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?


Bond said...

May I ask how you're defining sex/sexual? I totally agree that whether asexual folks masturbate is both nobody else's business and not necessarily relevant to asexual identity, but I'm having trouble imagining any definition of sex that is consistent with this post. I usually define sex as something like, "physical stimulation in the general direction of orgasm for one or more people." I can't think of any other definition that isn't either circular/self-referential (i.e., "stimulation etc. that the participats deem sexual") or that doesn't exclude things that are definitely sex acts (if someone's mind wanders to beautiful landscapes with being pleasured by a lover, is the act rendered not sex?).

Ily said...

You may! :-) Looking up "sex" and "sexual" in the dictionary, all the definitions were, as you said, circular and self-referential. For example, one definition of "sex" was "sexual intercourse". duh? I don't have a written-in-stone definition for sex (was that totally obvious from my post?), but I tend to think it would involve more than one person.

Ily said...

Just to clarify, I'm not saying masturbation isn't sexual, but that it's in a gray area where it could be either. I'm not sure if that was totally clear?

.::.~*Dovie*Lee*~.::. said...

You know someone tried to attack me about my possibly identifying as Asexual and said its no different than celibacy because I still masturbate and like men. Ugh....Ily I'm going to email you. I should still have ur email in my inbox. Maybe you can give me some perspective.

Be on the look out babez!

Meah said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but can we not just point out that asexuality at least in part refers to a lack of sexual attraction to other people and leave it at that?

SlightlyMetaphysical said...

Bond, I think maybe Ily was saying that there's a big difference between sex and sexuality. Masturbation may be inextricably a sex act, because it involves genitals being manipulated in similar ways to sex, but sexuality is a lot harder to pin down. If you're doing the same action, but thinking either: "Oh golly, my partner is hot. Imagine what..." or "What a beautiful sunset..." or even "I must remember to cancel my milk order before I go on holiday", those are, to me, completely different acts.

Another reason asexuals don't like defining masturbation as inherently sexual is that, as Ily says, some people say masturbating asexuals shouldn't count, completely missing the point that masturbating asexuals still don't have sexual attraction.

Ily, I love how you went straight to your dictionary. It's very interesting that all the definitions of sex are self-referential. I don't think I've seen many non-self-referential definitions at all, except for the coital definition, which I've always suspected was created mostly for virgins-till-marriage and Bill Clinton.

Anonymous said...

Without going into endlessly circular arguements, it might be easiest to define sex as something which would cause a person to lose his or her virginity.
Whether or not that would include oral sex might be open to discussion, but the fact that it has to involve more than one person should be obvious to everybody.

SlightlyMetaphysical said...

Anonymous, for saying you want to avoid circular arguments, that's quite a big one. The only way to define loosing your virginity is having sex, so if the only way to define having sex is what might make you loose your virginity, we still haven't arrived at any non-self-referential definition.

I'm not sure non-self-referential definitions of sex are actually that useful, though.

Ily said...

Interesting discussion we've got for "leaving it at that", I totally hear you Meah, but sometimes when you leave something, other people pick it up and take it to places you never would have intended. I know there are too many assumptions made about asexuality to target all of them, but I figure we can at least do what we're able to.

I think this is yet another place where asexuals can be useful to sexuality as a whole-- "sex" really has no standard definition, and yet everyone just says "sex" as if we're all on the same page. I think outsiders' views would be helpful here. I agree, SM, those acts are different, not because what goes on physically is different, but because they would probably have different meanings and intentions to the person. I tend to be of the "we create our own reality" school of thought, which probably shows in this post. :-P

Feel free, Dovie...people can be really difficult sometimes. Sometimes it's like, "Well, I'm trying to tell you something important about myself here, but you're just getting hung up on semantics..."

Kim said...

heidi said...

What a great post! It's one of the most popular questions, and one that's pretty easy for me to answer: I'd rather have a back rub, shoulder rub, hug, cup of tea, or a good nap. It's all physical stimulation of sorts, and on occasion masturbation might help facilitate that nap, but really the bottom line is feeling good. So perhaps a group hug is an orgy, sheesh.

Siggy said...

I consider masturbation to be sexual (though I only speak for myself). If asked, I explain it this way: Imagine you're a straight guy, but you live in a world where there are no women. You experience no attraction. But would that stop you?

How can someone have certain sexual characteristics or behaviors and still call themselves asexual? Well, no one says that asexual means utterly lacking in anything sexual whatsoever. And even if that's what it meant, we would still need to talk about degrees of asexuality. I feel that the most pragmatic way to measure degrees of asexuality is by measuring the degree to which we relate to the set of asexual experiences. The most important experience is attraction to other people. Masturbation is relatively unimportant, and I hardly feel the need to relate to anyone about it.

And lack of masturbation isn't a particularly common asexual experience anyways. More common is the feeling of doubt caused by having all these almost-sexual behaviors which, absurd or not, fail to translate to sexual attraction.

