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: " 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 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 (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.