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.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Accusing others of sexual repression

I've long had a nagging suspicion about accusations of sexual repression. Now, it's not actually clear what people mean by sexual repression. Sometimes they mean that a person isn't willing to acknowledge their own sexual feelings. Sometimes they mean that a person is deep-down really interested in sex despite the plain reality that they aren't. Sometimes they mean that not having sex somehow in a super-secret way causes neuroses. Sometimes they mean that a culture is sexually restrictive with it's negative messages and oppressive rules about sex. Sometimes they mean that a person isn't able to express their sexuality because of such rules. Sometimes that mean that a person who isn't interested in sex must be disinterested because of such societal rules, ignoring the fact there might be other reasons for not being interested in sex (like lack of desire, for example.)

Despite this slight lack of clarity over what is meant, we find accusations of sexual repression. Republicans are sexually repressed! Conservatives are sexually repressed! The religious right is sexually repressed!

I've sometimes wondered if this doesn't stem from a certain fact of the sociological situation of modern sexual politics. The main political opposition to of sexology, the primary polemics against "comprehensive" sex-education, and the principal resistance to LGBT rights all come religious conservatives, some of whom are known for condemning opponents of spreading sin and supporting evil, and sometimes even telling opponents they are going to hell.

Amidst the name-calling and accusations, among the insults and condemnations, throughout the cultural wars, it's hard to one-up eternal perdition. And for those on the political left--and even those in the political middle--such proclamations are either unavailable or unacceptable.

This may just be cynicism on my part, but I can't help but wonder. If warnings of condemnation in the world to come are not an option, declarations of condemnation in the present world may be employed. Or if, perhaps, not condemnation, at least accusations of being boring old fuddy duddies whose ideology prevents from enjoying the most awesomest thing since like ever.

But this accusation seems wrong. I grew up Evangelical and it seemed quite clear at the time that Evangelical teens are just as horny as, well, any other teens. And generally, as much as Evangelicals lament changing trends in cultural values about sexuality, as much as the bewail the effects of the "sexual revolution" on sexual beliefs and practices, it is clear that they have been enormously impacted by those trends, and their response to the "sexual revolution" fundamentally impacts their message on the matter. The message that they teach about sexuality is not that sex is bad, not that sex is dirty, not that sex is evil. It is that sex is good, that sex is holy, that sex builds intimacy, but sex is dangerous if misused. And, according to them, any sex outside the context of heterosexual marriage is such a misuse. I think that they have to emphasize how great sex is because otherwise, no one would take them seriously.

Consequently, accusations of sexual repression strike me as generally nonsensical. Granted, don't believe in sexual repression, but still the point seems clear enough: lots of people with conservative values about sex enjoy sex just fine.

I also think that in politics, name-calling is of rather limited value. It makes people feel good about themselves and their own moral (or, evidently, pleasural) superiority without having to understand the perspectives of the people they're disagreeing with. It works well enough to embolden and enrage those you already agree with. But in advancing your cause, a task of fundamental importance to persuade the people in the middle--politicians wanting to win elections know this well enough. Name calling and insults don't help with swaying those who don't agree with your position but aren't dead set against it either. Ultimately, social progress regarding sex-education and LGBT rights isn't about who is "repressed" or who is is "liberated"; it's not about who is "erotophobic " and who is "erotophilic". It's about getting people to recognize the impacts of ideologies and the consequences of policies on the lives of real people.

For those interested, I've made a threads about "sexual repression" on AVEN (Do you believe in sexual repression? I don't) and Apositive (Sexual repression?.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Am I sexually repressed?

From time to time, people type a question into a search engine and find my blog. One question that I've seen a number of times is the title of this post.

Am I sexually repressed?
How do you know if you're sexually repressed?
Asexual or repressed?

I've written about repression before, but I wanted to have something more serious for people wondering if they're repressed, for people wondering if someone they know might be repressed, and I wanted to have something more serious because many asexuals hear the suggestion that they may in fact not be asexual. They might be sexually repressed.

