Repulsion is not shaming

[Content note: genitals, body shaming]

I’m going to say something that is perfectly obvious to nearly every person in the asexual community (and probably also to kinky people).  It is okay to be repulsed by genitals, bodily fluids, or by any particular sexual practice.  It is okay to make an effort to avoid situations where you have to watch or participate in such activities.  It is not okay to shame other people for participating in such things.  It is not okay to inform strangers that you find their PDA disgusting, or to make jokes about how gross vaginas are, or anything like that.  That’s clearly crossing some sort of line.

On Jezebel, there was a post about a guy who told his girlfriend that he found vaginas unattractive, and joked that hers was particularly repulsive.  Lindy West said the letter-writer should break up with her boyfriend “fucking yesterday”.  Hard to argue with that.

However, it sort of seems like Lindy West thinks it’s not just the body shaming which is a dealbreaker, but the repulsion itself.  It’s hard to tell, because she never outright says it:

I don’t care how much you think you like this dude, and I don’t care how “nice” he is to you when he isn’t telling you that your fundamental anatomy (your literal fundament) is so filthy and revolting that he needs to wear a hazmat suit just to coexist with you beneath the duvet. That’s not something that a loved one thinks, let alone says to your face when you’re at your most vulnerable.  Even if the “vaginas are icky” attitude can be explained away by weak “social conditioning” apologia, the acting out on it can’t.

So anyone who tries to defend the personal experience of repulsion is just spouting “weak social conditioning apologia.”

I appreciate that body shaming is a serious problem.  I appreciate that it’s not just a few individuals, but a whole culture, that goes so far as to sell products to women to help their vaginas conform to ridiculous standards.  And I appreciate that this is a bigger problem than the problem I’m complaining about.  I don’t want to derail, which is why I’m posting this minor complaint on a separate website, a week after the article appeared.

But seriously, this is a minor step every sex-positive activist should take towards asexual inclusion.  Just like how you shouldn’t say, “Every person is a sexual being”, you also shouldn’t say that repulsion is always wrong.  Some fraction of asexuals experience repulsion to various degrees (and presumably, this variation exists among non-asexuals as well).  Most asexuals are not going to use their repulsion to shame other people, because it’s blatantly obvious that this repulsion is thoroughly atypical.  It doesn’t make much sense to shame other people when you know that it’s really about you and not them.

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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18 Responses to Repulsion is not shaming

  1. Frank says:

    I don’t disagree with your arguments, but you’ve chosen a rather bad example, I think. It doesn’t matter in this case whether the revulsion is social conditioning or fundamental nature, the boyfriend is being deeply insensitive and causing distress. And the “weak social conditioning apologia” is a reference to the answer in the Guardian.

    Of course, both Jezebel and the Guardian are assuming that the boyfriend is sexually attracted to women and therefore any repulsion is a psychological hang-up that should be worked on… – but maybe that’s an assumption you’d want to challenge?

    • Siggy says:

      No no no, that wasn’t the point at all. I wasn’t trying to defend the guy, or say that his repulsion was social conditioning or inherent (what does it matter anyway, given his actions?). And I don’t think the boyfriend’s comments tell us anything about his orientation.

      The point is that Jezebel treats the repulsion itself as part of the problem, whereas it’s really the insensitivity that is the problem (especially when it’s part of a systematic culture of body shaming). As an asexual visibility activist, I’m generally afraid to bring up repulsed asexuals to sex-positive audiences, because I see that sex-positive activists, in their day-to-day work, don’t make adequate distinctions between repulsion and body-shaming.

      Of course, last week Jezebel also referred off-hand to “asexual cave-dwellers” in a fluff piece about pastries. That’s another thing that makes me afraid to talk about asexuality around sex-positive people.

      • Frank says:

        Thanks. I knew you weren’t defending him… I suppose I’m just making a distinction between repulsion-as-psychological-hang-up and repulsion-as-consequence-of-orientation – because one is fixable and the other isn’t.

