My Gray

Content notice: fairly graphic descriptions of sex. Mention of non consensual sex.

This is a post that has probably been in the works by way of rumbling around in my brain for quite some time now. I didn’t realize that it needed to be a post until I realized how important it felt to me to realize that there were other people out there who had similar experiences to my own, and that in this one element of my life I hadn’t read anyone who has experiences similar to my own. So I decided that I should probably be that person and write about it in case there are other people out there who are confused and frustrated.

A few years ago I started talking about asexuality, and identifying as asexual. I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking and working through what I want since then, and now am finding that I’m probably somewhere more in the gray asexual spectrum. I do feel sexual attraction, but it’s…unpredictable at best. I have read numerous accounts of what it’s like to be demi and to only feel sexual attraction when you feel a strong emotional connection with people, and that is an element of how sex works for me.

I have wondered and worried whether there’s something broken or wrong about me because one moment the descriptions of asexuality and even sex repulsion or fear ring true to me, but later I will happily have sex with my partner. I continually wonder if it comes down to my mental health or my eating disorder, if once I stop feeling depressed, or once I stop dissociating, or once I stop feeling disgusted by my body, then I’ll simply feel sexual attraction like “normal.”

I’m trying not to pathologize myself in those ways anymore. I want to just say that this is how I am right now. My sexuality is cyclical. This is probably true to a greater or lesser extent of many people, but I have rarely or never heard a description quite to the extremity of mine. When I first start to fall in love with someone (and yes, this is basically a requirement for sexual attraction in my experience) I have extremely strong sexual attraction to them.

However within a few months to a year, all sexual attraction for anyone at all dissipates. I don’t think about sex unless someone else brings it up, or unless I’m blogging about it. I find it very hard to put myself in the headspace of attraction and arousal. I feel for all intents and purposes like I am asexual during these periods.  Typically my sexual attraction will come back about 2 years after I have first started to date someone, although rarely does the relationship last through the drop in sex.

So while there are times that FEEL entirely asexual to me, I have been confused about identifying as such because there are also times that feel entirely allo. These aren’t a day or a few weeks at a time. This isn’t a question of relationship issues or losing my libido after being with a partner for a while. I will go from one day being in a relatively average sexual relationship to the next day not even being able to contemplate sex, feeling some fear of it, and not regaining any of that desire for sex or any attraction to any partner for months. During these times I don’t find myself attracted to other people, or wishing for a new or different partner. I am still very much in love, but all my attraction has basically turned off.

One of the most difficult things about this type of sexuality is that it’s not only confusing to me, it’s also very confusing to my partners, who often come to expect me to be allosexual and then get annoyed and frustrated and feel shut out or unwanted when the shift to ace happens. This has led to many situations in which I felt extremely pressured to have sex with someone and left me with a lot of hair triggers around physical contact in those times, because I have become used to the assumption that any physical contact is an entree to sex.

I have even had partners reassure me over and over that they didn’t want to pressure me, but would ask every day, multiple times a day, like a kid on a road trip “what about now?” They would constantly be trying to up the level of physicality. If I said yes to cuddling, they’d want to kiss. If I said yes to kissing, they’d want to make out. If I said yes to making out they’d want to take clothes off. You get the idea. This led me to the inevitable conclusion that any contact was dangerous.

It’s not all bad though! Here are some things that I’ve found extremely helpful as someone in the gray spectrum navigating a sexual relationship with an allosexual partner.

First, I have learned that I love being turned down for sex. When my partner sometimes says they’re not interested, it reinforces to me that they aren’t ALWAYS looking for sex from me. I know that for the allo partner there can seem like a lot of pressure to jump on it (literally) when the opportunity is presented, because who knows when it will come around again, but when my partner models saying no for me and makes that a more acceptable thing to do in our relationship, I feel safer.

Second, I have found that expanding the territory of what constitutes sex has been incredibly beneficial to my ability to feel comfortable. PIV is probably the most traumatic form of sex for most people who have any sort of negative feelings towards sex. Penetration in general is more likely to result in pain if the person being penetrated isn’t TOTALLY into it. But for some reason PIV with orgasms is the gold standard for male/female sex. Here’s something weird: that can be overwhelming. It’s a time commitment, it requires being emotionally present (at least for me. I can’t do sex that I’ve zoned out during or it becomes truly painful), it often requires work to get people off.

So here’s what works better for me. Sometimes I’m up for oral or digital stuff but not penetration stuff. Sometimes I think I’m up for PIV and it turns out I’m not. But it takes so much of the pressure off if I can make out with my partner for a bit and he can get himself off, or if I can start PIV sex and realize it’s just not working today so we switch to oral or something else. It gives me the space to decide how I want to sexually “hang out” with my partner in this moment, and to change my mind. WHOA. This is great for everyone, not just ace people. But my partner had to make it clear that there wasn’t a better or worse version, or that if he wasn’t getting off it wasn’t a problem.

None of these things are mind blowing, but what was mind blowing was how afraid I have been for so long. I was so confused of leading someone on, of never being able to find someone who loves me but doesn’t WANT NEED NOW sex. I’m perfectly happy incorporating sex into my relationship, and so what I want at this point is just some consistency in what I want and how I approach it.

