexually) intimate on my own terms.

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unpopular opinion time: asexuality and sex positivity

This piece was first posted to sidneynia.tumblr.com on October 28, 2011, as part of the first Asexual Awareness 

I think it might be time for the asexual movement to tone down the sex positive stuff.

Don’t get me wrong: I know why they do it. I know they’re trying hard to counter the (rather nonsensical, if you ask me) stereotype that people who don’t want sex for themselves are automatically going to start policing other people’s sexualities. I think there’s also a kneejerk reaction among nonreligious asexuals to distance ourselves from puritanism. As an atheist myself, I’m certainly sympathetic to this notion. And I’m not asking that anyone become “sex negative” or take up the habit of shaming sexual people, because that doesn’t help anybody.

But we’re a group who’s trying to convince other people – other asexuals, sexuals, questioning persons, and everyone in between – that it’s OK to not want to have sex. So why are we expending so much effort talking about how it’s okay to want to have sex? Why are we spending all our time talking about what other people want to do, not what we want to do? Asexuals are seriously the only marginalized group I’ve ever seen whose dialog is so utterly defined by effusive praise of the ruling class.

There’s also the fact that constant sexual language – whether it’s pro, anti, or (intended to be) neutral – is alienating to those of us asexuals who have a strong inborn or acquired aversion to sex. Believe me, this is not something I want, but it’s something that’s here, that I deal with every day. The Sex Positive Asexual movement looks to me like a great castle wall that I can’t possibly scale until I somehow rid myself of this aversion (how?), with all my fellow asexuals waiting on the other side, having a party without me. And it’s not just me; there are a lot of “repulsed” (I dislike that word, but it seems to be the accepted one) asexuals on AVEN. A good portion of them are survivors of trauma. Why on earth would any movement want to shut the door to survivors of trauma? Those are the folks who need community support most of all. How can someone who has survived a sexual assault, for instance, be expected to just jump on the sex positive bandwagon? The message is “hey, we’re here for you once you’ve dealt with your baggage, but not until then”. How is that even remotely acceptable?

Because I dislike the scolding tone of “don’t” posts that come without a list of “do’s”, here are some conversations I would like to see that bring the focus back around the the legitimacy of asexuality as its own thingrather than an outsider’s platform for praising sexuality.

  • How do we separate “sex positive” from “sex normative”?
  • How is sex normativity embedded in our language and culture? What forms of sex normative language do we use every day that shame asexuality and other asexuality-spectrum orientations?
  • How can we – or do we even need to – reify asexual-erasing bigotry? Can we – or should we – come up with an “-ism”? I’ve seen a lot of reluctance, and just plain inactivity, when it comes to calling out asexual erasure, shaming and stereotyping (outside of a few high-profile instances like Dan Savage). I mean, for fuck’s sake, did anyone picket The 40-Year-Old Virgin? 
  • How can/should we continue the (truly amazing thus far) efforts to debunk the notion of asexual privilege? What’s the next step?
  • How can/should we educate communities – especially LGBT+ communities – about asexuality in a way that’s inclusive without being sex-normative?
  • Lately I’ve been really inspired by the atheist movement’s efforts to redefine themselves as more than just “the absence of belief in a deity/ies”, instead focusing on the positive aspect of atheism: the presence of trust in science as the best tool we currently have at our disposal for understanding the wonders of our universe. Can asexuals follow suit and define ourselves as something more than just the absence of sex? For me, for instance, asexuality is about enjoying a deep intellectual and emotional romance with my partner, supplemented (but not defined) by a mutual fondness for nonsexual touch. And I know it’s different for everybody.

Again – I understand why asexuals are so eager to debunk the asexual-equals-antisexual assumption. I just feel like we can do it without prostrating ourselves so thoroughly to the ruling class.


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Why I’m okay with “born this way”

There has been some pushback lately against the concept of “born this way” as a rallying cry for queer people. I’d like to go on the record as a queer person who finds the idea of “born this way” very useful, even empowering. There are a couple of reasons for this; one is highly personal, and the other has to do with the way science is understood and discussed in the public sphere.

