Asexuals aren’t “just like everyone else, minus the sexual attraction”

This post was written for the April 2014 Carnival of Aces.  This month’s theme is “Analogies to an Asexual Experience.”

When I wrote my post on the aromantic vs. alloromantic divide (here on tumblr) a while back, there were a weirdly large number of reblogs/links with commentary on tumblr that were refuting the point that asexuals are essentially allosexuals minus the sexual attraction.  Which would have been fine…had I actually made that point.  But I didn’t, so I don’t really know what they were attempting to refute.

Anyway, thanks to that plus some discussion with Jo in the comments of that post plus this month’s carnival prompt, I’ve decided that it’s time to approach this dreaded topic.

Let me be frank: It drives me up the wall when people say, “Asexuals are just like everyone else, minus the sexual attraction!”  I do not believe that asexuals are “just like everyone else,” unless by “just like” you mean “carbon-based life forms” or “probably not zombies.”  (I tend not to like homogenizing statements of any kind, though.)  At best, comparing asexuals to “everyone else” is misleading and at worst it winds up harming aces.

  • When we say, “Asexuals are just like everyone else, minus the sexual attraction!” we throw aromantic spectrum people under the bus.

luvtheheaven wrote in a blog post recently:

When I first was considering identifying as asexual […], I had browsed AVEN’s forums enough to know the different romantic orientation labels. Saying that you experience romantic attraction, just not sexual attraction seemed to be an easy and useful way to say, “I am exactly the same as all you *normal* people, except I don’t feel the sex stuff. The other stuff I do. I’m not some freak.” And it was hard for me to get to the point where I realized it was a lot more nuanced that that, and considering aromantics to be “freaks” […] was stopping me from really considering the fact that I might even be one of them!! [emphasis in the original]

When we talk about how asexuals are like everyone else because “asexuals can have romantic relationships too!” or “asexuals can fall in love too!” or “asexuals can get married too!” it erases that fact that, hey, some aces don’t want romantic relationships, some aces don’t fall in love, some aces don’t want to get married.  It creates this artificial dividing line between alloromantic and aromantic aces, and often leaves the aromantic (or aromantic spectrum or wtfromantic) aces feeling alienated.

The problems aren’t even limited to the aromantic spectrum.  Saying “asexuals are just like everyone else” winds up turning romantic orientation into “[other sexual orientation] Lite,” so heteroromanticism is Heterosexuality Lite, biromanticism is Bisexuality Lite, etc.  This not only erases the fact that, hey, we’re ace, not the watered down version of some other sexual orientation (which is the whole point of claiming both a romantic and sexual orientation in the first place), but can lead to ace invalidation.  After all, if biromantic asexuality is Bisexuality Lite, biromantic aces might as well just join the rest of the bisexuals and stop “trying to be special” by claiming an asexual identity.

  • When we say, “Asexuals are just like everyone else, minus the sexual attraction!” we throw asexual spectrum people under the bus.

How often have you heard, “Demisexuality?  Isn’t that, like, ‘normal’ sexuality?”  Well, I mean, obviously it isn’t (and even if it were, that’s not necessarily a good reason to get rid of the label).  But if we’re so busy emphasizing how alike asexuals and everyone else are, the label may seem a lot less important to people.  I mean, if aces are so similar to everyone else–just missing the sexual attraction bit–then people who do have the sexual attraction bit are basically exactly like everyone else, yeah?

This line of argument can (and does) turn into identity-policing in asexual communities, ’cause if our main difference from allosexual people is our lack of sexual attraction, those dastardly grey-As are infiltrating!  The nerve!  Of course, that train of thought elides a lot of the nuances and creates an us vs. them mentality, which doesn’t help anyone.

  • When we say, “Asexuals are just like everyone else, minus the sexual attraction!” we erase the diversity of relationships in our community.

