Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Spotlight On the "Forbidden" Topic

I've written 420 posts, and there's one topic I've never covered, although it doesn't seem to be an unpopular one-- masturbation. I haven't covered it because to me, "do you masturbate?" is the most annoying question that sexual people ask asexuals. I gotta say, before coming out as asexual, it wasn't a topic I thought much about. Nor did it ever cross my mind that some people would find the subject of whether or not another person masturbated a compelling one. But after coming out, I was asked the question again and again, and it came from everyone from near-strangers to family members. People who I never would have thought might broach the topic were suddenly broaching it, apparently because I was asexual. Well, if I hadn't thought about masturbation then, I certainly have now-- I've had little choice. So I'll try to have a frank discussion here without getting too awkward...always a danger on these grounds, but we'll see how I do. However, I'm going to use phrases like "genital stimulation", so be forewarned.

Back to the oft-hated question at hand: "Do you masturbate?" I can't know what everyone asking this question is thinking (and I don't want to), but it seems like people asking the question are, frequently, assuming one or all of these things:
  1. That masturbation is inherently sexual, and, relatedly:
  2. That if they can get an asexual to say that they masturbate, then the questioner has found a logical flaw in asexuality, and everyone just loves to find a logical flaw, don't they?
  3. That they're really clever to have found such a well-hidden loophole!
Well, to target assumption #1, I would argue that masturbation is not inherently sexual, although this is already getting too complex for what a questioner would hope was a simple yes or no. True, there are quite a few reasons why it seems inherently sexual, among them:
  • People say it is. However, I think we all learned in childhood that "because I said so" doesn't really prove anything, no matter how many people say it.
  • It involves your nether-regions. However, there are plenty of reasons to dig around down there, like peeing, that aren't sexual.
  • Some people think of sexual fantasies when they masturbate. However, I remember reading some informational book about "growing up" when I was younger, and it mentioned that some people would masturbate and think of beautiful landscapes. And I don't know what most asexuals would think about, if anything, but it probably isn't a sexual fantasy.
  • You might have an orgasm. But I don't think orgasms are inherently sexual, either. I know, someone's head just exploded on that one. But why are they more sexual than a sneeze? Just because they're caused by gential stimulation? But like we said, not everything that goes on in and around your genitalia is sexual.
As many asexuals have bemoaned, some people think cuddling is sexual, others don't. When a parent kisses a child, that kiss is (we hope) not sexual, but if people are playing tonsil hockey, it might be. I've never been asked, "Do you kiss people?", probably because a lot of people know that kissing isn't inherently sexual. But I don't think masturbation is any different from kissing in that regard. It can be sexual, and it can also be nonsexual. I'm sure some people would disagree with this, but to me, the idea makes perfect sense.

Now, on to assumption #2. It wouldn't be true to say that only sexuals ask us "Do you masturbate?", because there is also an asexual-on-asexual variation. On AVEN, there is often someone asking if asexuals who masturbate are "real" asexuals. Ignoring the unnecessary elitism of that question, I think there is a better answer than "Yes", and that is, "Why does it matter?" If someone wants to consider asexuals who masturbate to be something else, perhaps autosexual, that's only a distinction being made in that person's own mind. Because to the outside world, not being interested in sex and not being attracted to anyone are the things that set you apart. In terms of how you move in society, whether or not you masturbate is irrelevant.

It's interesting too, on AVEN, how people describe their experiences with masturbation. A lot of people seem to describe it as "scratching an itch" or a grimly-undertaken chore to satisfy their directionless sex drive. However, isn't satisfying a drive usually pleasurable? I wonder if some people take the grim chore angle because they're thinking that as an asexual, they're not supposed to enjoy something "inherently sexual" such as masturbation. And even if they did see masturbation as a sexual thing, and enjoyed it, it still would be irrelevant to their asexuality, as I previously mentioned. Sure, maybe it would have an effect on their self-identity. But in the scheme of things, I don't think masturbation alone is enough to change someone's orientation. Experiencing sexual attraction could change the trajectory of your life. Masturbation, not so much, unless you get involved in some kind of freak accident during the act.

Assumption #3? Pause while I laugh for a few minutes...sorry people, but there have been many, many others standing where you stand. Just assume I've heard everything already and maybe we can move forward with a little more dignity.

And because it's just too much fun to tackle "forbidden" topics, I'm coming back next time with the pop culture angle...stay tuned. Until then, here's a picture I thought was pretty amusing:

Kinda cute, right?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Kissing, Worldwide

Since I'm insanely tired for no clear reason, here's a small post also concerning Sex is Not a Natural Act, this time, the chapter on kissing (which is only about 4.5 pages). As Tiefer tells us, the subject of kissing is pretty much absent in sex research. This strikes me as odd, considering that kissing seems to be so important to our culture. However, not every culture feels this way:

But sexual kissing is unknown in many societies, including the Balinese, Chamorro, Manus, and Tinguian of Oceania; the Chewa and Thonga of Africa; the Siriono of South America; and the Lepcha of Eurasia. In such cultures, the mouth-to-mouth kiss is considered dangerous, unhealthy, or disgusting, the way Westerners might regard a custom of sticking one's tongue into a lover's nose. Ford and Beach [researchers] reported that when the Thonga first saw Europeans kissing, they laughed, remarking, 'Look at them-- they eat each other's saliva and dirt.' (78)

I wonder if, with the advent of global communications, these cultures will start to adopt "Western-style" kissing. It's unclear whether these are just traditional beliefs, or if they're actually still in practice. But either way, it made me feel good to know that there are entire cultures of people who, at least at one time, were/are grossed out by kissing. What's "normal" here isn't actually "normal" for everyone-- that fact made me smile. I think it's important to know that some sexual people, like some asexual people, don't like kissing, just like it's important to know that some sexual people are aromantic. Apparently in Bali, their version of a kiss is "...lovers bring their faces close enough to catch each other's perfume and to feel the warmth of the skin, making contact as they move their heads slightly" (78). To me, that sounds a lot more pleasant than our coveted "french kiss".

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Well, I Thought I Was Trendy...

Hi folkswagons! I made good on my "threat", and during my trip, I got about halfway through the book Sex is Not a Natural Act (Leonore Tiefer, 1995). For a book about sexology, I have to say, this one seems pretty relevant to asexuality. This is because Sex is Not a Natural Act starts at the very beginning, before assumptions that would negate asexuality get made. Tiefer takes the time to define and explore the usages of the words "natural" and "normal", an important task that is too often ignored. So far, this is the closest she comes to discussing asexuality:

Using the clinical standard with regard to psychology is more difficult than using it for physiological matters [stuff involving the body] because it's harder to prove psychological disease, deterioration, or disability. Who's to say, for example, that absence of interest in sex is abnormal according to the clinical definition? What sickness befalls the person who avoids sex? What disability? Clearly, such a person misses a life experience that some people value very highly and most people value at least somewhat, but is avoiding sex "unhealthy" in the same way that avoiding protein is? Avoiding sex seems more akin to avoiding travel or avoiding swimming or avoiding investments in anything riskier than savings accounts--it's not trendy, but it's not sick, is it? (13)


If you don't mind me taking you back to high school or college to the "find the thesis statement" exercise, this seems to be Tiefer's: "...to analyze and critique the prevailing biomedical and masculinist paradigm dominant in sexology" (1). The "new paradigm" she describes is called "social constructionism" although "it goes by various names" (1). If I could define social constructionism as Tiefer sees it, it might be something like, "Stop obsessing about what's normal and universal for one damn minute and actually listen to what people have to say about themselves". One good example of a social constructionist attitude is given by Celia Kitzinger, who is quoted as saying, "My aim is not to reveal the 'real' histories, motives and life events of the [study] participants, but to understand how people construct, negotiate, and interpret their experiences" (61). While social constructionists would probably find odd things to say about asexuality (everyone else seems to), at least their methods seem to give us a fighting chance to be seen as a part of sexual diversity, not as people who failed to fit into a narrow view of psychological "health".

So I agree that the biomedical model needs to be challenged, and that social constructionism can provide important insights about sexuality that the language of health and sickness can't even get close to. But while social constructionism is supposed to be a method that is critical of the establishment in the sexology profession, Tiefer is awfully uncritical of it. Of course we're going to see flaws in social constructionism-- every method of inquiry has its pros and cons. While Tiefer does a hard sell of social constructionism, the fact that she doesn't speak to any reasonable criticisms of it is a weakness of the book. Even so, Tiefer is great at showing how little objectivity other scientists have, especially in her chapter on Masters and Johnson, the famed sexologists who came up with the "Human Sexual Response Cycle" that has been, Tiefer argues, wrongly universalized to all of us. As someone once said (Maimonides?), "everything is an impression". And that is no less true in science than in any other field.

