Sunday, September 14, 2008

You're not a real asexual! Resisting pressure for a narrow definition

"No one can tell you if you're asexual or not. You have to decide for yourself." If you've spent much time reading posts on AVEN, the asexuality community on livejournal, or pretty much any other place where people new to asexuality ask others the question "Am I asexual?", you've probably come across various forms of this quote many times. However, if it is taken as absolute, there is no way to say that people who do experience sexual attraction aren't asexual.

In recent posts, I've said that 'asexual' really has two separate meanings--one is a sexual orientation and the other an identity based on that sexual orientation. I've defined the sexual orientation as "a person who experiences little or no sexual attraction," and I've defined the identity as "A person who experiences little or no sexual attraction and calls themself asexual." One implication of this is that it is possible to tell people who do experience non-negligible amounts of sexual attraction that they aren't asexual.

To some extent, this is what is already done. Consider the following Q and A from the AVEN general FAQ: Q: "I find people attractive and I get horny, but I dislike sex and would never do it. Am I asexual?" A: "If you're turned on by other people then you don't fit the definition. Asexuality is about lack of attraction to other people, not about lack of activity." It then goes on to discuss the difference between asexuality and celibacy and suggests the person may find more support from a community designed for celibate people than for asexual people. The next question deals with medical celibacy which it also distinguishes from asexuality (though in a rather peculiar way.)

If this understanding of asexuality requires us to relax somewhat the ban on telling others that they aren't asexual, it makes sense to take a look at the motivation for this prohibition. I've mentioned before that in asexual discourse, there is a simultaneous drive to expand and narrow the definition of asexuality—expand it to include people who don't experience sexual attraction, but feel/do other things generally associated with sexuality; narrow it to exclude people who do experience sexual attraction but, for whatever reason, have chosen not to, prefer not to, or can't have sex. This drive to expand the definition is done in conscious resistance to attempts to narrow the definition of asexuality to people who don't experience sexual attraction and don't (fill in the blank.)

Pressures to narrow the definition of asexuality come from two sources: from those within asexuality and those without. Let's start with pressure from within. One definition of asexuality given on the AVENwiki is nonlibidoism. "A nonlibidoist is a person who does not have a sex drive and has never had one, and hence does not experience sexual urges or desires (and in particular, does not masturbate.) Nonlibidoism is a much more stringent definition than AVEN's standard description of asexuality. A large percentage of asexuals do have sex drives, but still lack any sexual attraction…Some nonlibidoists, such as those at the (now defunct) Official Nonlibidoist Societ, consider that nonlibidoism is the only valid form of asexuality. Due to the popularity of a more inclusive definition of asexuality, the Official Nonlibidoist Society has ceased to use the term 'asexual' for its members, believing that it has 'by now become almost synonymous for solo-sexual [or] masturbator.' " The AVENwiki has a link to an archived version of it. It has one page devoted to What Nonlibidoism is NOT! They exclude people who masturbate and another page insists on excluding people who used to have a sex drive but no longer do, stating that nonlibidoists "were born that way." (A claim that is not found, as far as I know, in the main AVEN static content.) Nonlibidoism functions on the AVENwiki as a foil for AVEN's more inclusive approach. However, I don't know what the motivations were for the founder of the the Official Asexual/Nonlibidoist Society to prefer her more stringent definition to AVEN's.

Within asexual discourse (at least those who have been around a while), there is generally a desire to avoid asexual elitism, not make claims that "I'm a real asexual; you're not." I think the main motivation for avoiding talk of who are 'true' asexuals and who are not is that such claims do not foster a safe space for people to talk about things and try to understand themselves. People who insist that they (unlike others using the term) are real asexuals tend to do so from negative views of sexuality—people who are too close to sexuality are still tainted by it and thus not as "pure" or "true" asexuals as those untainted by nasty sexuality. The intent is to create a "purer" more narrowly defined asexuality, and the means to do it is delegitimizing the asexual identity of those that just aren't asexual enough. This fosters an us vs. them mentality which helps reinforce people's anger and sense of moral superiority, but it doesn't help trying to understand other people's perspectives, encourage critical thinking or self-reflection. However, many asexuals do not possess these sorts of negative views of sexuality and do not want others to either. Additionally, presenting ourselves as having a positive attitude towards sexuality is an important part of legitimating ourselves to nonasexuals. (For example, Apositive's FAQ says that one reason for that website's name is that it reflects, "our feelings towards sex. Orientation notwithstanding, we are sex-positive, or at least sex-double-negative." One blog post on Apositive was titled Why I'm a sex positive asexual.)

There are also pressures to narrow the definition of asexuality from outside the asexual community. Again, the goal is to delegitimize the asexual identities of people who apparently aren't asexual enough, but the motivation is the reverse. Rather than being driven by negative views of sexuality, negative views of asexuality are the primary motivation. Because sexuality is assumed to be a fundamental part of being human—at least for the vast majority of people—asexuality can be ignored if the experiences and identities of a large portion of self-professed asexuals are delegitimated, making 'true' asexuals a small minority in the already small group of people calling themselves asexual. As an example, in an article about asexuality in the New Zealand Herald from a few years back, they included an opposing view (inevitably coming from a sex therapist). They paraphrased her as saying, "some people who call themselves asexual still masturbate regularly – 'which isn't asexual to me.' Sex therapists would call that auto-erotic - that is, enjoying their sexuality themselves - rather than asexual." She rejects the identities of asexuals and insists on giving them alternate categorization created by a subsection of the medical establishment. (This isn't the last I'll have to say on that topic.) By rejecting the identities of a large part of asexuals, she feels free to be dismissive of all of them (at least, this is the way it is presented in the article.)