Since first finding the asexual community, I have had a growing skepticism toward the concept of sexual repression. I knew that it originated with Freud (or was at least popularized by him) and that scientific psychology tends to hate Freud. A lot. Many of his ideas are untestable, unstudyable, and therefore unscientific--yet people think of them as being facts of science, sound psychological knowledge. I wondered if this might be true for the concept for sexual repression.

Another thing that bothered me is that in popular usage, there are are two rather distinct meanings of "sexual repression" that get merged together, in a fuzzy, muddled confused sort of way, and no one seems to notice. One meaning is simply to say that some people are in denial of their sexuality. They have sexual desires, they have sexual feelings, but they refuse to acknowledge them, pretend they aren't real. When their sexual values and sexual beliefs conflict with their own sexual reality, they try to convince themselves that the do not feel what they indeed do feel.

The second meaning is that everyone--or at least most people--have these powerful, innate sexual desires, and if they repress these, if they do not act on them, it will create neuroses, mental illness, mental problems in their lives. Connected to this is the belief that everyone has these powerful, innate, natural sexual desires, and if someone is not interested, it is because they are repressing them, it is because they are sexually repressed.

As I understand it, Freud meant it in the latter sense. As I have attempted to make sense of this concept, I was quite surprised to find that my thoughts have been informed largely by a sex-therapist with a psychoanalytic approach, a sex-therapist who hardly has kind words to say about the idea of "sexual repression." In Sexual Reality and How We Dismiss It, Bernard Apfelbaum explains the origins of Freud's idea of sexual repression. (By the way, this article is probably the most interesting piece on sex that I've ever read, and if you've got a bit of time, I would highly recommend it. At 11,000 words, it is a bit long, though.)

To illustrate how our ideas of sexual reality are shaped by our fantasies rather than reality, he quotes John Howard Van Amringe, dean of Columbia College in the 19th Century, who was defending the policy of having an all male school. "If you can teach mathematics to a boy when there's a girl in the room then there is something wrong with the boy." Apfelbaum reflects on this:
Now, as it happened, so many boys have learned mathematics with girls in the room, that we need to ask where Dean Amringe went wrong. The answer is that he confused fantasy with reality. He imagined what it would be like to be a boy in a coed college and this just seemed to him to be a highly erotic prospect. Nowadays, sobered by the reality of coed experience, our imagination is no longer so free to play upon it.


He likens to this Freud's ideas of sexual repression.
Freud is, of course, the modern authority for the image of sex as wild and primitive, at odds with decency, the beast with two backs rattling the bars of its makeshift cage. Perhaps no less than St. Paul he thought of us as daily wrestling with our animal nature. Although Freud's conception is well known, it is not so well known that it was based on an inferential leap.

Now here's a big surprise: the reality that Freud observed was entirely the reverse. Freud's belief in the strength of the sex drive was based on his observations of its weakness. The evidence that Freud adduces for his vision of universal sexual repression is his observation of a widespread lack of libido in both men and women that he called impotence, being careful to say that he was using the term in the broadest possible sense.

After quoting an observation by Freud noting the widespread sexual disinterest, lack of pleasure, and sexual boredom, Apfelbaum makes the following analysis:
This was the sexual reality that Freud observed only to reject it. It is as if he observed that all the boys were learning mathematics with girls in the room and, fully agreeing with Dean Amringe, concluded that there must be something wrong with all the boys. This could not be the natural state of man. Hence Freud's inference that this lack of sexual excitement must be the wound we bear in the service of civilized life.

His point is clear: belief in sexual repression is not based on the reality of sex, not based on the reality of people's sexual desires. It is founded upon a dismissal of reality.

So, if you're wondering if you're repressed, if you're wondering if someone you know is repressed, if you're wondering if asexuality might just be sexual repression after all, the answer is quite simple.

You're not sexually repressed, they're not sexually repressed, no one is sexually repressed because there is no such thing as sexual repression. I previously gave two definitions of sexual repression. One is a denial of one's own sexuality and the other is a denial of the plain reality that a lot of people aren't interested in sex.