Sex Is Not a Natural Act isn't a long book, but it contains a lot of food for thought...expect to hear some more about it in upcoming posts.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"You All Need Bowling Names"

We had a meetup yesterday! Seven people came, a good bunch of 6 regulars and a newbie. I recall the last meetup in pouring rain that I can remember...and I was the only one there...so our numbers are really improving. We returned to Peter's Cafe, where there was a booth big enough for us, but we had to sit in an awkward arrangement where we were all on one side of it. It was hard to hear what everyone was saying, but then again, I think it's generally difficult to have one unified conversation among seven people. After we ate (mmm, Swedish pancakes), some of us went bowling in South San Francisco. I'd had no idea how many delightfully retro establishments there were on El Camino Real (the main drag around here) in Millbrae, San Bruno and South San Francisco. The only problem with this was that at the bowling alley, the balls looked like they'd been chewed up by large, persistant animals. We all came up with hardcore "bowling names", leading us to wonder what kind of noise a hawk would make. Even though I wasn't in my peak bowling form (ha, ha), I thought the day was fun, and I really enjoyed doing an activity in addition to the usual food and conversation.

I'm going out of town for about a week...back on the 22nd! And happy Hannukah to those that celebrate it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Humpday

Humpday (2009) is a movie about two male friends, both presumably straight, who decide to make a film together for an amateur pornography competition. However, unlike, say, Zach and Miri Make a Porno, Humpday isn't about making a porno so much as talking about making one. And I think that was probably a good choice. In Humpday, the porno, or the idea of it, is not just a porno, but an experience representing autonomy, manhood, and adventure. It's about these two young guys who are starting to settle into distinct paths in life-- one as an aimless hippie traveler, the other as a family man working 9-5. They're so uneasy about this that when the porn contest, Humpfest, is brought up, they jump on it immediately. It's not clear whether there's any attraction between them, but it is clear that they're longing for an out-of-character experience.



It's a common trope-- the quest for an out-of-character experience, and one that happens in real life, too. It's one reason why we sing karaoke, sky dive, or make out with random people in bars. It seems that for some of us, we long to show that what might seem bizarre and out of
character is actually a real part of ourselves that remains hidden most of the time. Whereas people usually view others in a limited or simplified form, we want to be accepted with all our contradictions included.

If you want to watch Humpday yourself and don't want to be told whether or not the porno actually gets made, read no further. I'll wait...

That said, the guys never actually have sex. Believe me, I wasn't thrilled about the prospect of watching them have sex, but in the end, there isn't much resolution to the story. They're in their hotel room, filming, and realize that they just can't do the act. Then the movie ends abruptly. I want to know if this experience will change the characters or their relationship, but we don't find out. One interesting thing about Humpday is that it's the only movie I can think of right now where sex is actually negotiated. The standard on film is for people to just fall into bed together after a few meaningful glances, and it's pretty sad that it takes a movie about two straight dudes in a porno to get people actually talking about sex. When the clothes came off and the guys were just sitting there waiting for some urge to take over, I couldn't help but be reminded of a possible asexual experience-- one of attempting to surmount orientation and get the impetus to jump the bones of someone you're not attracted to in that way.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I Love A Charade

A recent post from Espikai got me thinking about certain party games and the asexuals who loathe them. You know the type: Truth or Dare, Spin the Bottle, I Never. If you think that everyone escapes these games in grade school, well, you'd be incorrect. I've heard tell of people playing Spin the Bottle in college, and I have personally played I Never over the age of 18. From early childhood, I would do everything in my power to not participate in these games. My MO was usually to disparage the games as stupid and immature, portraying myself as far above it all. This was a line I held from grade school until college. But, no one ever seemed to find it odd: While I would rope unsuspecting friends into Monkeys-in-a-Barrel tournaments, I was much too adult and mature to play I Never.

The game I feared most wasn't actually a game, but a sort of ritual that my sorority had. At our chapter meetings, someone would get into "the hot seat" for a few minutes and field no-holds-barred questions from the rest of the group. Of course, most of the questions involved guys and sex. Unlike some other groups, our sorority didn't really have any hazing, so maybe this event was a sort of substitute. No one ever seemed to express any disapproval of it. And even though I found the activity to be somewhat cruel, I didn't speak up against it either; I didn't want to be thought of as a spoilsport, a prude, or someone with something to hide. Even though these were people I trusted and a community I cared about greatly, at the time, I wasn't yet out as asexual. My sexual inexperience seemed so beyond the pale that I couldn't risk bringing it up. Every meeting, a different person was called on, and I would always dread the moment. However, and here's the odd part again: I was never called on. Even when there was an, "Okay, who's never been called?", it was still never me. We were a very small group and it was impossible that people would not know that I'd never been in the hot seat. And I think I might have been the only person who was spared. Whether it was an oversight or an intention, I was allowed to keep my secret.

Why are these sorts of games so popular? I think it's because we really want to know what's going on in other people's sex lives. Not necessarily because we want to gossip about it, but because we want to share experiences and see if ours are normal. However, we got the notion somewhere that it's inappropriate to have honest conversations about these topics, and so we couch them in awkward and embarrassing games. No one wants to admit that they might be seriously interested about the subject of their friends' virginity. At least, this is one theory. A more cynical theory is that having people air their sex lives semi-publicly can have the effect of fostering conformity or policing a group, and emphasizing what is "okay" to say and what should be kept secret. People with more "standard" sexual experiences might be more willing to talk about them (or be honest about them), leaving people with more "non-standard" experiences more likely to be quiet about theirs.

It's been going on 5 years since I realized I was asexual, and no one has asked me to play any of these games. As an adult, Apples to Apples seems to be the standard, rather than Truth or Dare, and thank goodness for that. However, I almost wish I could go back to the hot seat, because my reaction today would not be the same as it was then. First of all, I would speak up and say that I didn't think it was a good idea; that if we wanted to tell people our secrets, we should be encouraged to do it of our own volition. I would tell people that for me, the innocent "who do you have a crush on?" question doesn't resonate with the chummy sense of inclusion that it might for others. I would say that for me, it was a question I've always feared, and explain why that was. I would ask why we were assuming that everyone in the group was straight, and why there was an atmosphere where it would be hard to admit that you weren't. At the time, I didn't know any better than to keep my mouth shut. But now? I would still rather play Monkeys in a Barrel than I Never, but if it came, I'd try to face it stoically, and use it as a chance to get people to rethink their assumptions about sexuality. It would be worth a try, and quite possibly, this would make everyone lose interest in the game anyway. Charades, anyone?

Friday, December 4, 2009

I Like Being Left Alone

Today is another special day-- the day I finished my job assignment. So yes, I'm unemployed yet again, but after a year of full-time work, I'm happier about the free time than, well, last time around. In honor of that, and with thanks to the friend who clued me in to this song, is Robbie Fulks doing "I Like Being Left Alone". Even though in his banter (the song starts at about 1:45), Fulks says that the song speaks to those in middle age, I couldn't help but think about asexuals the first time I heard it-- how cool does that make us sound? Okay, not very. I know we're not all loners, far from it. But the flip side of loneliness is a pleasure at having some time to yourself in a crowded world, perhaps to savor some chocolate pie. Enjoy.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Women Who Want To Want

I feel somewhat obligated to write about a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, titled "Women Who Want to Want". The article is about low (or no) sexual desire in women, as well as the DSM revision process, and features Lori Brotto, one of the few people who has done any research on asexuality. Asexuality is, oddly, never mentioned. I'm not gunning for a random insertion of asexuality into articles, but here it would have really fit.

This article was very hard to read, and not just because it was long and written in the typical flowery style of the NYT Magazine. While the emotional pain of the women in question is clearly conveyed, it's not clear that there is any way to help them. These women without sexual desire are portrayed as a diverse group, having all sorts of histories. They're described as sexual women who are too much in their heads to enjoy sex ("oblivious to their bodies’ excitement, their bodies’ messages"), or who are lost in a male-centric model of desire that too often, doesn't take their lived experiences into account. However, constantly pressured by social mores, asexuals also "want to want". One woman in the article "who had no period of lust to look back on" claimed that “I want to have sex where I feel like I’m craving it". Maybe this woman would not identify herself as asexual. However, it seems hard to deny that her experience is virtually the same as many asexual experiences.

