Thursday, July 23, 2009

If someone who isn't "really asexual" identifies as asexual, so what?

One criticism of asexuality, or a claim sometimes used to dismiss asexual identities, is that those claiming to be asexual aren't really asexual; they're just not willing to accept their true sexuality.

In my last post, (which, if you haven't read, you should read before continuing), I noted that there are, in the asexual community, generally three beliefs people can have regarding this criticism.

(A) It's wrong. Asexuals are asexual, not people who are afraid of their sexuality.
(B) It's wrong in a number of cases (some people really are asexual), but it is right in many cases; this is a real problem.
(C) It's wrong in a number of cases, and even when it's true, so what?

While some might deny that the criticism has any substance, as in A, I think that most people who have been around the asexual community a while will acknowledge that there certainly are some people identifying as asexual (or asking "Am I asexual?") who are clearly "not asexual." Rather, they're afraid of sex, or are immature, or have anti-sexual views, or are otherwise not willing to accept their own sexuality. Yet, as common as I suspect views B and C to be, I don't see them expressed very often, and when they are, it's usually not on AVEN. (Both views are represented, for example, on Apositive in the thread Legitimacy and Blurry Lines.)

There are two primary reasons that I support C. First, I imagine that most of the people identifying as asexual because they're not prepared to accept their own sexuality are fairly young--teenagers and some people in their early 20's. Especially for teenagers, here's what I imagine to be the result of them mislabeling themselves as asexual: delaying onset of sexual activity by a few years until they're more mature, better understand their own feelings, and are more accepting of their own sexuality.

Oh the horror! The only think I can't figure out is why, exactly, we're supposed to think this is a bad thing.

The second reason that I'm not convinced that temporary "mis"-identification as asexual isn't necessarily a bad thing is that such identification can help to provide people a safe-space to think about their own feelings. The assumption underlying the belief that "mis"-identification as asexual is bad seems to be either that a) this will cause the person to be smug in their sexless life rather than actually dealing with the issues that need to be dealt with, or b) OMG, sex is like, totally, the best thing EVER, and like, (mis?)labeling your self as asexual is going to make you, like, miss out or something. The second of these strikes me as pretty absurd: sex is not like-OMG-totally-the-best-thing-ever for everyone, including many sexual people who may like it but can also be perfectly content without it for long periods of time or who may only like it in a very restricted set of circumstances. This assumption seems to stem from the fact that there are people who have difficulty understanding that just because they really, really like something and make it a really important part of their lives doesn't mean that everyone does. Or should.

And then there is the other possible assumption: that "mis"-identifying as asexual helps people feel smug so that they decide not to deal with some issues that they have. I suppose this may well be true in some cases, but the exact opposite is true in others: for some people temporarily identifying as asexual can help provide them with a safe space in which to deal with those issues, a place where are are neither pressured to be sexual nor to be asexual, a place to read about others' experiences and feelings and to think about their own feelings and experienced. As the Venus of Willendork writes:
For many, asexuality is not a safe space. It’s an identity, – and one that sometimes brings misunderstanding, pain, and rejection, even ridicule or betrayal. For others, it’s the exact security necessary to begin the difficult process of unpacking one’s past...I know that exploring difficult issues and working to heal them requires the secure environment where one can do so “safely” and with support. Being badgered into sexuality has done nothing for me. Being allowed to identify as asexual has allowed me to address the possibility that I am not.
And sometimes, even when people have issue to deal with, they're not always ready to deal with them.

I think it is precisely because of this point that many who believe either B or C tend to keep these opinions to themselves. Even when it is obvious that some person isn't "really asexual" but is just identifying as asexual to hide from their own insecurities or to justify their anti-sexual views, telling them as much isn't helpful. Everyone who identifies as asexual has a reason for doing so, regardless of whether you or I or anyone else thinks that it's a good reason or not. Telling them that they aren't asexual, or even strongly suggesting the possibility, will likely be perceived as an attack on a part of their identity. (If someone thinks that the asexual claimant is really asexual, they're probably not going to ask, "Have you considered the possibility that you're not really asexual but that you're just [fill in the blank]?" And the recipient of the question, simply by being asked it, becomes aware that their interlocutor doesn't really believe that they're asexual.) When people feel that part of their identity is being attacked, they often get defensive. And being defensive is not when we are the most inclined to do the introspection and self-reflection necessary to deal with the issue that needs dealing with.

