Ace readers, prepare to cringe. Consider this a blanket trigger warning for the rest of this post and most of the links. To my fellow ace survivors, I hope you are taking care of yourselves, and please don’t feel that you have to engage with this.
Teen Vogue published an article by Jaclyn Friedman entitled “Why Sexual Pleasure Must Be Included in #MeToo Conversations” — and of course it has the tagline, “Let’s refuse to be silenced about our sexualities, and celebrate them instead.”
Okay, fine, let’s do that. I’m refusing to be silent about my sexuality.
I am asexual.
For those who aren’t familiar, here’s a quick rundown: what being asexual means is that I have a lack of sexual attraction to other people (though this is not the only way to define or experience asexuality). It does not mean anything about whether I have a libido or any interest in having sex or not (ace people can feel all sorts of ways about sex). Asexuality is also a spectrum, and it does not necessarily refer to a complete lack of sexual attraction or desire. It just means that a person has such a significant, consistent pattern of relative lack of sexual attraction/desire that they have acknowledged this as a stable orientation, and an identity. It’s important to keep in mind that there is a lot of variation among asexual-spectrum people.
For more asexuality 101, please check out:
- The Invisible Orientation by Julie Sondra Decker
- The Huffington Post’s series on asexuality
- Demisexuality links and resources
- Why you should care
Before the DSM-5, the book used by mental health care providers and doctors to diagnose mental disorders in the U.S., was released in 2013, psychologists generally considered asexuality to be a sexual dysfunction, a treatable disorder. This only changed after years of asexual activists tirelessly working to educate the mental health professionals in charge of the revision about what asexuality is. But the current version of the DSM still has problems, the profession is slow to change, and many mental health care providers still do not offer identity-affirming therapy—in fact, a lot of them still have never even heard of asexuality.
This leads many therapists to view asexuality as a symptom, a problem to be fixed—which means that asexual survivors of sexual violence have greatly reduced access to therapists competent to treat their trauma.
Ten years ago, in 2008, I was raped by someone who tried to “prove” to me that I am not really asexual. My sexuality did not change. I am still asexual.
I do not have sex. I do not have any interest in having sex.
I have tried it in the past, and yes, I have enthusiastically enjoyed consensual sexual experiences. I did this after experiencing sexual violence, as a way of attempting to “reclaim my pleasure.”
After all, this is what I was told to do—by many people, including other aces, other survivors, and a bunch of resources geared towards survivors trying to heal—which I was exposed to incidentally even before I thought of my experiences as sexual assault and myself as a survivor and intentionally sought them out. This is a dominant narrative about surviving sexual violence that I followed—a dominant sex-positive narrative, that is. Granted, there are other narratives competing with it (and sex-positivity is a whole mess of different things). But this is one that is most prevalent in sex-positive feminist circles, so this is the one I was most exposed to.
So I find it rather disingenuous to claim that reclaiming sexual pleasure hasn’t already been a part of the conversation about sexual violence for decades. Sure, it hasn’t been a dominant strain of #MeToo specifically, but #MeToo is only one aspect of the much larger anti-sexual violence/anti-rape culture movement—one that generally centers perpetrators (primarily the famous ones) and focuses on accountability (the French equivalent of #MeToo makes this focus more explicit: #BalanceTonPorc means “expose your pig”).
Clearly, educating the public about survivors’ experiences of sex aversion or non-aversion (including trauma-induced hypersexuality) and why neither invalidates their stories or means that they were to blame needs to happen… but is #MeToo really the right campaign to address this? Would it not be more effective to work on a separate campaign that thoughtfully includes not just this one particular narrative, but truly shows the diversity of survivors’ experiences? Wouldn’t it be easier to uplift marginalized voices if we cultivate a bit of distance from members of the media who care only about chasing the next celebrity reckoning story?