It made me cringe to read that women in Brotto's support group were told to repeat, "'My body is alive and sexual,' no matter if they believe it." Maybe some of those people could really identify as asexual, and could be helped by knowing there is a community of people who are very much alive, and yet aren't sexual. Even the women with low/no desire who would never call themselves asexual, or obviously are not ace, would probably have a lot in common with us anyway. What is Brotto thinking? That if these women were told that perhaps they might not all be sexual, that suddenly the inmates would be running the asylum and chaos would reign?

For all I know, Brotto had loads to say about asexuality and it wasn't included-- apparently, descriptions of her clothes and hair were more important. As someone who has been an interview subject, I know that your entire message is not always conveyed. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt, but she, of all researchers, should know how damaging asexual repression can be. I guess we'll never know whether the omission of asexuality was due to an oversight (intended or not) of the writer, silence on Brotto's part, or both.

That said, I'm glad the article mentioned, albeit briefly, that "distress" doesn't exist in a vacuum. It says:

Many on the [DSM] panel, which probably won’t, in the end, do much in the way of deleting conditions, maintain that the chapter on sexuality and gender identity doesn’t brand people too readily with disease. They note that, aside from exceptions like patients with pedophilia, only those who are distressed meet the threshold for diagnosis. In turn, the critics respond that such distress stems not from within the individual but from the infliction of societal standards, from the culture’s disapproval and aversion and therefore, in part, from the D.S.M. itself. This, they emphasize, was why the A.P.A. finally removed a last remnant of the homosexuality diagnosis — what was known as “ego-dystonic” homosexuality — in 1987. (emphasis mine)

There was also a voice that I was surprised to find sounded a lot like my own. This was another researcher, Leonore Tiefer, whose ideas on the topic you can read here at Asexual Explorations. I'm planning on reading her book some time this month. Here is the article's other passage that is critical of the DSM process:

Brotto, like all the specialists in all areas working on the new D.S.M., is allowed to receive no more than $10,000 per year from any source connected to the pharmaceutical industry. This is an A.P.A. rule. But Tiefer’s is hardly the only voice warning that, despite A.P.A. protections, drug-company influence can shape, indirectly as well as directly, the decisions of D.S.M. panelists.

Why $10,000? That's not exactly a small amount of money. And what the money is used for (more research? Exotic vacations?) is not explained. The APA may be many things, but it has never been a shining light of ethics. Understandably, some psychologists are getting sick of it.

But before I go off on a tangent about the seedy underbelly of professional organizations (RIAA, anyone?), I'll say that I'm not sure what we're supposed to take away from the article, besides the fact that sexuality can be confusing. I'm left with the frustration that in our culture, self-acceptance is squashed at every turn. It seems as though the pharmaceutical industry is becoming similar to the diet or beauty industries in that respect. I feel like at some point, people will have to start realizing that if the vast majority of us are wrong in some way, then "normal" is a fallacy. If the women profiled in the article could stop worrying about their lack of sexual desire for a bit, wouldn't that be liberating? And wouldn't that give them the space, time, and freedom to rediscover whatever desire they might have lost? How is anyone supposed to experience sexual desire while simultaneously beating themselves up for not having it?

When I discovered asexuality, it was the first time that I could have a sexuality that was on my own terms, not someone else's terms. And the "women who want to want" deserve the same, regardless of their orientation. They deserve to be told that there are others out there who share their experiences. But asexuals can't remain hidden forever. The information is out there now, and sooner or later, people will find it. Whether it's kept from them or not.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Longings

Apparently, at least one person is using "mountainsexual" as a sort of ski-slope alternative to "metrosexual", but I have to say, I still hope my usage might catch on. (Although I heartily endorse the creation of new slang terms, aren't we all tired of anything even remotely related to the concept of metrosexuality by now?) However, if mountainsexuals were serious about defining themselves (which I don't think they would be), they could also use the Latin, monsexual, pointed out by Mary in the previous post on the topic. We'll definitely need to settle on a term for when we all publish papers on the subject. Anyway, here's the mo(u)n(tain)sexual, as I see it, quote of the day, and God, those parenthesis are awkwardness itself:

Antarctica left a restless longing in my heart beckoning towards an incomprehensible perfection forever beyond the reach of mortal man. Its overwhelming beauty touches one so deeply that it is like a wound.”

--Edwin Mickleburgh


Ideally, you won't find this unforgivably random, but while we're on the subject of quotes, I uncovered another one today that I could relate to especially well:

It is a curious emotion, this certain homesickness I have in mind. With Americans, it is a national trait, as native to us as the roller-coaster or the jukebox. It is no simple longing for the home town or country of our birth. The emotion is Janus-faced: we are torn between a nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.

--Carson McCullers

Well, I'm all for exploring curious emotions, and my ears always prick up at the sound of nonsexual longings. It reminds me of the "inextinguishable longing for elsewhere" that Junot Diaz wrote as besigeing people from New Jersey. When I read that I was like, "Finally! I'm not just crazy!" (Or maybe I am, but at least the population of an entire state is with me.) I've felt that way for as long as I can remember, and it always seemed like a curse. I even wrote a poem once about a crush I had on a guy and how minimal my feelings for him were, compared to the longing McCullers wrote about. To this day, channeling it into some kind of creativity is the only way I know how to deal with it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Year 4 of the Journey

Friday is my fourth aveniversary-- so it's about time for my asexual state of the union, I guess. I feel like such an event should involve a roaring fire, brandy, a leather chair, and perhaps a rumpled suit, however, I have none of these things. For me, aveniversaries represent more than joining AVEN, they represent being honest with myself. I'll admit, it's extremely hard, and there are probably a hundred things that I'm hopelessly in denial about. However, in at least one case-- the case of asexuality-- the curtain was lifted and I saw things clearly, despite all the interference and the odds. If I can celebrate magical oil next month, then I can definitely celebrate that. At year 4, I don't want to be something I'm not, but to be happy on my own terms, and that is progress.

And because I seem to DJ my life, here is a great state of the union song which Obama should probably use at some point, but won't. I don't understand the video at all, but I love the song. And, here is a great song about being honest with yourself (at least, that's how I interpret it). In this case, I don't understand the title of the song, but I love the song. Luckily, I think these songs make me happier than a leather chair ever could.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sex! Romance! Intimacy!

Yesterday, I participated for the third time in San Francisco Sex Information's training for future sex educators. This involved being on a panel about "Sex, Romance, and Intimacy" where people of different "relationship styles" were represented. Yes, I was there as a token asexual, which is not a relationship style...but if SFSI wants to educate people on asexuality, I'm happy to help. Before the panel started, I sat in on a discussion about this diagram (poorly reproduced by me):

This made it a lot easier for us to explain our relationship styles. For example, when someone asked me how two asexuals could date, I said that the relationship would exist in both the romance and intimacy spheres, and the questioner had an "Ohhh...I see" moment. While our "cultural ideal" is to have one relationship right in the middle of the diagram, the fact that there are so many other spaces visually shows how our concept of one monogamous, intimate, romantic, and sexual relationship is limiting. So while I dig the Venn diagram, what's most interesting to me is always the other panelists. Outside of this one event, I have never heard anyone refer to themselves as celibate or as an aromantic sexual, which were two of the relationship styles represented. There were multiple similarities between my story and those of the celibate, aromantic, and single (but sexual) person. All these people answered in some degree of the affirmative to a student question: "Did you ever think your relationship style was pathological?" All these people talked about trying to fit into the "cultural ideal" and failing. (There were also a polyamorous and "traditional" monogamous person represented, but our stories didn't overlap much, if at all.)

What surprised me most was what the celibate person had to say. She'd stopped telling people she was celibate after getting really insulting responses, similar to the ones asexuals tend to get. I'd really had no idea that people would find celibacy so hard to understand. I guess I just assumed that if you were, at heart, a sexual person (whether you were having sex at the moment or not), that that would be more accepted. Apparently not. Although asexuals can be quick to distance ourselves from celibate people, it seems as though we might have some very similar lived experiences, and it might help us both to set up an alliance...that is, assuming there is even some resource for celibate people. (And I don't know if InCel counts-- that's more like sexual frustration than celibacy. However, I have a feeling that some number of people finding information on InCel might actually be asexual-- I was one of them.)

