Liberationism and assimilationism in asexuality

I think there are many ideas in LGBT politics that asexuals can learn from, and one of them is the concept of liberationism vs assimilationism.  They describe different attitudes or different political strategies.  Assimilationism emphasizes that gays and lesbians are the same as straight folks: they just want to live in long-term, monogamous, committed, loving relationships.  Liberationism instead emphasizes that queer* people have the right to be different.  Why invest so much resources into same-sex marriage, when marriage is just another tool used to privilege heterosexual monogamous couples?

These two attitudes are not necessarily in conflict, since you can simultaneously talk about the similarities and differences of queer folk to straight folk.  But when you have major activist organizations allocating limited resources, different people are bound to disagree on the relative importance of the two strategies.

Before we get to talking about assimilationism and liberationism in asexuality, we’d better ask: Do assimilationism and liberationism have any meaning for asexuality?

In my distinction, I focused on same-sex marriage.  That’s because, at least in the U.S., marriage equality is one of the biggest focuses of professional LGBT activists. So that tends to be the locus of a lot of internal controversy, and even assimilationism vs liberationism get interpreted through the lens of marriage equality battles.  But for asexuals, same-sex marriage isn’t as much of an issue.  (I would personally benefit from marriage equality, but I’m not all asexuals.)  Does that mean that assimilationism isn’t so much of an issue either?

I still think assimilationism and liberationism are important (or I wouldn’t have written this essay).  I think the question of emphasizing sameness or difference is one that transcends marriage equality.  If you want to be conscious about how exactly you do visibility work, this is one thing to be conscious of!  Personally, I often go back and forth, trying to find a balance…

We may not have sex, but we can fall in love (same!), but also some do not have romantic feelings (different!) but even aromantics want other kinds of relationships (same!).  And asexuals might like touch a lot (same!) or could be touch averse (different!), and some are indifferent to sex, while others are repulsed (different!), but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a problem with other people having sex (same!).

It’s a tough balance to pull off, but since I’m not a major organization with limited money to spend, it’s manageable.  (Notice I’m taking a “moderate” stance here, but the moderate position is not necessarily the correct one.)

What ideas in asexuality do you think of as liberationist or assimilationist?


*The word “queer” tends to have liberationist connotations, leaving “LGBT” as the more assimilationist or neutral term.  I’ve observed that this connotation is largely lost in asexual circles.  I think this is because asexuals are concerned about the much more basic fact that “queer” seems more inclusive of people outside of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender than does “LGBT”.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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12 Responses to Liberationism and assimilationism in asexuality

  1. Sciatrix says:

    I tend to think of a lot of the discussion of alternate styles of relationships (queerplatonic relationships, etc.) as having liberationist overtones, mostly because of the central theme of rejecting existing romantic norms and building something new instead. I also think that discussion has borrowed a lot from much older queer liberationist conversations and ideas in terms of re-imagining how families and long-term relationships can work.

    On the other hand I find a lot of 101-level education tends to be more assimilatist, even when people are making a good-faith effort to include the whole ace community. Emphasis is often on “look how normal and non-threatening and totally not weird we are! We get crushes just like you! We aren’t averse to sex at all! We’re certainly not sick or broken!” I think this is a reaction to the negative reactions asexual people often get and an attempt to avoid giving people ammunition to marginalize aces with. It’s not a reaction I’m terribly fond of, but I understand why it happens. It’s not like I’ve figured out the magic way to accurately present the whole complexity of asexual communities effectively and concisely to an uninformed audience, either.

    I have a definite bias towards the liberationist side of things, but I think that there needs to be room for both attitudes. Actually, I’ll go one step farther and say that having both perspectives is effectively guaranteed because people have very different priorities and different communities will self-select for people who share the same opinions on resource allocation.

  2. I don’t think I can afford to be assimilationist about my (a)sexuality, because I’m never going to date or marry in a “traditional” fashion, my partner uses the same gendered pronouns I do, &c. Slogans like “Love is love” aren’t particularly relevant to me, because the relationship I have with my partner and the sort of relationship I prefer to have in my life don’t really look like the romantic relationships this kind of rhetoric tends to focus on. I don’t really feel I fit in with asexual people who see themselves as simply “[straight/gay/bi/pan] without the sex.” At the same time, I haven’t the courage to venture far into liberationist queer spaces that aren’t explicitly open to asexual folk.

