Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Asexuals are hiding; also, they don't exist

Dan Savage is a sex advice columnist known for his snarky responses.  He also created the "It Gets Better" Project, if you've heard of it.  In the past he's had a few encounters with asexuality, which might be summarized as "problematic".  But this is not a retrospective, nor is it even about how Dan Savage is wrong.  This is about how Dan Savage is right, and how he and others undermine their own interests.

Recently, Dan got a letter from someone who called themselves Not Sexual, Not Asexual.  In other words, NSNA is a gray-A like me, though he used the phrase "minimally-sexual".  Savage's response:
Why not go find another minimally sexual person? You’ll be doing your minimally sexual self a favor, you’ll be doing your future minimally sexual partner a favor, and you’ll be doing all normally sexual persons everywhere a favor by removing two minimals—you and your future partner—from the dating pool.
The central theme in Savage's responses to asexuality is that people with different levels of sexual interest should avoid dating each other if possible.  Sexuals should date sexuals, asexuals should date asexuals, and minimally-sexuals should date minimally-sexuals.  I think Dan thinks compromise is really difficult because he's always getting letters from people who are having trouble compromising.  I think compromising is much easier than he makes it out, perhaps because I myself feel happy with a wide range.  But that is another discussion.

As Dan has said himself in the past, this requires that people be upfront about their asexual orientation.  Well let me tell you, that is sort of what asexuality is about.  I don't even know what purpose an asexual identity serves if you don't even think your partners need to know about it.

Maybe some demisexual or gray-A people wouldn't say, but only if they feel that their orientation only affects their experiences outside of a relationship.  Do I have any asexual readers who want partners but would not tell their partners?  Why?

And yet, Dan gets all these letters from people who feel dissatisfied with the level of sexual activity in their relationship.  Is it because asexuals and minimally-asexual people are somehow hiding themselves and infiltrating the "normally sexual" dating pool?  Obviously, the majority of cases have nothing to do with asexuality.  But let's imagine a few common scenarios involving asexuality.
  • A sexual and asexual person date, but the asexual person is not aware of their own orientation.  This leads to problems with sex in their relationship.  This problem could be avoided if asexuality were common knowledge.
  • A sexual and minimally-sexual person date, but unexpectedly run into problems with sexual compatibility.  This problem could be avoided if the asexual spectrum were common knowledge, and the couple knew to be aware of differences from the start, and what problems this can create for both parties.
  • A sexual and asexual date, but the asexual is hesitant to come out.  This problem could be avoided if asexuality were not seen as shameful or invalid.
  • A minimally-sexual person is open about their orientation, but runs into sex-related problems in their relationships anyway.  This problem could be avoided if society accepted asexuality to the degree that it created effective dating spaces and other social structures for people on the asexual spectrum to find optimal partners.
My point is that all these problems are mitigated if asexual activism succeeds.  And it does not help to tell asexuals that they are not really asexual.

And yet, that's pretty much what Dan Savage suggests in the next line:
Unless you’re more interested in sex than you let on, NSNA, and you find the idea of a normally sexual partner appealing because a normal might be able to help you build your confidence and learn to enjoy sex.
NSNA said that he lacked confidence, but Dan kinda took that and ran with it.  But that's not nearly as bad what Dan's readers are saying:
I just didn't think the guy sounded like an asexual. When you cite lack of confidence or stamina as your reasons... that's a mental/physical health issue. [Cue the defense that they are not attacking asexuals as a group, just one person who did little more than claim to be minimally-sexual.]

You seem to think that "asexuals" are some kind of oppressed minority. Bullshit. Victorian prudes are plenty empowered in our society. [Asexuals = victorian prudes?]

I am not denying that there are real, honest and honorable asexuals out there who really think that sex is boring as all hell and don't want anything to do with it--those people deserve respect and dignity--but I'm sure that there may also be some young, inexperienced people out there who are reaching a little too eagerly for a label to put on themselves so they can shoehorn into a community.  [This person does not appreciate the sheer amount of self-doubt that is involved in identifying as asexual.]

A lack of confidence or stamina aren't necessarily reasons to give up on sex. I'd advise him to get in touch with his body through exercise, and to get evaluated for depression. Not to pathologize people who are actually asexual or minimally sexual, but I'm not sure NSNA truly belongs to that group. [Yay for armchair psychology! Anything other than taking self-identity seriously!]
Of course it is true, at least some self-identified asexuals are "wrong" about themselves.  But this fact is trivial, and doesn't need reinforcement.  Instead it is over-reinforced, brought up whenever an asexual says the least bit about themselves.  If they mention a lack of confidence, that's what it really is.  If they mention being young, that's what it really is.  If they mention being old, that's what it really is.  If they mention having past trauma.  That they're asocial.  That they're female.  That they're religious, or used to be religious.  That they're depressed.  That they have a disability.  And if none of the above are mentioned, there must be something, and you just need to quiz them to find it.

It's okay if people wrongly believe they are maladjusted sexuals, but God forbid that they wrongly believe that they are asexual!

I'm getting mixed messages here.  You should say that you're asexual upfront so we can avoid you.  Also, don't kid yourself, you're not really asexual.

11 comments:

Larry, a.k.a. The Barefoot Bum said...

Yay for armchair psychology!

To be fair, NSNA is explicitly asking for armchair psychology. That's exactly and explicitly what an advice columnist such as Savage actually is. If professional psychologists were much more effective than advice columnists, I might be less forgiving of the armchair variety.

Savage phrases his advice stupidly, insensitively and contemptuously, and he's openly hostile, but I do think sexual compatibility really is important. A substantial difference in sexual desire is a very tough obstacle to overcome, and I don't think it's socially constructed.

Larry, a.k.a. The Barefoot Bum said...