My own view is that if people identify as asexual because of very negative views of sexuality, trying to help them see how sex can be a positive thing in some contexts (at least for other people) is probably more useful (and more likely to have some measure of success) than trying to convince them that they're not asexual. Of course, it's fully possible that some asexuals (especially younger ones) may end up having rather negative views of sexuality. There is a lot of really awful shit that goes on where sex is concerned, and there are a lot of profoundly negative personal of social consequences of how sex can be--and often is--used. Of course, in some contexts, sex can also be a very positive experience as well. For people who have no positive personal experience with sex and no sexual desire, it seems likely enough they some of them may tend to see more of the negative aspects and use this to reinforce anti-sexual views, while ignoring the positive aspects of sex and sexuality.

So my point is this: even if some people who aren't "really asexual" identify as asexual, so what? Why is that such a bad thing? And even if it sometimes is a problem, is telling them that they're not really asexual going to be helpful? Who is telling non-asexuals that people identifying as asexual aren't really asexual going to help? Probably not the people currently identifying or thinking about identifying as asexual.


Anonymous said...

My trouble with people who aren't asexual identifying as such is that it almost always feeds negative stereotypes about aces. Asexual identifying individuals are very rare. When the one "asexual" a person knows turns out to just be a late bloomer or depressed or repressed or gay, fair or not, that makes an enormous impression. People are skeptical enough as it is without confirming their ideas.

Obviously, if someone has genuinely tried their best to determine their orientation and is simply wrong, they can't be held culpable for that. It's not like they did it on purpose or could have done anything differently. But people who are using the label to hide can and should do otherwise. I don't think it's very fair to make other people's lives harder because you were too scared to take a good long look at yourself.

(In a similar vein, I have little love for gay people calling themselves bi.)

Emily said...

I am a young person, a loner, and hyper-logical. (My Myers-Briggs type is INTP, if that means anything to you.)In short, there is a very high chance that I am "not asexual after all." The thought has crossed my mind, many times. But then it becomes, cannot I not be asexual just because I am not "normal" in other senses? Must my traits be separate and unrelated for each of them to be valid?

Some internet stranger could easily peg me as someone who isn't "really asexual" because of my age and my extreme introversion and general nerdiness. But, I would like to assure them that none of these things makes my asexuality false.

Did I just pick "A"...? No, some people will certainly turn out to be late bloomers or just anti-sexual.
I guess my point is, there is no way to define or determine a "real asexual."

Isaac said...

I was waiting for this sequel to defend the position B, but you have convinced me that C (or at least C’-general) is fair. I still defend B’-personal. I think that people should be more careful and don’t identify with a category where they don’t fit. As I’m not asexual for sure, I avoid claiming it. I’m aromantic; I’m as strongly aromantic that it’s clear for me that I’m so. The asexual community provided me the word aromantic and allowed me to ensure that I’m so by means of dismembering the so-called love and recognize standalone parts of it which don’t imply the whole package. But my sexuality is different and, as I can’t say for sure if I’m asexual or a weird kind of hypoheterosexual, I claim to be asexual-or-grey, as I did in my Apositive introduction post.

As you pointed out, the negative consequences of mislabeling as asexual are innocuous, while the negative consequences of mislabeling as any other sexual orientation may hurt. So, from an individualist point of view, asexuality is a good refuge for any questioning person. But this is a network and, if there are too many fake asexuals, this may confuse newbies and outsiders. For instance, I initially thought that I couldn’t be asexuals since the testimonies I could read where majority of romantic nonlibidoist people who equated asexuality with pure love and claimed that people who masturbate couldn’t be asexual.

And the aforesaid applies to a utopian world where diversity is visible and accepted. The fucking truth is that, among the four cardinal sexualities of Storms’ model, only heterosexuality and homosexuality are visible and accepted. Regardless the prejudices, nobody denies the existence of these two orientations. In this century, the idiosyncrasy of a certain homosexual doesn’t affect the collectivity, since they are visible enough. The prejudices of promiscuity or indecision around bisexuals are still dangerous for the collective, and any single instance of promiscuous or confused bisexual is viewed as a confirmation of the prejudice. And the asexual community is in a situation worse than bisexuality. If the outsiders find a bunch of late-bloomers, they will think that every asexual is a late-bloomer. If they find too many religious allusions, they will think that every asexual is sexually repressed by religion. The latter happened to the AVENes, the Spanish language boards of AVEN. In the discussion tab of the Spanish language Wikipedia article for asexuality, a user suggested to remove the link to AVENes or, at least, advice that it was "a site of Catholic proselytism" (sic).

So, should we distinguish also A’-personal, A’-community, A’-world, B’-personal, etcetera? I would be B’-personal, C’-community and A’-world.

pretzelboy said...

All of your raise important points.

Emily, the issues that you raise are difficult ones that I'm aware of but don't really have anything but a quasi-worked out direction for the solution, which I've been thinking about for a while and intentionally putting off blogging about, though I do want to address the issue eventually. It has to do with in what sense asexuality is "real" and if it even makes sense to talk about some people being "real asexuals" (I intentionally used quotes to avoid committing myself to any particular answer). And if it does make sense, how does this intersect with issues of identity and legitimacy of identity?

