The Colonized Asexual – a response to racial trauma

Essential understandings of being ‘born’ ‘asexual’ and loving my ‘asexual’ self will never make sense to me. In a world that continually erases Asian (male assigned) sexualities I was coerced into asexuality. It is something I have and will continue to struggle with. My asexuality is a site of racial trauma.  I want that sadness, that loss, that anxiety to be a part of asexuality politics. – Alok Vaid-Menon (ETA: link is broken, but the article has been mirrored)

Asexuality is not my racial trauma. It is antithetical to everything a Black man is supposed to be. – Obsidian Magazine

Would I consider my own asexuality the site of racial trauma?  Is my asexuality in defiance of, or compliance with, colonial logics?

  • Asian men: De-sexualized. Accepting asexuality is compliant.
  • Black men: Hyper-sexualized. Accepting asexuality is not compliant.
  • The unknown quantity – Asian women: Hyper-sexualized, but only as objects. Not given sexual desires in themselves, but expected to be sexually receptive. What then?

Did colonization coerce me into asexuality?

Is coerced asexuality actually relevant to asexuality?

I’ll bite.  My asexuality is compliant in the sense that I am not the subject of sexual desire. I do not seek, nor desire others to fulfill my sexuality. Left simply at my lack of initiative, I can be cast as the submissive, exotic woman. Existing to be chosen, to have sexuality exercised upon me, yet possessing no endogenous sexual drives that would upset the dynamics that render me powerless and voiceless.

My asexuality also removes me from the ultimate realization of these dynamics. I am not compliant – I am declining – I am uninterested, unimpressed, and the subject is rejected not because another man has “claimed” me, but by my own withdrawal from his pursuit. I do not fulfill his sexual fantasies, but neither do I subvert his with any of my own.

My refusal toward objectification is in direct defiance of the role expected of my identities. But my acceptance of not being a subject, in not possessing any of my own sexual desires, is compliant. So where does that leave me, in a colonially-shaped conception of my asexuality?

I could have internalized white conceptions of Asian and female sexual passivity, which has led to the complete neutering of any sexual desires within me. This leaves me with something appearing partially defiant, but ultimately not revolutionary. My asexuality is still the product of colonization, and I am alienated from attaining a more fulfilling sexuality because of it.

My happy complacency with my asexuality could be construed as a cowardice to combat colonial logics and my self-silencing within racial dialogues.  We could say that my asexuality is the unwilling result of years of colonization, now so comfortably embedded in my conception of myself that I am loathe to reject the very thing that subdues me.

I am grappling with the impossibility of describing my subconsciousness.

I fully acknowledge that the influence exists – that I am weighed down by internalized racism by virtue of operating within this world – but its exact effect upon my sexuality is unknown. Perhaps it happened exactly as described. Or, alternatively, the disgust at what I found buried within my mind led me to feel empowered to become asexual.  To refuse to conceive of myself as an object for the white male gaze.

There are a hundred permutations of internalization – realization – rejection – acceptance that could have led to what I feel now, and no way of knowing which is true.

And deciding upon any of them has no consequence in changing what I am now.

Whatever influences that exerted themselves upon my developing mind to lead me to this identity have long since sealed their doors, and what I am left with, currently, is a lack of sexual feeling.  Do I pick apart the facets of culture that could have led me to this point?  Toward what conclusion would this ultimately lead?

The realization and explanation of colonial influence upon my body will not “correct” what other bodies failed to change.  It will not make me feel any lighter.

I find some small liberation in claiming the label of asexuality and removing myself from the role of a sexual object, which I recognize is not afforded to all POC. I am allowed to feel satisfied in being noncompliant. For people who are cast as neither the sexual subject nor the sexual object, there is something submissive about claiming asexuality within the dialogue of colonization.  I recognize this as a source of distress.

But much more so than this – than viewing asexuality within colonization – satisfaction came to me from acknowledging the bounds of my personal comfort, and with reconciling what I internally felt with what I externalized in my relationships. Asexuality is still a source of anxiety and incongruence within a heteronormative culture, but it is decidedly more comfortable than forcing sexuality.  This was an even greater source of distress.

To view the site of asexuality as wholly confining, coercive, and distressing – to regard it as something needing to be broken away from in order to heal – describes a radically different conception of asexuality altogether.  The desire to be sexual itself excludes all conventional notions of being asexual.  And this is where the argumentative disconnect occurs.

The conversation addressing the policing and colonization of POC sexualities is vital. The conversation addressing POC within asexual spaces is vital. Yet the convolution of the two in Vaid-Menon’s writing, in a manner that uses the term “asexual” to describe POC who aren’t actually comfortable with asexuality, who consider their sexuality taken from them, confounds a functional identity with something forged through violence. As long as we are insisting upon a pathologized and broken asexuality – one that hinges on cause-and-effect and seeks to rectify the effect by correcting the cause – people will not follow.  This is not due to reluctance or lack of investment in the goals of the dialogue.  It is because the argument has been rendered incommunicable.

We can, and should talk about how colonial politics shape our desires. We need to talk about the de-sexualization of brown male bodies and how this is harmful and traumatizing. But to inject this topic specifically into asexual circles among people who have a very different functional definition of asexuality – one that involves consent to one’s asexuality above all – ceases to make sense.  And it is likely to be met with confused silence.

