Do I Get to Be Queer?

I am on the asexual spectrum. I’m not sure if there’s a great word for me. I’ve slipped in and out of demisexual, but it’s never felt 100% correct. My sexuality is a flitting thing: it comes and goes as it pleases, often with no rhyme or reason. One day I’ll feel sexual attraction to my fiance in a perfectly normal fashion, the next it will disappear for a month, two months, six months.

It’s stressful, and I have yet to encounter a community that describes quite this experience or gives a name to it. I find that particularly difficult. It makes it feel as if my sexuality isn’t real. I still have not entirely convinced myself that I get to claim the word asexual, even though it’s fairly clear when I look at my life and my patterns, I am definitely not allosexual.

Which makes it even harder to talk about the word queer, or about being in the LGBTQIA+ community.

I consider myself an ally. I don’t like to use that word very often because if I have to tell someone I’m an ally I’m really not doing it right, but I think it’s important in this context to recognize that I explicitly think of myself as an outsider when it comes to queer spaces. When I go to gay clubs or pride, I only go with queer friends, and actively identify myself as a straight, cis person: I try not to talk too much, and to be in the background. I think of myself as a guest.

But here’s the thing: I don’t have a sexuality that fits into the norm. My sexuality has very directly impacted my life in ways that led to sexual assault, breakups, and dismissal by the people I love most. I very much struggle with the idea that oppression is what makes someone queer: if a gay person grew up in an accepting family and never experienced bullying, harassment, or cruelty because of their sexuality, they would still be gay. They would still be a part of the queer community. So I struggle to understand what exactly defines queerness, and who gets to decide what groups are part of that umbrella.

The best I can understand is that queerness has to do with disrupting the status quo. And as far as that is concerned, my sexuality certainly fits. It fits enough that it has disrupted every relationship I have ever been in. It disrupts enough that I have had a therapist ask me if it was maybe actually just my mental illness not my sexuality.

So why do I not feel comfortable identifying as such? Why do I still feel like an outsider at Pride, or other gay/queer spaces?

The question of whether or not asexuality fits under the queer umbrella is fairly hotly debated, with some people suggesting that aces don’t experience enough oppression to count and ace people suggesting that they feel alienated by mainstream conceptions of sexuality and would like a safe space to come together, just as other LGBT folks do.

I see a few reasons why aces SHOULD fit in queer spaces, as well as a few reasons why many queer spaces aren’t a good fit. Because I am constitutionally incapable of letting any question about my identity be until I’ve driven it into the dirt, I’m going to spend some time detailing those reasons, and the best definitions of “queer” as I understand them, to better get to the bottom of why I feel like I don’t get to claim that label and to understand if I should.

Let’s start at the end and work our way back: what IS queer?

There isn’t a single, great definition of queerness. But most definitions are explicit in saying that queerness is political. Nadia Cho suggests “Being queer is first and foremost a state of mind. It is a worldview characterized by acceptance, through which one embraces and validates all the unique, unconventional ways that individuals express themselves, particularly with respect to gender and sexual orientation.” Under this definition, anyone who actively embraces alternative genders and sexualities or who identifies as an outside the mainstream gender or sexuality, could be queer.

The Unitarian Universalist Association gives a breakdown of quite a few potential definitions:

-being attracted to more than one gender
-not fitting cultural norms with regard to sexuality/gender
-non-heterosexual
-transgressive or challenging the status quo

Pflag suggests that “queer” means a nonbinary gender or sexuality.

Historically, queer was a slur, which means that for many people using it as an identifier today is all about reclamation. Some people focus on that element: on the oppression of it. I see three major definitions of “queer”: outside the norm (which some people define as heterosexual and cis), challenging the status quo, and oppressed with regards to sexuality or gender.