I thought my answer to "Did you ever think your relationship style was pathological?" was well-recieved. While at first, asexuality was a lot to wrap my head around, I really never thought there was anything wrong with it. I talked briefly about the whole HSDD and DSM thing, and mentioned that just because something is uncommon, that does not mean it is abnormal, and got a lot of thoughtful "mmm"s from the crowd. I also talked about how people react to asexuals, telling us we're damaged, sick, broken, and not even human. To this, I got some "mmm"s of shock, which I took as a positive thing. I think it was good that people were understanding the fact that some of the responses we get are so absurdly unproportional to what we are.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The First Ever Open Post

I know some blogs have "open posts" where people can talk about whatever. Since AVEN is down at the moment, I figure that asexoholics might be raring to talk about stuff. So, feel free to comment with favorite web sites, promotions of your own site, topics you'd like me to write about, best songs you've heard lately, best and worst pet names, travel destinations, etc. The more random, the better.

For example, here's my current favorite site, in which flags of the world are given completely arbitrary letter grades. (A friend posted in on Facebook and I got such a big kick out of it that I've been showing it to everyone since.)

Yes folks, anything goes...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bromance Revisited

(Oh, prewar Oxford! No homework, ever, just champagne-drenched picnics involving linen suits and verdant rivers.)

Back in this post from October, there was a bit of discussion about Brideshead Revisited, a novel that has spawned a few film adaptations. I'd had the 2008 film on my Netflix queue for a while, and it finally arrived this weekend. Disclaimer: I haven't read the book or seen the other films, so I can only talk about this particular film on its own merits. First of all, let me just say: I don't know if I've ever seen two more similar films than Brideshead and Maurice. Similar basics to the story, very similar look and feel. Like Maurice, Brideshead is about two young men attending Oxford at the beginning of the 20th century; one is wealthy and the other from modest means. They become involved in an intense, romantic friendship, but grow apart when one of them prioritizes a relationship with a women. As double-features go, it would be long, but might also inspire some good discussion (if you're not too tired to have it).

One of the more interesting scenes of Brideshead was when one of the leading men, Charles, goes to Venice with his aristocratic pal, Sebastian, and Sebastian's sister, Julia, who Charles later falls in love (or, I would argue, lust) with. An Italian woman advises Charles that their "English romantic friendships" can easily get out of hand, and that it would be a bad idea to let the friendship last too long. She says it's obvious that Sebastian is interested in Charles as something other than a friend. Charles seems to brush off the comment. It seems that Charles is more charmed by Sebastian's opulent and exotic life than by Sebastian himself.

While I couldn't read Sebastian as asexual by any stretch of the imagination, I think many asexuals would be able to relate to the frustration he feels. While Sebastian can have any material thing he wants, he can't seem to maintain the relationship he desires most. His bond with Charles is something that they're encouraged to "grow out of". Sebastian is very childlike in some ways, and his relationship with Charles doesn't seem all that multi-demensional. We see a lot of them drinking, running around the moors, and swimming naked in fountains, but not a lot of evidence that this is anything but the friendship equivalent of a summer fling. However, it's obvious that Sebastian envisioned it differently. When he discovers Charles and Julia kissing in an alleyway in Venice, I really felt for him. I saw it as a moment where Sebastian might have realized that the new world of adulthood was leaving him behind. While he'd always been a heavy drinker, it seemed like he turned further to alcohol to dull the pain of the disconnect between himself and those around him. An asexual of that time period would have been lucky to be in his situation: He wasn't being forced to marry. However, in a society providing a limited amount of social roles, he had no clear place.

What's odd about the film is that the storyline involving Sebastian is compeltely abandoned. True, Charles is the main character and the movie is about his development (or lack thereof). However, we leave Sebastian dealing with an illness, and we don't even know if he's still alive by the end of the movie. Rather than being about Sebastian and Charles's relationship, the movie seems to really be about Charles's impressionability, followed by his ruthlessness in getting what he wants. It's one of those stories that you know from the start just can't end well.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Conundrum of Asexual Characters

There are a lot of fictional characters who, with a few small tweaks, could have been realistically portrayed as asexual. One example is Trey, one of the men of "Sex and the City". I recently re-watched the episode where Trey and Charlotte, his wife, are given homework by a sex therapist. Trey refuses to tell Charlotte about his sexual fantasies and huffs about not being "a sexual person". When Charlotte tells him that she is, indeed, sexual, he makes no move to agree that he is as well. (Most people consider it a big insult to be told they're not sexual-- if Trey saw himself as sexual, it would have made sense for him to protest Charlotte's statement.) But despite all this, he is obviously intended to be a sexual person, just an uptight one with issues.

But even if a character is intended to be asexual, how would anyone ever know? Wouldn't they be read as an uptight sexual with issues, even if their asexuality is intended? I can understand why writers would not want to use a still-unusual word like "asexual", and I know this from personal experience. I once took a writing class in which I presented a play I'd written about a woman with Asperger's syndrome. There was intense debate in the class over whether I should actually use the word "Asperger's" in the play or not. And once the word "Asperger's" was brought up, it was all anyone was willing to talk about. Other writers got to talk about character development, plot, arc, and all that other stuff-- but I only got to talk about Asperger's. It was extremely frustrating. So I can imagine why writers might not want to go through all that. Not everyone can have a platform to not only present their work, but to explain the unspoken neurologies or sexualities of their characters.

The best explanation of asexuality without using the word "asexual" appears in, of course, The Bone People. Keri Hulme writes this dialogue for her asexual protagonist, Kerewin:

I spent a considerable amount of time when I was, o, adolescent, wondering why I was different, whether there were other people like me. Why, when everyone else was fascinated by their developing nature, I couldn't give a damn. I've never been attracted to men. Or women. Or anything else. It's difficult to explain, and nobody has ever believed me when I have tried to explain, but while I have an apparently normal female body, I don't have any sexual urge or appetite. I think I am a neuter. (266)

The Bone People is a classic book, read by many people. I wonder what a sexual reader, unacquainted with asexuality, might assume about Kerewin. Of course, Kerewin lived in isolation in a remote area. It would be completely realistic for her to not have ever met anyone else like herself. While The Bone People was written in the 1980s, it's still realistic for an asexual person to have never met another ace, and to not know that there is a word describing their sexuality that is in use for other people. If writers want to be realistic, the unnamed asexual is much closer to the truth than the "out" asexual.

However, we're short on even unnamed asexuals like Kerewin. I think it's unlikely that a sexual author would write about asexuals. Most people haven't even knowingly met an asexual, so why would they write about one? But if "Shortland Street" can do it...why can't anyone else?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Adulthood and its Discontents

The most recent episode of The A Life, about asexuality and school, got me thinking about my own life between the ages of 6 and 18. We're all told that "adulthood" (and I do air quotes here for a reason) will be better than school, however, it's astonishing how similar "adulthood" is to childhood. I've found myself wondering why I've stayed so long at a job that has convinced me that hell is really on earth (Warning: Hell isn't red, it's beige). And I think it's for the same reason that women may not fight their attackers: I've been set up to think and behave a certain way, and I can't easily slough it off, even if I want to. All throughout school, this is the message I was given:

"Sit down, shut up, and do as you're told. If you have a problem, keep it to yourself. If you have a valid concern, which you won't, there's nothing that can be done about it. If you follow our unwritten rules perfectly, you will be rewarded with neglect. If you dare to question anything you will be tormented and abused. We're right, you're wrong."

And this is supposed to be our "preparation for adulthood" and for the workplace? What kind of horror is this "adulthood", that it would suit us well to become silent victims of circumstance? While some lucky few among us might be told to think for ourselves in school, that message can be easily lost in the strength of the message above. It's astounding that I'm capable of even one independent thought, and it's not surprising that I second-guess myself constantly and feel comfortable beating myself up. Adulthood is a range of ages beyond 18. "Adulthood" is a means of social control. Adulthood has something to do with freedom, responsibility, and citizenship. "Adulthood" has something to do with accepting your fate and your "place", the place that was marked out for you in elementary school.