Conversations concerning the “unassailable asexual” have reiterated that trauma should never call into question a person’s claim to asexuality, nor should it be assumed to be the cause. But the intentional posturing of trauma as the cause and subsequent asexuality as a source of distress will incite page-flipping through the DSM from allosexuals and asexuals alike.

Deconstruction of conventional rhetoric is useful, until it dismantles communication.

It is nonsensical to haphazardly invoke a label and ascribe to it an entirely different description than what has been reached by medical and psychological research.  And then consequently reject the label because it is ill-fitting. And then to leave the burden of explanation upon the people who use that label.  And to lastly wrap the argument in revolutionary rhetoric so that conscientious objections are stifled out of fear of appearing oppressive.

Again – these dialogues need to happen, but I don’t see how it is at all rational or pertinent to insist that these dialogues belong here.

I am aware that I am partially arguing semantics (i.e. “use different word”), but I need to reiterate the harm in specifically seeking to engage with asexual politics.  To drag in a segment of the population that already experiences hostility, invalidation, and pathologization – to invoke decolonizing rhetoric in a manner that places asexuals in a Catch-22 of hosting a self-harming dialogue that is not germane to their identities, or risk appearing erasive – strikes me as unfair.  At the very least, it is an unfocused and ineffective manner of making this truthful dialogue happen.

I don’t want to be the singular voice on this, and I don’t know if I am speaking alone.  Vaid-Menon’s posturing of this dialogue ensured that very few asexual voices replied, and the essay has been passed through allosexual blogs without commentary or recognition of its inherent problems.  Asexuality politics risk being shifted by popular assent from those who are not asexual, demanding asexual communities’ engagement in a dialogue that is already rigged to cast them as invalidating POC histories.

A dialogue that I ultimately do not feel is asexual.

I’m leaving this to the comments:

Does it make sense for asexual politics to be asked to provide the space to address this?

Are we allowed to ascribe to our current definitions of “asexuality” and mediate its application without being classist, racist, and colonizing?

What would it take to make this dialogue specifically asexual?

How should we be engaging with this?

About Katie

Katie is an American expat working abroad on environmental conservation. She is a queer romantic asexual, mixed race, and existentially overwhelmed. When she’s not chasing pigs away from her vegetable garden, she likes to keep up on intersectional issues and open her ears to the murmurs of the internet.
This entry was posted in asexual identity, asexual politics, Intersectionality. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to The Colonized Asexual – a response to racial trauma

  1. Cleander says:

    One thing that pops up in asexuality and race rhetoric (well, it’s more a problem in critical theory and asexuality more generally) that I take issue with is when people state that they are “radicalizing the definitions of asexuality” or “rejecting neoliberal capitalist definitions of asexuality” – when what they really are doing is simply taking stereotypical ideas of what “asexuality” is and taking them at face value, and ignoring the words of actual self-identified asexuals. (This is often because acknowledging actual community rhetoric would usually disprove their entire thesis) What’s worse is when they then use asexual communities like AVEN as examples of these despite sites like AVEN explicitly rejecting those definitions.

    (This tends to be most common among non-asexuals, or people who [dis]identify with “asexual” but don’t actually participate much in asexual communities – commentary on race from those actually active in asexual circles rarely have this problem)

    • Miriel says:

      This is so true about the critical theory. So many critical papers talk about an asexuality that has little to nothing to do with the asexuality I’m familiar with (but everything to do with the author using “some people don’t want to have sex” as a boost for their pet theory). One of the very first such piece that I can recall was about how asexuality tied in with anti-materialism and anti-consumerism, a la feminism and political lesbianism. Thanks for the acknowledgement, I guess, but my sexual orientation isn’t a political statement.

    • Sciatrix says:

      Going back and rereading the piece, the mention of using the identity “asexual” as ‘a shorthand we have been prescribed to halt conversation’ particularly strikes me as…. wow, you really haven’t spent a lot of time in actual asexual spaces, have you?

      The use of AVEN and other communities to imply “and people who identify like this are real!” while simultaneously using definitions of asexuality that no ace person would recognize happens outside of critical theory, too. I still remember a human sexuality textbook from undergrad that defined asexuality as a lack of external genitalia in one paragraph and then inserted a paragraph about AVEN (with no definitional change!) in the next breath. But the prevalence of it in critical theory is largely why I’ve given up looking at academic writing on asexuality–for the most part, it’s either boring ‘do they exist?’ type stuff or that kind of tone-deaf disengagement with what ace communities are actually doing.

      • (sorry for the long post, this kind of ended up addressing/agreeing with a lot of the comments and not just yours)

        I assumed Alok wasn’t at all familiar with the asexual community as we knew it, and basically wasn’t talking about us. I mean, besides the kind of thing you mentioned, he also seems to imply that asexuality is about libido. Stating that “asexuality has always been crafted to subjugate Asian masculinities” also seemed a bit off, at least without explanation- given that subjugation of Asian masculinities outdates our version of asexuality by a few centuries at least, and I’ve seen no evidence that asexual activists coming up with the terminology had that subjugation in mind or were even aware that it exists (which can be a problem- most of asexual theory was theorized in a vacuum, which means the theory probably had white people in mind, and may not apply well to or include the experiences of PoC).