In case you don’t believe me about the dominance of the sexual healing narrative in survivor discourse, consider this:
Survivors, therapists, authors, support organizations, and advice columnists have been talking about how to “reclaim sexuality” after sexual trauma since at least as far back as 1992 (and probably considerably longer). There are a lot of resources and stories about it. Just google it: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20. These are just from the first four pages of search results. Of all of the articles I looked through, only this one mentions asexuality (more than once!), and many don’t even bother to say you should only pursue this “if you want it.” Although it’s pretty common for them to say things like, “don’t feel pressured, only do this when you’re ready,” it’s rare to find these articles acknowledging that some survivors may never want this, and that’s okay. Almost always, the presumption is that you will, one day, be ready for sexual healing.
If you click through the links above (which I don’t recommend), please notice how often people praise having consensual sex as a wonderful experience, suggest that not having sex is tragic, and say that experiencing sexual trauma doesn’t have to mean you are/will stay “broken” forever. There’s a reason that so many asexual people have thought of themselves as “broken” before discovering that asexuality is a real thing that exists, and is valid. Having (and enjoying) a sex life is positioned as “healthy” while not having one is stigmatized.
So yeah, amidst all of this cultural pressure, I tried it. I felt that I had to try it, just to see how it would go. I “reclaimed my body,” if that’s what you really want to call it, by having consensual sex with a loving partner. I proved to myself that I could do that, if I wanted to, that sex is not always awful.
It was okay, I guess. I enjoyed it, though I never developed a craving for it. It wasn’t magical. It was not transformative. It was not some kind of grand celebration of my sexuality or my body. I would not even say it was a source of healing, fraught as it was with issues related to my asexuality and sexual trauma. Even though, like Friedman, I too “went back to the drawing board and rebuilt my sexuality and sex life from the ground up,” it was still something that caused people to call into question my asexuality and my expertise on myself—both things I had experienced intense gaslighting about from my perpetrator.
So no, it wasn’t really a healing experience.
Instead, it was more of a tentative exploration of what I could possibly enjoy, of a sort that I would have been (somewhat tepidly) inclined to try anyway—which is part of what left me vulnerable to sexual violence in the first place. This exploration would not have even been possible if my partner had not accepted my asexuality first. She has always been incredibly caring and respectful, and willing to work with me on whatever types of sexual, kinky, or just sensual activities I am okay with doing with her, while also being totally clear that it doesn’t change the fact that I am asexual. So this wasn’t really so bad… for me.
But I’m not the only asexual survivor out there.
My feelings about sex tend to fluctuate and in the past few years my interest has really tanked, but I would say I have been considerably more okay-with-sex than most aces are—only 7.5% of ace respondents to the 2015 Ace Census said that they had a favorable feeling about personally engaging in sex (see page 56). Some aces are non-libidoist, meaning that they completely lack any sexual desire or arousal at all. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
I do not appreciate these exhortations to “celebrate your sexuality” that always come without any acknowledgment that “sexuality” is not a thing everyone has, or wants.
At the end of the article, Friedman says:
“The one thing all survivors have in common is that someone took control of our body against our will. We have all been victimized. But we shouldn’t have to choose between being “good” victims and being fully human.”
I bet all of the ace-spectrum readers could guess a line like that was coming. We’ve all been told that we’re “not fully human” before.
To interpret this quote, we need a little bit more context. Here is the part where Friedman talks about what being a “good” victim means:
“In many ways, that’s because it can be so hard to get taken seriously as a survivor in the first place. If you already enjoy sex before you get raped, you’ll be accused of having asked for it, or liking it, or being essentially unrapeable. (Just ask the woman who accused Kobe Bryant, or pretty much any sex worker.) If you don’t present as sufficiently damaged by the assault, the courts may find that you didn’t act victimized enough to deserve justice. (Just ask the women who accused Jian Ghomeshi.) And if you embrace sex — especially kinky or casual sex — as you heal, you’ll have to suffer the clucking “concern” of those who believe they know better than you about your own sex life, telling you that you’re acting out your trauma and need to be saved from yourself.”
Of course those are all things that do happen, and none of them are right. But notice what’s absent:
There is no suggestion that any victims also might face censure for refusing to engage in sexual encounters entirely after their sexual assaults—forever.
