Break the see-saw cycle

I remember the Q&A threads on AVEN, where one of the most common topics was, “Is anyone else asexual and _____??”  Many things would go in the blank, including  “read porn”, “feel sick at the thought of sex”, “just love to stare at celebrities”, “masturbate”, “interested in maybe sexually experimenting”, “get obsessed with certain people”, “really hate romantic plots in movies”, and so on.  People on all sides felt insecure and were wondering if anyone else had their very particular experience.  I was one of the questioners too, although over time I felt less of a need for the validation of shared experiences.

Outside of AVEN, the conversation does not quite go the same way, but it’s still clearly there.  Recently Queenie discussed how sex-repulsed aces are treated as a dirty secret despite actually making a majority of the community.  And on the other side, I’ve discussed why it’s important to talk about asexuals who like sex.  How is it that we have people on all sides feeling uncomfortable?  Why does it feel like we’re on a see-saw, where every time one side goes up, the other goes down?  What can we do about it?

In my post about asexuals who like sex, I thought it was important to talk about them (that is to say, us, since this a group that includes me), but I also expressed some reservations about the way we were being used for political ends.  There’s a specific reason for my reservations: I have seen the Tumblr community.  In some parts of Tumblr, it’s absurd the amount of attention that asexuals who like sex get.  Somehow the message transformed from “a small number of asexuals like sex” to “lots of asexuals like sex” to “why don’t you like sex, what’s wrong with you?”  I’m not surprised that sex-averse aces feel uncomfortable in this context.

That is not the kind of representation I want.  Nor do I want ace fanfic to be dominated by stories of asexuals eventually having sex with their partners.  While I don’t speak for all sex-favorable aces, who exactly are you trying to please?  It doesn’t please me.

Many responses to my post were less reserved.  Several sex-favorable people complained that there wasn’t nearly enough attention given to asexuals who like sex, and that they have felt so excluded and insecure.  And I feel that.  I’ve been there.  But isn’t this situation ridiculous?  How is everybody unhappy?  It’s like we’re all living in different worlds, and each world is our own personalized hell.

Here’s a simple theory about why this is so, and a graph to illustrate:

ace communities[For each community (eg AVEN, Tumblr, LJ, Reddit, fandoms, AVEN in 2007, meetups, Facebook) there is a line representing the ace spectrum.  A certain range within the arrow represents what is considered "normal" and fully included within that community, while things outside that range are considered "weird" in some way.  Different ace communities have different ranges of "normal".]

There are three things going on here:

  1. In every community, there is a range of “normal”, while people on either side of “normal” feel like they don’t belong.
  2. Different communities have different ranges of “normal”.  So no matter where you are on the spectrum, some communities might make you uncomfortable.
  3. Some aces perceive a narrower range of “normal” than others.  In particular, inexperienced aces may perceive a narrower range.

Sometimes I’ve looked at this problem and thought, “Gee, maybe we should stop feeling so much need for external validation of who we are.”  A revolutionary idea, but the problem is that it places the responsibility on the victims of exclusion, particularly the newbies.  We really need some community-wide solutions.

Fighting for inclusion should always involve empathy for the other side.  There have been times when I’ve seen sex-repulsed lash out against sex-favorable asexuals, apparently motivated by the unfriendly environment they’ve experienced.  I sympathize with the underlying motivation, but it sort of puts me in this awkward position–do I now have to derail the conversation about sex-repulsed aces in order to talk more about sex-favorable aces?

But that’s just the start.  What solutions can you come up with?

About Siggy

Siggy is a physics grad student in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and makes amateur attempts at asexual activism. His interests include godlessness, scientific skepticism, and math. While not working or blogging, he plays video and board games with his boyfriend, and folds colored squares.
This entry was posted in asexual politics, Community. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Break the see-saw cycle

  1. I think the ideal solution would just be to have representation of all kinds of aces. But on a large scale this is impossible- you would need to be sure every new ace sees every possible representation, and given that we do this about everything that would require more representation that a single person could see.

