Saturday, January 24, 2009


In August, I had written a piece about defending asexuality against its critics, but I got side tracked by some rather lengthy series, so I never posted it. A recent post on Rainbow Amoeba’s Petri Dish about coming out prompted me to revisit that piece for a couple reasons. First, she wrote that that post had been written, but unposted, for a while. Secondly, she does something I think is important that I don’t see often in asexual discourse—striving to understand why someone is dismissive of asexuality.

This point was made clear to me while reading a quote which I’ve used a couple times already (though I hadn't as of August.) This particular article, about asexuals in New Zealand, featured the seemingly obligatory comment from a less-than-affirming "expert" (or, as the blogger Ily has recently referred to such people, the designated hater.
Clinical psychologist and director of Sex Therapy NZ Robyn Salisbury says some people who call themselves asexual still masturbate regularly - 'which isn't asexual to me.' Salisbury says sex therapists would call that auto-erotic - that is, enjoying their sexuality themselves - rather than asexual.
My first reaction was how absurd I thought this comment was. It makes a lot of sense for people who don't experience sexual attraction to identify in the same group regardless of whether they masturbate or not. What people do or do not do in private with their genitals has little effect on the social impact of not experiencing sexual attraction. And just think about social identification and attempting to explain lack of interest in sex. I can imagine someone saying, "I'm asexual. I'm not interested in having sex." I have a lot more difficulty imagining someone saying, "I'm autosexual. I'm not interested in having sex. Just jerking off is good enough for me." I mean, honestly. Is she even trying to see things from the viewpoints of the people she is making authoritative pronouncements about? I think this is why I felt it was so ridiculous.

When I find some comment like this, my first reaction is to show how wrong it is. Perhaps I think of the things I would like to say to the author. Maybe I think of how I would like to write a blog about how misguided it is. But after this initial feeling, I had a very different second reaction. From my perspective, a comment like the one above is absurd, but that particular sex therapist isn't approaching the matter from my perspective. Of course how I view things makes sense to me, but her comments make perfect sense from her perspective.

I'm wary of the value of devoting a lot of time to formulating arguments about why our critics are wrong. There probably is some value in it. When asexuals come out to others and find them less than accepting, perhaps having a way to explain things to the person could be helpful. Maybe there is value in making our case to people who are wary of recognizing the validity of asexuality to waylay their fears and skepticism. However, I suspect that most of the time that we spend on such arguments, we're merely making them to people who already agree with us. This reinforces our idea of how right we are, reminds us of how wrong “they” are, but doesn't do much to help us think more critically or persuade anybody of anything.

So in dealing with objections to asexuality, I'm going to take a different approach than usual. I want to try to see things from the perspective of those who make such arguments, and then try to find a way to deal with the issues in light of divergent ways of looking at things.

For the above quoted sex therapist, I'm not entirely sure where's she's coming from or what her motivations are, but I can speculate. To start with, it isn't hard to see why she has difficulty thinking of masturbation as asexual. The idea that it could be is highly counter-intuitive. However, some asexuals do masturbate (a study from the Kinsey institute suggests most), and some of them feel that this isn't a sexual activity. Usually they have difficulty explaining this except to say that they feel it isn't sexual for them. (In this David Jay attempts to explain how it can be thought of as a non sexual act, and I give a modified version of that argument here. I've decided not to include the names in the links because having "masturbation" in big blue letters on their computer screen could potentially lead to ackward situations.) On the other hand, not all asexuals have the feeling that it is a non-sexual act, and not all asexuals consider themselves “not sexual.” (Recall that the word can be contrasted with sexual to mean not sexual, but it can also be contrasted with hetero/homo/bisexual to mean sexually attracted to no one, which may or may not signify “not sexual.") Also, not all asexuals who masturbate particularly enjoy doing so--some report doing it because it's the easiest way to make certain annoying feelings go away—for them, I'm not sure it's appropriate to say that they are "enjoying" their sexuality. (Of course, some do enjoy this activity.)

Moving from this particular sex therapist to other objections to asexuality more generally, honestly, I think they make a lot of sense, even if I don't agree with them. Some of the most common ones are "You must be gay/a lesbian" or "You just haven't met the right person yet." Another common one is that the asexual claimant simply doesn't know their own feelings well. If they really knew their own feelings, then they would understand that they aren't asexual.

