In recent weeks, I’ve been involved in discussions over three different incidents of asexual community drama. First there was MAAPLE accepting support from UKIP. Then there was The Advocate’s #21AceStories series (while most of the commentary on this focused on the shortcomings of the author, who is not ace, a number of aces critiqued some of the statements made by aces who participated in the series). Most recently there’s the AVEN copyright saga.
What these three incidents have in common is that a group of aces (MAAPLE, the ace participants in #21AceStories, and members of AVEN’s World Watch forum, respectively) engaged in an activity intended to increase visibility of asexuality, but were called out for harming, or potentially creating an opportunity for harm to, other aces.
In the MAAPLE drama, the potential harm was to aces who are Muslim, Jewish, people of color, or of immigrant origin, all groups that have been targeted by UKIP. In #21AceStories, the ace participants were felt to present views harmful to aromantic and sex-averse aces. As for AVEN, while a wide range of individual bloggers had their copyrights violated, in some cases on very personal posts they were not comfortable having treated as “educational resources”, the most chilling effect is likely to be on ace survivors of sexual violence and others who post on highly sensitive topics or who write pseudonymously to protect their privacy or safety, who may no longer feel comfortable sharing their stories online when they can’t control how they’re shared.
It’s not a coincidence that these visibility actions ended up harming, or having the potential to harm, some of the most vulnerable aces in our community, or those who face stigma or marginalization in the larger society. In visibility work, there is immense pressure to present an unassailable image of asexuality. Aces whose stories don’t fit a particular narrative, or whose lives or identities complicate simplistic assumptions, are likely to be sidelined in visibility work. Much has already been written on this topic, so I won’t focus on it further here.
Both the MAAPLE and AVEN sagas are distinctive in featuring organized asexual groups or communities who were directly presented with critiques from individual aces about their actions, and who responded in ways that were felt to be insensitive.
In the case of MAAPLE, its representatives seemed more concerned about or fearful of a backlash from UKIP than about how aces targeted by UKIP would feel about the association, nor did they at any time feel they needed to do any damage control with these aces or their communities.
In the case of AVEN, those involved in the World Watch archiving project both failed to address specific critiques that were made and also gave the impression that they see the personal blogs of other aces as mere fodder for their project.
In both cases, one can easily get the impression that the aim of visibility is more important than the feelings of other aces. Even when told their actions were harmful, these groups failed to even acknowledge the validity of the criticism, nor did they express any real remorse, instead defending their actions on the grounds that their ultimate goal is to benefit asexual communities.
Is visibility worth it when we have to hide some aces away? Is greater acceptance in society really a benefit when only some aces are actually accepted? Do the ends justify the means when we associate with noxious groups along the way? Is publicity worth it when we stomp on the feelings of other community members to achieve it?
Who is left out by our actions? Who is silenced? Who have we hurt? Do we care?
That these three incidents all occurred within the space of a month suggests that asexual communities would do well to rethink the very foundations of how we do visibility work. The potential for harm will only increase the larger our community grows and the more we advance.