Certainly some people are very interested in sex. Certainly some people are in denial of their own sexuality, just as a lot of people are in denial about a lot of things. But I don't think we should call this sexual repression because by using that term, we perpetuate belief in its other meaning, a profoundly anti-asexual meaning. Indeed, an anti-reality meaning. If you or someone you know isn't interested in sex, it's not because deep-down they're secretly really interested in sex and are repressing it. It's much more likely that they're not interested in sex because they're not interested in sex.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

You're not asexual. You're just a late bloomer.

There are people who first experience sexual attraction in their early 20's, and the fact of the matter is that some people identifying as asexual probably are "late bloomers"; some of the younger people identifying as asexual will experience sexual attraction later in their lives. And yet, something about this dismissal of asexual identity, something about this response to someone coming out, something about the way it is so dismissive deeply troubles me. I think the reason is that it may sometimes be true but is rarely helpful.

Because the late-bloomer response is such a common form of asexual dismissal, it has gained its place among the ranks of annoying responses to asexuality, it has earned its spot in the annals of asexohating. As a result, responses arise: people become confident that they are asexual; they are certain that they will never experience sexual attraction.

This is troubling: Not you, nor I, nor anyone knows what the future holds. Sexual and asexual alike should be open to the possibility that in the days and years to come, we may have new experiences, feel new emotions; people should be open to the fact that in the future, they may feel things hitherto unfelt by them.

AVEN's static content reflects this view: The overview of asexuality says the following about asexual identity:
Most people on AVEN have been asexual for our entire lives. Just as people will rarely and unexpectedly go from being straight to gay, asexual people will rarely and unexpectedly become sexual or vice versa. Another small minority will think of themselves as asexual for a brief period of time while exploring and questioning their own sexuality.

There is no litmus test to determine if someone is asexual. Asexuality is like any other identity- at its core, it’s just a word that people use to help figure themselves out. If at any point someone finds the word asexual useful to describe themselves, we encourage them to use it for as long as it makes sense to do so.
Likewise, on the general FAQ, we find the following question and answer:
Q: What if it's a phase?

A:What if it is? That doesn't stop you being asexual right now.

It may be tempting to hold back on accepting your asexuality in the hope that eventually you'll 'bloom' into a sexual person. I'm not saying that might not eventually happen, but consider this: do you want to spend your life thinking of yourself as an undeveloped person, living for the dreamed of day when you'll become whole? Might you feel more comfortable accepting who you are now as a whole complete valid person? Maybe one day you will “bloom”, and if and when you do, you won't have lost anything by being comfortable in the mean time.

There's no shame in identifying as one thing and then later identifying as another. Your identity isn't meant to limit you. If you've moved on or changed, then by all means describe yourself differently. If you fear you might be different in the future, that doesn't change which label is most useful to you in the present. There's nothing wrong with change.

Yet, A-pologetics seem inevitable, and views of the "I know that I will always be asexual!" variety are almost certain to arise. The late-bloomer response is predicated on a belief that asexuality doesn't exist and is a way of avoiding having to accept it. For the person hearing this response, they have no idea what they will or will not experience in the future. Not only that, but it is the experiences of asexuals that they read about and feel they can relate to, and in hearing the late-bloomer dismissal, they hear dismissed those they feel a sense of connection to, those they share an identity with.

People are told "You're just a late bloomer." People are told "Wait. Sexuality will emerge" Yet these hearers ask themselves how long must they wait to "know" they're not a late bloomer. Till they're sixteen? Till they're twenty six? Till they're sixty two? Must life be spent in perpetual waiting to eventually "bloom" into being sexual?

In answering the question for myself, "How do I know I'm not just a late-bloomer?", the answer is quite simple. I am a late-bloomer. I first experienced sexual attraction at the age of 22--and then I was attracted to the only person I've ever been sexually attracted to in my life. Beginning a couple years later, I began to develop some vaguely sexual feelings of incredibly low intensity.

I am a late-bloomer, and when I finally blossomed, I "bloomed" myself right into being a "Grey-A". Oh the excitement. Oh the thrill.

So I am a "late-bloomer" and I still consider myself asexual. Also, I have a definite suspicion that people who first experience sexual attraction much later in life than most are probably going to be at the low end on the sexual-desire spectrum.

