Thursday, July 30, 2009

Another publication on asexuality

A few months ago, I had a post in which I informed readers of a letter to the editor I wrote ("Methodological Issues for Studying Asexuality") that was published in one of the sexuality journals.

A response has recently been published (online) in the same journal.

Brotto, L. A., Yule, M. A. Reply to Hinderliter Archives of Sexual Behavior.

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.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

You're not asexual: You're just not willing to accept your true sexuality.

Although the not-accept-true-sexuality response to asexuality doesn't seem to be as common as the (maybe)you're-gay response, it is a more generalized version of it. Instead of asserting someone is (or might be) claiming asexuality because of a refusal to acknowledge their homosexuality, this response suggests someone is claiming asexuality because of a refusal to acknowledge their sexuality, whether that is a socially stigmatized sexuality, the most vanilla heterosexuality imaginable, or anything in-between.

Before Clay Aiken came out as gay, there was speculation that he may be asexual, though he never himself claimed this. In an ABC News article, Could 'American Idol' Star Clay Aiken be Asexual?, they quoted a sex-educator who affirmed the legitimacy of asexuality but pointed out that Aiken's comments could not be taken to mean he was asexual. They also quoted a sex-therapist with less positive things to say.
Using asexuality as an excuse, according to Ian Kerner, sex therapist and author of "Sex Detox," is also common for people who have had negative sexual experiences earlier in life or are trying to hide their true sexuality.

"There are many people who are confused about their sexuality or their sexuality is in stark contrast to their social and cultural values," said Kerner. "So they think it's easier to be asexual than to acknowledge their unique sexuality and identity."

Of course, there are a number of points on which this can be criticized: the sex-therapist probably knows virtually about asexuality as the term is understood in the asexual community. However, rather than admitting his ignorance on the subject, he equivocates on the meaning of asexual to feign expertise and to speak with seeming authority on the matter. And then there's the fact that people leading non-sexual lives who decide to go see a sex-therapist about it are probably not representative of people leading non-sexual lives in general. And then there's the fact that the things he associates with non-sexuality are pretty standard ones that sex-therapists have been claiming for decades. However, I've never seen anyone do so with a citation. Even in books on sex-therapy. It seems that a lot of it comes from people being told to look for these things in sexual disinterested people (but not necessarily ask about in other cases), so when they find them in some such people, this belief is reinforced. This is called confirmation bias. Hypothetically, the remedy for this would be actual scientific data, but that data just doesn't exist.

Anyway...

In the asexual community, there seem to be three main classes of beliefs regarding the not-accept-true sexuality response.

(A) It's WRONG, WRONG, WRONG: Asexuals are asexual! They are NOT people who are afraid of their sexuality!
(B) It's wrong in a number of cases (certainly some people really don't experience sexual attraction), but the criticism is right in many cases; this is a real problem. The result is a mixed view towards asexual identity.
(C) It's wrong in a number of cases, and even when it's true, so what? What's wrong with someone temporarily using asexuality to hide from issues they aren't ready to deal with?

Corresponding to these beliefs, there are, potentially, three kinds of replies from within the asexual community to the not-accept-true-sexuality response. To make sense of this, it is important to note that there are really two parts to the not-accept-true-sexuality response:

(1) People calling themselves asexual are really just unwilling to admit their true sexuality.
(2) This is a bad thing.

The three reply-types are:

(A'). The claim in (1) is wrong: Asexuals are not people unwilling to accept their "true sexuality."
(B'). The claim in (1) is clarified and the one in (2) is accepted: Some people really are asexual (and should be accepted as such), but many people identifying as asexual really are just afraid to accept their sexuality; this is a real problem.
(C') The claim in (1) is clarified and the one in (2) is rejected: Some people identifying as asexual really are asexual, and even if some are "just" unwilling to accept their sexuality, so what? That might not be a bad thing.

