This post was written for the June 2013 Carnival of Aces. The topic of this month’s carnival is “sex positivity.”
Trigger/content warnings: rape, sexual assault, coercion in relationships
If you’ve been reading my blog in the past year, you probably know that I have some feelings about sex-positivity and its intersection with asexuality (specifically these feelings, these feelings, and also these feelings too I guess). A lot of other people have feelings about asexuality and sex-positivity as well,* so when the carnival topic was announced, I wondered what I could possibly write about that a significantly more competent writer hadn’t already tackled. Then I remembered Siggy’s post from a few weeks ago on the difference between repulsion and shaming, had a whole lot of feelings, and decided to write about sex-positivity, sex-aversion, and asexuality.
Let’s talk about sex-aversion first. Some people (both asexuals and non-asexuals) are sex-averse, although what exactly that means varies from person to person. (Some people may also use other terms like “sex-repulsed” or “sex-sensitive” or “squeamish.”) I’m using “sex-averse” in this post as an umbrella term for all people who are averse to/repulsed by some element(s) of sexual activity. As with most other things, sex-aversion is a spectrum—some people are okay with sex as long as it doesn’t involve them while others are grossed out by even the thought of other people having sex. There are sex-averse people who identify as sex-positive, there are sex-averse people who identify as sex-negative, and there are sex-averse people who don’t have strong opinions either way. Again, it varies from person to person.
There are various brands of sex-positivity, but for the moment let’s talk about the two main ones (Calinlapin has also written about this here and here). The first brand of sex-positivity basically boils down to “you can have as much or as little sex as you want as long as it’s safe and consensual.” The other brand of sex-positivity sticks a little closer to its name; its essential premise is that sex is a positive act, or, to simplify even further, sex = good.** What I mean by “sex” in this case is “consensual sex” (as some sex-positive communities will not recognize nonconsensual sex as sex) and what I mean by “good” is not only “morally good” but also “pleasurable.” I’ve decided to shorthand this as “sex = good” because writing “sex, when consensual, is morally good and pleasurable” over and over would get a bit tedious, and I think that all of you can probably understand abbreviations.
It seems as though some asexual communities, in an attempt to seem friendly and sex-positive, are loath to discuss sex-averse aces—think of all the 101 resources that emphasize that some aces have and enjoy having sex or that asexuals “don’t hate sex” or “aren’t afraid of sex.” Since several major asexual communities actively ally themselves with LGBTQ communities–which tend to be sex-positive–it makes sense for ace communities to be sex-positive, firstly in a show of solidarity and secondly (whether intentionally or not) to dissuade anyone who might be tempted to be blatantly antisexual (thereby potentially reflecting badly upon the asexual community as a whole).
However, unconditionally accepting sex-positivity–especially the premise that sex = good–is problematic. If we accept the idea that sex = good, then the obvious corollary is not good ≠ sex (i.e. if a sexual experience is not morally good/pleasurable/consensual, it is not sex). This may sound somewhat farfetched, but some brands of sex-positivity do actually subscribe to this idea. For example, you have this post, which has been going around tumblr recently. It sets up the idea that sex = good/consensual, and if sex ≠ good/consensual, then it’s not really sex. Now, I think we can all agree that rape is awful and should never happen. But the problem with deciding that rape isn’t really sex (because sex is always good and sex is always consensual) is that it alienates people who have been raped by either forcing them to conceptualize of their experiences as “not sex” or by implying that there must have been some pleasure in their experiences, since sex = good and they claim to have experienced sex. (Jo has written a little bit about this; I highly recommend her article not only because it’s very well-written, but also because she is a master of linking.)
The idea that sex = good is also a major issue for sex-averse people (some of whom, it is worth pointing out, are survivors of sexual violence). If a sex-averse person (or even an indifferent person!) has sex and hates the experience, this brand of sex-positive thought says, “Hey, if you hated it, you weren’t really having sex!”*** It goes back to the experience many aces have had, where that unpleasant person tells them they’re not really asexual, “you just haven’t had sex with me.” If what they experienced wasn’t pleasurable, it clearly wasn’t “real” sex, and so they can’t really decide that they don’t like sex (presumably until they engage in sexual activity that meets their interrogator’s specifications). This sort of argument brings us into territory that’s rife with potential coercion and even corrective rape for the sake of “fixing” a sex-averse person and teaching them just how “wonderful” sex can be. I’m certainly not saying that sex-positivity condones rape, but I am saying that someone who truly believes that sex is unconditionally good may pressure a partner, acquaintance, friend, or total stranger into sex they don’t want.
For that matter, following this line of thought, sex-aversion is wrong, because sex is inherently pleasurable and morally good. This leads to the silencing of sex-averse voices in sex-positive spaces, which is a major issue not only for sex-averse asexuals but also for survivors of sexual violence who perhaps don’t want to hear graphic descriptions of what Person A did with Person B’s genitals last night. In many queer spaces, sex and sexuality are emphasized, and anyone who is uncomfortable with that (or is triggered by sexual discussions) is expected to gracefully excuse themselves. (There’s some discussion of this problem here and here.) If you deny firstly that negative sexual experiences are “real” sex and secondly that anyone could be triggered or made uncomfortable by discussing something as unconditionally “good” as sex and sexuality, you may wind up forcing a number of people (not only sex-averse asexuals!) out of your space.
