Saturday, June 27, 2009

You're not asexual. You just haven't met the right person yet.

In any list of annoying and dismissive responses asexuals can get when coming out, "You just haven't met the right person" ranks high. Like the late-bloomer response, the right-person response assumes the person cannot actually be asexual; so some other reason is invoked to explain a lack of interest in sex.

Now, there are two possible meanings ofthe right person: one more stary-eyed romantic and one more down to earth. There is the popular belief that somewhere out there, there is a "the one for you"; there is some person of preordained importance, some special someone who was made for you and you for them. And your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find that person.

And then there is the more down to earth idea of the right person. There are a number of people who unexpectedly find someone they really click with, someone they really like, someone unlike those who came before, someone they feel new and powerful emotions for. It may largely be the sheer power of these emotions that can give rise to feelings of being made for each other, feelings that can lead to the more mystical conceptions of "the one for you."

This knowledge, this belief can be called upon to explain away claims of asexuality, and by using some supposed authoritative knowledge about the asexual's future, current sexual disinterest is "accounted for without having to acknowledge even the possibility that the person might be asexual. Those on the receiving end of the right-person response can find it frustrating: they are coming out as asexual and find asexuality dismissed.

Still, there are people who typically don't experience sexual attraction but do when they meet "the right person." Such people exist in the asexual community. Among the common terms specific to asexual discourse, the one that took me the longest to understand is demisexual (or demi for short.) I had long thought it equivalent to Gray-A(sexual), but, I've learned, it's not. Gray-A refers to people in the gray area between sexual and asexual. Demisexual is more specific.

It is based on a distinction between primary and secondary sexual attraction found in Rabger's model of asexuality found on the AVENwiki: Primary sexual attraction is a sort of instant sexual attraction based on some sensory stimuli (i.e. how they look, smell, sound.) Secondary sexual attraction is sexual attraction that arises after developing a close emotional bond with someone. Sexuals are typically assumed to experience both and asexuals neither, but there are some people who only experience secondary sexual attraction. That is, they generally don't experience sexual attraction, and, if fact, may go years at a time without experiencing it. But they do feel sexual attraction to people after forming close emotional/romantic bonds with them. Demisexuality is reported by both males and females, and an identity as demi may in addition to or instead of an asexual identity, depending on the person.

So, someone who is demisexual and has never been in a romantic relationship before will likely have no idea that they're demi; for someone who has never formed a deep romantic/emotional bond and doesn't experience primary sexual attraction (using Rabger's terms), they have no idea whether or not they would feel secondary sexual attraction.

In light of this, let's consider some of the more common replies to the right-person response. One is "I have met the right person, and I still think I'm asexual." (Searching for "the right person" will yield examples on this thread on AVEN, this one on Apositive, and a post by Rainbow Amoeba.) This seems quite valid, but it doesn't apply for romantically less-experienced asexuals.

Additional replies include an age-based response and a recognition that even if love is found late in life, sexual attraction tends to start a lot younger. Both of these are used in a recent post by the blogger Glad to be A recently writing about this subject:
[The right-person response is] perhaps harder to argue with if you're a teenager (even though you may indeed be asexual), because some people do come to love and sex a little later in life. I do think that most sexual people experience sexual desire and attraction fairly early on, but there may be some exceptions. But it does make me raise my eyebrows when I hear it directed at a 30-something like me.

Arguments based on the fact that sexual attraction typically starts well before falling in love, even for people who don't fall in love till later in life, can be found elsewhere. (For example, The right person theory by Rainbow Amoeba.) Something similar can also be found on AVEN's general FAQ:
I can't identify as asexual. What if I find the right person and start being sexual with them?

If you have yet to meet a single person who has aroused you sexually it's pretty safe to say that you have low or no sexual attraction to others. You aren't losing anything by exploring your asexuality and talking to others with similar experiences. If one day you find that special someone, that would be wonderful!

Identifying as asexual isn't committing yourself to abstinence, it's recognizing how you work. You can have relationships and you can be sexual if you so choose.

