Friday, February 26, 2010

The Lonely Crowd, First Half

You guys must be starting to think that I have an odd fixation on the study of loneliness. I've read Bowling Alone, skimmed The Lonely American, and am now reading the granddaddy of them all, The Lonely Crowd. It would be an especially violent act of forced optimism to deny that sometimes, it can feel lonely to be asexual. And as we've established, it can also be easy to feel lonely as a single person in a society that offers little support to you. The underlying framework of this society is what David Riesman and friends unravel in The Lonely Crowd, which doesn't really have much to do with loneliness specifically. It was written in 1961, which is obvious throughout, as you'll find many offhandedly sexist comments and references to humans as "men", for a start. However, the book seems to still be relevant today. To paraphrase what Theodore Roszak said about Freud, there seems to be no cultural norm that is too sacred for Riesman's analysis.

In the first chapter, I was thinking, "I don't know if I'll get through this". Riesman introduces quite a few terms that I'd never heard before, and he throws them at you all at once, which is a little overwhelming. Add to that a dry tone, and I was not engaged from the start. But once I got the terms figured out, the book started moving a lot faster and getting a lot more interesting. Riesman's main point seems to be that one of three social frameworks predominates in a given society, and which one predominates is based on a society's level of population growth. Explaining them all would be time-consuming (be thankful for small mercies), but what's most important to know is that in our era, we're moving (or by now, have already moved) into a "social character" (or mode of conformity) that Riesman calls "other-directed". As other-directed people, our products are our personalities and our challenge is to have them approved by others. An example of other-directed focus would be a job interview where "teamwork" and "attitude" are a lot more important than your achievements. It's not a flattering portrayal of our society. And considering there are only two other choices of "social character", neither of which seem objectively better, it's looking pretty depressing at this point. Riesman promises that in the last chapter, he'll talk about a viable alternative, "autonomy". Whether his solutions are actually workable will have to wait to be seen, until I finish the book.

Riesman has some clear opinions about sex in an other-directed society, although his comments are brief, and you don't get to them until page 145. However, I can add Riesman to my growing list of people (Michael Lerner, Gunter Schmidt, Leonore Tiefer) who relate our boring and impersonal work lives with our excitement about sex. He writes:

In this phase [of incipient population decline] there is not only a growth of leisure, but work itself becomes both less interesting and less demanding for many; increased supervision and subdivision of tasks routinize the industrial process even beyond what was accomplished in the phase of transitional growth of population. More than before, as job-mindedness declines, sex permeates the daytime as well as the playtime consciousness. (146, emphasis mine)

And if you can forgive the rhyming of the above, here is another of Riesman's thoughts on the matter:

Though there is tremendous insecurity about how the game of sex should be played, there is little doubt as to whether it should be played or not. Even when we are consciously bored with sex, we must still obey its drive. Sex, therefore, provides a kind of defense against the threat of total apathy. This is one of the reasons why so much excitement is channeled into sex by the other-directed person. He looks to it for reassurance that he is alive. (146, emphasis Riesman's)

In previous times, sex was for "production and reproduction" (146). Now, that's changed. If anything, I think it's probably easier to be asexual now than it was in past eras. However, I don't think it's a coincidence that we're called "cold", "frigid", and other adjectives that make us sound less "alive", like a body in the morgue. I also think asexuals have proved that without an excitement about sex, apathy does not reign.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Single Women in "More" Magazine

Speak of the devil! I just found an article about long-term single women in More, a magazine targeted towards women over 40. A selection from the article is here. I liked how the author, Susan Dominus, talked about community as being important for single women, and she also mentioned co-housing communities, which have always sounded kind of cool to me (although they seem more suited to older people who are in the position to buy their own homes). The article did have a tone that to me, seemed almost defensive, leading me to believe that there is an expectation that single women would be judged harshly by their peers. It's not something I've really experienced, however, let's check back when I get to 40+ years old (assuming I'm still single). For example, "'s easy to imagine that those who reject [marriage] may have come from unhappy families.." (the women profiled in the article didn't) and "...none fit the caricatures of the frustrated spinster or wacky Auntie Mame".

I thought it was interesting how it was repeatedly mentioned that these women had not given up on romance: "They didn't set out to be single, and they're still open to meeting a soul mate." "This comfort level with going it alone doesn't mean these women have renounced all dreams of romance". And, "None of the women interviewed for this story consciously set out to live without a mate. In fact, each of them has come close to getting hitched at least once, sometimes twice." I may be reading too much into this, but as we move forward with the acceptance of singlehood or other alternative lifestyles, I wouldn't want it to be the case that it's only acceptable to be single if you're seen as romantically desirable. Whether or not being single is our choice, shouldn't we be able to make the most of it anyway? I also wondered why there were no photos of the women who were featured in the article, especially when role models for single life were mentioned as being important.

I was glad to find this article, even though I'm not in its demographic. But would an article like this ever be published in a magazine targeted towards younger women? I doubt it, unless we're talking about a more "indie" publication like Bitch. Even at the tender age of 25, I'm already a long-term single woman. Most people my age have been dating, either consistently or on and off, for 10 years. In my mind, that's a long time. Looking at the media, you'd think women like me simply don't exist.