For me, one of the hardest parts about the gray space has been my own internal attempts to figure out what I want and how to communicate that to others. The ace community has been booming and has started to provide some of these for ace folks, but the gray section hasn’t gotten too much love yet. Ideally this is a start at filling in all of that gray space, giving people an idea of some of the variation of the allo/ace spectrum, and giving more strategies and scripts for figuring out how to feel comfortable with your own sexuality.

 

Talking Over

Yesterday I posted about a personal experience that I had. I identified certain things about my identity and mental health, and mentioned some things that were helpful for me in terms of both of those things. The majority of the post was about things that pertained to me and me alone, with the suggestion that perhaps others could try as well because I had found it helpful, so maybe it would be helpful for others as well.

Now overwhelmingly, the response has been positive, but I did get one comment that summed up for me all that is wrong about talking over another person and their experiences.

Well first off she should stop telling people she is asexual. As she isn’t. She made several references to sexual or romantic relationships she has had in the past. And never once did she say oh I hated the sex part….

Second she right love is awful painful for a borderline and most do get clingy. But this whole if I don’t have sex with you I can love you so hard thing is kinda of not really true. She just removed added simulation to her emotions. Yea borderline emotions are intense and painful.they lead to thinking crazy. But the key part she left out is.you don’t have to act on those feelings. Or thoughts. That once you start learning how to wait them out you learn how to think through them and separate the borderline b.s from what’s actually happening…

All she did was remove an emotional trigger.. and her fb experiment will bite her in the butt when all those friends don’t start giving that love back when she crashes again. But that’s just what I think.”

Normally I don’t take the time to respond to comments like this because they’re awful and just deeply unhelpful, but the problems with this comment are problems that I see over and over and so I wanted to take the time to break down why this isn’t actually constructively engaging with the ideas that I presented. This is a classic example of talking over someone.

So first and foremost, when someone identifies themselves (whether as asexual or bisexual or pansexual or whatever) you don’t get to tell them they don’t identify that way. Identity is complex and personal, and no human being is the Grand High Judge of Sexual Identity. This is one of the most common ways that sexual minorities get fucked with: by others defining what they are and why. It hurts absolutely no one for an individual to identify in the way that they find most compatible with their life experiences, but having your identity undermined or denied is quite painful (and especially for asexual individuals leads to things like corrective rape). As a corollary to this, if you are going to play Sexual Identity Police, at least understand the definitions of the identities you’re policing. Asserting that someone can’t be asexual if they don’t explicitly state they hated all the sex they’ve ever had fundamentally misses what asexuality is, and worse it demands that anyone who is asexual give personal information about their sex lives in order to legitimize their identity to randos on the internet.

Basically, the next time someone tells you how they identify and you feel the need to challenge it, remember that what you’re essentially doing is ignoring someone whose identity puts them in a vulnerable position because you Know More and don’t care about whatever thought they have put into identifying that way.

Now the rest of the comment seems like it’s less harmful because the commenter specifies that it’s just her opinion. The problem comes when she imperiously declares what will happen in my future and what I’m doing with my emotions. This is a nice bit of mind-reading and psychic abilities. I’m impressed.

When someone with a mental illness brings up something that they tried that seemed to help them out, telling them that they’re wrong and that they’ve actually just hurt themselves is incredibly invalidating. While you may have had a different experience from theirs, that doesn’t mean that you get to ignore the words that they have actually said or the experiences that they’ve actually had. If your depression didn’t get better through exercise but someone else says “I tried exercise and I’m really happy with how well it’s working. If you’re interested you could try it too”, the appropriate response is not “You don’t actually feel better! It’s all a lie! Exercise doesn’t work!”

The secret (not so secret) about experiences is that they’re personal. Different things work differently for different people. It’s easy within the mental illness community to get defensive or catty when someone else copes differently from the way you do. It sucks to see someone else doing well if you yourself can’t find good coping mechanisms. But despite how easy it is, it’s a horrible plan. If someone isn’t asking for advice, don’t give advice. If someone did something differently than you would have, you can just move the fuck along. The more we perpetuate the idea that there’s a “right” way to recover, the worse off everyone will be. It’s simply not true that her way of dealing with BPD is the same as my way of dealing with BPD, but that doesn’t have to come with a judgment.

I don’t really care if this person fundamentally misunderstands why I did what I did or how my asexuality is interacting with my BPD or doesn’t get that the point of my experiment wasn’t to just take sex out of love but rather to see what it was like to be open with love and love more people more fully. What I do care about is the implications of her comment that I’m doing something Wrong because I didn’t do what she’d do. I care about the implication that she gets to decide what identities and treatments are better for random people she’s never met. I care that this is considered appropriate dialogue on the internet.

It’s not dialogue. It’s talking over.

 

Asexuality and Norms

Warning: this will be a bit ranty.