There are certainly some of these that don’t make sense with asexuality. Asexuality has nothing to do with being nonbinary, or with being attracted to more than one gender (although someone might experience romantic attraction or a gender identity in these ways and be asexual). I will suggest that these definitions don’t encompass all the identities we typically consider “queer”: for example we often include trans individuals under the queer umbrella, and that does not necessarily make someone nonbinary or attracted to more than one gender. However if we really do want to define queer by either of these definitions, then it would make sense for asexuality not to fall under that label.

Another reason that aces often don’t fit in queer spaces is that queer spaces can often be incredibly sexualized: Pride is often all about embracing sex and sexiness, queer people tend to gather in clubs, or at drag events. What aces need from their safe spaces isn’t always what gay, lesbian, bi, and pan folks need. Instead of wanting a place to express their sexuality, they often want somewhere that they can feel safe from sexuality. I’m not sure that this means aces aren’t queer, but it does mean that we need our own unique spaces.

The definition where the rubber seems to meet the road for many people is “oppressed with regards to gender or sexuality.” Many people who use the word queer have expressed frustration with the idea that aces could be part of their community when asexual people don’t experience the same oppression that trans, gay, bi, and lesbian folks do. And this is where we can talk facts instead of just debating which meaning seems or feels best to us.

Asexual people have and do experience oppression. Our identities are invalidated, called fake, mocked, and ignored, often by people who claim to be progressive. More often than not, asexual people are told they’re broken, sick, or need therapy (and yes, saying that someone’s sexuality is an illness is definitely oppressive). We’re erased from media, from sex education, from discussions of diversity. We’re told we’ll never be happy and that no one will want us if we won’t have sex. If you believe that oppression is only when someone’s rights are taken away, then I suppose aces aren’t oppressed, but if you think the systematic erasure and dehumanization of a group isn’t oppression I don’t really know what to do with you.

Worse, it’s absolutely an ace experience to receive threats, abuse, rape, or violence because of our sexual orientation. Saying no to sex can be dangerous, especially if someone thinks that your reason for saying no isn’t good enough. I know very few aces who haven’t experienced some form of violence or abuse because of their orientation.

Beyond all of this, no personal individual has to experience oppression in order to be queer. There are white, rich, cis, gay men who have never encountered discrimination in their personal lives but no one is denying their right to be a part of the community. Oppression simply doesn’t make sense as a litmus test.

So how DO aces fit into the queer community?

Well I’d say the biggest and most obvious way is that they’re a sexual minority, and just as non hetero or cis identities challenge the status quo, so do non allo identities. Compulsory sexuality is a huge part of how society today understands relationships and sexuality, and it is deeply tied to heteronormativity and monosexuality. When you live an identity that questions whether sex is a necessity for a happy and fulfilled life, you challenge the status quo. Asexuality certainly fits outside the mainstream understanding of sex and sexual identities, I would suggest even more than gay or lesbian identities (many people still don’t even know what asexuality is or believe it exists). If queerness is about being different, well asexuality DEFINITELY fits.

And as an ace, the most important reason that I want to be a part of the queer community is because I want a community where I don’t feel like an outsider, where I don’t feel judged, or where I don’t feel that others think I’m broken. Obviously queer communities aren’t perfect and may still act negatively towards aces, but the idea of having a connection with other people who feel that their sexuality is different sounds very important and positive to me. Aces, as a minority community have said that they want to feel that sense of belonging, and that sounds important to me.

At the end of all this, I still don’t feel as if I should make a strong statement about whether asexuality fits within the queer spectrum, because I am cis and hetero. What I will say is that I can’t fully understand arguments against it, and I do see a benefit to including it. If the queer community wants me, I’d be happy to be a part of it.

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.

 

Maps on the Body: Further Thoughts on Gray Consent

The conversation in the ace and gray ace community about the nitty gritty confusing areas of consent has been robust since Queenie first proposed that we begin discussing it last week. I contributed my own minor thoughts here, and I’ve really appreciated the ways that others have built off or challenged those thoughts. Mostly, these thoughts have circulated around the experience of ace or gray ace people (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that since this is a question that overwhelmingly affects that community), but today I want to touch on an element of it that’s probably more likely to affect allosexual folks. It’s not only ace people who sometimes deal with muddy, confusing, halfway consent, and I think addressing all the different ways this happens is going to be helpful for everyone as it will make conversations about consent more nuanced and help us create new models that can benefit anyone.