When AVEN was preparing for a major make-over of its front page in early 2009, there was consideration of updating the FAQ's, and I did some editing and writing for that, though the plan ended up getting put on the back burner. In addition to edits on the main FAQ, I wrote some potential new questions for parents. I did some intensive research (walking over to the living room and asking Mom for some question parents might ask [I happended to be at her house at the time]). She posed the following question, to which I wrote a response.
What can I do to support my child?

Probably the best thing you can do is to be accepting and willing to listen. If your child has told you that they are asexual or that they think they might be asexual, it is because they love you and what you think is important to them. Many asexuals are afraid of coming out to parents because they are afraid they will be dismissive and say something like the following:

“You’re not asexual. You just haven’t met the right person yet.”
“You’re just a late bloomer.”
“Someday when you meet the right person, you’ll be interested in sex, just like everyone else.”

If your child if fairly young, it is entirely possible that one of these is true. If you think this is the case, you may choose to advise your child to be open to the possibility, but it probably isn’t a good idea to assume that this must be the case. Especially if your child is well past puberty, they may find dismissive comments very frustrating. If you’re child has decided to tell you they are asexual, they have probably thought about it a while and are looking for acceptance and support.

Also, it is probably a good idea not to put a lot of pressure on your child to date, to get married or to have children.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Whence comest thou, O asexohater?

Sometimes in the asexual community, we find people generally baffled by the negativity faced by asexuals, the incredibly dismissive responses we hear when we come out, and the utterly condescending comments often posted in response to media articles supportive of asexuality. I'm not interested in sex. Why does that bother people? If someone thinks homosexuality is wrong, that at least sort of makes sense, it's sometimes said, but not having sex? Who thinks there's anything wrong with not having sex?!?

Yet anti-asexual views exist, and so dismissing them as an inexplicable anomaly, an unfathomable lapse in rationality only possible by the most deductively depraved must be seen as a superficial response. Anti-asexuality exists and is widespread. Simply dismissing it is merely an attempt to justify our own intelligence, our own superiority, to reinforce our own sense of smugness without trying to understand why such views exist. If they are so widespread, there must be a reason. It has to make sense to someone, even if it makes no sense to me.

Yet it does make sense to me, in a sense. The first time I wrote on this topic was in an article titled Asexuality Among Sexualities in the April 2008 issue of AVENues. In that issues, the main article was a reprinting (reposting?) of an article from Apositive titled Why I'm a Sex-Positive Asexual, and two responses to it. In my response, I outlined three main reasons for opposition to asexuality: familial duty, social conformity, and sexualnormativity.

Tongue in cheek, I explained sexualnormativity and its opposition to asexuality:
Now that we’ve gone through the sexual revolution, we’ve thrown off the chains of sexual repression and the outdated puritanical norms of Victorianism. Now we know how great sex is and we like it. We like it a lot. What’s that? You’re not interested in sex? You’re not sexually attracted to anyone? You must be sexually repressed. Why don’t you just admit that you’re gay? Were you sexually abused as a child? How can you not like sex?! That’s not normal!!!
I have long suspected that a lot of the opposition to asexuality comes from, well, sex-positivism. I have long suspected that a large part of the opposition to asexuality comes from people who think they have positive views of sexuality, who think that they've thrown off the repressive "sex-negativity" of our cultural past, who think that this means emphasizing how sexuality is essential to being human.

There was a recent advice column about asexuality on feministing.com, rather supportive of it. In it, a woman explained her lack of attraction to guys or girls and that she even finds the idea of having sex "repulsive." There were a lot of negative comments to the author's positivity. I also noticed a blog called Clarissa's Blog with a response to it. (To keep up with finding out about the new asexy blogs that pop up from time to time, I subscribe to google alerts for asexuality.) The author is responding very negatively to the feministing article's author who (horror of horrors!) encouraged the person to be accepting of herself.