There’s a story that goes around in asexual communities, often when someone tries to explain asexuality for the first time. It goes like this:

I never really understood the fuss about dating. I’ve always had good friends, but sometimes they make jokes about sex and I never get them. The idea of taking off my clothes and rubbing my body against someone else’s is just weird. I can’t imagine getting married. I’ve never had a boyfriend/girlfriend/partner, although I wouldn’t mind having a really close friend that is my roommate. Everyone said I was a late bloomer or that I would like sex if I tried it, but it just doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m completely oblivious to come ons and flirtation, I don’t like to dress sexy, and I prefer to be fairly agender. I’ve never had sex, haven’t dated, don’t kiss, and probably never will. I’m asexual, and everything about sex is foreign to me, which means I’m socially awkward.

Unfortunately, this is not the nice, clean, clearcut story that I experienced, and it does a large disservice to many aces who are capable of functioning in allosexual society without any feelings of difference. One of the first ways that asexuality gets defined is by lack: you’re lacking attraction. Many people who openly identify as asexual and who write about their experiences seem to identify at least something like lack: they didn’t date. They didn’t kiss. They didn’t have crushes. All of these are things that others wanted or had, but which they didn’t want.

I started dating when I was 14. Compulsory sexuality is an extremely strong force, and especially for someone like me who really enjoys close relationships and tends to prioritize one relationship over all others, the romantic model works well for me (probably too well, but that’s a story for another day). I’ve been in a romantic relationship nearly constantly since then. I’ve had sex with multiple partners, and at the time I was perfectly happy with that. I was never particularly confused by my orientation, always clearly straight. I’ve had crushes since I was 13 or 14. I’ve talked about boys with my friends and hit all the dating, sexual, and romantic milestones that most people do: first date, first kiss, first boyfriend, first breakup. I’m not confused by the pain and hurt and confusion that often comes along with romantic relationships.

I have always wanted romantic relationships. I feel attraction, although not sexual attraction. I don’t fit the typical script of asexuality. It took me until this year (and I am 23) to figure out that I might be ace. Why? Because I’m adaptable. I’m good at making my experience fit into scripts and narratives. I’m really good at doing what I’m supposed to do and think that it’s what I want to do. I have strong romantic feelings, and for aces who aren’t also aro, it can be easy to meld your romantic tendencies into the dominant patterns of sexuality in order to survive.

I’ve felt uneasy with the accepted norms of the ace community for a while now. I’ve wondered if I can really be ace if I didn’t have these experiences. But right now I’m asking a different question: does it help us to have these “tells”, these inside jokes among the community of always being the third wheel, of not understanding “that’s what she said”, or of never wanting to date?

The major benefit that I can see in these tropes is that they help us build community and they remind us that asexual experiences are different from allosexual experiences. But I also see numerous problems. First, there are tons of aces out there who don’t have these experiences, and positing them as litmus tests for aceyness actually divides the community. But more than that, it focuses more on what we’re lacking, how we diverge from the allosexual norm, instead of looking at the things we actually DO want. Once again, asexuality is NOT having all of these things, lacking the empathy and understanding to connect with other people, being on the fringe because we can’t do what others do.

When the story that is asexuality is about sticking out like a sore thumb, about being flabbergasted by your peers, or about knowing early on that you’re different, we erase the very real ability of many aces to blend in and adapt, to fit their needs into the scripts that are available to them, and we make aces look awkward and bizarre. It makes it look as if we’re incapable of empathy (hey guess what, I can actually empathize with feelings I’ve never had).

Perhaps worse, it helps to erase the ways that compulsory sexuality can interact with asexuality. One of the reasons I have been so good at melding my experiences into the dominant narrative is because we are awash in sexuality from such a young age. I learned how to make sex jokes because everyone made sex jokes all the time. I started dating because I knew early on that you dated someone you felt drawn to, all attraction is sexual attraction, dating is normal. That is what society tells us. Being asexual does not make you immune to societal influence, and it’s important to recognize that.

Yes, ace experiences are different from other people’s experiences. Yes, I have spent some time being a bit flabbergasted that people could be so motivated by sex. But that doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of functioning in a society designed for allosexual people. It doesn’t mean I can’t adapt or learn. It seems a bit condescending to imply that someone can’t understand sexual humor unless they’re motivated by sex, or that they wouldn’t understand why a relationship was important to another person unless they wanted sex and romance. We’re inundated with sex from the moment we’re born. Just as women learn to understand men’s experiences, so ace people learn early on to understand allosexual experiences early on.

Perhaps there are some aces that remain fairly oblivious their whole lives. But I can’t be the only ace out there who learned how to act allo in a society that prioritizes allo experiences. I suspect that if we started talking about some of those narratives, there might be a whole lot of people out there who come out of the woodwork and say “that’s me”.

These “tells” give us one picture of what it’s like to not feel sexual attraction. But what about the tell that says “I had sex because it’s what you’re supposed to do and it felt nice, but I preferred my relationships without it”? Or the one that says “I always thought I was monogamous because more sex sounded horrible to me, but now I think I’m in love with two people at once” or the one that said “I love this person and so I think I should have sex with them, but there are so many other things I’d rather do more”.

Not all of the tells are glaring social deviations. You can’t peg someone who’s asexual by looking for the socially awkward one with no partner and no sense of humor. Especially for those who are in the gray asexual category, or those who have romantic attractions, their behaviors can look a lot like those of allosexuals, but just different enough that they feel incredibly broken.