This makes sense and allows for fluidity, but it still bothers me: it neglects to mention possibility of demisexuality. Ultimately, people should be willing to be open to new experiences in the future. For those who have fallen in love and still had little-to-no interested in sex, they have very strong reason to reject the "right-person" response. For asexuals who haven't, if they're aromantic, they also have good reason to reject it. But for those who haven't "fallen in love" but know enough about themselves to believe it may be possible, it seems foolish to presume to know what would be felt: foolish to assume no new sexual interest, and foolish to assume sexual desire will magically bloom. Still, for people in this group, I think an asexual identity makes a great deal of sense for where they are now, and I think that asexual discourse can be of great value for figuring themselves out. And if they do fall in love and decide that they're demi, the asexual community seems to be the main place where that subject is talked about.


Isaac said...

The romantic version of the right-person theory is called half-orange, at least in Spanish, and was exposed by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. The character of Aristophanes told a myth in which humans were originally round as oranges with the double of members than nowadays. As punishment for rebellion, Zeus chopped them in halves, hence we have the half of members than them. So gays come from entire males, lesbians come from entire females, and heterosexuals come from hermaphrodites. According to this myth, each person has their half orange out there, who would be the right person.

This myth explains sexual attraction and sexual orientation and, despite it was originally a parody and it seems so, lots of mainstream gays and allies support it. In this theory, sexual attraction is universal and sexual orientation innate and immutable. This theory gives no room for bisexuality or asexuality. This myth lives unconsciously in an homophobically modified version where orange-humans were hermaphrodites and thus everybody must be straight and find their half orange.

These peaks of attraction to very special people might be, as you pointed out, the origin of the half-orange myth and the right-person theory.

Queers United said...

I hate that line, I get the same one for being gay. You haven't met the right woman yet. People need a hint.

miller said...

I think I am in that last category of people for whom demisexuality is a possibility. In the past, when people told me that I would eventually meet the right person, I was actually satisfied with this response. I found it hopeful. I didn't know any better.

Now I know better. I have to be open to the possibility that no, I will never meet a "the right person", and if I do, I would not necessarily feel sexual attraction in addition to romantic attraction. If I find someone, that's great, and if I don't, then that's that. I will have to live with it, as I have lived with it up to this point.

What I do not need is false hope. I have already got enough of that, and it has only led to self-doubt and unhappiness.

Shawn M. Landis said...

People don't beleive we exist. Dismissing us is much easier.

That American Kid said...

Thanks for the awesome explanation of Grey-A vs. Demi. Like you did, I was thinking that they were the same thing. Very interesting to know the difference between the two.

primarydecomposition said...

One of the reasons the "right person" argument, along with the "late bloomer" argument, really annoy me is that I tend to think of sexualities as more of labels for explaining present experiences than something set in stone. That is to say, I find it pretty much irrelevant whether a person will eventually develop sexual attraction - what matters is that at that moment, the person's experiences lead to identifying as asexual. Going "oh, but you don't really *know*" means dismissing what the person is experiencing right now as a possibly-asexual in favour of some vague hypothetical possible future, as if all previous experiences related to sex and sexuality will suddenly become irrelevant and vanish if sexual attraction pops up.

Sure, I might suddenly develop sexual attraction one day (although I certainly hope not, as I am quite happy the way I am). But I can't very well put my life on hold waiting for that day, now can I? My saying I'm asexual doesn't mean I'm signing a scroll in blood saying I will never ever ever consider wanting sex with another person, it's saying "all of my experiences up till now are in line with asexuality, I doubt that will change but if it does I will reconsider how I identify." People seem to miss the last part.

pretzelboy said...

primarydecomposition-Yes. I wish I had something more substantive than that to say. Have you read Venus of Willendork's recent post Hide and Seek? It relates to your comments.

Shawn-Sometimes I wonder why that is. For some people, accepting asexuality is really easy and requires only a slight modification of their beliefs. For some, they're incredibly resistant, and they'll come up with just about anything to ignore the evidence that's staring them in the face. Not sure why, exactly. It seems to vary from person to person and from issue to issue.

American Kid-I'm not sure why this one particular term is poorly understood. I imagine it's partly because of it's highly technical nature, and partly because only a small minority of people on AVEN seem to identify as demi. Interestingly, Demisexual considerably preceeded Grey-A(sexual) on AVEN in coinage. (I learned this via Google.)

Miller-Yeah, that makes sense. I think that the best attitude is "I'm open to the possibility that the future will bring unexpected things, but I'm not holding my breath."

