Friday, June 27, 2008

Some reflections on a negatively defined identity

Typically, an asexual person is defined as someone who does not experience sexual attraction. While I personally prefer the defintion “a person who experiences little or no sexual attraction,” lumping in the so-called “gray As” in with everybody else, it doesn’t make a big difference. Asexuality, defined as such, is about what people don’t feel, what people don’t experience, what people are not interested in. In trying to build an asexual community, this is a problem.

Many asexuals find AVEN or Apositive or some other asexual site, and perhaps they are excited at first that there are others like themselves. Perhaps they are questioning, thinking maybe they’re asexual, maybe they’re not. Perhaps they read others’ posts, learn about other asexuals, and maybe ask a few questions if they haven’t found someone else asking what they want to know. After a while, they feel that they’ve learned what they can. They feel they understand themselves better than before and never go back to the asexual sites. There are no asexual groups where they live and they don’t want to spend their life on internet forums. After all, what is the point of spending your life talking about things you’re not interested in?

Despite asexuality's overtly negatively definition, I do not think that anything that is wholly negatively defined can be something to identify around or feel strongly about. Being a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction and being a person who doesn’t generally like TV are both negatively defined aspects about myself, but there is clearly some difference, at least at an emotive level. I blog about asexuality. I want to learn as much as I can about it. I want to connect with other asexuals. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to find out anything about people who don’t particularly care about TV.

Intuitively, the reason is obvious enough. No one is going around telling us how much TV we need to be watching. Sometimes I feel a bit awkward when I get stuck in the middle of a conversation about some show I’ve never seen and don’t care about, but other than that, it’s not a big deal. If I tell people that I don’t really like TV, no one seems to think it’s a problem. A good many people feel that they spend too much time in front of the box as it is, wasting time that could better be spent otherwise. But if people get an idea that you’re not interested in sex? That’s an altogether different matter. The difference between sexual apathy and TV apathy is easy enough to see. When you tell people you don’t really like TV, they never ask you intensely personal questions about what you do or do not do by yourself with your genitalia.

I think what ultimately unites asexuals is not our asexuality, but the effects of our asexuality on our lives on account of the social contexts we live in. It is a shared sense of feeling different on account of our asexuality, the shared frustrations of people not understanding us, of us being unable to understand ourselves, or not fitting in because of our asexuality that unites us. In an ironic way, if we succeed in our visibility and education efforts to the point that asexuality is seen as a perfectly normal form of human existence—as though it’s more akin to a disinterest in cheese-wiz than a disinterest in air, no longer compared to a lack of desire for food, but more like a lack of desire for peculiar food-products that can understandably be taken or left—we may obliterate the possibility of a future asexual community. It is precisely the sense that we have felt different, broken, or confused and isolated on account of our asexuality that we feel any sense of solidarity with others on account of that sexual orientation. In the absence of a shared matrix of effects of asexuality, future generations of asexuals may perhaps unite around their asexuality—there will still be a sense of difference from their peers as they go through puberty. Perhaps asexuals will want to come together for the purpose of dating and marriage. Perhaps asexuals will want to hang out with each other to avoid awkward conversations where sexual desires are assumed and the basis of discussion. But perhaps, they will have no more sense of connection to other asexuals than they will to have others with the same color of hair as themselves.

Relationships built on nothing but having sex are not strong relationships. Relationships built on nothing but not having sex? I already don’t have sex with everyone that I know (and everyone that I don’t know, for that matter.) Friendship between asexuals will have to be based on the same sorts of things that friendship between any people is based on: common interests, enjoying hanging out together, trust, etc. Personally, I would like to see more non-internet asexual communities. I live in a university town and the population isn’t that big. The “asexual community” here is me and this one other guy. We had coffee together once. One of these days we’ll probably get around to doing it again. The question of whether it is possible to get more (and bigger) asexual communities in real life is the question of whether being asexual creates enough of a sense of solidarity to bring people together so that friendships can form that are only incidentally between asexuals.


Ily said...

Definitely...tell me about it. I think another impediment to asexual community is people's reluctance to actually identify as asexual. If asexuals aren't actually doing anything actively sexual, it's easy for them to just ride along on presumed sexuality and the social privilege attached to that. It can be (all too) easy to avoid coming out as asexual, and I think lots of folks are reluctant to rock the boat. It's harder for us to create community, sure, but I'd like to think that the few people who we can potentially help to feel less alone in the world will be worth it...maybe you'll find a third local ase one of these days :-)

willendork said...

I think the need to band together against the social pressure to be sexual is a considerable reason to support asexual community. I think you're right that there's not a lot to be said for only having not-wanting-something in common, but I think there is a lot to be said for publicly stating (together) that you don't want something you are socially "supposed" to want. In some ways, it's similar to the gay community. I don't have a ton in common with other lesbians just based on the fact that we're lesbian, because who we are and how and who we love is so much broader than just the woman-to-woman orientaiton. Our shared experiences are most often the shared experiences of being lesbian in a culture that is so dominantly heterosexual and where any other sexuality (or non-sexuality) is oppressed. I hope more asexuals and their allies will start to recognize the importance of banding together against *that*...

pretzelboy said...

Something I've wondered about asexuality is what it effect it may have on the social pressure to be sexual. There are quite a lot of people (who aren't asexual) who have sex because of social pressure. The most obvious example would be teenagers having sex despite emotional immaturity and the fact that they would rather not but feel they need to because "all the cool people are doing it." Also, from what I've read about hsdd, it seems that there is a very large part of the adult population who have phases of their lives where they aren't particularly interested in sex. For example the dsm-III-R estimated that about 20% of Americans have hsdd.