This is part of the tendency for people to point towards sexual trauma or medical dysfunction or gender confusion or disease as the reasons for asexuality: for some bizarre reason the people who manage to muddle through in a fairly mundane way don’t get the label asexual. We complain a lot about the oppression model of queerness, but in many ways we practice it in the asexual community too: if you weren’t weird/awkward/uncomfortable enough in your teen years, you’re probably not ace.

It seems to be accepted wisdom within the ace community that romantics get more air time. I haven’t seen this. I haven’t seen romantic whos blog, or who talk about what it’s like to try to find a romantic relationship in which the partner will accept you without sex. I haven’t seen romantics who talk about assuming their whole lives that when people talked about being “attracted” they were referring to what I felt: romantic attraction. Flutters in the chest, anxiety, excitement, tongue-tied moments, the need to see the beloved. Nobody talks about the moment that shatters your whole world when you realize that feeling that doesn’t mean you want sex.

I never felt a lack of anything. I never felt like I was missing out. I felt like things were being forced on me, like there were scripts and I knew them, but I didn’t like them. I don’t want to be defined by lack. I don’t want asexual scripts to replace allosexual scripts.

Perhaps part of this is bitterness at not being the gold star ace. But hopefully if we tell more varied stories, we won’t have to compare ourselves to that false ideal.

I’m Afraid of Identifying As Asexual

This weekend was the fantabulous Skeptech, a conference about skepticism and technology. As per usual I had a great time and am currently quite exhausted (despite the fact that like a good little introvert I went home before midnight most nights).  I have lots of Thoughts spinning around in my head from the weekend, but for now I’m going to focus on one interaction in particular. In the Twitter feed I got into a discussion with Kate Donovan and Tetyana about asexuality and eating disorders in response to a panel regarding bias and science. Without really thinking, I mentioned that I was afraid my ED would turn out to be the real reason that I haven’t felt sexual in quite some time, and it grew into a conversation about why that would be a bad thing.

The topic was a bit too large for Twitter, so I’ve been pondering it a bit further and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a combination of fearing that I’m relying too heavily on my own privilege, and an internalization of many of the myths about sexual identity and the process of finding one’s sexual identity. I am tentatively taking on the label of “asexual” but I’m terrified that at some point in the future I will feel a wave of sexual attraction and it will turn out that I’ve been lying to everyone and that the real reasons I feel this way are medication, my eating disorder, and depression. Here’s why that seems so scary.

One of the things I worry about is taking the name and label of an oppressed group if I have not truly experienced the oppression that they live. It’s somewhat akin to a white person claiming that they’re racially oppressed. It’s an offensive concept at best, and at worst it muddies and obscures the real struggles that people of color experience, delegitimizing their words and stories and thus making it harder for them to make changes to improve their situation. While asexuality isn’t quite on the same spectrum, I am afraid that I will be claiming their oppression when I’ve existed in privilege. If I say that I’ve had those experiences, that I am oppressed in the same ways they are, but it turns out that I’m really allosexual, straight, cis, monogamous…how hard will it be for others to take the worries of the ace community seriously? I’m also afraid of calling on the resources that have been put together for asexual people because I’m worried I’ll be taking something from those who actually need it.

I believe that these are important fears to have, especially for someone who is as privileged as I am. It’s important to think about whether your future actions and identifications could have harmful repercussions for an oppressed group. I don’t want the ace community to be taken less seriously because I casually started identifying as ace and then nonchalantly went back to allosexual. Aces are already criticized for identifying as queer because they aren’t oppressed enough, because they are supposedly all white, cis, het girls who have privilege shooting out of their asses. I don’t want to contribute to this stereotype. These are important things to consider when thinking about whether to take on a certain identity or not. I don’t want to be the ace whose asexuality is actually a disease, the person that others can point to whenever someone else says “I am ace” as a way to remind them “but what if you’re really not”.

But there is a whole other level of worry that comes on a personal level which is fully wrapped up in the expectations that society has for a woman to be available constantly, for women to make perfect choices, and for sexuality to be a linear progression. If my “asexuality” were actually just a result of my eating disorder, I would actually just be a broken straight person, someone who wants to be able to have sex but isn’t interested because of trauma/disease/stupidity. It’s scary enough if I am asexual to look at the past 10 years of my dating life and think that I’ve spent all that time chasing after the wrong things. It’s even worse if I was just horribly broken and made choices that hurt myself because I am so disordered that I can’t find healthy relationships and wouldn’t even pursue something that would end up being good for me. It’s too cliche to be a girl with an eating disorder who can’t have sex because she’s too self-conscious.

There is a large part of me that is feeling imposter syndrome around this. It’s not necessarily that I think being ace is preferable to being allosexual, but rather that actually finding out who I am feels too good to be true. This can’t be right, I’m too screwed up, I’m too lost, I’m too confused to actually have found some small piece of identity that is truly me. I have spent so much of my life with no identity but my eating disorder that accepting something else as an integral part of me feels wrong in many ways. I suspect that others who are in the process of recovery feel this way when they start to find good things.