I’m not going to deal with these one by one here because I think that kind of approach misses the point. Suppose that someone tells you that the night before, they were abducted by aliens. You probably aren't going to believe them. One possibility is that they're lying or just joking. But suppose you become convinced that they aren't lying. You'll probably conclude that they must be delusional or something. The reason is that (I assume) you don't believe in alien abduction. Accepting the claim as an actual report of what happened requires a major change in your beliefs about the world. It is easier (requires less change in fundamental beliefs about how the world works) to accept that either they're just pulling your leg or there's something seriously wrong with the person. And there is good reason to be somewhat resistant to major changes in our beliefs about the world. If I accept that the world works in a way that fits with my own experience (rather than in a way that radically contradicts my experience), I'm going to be able to get by a lot better. This isn’t to say we should never change our views. Some things are not important parts of my belief system (what I think the weather will be like tomorrow) and can be changed easily. But for more centrally held views, we should be willing to reexamine our them and modify them if there is good reason for doing so, but we are going to require much stronger motivation.
For many, the belief that all people are sexual beings or that all people have sexual desires is such an important belief that changing it would require a major alteration in strongly held views. If we add to this cultural beliefs about "sexual repression" or that some people don't really understand their own sexual feelings (which is probably true for a lot of people) or that someone is gay but in denial about it (there are a lot of people in denial about same sex attraction), it can be easier to assume that claims of asexuality aren't really asexuality, but are rather one of these other things. Challenges to beliefs about sexuality caused by the existence of asexual can be avoided by invoking these well known narratives. A similar point is true about the idea that maybe the supposed asexual just hasn't met the right person yet. We've all heard stories about people who met some person and quickly have very strong feelings of attraction that completely take them by surprise and make them feel as though they were made for each other. So this is another possibility about people who claim to be asexual. If the only (known) experience of asexual people is on TV, they can be easy to dismiss. There are a lot of wierdos just trying to get attention, so it’s understandable that people would use this narrative to dismiss asexuals on TV.

In accepting claims of asexuals, there are two major issues involved. The first is how big of a change to the person's worldview is necessary. Based on the idea that there is huge diversity among people in terms of their sexuality, the idea that some people are asexual makes sense and is an easy modification to make. On the other hand, if we think that sexually, people are by and large pretty much all the same or all fit into a few very narrowly defined groups, then asexuality makes little sense.

The second issue is whether or not we should trust the claims of the people calling themselves asexual. If all of the people who claimed to be asexual were young and immature, then it would be easy to dismiss what they say. On the other hand, if the people claiming to be asexual are more mature and have a good idea of their own feelings, then it makes less sense to dismiss them and more sense to accept their stories as reliable reports of their experiences and their feelings. Ultimately, the evidence for the existence of asexuality is the same as any other situation where we have to believe that other’s feelings and experiences are different from our own—we have to trust what they say about themselves and try to see things from their perspective.

The dismissive comment given at the beginning of this piece amounts to an attempt to delegitimate the experiences, feelings, and identities of asexual people by refusing to accept them on their own terms and insisting on reading their experiences through foreign interpretative lenses—even one they knowingly reject. I don’t think that this is the intention of the interviewee. Most likely, her comments stem from a sex-positive desire to affirm each person’s unique sexuality—indeed, she is probably trying to affirm each person’s humanity, as though sexuality was an essential part of being human—and yet she can only do so by denying a fundamental part of their humanity—she is trying to delegitimate their identities, experiences and feelings because these do not fit into her preconceived notions of what people are (supposed to be?) like. Of course, a sex-positive framework can be modified to extend affirming each person’s unique sexuality to affirming asexuality as a valid sexuality, but that isn’t the approach she has taken.
The issue comes down to whether or not we accept asexual people’s stories as valid, but this creates a problem. Where are we supposed to go to find these stories? When I first identified as asexual, it was very difficult for me to find them even though I spent a lot of time trying to do precisely that. Instead, all I had were short pieces by people in AVEN’s welcome lounge. An outsider to asexuality trying to find out about these would likely notice that a good number of the people are young and immature—exactly the group that can most easily be dismissed (often rightly) as not really understanding their own feelings. With the growth of a handful of asexual blogs, this situation is improving somewhat, and the recent article in the Guardian was definitely a step in the right direction. Still, it will take time before we are able to make our voices heard before a larger audience, and I think it is this more than anything that will persuade people of the legitimacy of asexuality. I expect it will be the telling our stories to affect people’s empathy rather than any well reasoned argument that will persuade most people. Of course, this is not to say that well reasoned arguments don’t have their place.