I took a break in the middle of writing this post. I was going to come back and do a more explicit tie-in to asexuality, but in the meantime, I'd read a few pages of this book A People's History of the United States. And in the couple of pages I read were some criticisms of school as a breeding ground for yes-men. Oddly enough, observers in the 1800s had similar things to say about school as I do. Howard Zinn writes:

...the spread of public school education enabled the learning of writing, reading, and arithmetic for a whole generation of workers, skilled and semiskilled, who would be the literate labor force of the new industrial age. It was important that these people learn obedience to authority. A journalist observer in the 1890s wrote: "The unkindly spirit of the teacher is strikingly apparent; the pupils, being completely subjugated to her will, are silent and motionless, the spiritual atmosphere of the classroom is damp and chilly"

...Joel Spring, in his book Education and the Rise of the Corporate State, says: "The development of a factory-like system in the nineteenth-century schoolroom was not accidental." (263)

From an early age, we're trained to be on "search and destroy" mode for people's differences. At the risk of sounding like a bad movie review, it's a testament to the human spirit that there are some tolerant and open-minded people in the world as it is, even if there might not be as many of them as we'd prefer. The dichotomy of destroyer and destroyed is something I would like to leave behind with the 1890s.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Waiting for a "Hell Yes!"

"How can you lie there and think of England when you don't even know who's in the team?"
--Billy Bragg, "Greetings to the New Brunette"

"No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise."
--Rorschach, Watchmen

A few days ago, I read this excellent post about asexuals and rape. The author linked to another interesting post about the concept of "enthusiastic consent". This was defined as an unambiguous "Hell Yes!" to sex, rather than the drunken mumbles that sometimes pass for consent. In that post, Hugo Schwyzer writes that the opposite of rape is not consent, but enthusiasm. I guess it's a radical statement, but it shouldn't be. When I read that, I had a 'Eureka!" moment. I finally realized why things like "gift sex", which I wrote about here, are such disturbing ideas to me.

So this will be a post about sexual consent and "compromise", although I wasn't sure if I should even write it. What do I know about sexual compromise? Nothing from firsthand experience. But it's impossible to be part of the asexual community without hearing about the issue again and again. Yes, all this will fall into the category of "Well, easy for you to say." But if it's so easy, shouldn't I just as well say it? Isn't it better to think about this stuff on a hypothetical level first, rather than when you're already in bed with someone?

Anyway, I come with a proposition: That when asexuals talk about sexual compromise, the idea of enthusiastic consent needs to be considered. I don't think there should be a double-standard, where sexuals ought to be enthusiastic, but asexuals have to be resigned to sex they don't want just to keep a relationship together. In his post, Schwyzer writes that enthusiastic consent "sets the bar pretty darned high." Well, yeah. I thought one of the positive things about having sex today, rather than in times past, was that you could have some standards, perhaps even high standards, about the sex you decided to have. No, it's not easy to have high standards in America today. We can't expect health care, a decent education, the maintenance of our personal safety, or a stable job. But can't we at least set a high bar for the things we can more easily control? Like Billy Bragg's girlfriend of song, many of us are still having sex in the Victorian era, engaging in what Schwyzer calls "sex characterized by obligation, confusion, and detached resignation".

I'm aware that a standard of enthusiastic consent presents a conflict for asexuals who badly want to be in a romantic relationship, and yet may not be enthusiastic about sex under any circumstances. But I worry about asexuals for whom "does not pressure me to have unwanted sex" is not a necessary factor in a relationship. When we feel like we have to choose between being alone and having sex we're not thrilled about, how are we going to view ourselves? What does a choice like that do to our self-esteem and mental health? As much as our partners may love us, we still need to advocate for ourselves. I've always felt uncomfortable about the common idea of asexuals having sex "to please a partner". Sure, you can please a partner and be enthusiastic, in fact you're more likely to please them if you are. But having sex "to please a partner" with no other motivation is a pretty low spot on the evolutionary ladder of consent.

Unlike Rorschach, I don't take such a hard line on compromise. But I would wonder if compromise is always good, in all situations. I feel strongly that when we talk about sexual/asexual relationships, we have to make sure that asexual needs are not seen as subordinate to sexual needs. I also think we shouldn't be afraid to keep our relationship standards high, as hard as it may be for a group so small. I think we all deserve a partner who will make an effort to get enthusiastic consent out of us, whatever our orientation may be. Rather than the traditional waits for love or marriage to have sex, why not wait for a "Hell Yes"?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Lonely American...Psych!

I really wanted to blog about this book The Lonely American. It would have been totally perfect and brought up a lot of interesting points, but since I actually haven't read it, just flipped through it...that's not going to happen, exactly. I was also thinking about a TV show I enjoy a lot, HBO's Entourage, and suddenly, in some random alchemy of a liberal arts education, these two things, Entourage and lonely Americans, connected in my mind.

Psychologists, sociologists, and other -ologists have been telling us we're lonely for quite some time, at least since The Lonely Crowd was published in 1965. Since '65, the number of confidants we have and the frequency of visits we make to friends has been steadily dropping. While I haven't read The Lonely American, I have read Bowling Alone which I'm sure makes a lot of the same points-- on the whole, Americans are pretty lonely, getting lonlier, and as you might imagine, it's not a great thing for us. However, in our culture of "rugged individualism", it can often be seen as shameful or a weakness to talk about loneliness. Obviously, if we're facing any social problem, not talking about it just worsens it. But, between not wanting to appear vulnerable and thinking we might be the only ones with the problem, not a lot of discussion gets made about how lonely Americans really are.


And here's where Entourage (main characters shown above) comes in. The show is about a movie star and his 3 best friends. The guys are never, ever alone. And in the other shows I watch, the same thing appears to be true to varying extents. Even shows that occur in workplaces show the characters either collaborating closely together on the job or spending time talking over drinks after work, things that don't happen in many of our real workplaces. Watching Entourage, I found myself thinking, "I wish I had an entourage". There are a lot of things in the show to wish for: A huge house, Porsches and Maseratis, expensive clothes, fame, adoring fans, seeing your face on a movie screen. But I think that for most of us, the most valuable thing shown is actually the entourage itself. Yes, it's realistic for famous people to be surrounded by others all the time. But for the rest of us, it's wish fulfillment: extreme edition. Wish fulfillment has its place, but I think the fact that loneliness is hardly ever portrayed in pop culture only encourages the (incorrect) idea that everyone is surrounded by friends except us.

Maybe we'll find a portrayal of loneliness in a literary novel or rare independent film. However, it is something that is largely absent. True, there are films where overcoming loneliness is a theme. However, the problem is usually solved in magical ways that we couldn't duplicate in our own lives. That, or the extent of loneliness is a short montage to "One is the Lonliest Number" or "All By Myself". Anything beyond that would be so far removed from an audience's expectations that I believe they would be very uncomfortable. Common tropes around loneliness, such as Bridget Jones sitting by herself with a bottle of vodka, obscure the fact that loneliness can happen anytime, anywhere, and with any beverage.

So at the risk of sounding like the brooding Russian playwright that I am, I say More! More loneliness in movies and on TV! Maybe it sounds a little twisted, but nothing gets people talking like TV and movies do. If we saw loneliness portrayed in pop culture, then we could more easily discuss the concept. No, I don't have any solutions, but the first step is, after all, admitting that there is a problem.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married

Recently, I picked up an unrepentant chick-lit book called Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married. The basic premise is that a woman, Lucy, who isn't even dating anyone goes with her friends to a psychic who tells her she'll be married in a year. Her friends' fortunes come true, so Lucy starts believing that hers might as well. (Yes, it's silly.) I'm finding, that like "Cougartown", what I expect to be offensive about something is often not at all the thing that ends up offending me. While I expected to be offended about byzantine ideas of sex and romance, what bothered me more was that the vast majority of characters were gross stereotypes of every kind possible. However, I'm not done with the book (it's absurdly long), so there might be byzantine ideas of sex and romance still to come.

At any rate, I'm glad that no man will ever read this book, because between its pink covers is a manifestation of what I am told men fear most about women: That we view every man we meet as a potential husband. True, it's germane to the particular plot of this book. And true, it can't be said that all women do this, and I would wager that the number is lower among asexual women. However, this is one stereotype that I won't argue with...much. I still remember when I told a friend about a huge crush I had on a certain guy years ago. It hadn't even been established whether he reciprocated my feelings or not, but my friend said, "I've met his parents and they'd be great in-laws". Maybe we haven't taken it to that degree, but I think most women have had similar marriage-minded thoughts about men they barely know at some point or another. Following is my attempt at an explanation.