Partially it’s that I’m convinced I’ll never know who I am, partially it’s that if something is going to replace the eating disorder in any way it needs to be quite strong, and partially it’s a fear: what if I try to find something that’s really me and it turns out it’s just the eating disorder in disguise? What if every part of me is just my eating disorder in disguise? What if I can’t even trust something as basic as my sexual impulses? This is deeply tied to the mental illness. I’ve been told so many times that I can’t trust things like my hunger cues, or my desires, or the voices in my head. This one must be wrong too, especially if it’s something so out of the ordinary as asexuality. I think it can be really damaging to teach people as part of their recovery that they have to stop listening to things that feel perfectly real and important.

I’m also a rule follower, a big part of having an eating disorder. A perfectionist. Everything must be just so. I can’t make decisions until I explore every possible angle and even then I often can’t because there is no right or perfect answer. The idea that I might identify as something and then find out that it’s wrong is terrifying. I’ll have embarrassed myself, I’ll have gotten the WRONG ANSWER about something incredibly important. I won’t be doing things right, I’ll have screwed up. That would be the worst thing ever, even worse than that time in first grade I got time out that I still remember.

There’s also an element of internalized misunderstanding of how sexuality works. One of the things we’re taught is that you figure out what you are and then you be that thing. Usually you figure it out in high school or college: you “experiment” and then realize you’re gay/straight/bi/whatever. Then that’s your life. It’s fairly simple. You might make one mistake and date the wrong gender or try a poly relationship and realize it’s not for you, but then everything is figured out. This isn’t actually how sexuality works, in reality there’s some fluidity, there’s often a lot more confusion, you may think you’re one thing and then discover a new term or community that you think fits you. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying on different sexual identities to see which one feels the most like you.

But I’ve internalized that you figure it out and then that’s it, anything else is wrong or improper or a LIE. You might be repressing part of yourself if you ever end up changing. You’re probably misleading your loved ones. You’ve probably destroyed at least one relationship asking for something, setting boundaries when you really didn’t need to, trying to be something that you’re not: there was no reason to ask for space to try something new if you aren’t going to identify that way FOREVER, and doing so was really quite selfish. At the very least you’re just a really screwed up person who’s flip floppy and shallow and attention seeking because there isn’t any other reason to change. Obviously none of this is true. We all get to ask for whatever we need when we need it, but the implications for my relationships if it turns out I’m allosexual are confusing and frightening.

I think one of the things that makes recovery from an eating disorder so difficult is trying to suss out which parts of your life are you and which belonged to the eating disorder. For some reason coming to the wrong conclusions (even if you can change your mind later) feels like the end of the world. It seems as if more of your life has been stolen from you, as if you’re doing recovery wrong, as if you’re just too stupid to realize that your whole life was the eating disorder.

This is one of the reasons that I wish labels were both more common and less important. Reality is that people probably have some core identity but that they have some fluidity. For some reason taking on a label has reached a level of importance that people view it as All That Defines You. Particularly if you come out or have a few relationships in the mold of that label, you’re never ever allowed to change. If identity labels were more like career labels or relationships, something that’s important but that you can grow out of, it might be less scary to try some things on as you, then realize that you’ve grown into something else. That fluidity is hugely important in reducing the shame that people feel when they realize they might not be what they thought they were. I think we all deserve the space to learn.

 

I’m a Label Lover and I’m Proud

I like to label things. I find that having a word for something, a way to describe it, helps me understand it better. There are many people out there who find this tendency foolish. Just the other day I saw a Facebook comment who derided the labels “asexual” and “questioning” as pointless and a waste of time, bullshit as he said, because they weren’t oppressed in the same way as LGBT individuals. Others don’t like labels because they see them as limiting and don’t want to be boxed in by a word or a phrase.

I understand both of these impulses. I have been known to laugh in derision when I hear labels like “otherkin”, and I have certainly felt constrained by certain labels placed on me (as I’m sure nearly everyone has). But what many of these people fail to understand is the power in labeling yourself, as well as the way that identities build communities. They also forget that self-understanding is incredibly important to self-acceptance, and that having a word to describe yourself can facilitate understanding and acceptance.

I posted recently about a TED talk that described how certain labels can change from an illness to an identity. These include things like homosexuality, autism, and deafness. In describing the change, the speaker focuses on how these communities created a culture under the umbrella of their label, and how that label has come to signify something good to them. These communities are built because people are brought together through a common label. The labels we are given by society point to a certain constellation of traits. We can choose to focus on the negative aspects of those traits, or we can build something positive and different out of them. When we create a culture, a different way of being, out of our labels, we have created identity.

As someone who struggles to find an identity, labels are very helpful. When I can pinpoint a label for myself, I can add it to my conception of my identity. I’m a learner, I’m gray ace, I have depression and anorexia, I’m a writer…each of these helps me to pin myself down and feel more certain of who I am and where I’m coming from. They can create a grounding of self. Additionally, they can help someone see their identity in a positive light. Especially when a label illustrates that there are others out there who are the same or similar to you, it can provide a sense of safety.

Labels can also help to normalize something that feels or appears deviant and unwanted. They can put you in touch with others who have had similar experiences and may be able to provide insight. They give a shorthand to explain yourself to others. And in many ways they can be liberating because they can provide a framework for understanding. Oftentimes a label will focus someone’s attention in a new way on different elements of their self. My therapist recently gave me a new label to try out: explorer. Looking at how this maps onto my personality makes me feel free to explore new things, free to move away from things that scare me, free to see myself positively. While many labels may not appear to be liberating in that way (something like depression for example), they can still provide a path forward.

