What Needs to Be Said About the Orlando Shooting

I’m about to say a lot of things that will not be mind blowing. People have already said all of them, probably better than I can. But I try to think of myself as an ally, and ally is a verb not a noun, which means I need to do something. So if more straight, cis folks like myself need to keep repeating basic truths until America pulls our collective heads out of our asses, then I will do it. Repetition is a key to learning, and straight America has some learning to do.

The shooting in Orlando was a hate crime against the queer community. Gay bars are safe spaces for many people, where they go to find community, support, and acceptance. The shooter has made homophobic comments before. The choice of location was not an accident. This was an attack on the queer community. If you believe that with marriage equality the GLBT community is fine and should stop asking for more, stop and look at what just happened. 50 people were murdered for their sexuality and gender identities. People in the queer community die every day, of suicide and violence and poverty and AIDS left untreated and homelessness. This community is vulnerable, and that vulnerability was exploited in this attack.

The shooting further targeted one of the most vulnerable populations in the US: trans women of color. The club was a popular place for Latinx individuals, and hosted drag shows. It just so happened that the night of the shooting featured Latinx drag performers. This is not a coincidence. The fragile masculinity that pervades America says trans women are a threat to everything we care about. It’s not a surprise that they are the target of so much violence when their very existence is a symbol of fucking the patriarchy.

The shooting in Orlando was a product of toxic masculinity. When physical strength and violence are lauded as the symbols of masculinity, we create people who deal with their problems through violence. The shooter had a history of domestic abuse. When we excuse rape, intimate partner violence, and domestic abuse, we make it so much easier for the violence to just keep escalating. We send the message that violence is how to deal with problems. Toxic masculinity demands that men don’t show emotion and affection, which makes two gay men openly kissing a terrifying and horrifying prospect. It says that men have a dominant role, and any man taking on the woman’s role is a disgusting perversion, giving rise to further homophobia and violence against GLBT individuals, in particular trans women.

The shooting was related to the homophobia rampant in many Islamic communities. The shooting is not an excuse for Islamaphobia. This is where things get a little bit complicated, but I think we can all hold these two truths together. There is homophobia in many Islamic communities. It can contribute to the attitudes of the members of those churches. This is not unique to Islam. Many Christian churches contribute to negative attitudes towards queer people. We need to be able to criticize the damage that religious beliefs are doing without jumping to full blown Islamaphobia that says this man was an extreme terrorist sent by ISIL to destroy America. See the difference? Homophobia in Islam contributed. Every Muslim every is not an evil terrorist.

The shooting is further evidence of America’s gun problem. Yes, America is a unique place and we cannot wholesale import solutions from smaller countries or from Australia. But it is a fact that our gun violence far outstrips other comparable countries and we need to do something. It remains true that guns are dangerously unregulated, and individuals are capable of purchasing unnecessarily high powered weapons that can kill at a rate that knives or homemade weapons cannot. It remains true that guns are less regulated than cars or chemicals or all kinds of other things that are less dangerous. We need to face up to the fact that our obsession with guns is killing people, and we need to start actually doing research into how to make it better.

The shooting is not evidence that the shooter was mentally ill. People with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. There are many complex reasons that an individual chooses to commit horrific acts, but dismissing it with “they were insane” lets us off the hook for the ways that we have built a society that fosters violence. It also throws mentally ill people under the bus and makes them responsible for violence when in fact they are an already vulnerable group of people. We do in fact need better care for the mentally ill, but now is not the right time to talk about it.

Finally, and most importantly, if you consider yourself an ally, now is the time to show it. Speak up. Tell your queer friends they can rely on you for support right now. Give blood. Give money to GLBT organizations. This event was horrific, but if you are an ally then you need to step up. I am actively calling on my fellow straight, cis individuals to mop up our mess. Take care of the queer people in your life. It’s the least we can do.

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.

 

Arousal and Consent, A Story of Compromise

Heina wrote a great post the other day about the fact that genital arousal is not the same thing as consent, and that attraction is a very different question from arousal (this is something that gets talked about in the asexual community quite a bit: most asexuals can be aroused but don’t feel attraction, and are also capable of giving consent despite the fact that they don’t feel sexual attraction).

Heina uses a lot of great examples, like the fact that someone can be raped while aroused, or that some people may want to have sex but their parts just aren’t quite cooperating. I want to look at one other example here and in particular look at the conversations that surround a particular kind of sexual situation and its consent/ethical dimensions.

I have talked a lot about situations in which one partner has a higher sex drive than the other and the fact that no one owes sex to another person ever. One of the common responses I get from people when I say that I don’t want to have sex if I’m not aroused is that I need to compromise and if I just go with it then eventually I’ll get in the mood and it will feel good.

When someone is NOT aroused but is willing to compromise with their partner and engage in sex (consent, are attracted), most people are 100% able to understand that whether a person is hard or lubricated is not equivalent to whether or not they’re interested in having sex. It’s incredibly common wisdom (especially in conservative circles that often espouse the idea that men can’t be raped because if they’re hard they consented), it’s considered very normal advice to tell a woman to make herself available whether she wants sex or not.