Like so many other strange things that women do, I think this phenomenon can largely be attributed to the double-standard that women are subjected to; the most well-known one being "He's a stud, she's a slut" for being promiscuous. As people, we're told to be goal-oriented. Go for what you want! Visualize success! But when we get off work and commence the romance mission, we're suddenly supposed to go with the flow. Take it as it comes! Don't scare the guys away! True, there are many books marketed to us that advise women to see finding a husband similarly to the way a detective stakes out a house. However, I would argue that this tactic might indeed scare the guys away and defeat your purpose.

From an early age, we've grown up with girls tittering about how their names would look attached to some boy's. Maybe for a few of us, this was a genuine interest. However, I believe that since this interest was a more socially condoned one than, say, science (and noooo, I don't have personal experience with this at allllll), the practice spread to most of us. And gossiping about your glorious future with boys can make science look like a lonely life compared to all the fun the other girls seem to be having, with their bonding, giggling and trying at being "mature". So maybe that's part of it-- a method of female bonding through peer pressure, where it hardly seems to matter what particular boys or men are involved.

I think these premature thoughts about marriage might also be a holdover from an earlier time, which does imply that we might not be doing it forever, unless our old motives have simply been replaced by new ones. I know that in Jane Austen books, women were supposed to be enthusiastic about unions with men they hardly knew. It's a relatively new thing, being able to spend a lot of time with a man who isn't a relation and who you might not end up marrying. But we have yet to start acting like times have really changed. How's that for a byzantine idea? No offense to anyone from Byzantium.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Whither Goeth the 70,000?

I was working on my little visibility posters, and I decided to make one that would state the asexual population of the Bay Area as a whole. I didn't realize that this large-ish region, helmed by the cities of San Franciso, San Jose and Oakland, actually consists of 7 million people, or, a low estimate of 70,000 asexuals. You might remember my musings about a hypothetical "asexual city". But what I realized is that you already live there, albeit on a technicality. Even if you live in an isolated town of 1,000 people, you still have enough asexuals for a soccer team. Rather than traveling elsewhere, a (relatively) easier proposition might be to uncover the hidden asexuals in your midst.

If you'll allow me to make a mind-reading attempt, you might be thinking, "But where are they?!" when faced with a number like 70,000 asexuals in one metro area. And I don't know. I think of what I might have had to do to find the other 13 asexuals at my college of 1400 people. And I have a feeling that no matter how much I shouted from the rooftops, the majority of the 13 would remain silent. I would make an idle speculation that a lot of asexuals know something about asexuality, but don't relate it to themselves. It's like the way that friends will tell a fat person "oh, you're not fat" because they see fat as being negative, not a neutral descriptor, and not something they'd want to associate with their friend. Likewise, I thought that maybe I wasn't asexual, since asexuals die alone and I wasn't planning on doing so. How I got over that hurdle of denial, I, again, don't know.

What I do know is that "feeling like the only one" doesn't always seem like a worthy focus of my efforts when there are people going through much more terrible things every day. But I think it's a start. Feeling like part of a group may not accomplish anything in and of itself, but it's a first step. If you're wary of the concept, I understand-- I have a strange and abiding fear of cults. Groupthink isn't good. But being a part of something (while maintaining your individuality) seems to be a feeling that undergirds all positive social change. And it's a feeling that I find is largely absent from this country. So I try to make it happen for asexuals, since we're always told to "work with what you have" and I have asexuality. Maybe it could lead to something bigger than asexuality alone, at least I hope so.

I remember watching a documentary called Before Stonewall that was about, as you can imagine, gay life in America before the Stonewall riots. Before the Kinsey reports came out, homosexuality was thought to be a rare thing. So, when Kinsey shared how many gay people there really were (and asexuals, but no one seemed to care), it was really empowering for the gay population. Even if it was just to know that out of every 10 people you passed on the street, one was gay like you. So yes, we need a more accurate study of our numbers. But even 1% is not as small a number as it seems to be. So where is the 70,000? I look forward to your thoughts...

[Edited for errant zeroes...]

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cougars and Gift Sex

Carolyn will be disappointed if I don't write about cougars, and I do try to give the people what they want. It would also be a shame to have watched the show "Cougartown" for nothing. If you haven't heard of "cougars", I'd be a bit surprised because they've been getting a lot of press lately. Cougars are simply older women who are dating younger men. Since the opposite (older men, younger women) has been going on since time immemorial, I really have no idea why we are suddenly so fascinated with cougars. Now that women can make as much money as men, and don't necessarily have to marry for financial reasons, why shouldn't we pursue men of whatever age we want? Of course, it's telling that when women date younger men, it gets a name and is pegged as a social phenomenon, unlike the reverse situation with older men.


[Above: Courtney Cox (Jules) and Busy Phillips have hijinks on "Cougartown"]

The cougar phenomenon even got its own TV show on ABC called "Cougartown". I've been watching this show because I was convinced it would give me something to blog about; it did, but as you'll see, the meat (or tofu) of this post won't be about cougars at all. Anyway, the show is about a 40-something divorced woman (Courtney Cox) trying to "get back out there". Contrary to popular belief about cougars, she isn't having a ton of random sex. I guess that would be more HBO than ABC. In fact, there is only one younger man that she dates in the show, and he receives relatively little screen time. It's been a while since I've watched a half-hour show with commercials, and it's remarkable how little actually happens. For example, one episode concentrates on the efforts of the main character, Jules, to get her cranky neighbor to play a game of golf with her ex-husband. Although the cougar concept might sound titillating, "Cougartown" is actually pretty mundane.

I was sure I'd find something about "Cougartown" disturbing, and I did, but it had nothing to do with cougars. In the show, Jules' best friend is a married woman with a baby who lives next door. In one episode, this woman gives her husband a few cards that say "SEX"; he can use them for sex whenever he wants and she "can't say no", an arrangement she doesn't seem very happy about. Ah yes, the phenomenon of "gift sex". It's been discussed on AVEN before, where people generally seemed to think it was a bad idea. There are times for all of us when we just don't feel like having sex-- the difference is only that for asexuals, it's usually all of the time. I think using sex as a currency is just asking for problems-- isn't it likely that you'll resent unwanted sex, even if you're agreeing to it? For me, the concept hearkens back to the day when men would "expect something" from women if they took us out to dinner, bought us gifts, etc. Even if you're highly sexual and you've had sex with your partner 10,000 times, you should still be able to say "no" to sex whenever you want to, something that gift sex makes a lot harder and more awkward to do.


[Above: Zach Galifianakis (Ray) and Jason Schwartzman in "Bored to Death"]

Anyway, gift sex is something that is commonly explored in pop culture, usually for laughs. For example, in the current HBO show "Bored to Death", the best friend of the main character is dating a woman who rarely has sex with him, something he complains about in every episode. The only time they'll have sex is if the guy, Ray, agrees to jump through some sort of hoop, such as going to therapy or getting a colonic. All this couple seems to do is argue about and negotiate the frequency of sex. They aren't married, and they don't have kids-- since they both seem so unhappy, why are they even together? It really isn't clear. One might think it would be beneficial to asexuals that so many couples with disparate sex drives are portrayed in pop culture, since many of us contend with this issue. However, the story is always the same and doesn't offer very many alternatives. It's most often the man who wants sex, and he either nags until the women gives in, or they go through gift sex-related rituals. How the woman feels about all this is usually never explained. Maybe it's funny that a man would endure a colonic for the promise of sex with a chronically annoying woman, but if so, it's a joke I just don't get.

Monday, October 19, 2009

How Friendships Form

I'm glad people enjoyed the poem! So, we've delved a bit into how romantic relationships are initiated--Shades of Gray also wrote a post recently that described the process in a way that made a lot of sense to me. It seems like the same factors for romance-- being in the right place and time combined with chemistry-- are similar to how friendships are initiated. I realize that I've never written about the topic of how friendships are formed. So here it goes...

I've realized that the making of good friends does not depend on the length we've known each other or shared interests. I've also realized fairly recently that even though I might want it to be otherwise, not everyone is going to become my best friend if I just put in enough effort. A friend is not a close friend is not a best friend, and people don't seem to move easily between categories. Despite the prevailing "wisdom", I've never been able to make friends simply by joining groups or doing activities. As a kid, I met my best friend because we happened to be sitting at the same picnic table. As an adult, friendships don't seem a whole lot less random. They've always seemed as dependent on the right time/place and chemistry as romantic relationships might be. Just like romance, there doesn't appear to be any formula for friendship, either.