    Maybe just having a diversity of stories and opinions that are easy to find would help, but you still have the problem that the new people would need to be able to self-select in to what they want to see- and some people could form bubbles that distort their view of the community (e.g., like my experience on tumblr being that it’s almost entirely sex-repulsed aces- because that’s just who I’ve happened to follow).

    The other option I can think of is to maybe shape some of the 101 discourse to emphasize how few things matter towards being asexual? Certainly sometimes I feel like 101 work is really a process of saying “let me give you a definition and then tell you everything this isn’t”. That could help try and reassure people that their particular experience doesn’t disqualify them from being ace. But I also feel like we’ve tried to do that already. And this doesn’t help people feel like they belong; you would still run in to problems of what actually gets represented and the conclusions people draw from that (even if we are speaking against drawing those conclusions)

    So…I don’t know?

    • Siggy says:

      Re: “Let me give you a definition and then tell you everything this isn’t”

      I actually think it’s pretty important to specifically mention lots of things that can exist in combination with being asexual. I’m going to cite a post by ace-theist, but the basic idea is that if you don’t mention something specifically then people aren’t going to realize that when we say we’re inclusive we mean *that particular thing* too.

  2. acetheist says:

    I’ve been thinking about this, and so far, my tentative hypothesis is that these anxieties stem from slightly different sources (although still within the bounds of your graph there). Generally, anxieties about being sex-favorable and ace come from the idea that if you like sex, you shouldn’t identify as asexual, whereas anxieties about being sex-repulsed and ace come from the idea that people aren’t supposed to be sex-repulsed in the first place. So somehow people are getting both the impression that there are “rules” about how to be asexual, and the impression that there are “rules” about how you’re supposed to feel about sex. The former makes people worry about not being allowed to identify as ace/told they’re not “really” ace/being kicked out of the community for being too allo-like, and the former makes people worry they’ll be pathologized and told they’re making the community look bad, since actual people tout the idea that being asexual is one thing, but it’s not okay to hate sex. I haven’t seen much of the inverse before — saying it’s okay to be repulsed by sex, but not okay to be asexual. Again, this all generalizing, but I think sex-favorable aces are worrying more “Does this mean I’m not ace enough to consider myself ace?” whereas sex-repulsed aces are worrying about something that they might be worrying about even if their orientation changed overnight. Taking orientation out of the equation, though, it doesn’t seem as though sex-favorable aces are troubled by being sex-favorable itself. It’s more about “can these two traits exist in combination?” Acceptance of sex-repulsion, on the other hand, is something that needs more promotion across all communities (although it’s probably more common and thus more relevant to the ace community).

    Although this isn’t much more specific than what you put out, the best thing I can think of is to 1) emphasize that sexual behavior & preferences can exist in any combination irrespective of sexual attraction (you can be asexual regardless of your feelings about sex) and 2) affirm and emphasize the validity of disliking and avoiding sex in general. I think phrasing is a key point here, since phrases like “aces can like sex!” so easily warps into “aces can’t not like sex” and so on. The first point is about “nothing disqualifies you from identifying as ace if you feel ace,” and the latter is about “being sex-repulsed isn’t something you have to regard as a bad thing”.

    Soooo… pay more attention to minor semantics? Is that a solution I can suggest to a community like this without invoking canned laughter?

    • luvtheheaven says:

      I think everything you said, acetheist, makes perfect sense. The other thing is maybe we could stress to any newbie aces asking “Am I the only one who…?” or “Can I really be asexual if…?” is that, um… that is an all-too-common experience to feel these insecurities, to seek validation, to wish all asexuals were just like you so you could know for sure you really belong here. But the truth is we are all different, and it’s all valid. Don’t say, when doing 101 work, “well some really really fringe asexuals do/feel this crazy way” – NOOO!!!! Say “There is a large asexual umbrella and many different equally valid experiences that aces and gray-aces feel.” Just keep stressing that the self-identified asexuals are a quite diverse group, and maybe people will start to realize that being different IS what is normal.