The last time I saw my therapist we were talking about asexuality. I’m still trying to figure out where on the spectrum I am, although at this moment I feel closer to allo than ace. I mentioned this to her and she said “Sometimes your body knows before you do. It might have been a sign those other relationships were over.”

Now if I were still actively identifying as ace this would have been a horrible thing to say, but since I’m in a fuzzy place it was incredibly helpful as a template to make sense of my experiences. I filed it away and didn’t think about it until a few days later when my partner tried to initiate sexytimes and I turned him down. I wasn’t really sure why and I felt guilty and weird about it (see: all the conversations from previous posts about compulsory sexuality and conflict aversion). He pushed me a little bit on why I was so quiet, and after some thinking I realized that we had left a previous conversation unfinished and I was still feeling uncomfortable about some of the requests I had made that he hadn’t quite answered. It was hardly a big deal or a fight, but I simply felt uncertain and off, and needed to talk out some relationship things.

I don’t know that I would have realized this if I hadn’t stopped and listened to the gut feeling that I wasn’t interested in intimacy at the moment. This is one of those times that a lot of advice blogs would have told me to just try to get in the mood because there was nothing in particular that was deterring me, I just wasn’t really feeling it. My partner and I would have lost out on some insight into ourselves and making our relationship stronger by figuring out some things that were stressing me out. My body knew before I did.

Here’s where I want to get real specific about what I mean. The purpose of emotions, in general, is to provide us with information. Fear tells us we’re in danger, sadness tells us we’ve lost something. Oftentimes we react emotionally to something before we can rationally sort out what an appropriate response would be: emotions are the immediate information (which means that sometimes they’re very, very off but that oftentimes they’re very helpful). Sometimes they put things together in ways we consciously don’t notice until we stop and pick at the emotion. It’s not completely off to suggest that sometimes we figure something out emotionally before we do rationally.

Bodies tend to be emotionally driven. I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that emotions are often physical. Our bodies often express our emotions before we even really know what we’re feeling. It’s important to pay attention to what our bodies are doing because it can provide us with information about how we’re feeling, which in turn gives us information about our surroundings, our boundaries, and our safety. I’ve noticed this happen quite often when it comes to sexual situations because they require a lot of trust and vulnerability. Sometimes it’s not immediately apparent that there might be a reason that you don’t want to be vulnerable with someone, but your emotions and your body tell you by just not being interested.

I’m concerned about many of the narratives that suggest we should compromise around sex and just try to have it if there’s no real reason not to. We don’t always know our reasons not to. We’re not always fully informed about ourselves, and this seems to be one more instance of ignoring the very important things about our bodies, like the ways that they’re intimately tied to our cognition and our emotions. Sometimes consent is clear and easy and we know what we want or don’t want. But sometimes consent requires time. I’ve almost never heard a script for “going slow” except in the sense of not having sex immediately in a relationship. What about one partner initiating some kissing and foreplay, and the other saying “hey, I’m not sure how I’m feeling, can we just kiss for a while?” and so that happens for a while. Maybe hands get involved, maybe partner two asks to back up a little, or maybe partner two says that they’re just not feeling it and they don’t know why. This opens the door for some conversation about how to make everyone feel more comfortable.

Now maybe some of you are thinking this is just basic consent. But it isn’t an on/off switch, as many people tend to think (even when they recognize that you can take away that consent at any point). It’s the process of figuring out together where everyone is and where their boundaries are at that moment, and maybe even why their boundaries have moved around. I don’t think it’s fair to either partner to expect each person to figure out exactly what they want on their own. It works a lot better if you talk it out a little bit. Maybe this is something like open consent, consent that you sort out together, consent when things aren’t clear but you don’t want to leave your partner with no clue about what’s going on in your head. To some extent the concept of negotiation covers this, but sometimes it’s not just about negotiating with the other person, but an internal negotiation as well.

