Sex-aversion, for sex-positive audiences

I’m not sex-averse, so when I think of issues relating to sex-averse aces, I mostly think of problems I’ve encountered when doing visibility work.  After all, when I do visibility work, I’m representing everyone, not just myself.

So far, most of my visibility work has been confined to queer college students.  And more recently I’m trying to do a bit for feminist-y internet atheists.  Both of these audiences are extremely sex-positive.  And I can tell you that this is a problem for the visibility of sex-averse aces.

The first problem is in who does the visibility work.  People who do visibility work for particular groups (as opposed to the general public) are generally people who feel comfortable in those groups, or even a part of those groups.  So if I gather a panel of random people, there’s no guarantee we’ll even have sex-repulsed or sex-averse representation.  It is imperative for people like me, who are not sex-averse, to actively think about who is missingIt is not enough to wait for sex-averse aces to speak for themselves.

The second problem is more conceptual (and thus makes for a meatier blogging topic).  Sex-positive people have an aversion to sex-aversion.  To sex-positive people, sex-aversion means saying, “You disgust me.”  It means talking about the ickiness of certain kinds of sex, or of certain body parts.  To sex-positive people, sex-aversion is the source of all evil (hyperbole, but yeah pretty much).

To my mind, it is fairly obvious and straightforward that this is not the same as what asexuals mean by sex-aversion.  It’s sort of like, we can talk about how people fetishize certain women of color, or fetishize lesbians, but that’s entirely different from people who are kinky, am I right?  When we talk about people disgusted by gay sex, that’s entirely different from people who experience sex-aversion, right?

I mean, it’s theoretically possible that both kinds of aversion have similar causes.  Maybe people really do have an intrinsic aversion to gay sex because [insert bullshit evolutionary psychology here].  I think people on both sides will bristle at the proposal, since it appears to problematize sex-aversion, and legitimize homophobia.  I would probably not say that on a panel.  But here I’ll give you the honest lowdown: What do I know? I’m a social activist not a bullshit evolutionary psychologist.

One thing’s for sure: the social consequences are completely different.  Disgust directed at gay men is organized.  It’s used to oppress a class of people.  By contrast, sex-averse aces, especially the ones that identify as sex-averse, do not have power, and know they do not have power.  They’re not going to tell you to stop having sex just because they don’t like thinking about it.  In fact, most of them are rushing to ingratiate themselves to the majority by minimizing their repulsion, by adjusting their narratives to make extra clear, they have absolutely no problem if you have sex.  It’s funny, actually, that sex-averse aces have more pressure to be sex-positive than does the general population, just so they can maintain that image.

A common way for people to differentiate homophobia and sex-aversion is by saying homophobia is a problem because it is expressed aloud.  I do not agree, because it suggests that sex-averse aces should just shut up, and that homophobia is completely acceptable if a person keeps it to themself.  No, the proper way to differentiate is by the power structures.  In modern western society, homophobia has the power to oppress, and sex-aversion does not.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about the subject, which is, as I said, pretty straightforward.  It’s already longer than what I would have space to say in visibility work.  For visibility purposes, how might I boil all that down to a sentence or two?

Finally, I should say that in visibility work, it is important to internalize the fact that we can’t cover everybody.  There simply isn’t enough room, and omissions must be made.  When talking to sex-positive audiences we often omit sex-aversion because it’s a touchy emotional subject, and repulsion/indifference is just one of many spectrums to talk about.  However, I’ve become increasingly convinced that sex-aversion is not one of the things that should be omitted.

[Note: Throughout this post I use “sex-averse” and “sex-repulsed” interchangeably, although I’m aware that they have different connotations.  I think the distinction is not relevant here.]

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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24 Responses to Sex-aversion, for sex-positive audiences

  1. Aqua says:

    I’m so glad to see this brought up!

    For clarification, by ‘sex-positive’ in this context, do you mean people who want sex?

    It’s partly because of all that pressure for repulsed/averse aces to appear sex-positive (in whatever sense of the word), putting a bunch of disclaimers like they’re “totally fine with everyone else having sex, and think it’s wonderful for them”, that I felt unwelcome on AVEN at first. I’ve seen so much of that going on. I thought that rhetoric was self-defeating (couldn’t tell if it was sincere, or only said out of pressure to, and to avoid being shamed within the community), and it made me think I was being a bad example to the community, for not wanting to apologize for who I am. That rhetoric, of repulsed/averse people minimize their feelings, and putting on a sex-positive front if they don’t sincerely believe it, come across as apologizing for who they are.

    Yes, being sex-repulsed or sex-averse doesn’t automatically mean shaming others for having sex; aside from the assumption that it does being incorrect, it also erases the fact that there are people who want sex, but still shame others for their sexual choices! Repulsion or aversion is a personal thing, that doesn’t have any systemic power to it.

    Pardon me if I came across as ranting. This is a very touchy subject for me, and I’ve been shamed by my sex-positive friends (in the sense that they want sex, and believe it to be a good thing overall) because I told them that I didn’t want sex. They accused me of personally attacking them. They didn’t know that the asexual community uses different definitions of ‘sex-aversion/repulsion’ and ‘celibacy’ than they do.