        I basically picked up on that and then didn’t read the piece carefully when I first saw it, because I figured it was another writer not understanding asexuality at all and- to echo how the main post put it- acting as if wrapping things in the guise of anti-colonial and revolutionary rhetoric saves one from having to put the due diligence in to learn what they are talking about (I’ve also been afraid to bring that up because most of my experiences with people using marxist/revolutionary/anti-colonial language have ended with me realizing they just use such terminology to dogmatically dismiss critics instead of build points, and that has caused me to instinctively and unfairly dismiss anything using the language even when there are legitimate points to make, because I assume they are going to be like other people from those communities I’ve encountered. Combined with my lack of knowledge about racial issues, and I end up in a position where I don’t feel like I can argue adequately about the subject and it would be best if I leave it to someone else).

        To summarize: Pretty much I saw Alok addressing asexuality as we understand it only to the same degree as someone who says “Gay men choose to only like men and are therefore devaluing women and being sexist” is talking about gay men. So basically: he’s not talking about us at all, but instead about some weird idea of what we must be like that is probably full of assumptions and stereotypes, and he’s using the anti-colonial language to shield himself from having to check his assumptions. He may be on to some important ideas (see Siggy, below, and the main post, above), but he’s not actually presenting them.

        • Oh, and I just realized Laura did a much better job of discussing the “Asexuality has always been a carefully crafted strategy to subjugate Asian masculinities” in more depth below, and I really should point that out.

  2. Miriel says:

    Oh, thank goodness an actual ace wrote about this article for once.

    My first reaction to it was that it didn’t have much to do with the asexual community, or at least none of the ones I was familiar with. The author kept using the word and mentioned the community, but the impression I got was that he wasn’t actually all that asexual, but someone who’d stifled his sexuality. At the very least, that’s how he seemed to regard himself. Towards the end of the essay, he implies that this is or could be true for other asexuals as well (or at least the ones that aren’t white). That isn’t what the asexual community talks about when we talk about being ace, so my initial response was to, with some confusion, dismiss the article as orthogonal to the community’s understanding of asexuality.

    My second reaction to it, however, was irritation. Because while this isn’t what the ace community says about asexuality, it’s what plenty of other people do. How many times have we heard some variation on this theme? You’re not asexual, you’re just repressed because of (pick one): religion, a prudish upbringing, a sex negative culture, a bad experience, body hatred, all of the above, etc. And then along comes Vaid-Menon, with a much-linked essay, saying that this harmful, invalidating trope is true.

    He doesn’t acknowledge that this is a common form of invalidation, or that this variety of non-sexuality is not what the ace community is talking about. Nor is this piece an exploration of his feelings alone; he obviously thinks that his situation is not unique, and that his conclusions are applicable to a wider group of people. He uses some of the ace community’s language, yes, but either he has only a cursory understanding of its ideas, or he simply doesn’t care if he misrepresents us in a way that reinforces existing prejudices. (Or, I suppose, expressed himself poorly. Never ascribe to malice or ignorance what can adequately be explained by bad writing, as the saying doesn’t go.)

    On a broader level, to address your general question, I think matters like this have as much to do with asexuality as people who lose interest in sex after illness or acute trauma, or individuals who are celibate despite wanting sex. Which is to say: some of the issues overlap, but they’re not the same thing. The asexual community is a fine place to talk about those concerns that intersect, but only those. Race and asexuality, culture and asexuality – these are worthwhile topics for the community, but they need to be about *asexuality* as we understand it, not induced non-sexuality. Vaid-Menon might have been using the word, but he was talking about something entirely different.

  3. Sara K. says:

    “And to lastly wrap the argument in revolutionary rhetoric so that conscientious objections are stifled out of fear of appearing oppressive.”

    That is me and my ‘confused silence’ in response to this article. The first time I read it … I did not even understand it, but as a white person I figured that it could just be white privilege clouding my mind so I figured it was better to just be quiet and let the aces of color discuss.

    • Sciatrix says:

      Mine as well, to be frank. There was nothing to recognize about the community I know in the piece or the rhetoric that actual ace communities use–but I figured, hey, I could be missing something?

    • Brin says:

      Exactly. The argument’s been very well cloaked, phrased in such a way as to give off all the subcultural signals of “It is forbidden to disagree”. I’m far too cowardly to make forbidden arguments myself.

    • Yes, I think this was an important factor in what discussions there have been – and not been – as Vaid-Menon’s post has been shared around the asexual blogs. That’s why I’m glad that Katie posted this and glad that her post is making a space for greater engagement with the questions raised.

  4. Siggy says:

    I think I was more sympathetic to Alok’s piece, compared to above commenters.

    The basic problem is that a lot of asexual rhetoric is geared towards the context where everyone is expected to be sexual, and asexuals are just so shocking for bucking that trend. But Alok deals with a different context, where everyone expects them to be desexualized, and asserting one’s sexuality is an expression of anticolonialism. The fact that asexual rhetoric does not deal with Alok’s context (or at least, doesn’t do it prominently enough that they’ve seen) could be described as whitewashing.

    I think this deserves some discussion within asexuality. I don’t think the people in existing asexual communities should have sole control over the direction of asexuality. I think that people surviving any sort of trauma should be given space to discuss whatever their trauma means to them.