But let’s take a step back. After all, some aces aren’t sex-averse. Does this argument that sex = good hurt indifferent aces? What about sexually active aces (regardless of whether they are averse or indifferent or something else entirely)? Well, the idea that sex = good causes issues for all aces, regardless of whether they’re averse or not, because it says that there is a “right” way to have sex (namely, a pleasurable and consensual way to have sex), and if you’re not following that “right” way, you’re not really having sex. If you were following the consent shaming debacle on tumblr a few months ago, you probably saw a whole lot of this: aces who would hypothetically agree to have consensual sex with non-ace partners were referred to as turning themselves into “living fuckdolls” and were stripped of any semblance of sexual agency, among other anti-asexual sentiments. The driving belief behind many of the anti-ace arguments was that if the sex wasn’t enjoyable, it couldn’t really be consensual, despite the fact that the OP (and many other aces) insisted that they could consent to non-enjoyable sex. If you start deciding that only certain acts performed by certain people in certain mindsets are “good enough” or “pleasurable enough” to qualify as “real sex,” you start leaving a whole lot of people—not only aces—out. For example, if sex only counts as sex when it’s pleasurable, people who have fumbling, awkward, or not very good sex aren’t really having sex. Where do you draw the line? At what point is sex “pleasurable enough” to qualify as “real sex”? If someone gets elbowed in the eye halfway through, does it stop counting as sex? Perhaps that’s a bit of an extreme example, but if you start setting a bar for sexual activity, you may wind up denying the legitimacy of the sexual experiences of a number of people–not only aces.
Should aces ally themselves with the brand of sex-positivity that says “sex = good and anyone who disagrees is wrong, broken, or repressed”? Obviously there are major issues with doing so; a number of aces would be either excluded or told to shut up. Should aces ally themselves with the other brand of sex-positivity, the one that says that people should feel free to have as much or as little sex as they want? Some aces (such as this one, this one, and this one) enthusiastically support this brand of sex-positivity and believe that aces can (and should) be sex-positive. Some aces (such as this one) argue that although the ideas may be worthwhile, the name of the movement—“sex-positive”—is problematic, as it frames sex as an essentially positive thing, thus putting itself at odds with some aces’ (and non-aces’) lived experiences for the sake of fighting against the societal repression and repudiation of sex and sexuality. There may also be the tacit assumption that, at the end of the day, everyone wants sex, which is not necessarily the best environment for aces to be in.
Some people argue instead for the adoption of a “sex-neutral” label, which they feel more accurately reflects the attitude of the “however much sex you do or don’t have is okay” brand of sex-positivity without endorsing the idea that (consensual) sex is an unconditionally positive experience. Of course, there are problems with this idea as well, mainly that sex-positivity is already a major movement, while sex-neutrality is not. If ace communities decide to label themselves as sex-neutral, they will become separatists, and have to build their campaigns and resources from the ground up. They may also be seen as shaming sexually active people. On the other hand, if they continue to adopt the sex-positive label, they can collaborate with preexisting sex-positive organizations to make ace-competent resources, but they might also have to devote time and energy to fighting the belief that sex is unconditionally good (or else ignore the problem and alienate a number of aces). It’s a dilemma, and I don’t think there are any easy answers.
I do think that whatever decision ace communities make, we need to think about how to make the ace spaces safe for everyone on the asexual spectrum—sex-averse aces, sexually active aces, indifferent aces, aces who have survived sexual violence, aces who love sex and aces who hate it and everyone in between. We need to recognize that for some people sex is great and for some sex is horrific and for some it’s on par with folding laundry. We need to remember that, for some people, even consensual sexual experiences can be extremely upsetting, and those people’s feelings about sex are just as valid as the feelings of people who love sex. We need to either create a balance in our spaces so that sexually active aces can talk about their experiences without making sex-averse aces uncomfortable and sex-averse aces can talk about their discomfort without shaming sexually active aces or we need to create separate spaces and be clear about what sorts of discussions are welcome where. We need to talk about and support sex-averse aces just as much as indifferent aces, because otherwise we risk sending the message that there’s a “right” way to be asexual.
What it comes down to is that we in the ace community need to stop saying, “Sex is good even if most of us don’t want it.” Sex isn’t always good; sometimes it’s downright awful. Saying “sex is good” might endear sex-positive communities to us (or it might not), but it will almost certainly alienate and isolate the aces for whom sex is not good, has never been good, and will never be good. And if those aces don’t have a space in our community, where can they possibly go?
*I have linked…possibly too many essays on sex-positivity (and its intersection with asexuality) throughout this post. (Too many links? Blasphemy!) Even if you think I am a boring and terrible writer, you should go read the linked essays, because they were written by people far more eloquent than I.
**Some people who endorse the first brand of sex-positivity also believe that sex = good, but still emphasize that people should have the ability/right to choose how much sex they do or don’t want to have. Obviously that kind of undermines the whole decision rhetoric, ’cause that’s kind of like saying, “Well, I guess you can not have sex if you want, but it’s only the best thing ever.”
***In a stunningly strange example of this, I once had to take a survey for my university which had the following questions:
“Are you sexually active?” Sexually active was then defined as “having ever engaged in sexual activity,” followed by a long list of activities.
“If sexually active, at what age did you first have consensual sex?”
You can probably see the problem here for people whose only sexual contact has been nonconsensual. I suppose the assumption was that anyone who had been assaulted would…then go out and have sex so they could be properly counted for this survey? Um. No.