Queers United-I'm not sure how I forgot this point in my blog. The fact that similar points have been used to dismiss the identity of gay men and lesbians has often been cited in asexual discourse in response to the right-person-response.

Isaac-It's been a while since I've read that story (though I don't recall oranges being involved in my translation. Granted, everyone seems to "know" that there's an apple in the story of Adam and Eve despite the plain fact that the kind of fruit is not specified in the story as it appears in the Bible.) I wonder how much that part of the Symposium actually parallels our modern concept of sexual orientation. Bisexuality is excluded, and this seems to be a logical necessity of a) a strict gender binary and b) a belief that for everyone there is a unique "the one": for everyone, there is a single person, and under the assumption of strict gender binary, that person must be either male or female. Yet, the Athenians seemed quite aware of bisexuality--for the males, bisexual behavior seemed to be the norm, so it's not like the hadn't considered the possibility. Anyway, I'm not a classicist, and that's just my two-cents on the matter.

Isaac said...

Yeah, I've just rereading Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium and I've found no reference to oranges. He compares round humans and their chopping with several foods, but not oranges. In spite of it, this comparison is well know in Spanish, but I don't know in other languages. Moreover, I associate oranges with the Greeks and the Olympic gods.

We know that in the Athenian society bisexuality was very spread, so I presume that this speech defends monosexuality, despising bisexuals as confused. Fortunately or unfortunately, he forgot asexual, I don't know what he would have said.

Simo said...

Why are you alive? Because you haven't found the right murderer yet. Despite this, it wouldn't be productive to live your life as if you were dead.

BTW, all heterosexuals just haven't found the one of their own sex/gender but still act like they weren't homosexuals. ;-)

pretzelboy said...

Isaac, I'm not sure it's explicitly anti-bisexual. The story is consistent with (males) wanting, liking and having sex with both males and females; I think it's just that it's assumed that people will have a preference for one or the other (which is sometimes true, and sometimes not.) Also, I recall reading somewhere that in men, homosexuality is more common than bisexuality, but that in women, bisexuality is more common than homosexuality. Given the misogynist nature of Athenian culture at that time...

Simo, that's kind of a disturbing analogy, and I don't think it really clarifies the issue. Even if we don't like "you haven't met the right person yet" responses, I think it's important to understand where people are coming from when they make it.

Anonymous said...

As a bisexual, I find it easier to relate to the idea of asexuality than heterosexuality.

I have been through depression, and know what it's like to feel no sexual desire for extended periods of time even if I'm in the presence of dearly loved or sexy people.

But how one can appreciate one kind of beauty and not the other? I... I suppose it can happen but overall I can only understand heterosexuality on a sliding scale of bisexual with strong preferences to one gender or the other. I guess for me the same is true of homosexuals.

So for you asexuals trying to find common ground with sexuals... you could ask them if they've ever been depressed?

pretzelboy said...

I agree that a good way to explain asexuality is to get them to think of times in their lives when they haven't been interested in sex. For some people, this coincided with depression, but for other people, there are other reasons they have periods in their lives when they aren't interested in sex. (And I've heard that there are some people who get more interested in sex when they're depressed, though they seem to be a definite minority.) On the other hand, I don't wanna be like, "Being asexual is like being depressed." I'm not sure that would make the impression we're wanting to make.

The Impossible K said...

You bring up many excellent points here... I wasn't aware of the difference between Gray-A and Demi- either.
I'm a huge fan of Rabger's model. Although I can't fathom what it must feel like to experience primary sexual attraction, I'm exploring the possibility of developing secondary attraction... if that's possible, that is. I've wondered- is one born with the capacity to experience attraction, or can it be developed over time? Can secondary sexual attraction be learned?

pretzelboy said...

As for what people are born with, I don't really have a clue. I know there are people who don't experience sexual attraction. I know that there are people who have experienced it only once or twice in their lives (possibly of the secondary kind, and possibly of the primary kind.) How do we account for this? Beats me.

As for creating secondary sexual attraction, my own impression seems to be that unexpected changes in people's sexuality can occur, but they generally don't seem subject to conscious change. Attempts to change one's sexual orientation tend to be miserable failures, no matter how strong the attempt. And sometimes people are bothered by unexpected changes in sexuality, and even if they want to resist it, they feel that they can't.