    I think it’s unfortunate that the essay was couched in terms such that people who might have disagreed felt like maybe they just didn’t understand. I had some disagreements too. I think Alok’s context is comparable to when feminists or disability activists react to desexualization by insisting that we are all sexual beings. I say, dump feminists to the extent that they use that line, dump disability activists to the extent that they marginalize asexual people with disabilities. And while I’m not so familiar with Southeast Asian anticolonialism, I tentatively say dump them to the extent that they make fucking into a symbol of empowerment. Well, this is easy for me to say, not being invested in anticolonialism.

    • I think it’s unfortunate that the essay was couched in terms such that people who might have disagreed felt like maybe they just didn’t understand.

      That was my reaction, and I also felt like if I asked a question of the writer, I might be ignored, or told that having any disagreement was my inappropriately asserting my white privilege.

      Your analogy to disability activists is very relevant for me as an autistic and mentally ill person. The disability activists who respond to the desexualization of disabled people with “disabled people are sexual beings too!” make me feel very alienated. Extending the analogy to disability, an essay like Alok’s about desexualization based on disability would leave me wondering if I haven’t questioned my asexuality enough over the past 11 years of identifying this way. It would only make me feel uncomfortable about my choosing to label my actual lack of sexual attraction as asexuality.

  5. The sentence in Vaid-Menon’s original post that I got most stuck on was this one:

    “Asexuality has always been a carefully crafted strategy to subjugate Asian masculinities.”

    I don’t want to claim that Western aces somehow “own” the word “asexuality” and it means only what we say it means. We’re in the process of asserting a new meaning for it, as a sexual orientation. Others can assert their own meanings for it and eventually one meaning or another will become the main one.

    What I do think is the case, and this is something that Ianna Hawkins Owen addressed effectively in “On the Racialization of Asexuality”[1], is that the experience of being desexualized by white supremacy is fundamentally different from the experience of asexuality-as-orientation and that using the same word for both of these experiences will only lead to confusion and misunderstanding. If Vaid-Menon had said:

    “Desexualization has always been a carefully crafted strategy to subjugate Asian masculinities.”

    then it would be easier to discuss the origins and history of that strategy, how it was used in the history of colonialism, how it fits within the larger context of Orientalism, exactly how the desexualized Asian man is seen by others and by himself, and the societal and psychological effects of such desexualization.

    But when the word “asexuality” is used in the sentence, and the sentence and the larger post of which it is a part are injected into a community and a discourse organized around asexuality-as-orientation, then it becomes almost unintelligible. How is my internal experience of not feeling sexual attraction towards others something that is acting to subjugate Asian masculinities? Is the word “asexuality” so strongly associated with this process of subjugation that my very use of it to describe my internal experience acts to reinforce that process of subjugation? If so, what other word should I use, and why? Am I unable to articulate my own experience at all without it somehow implicating the subjugation of Asian masculinities and where does that leave me? How can we discuss both white supremacist desexualization and asexuality-as-orientation without either conflating the two or asserting that one or the other is the most true or most valid experience and meaning of the word? What I like about Katie’s post is that she opens up all of these questions for discussion.

    An area that I think is also getting lost is what happens when racial trauma actually does cause a person to not experience sexual attraction, for a period of time or for the rest of their life. To what degree does our asexuality-as-orientation discourse support this kind of experience? This is very similar to the question of survivors of sexual violence or people with mental or physical disabilities and whether we are recognizing these experiences within the asexual spectrum. (I think that we should recognize them.) And to what degree does the anti-colonialist discourse recognize, as Katie mentions, that many people do feel their asexuality to be innate or caused by internal factors, even when they have also been impacted by white supremacy?

    As is so often the case where the discourse becomes polarized, the people in between get erased and I think that’s something we need to be very alert to.


  6. cassz says:

    Alok’s piece on asexuality and sex-positivity might help contextualize their r(ace) piece:

    Also, Alok uses they/them pronouns.

  7. Zanna says:

    I just want to express my deep gratitude for writing this, as the article caused me to have an actual panic attack the first time I read it, and another one the second time I read it posted at a different platform. Yet as a white woman ace I felt I could not begin to take issue. Thank you.

  8. Bess (bessibels) says:

    I think this post and most of the comments are really missing the point.

    First of all, how is it that white aces are all about diverse perspectives and multiple narratives when we’re co-opting WOC ideas to demand inclusivity from feminist and sex positive spaces, but as soon as POC perspectives start challenging mainstream narratives within our own community, all of a sudden anything that doesn’t fit the mold is irrelevant and off-topic? We’re a bunch of racist hypocrites, folks.

    Second of all, here’s *my* takeaway from Alok Vaid-Menon’s piece, and it’s a point all us white aces have been failing to articulate or acknowledge:

    If one of the goals of an asexual visibility movement is to make asexual identities accessible, then we need to address all of the barriers to that. Right now we’re addressing some of them, like stigma and lack of vocabulary and erasure. But we’re not addressing colonialism. We’re not addressing the fact that structurally, people who have been racially desexualized just do not have the same access to an asexual identity that white people do. That makes racism and decolonization central issues for us. If we’re not addressing them, we’re only helping white people and POC who are able to adopt white-compatible narratives. If we’re not addressing that, we’re a racially exclusive movement. *That’s* the point. *That’s* why it’s crucial to talk about colonialism and desexualization and lack of access to ace identities.

