Mapping the Gray Areas

Over at Asexual Agenda, queenieofaces wrote this week about finding new ways to talk about consent and sexuality that account for the gray areas between good sex and rape. The idea is to start mapping out more of the complexities of sexual experiences than simply consent=good non consent=illegal.

This is a big project that’s going to require lots of voices and lots of stories. It will probably create new words and new conceptions of what sex is and how to have a good sex life (I suspect this will include the idea that it’s not the same for everyone).

I’d suggest reading Queenie’s post first, as I’m going to be building from a lot of her thoughts. And similarly to Queenie, this will not be a clear, narrative piece with an obvious point. We’re still at the stage of musing and identifying topics, so it might be a little ranty.

One of the things that seems most fundamental to this conversation that is missing from a lot of conversations about consent is that people are capable of having sex that is non-coercive, relatively enjoyable, and entirely ethical for reasons other than being attracted to their partner (or feeling attraction in the moment).

These reasons can include but are not limited to: you like making your partner feel good, you find it physically enjoyable even if you’re not all over your partner, you expect to become aroused and interested once things get started, or you’re simply ambivalent about the whole thing and it makes no difference to you.

On the flip side, we also tend to forget that it’s possible to vocally consent to sex and still have shitty, traumatizing, painful, bad sex that is ethically dubious. This includes things like feeling pressured to have sex (not necessarily by your partner, but simply because of compulsory sexuality), having past traumas or PTSD that affects your enjoyment now, having self confidence or body image issues, or just fear of hurting your partner’s feelings.

There are a lot of societal attitudes or tropes that contribute to making sex a game of pressure and power for many people who just want to be able to say they’re not interested if they’re not interested. For me, one of the worst of these is the idea that your partner is keeping track (see: asshole spreadsheet guy). There’s this idea that people are keeping track of who’s orgasmed and when, how long it’s been since sex last happened, who’s reciprocated what. It’s as if everyone is supposed to keep a tally sheet in their head of whether they’re getting what they’re due.

It took me the better part of five years to learn how to say no to anything in bed, ever. Sure, I knew I was supposed to and that I didn’t have to do anything I wasn’t interested in, but the pressure that I would be seen as withholding or bitchy or uninterested or prudish, or that if I said no too many times my boyfriend would start to hate me (secret: this does happen and did happen quite a number of times) left me with no conception of how to actually enforce my boundaries, even when I still loved and cared about the person and would probably want to have sex with them again some other time.

Were those times coercive? Were they inappropriate? I said yes, but I wasn’t certain that no was an option. These are the kinds of situations that don’t get addressed as often. Now that I finally have figured out how to say no and have a partner who encourages me to do so and regularly checks in to see what I want (and then if I hesitate at all double checks because he’s awesome), I still have a background feeling that there’s a tally somewhere, so if I say no tonight, I am going to need to say yes tomorrow. Are there ways that we can dismantle the idea that there’s a certain amount of time you can say no for before you become selfish and relationship destroying? Can we make sexless relationships (or even temporarily sexless relationships) more ok?

In a recent post on Jezebel, a variety of experts weigh in on “maintenance sex”, or sex that you have when your partner is interested but you’re not quite in the mood. A lot of “gray” sex falls into this category, and we need more scripts talking about how to determine if your partner’s ok with it and if you’re ok with it. Sometimes it can be incredibly hard to know what you yourself are up for. Am I just not interested at this exact moment because I wasn’t thinking about sex or am I actually just not in the mood right now? Some people find that if they compromise and say yes to their partner they end up having a great time. Some people find the exact opposite. How do you learn this without trauma, how do you communicate it, and how do you consent or withdraw consent?

This is especially difficult for people who are somewhere on the asexual end of the spectrum, as determining what sounds like fun in the bedroom can often be a confusing and expectation laden endeavor that never actually gives us what we want. For me personally, my sex drive and even level of attraction to anyone fluctuates wildly at different times. There are no conversations about how to navigate this in a long term relationship beyond “find someone with a compatible sex drive,” “don’t have sex,” or “you owe your partner sex”.

One of the things that we don’t talk about very often that might be a really good choice is the ability to change your mind. Most people think it’s super rude to stop midway through sex (something about a point of no return), but I promise that if your partner respects you, they have the ability to stop. I suspect that opening up the ability to make changes to consent partway through would alleviate a lot of the shitty experiences that people have that don’t constitute rape. It might be as simple as deciding you don’t want to be penetrated but would rather do something else.

It’s been said before, but the disturbing focus on orgasm as the complete and utter point of sex gets in the way of all of this. It also tends to lead to a lot of performance anxieties for everyone involved (which happen for lots of other reasons too, something else to talk about). It’s possible that a lot of less than spectacular sex could be avoided if one partner just said “hey, I’m not feeling it, up for a blowjob instead?”

None of this is to say that sex always has to be mindblowing. None of this is to say that no sex is always better than eh sex. But in lots of other areas of life, we’re willing to have more conversation about how to take routine experiences and make them better. In sex, that often gets turned into “how to have mindblowing orgasm crazy awesome best sex ever” instead of “how to make this part of your life work for you”.

Sometimes “I just don’t feel like it” is a 100% acceptable reason to take things in a different direction. And as Queenie said, sometimes there are no right circumstances that will make you feel like it. You’re just not going to want to do that thing. Hard limits don’t have to be for kink communities only. They can be things like “touching my stomach” or “kissing that overly sensitive spot on my thigh” or even something as basic as tickling. Of course none of these things are on par with rape or sexual assault, but when we’re talking about sex we need to learn how to accept that our partners have a complete and total right to their preferences, and that they have no obligation to bend those preferences simply because we want them to.

There also seems to be a cultural paranoia around hurting someone’s feelings when it comes to their sexual performance. Of course we shouldn’t be jerks about telling our partner that we’re not having a good time, but sex isn’t some magical realm in which people are free from all criticism. You still get to say when things aren’t working for you. If people don’t internalize that fact, there’s going to be a lot of shitty sex that doesn’t need to happen.

If I could wave some sort of magic sex wand (hehe, dildo) and change one thing (other than rape) about the way U.S. society talks about sex, I would get rid of the idea that there’s only one script for sex. You have to come up with your own scripts each time, navigating what’s working for you and your partner instead of relying on assumptions that making out leads to handsiness leads to going down leads to penetration, and that you have to have a reason or excuse if you want to do it differently.

I don’t have any clear cut insights about when sex falls into the ethically dubious category or how to make sex into something that is generally a good experience for all the people having it. But if we can start talking about the ways that sex isn’t just about sexual attraction and intense horniness, that would be great.

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.