An important part of this liberation is the fact that a label does not have to keep you from gaining other labels, or even from changing. Many people look at labels as either/or propositions: you are either straight or you are gay. Labels are to me a both/and proposition. I am both gray ace and heteroromantic. I am both depressed and exploring. I was allosexual and now I’m questioning. Giving a name to one facet of your personality does not negate all the others, nor does the label necessitate that you fit exactly every element of the definition. Some people think that if you identify in one way and you behave out of the “bounds” of that label, you’re lying or wrong or betraying the group. If a woman who identifies as lesbian has sex with a man once, that does not negate who she is or how she has felt attraction in the past. A label is a way to name behavior, not force it in particular directions.

More than anything I find that a label gives me a sense of safety, a way to protect myself from endless explanations or defenses of who I am and how I am. A label allows someone to stake out a territory: this is mine. This is my space. This is my self. For some, this is less important than others, but for those who feel pushed around by the world it can be incredibly important. It gives you access to others who will help defend you and show solidarity.

 

An example of all of this would be my experience with the term asexual. An identity like asexual might seem utterly superfluous to some. However when I discovered the term, many of the traits that I had suddenly made sense to me. I saw that others had experienced similar things, people confirming to me that I wasn’t broken or wrong. I saw that people had jokes and bonds over shared experiences that had come out of discovering this label. I saw all the ways that individuals had chosen to express the same shared trait: some people were in relationships, others married, others poly, others kinky, others single and solely interested in friendships.  It opened up new possibilities of what I could do in my life, of what I might want in my life, and of how I could be happy.

Labels can help many people feel better about themselves and their experiences. They can help build community and identity. Some people don’t have these experiences of labels, but it seems unnecessarily cruel to deride others for having those feelings or for wanting labels to help them gain these experiences. For those who find labels helpful, it would be great if everyone else could just back off and choose not to label themselves.

Medicalizing Difference: A Study in Oppressive Language

I was perusing the asexual blogosphere the other day and ran across this fairly disturbing post that looked at an abnormal psych paper. This paper was proposing a potential new diagnosis to be added to the DSM, which they term “Nonsexual Personality Disorder”. While this is the first I’ve heard of someone literally terming asexuality as a disease, it is not uncommon for people to medicalize it or treat it as something which needs to be fixed.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time with DSM definitions and looked at a lot of problems with the ways we currently define mental illness, but even one glance at what this person proposes as the definition of Nonsexual Personality Disorder tells me that this is a horrible definition for many reasons. At its root, it says that this is different from normal and thus it’s bad without actually taking into consideration whether or not the difference is harmful to anyone. This is the same thing that happens to people who are gay, people who are extremely sexual or kinky, or all sorts of things that constitute “different”, generally from the privileged and well off majority.

Looking closely at the definition, we can pull apart what’s wrong with it and see how medical language is often used to oppress difference. This particular case is a doozy as it manages to pack in all kinds of oppressive tendencies that happen to many different people, so this should be fun.

Let’s start at the beginning shall we?

“A.  A marked inability to experience sexual attraction, beginning in early adulthood and indicated by 5 or more:”

As far as I’m aware there is no other diagnosis in the DSM that hinges exclusively on the lack of one experience. Oftentimes an inability to feel certain things are part of a diagnosis, but rarely are they the whole diagnosis because the whole point of the diagnoses in the DSM is to have a way to treat something that is causing harm or lack of functioning in someone’s life. There is no need for sexuality to be able to live a happy and fulfilled life and this whole diagnosis rests on the idea that if you do not have sexuality in your life then there is something empty or unhappy about your life.

Moving on:

“Inability to interpret sexual signals”

Now there are all kinds of symptoms listed in the DSM that people who are not mentally ill have but that only become signs of mental illness when they move into a realm where they seriously inhibit someone’s functioning or lead to high distress. Now I can imagine how you might get into some awkward situations if you can’t interpret sexual signals, but overall it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that should be medicalized: it’s pretty damn normal and unless the other party involved also has some difficulties with reading emotions it should just mean that you don’t get into sexual situations. Oh no. How horrible.

Another way this sort of symptom was used in the past was in medicalizing lesbians. If you can’t interpret or don’t respond to a romantic overture, there’s something wrong with you. If you can’t follow the scripts that have been laid down, there’s something wrong with you, something that needs to be treated. In reality, it may simply be that you follow your own script or no script at all and that’s totally ok.

“Uncomfortable in intimate situations with a partner”

So I have a serious problem with this particular criterion because this whole disorder is circulated around an inability to feel sexual attraction. That implies that the intimate situation here is sexual. That’s a whole lot of assuming that the only intimate situations you’d ever be in would be sexual. There are all sorts of intimacies and personally I think it’s a bit gross to eliminate them all because SEX. There are also many, many people who are uncomfortable in sexual situations with partners for a variety of reasons and this criteria doesn’t touch on ANY of them (including abuse, PTSD, different priorities, etc). It also doesn’t specify frequency of discomfort, which seems important as probably everyone has felt uncomfortable in intimate situations at one point or another.