First, the personal: I am an aversive asexual, and I have no idea how I got this way. My history doesn’t provide any clues. I have never been the victim of a sexual trauma. I learned the mechanics of reproduction at around age four, whilst watching my mother spay a dog. (What is that you’re removing? What does it do? You mean babies don’t really come out of the mother’s “tummy”?) Despite living in a “red” state, where abstinence-only rules, I received comprehensive sex-ed through our church. My family didn’t talk much about sex, but they weren’t shameful about it, either.

By the time I was in high school, most of my female friends were sexually active. It seems that the summer between junior high and high school was the most popular time, among my circle of friends, to begin experimenting with sex. (This was problematic for the boys, as many of them had not entered puberty yet, so there were vicious rumors about how so-and-so had a tiny dick, even though his voice hadn’t even changed yet and he was still four feet tall.) I didn’t understand my friends’ fascination with sex, other than as an act of rebellion, but managed to convince myself I was merely a “late bloomer” and would find a way to do the deed before the end of high school.

In college, I was a member of the campus prochoice organization, which actively promoted safe sex and sex-ed as part of its overall commitment to reproductive justice. We held safe-sex events on campus with free condoms and free samples of flavored lubricant and genitalia-shaped desserts. I loaded up on condoms and faithfully held on to them until they expired. At this point I was still going through the motions of believing I might someday have sex, but was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the idea.

The point of these anecdotes is this: there is nothing in the way I was nurtured that should have produced a sexual aversion. No trauma, no background of religious repression, no peer pressure to keep myself “pure”. I’ve played these events, and others, in my head hundreds of times, looking for a catalyst for my sexual aversion, and finding none. The only sexually traumatic event I could point to was a coercive pap smear when I was sixteen – but this was a hoop I had to jump through to obtain birth control pills, and I wanted the pills in order to jump-start my sex drive. The aversion was there, even then – it merely wasn’t as socially disabling as it is now, since I was still able to blame it on late-bloomer syndrome.

So, by default, I must look to nature, rather than nurture, as the cause of my asexuality and my sexual aversion. I say I was born this way because that is the only explanation I can come up with. I’m someone who needs to know the “why” of everything, and this is no exception. I’m comfortable saying “I was born this way” because it adequately explains the situation and doesn’t blame my family, upbringing, friends, education, or (most importantly) my own psyche. “Born this way”, for me, is neutral. It just is. 

The other half of my objection to the objections to “born this way” comes from the way I see science being misrepresented. Part of the reason some queer people have become hesitant to credit biology for their sexual orientations has to do with the fear that, if a “gay gene” exists, it could be isolated and eradicated (not quite a rational fear, in my opinion, because I don’t think the type of person who would screen a fetus for a gay gene would also believe in selective abortion). The problem is that the popular conflation of biological with genetic grossly oversimplifies the process of embryonic, fetal and infant development and ignores the myriad other factors that make us who and what we are. While a single gay gene could theoretically be removed from the breeding population, this model ignores the complex interplay of genetic, environmental and developmental factors that makes each of us an intricate tapestry – from which no single thread can be easily unraveled. Understanding sexual orientation from an evolutionary developmental standpoint, rather than a purely genetic one, could easily make science an ally rather than an enemy – and indeed, given the history of the misuse of science, and exploitation of misunderstandings of science, as tools of oppression, I believe that an increased understanding of science, rather than a rejection of it, is an indispensable weapon against the kyriarchy.

The alternative to “born this way” is something that hasn’t really been fleshed out in popular discourse yet, but so far it seems to hover around ideas of choice and fluidity, which are of course accurate descriptions of some people’s sexual narratives but would be extremely troubling to me as universal benchmarks, for a number of reasons.