    • Siggy says:

      I agree with the point about asymmetry between sex-averse and sex-favorable aces. Although some of the sex-averse exclusion comes in the form of “you can’t be asexual because what you describe is better explained by sex-aversion.”

  3. I quoted this in another comment, and will again (from Queenie’s post):

    “I am asexual. I am sex-repulsed. I am not your dirty secret. Please make space for me, because I don’t have space anywhere else.”

    What I feel that Queenie is saying and that many other sex-averse or sex-repulsed aces are saying is that we need a safe space. As acetheist notes, the larger society is not a safe space for being sex-averse. Most queer spaces are not safe for being sex-averse. Now a lot of sex-averse aces are saying that the asexual community itself is not a safe space.

    When Siggy wrote about whether aces should be part of queer groups, he pointed out that there are many types of queer groups, some of which may be fairly inclusive and others of which may be safe spaces for particular sub-groups and thus need to be more exclusive.

    My theory is that because sex-averse aces are the most different from the norm, and arguably the most stigmatized by the larger society, they were among the first to organize and thus that early asexual spaces may have been perceived by some or many of their members as safe spaces for being sex-averse or anti-sex. Because of this, they may have been somewhat exclusionary towards aces who did not seem to share these same experiences. Over time, it became clear that the spectrum of asexual experience was broader than sex-aversion and that sex-indifferent and sex-favorable aces needed community too.

    But what seems to have happened in recent years is that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and especially in places like Tumblr is now becoming unsafe for many sex-averse aces. Is the asexual community as a whole committed to creating a safe space for sex-averse aces? Maybe what we need to do is to have viable sub-communities so that we can have this safe space without the whole community having to be that way, as was the case in the past.

    For me, this isn’t an academic question. If the asexual community is unwilling or unable to provide a safe space for sex-averse aces, then it’s ultimately not a community I can remain in. I need such a space, personally.

    I’ll leave it up to sex-favorable aces to determine if they need the asexual community to provide them with a safe space (which has certain expectations and limitations) and how they feel about the asexual community having a safe space for sex-averse aces within it that they may not be included in.

    • Siggy says:

      I’m pretty favorable to the idea of separate subspaces. As is, we have all these subspaces, each of which is somewhat exclusionary to different parts of the ace spectrum. Better to have spaces which acknowledge their limits rather than spaces which say “our way or no way.”

      On the other hand, in a 101 context, *all* ace spaces get an influx of newbies, and the newbies will come from all over the spectrum. Even on this blog, which is explicitly not a 101 space, we get people who learn their 101 here. In order for the separate subspaces thing to work, people need to constantly be redirecting newbies to the right places.

    • Talia says:

      I also quite like the idea of separate subspaces with certain expectations and limitations. At an ace meetup a similar idea was proposed. We quickly realized that other than self-identifying as asexual we shared very little in common. There was talk of a ‘sex free’ event. I thought it was a great idea as long as it was marketed as something that might be useful for some asexual people and not this is what asexuality is or always looks like.

      As a sex-favourable asexual* I would like safe spaces in the asexual community because I think being sex-favourable asexual is very different from being sex-favourable allosexual and raises for me all kinds of questions I don’t know how to explore, think about, or do with. I also need a place where I can rant about places like the AVEN Wiki and FAQ which still sometimes state that asexual people don’t have and/or want sex. There is still work to be done on 101 material. For now I’ve been working through my questions in sex-positive allosexual communities where I feel far more welcome and comfortable. I’ve gained a lot of perspective there. I’ve run into a few sex-favourable aces accidentally in sex-positive allosexual spaces and I learn so much from talking to them. I often wish there was a space where I could meet people like me on purpose. That being said, I can’t speak for all sex-favourable aces and perhaps this would not be useful, necessary, or even desirable for some.

      * It’s so exciting to see all the mentions of sex-favourable asexual as a term in this article and Queenie’s! I’ll just have a private gushing moment because I couldn’t find anyone using it prior to my 2013 AVENues article.

