I’ve been meaning to address Joseph Fink’s asexuality tweets–or, more properly, the assumptions that existed behind them–for a while, but I wanted the drama to die down a bit before wading in.* For those who don’t know the background, a short recap: Joseph Fink is the producer and one of the writers of Welcome to Night Vale. He, like many other internet-famous people, has a twitter that he uses to post updates and jokes. The blow-up started when Fink tweeted, “I am Asexual. I’m working my way up to A+sexual. That is the highest grade sexual there is.”** The ace bits of tumblr exploded in excitement–here was a prominent figure outing himself as asexual! Of course, there were skeptics, and many people asked him to clarify whether he was making a joke or seriously outing himself. A few hours later, it was revealed that, no, he wasn’t asexual; it was just a joke. People were, needless to say, upset, although Fink said he hadn’t intended asexuality to be a joke, just the structure of the English language.
I’m not really interested in discussing whether the joke was funny, whether it was a joke he could make, or whether he handled the situation properly, since that has already been discussed to death; you can enter “Joseph Fink asexual” into your search engine of choice to get a whole lot of commentary. What I am interested in discussing is the assumptions behind the joke and how they are a reflection of the current state of asexual visibility.
Obviously, Fink’s readers were supposed to know from the get-go that he wasn’t asexual, as his reaction to receiving so many responses makes clear. But how were they supposed to know that?
The first possibility is that readers were supposed to immediately know that asexuality was an impossibility. Imagine if he had started a joke with the sentence “I am a volcano” or “I am a woolly mammoth” or “I am the embers of a dying star.” Readers would immediately know that although he was making an I-statement, it wasn’t a true I-statement, because it would be impossible for a person to be any of those things. On the other hand, if he started the joke with “I am gay” or “I am a golfer” or “I am bald,” the reader wouldn’t immediately be able to identify the statement as a falsehood, because people can be gay, bald golfers. In order to realize that the statement was false, you’d have to have some sort of knowledge of whether Fink himself was gay, bald, and/or a golfer. (Disclaimer: I have no idea if Fink is a gay, bald golfer. Image searches suggest that he is not bald.)
The second possibility (and probably the more likely one) is that readers were supposed to immediately know that asexuality was an impossibility for Fink. This goes along with the gay, bald golfer example I offered earlier–you’d have to have knowledge of Fink himself in order to realize that it was an untrue statement. If Fink started the joke with “I am a ninety-year-old woman” or “I am a CIA agent” or “I am bald,” common sense, a quick image search, or knowledge of Fink’s career would tip you off that he was making a joke.
The problem, of course, is that there was no way to tell that Fink wasn’t asexual. He may have previously made a tweet about experiencing sexual attraction, but given both the immediate “could he really be ace?” reaction and his annoyance at people prying into his personal life, it’s unlikely that that was the case. Otherwise, there is no reason that Fink should have assumed that people would immediately rule out the possibility that he could, in fact, be asexual. Let’s contrast with the statement “I am gay,” which–like “I am asexual”–is a statement of sexual orientation. Starting a joke with “I am gay” is a genuinely terrible idea unless you are actually gay, because everyone will take your statement at face value–even if, say, you are a flaming heterosexual.
Why does asexuality get treated differently? I think it boils down to the assumption that there is some sort of Definable Asexual Quality to asexual people–that there is, as I have written about before, a characteristic that can be used to detect our Asexualness. The problem, of course, is that such a characteristic doesn’t exist, and that to assume its existence is to fundamentally other asexuals. It is to assume that asexuals aren’t just people who happen to be asexual–asexuals are somehow fundamentally different than “normal” people. Sometimes it manifests as people trying to find similarities between me and Sheldon Cooper. (Yes, I know Sheldon is the only other vaguely asexual person you can think of, but, no, we’re not similar.) Sometimes it manifests as “asexual” being used not to mean “asexual,” but to signal being removed from normalcy, society, and even humanity. And sometimes it manifests as a comedian being able to start a joke with “I am asexual” while assuming that everyone would know, for some reason, that he wasn’t really.
Despite the recent increase in visibility (especially post-Understanding Asexuality), asexuality is ultimately treated as “other.” At a meet-up a few months back, some other aces were talking about surveys that include “asexual” as a sexual orientation option–and then for the rest of the survey force you to answer questions as though you are allosexual. (Which category of people am I most sexually attracted to? Uh, I dunno; where’s the “none of the above” option?) We are given our token check box on the form, but then people forget that we’re an option. Asexuality is presented as a possible sexual orientation, but is left out or talked around in later discussions. We exist when people remember us or when people want to point out ~the diversity of human sexuality~, but then we’re just as quickly forgotten or dropped by the wayside when they’re talking about “real world examples.” Asexuality is what I like to call “the impossible option”–people (not all people, but a growing number) know that asexuality exists, sure, but they often don’t perceive asexuality as a realistic possibility.
The solution is probably…even more visibility. We need asexual people who are seen as “the guy next door” or “the cashier at the super market” rather than “the asexual activist”; as great as asexual activists are, they don’t exactly normalize our image. We need asexuality to be seen as an option, not just in the abstract, but in reality–in all situations. We need diversity among visible aces to combat the idea of that Definable Asexual Quality. It’ll take time, and I’m sure we’ll run into the issue of alienating folks who don’t fit into that “normal” category. But, hopefully, someday, starting a comedic tweet with “I am asexual” will garner the same sort of reaction as starting a tweet with “I am gay.”
*I can’t believe I have to type this, but do not harass Joseph Fink because of this post. I’m using his tweets as a convenient example, not because I want to start a witch hunt.
**EDIT: Fink appears to have deleted the original tweet. Here is a screen cap.