Consent is often touted as a way to improve communication in sexual situations, and I’m all for that. What seems to be a potential problem is that if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want or need, it might scare you away from speaking up, as there isn’t good consent language for “I don’t know.” I’ve noticed that many people feel as if they need to have a clear answer yes or no before they say anything. I’m not entirely sure how many other people have this experience of embodied emotions, but it might be a nice way to talk about ambivalence: “my body isn’t really on board” or “I’m not sure why, but I’m just not getting turned on. Can we stop and talk for a minute?” It makes it less about whether you’re mad at the person, or what you’re thinking, and more about a simple fact that your body isn’t reacting.

Assorted Questions and Thoughts

Fear: sometimes fear is incredibly helpful. Fear has helped me get my shit together for moving to a new country. Unfortunately fear is also making me want to grab all my friends and throw them into a cuddle puddle and curl up in a little ball under all of them and never move again. Sometimes fear is based on reality (there are some threats to me in moving to a new country and so I need to take precautions) and sometimes it goes crazy and gets out of hand and convinces me that I’m probably being chased by a fucking bear when I’m actually just sitting at work typing. I suppose there should be easy ways to tell when fear makes sense and when it does (look for bears: no bears? Good to go.) And yet that doesn’t make my heart stop pounding and my ears stop ringing. Where did evolution go wrong?

Rightness: Most people think that the beliefs they hold are right (or they wouldn’t hold them. I suppose some people hold beliefs because they feel comforted or they want those beliefs to be right, but generally a requirement for belief is thinking something is true). And yet the likelihood that any of us have 100% correct beliefs is pretty much 0. How do we move forward and act in the world knowing that in all likelihood some (if not most) of our beliefs are incorrect? We probably don’t know which ones are the wrong ones or we’d have changed them. We may not even be able to know which are incorrect. What is the best course of action in this situation? I think somewhere in here lies the difference between “faith” of the religious variety and belief. Faith does not look for more information to constantly update its worldview. It has its conclusion and it’s done. I think it is possible to have faith of this type in nonreligious settings. Belief ideally is a temporary condition. You think you know something and you operate off of it but you seek out new and better information.

Yesterday I was talking to my therapist about anxiety and thinking that I would crash and burn in Ireland and fall back into really nasty depression. She looked at me and listed some of the stuff I’ve managed to do in the last two years: take a year off of school despite thinking it meant I’d never accomplish anything, survive a job that I hated every moment of while dealing with intense anxiety, boredom, and depression for 8 hours uninterrupted each day, quitting that job to take a lower paying job, not having any idea where my future is going or what I want out of my life, actually forcing myself to be social despite huge anxieties and making a good circle of friends…the more she listed the more I realized that even just thinking about many of these things now they sound impossible. But I did them. I don’t know that I can call myself “recovered” but perhaps “in recovery” (I hate these terms) and I never, ever, ever thought that that was a possibility and still don’t entirely believe it. But once she pointed out how much I had survived and even thrived through, the more I realized that recognizing that isn’t just about feeling good about myself or patting myself on the back, it’s more about knowing that I can do it and if I’ve done it all once then I can do it again. The fear still exists, but there is knowledge underneath it now that I have succeeded before and that is comforting.

