Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The only criticism of asexuality that actually bothers me

In the past several posts, I've been looking at various criticisms of asexuality. My responses to them don't really fit with standard line identity politics, but none of those criticisms really bother me. In the case of sexual repression, I think it's a term we need to abandon. In the other cases, my responses have been that often the criticism isn't true, and even when it might be, it's probably not helpful. But there is one criticism of asexuality that has long troubled me though I have rarely seen it expressed--once in a thread I started on Apositive and a handful of other places.

Roughly speaking, criticisms of asexuality come in two varieties: "criticisms from above" and "criticism from below." The criticisms from above have three main varieties.

1) "You really are super interested in sex, but you just don't know it/won't admit it." (e.g. You're not asexual, you're gay/a lesbian but won't admit it. You just aren't willing to accept your "true sexuality." You're just immature and afraid of sex. etc.)

2) "You aren't interested in sex now, but you will be, just you wait." (You're a late bloomer. You just haven't met the right person yet. etc.)

3) "You should be super interested in sex, but there must be something wrong with you prevening it." (You're sexually repressed. You must have been abused as a child. Or some other item from a long list of supposed-causes of low sexual desire may be given, even though the vast majority of these have no empirical support or scientific evidence.)

The only potential criticism of asexuality that actually bothers me is the "criticism from below" although I rarely see it expressed. I suppose that's because people actually have to understand asexuality and be generally accepting of it to be aware of this problem.

Roughly, here's the idea: let's suppose that people's (lifetime) interest in sex ranges from 1-99 with the median being 50. I realize this is a gross oversimplification, but I think it works to illustrate my point. Let's arbitraily say that "real asexuals" are people around 1-2 and "gray-A's" being maybe 3-5.

Most of us have absolutely no idea what other people are actually like sexually. We have no idea what 50 is like and no idea what 10-20 is like. Rather, we are bombarded with images and messages about sexuality in movies, on TV, in magazines, and on the radio that give us wildely over-inflated ideas of what "sexually normal" is. People get ideas about "normal sexuality" from their peers. But not just from any peers--they get these ideas from their peers who talk the most about sex. And it's probably the people most interested in sex who talk the most about sex. Not only that, but sexuality--especially heterosexuality--is a major part of preformance of gender roles. Consequently, to fit in, a lot of people probably exagerate their own sexual interest to where they feel it should be, or to where they can brag.

The result is wildly unrealistic ideas about just how interested in sex most people are. Problems are compounded by so-called "comprehensive sex education." In my experirience, these materials are written by and for people with higher interest in sex with minimal concern for being sensitive to those who aren't all that interested in sex, with minimal sensitivity to the feelings of wierdness caused by people not being as interested in sex as they feel they should be, with no attempt to explain the lower range of sexual interest in order to normalize it. I'm sure this impression is not fully representative, but it is the experience I've had with "comprehensive sex education" so I imagine it at least isn't that uncommon. This is the experience I've had both with a well-respected textbook I read parts of when confused about my sexuality (and found out the expert opinion is that I don't exist) and from a university Human Sexuality course I took. (I realize I'm stepping on toes here, and I'll just say that I used to support comprehensive sex education until I actually saw it in practice. I still believe that it is very important to have quality sex-education. Part of the problem seems to be that comprehensive sex education is so embattled just to exist that it doesn't have the necessary internal criticism necessary for an educational enterprise to thrive.)

Here's an example: I was long confused about not understanding what it's like to think someone is "hot." I didn't even have much of a sense for "pretty" until I was in my 20's, so I was really confused about conversations about the matter, and I was even more confused about how there was no recognition that people like me even exist. I read through a section of a textbook (Our Sexuality) about the role of different senses in sexual arousal, and they said it is important, and failed to mention that visual stimuli are not an important part of sexual excitement for everyone. I tried a number of searches on google, and all confirmed my fear: I don't exist. Since identifying as asexual, I've found that a number of other people (who aren't asexual) don't get hotness either, and they often expericne a good bit of confusion over the matter. Had I known about this when I was younger, I might not have felt nearly as much of the sense of wierdness that led me to identify as asexual.

When people try to decide if they're asexual or not, they rely on a negatively defined concept. Asexuals are people who don't experience sexual attraction. What "sexual attraction" is believed to be, is going to be based on what they think "sexual people" are feeling. But "sexual people" is often going to be based on these unrealistic images of "sexually normal" that treats "sexual people" as 50-80, rather than including the lots of people in the bottom quarter or bottom third.

When people become confused about their sexual feelings, about why they aren't feeling certain things, why they aren't as obcessed about sex as their peers, and they identify as asexual, they feel a sense of acceptance, a sense of belonging, a sense that there are others like themselves. My fear is that there is often a temptation to use this identity normatively--having decided they are asexual, someone feels a need to "be asexual." Recognizing feelings that suggest that perhaps they aren't may be frightening because that sense of belonging may be lost, and if there isn't something to replace it with, if there isn't some other source of validation of their relatively low interest in sex, it can lead to futher feelings of isolation or fears of future feelings alienation.

