cn: sexual violence
Over the last decade, online ace communities awoke to the fact that some aces can have and enjoy sex. The term “sex-favorable” was coined in 2013 to describe aces who are willing to have sex. Now, it’s common for educational content to mention sex-favorable asexuality as a thing that exists. The number of sex-favorable aces is relatively small, but we still want to build a community that acknowledges and includes them.
However, there has been concern that the repeated emphasis on aces who like sex might contribute to compulsory sexuality. “Compulsory sexuality” refers to the set of assumptions and social norms that compel people to engage in sexual activity, and marginalize people who refuse.
For example, an ace might think that they need to experiment with sex in order to confirm/disconfirm that they are sex-favorable. Another person might hear that some aces like sex, and uses this to pressure their ace partner into trying sex. On the community level, an ace community can exaggerate the number of sex-favorable aces, and give shitty treatment to sex-averse/repulsed aces.
There is a tendency in the community to think of these as two competing issues. We want to include sex-favorable aces and raise awareness of them, but we also want to fight compulsory sexuality. I am here to say that they aren’t competing issues. Compulsory sexuality affects sex-favorable aces too.
When we forget or ignore the effect of compulsory sexuality on sex-favorable aces, this is based on an exaggeration of how much sex-favorable aces want sex. The tendency is to see “sex-favorable” and “sex-repulsed” as polar opposites, with sex-repulsed aces never wanting sex, and sex-favorable aces wanting sex all the time. As I described in my 20 narratives of aces who like sex, “liking sex” can mean a variety of things, and you cannot assume that any ace who “likes sex” is therefore down to fuck. And even if people were down to fuck, that doesn’t mean that they are therefore unaffected by compulsory sexuality.1
This messaging can be toxic to sex-favorable aces, or people who think they might be sex-favorable. You can get to thinking, This is what sets me apart from other aces. I really need to explore it and figure it out. And if something goes wrong, you can tell yourself, it was my own fault for wanting it.
This is an issue of personal significance to me. I am a sex-favorable ace, and I was the victim of compulsory sexuality. I am concerned about other people in similar situations, so I would like to address this article to all the sex-favorable aces out there, or anyone who thinks they might be sex-favorable. (And if you’re not in those groups and this still resonates with you, great.)
Take it from me, you don’t need to have sex. Even if you might like it. Figuring out whether you like it or not is not the highest priority.
Identifying compulsory sexuality
Once we acknowledge that some aces like sex, it becomes difficult to discern the boundary between healthy and unhealthy attitudes towards sex. If an ace says they want to experiment with sex, that could be a good thing for them to do. Or maybe they only want to experiment with sex because they’re desperate for some connection, however small, to “normal” sexuality. Or maybe it’s something in between. We just don’t know.
This is especially true on the internet, where I hear little snippets of people’s stories without context. I don’t want to condescend to anyone by telling them I know better than they do.
Nonetheless, I would like to at least identify some red flags, if only to have a better idea of what we’re talking about. These red flags don’t necessarily mean anything is going wrong, but they’re things that make me very concerned.
- Relying on alcohol. I’ve heard some aces say that they want to try sex, but the only way they think they could ever go through with it is if they were drinking heavily. I used to feel this way, but now it seems like a really bad idea. It can be highly distressing to do something while drunk, and then when you sober up you’re left wondering if it was something you really wanted or not. It doesn’t actually clear up questions, it piles them on.
- The need to experiment in order to figure oneself out. Self-discovery can be a wonderful thing, which is why it is highly promoted in ace communities. But when people value self-discovery so highly, it can cause them to overlook reasons why a decision might be a bad idea. Of course, it’s possible for sexual experimentation to go right. But I feel like it’s better if you go into it knowing that you don’t need to go into it. It’s a thing you can do if you want to, but not a thing you need to do at all costs.
- The need to save a relationship. Just as people are driven by a need for self-discovery, they can be driven by the need to save a relationship. This can cause them to overlook reasons why it might be a bad idea.
It’s not your fault
When I said I was a victim of compulsory sexuality, here’s what happened. When I first identified as asexual, I was in despair about losing the life path that I thought I would have. I took to drinking heavily at college parties, hoping that “something” would happen. Something did happen: I was the victim of rape. While I was distressed about the incident, I also thought it was something that, in a way, I actually wanted. I felt it was my fault for being who I was–a confused asexual, since “sex-favorable” hadn’t been coined yet–and also my fault for not knowing any better. So I blamed myself rather than my perpetrator. And I entered a relationship with my perpetrator, for several weeks.
My story illustrates the relationship between sex-favorability and sexual violence. Being sex-favorable led me to risky behavior, and risky behavior led to sexual violence.2 But I wasn’t at fault for sexual violence. The fault lies with the perpetrator. This is an important point, not just because self-blame feels bad, but because it can lead to more risky behavior.
This is true, by the way, even if there was no sexual violence, no abuse, no perpetrator, and just bad feelings all around. It’s not your fault. Compulsory sexuality can make any of us do things that we later realize had been unwise.
I write this article with the distant hope that maybe it will help someone out there, but I don’t really know. I can only offer words on a screen. I don’t think they would have helped me when I was younger. Often, the opportunity to help and support people comes after they have had negative experiences, once we’re sure their experience was actually negative. I may have little power to prevent harm, but I hope at least that we can better understand what we have been victim to, and forgive ourselves.
I highly recommend Queenie’s Ace Survivors as Rhetorical Devices series, particularly part 3, which discusses the narrative that sex-repulsed people are especially targeted by sexual violence. Sexual violence doesn’t follow any single narrative. The narrative I discuss here, where aces push themselves to try sex, is just one among many.
Queenie runs Resources for Ace Survivors which I also recommend if you’re an ace survivor or think you might be.
1. I would compare this to how people dismiss male victims of sexual violence, because they think men just want sex all the time. For one thing, that’s not a true fact about men, and for another, even if it were true, men could still be victims. (return)
2. There is some evidence that sex-favorability is a risk factor for sexual violence. Among the respondents to the 2015 Ace Community Survey, 22% of gray-As and 18% of demisexuals had experienced non-consensual sex, as compared to 12% of asexuals and 9% straight non-aces. Sex-favorable aces are predominantly demisexual or gray-A (although demisexual and gray-A people are not predominantly sex-favorable). Using extrapolation, we might infer an elevated risk of sexual violence for sex-favorable aces. But the stats should also make clear that basically everyone is at risk, so I don’t want to discuss the question of who has it “worse”. (return)