One of my favorite bloggers, Natalie Reed, wrote an entry on the controversy surrounding actress Cynthia Nixon’s statement that she chose to be gay (well, actually, she is bisexual, and chose a life with a female partner – not exactly the same thing). She says,

And what really stands out for me is the fact that the Born This Way debate really doesn’t matter unless we buy into the concept presented by the religious right that queer identities or acts are somehow immoral, sinful, disgusting, inferior or otherwise undesirable (“But we can’t help it!”). Even if it is a choice, it’s a choice we bloody well have the right to make for ourselves.

Which is something I can respect; however, applying this sentiment toall persons with non-normative sexual orientations erases people like me, for whom there is most decidedly no element of choice. Simply put, I would choose not to be asexual if I could. Part of my reality doesinclude sometimes feeling like my orientation is undesirable, inferior, and burdensome (at least I can leave “sinful” and “immoral” off the list, having had the privilege of growing up secular). Attributing all sexual orientations to choice implies that those of us who are unhappy with the cards we were dealt could simply unchoose to be this way. There are two big problems with this:

  1. It implies that anyone who is queer – or, heck, anybody at all – has to be happy with their sexual orientation, because otherwise, why not just try something else? Why stay queer if it’s causing you pain? Why leave your hand in that bear trap, instead of just removing it? And I feel like this erases a lot of queer experience, because god damn it, being unhappy with how you are sometimes is part of existence for everyone, not just people whose sexual orientation falls outside our society’s narrow constructs of ‘normal’. And even if folks do eventually “get over” these feelings (or “choose” to get over them), it’s something that everyone does at their own pace. (This gets perilously close to the idea of enforced positivity, too, which is another entry for another day.)
  2. Attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation don’t work.I’m not even going to go to the obvious place of discussing the horrors of so-called reparative therapy for LGBT folks here. I’m going to talk about my own experience – the only thing I’m universally qualified to talk about – to demonstrate that, even without the coercive, toxic influence of religion, trying to fix yourself is an expensive and exhausting exercise in futility.

I saw a sex therapist for about three years. I started seeing her so that I could fulfill a promise to my boyfriend at the time. He was about to move out of state and I wanted to see him off with a proverbial bang. Previously, I’d promised to have sex with him on prom night, only to chicken out at the last minute and spend the night vomiting in the bathroom instead. So I felt I owed him, big time.

And while seeing this particular therapist was useful in some ways – she was the first person to diagnose me as being on the autism spectrum, something my childhood psychiatrists and psychologists had missed – three years and many hundreds of dollars did not bring me any closer to being a sexual person. It didn’t even bring me closer to being okay with sex. Therapy wasn’t even the only thing I did to try to jump-start my sex drive, either. I took birth control for over a year, and while the diminished periods were nice, I felt no change in my sexual appetite at all. I also bought a sex toy and forced myself to masturbate every night for a period of about six months. Aside from physical soreness and insomnia, this didn’t change anything either.

So, I have tried to unchoose asexuality. And while I admit the rhetoric of choice as a form of radical opposition to the oppressions of the theo-patriarchy is extremely appealing, it simply does not accurately reflect my struggles as a queer person.

No, I don’t believe people like Cynthia Nixon should be shamed and lambasted for broaching the subject of choice when discussing their sexual identities. I don’t think that talking about choice in sexual identities and relationship structures enables right-wing homophobia as some of Nixon’s critics seem to fear it would. What I do feel is that a wholesale rejection of “born this way” threatens to eclipse the narratives of people who don’t have an element of choice in their sexual identities, and for whom a model of sexual orientation in which we can choose (and unchoose) actually takes away sexual agency rather than granting it, as paradoxical as that may seem.

First published 22 Feb. 2012 at sidneyia.tumblr.com

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the radical asexual

I think I might be a radical asexual. I’ve never self-identified as a radical anything, with the exception of possibly radically prochoice – but even then, I feel like “radical” is acknowledging one’s beliefs fall far outside the norm, and I think more people probably agree with the so-called radical prochoice stance than are consciously aware of it.

“Radical asexual” is not something I’ve ever seen before. I’ve seen “asexual radical”, but that seems to imply someone whose overall belief system falls into the/a radical camp, and who just happens to be asexual. So I would like to explore the notion of a “radical asexual” and “radical asexual” positions, in terms of things I would like to see, that may or may not be considered radical.