I've realized that you can have an acquaintance for years who never really becomes your friend, even though on paper they might look like they should be. It also seems like people are more open to new friends at certain times in their lives, and you have to catch someone at the right time. If you do, you can stay friends with that person even if they move away or get busier later. If you don't, the friendship just isn't going to happen, no matter how much the two of you might share. That's why you aren't going to make friends from joining things alone. Of course, you have a better chance of making new friends if you meet new people. But it sometimes seems like you have to meet an exhausting number of new people (there go the thoughts of an introvert) to make one friend. Making friends (and maintaining friendships) is not always easy, especially for adults who are out of school, and deserves as much discussion as romantic relationships get.

I wonder if technologies like Facebook are changing the way we view friendship at all. I know people that have 300, 500, 600+ friends on Facebook, and I'm sure they wouldn't consider all these people to really be friends. But it's strange how a "friend" can either be the most important person in your life or someone you hardly know. I wonder how other people define friendship-- do you call someone a friend based on length known, amount of time spent together, sense of connection felt, mutual interests, the fun you have, a sense of accountability, shared past, or something else entirely?

*Thanks to the writer of Edge of Everywhere for the conversation about friendship, among other things (and good company in the extreme cold)!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

To Love Many Things: Mary Oliver

Back in 2008, I wrote about the asexiness of the poem "Aimless Love" by Billy Collins. A reader, Tomatl, told me to check out Mary Oliver, especially her poem "On Love", and I finally did. I don't think I've ever read two poems that were more similar to each other than "Aimless Love" and "On Love". Apparently, Oliver is one of very few living poets that is avidly read-- a category in which Collins would also be included. And "On Love" isn't an isolated example of the importance Oliver places on love and intimacy that has nothing to do with sex, (traditional) romance or even other people. The book including that poem, Red Bird, is chockablock with love songs to ponds, foxes, rivers, trees, dogs, hills, and as the title suggests, every kind of bird that you can possibly think of. I think one of the things, if not the thing I love most about poetry is the fact that in that particular form, all kinds of love are equal. A poem about your lover isn't going to be considered any better than a poem about a friend (or a brick wall) just because it's about your lover. Writing a poem about your love of an owl is no more or less important than writing a poem about your love for baseball, God, or a woman. A lot of people think poetry is boring, but I think it's very subversive, and is allowed to commonly contain ideas that are rare elsewhere.

I've talked about it enough, so here's "On Love". Personally, I think it's nowhere near the best poem in the book, but I will be quiet now and let you judge:

I have been in love more times than one,
thank the Lord. Sometimes it was lasting
whether active or not. Sometimes
it was all but ephemeral, maybe only
an afternoon, but not less real for that.
They stay in my mind, these beautiful people,
or anyway people beautiful to me, of which
there are so many. You, and you, and you,
whom I had the fortune to meet, or maybe
missed. Love, love, love, it was the
core of my life, from which, of course, comes
the word for the heart. And, oh, have I mentioned
that some of them were men and some were women
and some-- now carry my revelation with you--
were trees. Or places. Or music flying above
the names of their makers. Or clouds, or the sun
which was the first, and the best, the most
loyal for certain, who looked so faithfully into
my eyes, every morning. So I imagine
such love of the world-- its fervency, its shining,
its innocence and hunger to give of itself--I imagine
this is how it began.

The epigraph of the book is a quote from Vincent van Gogh: "But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things".

Monday, October 12, 2009

Happy AVED!

Yes, AVED-- Asexuality Visibility and Education Day, is upon us. I think it's a great idea and I hope it continues long into the future. This "newsworthy and noteworthy" stuff that my professor of PR used to tell our class about is definitely something that's good to cultivate. You can check out this thread to see what different people all over the place are doing to spread the word for AVED.

My current cheap n' easy visibility idea is this: I made little fliers (it took about 10 minutes) that said: "At least 750 people in [my town] are asexual. You're not alone" and then told them how to go on AVEN to look at local meetups. I ended with "People who do not experience sexual attraction-- we like cake, though." I'll try to post a picture when I have some more time. Anyway, I'll be posting it various places around town as I find them, to work the local angle. If anyone in town knew me, this might be awkward...but no one does! Ha ha!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Another Country

As I've mentioned in the past, I have an obscure little learning disorder called Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD). Like all "disorders", it comprises a bunch of things I'm supposed to be bad and good at, not all of which apply to me. However one of the main facets of NLD is a difficulty understanding nonverbal communication, which people will gleefully tell you is 90% of all communication. I don't know if someone who does understand nonverbal cues can really understand what it's like to not understand them. The best analogy I can come up with is that I constantly feel like I'm in a different culture. It's very interesting, but can be tiring as well. When I was prepping to study abroad, everyone was telling me about how much culture shock I'd experience-- and I was only going to England, at that. However, I experienced no culture shock whatsoever that was attributable to English vs. American culture. It's not that I felt more comfortable in England than I did in America, but that I feel equally uncomfortable anywhere that nonverbal communication makes up 90% of communication.

I'm not saying this to make you think I'm really unusual or anything, just to point out that none of us are "just" our orientations, and we all have other traits and experiences that inform how we go about relationships. Hopefully among friends, we can be honest about the way we see the world without having people yell at us about what "causes" our orientations. Anyhoodle...

I've been trying to articulate this post for awhile, but was inspired to get 'er done by today's post from Shades of Gray. In that post, she talks about the issues surrounding initiating sexual activity when you're an asexual (or gray-asexual) in a relationship with a sexual person. Of course, I wouldn't know how to initiate sexual activity. But in my case, that's like worrying about calculus when you can't do arithmetic. What's baffled me ever since my friends started dating en masse was how people initiate romantic relationships. My wonderment about this seems to come from an unlimited wellspring. I could chalk it up to being asexual-- how the hell do you know who to date when you're not attracted to anyone-- but it seems like plenty of asexual people date. I could also chalk it up to NLD somehow-- but it doesn't follow that I can figure out how to make friends but not how to date people. I can sort of understand how online dating works, probably because in its early stages, it takes place in writing, my preferred mode of communication. I read a statistic somewhere that one in eight people who get married met their partner online. That's a pretty big number, but still, most people are finding love through more organic means. So the initiation of dating, as well as its importance in our culture, do feel like entries in a rulebook that I never got.

Maybe that's not a terrible thing. But, I've got to be honest, I'm not one of those "asexuals who could get sex if they wanted". I've always had some degree of interest in dating, but could never figure out a way to get it to work for me. While I've felt some degree of romantic attraction in the past, I haven't had a real crush (as opposed to a fake crush, thank you) in years, and my crushes never accompanied feelings that I wanted to be in relationships with those people. I seem to be getting more aromantic with age, if such a thing is possible. Other asexuals seem to "fall in love" with people, something I can't understand (unless we're talking about Felt's "Penelope Tree" or some such). Maybe I'm just trying to fit myself into a mold where I really don't fit. I'd think it would follow that my romantic feelings about Felt songs could translate to another person, but perhaps not. Maybe part of my lack of understanding stems from the fact that it's hard to understand couple relationships as one person sitting and thinking. Half of the energy of the hypothetical relationship (one would hope) would be brought by the other person. So maybe it's a futile thing to ponder as an individual. Andrea Dworkin would probably hit me over the head for saying such a thing-- to the plumbers of the depths of (a)sexuality, no line of inquiry is too pointless, no question too random, no train of thought too convoluted. Well, I promised articulation and didn't deliver it. But, I'd love to hear any experiences that people have, asexual or not, with initiating romantic relationships. Or is anyone else like me about this stuff?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Things Asexuals Like: Introversion

Again, this isn't really something we "like" per se, but something that seems to predominate among us. According to a poll on AVEN, 93% of 261 respondents claimed to be introverted. I've looked for statistics about what percentage of the total population is introverted versus extroverted, and conclusive evidence is hard to find. However, I've found no evidence that introverts could possibly be more than 50% of the general population. From the results on AVEN, one might think that introverts are just more likely to be on AVEN. As far as people who live on AVEN 24/7, that's probably true. But these days, most everyone is online, regardless of personality type. What I'd be more likely to believe is that introverts are more likely to question their sexuality, since we tend to spend more time alone with our thoughts. Introverts are also often told they're wrong-- that they need to be more outgoing, friendly, or social. There's a big divide between America's ideal personality and the introvert, a fact that could lead to increased self-questioning. Perhaps extroverts are more likely to go along with a crowd, whether it be to a party or to heterosexuality.