    People are like “How is this relevant when the person doesn’t even identify as ace?” You don’t get it. It’s relevant because they can’t identify as ace in an empowering way, and no one in our community is talking about why.

    • Siggy says:

      “First of all, how is it that white aces are all about diverse perspectives and multiple narratives when we’re co-opting WOC ideas to demand inclusivity from feminist and sex positive spaces, but as soon as POC perspectives start challenging mainstream narratives within our own community, all of a sudden anything that doesn’t fit the mold is irrelevant and off-topic?”

      I neither agree with the factual content of this statement (that asking for feminist inclusivity is co-opting WOC ideas), nor do I agree that there is anything wrong with taking a body of ideas, and accepting some while rejecting others. That’s exactly what we should be doing with every body of ideas we ever encounter.

      For instance, I reject the paragraph I quoted above, but I agree with the rest of your comment. I felt it was ironic that Alok’s main point was that he felt his experience didn’t fit in with mainstream ace politics, and the response here has been that no, he doesn’t fit in.

      • Bess (bessibels) says:

        My point was that when we talk about critiquing sex positivity in the ace community, we usually don’t acknowledge that such critique is not unique to ace communities, that black feminists and women of colour in general have been critiquing sex positivity from their own perspectives for a long time — and that using WOC ideas and then rejecting POC perspectives when they don’t suit our purposes is hypocritical. My point was also that we want feminist spaces to acknowledge our stories as well as those of women for whom sexuality is empowering, and yet, when *we’re* asked to make room for more stories than our own, we have a problem with it. This would make sense if Alok Vaid-Menon’s story were genuinely irrelevant to our community, but it isn’t, as I argued in the second part of my comment — which makes our exclusion hypocritical.

        • Siggy says:

          To “co-opt” means to adopt an idea, but the problem you describe sounds more like ignoring WOC ideas despite their parallels to our own ideas. Because we ignore POC discourse (rather than co-opting it), we are unable to see the parallels between POC (and other desexualized groups) asking for inclusion in ace discourse and aces asking for inclusion in feminist and sex-positive discourse.

      • From the various responses here and elsewhere to Vaid-Menon’s original post, it seems that there are two ways people are reading it. One view is that Vaid-Menon was talking entirely about the experience of white supremacist desexualization, to which they apply the label asexuality. This leads to a debate about whether there is or should be a single definition of “asexuality” and who “owns” it. I see Katie’s post that we are commenting on as following this reading and responding to it.

        The second view is that Vaid-Menon is asexual-by-orientation (does not experience sexual attraction) and is talking about untangling this from the effects of white supremacist desexualization. When one follows this reading, the discussion focuses more on the impact of external factors on asexuality-as-orientation and whether the community is sufficiently supportive of people who experience this.

        I feel that Vaid-Menon’s original post is ambiguous about asexuality-as-orientation, and that part of the reason we see people taking a non-inclusive viewpoint is that they have followed the first reading. In other words, these people see Vaid-Menon as describing an experience (i.e., white supremacist desexualization) that is fundamentally different from asexuality-as-orientation and they feel that a community focused on asexuality-as-orientation is not the best place to have a discussion about the effects of white supremacist desexualization. (This of course is debatable.)

        I feel that we won’t be able to have a constructive dialogue until we recognize that there are two different readings, and thus two different sets of responses.

        I would also like to see more engagement directly with Katie’s original post and the questions she raises in it.

        • Siggy says:

          Well I could just ask Alok which reading is the correct one.

          • That might help bring greater clarity to the issue.

            My feeling is that, if the first reading is correct, it might be most useful to approach this similarly to how you did the question of aces in queer spaces[1]. Both those desexualized by white supremacy and those who are asexual-by-orientation deserve to have safe spaces to discuss their experiences. Whether or not they should share the same safe space should depend on whether the experiences are similar enough that it is useful in practical terms to address them together.

            If the second reading is correct, then I think there should be a safe space within the asexual community for people impacted by both issues to address them. The asexual community should also support safe spaces for other groups that need them.


        • Siggy says:

          Alok Vaid-Menon declined to comment at this time.

        • Aydan says:

          One reason in particular I leaned towards the first reading was their statement, “Regardless or not of the status of my libido, I’m not sure I will ever feel comfortable identifying as asexual because it seems like I am betraying my people.” This leaves me a little confused as to, whether or not they’re talking about a biological trait/quality, an experience, or both, if that biological trait/quality, or experience, is actually the same one we talk about in the ace community.

          Their statement of “asexuality has always been a carefully crafted strategy to subjugate Asian masculinities,” which you addressed elsewhere, also trips me up.

          I think it’s really interesting that Katie describes the stereotype of Asian women in the same words Alok uses to describe their own experience– an object of desire, without access to the experience of being a subject of desire.

          I, ultimately, agree with her question– are ace spaces the best place for this very important conversation? Not so much because Alok may be talking about either an orientation like we think of it, or an experience, or the experience of not having the privilege to identify as that orientation, or a combination of those things, but because I’m not sure they’re talking about either an orientation at all, or the experience of lacking sexual attraction for whatever reason. It’s hard to tell, between the wish to be the subject of desire, and the comment about libido. Yes, we should absolutely talk about how being able to identify as asexual is, itself, a privilege. But if this conversation is instead about feeling that one’s lack of libido is the site of racial trauma… I don’t think we’re the best place for that conversation to occur.