        • Sciatrix says:

          I don’t know, I don’t actually think either one is any more valid than the other. Repulsion is repulsion. If you think it’s a psychological hangup and you want to go through desensitization to get rid of it, that’s totally fine, but if you’re not willing to invest the substantial time and effort to desensitize yourself to something you find repulsive, that should also be fine regardless of why it is.

          The important thing is to not to shame people for things you think are gross or that you’re not into. Analogy: I think goat cheese is disgusting. I’m nauseated by the smell of it to the point that I prefer not to be around other people eating it if possible, and the taste itself makes me gag. Yet lots of people I know think goat cheese is awesome! I am sure that I could acquire the taste for that cheese if I put the effort into it and found a form that wasn’t super disgusting and tried it enough until it Stockholm Syndromed my taste buds into submission. It’s just that that would be exhausting and kind of gross and really, really unfun, and also take up a lot of work.

          Now, if I was dating a girl who was super into goat cheese and wanted to eat it at every meal, and I was super grossed out by it, we should probably break up, because we’re not compatible at a basic level. And if I found that I couldn’t find anyone to date that didn’t have that same love of goat cheese, maybe putting in the work to fix that repulsion and find a form of goat cheese I like or tolerate might be worth it. But that would be up to me. Do you see where I’m going, here?

          (I am also not defending this dude per se, because frankly, if he ever wants oral sex again he should be prepared to reciprocate. But I’m also not really of the opinion that you MUST cure all repulsion if it is possibly curable or you are a bad person. For example, lots of people are really really squicked by certain kinks. I think it’s totally fair if they decide not to work through their repulsion at every single one of those kinks as long as they aren’t also shaming other people for liking them.)

          • Frank says:

            Fair enough… but what if, in your analogy, you professed yourself to be a great lover of cheese and felt the need to eat goat’s cheese regularly? (Why can I suddenly hear someone playing a bouzouki?)

          • Sciatrix says:

            Well, in that case, I’d certainly have a lot more incentive to work on the repulsion! But that’s the point; whether or not someone should work through a particular thing they find gross should be a personal decision based on their own considerations of the costs and benefits of doing so, not something imposed outwardly. And of course you have to deal with the consequences of your own choices.

      • queenieofaces says:

        Your point about the issues sex-positive activists have between differentiating between repulsion and body-shaming also reminds me of a lot of the problems sex-positivity has with sexual assault survivors. I’ve definitely seen sex-positive articles on how survivors’ #1 priority should be getting over repulsion/fear of sex and getting back into the sexytimes–to the point that I’ve seen some arguments that saying “if I had sex with you I would get really triggered and ill, so I’d rather not” is offensive to one’s partner.
        Basically, it’s a whole lot of victim-blaming awfulness. So, yeah, sex-positivity still needs a lot of work on that front.

  2. Eugh, this Jezebel article. Apart from anything else, I hate ‘Dear Agony Aunt: My partner/friend/family member did [bad thing]’ ‘BREAK ALL YOUR TIES NOW! IT’S THE ONLY WAY!’ It happens a lot in LGBTA circles. It’s an abstraction based on the fact that you only know one thing about this person and that one thing is bad, so you assume that they’re overall a bad meany. See ‘he expects you to treat his penis like a lime popsicle at an August outdoor wedding, while he approaches your vagina like it’s a pile of wet dog shit’ – citation please?

    But even that assumes that ‘My partner did [bad thing]’ is the correct interpretation of the letter, and I don’t see how it (necessarily) is. ‘My partner did [hurtful] thing’, sure, and letter-writer is totally allowed to stop dating her partner because she would prefer to be with someone who actively enjoys her genitals, but also her partner has just as much of a right to set limits around sex however irrational they are, however rooted in mysogyny they may or may not be, and he damn well has a right to react to sex in whatever way he reacts. How could he even not?