    • Siggy says:

      “Sex-positive” refers to the political views of the audience in question. It means being feminist-leaning, pro-choice, pro-LGBT, anti-slut-shaming, so on and so forth. And all the attitudes that come with that.

      I’ve noticed in asexual contexts, there’s a drift in meaning of “sex-positive”, and sometimes it merely means “okay with other people having sex”. This meaning doesn’t really make sense in the context of the general public because most people are okay with other people having sex no matter where they are on the political spectrum.

  2. sablin27 says:

    Go all out? “Fear and disgust are not the most common reactions from aces to the concept of sex, but are not uncommon either. Most asexual spaces try to accommodate both people who are easily triggered and for frank explicit discussion. As with every group, everyone’s feelings and boundaries are different. “

  3. caelesti says:

    How do you feel about the term “sex-neutral”? I’ve started using that in an effort to be more inclusive- I blog a lot about Paganism, and there’s a big issue with Pagans emphasizing sacred sexuality, and a lot of people don’t get that sex isn’t sacred to everyone, and not everyone is interested in it.

  4. Pingback: My asexual perspective on the interaction between “Sex-Positive” views, Compulsory Sexuality, & AVEN | From Fandom to Family: Sharing my many thoughts

  5. acetheist says:

    “Sex-positive people have an aversion to sex-aversion.”

    Well put!

    “For visibility purposes, how might I boil all that down to a sentence or two?”

    Not sure whether/to what degree that was a rhetorical question, but you’ve got a good point about the oppression potential, so to speak, of disgust toward same-gender sex vs. disgust toward sex in general. I’ve been meaning to write a post about this idea, actually, ever since I had a laugh with Sciatrix over 1984’s portrayal of oppressive sex-hatred.

  6. There have seen several recent posts (including by me) that discuss social aspects of sex aversion. I personally use the term “sex repulsion” to refer to the physical aspects and “sex aversion” to refer to the social aspects (and as a category term to refer to both aspects without distinguishing them). It would seem to me that a significant part of homophobia is social. For instance, some men may feel that engaging in same-sex sexual contact, or even thinking about doing so, would diminish their masculinity in their own eyes or in the eyes of others. Religious teachings about same-sex sexual contact being a sin would also fit in this category. Because heterosexuals are differently positioned in society than gay people are, the social aspects would be different for the two groups of monosexuals with the sex or gender(s) they are not attracted to, even if the physical aspects are the same.

    I find the comparison of sex aversion as experienced by many asexuals to homophobia to be problematic, especially since most of the people I have seen writing extensively about sex aversion are women and many of them report a stronger sex aversion towards men than towards other genders (i.e., they are most strongly averse in a heterosexual context). And the reasons they give for this tend to be social rather than physical (though not exclusively so). I feel that we need a much more thorough and nuanced understanding of sex aversion and its different components before we can make sweeping statements. Distinguishing between physical and social aspects seems like a good place to start.

    • Siggy says:

      I’m not sure what you’re saying. Is that a criticism, or a deeper explanation, or a suggestion of what to say in the context of visibility work?

  7. (This was meant as a reply to Siggy at 12:29 am.) I was suggesting a deeper explanation that might help in addressing some of the questions that come up in discussing sex aversion as you mention in your post. Many discussions of sex aversion seem to focus very narrowly on physical repulsion when taking part in or thinking about sexual activities, but recent posts (mostly inspired by the Carnival on the topic) suggest that many aces experience sex aversion as a broader phenomenon, and I feel that examining the broader phenomenon may help answer the questions that you discussed in your post.

    • Siggy says:

      I see. Although I’m a little confused. When you said homophobia has a significant social component, I thought you might be contrasting this with sex-aversion/repulsion, but then you say that sex-aversion also has a significant social component. The social/physical distinction is an interesting way to think about things, but it doesn’t seem to be the distinction we need to make contrasts between homophobia and sex-aversion. Am I understanding you correctly?

      • What I’m trying to get at (and I apologize for not being clear as I’m still working through these ideas myself and may not be explaining my thought process very clearly) is that the physical component of sex aversion might be similar for both monosexuals with the sex/gender they are not attracted to and for asexuals (for instance, it might somehow be a consequence of the lack of sexual attraction itself, or due to a lack of arousability or sex drive experienced by some members of these groups, or to another factor rooted in biology). However, the social components may be completely different in the two situations (i.e., asexuals vs homophobic straight people) and thus considering the social components and their differences may be more useful in distinguishing between asexual sex aversion and homophobia than when we consider only the physical components.

  8. Siggy says:

    I see. So both have physical and social aspects, but the social aspects are qualitatively different. I think in the past when I’ve read stuff by sex-averse asexuals I hadn’t really thought about it from this angle, but in the future I will give it a try.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    I think it’s useful to consider how sex aversion might be viewed in contexts other than homophobia, too. For this audience,* I think a lot of the pushback against sex aversion comes from (mostly Christian) religions trying to suppress ANY sexuality, including fairly vanilla straight sex, unless it meets their narrow standards. But that is still organized, and your point still stands about personal feelings being confused with organized oppression. The homophobia thing probably counts as just a smaller sub-set of the larger oppressive force, really.