The "criticism from below" is that perhaps many people in the 5-15 range who aren't "really asexual", who experience a little sexual attraction--at least in some contexts--who would like sex, some of these people may identify as asexual, may use that identity prescrptively and decie that they'll never want to have sex and that they won't like sex. I wonder if this may in some sense limit what they permit themselves to experience and what they permit themselves to feel.

As long as asexuality is used as an identity for people to figure themselves out and communicate themselves to others, and as long as people are willing to reconsider that identity should they find reason to, I don't think this "criticism from below" applies. But still, I think the temptation is there to use the identity prescriptively.


Amber Berglund said...

I came across your blog after scrolling through the various meet-up groups in my area. The existence of this "Asexual Support Group" surprised me. What surprised me more was the fact that several people were members. I read your post about criticisms that bother you...and I thought about my Mom. My Mother lost her eye to cancer. When asked about what she can experience through the empty socket, she explains it this way.
"They removed the optic nerve. I don't experience darkness. It is the same as if I asked you if you could see through your elbow," she says.
I am heterosexual. When I see a "hot" man, I have a physical reaction to him. It isn't something I can control. It may be the way he smells, or the look in his eyes...but it is an automatic reaction to his presence.

When a person is "Hot" it means that they cause feelings of sexual arousal.

Some people aren't born with taste buds. Some people can't smell testosterone -- while others can. Of the people who are able, it's sweet to some, and noxious to others.

If a person isn't born with the nerves or the chemicals and connections in their brain to react to sexy's the same as asking them if they can see through their elbow.

SlightlyMetaphysical said...

That was a good but quite depressing post, and I wonder if you'd agree with the positives I could see in the situation.

If overexaggeration of sexual norms really does shut people who aren't asexual into an 'asexual' box, there are, as far as I can see, only two forms of solution to this problem:
1. The world could somehow realise that people on the lower end of sexuality exist, and as part of a scale, not just the occasional crazy random outliers on the internet somewhere (which I think a lot of people see asexuality as). This would involve a very slight change to comprehensive sex education and more lower-libedoed role models in the media.
2. The asexual community could make absolutely sure that asexuality is not perscriptive. This involves making sure that the impersonally sex-positive voices of asexuality are heard in the community, and more questioning, as you've been doing recently, of the idea that asexuals should completely close off the idea of sexual exploration, or that they may have some sexual side, however small, which could be explored.

This is good, because the two solutions to asexuality's problem can come straight from the asexual community, in providing topical discussion and publicity about the lower end of the scale, and in making sure the community is still open. In fact, the solutions are part of the general targets of asexuality anyway. If we succeed, the hyper/asexual binary should weaken naturally.

jonman said...

The media will never lower the libido in roles because the media plays to the majority. Remember, the media (in general) is not there for your education or your edification, it's there for your exploitation.

Victoria said...

Regarding casting leads in movies and media portrayals of attractive people in general: the presentation of the highly sexed, whether male or female, is a bit ugly to me. It's an exaggeration that seems vulgar, even though it's held up as the ideal. Sometimes if I'm in a quiet and close moment with a less freakish (to my way of viewing) person I can feel sexually attracted--I don't know if this puts me into any sort of asexual category, is there a sliding scale with rare and slight arousal? Nothing is going to happen in these rare instances: the man will be gay (I am female), for example, or the person is someone who is indeed asexual. In manners of style presentation I find androgyny attractive, but in a nonsexual way.

Anonymous said...

just found out about asexuality today. ;] i would put myself at about a 10. definitely look at some people and say "hey, they're cute..." but not interested in sex, boyfriends, getting married in the future, etc. i'm a senior in hs, and never even had a first kiss. but i'm not gonna say "sex sucks, i'm not gonna enjoy it, it's gonna be terrible, i'm never gonna do it" because how would i know? i never did it before. i just don't have the desire to go out there and do it. and there have been some people that i felt like, if i wanted to, i would want to do it with them, but i don't, because i just don't care. :P

Kat said...

I've been researching asexuality today, after realizing I'm the only one of my friends (we're seniors in high school) who has never been kissed, is still a virgin, and has no desire to have sex or even a boyfriend any time soon. I have never seen a guy (or girl, for that matter) that I deemed as "hot", let alone one I felt sexual attraction toward. I started playing along after a while and just picked guys to call "hot" to seem normal -- to my friends, and to myself.

I came to the realization today that I might be asexual, and so started googling information. I did feel a sense of belonging at the prospect of being asexual. After reading this article, though, I think maybe I'm just too eager to label myself.

So now, I feel enlightened...but even more confused. D:

pretzelboy said...

I think that the feeling of being more enlightened but more confused is pretty common when learning about things in a wide range of topics--I guess the more we know, the more we realize just how much we don't know. With respect to asexuality, my experience and my impression from others is that it takes time to figure things out--to read more stuff, maybe ask some questions, but also as we think about some of our experiences in new light.