This problem could be avoided if society accepted asexuality to the degree that it created effective dating spaces and other social structures for people on the asexual spectrum to find optimal partners.

I really do not like how you've phrased this. You're a highly intelligent person, and I suspect you mean something relatively benign, but I still find the language grating.

Society is not other people. It's all of us and each of us. You, me, him, her, and that guy over there in the corner: We are "society", jointly and severally. You have to create the spaces you want, and you have to defend them.

There's a lot of subtlety of meaning capable. Like I said, you probably mean something sensible and benign, but I would hope you would phrase it more precisely and carefully.

Larry, a.k.a. The Barefoot Bum said...

There's a lot of subtlety of meaning capable.

Er... sorry... I mean, "There's a lot of subtlety of meaning capable of being applied to this statement."

miller said...

Society is not other people. It's all of us and each of us.

I take it that you mean that we should take an active role in changing society rather than waiting for it to change on its own accord? Well of course.

But a lot of that active role consists of persuading other people. Persuading asexuals that they are not alone, that they have a right to and can benefit from their own spaces. Persuading others not to discourage asexuals from joining that space. So on and so forth.

As for sexual compatibility, I agree that it is important. Sexual/asexual relationships are a bit of a pipe dream, with just enough positive real-life examples to fool people. I don't think sexual/gray-A relationships are nearly as unrealistic. I didn't have problems with sexual compatibility, at least not of the sort you'd expect. :\ But as I implied in the post, I recognize that I am generalizing my own experiences, just as Dan generalizes the experiences of people who send him letters.

Larry, a.k.a. The Barefoot Bum said...

But a lot of that active role consists of persuading other people. Persuading asexuals that they are not alone, that they have a right to and can benefit from their own spaces. Persuading others not to discourage asexuals from joining that space. So on and so forth.

I like this phrasing a lot better. I think there's a danger of externalizing "society", even metaphorically/rhetorically.

mighty mouse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maddox said...

"It's okay if people wrongly believe they are maladjusted sexuals, but God forbid that they wrongly believe that they are asexual!"

I think this phrase brilliantly summarizes the issue. It's that accepting your have a "problem" is much more "normal" than having an asexual identity. As pointed out, people will push and prod desperately until they find the "cause" of that "problem" rather than just take our identity at face value. I fear that won't change until there is widespread visibility and awareness (of which I don't see a remote chance of this happening).

I'm much more concerned though about the person who wrote in, NSNA. He was clearly setting himself (and the asexual community) up for this. I mean, what kind of reply did he expect - a nice one? It's these kinds of people we need to educate to accept themselves as they are - asexual or minimally sexual or however they are - you're fine and you can live a full life!

Anonymous said...

I don't believe in the need to create a label for a lack of desire to have sex. The existence of a wide spectrum of sex drives is common knowledge and is far from deviating from the norm. I believe there were good intentions behind the creation of the identity of asexual in such a hypersexual society as the one we live in. It gives support and a sense of belonging among those who aren't so sexual and feel a sense of alienation from 'mainstream' society. But I also see the term asexual as a tool for people to use to give them a sense of individuality, a tool to seek attention, and a tool to deviate from the norm without a real need to.

When you label yourself 'asexual' you are saying you aren't like the rest of us. This can bring harm to individuals identifying as asexual, and bring harm from the mainstream which feels the need to engulf and assimilate anything claiming deviance. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to have sex, not seeing physical sex as an expression of love, expressing love in ones own manner, and/or only seeking out emotionally intimate relationships or no relationship at all. I feel that these feelings aren't as uncommon as asexually labelled folks would like to believe. I don't feel that our society disagrees with expressing love in these various ways. I think it is the label of asexuality our society feels threatened by.

'Asexual' folk aren't special, you're just as shitty as the rest of us. Deal with it and stop acting like the sun shines from your a-hole because you don't feel the 'primitive drive' to procreate like the rest of us sexual people do. Get over yourselves.

miller said...

Anonymous,
Please use a handle in the future so we can distinguish you from other anonymous commenters.

"When you label yourself 'asexual' you are saying you aren't like the rest of us. "
Are you sure that is what I am saying? I think asexuals are rather ordinary. I think a lot of asexual experiences are also shared by non-asexuals. I don't think there is any clear dividing line.

"I feel that these feelings aren't as uncommon as asexually labelled folks would like to believe."
You seem to think asexuality merely comes from an overestimate of people's hypersexuality. Anecdotally, I've checked my intuitions against scientific data, and find that I always underestimate people's hypersexuality.

"I don't feel that our society disagrees with expressing love in these various ways. I think it is the label of asexuality our society feels threatened by."
What is this based on? Do you regularly go around sampling reactions to asexuality? Because I do, just by being out. I think you are simply trying to express your own reaction. I am sorry that you feel threatened by labels. What did labels do to you, and could you ever forgive them?

"'Asexual' folk aren't special, you're just as shitty as the rest of us. Deal with it and stop acting like the sun shines from your a-hole because you don't feel the 'primitive drive' to procreate like the rest of us sexual people do. Get over yourselves."
...Can I quote you on that in future presentations?

Anonymous said...

A committed, healthy and happy relationship is not possible between a sexual person and an 'asexual' person. Compromise is all well and good, but in this instance it would create a very unhealthy dynamic. The 'asexual' person will feel forced to participate in sex when they find no enjoyment in it, and the sexual person will certainly not enjoy begging for sex from someone who won't even put any effort forth to make it enjoyable. It would be cruel and selfish for an 'asexual' to date sexual people.

miller said...

Anonymous, you should totally take it up with the other anonymous person! One of you thinks it's ridiculous to make a deal out of it, and the other thinks it's always a deal breaker. It's a battle between the non-asexuals over what you should tell the asexuals to do!