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.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Asexy Ambivalence

In my last post, I described a scene from a book where the author, upon realizing she was a lesbian, checked out everything she could on the subject from the library and read and read, surrounded with these books. Eventually she realized being a lesbian meant more than simply reading about it and went to the relevant group on her campus, whatever they may have called it back then.

Within asexuality, there is no analogue. There are no asexual groups on campus. There are no asexual bars in town. Before identifying as asexual, I was a confused single person with an atypical reason for not being able to get a date. Now I’m a less confused single person with basically the same problem—there’s no one that I’m interested in. I still have the same basic ideal for my life—get married, have kids, be a professor, do research and teach. Amongst asexuals, this makes me feel very traditional.

When I first identified as asexual, I felt that it was an incredibly important part of my life. I was an asexual person. Just as before I found AVEN, I continued to never hear anyone talking about asexuality, but felt as though I should. ASEXUALITY!!! How is it that there is so little information? Why has no one been interested in this until so recently!? Why doesn’t anyone care!?! Whatever I did, I felt strongly that I did it as an asexual. It was a fundamental part of who I was.

I came out to a friend living in a different state. She isn’t that close to me and I never see her anymore, so coming out to her on Skype was easy. Then I came out to my mom. That was hard. She took it well. The fact that my hope to get married and have kids still fits with societal expectations made it easier. As did the fact that she knows someone she has long believed to be asexual and has seen that he is able to be a loving husband. If I had been wanting a less heteronormative relationship, she would have been accepting, but I think she was a bit relieved to find out this wasn’t the case.

Since then, I’ve only come out to a few people. Telling my mom was awkward and I didn’t want to have to do it again, so instead of telling my older brother and sister (in-law), I dropped a bunch of large hints over a period of several months, and eventually they picked up on it. I’ve told a few other people since, generally only if it somehow seemed relevant to something we were talking about. Two of them already knew people who were asexual.

In the time since identifying as asexual, I have come to have come to feel deeply ambivalent about the matter. When I spend time with family or with friends or at church, if I think of my asexuality, it is often with a sense of its utter irrelevance. In the context of these relationships, all the sexual attraction I’m not feeling doesn’t matter. Life is important. Family and friendships are important. Being loved by God is important. All the sex I’m not interesting it having? Who cares? While pop culture strongly impresses on us sex-normative values, I mange to avoid much of this, and most of the people I spend time with typically don’t make me feel strange for my asexuality, whether they know about it or not. In grad school, it is assumed that people in our department come from a wide range of different cultural and religious backgrounds, so it is assumed that people have different beliefs and values so I can pass as not having sex for religious reasons. At church, our priest has fairly open views about human sexuality, but still, it’s church. It doesn’t tend to be a place where people make you feel strange for not having sex. And as for family, my mom is definitely not scandalized by my not having sex. She is, after all, my mom.

After the initial excitement had waned, the problem of asexuality’s negative definition has come to bother me more. People typically identify around things they are interested in—there are organizations for dancing or sports or music etc., but not many about not being interested in dancing, not liking sports, and being apathetic about music. As an identity, asexuality only makes sense in so far as it violates strong societal expectations—we are regularly reminded about how sexy we need to be. Regardless of coming from a more or a less traditional background, sex (at some point) is believed to be an essential part of the social relationship that is supposed to be our most important one (or ones, if that’s what you prefer.) Not being interested in sports is a legitimate option, but not being interested in sex? That’s just weird.

As a teenager, I had no interest in sports (I’m bad at them as I don’t have particularly good co-ordination, and watching them is just plain boring.) Cultural models tell us that guys are supposed to be interested in sports; and women typically less so, but these aren’t particularly strong cultural model and it has become normal for women to be interested in them (either as participants or spectators.) As a male, my disinterest may be somewhat unusual, but in high school I had at least one role model (a certain teacher) who functioned as a male uninterested in sports, so I felt a bit atypical, but still okay. But (male) role models of someone not interested in hot women? The only cultural models I received that allowed for this was being gay. But I wasn’t gay.

But suppose that I had such role models? Suppose that I had at least some information about asexuality, some indication that it was okay, that I wasn’t alone. I would have felt less isolated on account of it, and it is quite possible that it would have been much less important to me. I think I was 15 or 16 when I first started to realize how peculiar I was in terms of things I hadn’t felt—the first time I had a crush on a girl was in 6th grade, so at the time I had assumed this was the sort of thing that people were telling me I would start feeling at puberty. After all, I had been told that I would start liking girls (and I did—about four in six years), but they didn’t tell me how I would like them. I was 24 when I learned about asexuality. Without those eight or nine years of feeling different from the rest of humanity in a way I did not understand and could not explain but was constantly reminded of and the resultant feelings of confusion and isolation, would my asexuality have felt important to me? Would I feel any desire to connect with other asexuals? Or would it have simply been an unimportant fact about me, like my hair color or dislike of bologna?