    And then you have Jezebel making it EVEN WORSE by deciding that publicly harassing someone for setting boundaries and having feelings is a FEMINIST ISSUE (which it is, but they’re on the wrong side). Because there isn’t a pressure for men to use lightening-cream, pubic shaving and cosmetic surgery on their penes. Except, you know, for the pressure for men to do two of those things.

    I guess my interpretation differs from the Guardian and Jezebel primarily because I don’t think he’s joking. If he always washes after sex, that’s either a really long-winded and effort-filled ‘joke’ with no punchline and very little humour, or he genuinely means it.

    tl;dr: I ranted for a bit in a way which basically agrees with the OP but is significantly more off-topic.

    • Siggy says:

      Yes, well. Giving out relationship advice based on a single piece of information is mostly an exercise in abstract object lessons.

      I don’t agree that it matters whether the guy was joking or not. This is a case where intention doesn’t matter, consequences do.

      • I see what you mean, but I meant that there appears to be this implication, from you and the Guardian and Jezebel, that we take the word ‘joking’ to mean that he spends a lot of time laughing about it and teasing her, essentially bullying her. If you don’t read that into the letter, if you just read it as him being bad at communicating his issues and her being bad at hearing them, he suddenly becomes more sympathetic.

        But whatever. Interpreting a letter like this with any degree of clarity is pretty much impossible. Which is why the sheer *volume* of hate for this guy is shocking. There’s much better ways of doing the ‘We’re not compatible, sorry’ talk than ‘You’re selfish and irredeemable and I hate you.’

  3. It is not okay to shame other people for participating in such things. It is not okay to inform strangers that you find their PDA disgusting, or to make jokes about how gross vaginas are, or anything like that. That’s clearly crossing some sort of line.

    I have a big problem with this idea. It seems like you’re saying that it’s not okay to be open about being repulsed by something, or bothered by a PDA. In regards to bodyshaming/sluthshaming, the goal seems to be to replace a problematic opinion (“girls who wear tank tops are sluts! I can’t believe you wore that out!”) with an appropriate one (“Clothes do not determine behavior. Evenso, there is nothing wrong with having many sexual encounters”). The problem with that type of shaming is that the shaming is based on incorrect beliefs and incorrect facts.

    A statement of emotion is not factually incorrect. If a PDA makes me feel ill, I am not lying or perpetuating a harmful belief system by saying so; I’m making a correct statement of my emotional and/or physical state.

    Why should anyone have to hide something that they feel or think? why should the onus be on certain people? (I’m aware that the thrust of your post is on Jezebal thinking that repulsion itself is harmful). If it’s not harmful in itself, there should be no reason to keep it hidden.

    I don’t see where being more open about one’s emotions and issues can be a bad thing. If I know that certain things bother certain people, I’m not going to feel personally insulted by that; I will however make an effort to work around or with that issue.

    No one should be told that they can’t do a PDA. No one should be told that they can’t address their problems with PDAs with other people either.

    • Siggy says:

      That’s all too abstract for me, so let’s put an example to it. In fact I was thinking of a particular case where I was riding the train with my boyfriend, and someone said, “You’re disgusting to look at,” as she walked off the train. No incorrect beliefs, no arguments, no real power over us, just her personal feeling that we were disgusting. I think most people would recognize that this is obviously problematic, even if they couldn’t explain precisely why.

    • Ettina says:

      I hate the taste and smell of coffee. If someone offers me coffee, I’ll tell them that I hate coffee, and if someone is drinking coffee near me, I’ll keep my distance to avoid smelling it. But I won’t tell them they shouldn’t drink coffee because it’s disgusting.

      Similarly, I find sex disgusting, and I’m willing to admit it. But I’ll also say that just because it grosses me out doesn’t mean other people aren’t free to do it when they’re not around me. (Now, if they insisted on having sex in front of me, that’s another matter.)

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