This kind of situation sheds some light on the ways that we already recognize what Heina is talking about, but I think that what Heina is talking about can also be a helpful addition to how to handle differing sex drives and situations in which one partner is not immediately interested in sex. First, there are times when your body just isn’t going to respond in the ways you’d like it to. You might be distracted, anxious, sick, tipsy, or something else that means even if intellectually you really want to have sex, you just can’t quite make it happen. Heina brings up a specific example of not being to orgasm during certain times of the month. There’s nothing wrong with realizing that even if you love your partner and are willing to compromise about a lot of things, you don’t want to try to push your body when it really won’t respond.

But the second point that Heina really hits on that is an important addition to the conversation about differing sex drives is that communication is hugely important because each individual is the authority on their own body and what their responses mean. This is supposedly a very basic element of consent, but it seems to be overlooked fairly often.

A lot of people put different amounts of importance on what their body is doing, some people feel more capable of letting their body adjust to the situation. Everyone’s body is different and reacts to things differently and each person knows their body best. That means it’s part of the conversation and both you and your partner get to choose what your body’s behavior means to you. No one else gets to interpret it for you.

For me personally, trying to get in the mood to please a partner is a horribly anxiety ridden experience that usually results in resentment and a complete inability to get out of my own head. For other people it can be a great experience. But there is no right answer as to what “not turned on yet” means, just as “is physically aroused” doesn’t have a set meaning.

We all get to define our boundaries for ourselves.

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.

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.

Can You Tell Me What I Am?

One of the most common questions that I get when I blog or talk about sexuality is “I think I might be demisexual/asexual/whatever, how do I know?” I’m certainly not the absolute expert on how to figure out your sexuality, and I’m still in the process of coming to an understanding with my own (we have an uneasy truce at the moment). But I have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to understand my sexuality, and so I thought I’d share some of the things that I’ve found helpful to keep in mind or to try when trying to figure out what the heck your sexuality is.

There are a few guiding principles that most people who talk about sexuality all suggest as good places to start when you’re thinking about sexuality. The first and probably most frustrating of these is that no one else can tell you what your sexuality is. At the end of the day, you are the one who knows yourself best and who will understand what identity feels right to you. This means a lot more work for you, but it also means that no one else gets to police your identity or demand certain performances from you in order to “count” as your chosen identity. It’s better that way, I promise.

Relatedly, there is no “right” answer about what your sexuality is. Sexuality is a fluid thing. What feels right for a while might change with new experiences, and your understanding of yourself absolutely changes. You can change how you identify. But there’s also no identity that will be exactly you in every nuance and stereotype. You don’t have to check off every body of “homosexual experiences” or “asexual identifiers” in order to identify as those things. People are complicated, and if you think that your overall experience falls into a particular identity, then that’s probably you. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work for you.

On that note, keep in mind that identity terms exist to help you. You don’t owe anyone anything when it comes to figuring out your identity. They’re there to help you understand yourself and communicate yourself to other people quickly. You don’t have to follow some sort of dictates in order to carry out your identity, you don’t have to stick with one once you start identifying, you don’t even have to identify as anything if you don’t find it helpful. Identity terms are useful to give us different potential templates of sexuality. “Oh hey, there are people out there who experience sexuality in x way and I also have y element of that, that’s nice to know. I wonder if they have any experiences or suggestions for how to successfully navigate dating?” Keeping this in mind can take some of the pressure off. This is something you’re trying to understand so you feel more comfortable and happy and maybe have more tools and support to figure out how you want to relate to other people. If it’s not helping, you don’t have to do it.

So with these guiding principles in mind, here are a few things to try. First, research! What are some of the labels that are out there? Here’s a good list to get you started with some basic definitions. It’s one of the most complete I could find, but if something sounds like it might be you spend some more time Googling see if it leads to anything else. One of my favorite resources for asexuality is AVEN. If anyone in comments has suggestions for resources about other sexualities (I’m not horribly well versed in most queer resources), please leave them in comments!

It can also be helpful to talk to close friends. They can’t tell you what you are, but bouncing ideas off of someone and hearing their perspective on what they’ve seen you do in the past can help clarify things that might have seemed muddy before. If you’re going to ask someone who’s more of an “expert”, it can be useful to have specific questions, e.g. I thought I didn’t want sex because of my upbringing, but now I’m not sure. Is it possible to be asexual if you have a history of conservative sexual messages? Someone who doesn’t know you can’t speak to your personal situation, so asking about facts that require their expertise is probably a better way to utilize their help.

It can also be useful to “try on” different labels. This can mean different things to different people. I’ve been “trying on” asexuality for a while now. I started by thinking of myself that way privately, then mentioning it to a few close people, then openly using it as a template for my relationships. Over time, I’m not sure how well it’s fitting with my experiences, so I might end up trying something else on instead. That’s ok. Sometimes you realize something doesn’t fit you when you first start trying to think of yourself with that term, and that’s ok too. Take whatever time you do (or don’t) need. There is no penalty for “I don’t have it figured out yet”.