Generally discomfort at a situation is only diagnosable when you need to be able to function in that situation in order to have a complete and fulfilled life. I think there are many people out there who could attest that sex is not necessary for a complete and fulfilled life with intimate relationships, which makes this criterion really bizarre. There’s really nothing wrong about having discomfort or preferences against some stuff, and saying that we all need to be comfortable in the same settings is really a set up to oppress some people. Yes, being uncomfortable in all social settings or all settings outside of the house might be something that really interferes with your life, but sexual situations are specific, private, intimate, and unnecessary for day to day functioning.

If you’re really not interested in something and another person tries to get you to do it, it is 100% reasonable to feel uncomfortable. Generally we only want to label something as mental illness if the emotions or reactions are far outside of reasonable or logical.

“Avoidance of situations in which sexual activity may occur”

Um…so if you’re a priest you have symptoms of mental illness? If you choose to be celibate? Lots of people can make it through their lives without sexual activity. In other news, not feeling sexual attraction does not imply that you have to avoid sex. Unrelated! Crazy! Throwing these symptoms together is just illustrating a complete misunderstanding of what it’s like to be asexual.

“Lack of attraction to the opposite or same sex”

This is extremely sloppily written. What kind of attraction? What about non-binary people? Do friend urges count? If they don’t then we’re really looking at something far more akin to antisocial personality disorder. I think it’s implied that those are not the kinds of attraction that the author is thinking of but rather sexual attraction. What is wrong with not feeling sexual attraction if there’s nothing about it that hurts you or anyone else? It’s not like a lack of empathy that leads you to undertake cruel behaviors, it simply leads you to seek out different relationships for yourself. I’m really failing to see the problem.

At its heart this criterion says there’s one way to be human and that’s a sexual way, not because asexual people say they’re unhappy but because the author can’t imagine a different way. Why is this any less discriminatory than making it an illness to have a lack of attraction to the opposite sex?

“Complete lack of sexual thoughts”

My biggest problem with this is that I don’t think it exists unless you’ve got a hormonal imbalance, which is not related to mental illness but simple physical health. There are absolutely people that don’t feel sexual thoughts towards anyone or who rarely have sexual thoughts, but our bodies are filled with hormones that give us certain reactions and that doesn’t stop happening just because of your orientation. As an analogy, if a gay man is given a blowjob by a woman, oftentimes his body will react even if he doesn’t feel an attraction or particularly want the blowjob. It is possible to orgasm during rape. Our bodies react to things.

The other problem is that things like age can also play a role here. Hormones change with age, and some people’s testosterone and other happy sexy hormones just go down as they age. And then they stop thinking sexual things. It’s actually super normal and healthy. So why the compulsory sexuality?

“Touch aversion”

Ok so this is one of the criteria that I think has a little bit of merit in that there is a fair amount of research that shows that human contact is really good for your mental health. People who get hugs or hold hands or what have you tend to be happier. But there is also a lot of evidence that people simply exist on a spectrum of sensory sensitivity and for those who are extremely sensitive touch can be overwhelming. That’s a simple fact about the way their bodies process touch. Perhaps it has something to do with a medical condition (physical), but probably it’s just like different pain thresholds. We have them and for people with high pain thresholds it’s kind of a nuisance but you adapt.

I am one of those people who is fairly touch averse. I am not a hugging type person. I am not a kissing type person. I generally like my space. I cannot cuddle through the night (except with a cat). But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t times that I feel incredibly comforted by touch with someone I trust and care about. It doesn’t mean that I’m broken, just that I need touch in a different way. It really hasn’t been a big deal in a lot of my relationships except that I yell “STOP TICKLING ME!” fairly often when the other person is not intending to tickle me at all. People get their boundaries, move on.

“Inability to experience romantic relationships”

This is unrelated to sexual attraction. Sex and romance are not the same. Romantic relationships are possible without sex. Not feeling romance is also not a super big deal. Someone needs to read asexuality 101. I really have no more ways to say “it is possible to have a fulfilled and happy way full of great relationships without sex and romance”. These symptoms are basically saying “I prioritize romance so much that the only way I could imagine not having it is if I was crazy”.

“Social isolation”

Where did this come from?? Especially because later in the definition it specifies that you would be capable of holding down close personal relationships of a nonsexual or romantic nature, so it contradicts itself. Not dating is not the same as social isolation. Saying that it is is basically telling everyone there’s one way to have a family or be around other people and if you don’t do it that way you’re sick.

“Inability to become sexually aroused”

This is seriously not on par with nor related to a lack of sexual attraction. The symptoms that they give as evidence of “lack of sexual attraction” for the most part have nothing to do with sexual attraction. The ability to become aroused is 100% biological: does your body respond to certain stimuli. Attraction has to do with feelings towards someone. If you can’t become sexually aroused at all and you have a problem with it, it’s probably a question for your medical doctor not your psychologist. But of course none of these symptoms can be the result of something medical as per criterion b.