But that is a real thing that happens all the time to asexual people (along with many people who are not asexual), whether they are survivors or not.
People tend to automatically presume that ace people are on the asexual spectrum because they were sexually abused, and may claim that it must have happened when we were children and we blocked it out of our memories, so that no amount of denial can convince them that’s not true. They use this presumption to tell us that we can’t really be asexual.
Imagine how painful that is for asexual people who actually were sexually assaulted, especially those who actually did experience CSA, repeatedly being questioned about our trauma histories by random strangers, friends, and family who weaponize our traumas against us. Imagine how much more difficult it would feel to be open about both your trauma history and your asexuality. This is not unique to asexual people, either—other LGBTQ people also face this presumption of sexual trauma, too.
Do you see how that reinforces the culturally dominant myth that asexuality is not a real thing, that it can be explained away by sexual trauma? Do you see how this myth implies that, should this sexual trauma ever be healed, we can “turn straight”—or “turn sexual”?
The dichotomy Friedman presents is whether to “choose between being ‘good’ victims and being fully human,” and the “good” victims are the ones who don’t want sex, because they are too “damaged.” Except, here’s the thing: survivors are only allowed a certain grace period (of varying lengths of time depending on who you ask) before other people start telling them that they “should be over it” by now—with the definition of “over it” usually including “able to enjoy sex.” Partners of survivors may get frustrated and start pressuring them to have sex, and friends may encourage this too, believing that a “healthy sex life” is necessary for true happiness. At that point, you’re really not being viewed as a “good” victim, are you?
Jaclyn Friedman, sex is not what makes us human. We are not half-humans with a big sex-shaped hole in our lives. And we are not actually considered the “good” victims either—we are instead considered fundamentally broken, delusional people who are missing out on something that makes life worth living. Please rethink your position, and word your articles a lot more carefully and respectfully next time.
Because this is really alienating:
“In fact, managing to reclaim our pleasure — whether through sex or any other means — in the aftermath of sexual violence is a triumph; proof positive that we are stronger than the people who tried to erase us through violence.”
Am I stronger than my fellow ace survivors who have not “reclaimed pleasure” because they do not want to engage in an experience that is utterly repulsive to them? (Keeping in mind that for me, the same experience is one I’m just “meh” about, so the baseline is different?) Have I triumphed more than them because I’ve managed to enjoy sex?
Does my narrative deserve to be elevated far above my fellow ace survivors’ narratives, just because it’s something that people—sex-positive people, non-asexual people—want to hear?
I don’t think so.
It’s true that sex can be a healing experience for some survivors, and I’m not saying that’s something no one should ever talk about. But it must be done carefully, with acknowledgment that not everyone feels that way, or else you will only further marginalize asexual-spectrum survivors, along with anyone else who doesn’t want any kind of “sexual healing.” Elevating your own narrative about healing through sex, while completely ignoring and erasing other survivors for whom that is not worthwhile, does harm.
It turned out to be okay for me to explore consensual sexual experiences, but I definitely did feel culturally pressured to do so as part of recovery. I know there are other ace survivors who have not fared as well. Narratives about sexual healing are not isolated events happening in a vacuum. What’s meant to be “empowering” is stigmatizing instead, and it’s everywhere. It’s inescapable and has permeated our community, too. Even within the ace community, sex aversion is too often excluded from educational materials and treated as a dirty secret, even though sex-averse individuals are not in the minority.
And again, this sort of thing isn’t just coming from laypersons. There are a lot of therapists out there who are uneducated about asexuality and think that “reclaiming your sexuality” after sexual trauma should be a goal for everyone. There are a lot of therapists that still view asexuality as a symptom of sexual trauma that must be cured.
That’s why I work with Resources for Ace Survivors to try to combat the prevalence of this narrative. If we can’t access therapeutic resources because the therapists available to us believe this, then our ability to heal is curtailed. If people keep compounding our traumas by insisting that sex is an essential part of healing, and refusing to respect feelings of aversion, we’ll all be worse off.
This has also been posted to Prismatic Entanglements.