One thing that I’ve found incredibly helpful is reading narratives/blogs/stories from people with a variety of different identities. It gave me a better feel for what the subjective experience of different sexualities was like, rather than a colder “definition”. It can be easier to empathize or imagine yourself in a narrative than in a definition.

If anyone else has suggestions or tips that they found helpful while trying to understand their sexuality, please leave in comments.

You’re Not a Virgin (Probably)

As I am wont to do, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my sexuality lately, and as part of that process I’ve been talking with other people. Through these conversations I’ve had a number of people mention to me that they’re virgins. I don’t particularly like to contradict people’s self-identities, but every time I hear someone say this I cringe inside a bit and want to mutter “no you’re not”.

I’m not the first person to criticize the concept of virginity (oh hell am I not). It’s fairly well established in most feminist circles that the concept of virginity is a myth. Typically it’s used to refer to penetrative sex, but there are all sorts of people who have most certainly had sex but not penis in vagina sex (see: lesbians). There’s an obsession with the hymen, but rarely is the hymen actually broken during the first instance of PIV sex (often it’s already gone). At the end of the day, there’s good evidence that the whole concept of virginity is a holdover from patriarchal obsessions with female purity and the establishment of biological fathers.

I’m going to let all these other people explain why it doesn’t make sense to just say you’re a virgin (seriously, click the links, they are helpful), but what I’d rather focus on here is a.how unhelpful it is to tell someone you’re a virgin and b.how you can often inadvertently belittle the sexual experiences you’ve had with your partner(s) by using the word virgin.

So first and foremost, when you assert that you’re a virgin you are not actually telling your conversational partner a whole lot of information about you (except possibly that you don’t read nearly enough feminist theory). They’ll probably assume you mean penetrative sex, but what if you mean you’ve never held hands? What if you mean you’ve never achieved orgasm with another person? What if you mean you’ve had oral sex and anal sex but not penis in vagina sex? And god forbid you don’t identify as heterosexual because any conception of what a virgin is becomes as muddy as the flipping Mississippi (this reference  is really just for my Minnesotan folks out there).

So there are a lot of critiques of the concept of virginity that talk about how it plays into purity and larger patriarchal social constructs, but I want to point out one that’s plain and simple: calling yourself a virgin is straight out unhelpful and unclear. If you’re trying to communicate with a partner about your past sexual experiences or have a discussion about your feelings on sexuality with a friend, you give them almost no information when you say that you’re a virgin. You may even be misleading them as your definitions of virgin likely differ. The use of the word virginity in serious conversations gives everyone a pass to not have the hard discussions about what really constitutes sex and when we feel as if we’ve passed certain milestones and what elements of sex are more or less life changing and why. It circumvents all those real, honest questions and just says “we all know what I’m talking about right? No more questions asked, right? Let’s move on”. It also asks all the people in the conversation to participate in a variety of patriarchal myths about sex, the role of sex, and the morality of those who are or are not virgins, because in order to accept the term “virgin” as it currently stands you have to be willing to accept penetrative, PIV sex as an important milestone that other types are not.

All of that being said, it is probably useful to have a term for not having done a certain sexual activity before. So in my mind, we need to revamp the word virgin: virgin is actually just a phoneme. It needs a modifier. You could be a kissing virgin, or a making out virgin, or an anal sex virgin, or a frottage virgin (a word I just today discovered and am totally in love with), or any of a million other kinds of virgin. All of us are on a spectrum of sexual experience, and everything about making that linguistic shift is helpful to validating more types of sexuality, sexual experience, and sexual preference. It also means that if you’re having a conversation about your own sexuality with another person and you want to use the word virgin to describe your experience, you’ll actually be communicating clearly, which is something we could all use more of in conversation. I wouldn’t advocate to erase the word “virgin” from our vocabulary, but rather to be more thoughtful and careful with the ways in which we use it.

More specifically, using the word virgin in a sloppy way can have some seriously negative effects on your partners. I was talking to a friend recently who in the midst of having sex with someone was informed “by the way, I’m a virgin so I don’t want to have sex”. I have also been with individuals who have told me they were virgins after we had engaged in activities that by most definitions would be called sex (although they were not PIV). Conversing with your partner about what you mean by sex is generally a good thing to do before you’re having sex, but if you don’t, then being specific about what you have and haven’t done rather than assuming your partner has the same definition of sex can go a long way towards not being a jackass.

When you just say “I’m a virgin” you could be implying to your partner that you didn’t care about the activities you’ve engaged in up to this point, that you have really strong feelings about penetrative sex, or that you don’t want to accept that you’ve actually been intimate with them. It can absolutely feel like a denial when your partner does not recognize their actions as sex. It can feel as though they don’t actually want to have sex with you or be intimate with you or admit openly that they have done what they’ve done. It might feel as if they’re ashamed, or as if they simply didn’t care about what you were doing. There is a lot of baggage that comes along with the word, and it seems to be easier for everyone to just be a bit more specific and let your partner know what you have and haven’t done, and what you are and aren’t comfortable with rather than using the word “virgin” as a pass.

So next time you think about using the word virgin, consider the fact that you’re probably not a complete virgin. You’ve probably held hands or hugged or kissed. Be more specific. It’s better for everyone.