  4. accessdenied says:

    Ah, this is very relevant to me right now! I first joined AVEN a few years ago and there was this initial boost of “yay, other people like me!” But then my interest in AVEN waned and I was under increased pressure from my friend group to be sexual, and I went through a long period of feeling really negative about my orientation and really stressed out from trying to force myself to be something I’m not. Then I moved away and lost contact with those acquaintances and at the same time I found this blog and blogs like it, and for the first time I’ve been feeling positive about my aro/ace-ness. So basically, for me at least, the thing that made me feel more like I belonged in the ace community, and less concerned about whether or not I “””really “”” belonged, was reading this sort of higher-level discourse.

    I mean, 101 material is really important! But there’s just /so much/ of it, y’know? And in trying to cover the entire spectrum of aces, either the definition becomes so vague as to be pretty much useless or it can only stretch to fit those who fall within the median, which leads to the graphs pictured above. I guess I’m suggesting that 101 materials should include links to places like this blog, and also we should be encouraging each other to write more about our specific experiences of being asexual, which is. what you’re already doing. lmao. But seriously, I literally thought the only ace discourse out there was about what asexuality is, what asexuality isn’t, and answering the same four or five newbie questions you see on asexual advice blogs over and over again, until I stumbled on this blog.

    (Sorry if none of this makes sense? It’s 8 am here and I’ve been up since 4 and my brain feels somewhat like applesauce.)

    • Siggy says:

      I’ve seen our site statistics, and we do indeed get a lot of incoming links from 101 materials. For example, a blog might have a page that says “Here’s what asexuality is, and to learn more you can see these other sites” and the subsequent links might include this blog.

      I think it’s interesting how we’re explicitly not a 101 site, and not here to give people social support, but for some people we serve those functions anyway. Back when I was new to asexuality, I gravitated towards Apositive, which is no longer any good, but at the time was the place for higher-level discussions. Nominally, I liked to think deeply about asexuality just for its own sake. But in reality it served some personal function, and helped me feel more comfortable with myself.

  5. queenieofaces says:

    The Ace Theist already said everything I was going to say about sex-averse aces vs. sex-favorable aces, whoops. I guess the only other thing I’d add to the “sex-favorable aces are worried about not being aces” point is that I see a non-zero number of folks on the asexual spectrum identifying as grey-A specifically because they can enjoy sex. I think there is still a bit of a push toward “You enjoy sex? Probably grey-A!” Whereas “You don’t enjoy sex?” doesn’t have an identity (however erroneously) associated with it other than “broken” or “ill.”

    I think having sub-spaces would really help, although I do worry about directing newbies to spaces that meet their needs, given how bad most people are at referring people to outside sources. (I…may have written a wall of text about this on tumblr, whoops. I have a lot of strong feelings about the power of references.) Someone on tumblr–I think it was emeraldincandescent? [1]–mentioned the need for sex-averse aces to have a space to detox, especially since many aces go through a pretty anti-sex period when they discover that they don’t have to have sex and asexuality is a thing and everything everyone has been telling them about how wonderful and magical and mandatory sex is doesn’t really apply. I’ve seen this happen with a lot of aces, to be honest, and right now there isn’t…really space anywhere to detox, because so many ace spaces are super duper sex-positive (even if not all of them are friendly to sex-favorable aces [2]) and if you say anything against sex you will have half a dozen people leaping down your throat. Which is not necessarily the best space for newbies who need to detox or sex-averse aces or people who have only ever had massively negative experiences with sex (like some survivors, surprise, surprise). Plus I’m pretty sure most sex-favorable aces (and even indifferent aces!) wouldn’t find such a space helpful or even a good space for them to be in.

    [1] Found it: http://emeraldincandescent.tumblr.com/post/89598473903/i-am-not-your-dirty-secret

    [2] There’s probably something to be said here about the difference between sex-positivity and the acceptance of sex-favorable aces, because those are two pretty different things.

  6. Pingback: Reflections on the Use and Boundaries of Sex-Favourable Asexual as a Term | The Asexual Agenda

  7. Pingback: Not everybody wants to do it | The Asexual Agenda

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