Maybe the people who claim "asexuals are smarter" are actually noticing a trait of introversion: The majority of "gifted"people (IQ over 130) are introverted. So maybe those people are actually noticing a real phenomenon, although they phrase it in an unnecessarily elitist way.

I'm an introvert, although apparently not a very strong one, since I tend to get bored when I'm by myself. I also don't like being alone with my thoughts, since I come up with disturbing things like the fact that I'm asexual-- har, har. I think it's important to note that being introverted doesn't necessarily mean you're shy or anti-social. My favorite way to understand the concept is that extroverts get energy from being around lots of people, while this tends to drain introverts. For me, the level to which I'm drained by social activity depends on how well I know and like someone. I can chat with a good friend for hours, but I have low tolerance for "cocktail party"-style banter with strangers. I need time alone to "recharge" from those situations.

One problem I had with writing this post is that I have no idea what the extrovert experience of life is like. The overwhelming majority of my family and friends have always been introverts, which seems unusual since by some counts, we're a minority of 25%. However, this enabled me to better avoid what seems to be a strong anti-introvert bias in American culture. Especially in the job market, the more introverted you are, the more you will get shafted (with some flexibility based on your field, but we don't all get to be computer programmers, you know). According to the well-known article Caring For Your Introvert, extroverts have a hard time understanding introverts. However, I feel like I know the experience of being sexual a lot better than the experience of being extroverted, since I have many sexual friends but few extroverted ones. It's also worth noting that values related to introversion and extroversion vary based on culture and gender. Let me tell you, it's hard to be the strong, silent type-- and female. But apparently, introverts are big in Japan.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

My Own Not-So-Private Utopia

"Yet one of the things that gets in the way of that struggle is the ingrained belief that our deep needs for loving community are actually aberrations and holdovers from childhood fantasies or immature yearnings for utopia that the mature individual will eventually overcome (175)."
--Michael Lerner, Surplus Powerlessness

When I read that, I did a double-take-- I felt like I was reading something out of my own journal. I've longed to feel a sense of community for as long as I can remember, and my interest in community-building is the main motivator behind my activities in the asexoverse. I know I'm not alone-- that most people, sexual or asexual, yearn for community too, even if they can't name the feeling (this is what Lerner writes, as well). However, it's not something that's usually spoken of. This is something I wrote in my journal on April 1st, 2006:

Ever since I read that article on Manchester in the 80's, I've been thinking about how cool it would be to be part of a minor cultural renaissance. Find my own Manchester to put on the map, you know? Living in a random town somewhere with a small group of artsy people, I'd record my friend's band, maybe play some keyboards on it, the people living next door would do the cover art and we'd sell it at the record store down the street. We'd get picked up by a small label, become a cult classic, spawn a few imitators and never be filthy rich. And of course we'd still meet at the pizza shop or whatever local place we've been frequenting since the beginning. I have no idea if this sort of life exists exists or is even possible, but if it did, I think I would be satisfied with it...I think...that what I really want is to be a part of a movement, or at least feel like a part of one. Even if it was auxiliary, or I didn't accomplish much, or I didn't realize it at the time, I guess I've always been a part of something...until now. And I wish I didn't care, but I do.

When I wrote this, I was almost about to graduate from college, and knew little of the world outside of school. I had no idea what the future might hold for me. Looking back, this entry strikes me as something that might look strange to someone who wasn't me and also a bit sad. Strange, because even though this was a vision of my future, it contained no details about where I lived, what job I had, if I was still single or not, or any of those details. Sad because I hardly wanted to rule the world. I just wanted to record an album that some people liked, a relatively minor thing, but I still had "no idea if this sort of life exists or is even possible". Even so, I gave voice to something that was a big dream for me. Today, it almost frightens me to think too much of that dream, and it definitely feels like a faraway utopia; I don't know how to connect the life I want and the life I have. Is that everyone's issue?

I know this post probably seems even more depressing than the last one, but Lerner's whole point is that this stuff shouldn't be. It should give us some hope, maybe, that other people feel the same things we do, even if those things are rarely mentioned and beaten down in our culture. Apparently, our desire for community is part of a "human essence" that even the most powerful forces can't take away. At any rate, I'm a very "solutions-focused" person and I know that my dream will never have any chance of manifesting if I keep it a secret. Sure, the chances may not be good for it now, but they're zero if I never tell anyone about it.

(Also, I did ask for "awkward" and not "highly disturbing" depictions of sex. However, I have to declare Gatto the winner of this challenge. Thanks for being a longtime reader, oh feline one. If you dare, check the original post for his winning comment.)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Personal Lives

By Jove, I think he's got it! Michael Lerner, writing in the book Surplus Powerlessness, circa 1986:

One reason why people don't get more upset about the pain of work is because they tend to accept the myth that Personal Life will make up for it all. Personal Life will be their compensation for the frustration of work, for the powerlessness they experience in their unions and in the political arena, and for the absence of any larger sense of purpose and meaning in life. "Don't worry about this area of Public Life," we are told, "because you can't expect anything in that sphere. But there will be a magical reward, a terrific Relationship that will make up for all your other deprivations.

...The locus of the fantasy that someone will come along and make everything OK changes with age...The content of the fantasy, however, remains constant. We are going to have a very deep and meaningful relationship with some person who will make the pain go away, who will make up for all the crap we have had to suffer through in the rest of our lives.

...Most people spend most of their waking hours at work and in transit to and from work. It should be no surprise, then, that the ways people come to feel about themselves at work, the sense of powerlessness, frustration and self-blame...has a deep and profound impact on how they feel about themselves in the remaining waking hours when they are not at work. The stress that they experience in the work world and the self-blaming that typically accompanies it, cannot be taken off like so many dirty clothes and thrown into the washing machine, while the real self suddenly emerges untainted and undisturbed. (pgs 73-75)

And one more good passage (among quite a few):

Moreover, the people entering these relationships are increasingly facing a world of work that is alienating and oppressive and stressful...They are encouraged by the dominant culture to expect that each individual relationship will provide a compensation for the world of work. Any given relationship must become the meaning and purpose of life-- for people who have not been able to find meaning and purpose at work and who find their larger communities of meaning appearing increasingly problematic and abandoned. (pg. 92)

Lately, I've been reading every book I can get my hands on about work (especially books that someone is calling "trenchant" on the front cover). I needed to find out why an exciting, challenging job ended up feeling like hell on earth, and I needed to find out if I had any right to be skeptical about some of our society's least-questioned norms (answer: we all do). For a long time, I had a feeling that our experience at work is intimately related to our attitudes about sex and relationships, but it's rare to see this connection made in such uncertain terms as it's made in Surplus Powerlessness. I don't accept the myth that "Personal Life", or a romantic relationship, will make it up for it all, so I DO get extremely upset about the pain of work. I've been told that I tend towards unhappiness due to my lack of myths about the world. However, it's no easier to force yourself to believe a myth than to try to be sexual as an asexual. You just know that something's not quite right.

Of course, it's worth noting that while we're pressured to find some solace in Personal Lives, our employers don't want us to have one--why would they? To quote the CEO of a large company that employs many people in my area (and whose name I am somehow wary to mention, considering I use their blogging tool...suffice it to say it rhymes with "Snoogle"):

The goal is to strip away everything that gets in our employees’ way. We provide a standard package of fringe benefits, but on top of that are first-class dining facilities, gyms, laundry rooms, massage rooms, haircuts, carwashes, dry cleaning, commuting buses – just about anything a hardworking employee might want. Let’s face it: programmers want to program, they don’t want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both.

This is supposed to sound like a good thing, a benefit. But I find the statement a little scary. Isn't a lot of what "gets in employees' way" stuff like relationships and interests outside of work? It seems like the more our Personal Lives shrink, the more they are expected to save us from the chronic stress of work (or, let's not forget, looking for work).

As a wise person once said, "The workplace is not a social service agency". It's a very rare employer who will actually care if their employees are happy. I work at a nonprofit and no one seems to care if I am so angry about being ignored and shut down that I cannot do my job properly, which just creates more stress. If this is the case at an organization that is supposed to care deeply about the human element, why would a corporation give a damn? Why don't we tend to do much to change these situations? According to Lerner, it's because we feel powerless, because we feel our workplace stress and hostility is just our own personal problem that would be fixed if we learned to "cope" better. Uh, no. Lerner wants us to be open about the issues we face, in relationships and on the job, so that people will realize that there are larger social forces at play and stop blaming themselves for everything lacking in their lives. Oddly enough, being asexual has encouraged me to do just that.