At present, I feel a deep ambivalence about my own asexuality. I am very interested in the matter in a theoretical way. I strongly feel that increased visibility is important, creating materials to help nonasexuals understand asexuality is important, and there is a need to help those who are questioning or recently self-identified as asexuals to better understand their own (a)sexuality, have tools to think about their lives and understand the experiences of others, regardless of how they end up choosing to identify. In light of my own experience, this is something I want to help with. On the other hand, I have come to feel that when considering the things in life that are truly important, my asexuality is simply irrelevant. I am glad that I know about it; it has helped me understand myself, made me feel less confused, less isolated, and if I do form a romantic relationship, it will enable to me communicate things that need to be communicated. But in the larger scheme of things, who cares? There’s more to life than sex, and nobody is telling me otherwise.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Some reflections on coming to identify as asexual

I do not remember what I thought when I first found AVEN. I remember that I was using my laptop and it was dark outside. I was intrigued enough to think that I might be asexual but really wasn’t sure. I do not remember what I read first, though I do recall that the most helpful thing was the general FAQ and that I did not read that until the following day in a computer lab in the one of the libraries on campus. I also recall reading as much of the academic material that I could, which really wasn’t all that much. In retrospect, I do not think this was such a good idea—the “science of sexuality” is not a very mature field yet. Now that I have learned a lot more, I have my own opinions and some significant criticisms of some of those papers, which I had thought to be more authoritative than I should have.

Based on this, it is clear that I thought that in asexuality I might have finally found a category in which I belonged—perhaps I finally knew “what I was,” but there was this fear that maybe I wasn’t asexual and that I would have to keep searching to find “others like me.” I spent a lot of time searching through the welcome lounge on AVEN reading people’s experiences, trying to find one as close to my own as possible. Of course, I never did. The main concerns of others as they described themselves were not exactly the main concerns that had driven me to seek out asexuality, but not incompatible either, so I could not know how like or unlike my experiences theirs were. Still, certain things resonated with me—the sense of wanting to come out of the closest, if only I knew what closet I was in; finding kissing pointless and wet—I too had experienced this with my one and only girlfriend (It was a while ago, didn’t last long and didn’t go well.) Reading these caused me to reevaluate that experience: because I had enjoyed cuddling, I had thought of that as something sexual that I enjoyed and so I thought of myself as sexual, though I had been confused why I found some things utterly pointless. (In addition to kissing, which we quickly abandoned as I was evidently extraordinarily bad at it, she informed me that I was supposed to do something involving my mouth and her neck, but I found myself totally incapable of understanding how this was supposed feel good.)

I spent a great deal of time learning my way around the AVEN forums, trying to get as much information as I could about the range of experiences of asexuals—a time consuming task since people aren’t giving the information I was most interested in. People don’t tend to post long autobiographical posts, and they certainly don’t post case studies of themselves. At first I did this to figure out if I fit in the category of “asexual.” After I eventually decided that I was asexual, my spending large amounts of time reading posts continued. I had come to think of it as sifting though large amounts of information I was uninterested in (welcomes and “hi” and the giving of cake) to find what I wanted. (Though I did on occasion give out some cake myself.)

Perhaps fitting with my own overly academic personality, the moment in which I finally decided I was asexual was not while reading anything on AVEN or anything written by asexuals or even anything about asexuality. It was while reading a paper titled “A Sex Difference in the Specificity of Sexual Arousal,” that argued, using penile plethysmography and vaginal photoplethysmography, physical arousal to visual stimuli is a good indicator of sexual orientation in males, but not females. (Heterosexual males have more physical and subjective arousal to erotic images of females and homosexual males to erotic images of males.) I then became convinced that I was simply fooling myself thinking I might be at least sort-of heterosexual given that I have no arousal (physical or subjective) to either kind of stimuli. What’s ironic about this, is that I now believe that the paper overestimates the strength of the correlation between sexual orientation and physical response, and I no longer regard the penile plethysmograph to be a reliable instrument. However, by time I came to those conclusions, I had a much firmer idea about my own asexuality.

Having identified as asexual, I continued to spend a good deal of time reading the AVEN forums trying to find out as much about asexuality as I could. I recall DJ saying that in media portrayals of asexuality it’s important to make sure that we are seen as people rather than as specimens to be dissected. Acknowledging the truth of this for PR reasons, my first thoughts were, “I understand, but, damnit! I want to dissect you all! (figuratively, of course.)” I suppose this is the scientist in me. (Or mad scientist?)

In the graphic novel Fun Home, there is a scene in which the author recounts how when she first thought she might be a lesbian, she checked out a book from the library, trying to be very inconspicuous, fearing someone might notice, and eventually started checking out more, progressively having less concern about who might see. She then tries to read absolutely everything she can on the subject and eventually realizes that she ought to move beyond books to connecting with other lesbians. When I read that, I felt a twinge of envy—though I felt I shouldn’t given the difference between the stigma attached to being a lesbian versus being asexual. Still, how I longed to have been able to just read books and books about asexuality! To satisfy, to some extent, that longing to understand the sexual orientation I now identify as. But book length materials simply didn’t exist.