    • queenieofaces says:

      “I don’t really feel I fit in with asexual people who see themselves as simply
      ‘[straight/gay/bi/pan] without the sex.'”

      That’s something I’ve been trying to figure out how to articulate for a really long time, and you just did it perfectly!

      I think one of the big places I see this sort of divide in the ace community is when it comes to romantic aces. Some people (and these tend to be the people who introduce themselves by romantic orientation first and then as asexual, in my experience) tend to see themselves, like Dominique said, as [straight/gay/bi/pan] without the sex/sexual attraction, i.e. their romantic orientation is more important to them than their sexual orientation. On the other hand, you have people (and these tend to be the people who introduce themselves as ace and either don’t worry about their romantic orientation or else mention it later) who see themselves as fundamentally different than [straight/gay/bi/pan] people, even if they share a romantic orientation. I tend to lean toward the second group, as I think of myself as asexual first and foremost, and I’m not terribly interested in conventional relationships. I think there’s definitely room in the ace community for both groups, but those of us doing visibility work do have to do a bit of a balancing act to make sure that we’re not making the ace community out to be a monolith when it’s not at all.

  3. Andrew says:

    I think that the emphasizing sameness vs. emphasizing difference distinction has more relevance to asexual politics than an assimilationist/liberationist distinction. I think that part of this is that, given my readings, the place where I see this distinction the most (which is most commonly in the context of liberationist folk criticizing assimilationist approaches that they feel have ignored their needs) are a) gay men with numerous sex partners who don’t wan to pair-bond, and b) people critical of an all-out removal of boylovers from the movement in the 80s and 90s, along with attempts to erase from history NAMBLA’s roots in and support from gay liberation, as well as attempts to claim that gay people have long existed in human history, while omitting the fact that historically and cross-culturally homosexuality has generally come in transgender and age-discrepant forms (while assimilationist politics portray notions of gay men being have sexual relations with youth and gay men as effiminate as “stereotypes”, when in fact our social organization of homosexuality seems to be limited to Western industrialized countries, and cultures strongly influenced by such.)

    • Siggy says:

      Yeah, there’s a case to be made for making a sameness/difference distinction instead of an assimilationist/liberationist one. By calling it liberationism, we port over a lot of history and connotations.

  4. epochryphal says:

    I think this becomes an especially interesting question when talking about grey and demi folk, as one of the greatest issues they/we face is being told “oh, you’re not different at all.” In response, then, most of the dialogue around grey and demi folks that I’ve seen has been focused on drawing distinctions and asserting a positive difference of internal experience.

    I’m not sure whether or not to call this liberationist, however? I’m unsure whether there’s an “I may be grey/demi, but otherwise I’m just like you!” happening–or whether there’s even room for that to happen, yet. I suspect that enough of a distinction has to first register, at least in this instance. (And as a side-note, I am now wondering about non-binary gender identity as well, whether assimilation is even a viable tactic yet, without any recognition whatsoever; wouldn’t assimilation mean that identity itself being completely subsumed and conformed?)

    I also see the reemphasis of the difference between attraction and behavior, and that asexual-spectrum folks can have sex and still be ace, as rather liberationist. (Indeed, most intersections and differences, like being polyamorous, nigh require an assertion of difference. I’m not sure how poly could be assimilationist..? Maybe if framed as “this piece is different, but that’s okay”? Not sure, I think I’m starting to get muddled about definitions here..)

    • Siggy says:

      Yes, when gray/demi folks emphasize difference, it doesn’t come with the same motivations as liberationism. Liberationism is motivated by wanting to accomodate internal diversity, or wanting to more radically change the status quo. But emphasizing the differences of gray/demi people is motivated by wanting to satisfy the expectations of our audience. Specifically, it satisfies people who believe that minorities must be sufficiently different/marginalized before they deserve discussion or a label.

    • Seth says:

      Calling for polygamy to be legalized would be an assimilationist approach to poly. Even if it passed, though, I can’t imagine it would satisfy the whole poly community. Better to take the liberationist approach, and focus on reducing the legal importance of marriage.

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