          Finally– I see some parallels (in structure, not execution) between Alok’s essay, and the argument sometimes used against female aces: “you’re repressing your sexuality because the patriarchy expects women to be sexualized but not sexual. You’re not really asexual.” Ironically, this argument itself erases the existence of female aces of color by lumping them all in together with the expectations placed on white women.

          • Bess (bessibels) says:

            I think part of the disagreement here is that ultimately, I just don’t necessarily think it’s productive to split hairs over whether someone’s experience of asexuality is about their past experiences (e.g. of oppression based on race/gender/mental health etc.) or about an innate orientation, and I think excluding the former from asexual discourse winds up alienating people who could benefit from the community if they felt welcome here. This is a hard question to sort out and it’s one I can’t really think of a good analogy for in any other communities, and certainly not in LGB communities, so we’re sort of striking out on our own. I’m not interested in *imposing* ace identities on people who experience their nonsexuality is a site of trauma, but I’m not interested in *denying* those identities or that space to them either — and that’s what we’re doing when we dismiss Alok’s perspective as irrelevant to What We Are.

            I don’t think acknowledging the complexity of experiences that are rooted in trauma and oppression constitutes giving in to the people who invalidate our identities based on those experiences. If that’s what people are afraid of — that we’re playing into the hands of people who think we’re “just repressed” if we talk about this — my response is that our own discourse shouldn’t be focused on making ourselves valid in the eyes of people who seek to invalidate us, it should be focused on meeting the needs of people who seek space in our communities. And sometimes that means allowing space for negative and oppression-based experiences.

          • Aydan says:


            I’m not interested in *imposing* ace identities on people who experience their nonsexuality is a site of trauma, but I’m not interested in *denying* those identities or that space to them either

            Neither am I. I think there’s room in the ace community for people who do feel their asexuality is the result of trauma, whether racial, or sexual, or something else.

            That’s not really why I think Alok’s perspective might be irrelevant. I’m not sure they’re talking about any kind of asexuality, whether innate, or call it, perhaps, acquired. We as a community have rejected pretty firmly the notion that asexuality is alibidinousness; also pretty far outside our asexual discourse is the idea that asexuality is a strategy of oppression. Desexualization as a strategy of oppression, yes. But if Alok is using asexuality and desexualization as synonyms, as they seem to be, then that’s something quite different from asexuality as we usually think of it. I resist the idea that we necessarily have the responsibility to extend our boundaries to accommodate any discussion of desexualization or nonsexualization, whether or not that discussion is actually about asexuality.

            And then this:
            What I am calling for is a departure away from asexual identity politics toward a frank conversation of trauma and sexuality. How can we move our understandings of sexual politics away from anchoring them in essential narratives that reproduce biological essentialism (born this way) to narratives that name specific moments of historical and personal trauma that inform our sexualities.

            It’s one thing to accommodate and embrace and have space for conversations about asexuality as the result of trauma. It’s another thing to… stop talking about pretty much everything we’ve been talking about, which I see them as calling for here. As Katie, and others, have responded, we don’t all have, nor want to search for, “specific moments of historical and personal trauma that inform our sexualities.” And I get that “identity politics” is kind of the negative phrase du jour, but I disagree with the idea that we should move away from how we, as a group, are treated in order to focus on the “more important” issues. (I’m not trying to put words in Alok’s mouth in particular; this is a commentary on how I usually see “identity politics” used, and their usage does not disagree.)

          • This is a response to Aydan’s comment of July 23 at 7:01 am but I don’t seem to be able to reply directly to that comment so I hope the thread doesn’t become too confusing.

            I think that Aydan’s comment gets at the crux of the issue here. If we follow the reading that Vaid-Menon is talking about the experience of white supremacist desexualization and *not* also about being asexual-by-orientation (does not experience sexual attraction), then the question is, are the internal experience of this desexualization and the desired solutions sought similar enough to those of asexuality-as-orientation that it makes sense in practical terms to treat them together? If the two experiences are sufficiently different, then it may better do justice to each and both to treat them separately, on their own terms. That way, the areas of difference don’t get erased or minimized by trying to fit them into a certain “box”.

            This is a different issue from the question of people who are asexual-by-orientation and they also experience white supremacist desexualization and/or they feel that white supremacist desexualization has caused them to not or to no longer experience sexual attraction. It seems to me that Bess is following this reading and therefore is talking about something different than what Aydan is talking about. As Siggy and others have noted, this interpretation is very similar to the question of how the asexual community addresses people whose experience of sexual violence impacts their asexuality-by-orientation. Here we are assuming that the internal experience is the same (lack of sexual attraction) and that the overall desired solution is the same (finding ways to lead livable lives as people who do not experience sexual attraction).

            I don’t think that Aydan or many others on this thread disagree that the asexual community should address how various types of trauma impact people who do not experience sexual attraction, including how racial trauma affects it. What they’re saying is that they don’t think Vaid-Menon is talking about that issue, but that they’re talking about a different experience which they feel has a different desired solution.

            Until we acknowledge that there are two different readings here and the proposed course of action may differ based on the way one reads Vaid-Menon’s original post, we’ll just continue to talk at cross-purposes.