I think it is this—the feeling that I could do something to help change this situation—that has kept me as interested in asexuality as I have been. I do not think that I will be very helpful at mass visibility work. I do not feel that I would be a good public face of asexuality and do not think I would do well on TV. I’m not in touch with pop culture (I don’t even watch TV,) and I’m not particularly out as an asexual, with only about a dozen people knowing. But I’m working on a Ph.D. in linguistics and intuitively have a good sense of how social science works. I hope that at some point I can help asexuality make ground in academia though I’m not really sure how yet. It will be a long process, but as more and more people come to identify as asexual, I believe we will make progress.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Wanting to be a groupie

Before I learned about asexuality, I had for a long time wanted to find someone else like myself with regard to what I now call asexuality. I had on occasion thought to myself that perhaps I didn’t need a word, I didn’t need to know that there were others like myself, I should simply accept that I am me. Are we not, after all, all unique? Why should I need for there to be someone else like myself? But This line of argument seemed deeply dissatisfying and I could never convince myself with it. Perhaps, I could not explain to myself why, but it just didn’t seem like what is meant by everyone being unique. In retrospect, I feel that this intuition was right.

Suppose some ancient artifact is found in an archeological dig. By studying the artifact in isolation, we can learn about its shape and size, its dimensions and material composition, look for traces of chemicals to find out its use. Perhaps we note designs on it and observe the shapes and patterns used. What does this tell us about the object? Basically, nothing worth knowing. Studying the artifact alone, in and of itself, we can learn some facts about it, but we lack a framework in which to understand those facts. We must also understand it in relationship to other things we know about that culture, its pottery, history etc. (not to mention where the artifact was found.) Only in relationship to other things and by comparing it to other things can we understand the artifact or make sense of any of the things we learned by examining it.

Perhaps it is this—that understanding requires comparison, context and relatedness—that made so unsatisfactory the idea of simply saying I am myself and being satisfied. I wanted to compare myself with people similar to me. I cannot learn from someone wholly like myself—then I would learn nothing new—or someone wholly different—then I could not relate. But from people enough like me with regard to that which I wanted to know about to learn from them and in the process come to better understand them and myself.

I had predicted that if I found others who didn’t feel what I didn’t feel, I would, by comparing notes, come to better know myself, and this has proved true. In the nine months since I first learned about asexuality, I feel I much better understand my feelings and emotions, what I feel and what I don’t, and to be able to recognize those feelings and acknowledge them rather than just saying to myself, "That’s …something…but I don’t really know what," and that by acquiring a set of categories others use to think about their feelings, I would at least have some framework for understanding my own. It has come with a good deal of asexual self-doubt, and while I lack certainty, I do feel that I am better for having gone through it.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Self-Introduction

I first learned about asexuality last fall when I went to my university's counseling center to try to figure out my sexuality, which had been confusing me for a long time. I would get crushes on people but rarely (for about five years, from 17-22, I hadn't had a crush on anyone.) Whatever attraction I did feel, I knew that it was not connected to visual stimuli--when other guys would talk about who was hot, I couldn't relate. The whole idea seemed bizarre to me. Sometimes they would talk about this person or that or this actress or that and why they were attractive or what features of them made them so, and I would just wait in silence feeling very strange that I didn't feel whatever it was that they felt. In high school I tried to describe this to a few people, but that failed miserably so I gave up trying and knew I was different somehow or other that I simply could not describe.

The fact that I hadn't been attracted to anyone in a long time bothered me because I wanted to get married someday and this lack of attraction wasn't really helpful for that end. In the cultural context in which I live, I, as a male, am expected to initiate things and if there's no one I'm interested in, nothing's going to happen.

So I figured that the people at the counseling center would know something--they have Ph.D.s in psychology after all. It's almost as though I simply wanted a word to describe whatever it was that I was and to be able to hear about the experiences of others like myself. I felt that if I just had that, even just a word, I would feel more connected, less isolated because of this ineffable difference between me and seemingly the rest of humanity. There being over six billion people in the world, I had a suspicion that there were others like myself and knew that it was possible (maybe even likely) that I knew some of them but that they, like me, kept quiet about it.

The therapist I ended up seeing asked me if I had looked into asexuality. I said that I hadn't. I didn't feel that I was not sexual, just not something A few days later I googled it, found AVEN, tried to read (and listen to) everything that I could on the subject including any published academic material on asexuality and a few other papers on sexual orientation and one about Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder. After going through the "I think I am" "may I'm not" "maybe I am asexual" phase for a while I eventually fell down on the self-defining as asexual side of things, though I remain somewhat uncomfortable with the term.