It is common knowledge that ace relationships can look really interesting.  Part of that may be because of the constraints of our relationship pools, but another part of it is probably because (surprise!) some aces have different relationship desires than allosexuals.  Some aces are poly.  Some aces are kinky.  Some aces prefer platonic relationships to romantic ones.  Some aces have sexual relationships.  Some aces wind up with really unusual relationship structures because that’s what they can make work in their lives.

There’s this unfortunate tendency to try to shove all relationships into a standard mold–the problem, of course, is that some (maybe even the majority) of ace relationships just don’t fit into that mold for whatever reason.  Even when aces do something marginally heteronormative, like get married, it doesn’t always mean that their marriage looks anything like a “normal” marriage.  And yet the relationships that are most commonly featured in media coverage of asexuality are relationships that “look” heterosexual, just minus the sex.  (More on that below, though.)

Yes, there are totally some aces who wind up in heterosexual relationships (and have sex!).  There are some aces who wind up in heteroromantic relationships.  There are some aces who wind up in relationships that look like “everyone else’s” relationships.  But there are also aces who wind up in poly, long-distance, romantic friendships and aces who wind up in queerplatonic triads.  Even those who get into “normative”-ish relationships, may not get into them in the most normative way.  So talking about how we’re “just like everyone else” erases a lot of our differences in terms of relationship styles and desires–which are often what draw people to the ace community in the first place.

  • When we say, “Asexuals are just like everyone else, minus the sexual attraction!” we are creating a category of “everyone else” that inevitably winds up being cis, het, white people in heteronormative relationships.

People have commented before on the tendency in news coverage of asexuality to feature cis aces in “seemingly het” relationships.  Although some homoromantic aces have been interviewed, I can’t think of any articles that featured aces in same-gender relationships.  The few featured pan- or biromantic aces in relationships have inevitably been in het-seeming relationships. Sometimes the trans aces who (against all odds) wind up getting interviewed are misgendered.  And that’s not even touching on the dearth of non-white aces in media coverage.  (Hey, hello, we exist!)

I can’t be certain, but I think this tendency to present aces in the media as “normal people minus the sex!” has contributed to the constant maelstrom around whether aces are allowed to call themselves queer.  If your impression of aces is that they’re Cis Het White People Lite,* it’s pretty understandable to push back against their entering your space.  (Also, the Cis Het White People Lite perception leads to the arguments about how asexuality is “white sexuality.”)  The problem, of course, is that we aren’t actually Cis Het White People Lite, and that the constant gatekeeping winds up, in the best case, barring many of us from spaces we could find helpful, and, in the worst case, keeping us from accepting and embracing our own identities.**

Presenting aces as being like an “everyone else” that is cis, white, and heterosexual erases the diversity in our community and creates an idealized version of asexuality that may have no relevance to our actual experiences.  The experiences of a white, heteroromantic ace in a normative-ish relationship (which is essentially what media coverage wants to talk about) have very little bearing on my experiences as a queer Latina ace.  The experiences of cis, white aces have very little bearing on the experiences of trans aces of color.  Heck, the experiences of heteroromantic aces in normative relationships probably don’t have too much overlap with the experiences of aro aces in non-normative relationships.  We shouldn’t present a homogenized view of asexuality any more than we should present a homogenized view of “everyone else.”

  • When we say, “Asexuals are just like everyone else, minus the sexual attraction!” we imply that asexuality is a removable component of our identities.

What do I mean by a “removable component”?  Well, there are certain identities that I can technically claim but don’t have a particular impact on the way I perceive/interact with the world.  For example, I wear glasses, but it’s quite easy for me to imagine a world in which I don’t wear glasses.  I would not be fundamentally different as a person if I didn’t wear glasses.