The main goal of telling people who consider themselves asexual that they aren't really asexual is generally an attempt to delegitimize their asexual identities on the grounds that they aren't asexual enough—this can come from anti-sexual perspectives within the asexual community, or it can come from sexualnormative perspectives from without. As a whole, asexuality wants to avoid both of these and allow people to freely identify as asexual if they want to.


Ily said...

This is an interesting discussion. I have felt attraction, but it was so rare that I knew I had much more in common with asexuals than with heterosexuals. I never asked anyone if I was asexual (although I understand why people do this), I just had a gut feeling about it. I wish I knew what about myself or the way I see the definition made the identity relatively easy to accept.

I agree that some of the AVEN material is contradictory. If you get turned on by, say, 2 people in 20 years, you're probably asexual. Not to mention that I think being "horny" is totally different from being "turned on". I know that there's a desire to not confuse people further with expanses of gray area, but they're probably pretty confused already. I wonder what would happen if we just told all these people, "congrats, you're asexual!" Would that scar them for life? :-)

pretzelboy said...

I recall seeing one person on the welcome lounge who thought he was asexual because he had a very narrow view of sex. (I tried to find the thread but wasn't able to.) He said that he was attracted to the same sorts of women that typical heterosexual males are and that he likes to do some sort of fetish stuff with them resulting in orgasm, but since it never involved penetration, he thought he might be asexual. (i.e. a=not, sex=insert penis into person, ual=adjectival marker.) Of course, he got the typical "Only you can decide if you're asexual," but it was combined with the respondant's much more expansive view of sex. (If it involves orgasming with another person, then it's sex.) To me, it would make sense to tell the guy that he isn't asexual.

When I first started to think I might be asexual, I was largely uncertain because I had put too much trust in the academic materials that I had read and because I hadn't realized the degree of variation that existed in how people thought about asexuality. I've never had a sense that I am "not sexual," and that sort of bothered me for a while as well until I realized that only some asexuals have a strong intuition that they are not sexual. But for me, the main reason for identifying as asexual is also that I feel that I have a lot more in common with asexuals than with heterosexuals.

Maccabee said...

Wow - I just discovered your blog and it's just what I've been looking for. Thanks for your intelligent and reasoned presentation of your experiences and thoughts about asexuality. I have been frantically trying to find out as much as I can about asexuality - I know I am asexual but I am far from understanding everything about it and what the repercussions are for my life so it's wonderful to have access to someone else's self-reflection on this topic. I know I'll be a regular reader!

pretzelboy said...

Hi maccabbee! I'm glad that you like my blog. I just learned about asexuality about a year ago, and when I did, I also went about frantically trying to find out as much as I could about asexuality, and I got really interested (but was kind of depressed at how little there was; there was some good stuff but not nearly as much as I had wanted.) So I started to read other stuff to try to make a framework for understanding asexuality (still have a long ways to go on that,) and all of that eventually got me to start blogging about it. I look forward to reading more of your comments.

edgeofeverywhere said...

Hi! Another new reader here. As someone who has only recently come to identify as asexual, I find your thoughts incredibly interesting and useful. It can be overwhelming to discover AVEN for the first time and try to sort through all the info to figure out if you're "really" asexual based on the info there, despite the claims that you are if you decide to identify that way. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

pretzelboy said...

Hi edgeofeverywhere! I definitely know how hard it can be to decide if you're "really" asexual or not. For me, I wasn't sure what to make of certain feelings that I occasionally had that didn't seem particularly asexual, but didn't even come close to making me feel heterosexual either (or gay or bi.) Even the sexualish feelings that I have sometimes had are few and far between and one of the main reasons that I identify as asexual is that I feel despite some gray areas, I have a lot more in common with asexual experience than anything else.

edgeofeverywhere said...

Yeah, that's basically how I feel as well. It was interesting to go back and catalog years' worth of thoughts, feelings and actions in order to determine how well they fit with what I was reading about asexuality. For the most part, I found that they fit surprisingly well, definitely enough to make asexuality seem like a useful identity to adopt.

Ettina said...

"People who insist that they (unlike others using the term) are real asexuals tend to do so from negative views of sexuality—people who are too close to sexuality are still tainted by it and thus not as "pure" or "true" asexuals as those untainted by nasty sexuality."

Not in my case. I do so because I'd really like to be able to find someone who understands the way I see sexuality, as a complete outsider to it. I don't think sexuality is bad, but I have never felt any kind of sexual feeling. If I had felt any sexual feelings, of any kind, I could extrapolate from those to try to imagine being sexual, just like how a gay guy could imagine being heterosexual by thinking about if he felt the same for a girl as he does for guys. I really wish I could find someone who gets what it's like to have no sexuality at all, instead of having people who've experienced feelings I am incapable of feeling appropriating the term that describes me best.

And while I can empathize with the ideal of 'only you can define yourself', if we want the words to have any meaning or use as self-descriptors, we can't just say 'if you think you're X, you are'. We have to have some sort of criteria. Where I think self-definition comes in is that only the person themselves knows for sure which criteria they show, because those are internal things. And the problems of communication mean that you can never be certain the person hasn't just phrased things the wrong way. (I used to claim to have crushes, for example, before I knew what a crush actually meant. Someone hearing me say I had a crush would probably think I was feeling all sorts of feeling that I wasn't actually feeling, because I was using the wrong word for my experiences.)