The question of how to decide among divergent perspectives is one that has troubled me for a while, and I can only give the most basic of ideas on how to do so. But there are two points that think may help a little. The first is that in my search for truth, I can never proceed from anywhere except for where I presently stand. It is impossible for me to discount my own beliefs or perspectives or take a totally neutral and objective approach, but this does not mean that I have to stay where I currently am. Second, anti-asexual beliefs stem from a desire to live in a world much smaller than the one we are really in, a refusal to acknowledge narratives that don’t fit into a too narrow view of what it is to be human. All of us have extraordinarily limited experience and our ideas of the diversity that exists among people, in how to be human, is limited, but the question is whether we are willing to be open to other perspectives when they are presented to us or if we want to blind ourselves to the reality that other people are different from ourselves.

In researching for this post, there was one thing about this particular sex-therapist that struck me as very interesting. The quote given above comes from an article dated August 5, 2007. If you look at AANZ’s news page, in August 2006, the organization for sex therapists run by the above quoted therapist added a link to AANZ on their website. (The link in the news page has gone dead, but on the links page, there still is a link.) She was skeptical of asexuality but was willing to link visitors to her website there.


Mary Maxfield said...

I really like your alien abduction metaphor, and the general compassion -- or at least openness -- that you show toward those so often framed as our enemies or "others." The "you must be gay" line is one of my least favorites -- having identified that way for some time, I don't see how it could be my reason for questioning whether I'm asexual -- and I know that the other arguments cause other people to bristle equally. It isn't easy having your experience invalidated. However, I think you're on the right track. I think the more that we try to reach an understanding, rather than to knock down other people's arguments, the less we will be simply preaching to the choir.

Anonymous said...

Great to read this step towards more mutual understanding and taking on each other's perspectives, rather than arguing who is more right or despairing over being misunderstood. Very uplifting and hopeful.

ACH said...

One thing that strikes me as ironic about attempts to knock down arguments without trying to really understand where the person is coming from is that this tends to be counter-productive if your goal is to actually convince anyone of anything. One of the most basic principles of rhetoric is that an argument that may be very persuasive to me, might not be very persuasive to you, and an argument that might be very persuasive to you, might not be very persuasive to me. Arguments, to be effective, have to be (somewhat) audience specific--they have to make sense from the perspective of the person you're trying to convince.

It seems that a large portion of the arguments people use--I see this especially often in politics and religion--function to bolster positions that the person already held for entirely different reasons. This isn't a problem in and of itself (in my search for truth, I can never start from anywhere except were I presently stand,) but when arguements are made without seriously trying to understand the opposing perspective(s), what ends up happening is that the opponents are "othered." People to whom the arguments are made (the in-group) become even more entrenched in their views, become more convinced that the only reason people could possibly hold differing views is that they're either evil or complete morons (or both.) This tactic is quite useful for getting people angry and getting them mobilized, but it has the effect of making people even more entrenched in their views while at the same time less informed.

This tactic has another serious drawback: it alienates the moderates. (By moderates, I mean people that don't agree with you but are sympathetic enough that might be able to be persuaded if certain arguments were made.) Straw-man arguments communicate to moderates that they only way people can disagree with their position is by ignoring it, and attacking a straw-man, or by lumping the moderates in with the most extreme version of their view. (For example, in calling anyone who disagrees with gay politics a "homophobe," it communicates that someone like Rick Warren's position can only be disagreed with by being completely unable to see any difference between him and say, Fred Phelps, even though the differences are huge and really quite obvious.) Alienating potential allies doesn't strike me as a prudent tactic.