I cannot imagine a world in which I am not asexual.  If I were not ace, my interactions, perceptions, experiences, and sense of self would be so radically different that I simply cannot imagine a world in which I am not ace and yet am still me.  This is the issue with so many of the asexuality-related analogies out there.  When you try to use liking or not liking cake as an analogy for asexuality, you’re not talking about an identity of the magnitude of asexuality.***  For example, I genuinely dislike pizza.****  However, my dislike of pizza doesn’t shape my perception of the world.  It doesn’t make sense for me to claim it as an identity, ’cause it has very little impact on my life, especially now that my friends have stopped having pizza birthday parties.  Comparing my “lack of attraction” to pizza to my lack of sexual attraction minimizes the impact of my asexuality on virtually every facet of my life.

This is the heart of my problem with the “asexuals are just like everyone else!” rhetoric, because we’re not.  My asexuality isn’t a footnote to be skipped over by all but the most fastidious graduate students, and so to skip over my asexuality in the name of finding some universal commonality is to deny a major part of my identity.  When people talk about aces being, at the end of the day, the same as non-aces, that’s a form of erasure.  That’s erasing our differences, our struggles, our experiences, our ways of perceiving the world, and ultimately can be used to negate our identities.  If we’re the same as everyone else, why do we feel the need to claim an asexual identity?  Why bother talking about our differences?  Why bother forming a community?  If we’re like everyone else, why not just quietly join everyone else and stop trying to swim against the current?

As you can probably guess, this line of thought can very quickly tend toward invalidation, and people saying, “Yeah, but nobody’s ever been disowned for being ace,” because if aces are like everyone else, if asexuality can get added or subtracted without changing one’s core identity, if aces are Cis Het White People Lite, then obviously we’ve never been disowned!  If my asexuality is like not liking pizza, what am I making such a big deal about anyway?  Nobody cares whether I like pizza or not!  Nobody’s ever been attacked for not liking pizza!  Nobody’s ever been disowned for not liking pizza!

If you have read…basically anything I’ve written, you probably know that I have an excessive fondness for metaphors.  But I don’t think we should focus on finding analogies for asexual experience, because at the end of the day the best analogies for asexual experiences are asexual experiences.  We shouldn’t have to legitimate asexual experiences by comparing them to attitudes toward cake or sensory deprivation or whatever other metaphor of the week we’re using–if people are really interested in learning about what it’s like to be asexual, they should listen to our experiences as asexual people.  If I wanted to learn what it’s like to be a Korean trans woman, I wouldn’t read a convoluted metaphor about spaghetti–I would go read about Korean trans women’s experiences.

By comparing aces to “everyone else,” we present ace experiences in palatable, easily digestible soundbites that don’t require readers to think.*****  We present aces as non-threatening, sure, but we throw anyone who isn’t “normative except for the sexual attraction bit” under the bus.  Comparing aces to everyone else erases the very differences that our communities are formed around, and it frankly doesn’t do queer aces (or aces who need access to non-heteronormative resources) any favors.  At the end of the day, arguing that aces are just like everyone else is an attempt to convince people to respect us (“See, we’re not so different from you!”). But if the only way people will respect us is if we downplay our differences (which is why most of us claimed the identity in the first place), is that really respect at all?

Perhaps, though, part of the problem is that it’s hard to define what exactly an “asexual experience” is.  Sciatrix described asexual experiences as being “bounded by silence and uncertainty” recently, and I think that’s a really apt analogy.  Because what exactly makes an “asexual experience” an “asexual experience” is so hard to define, we reach for analogies.  We find 101 ways to do 101 and recapitulate the exact same thing someone else said yesterday, because finding new ways to talk about the things that have been designated “safe” to talk about as ace experiences is much easier than breaking new ground.  It means that our communal conversations are often cyclical and focus on how to explain ourselves to outsiders inoffensively/effectively/persuasively, not on how to explain ourselves to ourselves.  And, yes, doing 101 is really important, but so is supporting the people in our community.  So is talking about things that not many people have talked about yet.  So is releasing more 201 narratives so that aces who read them can say, “Hey, I’m not alone.”