“It would manifest as something similar to schizoid PD, in which the individual is rather socially detached. However, unlike schizoid PD, this person would take enjoyment in other types of close relationships, such as with family or platonic friends. Additionally, they would not exhibit flattened affect, excepting in sexual situations. In this dimension, this individual does not possess the skills to understand or interpret social cues. A person may develop this due to either a predisposition to a schizotypal-like PD, lack or disregulation of hormones, or a lack of physical contact in childhood.”

So basically nothing would be wrong with this person except that they don’t want to have sex. Oh no! How horrible! Their life must be empty! The basic take home message is that if someone is not feeling a desire for sex then they must be unhappy or wrong. This is a pretty common feeling among a lot of people: if you’re not having or wanting sex, there must be something wrong with you and you should probably fix it. But simply having different desires, priorities, ways of relating, or ways of expressing intimacy doesn’t mean anything about your ability to live a good life. Throughout history psychology and medicine have turned difference into illness so that they have a legitimate way of trying to eradicate it. You’re a woman who likes sex a lot? Medicate. You’re gay? Stamp it out, it’s a disease. You’re a kinkster? Better see your doc.

Many of the symptoms presented above boil down to “you don’t feel the way that I’m used to people feeling”, or tie together something painful but unrelated with the different way of feeling. Many of them point at things that are often a sign of illness (lack of sex drive) and say that they are ALWAYS a sign of illness. Together, these allow a doctor to say that difference is actually a problem because it causes unhappiness. In reality the unhappiness is more likely caused by stigma and oppression.

So if you’re thinking about introducing a new medical definition let’s think about whether the symptoms are actually causing pain in someone’s life rather than just are something that doesn’t make sense to you, shall we?

 

Asexual Trauma

Over at Queer Libido there is an amazing post about why Alok does not feel comfortable identifying as asexual. Alok is a South Asian man, and because of the tendency to emasculate and desexualize Asian men, he does not feel comfortable terming himself “asexual” without an exploration of the fact that it was trauma and colonialization that acted on his body to put him in the position he is in now (very brief summary, please read the article itself as it’s fantastic). As is my odd tendency when reading things from men of color, I found myself nodding along at many of his comments. I have no desire to co-opt his feelings or his narrative, and I deeply don’t want to play the oppression olympics, but his identification of trauma as an important part of sexual identity and his desire to look at a journey rather than a “born this way” mentality felt so important and personal to me.

As someone who never presented as feminine until I reached halfway through high school, I was never viewed as sexual. I never viewed myself as sexual. As someone who at an early age got into her first relationship and had sexuality forced down her throat, I often saw sexuality as invasive, as taking away my autonomy. Guilt has figured heavily into my sexual repertoire: I owe someone my sexuality, I owe the world my sexuality and my body. My partners have often reminded me of this fact, doing everything from telling me what clothes I could wear to guilting me into sex.

Clearly my experience of the violence and trauma of sexuality is very different from Alok’s, as my experience is that of a white woman (someone whose sexuality is deemed compulsory) rather than a brown man (someone whose sexuality is denied). However Alok’s experience of wanting to recognize his own trauma, the violence that he feels when it comes to sexuality, the distance he feels from being allowed to be a sexual subject, all these things feel familiar and important. Each of us feels that we have had our autonomy taken from us in some way, him by his race and me by my gender.

It seems intensely important to me to recognize that actively accepting the role society has created for you is not compulsory. If society bills you as sexless, you do not have to acquiesce to asexuality even if you don’t find yourself strongly pulled towards sexuality. Identities are political and they don’t appear in a vacuum. The trauma that we experience out of our oppressions plays a clear role in how we feel towards our sexuality and our bodies, but it can also play a role in how we feel comfortable identifying. As an example, I have always felt uncomfortable with the fact that the most obvious identities I have are heterosexual, monogamous, and cis, because these are the roles that society demands I have. I have spent time asking myself whether I want to publicly identify myself with these things because they have been used to damage so many women.

While Alok’s experience is one of being forcibly de-sexualized, and so he feels uncomfortable embracing that, mine is one of being forcibly sexualized. Each of these experiences can leave you feel as if you have no space to act, no connection to the body that is being acted on, no intimacy with yourself. Each of them can be traumatic. Alok asks that we openly acknowledge our trauma when speaking of our sexual identities. As I mentioned in a previous post, our histories are an important part of our identities today, and we cannot ignore that. The politics and traumas involved in those histories are part of that, and I want to be open about the fact that my body has been a site of sexual violence and mental health violence, often at my own hands. These are part of what I react to when I say I am asexual. These are part of reclaiming my body.

As Alok says “The dilemma of this brown queer body is its inability to see itself through its own eyes. The mirror becomes a site it which we view what white people have always told us about ourselves. 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 dilemma is true for any person with oppressions. There is no right answer when it comes to sex. There is no certainty about whether we are the actor or the object of our sexuality. Perhaps this is the problem with labels, with identity politics, with trying to be a part of a community based on a sex drive. But perhaps this is the place we can begin to be open and vulnerable, to see ourselves as both the site of others’ violence and our own reclamations. Maybe this recognition could be the beginning of a sexuality more complex and more empathetic than any of us has seen before.

I don’t know how we can proceed from recognizing that bodies are one of the most common sites of trauma, but I know that we need to start there.