          • Siggy says:

            (@Laura, comments are only threaded five levels deep, that’s why you can’t reply. Comments are basically non-threaded at this point.)

          • Bess (bessibels) says:

            “I resist the idea that we necessarily have the responsibility to extend our boundaries to accommodate any discussion of desexualization or nonsexualization, whether or not that discussion is actually about asexuality.”

            But that goes back to the point I made in my first comment — that we *have* to talk about desexualization, because otherwise we’re overlooking one of the major barriers to ace identities. I think it’s a matter of who we’re centering. At the moment, the ace community centers the perspectives of the people who have the easiest access to ace identities. I think we should be centering the perspectives of the most marginalized; otherwise we reproduce existing power dynamics. I agree that I don’t want to assert that *everyone* who is asexual has “moments of historical and personal trauma that inform our sexualities” — but I would argue that many of the most marginalized people in our community do, and that those are the narratives we should be centering if we want asexual visibility movements to be intersectional and politically whole. Otherwise, as I said before, the people we help most tend to be the people who need it least.

          • Bess (bessibels) says:

            Also this: “We as a community have rejected pretty firmly the notion that asexuality is alibidinousness”

            I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The rejection of alibidinousness as a sole definition for asexuality is meant to *expand* the inclusivity of the community, not limit it. Alibidinousness is still one of the ways to define and experience asexuality. If we limit the community to people who are able to distinguish sexual attraction from libido in their personal experience, we exclude a lot of people, many of them people who are marginalized along other axes, and who threaten the community’s ability to assimilate to dominant narratives. That’s not a coincidence.

          • Siggy says:

            I’m trying to think about the subject in a way that is more agnostic about Alok’s intentions, and I have to agree with Bess on some points. We talk plenty about how people are expected to be sexual, how women are expected to be in relationships, how even religions that we think of as “sex-negative” expect their members to have hetero*sexual* relationships and families. And these are totally worth talking about in asexual spaces even if we are not relating them to asexuality at all times. Discussion of desexualization deserves space on the same grounds.

            I wouldn’t say I agree with Alok’s conflation of asexuality and desexualization, or the way they dwell on colonialism as a cause of her sexuality. But I felt that captured a lot of the struggle right there. When a person’s experienced desexualization, how can the individual distinguish that from asexuality? How can they even know whether what they’re talking about is relevant to asexuality or not? How can they avoid at least considering whether desexualization is a cause? And if there’s some biological essentialism in the community (ie “born this way”), wouldn’t it feel like that is limiting the space to explore?

          • I agree with Siggy’s comment here. I think that because Vaid-Menon’s original post admits of several readings, it may have been necessary to have a lot of discussion about what exactly they meant by some parts of it.

            However, we need to remember (and I direct this at myself as much as at anyone else) that it’s ultimately a distraction from the real issue, which is that there are people who are asexual, or who are questioning, and for whom white supremacist desexualization is a major factor in their experience of sexuality. We as a community need to create a safe space for all asexuals (including those who are questioning) who are impacted by desexualization in this way, and to recognize racial trauma along with sexual violence, disability, and other factors as major issues that make it difficult for some asexuals to lead livable lives. What steps can we take to support them in their healing? On this issue, I also agree with everything that Bess has said.

            I hope that everybody who is still reading this thread can also agree on these points, even if we continue to disagree about other parts of Vaid-Menon’s post and what was meant by it.

          • Aydan says:

            I think we should provide a safe space to asexuals of all kinds.

            I continue to have reservations about the rhetoric of moving beyond labels, of rejecting “identity politics” (in which our current communities are pretty firmly rooted), about the idea of asexuality as a sanitized model that caters to economic oppression, and about how all this has been communicated to, and received somewhat uncritically by, allosexuals.

            “I was born this way, and I’m invested in my identity as an asexual” can co-exist with “I’m not sure if I was born this way, and I’m more interested in figuring that out than in identifying as asexual.” I’m less sure that it can co-exist with “it’s harmful to say you were born this way; you should really think about whether that’s actually true, and stop talking so much about your identity as an asexual.” (I in no way feel personally silenced here; I’m referring to Alok’s call for “a departure away from asexual identity politics toward a frank conversation of trauma and sexuality.”) Basically I think we need to continue to have room for the Katies while making room for the Aloks.

            I’m also concerned– not as a reservation, but in the sense of “this is something that’s occurred to me”– about how we expand our current… response? to the idea of asexuality as trauma. What I mean by that is, our current community response specifically with regard to sexual trauma is often to affirm the validity of the identity, if the person in question thinks that identity is a good fit, regardless of the circumstances that caused it. But I feel that responding to “am I only asexual because of racist desexualization?” with “however you got here, it’s okay to identify as asexual if you want to” risks coming across as a tacit endorsement, or a tacit lack-of-condemnation, of racist desexualization.

            I’m not sure why that “feels” different to me than the conversations we have about sexual trauma. It may be because the asexual community has already gone through (or been in) a “phase” of arguing that asexuality isn’t ever the result of sexual trauma or abuse.