The blogger writes
This attitude [accepting asexuality] does not come exclusively out of the desire to show the world how tolerant and accepting one is. It is also the result of a deeply Puritanical view of sex, which refuses to see human sexuality on terms of a physiological process. If anybody found the idea of eating or sleeping (also physiological processes) "absolutely repulsive", we wouldn't be as likely to dismiss this problem with a lot of well-meaning but ultimately empty words. Nobody would (at least for now, I think) suggest to form an identity group around this problem.
This seems to support my earlier theory. She uses her claimed rejection of a "Puritanical view of sex" supposedly held in the past to maintain her view that everyone should be interested in sex. She then insists on how sexuality is a physiological process to create an analogy to eating and drinking. Since repulsion to those physiological processes would be unthinkable, so should repulsion to sex. (I believe the reason that the latter would be unthinkable isn't because they are physiological processes, but because they would result in death, but that's beside the point. It seems common enough to emphasis that sex involves physiology, it involves biology, and therefore it natural.)

Rejecting "sex negativity" and "Puritanism" and insisting that sex is a physiological process: what these two arguments have in common is that they stem from an desire to see sex as normal. This confirms what I wrote in my AVENues article:
Attempts to make sex normal possess
the danger of making it normative.
Now, it could be easy to dismiss this blog as just some random person saying something negative about asexuality. Why get bent out of shape over it? Yet these same sorts of arguments are widespread in more respectable quarters.

In For them, Just saying no is easy in the NYTimes (2004), we find a comment much like the eating and drinking one from a prominent sexologist, Leonard R. Derogatis.
It's a bit like people saying they never have an appetite for food....Sex is a natural drive, as natural as the drive for sustenance and water to survive. It's a little difficult to judge these folks as normal.
Paralelling the argument from rejecting "sex-negativity", in sexology, there is a widely measure that has been widely used in sexology is "erotophobia-erotophilia." This was a measure developed in the '70s when, among sex-therapists, there was widespread belief that the only reason someone wouldn't be interested in sex was "sex-negativity", negative learning that sex is bad, that sex is dirty, that sex is shameful. If only these could be eradicated, if only people would be re-educated, then there would be sexual-freedom, sexual-liberation, and lots and lots of hot, passionate sex. If only negative learning were undone, everyone's natural, powerful sexuality would emerge.

Underlying this survey (called The Sexual Opinion Survey) is the assumption that the only reason someone wouldn't be interested in watching hardcore pornography, the only reason someone wouldn't want to have group-sex, the only reason someone wouldn't want swim in the nude with a member of the opposite sex was negative learning about sexuality. Underlying this survey is the assumption that the only reason someone wouldn't find masturbation very exciting, the only reason someone wouldn't be interested in watching strippers, the only reason someone wouldn't want to have sex with multiple partners was erotophobia. Yet this pseudoscientific survey, this measure that assumes--in stark defiance of reality--that what activities one personally finds sexually arousing, what sexual activities one approves of in others , and what sexual activities one would be comfortable doing oneself are all somehow measures of "the same thing", this nonsense posing as science continues to be taught in human sexuality classes, teaching everyone of lower sexual interest that they are broken, sex-negative, and repressed, and, in somewhat updated form, continues to be used in sex-research.

So here we find in bloggers, here we find in online commentors, and here we find in some professional sexologists similar anti-asexual values, largely stemming from attempts to make sex normal, and in the process making it normative. This process of turning normal into normative is so common that in psychology many people actually don't understand the difference between these two words. Unscientific nonsense like "normative sexuality" are used in academic journals, and the self-contradictory term "normative data" is actually a standard term in clinical psychology. (Normative means ought, data means is, and there is a vast epistemological divide between the two. Ignoring this, normative is used to mean typical, with no regard for how typical, and then all of the value-laden glory of what normative actually means in the English language is imported wholesale.)

What people find threatening about asexuality is that it threatens fundamental beliefs about the world. In an attempt to normalize sex, it has been normativized. And asexuals, simply by existing, simply by saying "I'm not interested in sex and I'm fine with that," simply by striving to make our voices heard, challenge deeply held cultural assumptions. And rather than having their views challenged, many come up with alternate explanations to insulate their own views from reality.