I guess the point of all this rambling is: Let’s focus on supporting and understanding each other–rather than presenting ourselves as palatable, non-threatening entities to non-aces–because if we don’t support each other, who will?

*”White, Queenie?” you say.  “What does race have to do with any of this?”  Lots of things.  Race has a lot to do with this.  I’ll leave it to people more eloquent than I to explain the nuances of that, though.  (Like this person and this person.)

**And now I’m going to barrage you with links: me on growing into “queer”emeraldincandescent on how gatekeeping in queer spaces keeping them from realizing “how queer [they were]”writingfromfactorx on anxiety around queer spaces, and ace-muslim on asexuality, Islam, and queerness, ’cause (surprise!) culture isn’t a monolith.

***Plus, you know, appetite for food and sexual attraction are radically different things.  The Ace Theist has written quite a good piece on the problem with food metaphors when explaining asexuality.

The other common analogy I see is asexuality as disability, which is problematic on so many levels, and often tends toward, “Wow, these poor people are missing out on a fundamental part of the human experience!” rhetoric.

****There are three exceptions to this, one of which was made by a very dear friend who continually reminds me that I don’t hate pizza, I just hate pizza not made by her.  So I’m putting a footnote here to remind her that, yes, your pizza is great.

*****This unfortunately isn’t the only example of aces shaping discourse around making non-aces comfortable to the detriment of actual members of our communities–for example, I’ve written about the tendency to remind teenagers that they may not be ace forever.

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
This entry was posted in asexual politics, Misconceptions. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Asexuals aren’t “just like everyone else, minus the sexual attraction”

  1. acetheist says:

    A very important post. The “but of course I want a romantic relationship, I’m not a freak” and “but of course I experience aesthetic attraction to this famous celebrity, I’m not a freak” are two sentiments that I’ve seen around, unfortunately. This made me think of them.

    Also–

    “The Ace Theist has written quite a good piece”

    I’ve been trying for several minutes now to think of a way to respond to this that isn’t just “squee!”

    I don’t squee. It isn’t manly.

    • queenieofaces says:

      There were originally another two or three sentences there about how good the points you brought up were, but I cut them because the post was already getting a bit lengthy. 😉

  2. luvtheheaven says:

    Thank you for this entry for my “Analogies to an Asexual Experience” Carnival topic.

    I found it very thought-provoking and I welcome the criticism of my topic choice as a whole. Everything you’ve said has made sense to me, and I also enjoyed reading many other posts for the first time through all of the links you put throughout this, lol.

    Honestly, I love the wearing glasses counter-metaphor because it does make your point really clear to me. 😉 I too wear glasses, and I too can imagine my life not being different really if I didn’t need corrective lenses, but I can’t really imagine a way to still “feel like me” in a hypothetical world where I wasn’t asexual.

    I loved a lot of things about this whole post.

    • queenieofaces says:

      IIII didn’t realize how many posts I’d linked to until I posted this and then suddenly a bazillion notifications came through that someone had linked to one of my previous posts. May have gone a bit linking happy there.

      Honestly, I think analogies have their place (Sciatrix’s invisible elephant is still one of my favorites), but I also think it’s really important to tell stories that go beyond 101, and many of the analogies that ace communities latch on are intended to explain asexuality to non-aces. So it’s less a problem with analogies per se than a problem with their prevalence.

  3. The funny thing is that this has me thinking about how I often use the “Some asexuals, like everyone else, _____” framework to emphasize overlooked aspects of the “everyone else”.

    For example: “Some asexuals, like everyone else, are on the autism spectrum”. Or “some asexuals, like everyone else, are aromantic”. Or “some asexuals, like everyone else, have multiple relationships/are poly/etc.”

    That doesn’t refute your points of course, it’s just interesting to think about.