            I think one of the strengths of the asexual communities has always been that we encourage self-exploration, self-knowledge, and above all, self-identification. Telling someone that yes, they are asexual, is kind of a taboo. I think the message of “we’re here to support you and help you as you figure out your own identity, whatever you ultimately determine best fits with you” adapts well to a broader sense of identity, not just “who am I?” but “how did I get here?” And I think we can do an okay job of maintaining the idea that no one else can teach you your own identity, not even other aces, whether they’re trying to convince you that your asexuality is the product of trauma, or that it’s not. So rather than “however you got here, it’s okay to be asexual if you want to be,” maybe a more thorough message is, “It’s okay to decide that this identity fits, even if its formation involved trauma, and it’s equally okay to decide that this identity doesn’t fit. Accepting this identity doesn’t mean accepting the trauma, but that’s a perfectly legitimate reason for rejecting the identity, too.”

            ? I don’t really know.

  9. Siggy says:

    I think Laura above identified a key point of disagreement, that different people took two different interpretations of Alok’s essay. Most people who took the first interpretation have found it bewildering, which is why I’ve always thought the second interpretation made more sense. As such I had a fundamental disagreement with Katie’s essay.

    I think Laura was also correct that there hasn’t been much engagement with Katie’s essay directly, because it’s been largely overshadowed. Apart from our disagreements on Alok, I did feel Katie had some valid and important points to make. In particular, Katie explained why it is not helpful to her to worry about whether colonialism is a “cause” of her asexuality.

    Alok referred to their asexuality as being caused by racial trauma. This brought to mind a comparison to trauma caused by sexual violence. What would be the appropriate way to react then? Clearly, people should be given the space to speak of their experiences, regardless of whether it will “make us look bad”. On the other hand, other ace survivors would be justified in responding negatively to the implication that their trauma caused their orientation.

    • Bess (bessibels) says:

      Yeah, I do think it’s important to be aware of multiple perspectives, and I don’t want to invalidate Katie’s sense that her asexuality *isn’t* a result of racial trauma and that she *doesn’t* see racialized desexualization as an insurmountable barrier to an ace identity for her. But it’s also worth noting that Katie and Alok are actually coming from two different perspectives because of their different perceived genders, so using Katie’s experience to dismiss Alok’s is disingenuous and harmful, and I feel like that’s kind of what Katie’s essay and the resulting comments were doing.

    • I actually incline towards the second interpretation, but this is partly due to my reading of another of Vaid-Menon’s posts[1], which was linked to by cassz earlier in this thread (I reblogged this other post back at the time I did the (r)ace one, but it doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention overall) and is based on speculative reasoning on my part.

      I do feel that the first interpretation suggests itself rather strongly when the (r)ace post is taken by itself, and it also seems clear that the overall ambiguity is intentional on the part of the author. I think it’s unfortunate that some people on various different sides of the issue seem to be ignoring or rejecting the ambiguity and asserting there is only one correct reading.

      A theme that also came up in the discussion here was the degree to which people felt that they couldn’t or shouldn’t express disagreement or criticism of any part of the post. I feel that Vaid-Menon was both talking about their experiences and also addressing a critique to the asexual movement. It should be possible to respond to the critique, including to disagree with it, without either invalidating the experiences, or being taken by others as doing so because of the disagreement.


      • Siggy says:

        I admit I was inclined to a more charitable interpretation because I had met Alok twice before, at asexuality workshops. We didn’t speak much though.

        It’s interesting to speculate that Alok did intend the first reading, or perhaps ambiguity. Maybe it was supposed to be radical, and we who took the less radical interpretation were gutting the message and subsuming it into more generic identity politics. But I suppose Alok will eventually write more and possibly answer these questions.

    • I’ve been pondering this whole interpretation thing, because -echoing above- I think the two ways I read Alok (aside from discussing his personal experience, which I obviously have no basis to comment on) are basically “PoC can’t be asexual because that’s playing in to white supremacy/a white thing” (basically, suggesting PoC shouldn’t be allowed to identify as asexual, or should feel ashamed for doing so) and “Some PoC can’t identify as asexual because of the frameworks we use to discuss asexuality” (basically, suggesting that the asexual community’s frameworks center white people and are inadequate because of that). The first is obviously a position I disagree with, while the second is obviously one I do agree with. The first time I read the piece, I saw the first interpretation (the bad one, which is a position that I have seen a lot), now I’m inclined to apply the principal of charity and go with the second reading (probably from reading more pieces by Alok, and hearing more about them).

      But this got me thinking about how charitable I’m likely to be based on the source- I think if I see something on tumblr without knowing anything about the author, I’m more likely to assume they are arguing in bad faith or give a less charitable interpretation. I noticed this too in the ways we all reacted to the “are asexuals queer?” question- people thinking of tumblr (or the internet generally) seem to have been expecting bad faith, while I was thinking of in person conversations where I assumed good faith.

      Generally I feel like the comments here are just a chain of uncharitable readings- basically, some of us read Alok uncharitably, and criticized that. Then some people read those criticisms, and read them uncharitably- thinking they were criticizing the charitable reading of Alok, or that they were saying Alok shouldn’t be allowed to speak about their experiences. I’m struggling to figure out where people are disagreeing here, other than in how they read the piece. In retrospect, this is making me realize how important it is to read people as charitably as possible before arguing (which I should know by now, even if it’s the opposite of the custom of tumblr, due to trolls).

  10. Pingback: Linkspam: July 25th, 2014 | The Asexual Agenda

  11. Pingback: Asexual communities, identity, and the question of unassailability | The Asexual Agenda

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s