Furthermore, responses of these three types can function at the individual level (focusing on one's own experience) or the general level (it's not a valid criticism of asexuality more generally.) I'll refer to these A'-personal, A'-general, B'-personal, etc. For example, the blogger Naturally Curvy, in her Introduction to Asexuality uses A'-personal: she emphasizes that she is sexually experienced (it's not for a lack of trying to be sexual or trying sexual activities), and she mentions multiple non-standard sexualities that she tried on (and couldn't get them to fit) before identifying as asexual. The blogger The Venus of Willendork, in the post Hide and Seek, uses C'-personal, and then uses this as a springboard for C'-general: she explains why she thinks it would be perfectly reasonable for someone in her position to identify as asexual (even though she doesn't identify as asexual anymore), and then discusses how using a temporary asexual identity may be helpful to provide a safe space for people trying to figure things out.

Now, it is worth noting that while the beliefs A, B, and C correspond to the responses A', B', and C' respectively, believing in one of the former does not have to mean that someone employs the corresponding response, and using one of these responses does not necessarily mean that someone holds the corresponding belief. For example, someone who believes B or C cannot (honestly) use A'-general, but they could very reasonably use A'-personal. Moreover, beliefs often do not result in expressing those beliefs. Sometimes we have no occasion to express some opinion, and sometimes we feel the need to keep an opinion to ourselves. I rarely see opinions B and C expressed, and when they are, it's usually privately, or, if publicly, on Apositive or a blog (i.e. not on AVEN.) People are either afraid of being attacked or afraid of being subversive. This is especially the case with B: people recognize the importance of asexual identity for some people and do not want to give fodder to those eager to delegitimate asexuality.

In my next post, I intend to defend option C: even if some people identifying as asexual, aren't "really" asexual, so what?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Have you considered that you might be…(hushed voice) gay?

As a teenager, there were many times when I wondered if I might be gay. I just wasn’t interested in girls the way the other guys were. Sure, I occasionally got crushes on a few females from among my peers, but not that many and not that often. And there was definitely something the other guys were feeling that I just wasn’t. There is a strong societal assumption that if I wasn’t interested in girls, it must be that I’m gay. But whenever I wondered whether I was gay, I reminded myself, “Um, self. If you were gay, that would mean that you’d be attracted to guys. And you're not.”

Oh right. Good point.

Since that time, there have been a couple guys that I had very brief intellectual crushes on--the first of these was when I was 19, and it resulted in a definite attempt to convince myself how totally-not-gay my feelings for him were. I succeeded in this: I noted that what I felt toward him was quite different than the crushes I’d had on girls in middle and high school.

More recently, there’s been a guy I had a long-standing intellectual crush on of very low intensity. During the time that this was on the back burner, I got a crush on a friend that ended up making things between her and me very awkward and uncomfortable. Fortunately, that crush went away, but about a month later, it started to come back. And I really, really didn't want it to. To put down that resurgence, I, though sheer conscious effort, managed to turn my low-scale intellectual crush into a full blown crush, successfully eliminating my other crush.

So I know that it’s not the case that I’m attracted to men and unwilling to admit it to myself. There is a guy I’m attracted to, I do admit it to myself, and I’m quite sure that I haven’t felt this towards another guy before.

A few ago, before finding AVEN, I had tried to explain my asexuality to a friend; I failed miserably. He was just convinced I was gay. When I tried to deny it, he became convinced I was gay and in denial about it. A couple years later, I told this experience to a therapist I was seeing to try to make sense of my (a)sexuality; he asked why it bothered me so much that that guy was convinced I was gay.

I had to think about it for a moment, and I’ve thought about it several times since. It wasn't that I was bothered by the possibility that someone might think I was gay. It wasn't that I was desperately trying to project an image of myself as a model of masculine heterosexuality. It was that I was trying to explain to this person something about myself, something I had wanted to tell someone about but whenever I tried, it always resulted in confusion and misunderstanding. Having failed for years to explain this facet of myself that had so long confused me, I had given up on trying to explain it, and in talking to that friend, when I had decided to try again, I was only met with denial and disbelief. I was frustrated at his seeming refusal to genuinely listen to what I was saying when what I was really wanting was someone to listen to me and someone to understand me.