    • queenieofaces says:

      I’m not sure I’ve actually seen those points phrased as “like everyone else” before! (I’ve seen, for example, “Some aces are autistic, and some non-aces are autistic. Not all aces are autistic, just as not all non-aces are allistic.”) Perhaps I’m not reading the right things, though. The kind of language you’re describing seems to be about normalizing non-normative identities, in a way.

      • I used that framework during 101 workshops earlier this year, and admittedly I’m not sure I’ve ever done it online because usually online I’m not doing 101 work (and I’m usually just commenting and trying to build on other people’s work). But that workshop was to a particularly unique crowd- law students at a very liberal school. I had assumed most people would know that everyone varied along the lines I was talking about, which was usually true (with the exception of when I brought up non-binary gender identities- that got a lot of confused looks, and I was caught off guard by that).

        Mostly the idea is just to shift the framing so we don’t have the pressure to present the gold star asexual to get credibility- by noting how we give credibility to other groups when they don’t present a “perfect” face (but this assumes the audience does give credibility to other groups, and in case its not obvious basically all my experience is in arguing to liberals).

        • queenieofaces says:

          Okay, that makes sense! I feel like the style of 101 you give has to be pretty different depending on who you’re giving to, and I could see how that style of framing could work with a liberal group that was interested in other social justice issues.

    • Cleander says:

      mmm, I try to do this too sometimes – to flip the language around a bit and instead of focusing on “we’re more like you than you think” and making it more about “you think we’re weird but really you’re more like us than you think!”

      For example, when people ask “but do aces have a sex drive”?, Instead of saying “Aces can have sex drives just like everyone else!” (which tries to fit aces into the normative model), I try to say things like “well, just like with non-asexuals, sex drive in asexuals varies a lot from person to person – some have high sex drives, some have low sex drives, and some don’t have any at all.

      It’s still using the “aces and non-aces are really the same” framing, but instead of using it to convince people that asexuals are “normal”, it’s intended to make people question their own assumptions about what “normal” sexuality even is. (though how effective it is in doing that, I don’t know).

      • queenieofaces says:

        I think that’s a much better way to approach the issue, to be honest, ’cause then you’re admitting that A. not all aces are the same and B. not all non-aces are the same. If the comparison of aces to non-aces was more about demonstrating how much diversity there is in both groups, I wouldn’t have anywhere near as many problems with it. (Then again, I like nuance, perhaps more than most people do.)

  4. ace-muslim says:

    First, this is a great post and says a lot of things that need to be said.

    Second, I couldn’t help but comment on the analogy of wearing glasses. When I see this, I actually think about the counterfactual if I didn’t have access to corrective lenses, rather than if my vision was innately as good as it is with glasses.. I’ve been wearing glasses since I was 2 years old and had eye surgery when I was 4 to reduce my strabismus. My vision is still pretty poor and if I had uncorrected vision, especially if I hadn’t had the eye surgery, I would probably qualify as visually impaired. And that would likely have affected my opportunities and choices in life, especially in whether I would be able to work and support myself. To be honest, I can’t really imagine what my life might have been like in that case. Which is pretty much how I feel about being ace.

    • queenieofaces says:

      You’re right–vision is more the point I was getting at than access to corrective lenses. Alternatively, I can pretend that I was talking about the fact that I wear glasses rather than contact lenses (as many of my friends do).

  5. Jo says:

    “I cannot imagine a world in which I am not asexual. If I were not ace, my interactions, perceptions, experiences, and sense of self would be so radically different that I simply cannot imagine a world in which I am not ace and yet am still me.”

    There are a lot of things I like about this post, but this is probably the part that jumped out at me the most. Because it’s so entirely true. Being ace isn’t just my detachable sexuality. It isn’t just who I’m attracted to or not. It’s an essential and integral part of who I am as a whole person. It shapes my views on things. It influences how I act and react. It’s 100% always there.