Anonymous said...

Here via Feminists with FSD, and I love this post. I'm not asexual myself, but being queer, kinky, and sexually dysfunctional, I'm used to defining sex differently.

And if you blur the lines by saying that so-called non-Real Sex™ things "count as" sex (i. e., frottage or bondage)

—why shouldn't you then affirm that so-called sexual activities...aren't?

Here's a real-world example: when I was a very young child, I masturbated. I didn't have a sexual orientation. I wasn't fantasizing about sex at all (that kind of thing would have frightened me); I did imagine stories, though (which are none of anyone's business). I could only conceive of it as a sort of hunger and satiety thing. It was hella fun. Of course, I thought Duck Tales, birthday cake, and dinosaurs were also hella fun.

Later, I developed a sex drive and attractions and what not—but it could have turned out differently. I think that we in society assign meanings to things, and come to think the meanings are innate when they're really not.

Thank you for shedding light on a very loaded topic!

Ily said...

Thanks, Anon! I agree with you on the assumptions that meanings are innate. Tends to be especially true when it comes to gender...

Anonymous said...

Especially since sex means so many different things to different people, and since masturbation is sexual *for some people*, I just have to point out:

The simple fact of a person having a physiological "sexual response" or even partaking in something that might seem to an outside observer to be sexual DOES NOT in and of itself make something sexual beyond the trivial sense of "pertaining to sexual or reproductive systems" (which would define masturbation as trivially sexual in the same way that menstruation and meosis also happen to be).

Example: Rape. Rape is an act of violence and not an act of sex. An outside observer from a variety of vantage points might have difficulty distinguishing between rape and sex. They remain nevertheless drastically different things.

-- Omnes et Nihil (i.e. not the same poster as Anonymous, seen previously)

Ily said...

True, Omes. I'd like to think that you wouldn't get any disagreement on that point.

Ily said...

Or, Omnes.

paz-kid said...

You know, possibly someone might also still be unable to believe in the concept that a person can live without sex, when they ask the question of whether an asexual masturbates or not. If a person masturbates, then it demonstrates that they have a 'normal' sexual desire, or need, which most people think is a natural human drive/need now. Not even masturbating is hard for some people to imagine, as most people think that your parts down there would still need to be satisfied somehow, right?

Just another thought on this subject that came to me now.

kaz said...

Belated, but commenting because I am a fellow asexual whom the "do you masturbate" question bugs to no end.

The thing is, it's so *senseless*. If liking genital stimulation had to mean that you liked other people doing it to you we would not have sexual orientations at all. If a straight woman can masturbate but *still* not want to have sex with women, why assume that an asexual who masturbates can't be *really* asexual?

And, you know, how can you possibly think "do you masturbate" is an appropriate question to ask anyone outside of some VERY specific circumstances (of which "they are coming out to me as having a specific sexual orientation" is NOT one)? It makes me think the asker has been raised by wolves! *flails*

Ily said...

And, you know, how can you possibly think "do you masturbate" is an appropriate question to ask anyone outside of some VERY specific circumstances (of which "they are coming out to me as having a specific sexual orientation" is NOT one)? It makes me think the asker has been raised by wolves! *flails*

These are my thoughts exactly! I've been asked the question in an educational context, which might make it a little more appropriate, but still...the question is never "do asexuals masturbate?" but always "do YOU masturbate?" And especially in the educational context, the answer to the latter question isn't in any way relevant.

Anonymous said...

The reason I imagine people ask this question is because they don't know what "asexual" means. Does it mean not being attracted to other people, or not having any urge for genital stimulation whatsoever?

This is why I think sexual categorization is so silly and inconsistent. Rather than arguing over the limits of the term "asexual," "gay," "straight," and so on, we could just say, "I like to have sex with men" or "I don't like to have sex with anyone," etc. So much easier to understand!

Ily said...

I agree. A lot of people seem to make (wrongful) assumptions about the definition. And even if they do know it, again, a lot of people have never really thought before about its terms.

Ryan said...

i've been following your blog here somehow stumbling upon it while searching for answers as a person who has always had a high fascination with things that are "sexual" or so sensory overwhelming as to lose control, i came across this blog. honestly, i lump things that overwhelm sensory to that extent as somewhat inherently sexual. so of course when you say orgasms aren't inherently sexual, it feels completely nonsensical. i have had different degrees of orgasms during masturbation, so really i get it when someone says masturbating to scratch an itch, i get it. there are just so many reasons (or non-reasons) why someone would masturbate or have sex (or choose not to) that if we start to break them down with such detail we'll get down to labeling every moment of each individual in the universe as unique.

it seems like there's just way too many labels to my overall opinion about asexuals, or any other label, lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual. there are lesbians who have sex with men. it just seems like identity politics.