  • I would like to see the misogynistic, heterosexist, cissexist, and theocratic system of virginity abolished. At the very least, I would like to see identifying outside the system of virginity recognized as a legitimate option.
  • I would like to see an end to prude-shaming. I would like to see the slurs “frigid” and “prude” fall into disuse.
  • I would like to see an awareness of sex-normative language and a new standard of linguistic inclusivity that takes into account the asexual perspective.
  • I would like to see people stop using “sex positive” as a compliment and “sex negative” as an insult. I would like to see “sex positivity” no longer used as a benchmark for being a “true” feminist/progressive/humanist. I would like to see sexual disinterest and sexual aversion recognized as valid approaches to sex. I would like to see a system of sexual nonjudgment that validates negative and neutral opinions of sex (provided, of course, that these don’t encroach on the behavior of other consenting adults) as well as positive ones.
  • I would like to see an end to the pathologization of asexuality.
  • I would like to see comprehensive, science-based, and shame-free sex education for young people that discusses all sexual orientations as valid, including asexuality and demisexuality.
  • I would like to see an end to both the shaming and stigmatization of sexual partners of asexual people, and the demonization of asexual partners in mixed relationships.
  • I would like to see an end to the deeply-entrenched association of sexual inactivity with religious reactionary views. Instead, I would like to see asexuality validated as a form of positive* sexual agency that subverts patriarchy and theocracy rather than enabling it.

Are these radical views? Is “radical asexual” something that’s different from the mainstream views of the asexual community? Am I ready to call myself a radical anything?

*I use “positive” here to mean “something instead of nothing”, i.e. asexuality is an orientation rather than a lack of an orientation, not “positive” meaning “good”. (“Proactive” might work too.)

First published 14 Feb. 2012 at sidneyia.tumblr.com

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If rape culture and the systemic oppression of women’s sexual agency can be traced in large part back to the virgin-whore dichotomy, then all the focus on slut-shaming is only dealing with the “whore” part. The purpose of this post is not to excuse slut-shaming, but to point out that it’s only half of the story.

Prude-shaming* enables rape culture, too. Prude-shaming is a tool of sexual coercion, whether it’s “don’t you want to make me happy?” or “I’m a man, I have needs” or “don’t be so repressed, lighten up!” Prude-shaming is a tool of woman-on-woman oppression – “she keeps her virginity locked up like Fort Knox” (actual quote from a woman about a female friend). Just as slut-shaming is about perception rather than behavior, prude-shaming isn’t dependent on how much sex a woman has – only how much sex she “looks like” she has. Women who don’t dress sufficiently feminine – which often means sufficiently revealingly – or are perceived as not sufficiently sexually receptive, are degendered and called men. Or they’re subjected to homophobic, anti-lesbian slurs. Or people speculate graphically about the state of their genitals (HUGE trigger warning for anti-ace bigotry, misogyny, misandry, rape jokes and rape culture).

Not having enough sex is as taboo as having too much sex, or not having the right kind of sex. Stereotypes about “prudes” (religious puritanism, lack of adventurousness, sexual phobia, sexual pathology, physical  undesirability) all have their analogs in slut-shaming culture: lack of morality, irresponsible thrill-seeking, fear of being alone or inability to get along “without a man”, sexual addiction, and dressing or presenting as “too sexual”, respectively. They are two sides of the same coin. It doesn’t make sense to address one without the other, and I hope as awareness grows about sexual coercion as a manifestation of rape culture, prude-shaming attitudes will come under greater scrutiny.

*Truth be told, I’m not entirely comfortable with this term, because “prude” is a slur I’m not terribly interested in reclaiming. The wounds are too fresh. However this seems to be the accepted term used for shaming based on perceived sexual inactivity or lack of sexuality, so it’s the one I’m going to use for now.

First published 7 Feb. 2012 at sidneyia.tumblr.com

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