    Where I think it maybe gets a little more difficult (and possibly more illuminating?) is in the context of kink. Obviously religion has some impact here, too, but it’s less easy to claim that it’s mainly the influence of religion in this case. Distinguishing personal repulsion for any given kink from shaming people who have that kink can get really tricky. There is this culture of “don’t yuck my yum” that’s developed, and I really think it doesn’t distinguish between personal repulsion and organized shaming, because it’s mostly a reaction to people voicing their own personal disgust with any given fetish, and confusion that it could get anyone aroused. That makes people feel bad, so they tell people not to say it, and probably mean it in a “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it” sort of way.

    But if ALL sex acts disgust you, and not just specific ones, then where does that leave any room for you to talk about your experiences at all?

    It seems like in this case it comes a lot closer to competing needs making spaces feel unsafe than just not being able to differentiate between which voices have power behind them and which don’t.

    I’m not sure I should talk about my own sex aversion for this, but maybe it would help to bring it up as part of a larger point about people pushing others to “fix” their sex aversion before accepting their asexuality as valid. I hear a lot of people saying “you’re not asexual, you just have a fear of sex.” Correcting that is important, but so is saying it’s not right to push people to “fix” something that’s not broken** by doing something they don’t want to do.

    * Full disclosure: I’m working with Siggy on this project, so I know more about its audience than most readers probably do.

    ** It’s pretty natural to think that bodies are gross, especially in situations that you wouldn’t want to be in yourself, and attraction may be a way to get over that impulse, which I think is part of what Laura was referring to above.

    • Siggy says:

      I wonder if the kink comparison actually might be advantageous. Kinky people must, all the time, deal with people who do not share their kinks (even within the kink community), and some of those people may experience repulsion. So they must know that it’s not necessarily a problem (can anyone with firsthand experience confirm?).

      Sex-repulsed people are slightly different in that they’re repulsed to an activity that is normative.

      • Elizabeth says:

        That’s what I’m thinking, yeah. But I’m not sure we’ll find people with the experience to confirm it in this comment thread.

        Also, I suppose we’d have to be careful to note that we’re ONLY talking about people who say they’re repulsed by this or that kink, not those who go on to act on that by discriminating. That’s probably the social vs. physical distinction discussed above. But maybe if we can manage to get people to imagine how they would feel if some kink that they’re not into and possibly repulsed by is normative and frequently pushed as necessary to living a “full life,” it might help to (at least slightly) explain how bad compulsory sexuality and stigmatizing sex aversion is. (Has anyone reading this tried that before? If so, what were your results?)

        • PurplesShade says:

          There are kink forums, and perhaps there might be even a kink advice tumbler you could ask?
          I’m feeling curious enough that I think I’ll ask the two kinkers I know, what they think.

          • Elizabeth says:

            Yeah, I’m planning to do that, but first I wanted to get a response from the kinky people I personally know. So far, I haven’t gotten a chance to talk to them about it yet.

          • Siggy says:

            Well we have at least one kinky person on the panel Elizabeth and I are organizing so I’m sure we’ll eventually get that perspective. For now it’s just a matter of curiosity.

  10. Pingback: Linkspam | Prismatic Entanglements

  11. PurplesShade says:

    I think there’s another difference between homophobia and sex-repulsion or aversion, which is that as far as we can tell homophobia is something you learn, not something you experience despite the dominant cultural norms telling you to put up and shut up. (as we well know is the case for being even disinterested in sex)
    Now of course this might not be (probably isn’t) unanimously true for everyone, but given the number of people who mention not having any issue with it once they were informed of how illogical their bigotry was, I’d say at this point we know that at least many aren’t experiencing it the same way sex averse or repulsed aces experience that aversion or repulsion.

    Siggy made some other relevant comments on this weeks linkspam, that I wanted to add thoughts to “no one ever seems to say they’re sex-positive in order to convey their beliefs about abortion or contraception.”
    It’s telling of the specific type of sex-positivity that I most expose myself to that off the top of my head I could think of 6 sex-positive feminists, who I follow updates from regularly, that all do exactly that. In fact for most of them the only time sex comes up is within the framework of reminding people that consent is the most important factor, usually with the explicit reminder that sex is something people have every right to chose not to do.

    “If we want to extend sex-positive politics to asexuality, we have to think about the underlying principle.” – Yes(!), I have been thinking about this the last few days, and I want to find some way to help.
    I absolutely believe the sex positive community needs to be shown how asexual people fit into their narrative. (And how hypocritical they’re being if they ignore consent to shame aces.)
    On the other side of things, as you pointed out in the other thread, the term “sex-positive” has pre-existing meanings, and I think the ace community needs to be informed of that.
    The less confusion, the better.

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