It seems that many asexuals have experiences like these. They face the common belief that not being straight means that you're gay; they face disbelief that someone claiming to be asexual might actually be asexual. The (supposed) hetero/homosexual binary and anti-homosexual prejudice combine to reinforce heteronormativity: anyone who isn't straight enough is suspected of being gay and at risk of being ridiculed for it (whether it's true or not). The result often is feigned heterosexuality. Under this ideology, asserting asexuality can easily be seen as a way of hiding being gay, as though there might be some other reason for failing to conform to hegemonic heterosexuality and socially prescribed gender roles. Acceptance and understanding of sexual diversity doesn't tend to be a top priority for those enforcing heteronormativity.

But the (supposed) hetero/homsexual binary can also combine with acceptance of gay men and lesbians to counteract acceptance of asexuality. The (quite correct) belief that many people with same-sex attractions can be hesitant to acknowledge these may be used to explain away claims of asexuality. "It's okay just to say that you're a lesbian." etc.

For those asserting their own asexuality, if they hear the (maybe)you're-gay-response--whether in forms intended to demean ("You're gay!") or in forms intended to help ("Have you considered the possibility that you might be gay?")--this can be very frustrating. If someone is saying they’re asexual, it's probably only after they've seriously thought about the matter, it's probably because they're wanting acceptance or because they're wanting to challenge false assumptions people are making about them. Like other annoying responses--"You're just a late bloomer", "You're repressed", "You just haven't met the right person yet"--the main function of the (maybe)you're-gay-response is to find some explanation for a claim of asexuality without acknowledging the possibility that the person might actually be asexual.

This response is frustrating because I'm wanting someone to listen to me and it communicates to me that they aren’t listening, that they aren’t taking me seriously, that they aren’t seriously entertaining the possibility that I might know what I'm talking about when I'm explaining my own thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

This response is annoying because of course I've considered the possibility that I'm gay. I've considered it and considered it again. And time after time, I've read experiences of asexuals who seriously wondered if they're gay because if you’re not straight, that’s the only widely acknowledged alternative in their cultures. I've heard of a number of asexuals who came to the conclusion that they're gay or that they're bi--even ones who have come out as such--only to later realize that they were just fooling themselves and belatedly accept their asexuality.

Another problem with this response is that people who don't experience sexual attraction may experience romantic attraction, so it is perfectly possible to a gay asexual or a lesbian asexual; it's possible to be a bi-romantic asexual.(I found an interesting thread from a homoromantic asexual who, before learning about asexuality, felt he could neither affirm or deny assertions that he must be gay.) On the other hand, it’s naïve to think people who’ve never heard of asexuality would know this.

But there's another reason I find the (maybe)you're-gay-response troubling. Even if it's true, so what? Why should experiencing same-sex attraction invalidate asexual identity? There is no reason why identity labels have to be static. There is no reason that asexual identity should only be accepted if it will apply forever. The blogger The Venus of Willendork asks in a recent post (Hide and Seek) asks what's wrong with temporally identifying as asexual as a safe space to try to figure things out? Some people may not be willing to acknowledge their sexuality, so what’s wrong with identifying as asexual, hanging out in the asexual community, learning about sexuality without pressure to be sexual and where self-acceptance and self-understanding are so highly valued? And then, after they’ve figured things out, they can identify differently if that's what they feel makes sense for them.

About a year ago on AVEN, there was a thread called Self-discovery =) in which someone who had been actively involved on AVEN for a while and had identified as asexual, acknowledged that she wasn't asexual. She was a lesbian but, because of her background, she had been unwilling to recognize even the possibility of attraction to women. However, far from saying that her experience on AVEN and her time of identifying as asexual was a bad thing, she felt that it was hugely helpful for figuring herself out. For her, even though she ended up deciding she wasn't asexual, the time spent identifying as such helped in a process of self-discovery. What's so bad about that?