I wish that there were ways to fulfill more kinds of attraction with different people. In the past week I’ve felt serious romantic, sensual, intellectual, aesthetic, and friendly attraction to a variety of different people. In my experience we have two potential words for all of these (plus sexual) attraction: dating or friends. There are some slight variations on these (friends with benefits, casually dating, married), but overall there’s either “sexy/romantic” or “friendly”. I like labels and maybe there’s no reason to label these things, but I think it’s nice to understand what’s fulfilling about different relationships and let people know that they have a priority in your life. I also like to be able to have a template for interacting with people: dating type interactions are different from friend type interactions, and I do different things in them, and different things are considered baseline acceptable. If there were a word for “you’re my brain crush” maybe there would be more clear ways to move forward with fulfilling the need for deep conversation or intellectual interaction. As it is you kind of let someone know you want to be around them in some fashion or other but the only further specification  you might be able to give is “I have a crush on you” which implies romantic/sexual things. I just like to be able to place people in my own network and have clarity about my own feelings and the feelings of others.

One of the things that scares me most about myself is that I am often positioned socially as “smarter than”. I really have no idea if I’m actually smarter than most of the people that I know but people keep telling me I am. I hate writing about things like this because I sound intensely vain, but the purpose of this paragraph is not “I’m so smart!!!” it’s that it’s fairly isolating to be in that position, and as I’ve written before it often leads to inadvertently saying things that others interpret as making them look stupid (or things that really are truly insensitive because others don’t accomplish as quickly as I do or don’t understand in the way I do). But yesterday I was talking to someone who hates feeling less smart than others. I think this is far more common: few people like feeling stupid or uninformed. I feel like there are parallels to some of the other things I’ve mentioned: situations where we know that fear or our beliefs might be ill-informed, but there’s no right way out. In this case, we all know that there probably has to be a “smarter” person in any given interaction but no one wants to be on either side of it. Perhaps this is a place for radical acceptance. There will always be some discomfort in uneven situations but we don’t have to infer bad intentions or judgment because of that discomfort. There have been some classrooms in which I haven’t felt uncomfortable when I know more than others or others know more than I do as the atmosphere is one of sheer curiosity. I don’t know how to promote this kind of environment in other places, but this gives me hope that it’s possible.

I’ve noticed that most people I talk to about philosophical/existential type questions typically view them as abstract exercises which might have some impact on the way they live their life if they come to a fairly solid conclusion that demands action of some sort. This is not what philosophy is like for me. I feel it emotionally, as important to the meaning of my life. I’ve always wondered why this is the case, and I’ve imagined that it’s probably just to do with mental illness. However I had a realization today that on a regular basis I have to question my own sensory perception. I cannot see my body accurately: I have some pretty severe distortions in my body image and I often find myself legitimately confused about whether or not I’m horribly overweight or underweight or normal. It can shift hour to hour whether I can see my body remotely accurately. And so most days I’m uncertain about whether I’m seeing reality. This makes questions of coming to logical conclusions rather than conclusions based on observation far more pressing to me. Every day I am faced with the philosophical quandary of whether or not external reality is there and what I think it is. I emotionally feel the deep confusion of looking at something and wondering if it’s just my mind playing tricks on me. I don’t know that there is a conclusion to this thought, but it’s illuminating to realize that some people can emotionally experience what for others are thought experiments. Perhaps it is a starting point for increased empathy, but perhaps it also suggests that those who do face these questions in their daily lives may have more insight into the situation (just as we tend to prioritize women’s voices in understanding women’s experiences or queer voices in understanding queer experiences). At the very least, it suggests that there might be more ways to do philosophy than through logic and thought experiments.

My Body Is My Self

I have a fiery hatred for Cartesian dualism. There are well documented problems with dualism, and modern neuroscience indicates a close relationship between the physical aspects of the brain and the subjective experiences of the mind. Being embodied can really suck sometimes (trust me, I have an eating disorder), but one of the important elements of being mentally healthy for me is accepting not only that I have a body but that in many ways I am my body.

I recently posed the question to a friend “if you were removed from your body and put into a robot, would you still be you?” I suggest no, as the ways that I can think of to define self nearly all rely on bodily experiences: our actions, our thoughts, our feelings, our values. These things are all highly dependent on what we sense and how we sense, and are affected by the ways that our bodies work. A well fed body acts, thinks, and feels differently than a hungry body. These experiences of being dependent on something that is changeable and fallible seem to be an essential part of being human.

