Saturday, March 27, 2010

How Quickly They Forget

I've been coming out as asexual for a few years now, and one thing I've noticed is that people tend to forget that I've come out to them...or at least, it seems that way sometimes. It's hard to know if someone really forgot or if they just didn't process the information. Either way, I can't help but think: Asexuality is so unusual, why wouldn't it stick in someone's mind? And if I mentioned being gay or bi, would it seem to be so easily forgotten? (I doubt it.)

Thinking on this further, it occurs to me that maybe it just seems like people forget because no one really knows "what to do with" an asexual. People make all sorts of different attempts, and some come a lot further to how I'd like to be treated than others. My ideal is a middle ground between acting like I've never said I'm not heterosexual on the one hand and making a huge deal out of my orientation on the other. When someone in my life makes occasional references to asexuality in a neutral or positive way, that means a lot to me. As does making any effort to inform others about asexuality--It really warms my heart when people do that.

At a friend's house recently, I was reading this Miss Manners book. It occurred to me that one reason coming out is so scary is that there is no known etiquette attached to it. While I think the proper response is something along the lines of "I'm glad you told me" (to be followed by research on the orientation in question), this is in no way codified in our culture. Thinking about etiquette (which seems to have a lot to do with avoiding the discomfort of others) made me realize that the person you tell about asexuality might feel as awkward as you do. I think one major reason why people who are usually open-minded can be so dismissive of asexuality is that the existence of a whole sexual orientation they don't know about makes them self-conscious about their lack of knowledge. If asexuality doesn't exist, then they can still think they know everything. Few people let go of their assumptions easily.

That's just one reason why I remain such a proponent of "passive" coming-out methods--the letter, e-mail, or blog post, for example. In America, being a straight-shooter is often what we aim for. But it was comforting to read Miss Manners and see that sometimes being a bit evasive is exactly what "should" be done to maintain civility. I think we definitely need a guide about what to say, and what not to say (and why) when someone comes out as asexual. I wrote a little about it here, but I'm talking about an actual document. It could include ways to make it easier for the asexuals in a person's life to be open about their orientation, which I think is a big component in "how we'd like to be treated" after the coming-out is over. Obviously that will vary, but I think it would be great to be able to hand a pamphlet on those topics to our friends and family. What do you think would be in it?


SlightlyMetaphysical said...

Been there, done that. I've come out dramatically to my mother at least 3 times, and if you watch her after you've stopped talking about it, you can actually see her forgetting. It seems impossible just to stay out.

Actually, I tend to forget I'm asexual with embarrasing regularity. I don't know what I think I am, not straight, gay or bi, it just doesn't occur to me that I have a label now.

I've never really considered before how to have coming-out information that includes all the aftermath for asexuals. Have you ever read PlaidAdder's "The Fine Art of Being Come Out To: A Straight Person's Guide to Gay Etiquette"? I'd link it, but it appears to have mysteriously disappeared from the internet. That has (had) some good information for how to deal with the after-effects.

To thrash out a basic answer to your actual question, I think an in-depth guide to asexual coming-out should include:

-When to start using the word asexual (and when to start by saying "I'm one of those people who's just not interested")
-How to tell the person how to give you the support you want, rather than the support they think you need ("I'm sure you'll find someone who'll change that...")
-How to deal with people who look like you've just told them the sky is falling in.
-What your options are if you realise you're in asexual while in a relationship
-What to expect from people, long-term

Kae said...

I think the problem is more along the lines of people not seeing asexuality as a real orientation. More like a phase, or simply disinterest in sex. It's boring, uninteresting, not memorable.

heidi said...

Perhaps it's because they never see you with another girl... or another guy... so the default is "must be single" [and looking, and hetero]. At least that seems to be the assumption. Saying you're celibate might get more of a mental note? Silly humans. Anyway, good to have you back, Ily!

Jack said...

Could it be that they hadn't actually forgotten that you said you were asexual, but that they didn't believe you (and kept it to themselves) and were always expecting you to 'grow out of it' or 'find the right person'?

Lanafactrix said...

I think part of the problem with coming out (not that I've ever come out myself!) is that it's hard to decide what you want of it. On the one hand, one's (a)sexuality is a big part of one's life, and it's important to have it be acknowledged and open. On the other hand, you don't want your sexuality to be the One Thing that defines you--you just want everyone to chill a little.

Ally said...

been there. just recently, in fact, I had this conversation with a friend. She has known me for several years, and most of the people who are a prominent feature in my life are well aware, and have been for years that I am A) not interested in sex. and B) not interested in relationships, as, even before I had a label for it, I HAD to have some kind of defense strategy for all the questions and 'knowing' looks. But HOW they understand seems to differ. I think, as Kae said, people don't often see it as a 'real' orientation. Or, as is the case with many of the people in my life, they see it as a 'lack of' orientation. It's not a thing on it's own, it only exists in terms of what I am NOT doing. The friend in question is bi, and we were talking about how it took her a long time to come out. She told me, "you don't understand how the people in my life would have reacted, when I was younger." Conveniently forgetting, of course, that of COURSE I understood. My sexuality is more in question every time I bring it up, "are you sure you're not gay? have you ever been abused? (fill in annoyingly invasive and off-the-mark question here)" and of COURSE I know what it's like not to have any clear answers. Her thinking was, since all I had to do was AVOID sexual and romantic situations, it should just be as simple as saying 'no thanks.' Which it really isn't. In addition, it's a tough thing to explain, that separation. We're forced to use the words sexuals use to describe feelings sexuals don't have, a lot of the time, like how when I say I have a crush on someone, it means something completely different to what it might mean if one of my sexual friends have a crush on someone. And since so many people think I can't POSSIBLY mean 'never' when I say 'never', many of them are waiting for me to change, and see that as a sign that I'm going to.