As for the other two commentors, both of you raise, though in different ways, the problem that people who aren't "really asexual" later changing their minds about their asexuality has on reinforcing stereotypes. On the one hand, I want to acknowledge the difficulty created by reinforcing these stereotypes. On the other hand, I'm not sure if there is any practical solution to it. I don't think it's at all helpful to tell people identifying as asexual that they're not real asexual, and I don't see much point in being frustrated at their identifying as asexual. It doesn't do them any good, and it doesn't do us any good either except maybe to inflate our own egos (which is something that most of us don't need any more of.)

Probably, most stereotypes have some grounding in fact in the sense that there are some people who fit them. The problem with stereotypes is overgeneralization and making harmful assumptions about people on account of that overgeneralization.

And then there is the question of A'-personal, A'-community, A'-world etc. (see previous post for explanation.) Again, there is an important point here: in presenting asexuality in the mass media, things get made a lot more black-and-white than they really are. In presenting things to some audiences, a greater degree of nuance is desirable than with others. If this variable is taken into account, I think that further distinctions may be useful.

I wish I could give better responses, but hopefully this is at least a start.

Isaac said...

I was wrong in my comment. I am B’-personal, C’-community and B’-world. Of course it’s not the same visibility in the weekend supplement of a national newspaper as visibility in a local gay-straight alliance. I split general into community and world because I wanted to make clear where I deem C’ fair.

I don’t know how to solve the conflict between general visibility and support for questioning people, and I think this is a major issue in the asexual community. We won’t solve it in three days, but pointing it out is the first step.

Anonymous said...

Same anonymous as before here.

I don't think it's at all helpful to tell people identifying as asexual that they're not real asexual, and I don't see much point in being frustrated at their identifying as asexual. It doesn't do them any good

I'm not sure it's entirely unhelpful: being urged to greater honesty, though it would pressure some people, seems like it would help others.

In any case, I think it's possible to condemn behavior without accusing anyone of it specifically. If it's made clear that fake asexuals are frowned upon, that will discourage it even if nobody is directly told they're not asexual. It's not a perfect mechanism, but it does have an effect. I think a lot of the pressure against questioning someone else's self-identification, in fact, comes from a similar process. Even though few people are singled out for playing asexuality police, it's unambiguously condemned.

It's also possible to gently inform people that they sound like they might not be asexual -- but that there's nothing wrong with questioning (or putting off questioning), they are still welcome in the community, and they may find its ideas helpful. I hardly want this said to everyone who shows up with "risk factors" ("Oh, you were abused? Maybe you're not asexual, but you're still welcome here."), but I think there's definitely a place for it.

Right now, the standard line on AVEN seems to be that if you like the label, you should adopt it, and anyone who tells you differently is in the wrong. There's a lot of room for changes there without turning into a community where anyone who's young or shy or feels a bit bad about their body gets informed that they're probably not really asexual.

Anonymous said...

This was a really interesting post, thank you.

Sadly, I know of a "D" option - happily, one that's probably very rare, but I've seen with my own eyes. I know people (men) who have taken on asexuality as a label, people who have enjoyable sex lives when they can get it, whose only reasoning appears to be that they're slightly odd and social outcast-y -

who have used that label to make vulnerable people (e.g. those who have survived sexual abuse and are afraid of sexual contact) feel safe in what are clearly sexual situations. "All this groping and flirting I'm doing is fine, because I'm asexual, so it's NOT REAL".

I've never seen straight or bi men take on an identity as gay and then be similarly predatory towards women, so I think it's a screwed-up social outcast thing, combined with an insulting stereotype that asexuals are social outcasts "I don't want to develop the necessary social skills to get a sex life, so I'll use trickery" (or perhaps not that conscious).

Obviously, if it's actually common, that use of the label is one that asexual people should reject outright, while still being accepting of people who are simply confused.

miller said...

I would argue B from a different angle: The golden rule.

It's all very well to say for other people "Let them believe what they want, if it helps them on their journey." But if it were me who was wrong in my beliefs, I'd like to know. If I don't ever figure out the truth, however am I going to continue my damn journey? By the golden rule, I'm inclined to treat others as I would like to be treated: with honesty.

However, it's honesty with qualification. I don't want people who know nothing about asexuality, who know nothing about me, to act like they do. If people think I'm wrong, they better have good reasoning before they bring it up, not just a hunch. Otherwise, it doesn't actually serve to help me on my journey, it just makes other people feel good about themselves and makes me feel bad about myself. By the golden rule, I would not confront other people on a mere hunch. And a hunch is all I'd ever have.

So you might say I'd go with B in principle but C in practice.