Even when we think of the memories and narratives that we have, our bodies are essential to a sense of self. Memories are often sensory experiences, dependent on what we perceived and the emotions elicited in the moment. There’s evidence that smell is more connected to memory than other senses, which points towards the idea that our memories are colored by both our fallible and finite brains, and the ways that our body is capable of processing an experience. Even the stories that we tell about ourselves are highly influenced by our bodies, if only because our social position is affected by our weight and height and strength and gender presentation. It’s easy to imagine that our concept of selfhood is entirely abstract or mental, but most of our emotions are experienced physically, and things like stress or relaxation are very physical, embodied experiences.

All of this is to say that I’m firmly convinced that me, Olivia, is not simply my conscious experience, but my conscious experience as situated in this body, and that if I were to be transplanted there would be a pivotal change in my essential identity. I’m not entirely sure what this means as far as continuity of identity or whether or not we can really assert that we have an underlying self that continues to exist through all our experiences except insofar as we have memories and stories, but that’s not the focus for today.

Instead, I want to talk about sex.

Some people are totally down with casual sex, and this post is not for them. This post is about why (at least for me and probably some other people too) sex can seem so intimate and personal, why it seems so vulnerable, and why for some people it feels violating. One of the reasons that I am starting to consider labeling myself “sex-averse” is because of the highly intertwined nature of self and body. I trust very few people with the more intimate parts of myself. Sure, I’m open about the fact that I have an eating disorder, and I write about my experiences here, but in person there are many, many things I don’t talk about often. Many of these things are embodied experiences: sexual assault, self harm, purging. My experience of my body is one of pain, and more often than not it is a solitary experience because these things are shameful.

It is deeply embarrassing and terrifying to me to let that side of me be real, to actually be quiet and vulnerable in my body. My body is puke and blood and tears and snot. That is not the intimacy I want. I can grudgingly accept that those things are a part of me, but I don’t want to dwell on them or revel in them. It’s possible that at some point in the future my body will become something else to me: strength or grace. But those elements, those animal elements, the things that we cannot control will always be an essential part of having a body and of sharing that body.

For many other people, discomfort with sex is about judgment. It’s easy to write this off as the same kind of fear of judgment we have when we’re going to the beach and showing more skin than usual, or when we’re spending some serious one on one time with someone. I tend to think it’s more than that though, which is where questions of dualism come in. I’m sure some people are fairly capable of bifurcating self from body (although I also am fairly sure that this is somewhat illusory for the reasons presented above). But I think that some of us feel the “me”ness of our bodies more: we feel intimately that my body is not simply something that belongs to me or a bit of meat that carries me around, but is in fact an integral part of how I experience the world and what makes up my worldview.

I feel this quite thoroughly when I am in sexual situations, and that’s a major part of why they are so intimate to me. I am not simply sharing pleasure with someone or sharing my body with someone: I am sharing one of the most essential elements of self with another person, the part of me that is my only way of connecting to the world. This is perhaps why all physical contact is intimate to me in a way that speaking is or writing is not: it demands that I am present.

And because allowing another person to experience your body is so close to letting them experience you (just as having a serious, deep conversation is, or showing them something you care deeply about is), it becomes so much more rife with potential judgment than other situations, and when judgment occurs it is much more painful. It feels far more like a rejection of self than many other circumstances.

Perhaps all of this is overthinking things, but I think it’s too easy to write off our bodies as simple mechanisms that allow us to feel pleasure and pain, or get from point a to point b. There is so much more to them, so much that is terrifying and disgusting, but also that is intimate, vulnerable, and exciting. For the moment, the selfhood of my body makes me want to shy away from physical contact, but perhaps in the future it will make it more fulfilling. However it ends up interacting with my sexuality, I want to be aware of my body and its role in my self-identity before I gallivant off into the land of sex.

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.