Wow that's long-winded. Anyway, the point is that sometimes it IS a matter of people just not thinking of it like a sexual orientation, so much as thinking of it as some kind of hole where a sexual orientation SHOULD be. So they know that I don't want sex, but that's all they know. They don't understand that it has it's own community, it's own language, and that it effects who I am and how I see the world and how the world sees me on a day-to-day. Kind of like how I have a disability that is sometimes hard to spot, and people don't 'see' me as a disabled person, and get really annoyed when I remind them that my disability effects more than how I walk and what my hands can do. Because, as you said, it makes people really uncomfortable to know that there are scores of things they don't know, or don't feel they need to know.

Ily said...

Thanks for all your perspectives! It seems like a lot of people have noticed the same phenomenon. And people not seeing asexuality as an orientation seems to be a theme. I've started to think that the fact that asexuality is an orientation might be the most important one we can work on conveying. It might even be more important than what exactly asexuality is. Do I have to tattoo the Storms Model on my forehead or what?!

I haven't seen "A Straight Person's Guide to Gay Etiquette", but wish I had. Part of it might be that it's hard to have an ongoing conversation about sexual orientation. Just coming out doesn't create or imply that. Sexual orientation doesn't seem to be something that people are used to talking about, unless they're queer themselves.

heidi said...

"Sexual orientation doesn't seem to be something that people are used to talking about, unless they're queer themselves."

Ily, that's a post unto itself! Definitely not something my mom was prepared for... even if it was about friends ("but he's such a nice young man, are you sure you can't date him?" um, unless I get a sex change...) ...ah, moms.

Anonymous said...

(SlightlyMetaphysical here, having some trouble with google account)

Aha, got it!

Not yet checked to see that it's as awesome as I remembered it, but I'm sure it has some ideas relevant to asexuals, both in the information and how it's communicated.

Ily said...

I think it might be easier for everyone if heterosexual people came out as heterosexual. I know, it sounds odd, but who knows what could happen? Maybe straight people could have some interesting conversations about their sexual identities that they would never have otherwise.

SM, that is *really* interesting and I'm sure I could spend at least one post responding to it...

Neira said...

Please don't feel bad for telling people or being open about it. You shouldn't feel you have to put their mild discomfort or disapproval first. If they react badly that's their fault.

Well done for having the courage to be yourself.

Bri said...

I've actually experienced this outside of coming out. The one friend I've come out to (who was also very supportive and has not forgotten my orientation), tends to tell me about all the guys she's dated and been in love with. When I tell her I've been in love, though, she always acts really surprised. This is despite the fact that a) I've told her multiple times before, and b) she was there when it happened (and knew at the time).

Since it seems to be a topic that she both considers important and acts comfortable with, a part of me wonders whether she just doesn't believe me or she's uncomfortable with my case in particular. Regardless, the whole forgetting thing seems to be a reaction to some kind of emotional response that leads the person to brush it off... whether it's disbelief, discomfort, or disinterest, though, I'm not sure.

Superquail said...

I'm glad you enjoyed Miss Manners! I think she has some interesting advice and a rather refreshing perspective on what constitutes "good" behavior.

In the section on babies, she included several letters from parents who were getting annoyed by the inane comments people would make about their infants. How many times to people have to ask you about the baby's teeth? And why would anyone care? Miss Manners' response was that these people are probably well-intentioned but just can't think of anything more interesting to say since the baby hasn't done much yet that can be commented upon.

Perhaps this is a bit like how some people react to asexuality: not knowing what to say, they end up making some asinine comment like "that's nice, dear" that doesn't really communicate anything. Having more education about asexuality and greater awareness would certainly help with that part of it.

The forgetting thing seems pretty odd. I know what SlightlyMetaphysical is saying when you actually watch someone forgetting something as you tell them, and I'm really not sure what's going on with that.

Bri could be on to something with her comment that people are perhaps brush things off that they just aren't comfortable with. My sister has done this on a number of occasions and it still baffles me. My mother once said something horrible to her, and when I talked to her about it a year later, she had no memory of it and was shocked all over again. The second time I mentioned it, she was shocked and appalled yet again, but couldn't remember that the event took place or that we had discussed it before. Memory is weird.

Ily said...

Memory is weird.

I would say that's an understatement! :-)

If people's (negative) responses were just inane chatter, I could understand that...but it's like when asexuality is mentioned, there are some people who seem to lose all impulse control. Luckily I've only been on the receiving end of this a few times.

Maybe another part of it is that people don't actually realize that we're coming out. Maybe they think we're telling them about some weird medical issue. But even so, that doesn't explain some people's comments...the "Worst responses to your asexuality" thread on AVEN has a whole gallery of facepalming examples.

Anonymous said...

I've been broadening the circle of people I'm out to, and as I go beyond my closest friends, I've been getting weirder reactions.

I've found that I don't actually have to supply the word asexual now, though, which shows that the visibility efforts are at least working. If it comes up I say, "Actually, I'm not attracted to anyone," and someone will pretty reliably say, "Oh, so you're asexual?"

That exchange happened, and the next utterance was, "Do you masturbate?" I was so surprised that I just answered "No", because it's simpler than explaining how a "Yes" answer can make sense. Next time I'll shoot back with something like, "Do you fellate?"