    I think sometimes this is really hard for non-GSM people to understand this, because the idea is often that their sexuality isn’t essential to who they are… Because they’ve never had to think about it. But I’m going to stop now, because I’m starting to see that this is going to be a post of its own. 😛

    • queenieofaces says:

      Write a post, write a post, write a post! 😀

    • This is obviously all just personal experience, but I feel like I can kind of imagine a world in which I am bisexual. But it’s mostly imagining a world where we use a different conceptualization of sexual orientation/sexual attraction, not one where I’m actually different (more recently I’ve been getting better at sort of “feeling” secondhand sexual attraction through empathy, which gets in to strange definitional territory where I feel like a broad enough definition of “experiencing sexual attraction” could include that- at which point my sexual orientation is basically that of whomever I choose to emulate, and hence the fact I don’t think that counts under our usual understanding of sexual orientation).

  6. Siggy says:

    That’s erasing our differences, our struggles, our experiences, our ways of perceiving the world, and ultimately can be used to negate our identities. If we’re the same as everyone else, why do we feel the need to claim an asexual identity? Why bother talking about our differences? Why bother forming a community? If we’re like everyone else, why not just quietly join everyone else and stop trying to swim against the current?

    You presented this as one of the negative consequences of emphasizing the similarities between asexual and allosexual experiences. But it can be flipped around. I feel pressured to emphasize the differences in my experience precisely because of these negative consequences. And it’s not just my own internal worry about the negative consequences, I actually get lots of reactions along the lines of “so you’re just gay”, to the point where it might be the dominant reaction.

    That, and there’s the general social justice view that a person’s authority to speak is directly proportional to how much of a disadvantaged minority they are. I stopped talking about race, for instance, because I just can’t say any more about how my experience is so very different from a white person’s, I’d just rather let other people speak.

    • queenieofaces says:

      I can understand that. It really sucks that there are people who won’t accept an identity unless you can draw a strict dividing line between “experiences belonging to X group” and “experiences belonging to Y group.” (Ironically, a mixed race friend was just talking to me yesterday about how difficult it is for her to talk about race, and how people are always expecting her to have more to say than she does.)

      I’m not entirely sure what the solution to the problem is, to be honest. I think, on one hand, it’s really important to talk about ways in which aces’ experiences can differ from non-aces experiences, but it’s also important to leave space for aces whose experiences fit the “like everyone else, minus the sexual attraction” mold. And while I would really like more mainstream discussion of those of us whose asexuality causes major friction in our lives, I also don’t want to make it mandatory for aces to rattle off (perhaps non-existent, for them) differences in their experiences for their identities to be accepted. (Especially since it can be so hard to find “differences” even if they’re there, because most of us don’t actually know what everyone else’s experiences are like. I’m just thinking of all the aces I know who thought that everyone else was experiencing the same things they were, but were just pretending to be interested in sex because of societal pressure.)

  7. Mxtrmeike13 says:

    Reblogged this on Undefine Me and commented:
    A very good post. If readers need help with definitions and such, ask away!

  8. Anya says:

    Great piece! I’m just starting to read up on asexuality, since I discovered last year that I might possibly ace (though it’s something I’ve wondered about for years given my views and opinions on aromanticism and relationships.) My friends always say that I’m not ace because I can feel sexual attraction, but this really helps if/when I need to explain my (limited) understanding about this to friends.

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  21. ettinacat says:

    The idea that “Asexuals are just like everyone else, minus the sexual attraction!” also ignores nonlibidinist asexuals. The ideas of libido and sexual arousal are just as foreign to me as sexual attraction is. My body doesn’t physically react to sexual stimuli as something distinct from regular stimuli – touching my clitoris is no more erotic than touching any other body part. It’s just kind of ticklish, nothing more. And the idea of feeling some kind of ‘itch’ to do something to stimulate my genitals really doesn’t make much sense to me. So I’m not like an allosexual without sexual attraction – I’m also without several other things that allosexuals, and even some asexuals, take for granted.

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