For a year, I had a subscription to the popular magazine Details, which is targeted towards men, although it also has some female readers. There would never have been an article in that magazine about long-term single men, unless there was some other titillating factor playing into their single status. I don't think that it's necessarily seen as okay for men to be perpetually single, either. Once single men get older, they might be seen as players or people who have issues with commitment. Could this have anything to do with the fact that we've only had one single president? However, while it goes without saying that these men are out there, apparently we're still working on the burden of proof when it comes to older single women. Or at least, we're trying to show that such women can lead lives that are just as exciting as their male brethren, and that they are not objects of pity.

I'll end with an interesting quote from the More article, which comes from Bella DePaulo, author of a book called Singled Out. She said: "American women spend more years of their adult life unmarried than married...So instead of thinking of single life as transitional, we should really be thinking of marriage as what comes between one single phase and the next." Romantic, no...but pragmatic, yes.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Eternal Hope and the Long-Term Single Life

"You coming back to me is against the odds, and that's what I've got to face."
--Phil Collins...hee, hee

(Note before we get rolling: I'm using the term "marriage" a lot in this post, but for my purposes here, it could refer to any romantic relationship where you're no longer single. A lot of people aren't too keen on marriage these days, but that doesn't mean that the tyranny of coupledom has dissipated much. Anyway...) I can't begin to count the amount of times I've read or heard a romantically frustrated asexual be told:

"There are asexual couples who've gotten married! Don't give up hope!"

I briefly touched on this topic in this long-ago post, but I'm hoping to take the idea a little further now. That yes, asexuals marry is not an incorrect answer. There are, indeed, asexual couples who've gotten married, although you can count the number that we know of on your hands. There are also, of course, asexuals in "mixed" relationships and asexuals in romantic relationships that aren't marriage. But is this answer a productive one? Does it really make the person feel any better? Maybe in the short term. But in the long term, I think that the prevalence of this response takes our focus away from unique matters that the asexual community could be pursuing. Personally, when I get told that others have found "the one", so "don't give up!", it just makes me think, "Well, I can't find a partner, so what's wrong with me?" People tend to not blame systems, but blame themselves.

There's this insidious assumption, possibly an American one, that if it's humanly possible for something to be accomplished, then you can do it, too. These are usually the "bootstraps" stories-- if one poor kids can get out of the ghetto and become a CEO, then you can, too. Of course, these stories ignore the panoply of social factors and issues that affect people. That said, this "bootstraps" type of assumption often plays out when people talk about relationships. The problem with "bootstraps" is that if ours malfunction, we feel worse than we did before. Yes, it's possible for asexuals to marry. But holding up romantic relationships as objects of eternal hope (to everyone but especially to asexuals) puts us in a place where it's too easy to feel like we're inadequate if we can't achieve what others have done.

In our culture, there is always hope that a single person will marry, regardless of the situation. "Don't worry, you'll find someone." But will we? Asking that question can feel like staring into a cultural abyss. If I was "holding out hope" for doing anything else that has the same odds of two asexuals marrying, I'd be called crazy. But when it comes to romance, it seems, no odds are too small. Most of our entertainments and forms of media support this idea, or rather, sell it with an intensity that is almost nonsensical. Maybe other single asexuals feel more confident about their romantic prospects than I do, but that doesn't change the fact that a lot of us are likely to stay single...if we're holding out for true love, that is. And let's not leave our aromantic brethren (of all orientations) out of this, either. Going back to our old friend The New Single Woman, E. Kay Trimberger writes:

Feminists in the vanguard of changing norms in the 1970s did not connect their commitment to finding idealized love--their belief that they did not have to settle-- to an increase in the probability that they would remain single. Today, young women may be just as unaware of the connection. But any attachment to this cultural ideal also means that women who are well into midlife may continue to search for a soulmate, with harmful results, I believe, for their well-being. Psychologist Karen Lewis, who is single, articulates some of the personal costs of a culture that values the couple above all other intimate connections: "At no point do single women know for sure that they will never marry. The ambiguity always leaves room for hope: Maybe the right man will come along during the next week or next month, on the next vacation, at the next business meeting, during the next walk with the dog. And as long as there is hope, there is the pain of ambiguity." (16-17, emphasis mine)

I know that single women deal with this; I would imagine that men might deal with something similar, although I can't speak for the guys on this one. The solution, to Trimberger (and to me) is to allow people to "envision or find support for a long-term single life" (4) and to " alternative vision" (17) to the eternal soulmate quest. And these alternative visions, to me, are something that the asexual community could really help to develop. I've always thought that as asexuals, we could use our differences for the greater good. Of course, some asexuals will marry, but I think it behooves everyone in our society to have more choices than either to be married or to be always seeking a mate. The asexual community, full of people who might remain single for long periods of time, is the perfect group to take on that project. As it is now, if you imply that another person will remain single for any length of time, it sounds like you're cursing them with a fate worse than death. I think that mindset is something we need to change.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What Became of Class?

"If you've got letters after your name, or someone else to take the blame, you've got privilege".
--Television Personalities

Okay, you should definitely read the title of this post in the manner of the song from Chicago. In the comments to a previous post, Slightly Metaphysical mentioned that "there have been some comments on AVEN that asexuality is a white identity". It's a statement I've heard implied before. Okay, once. But still, it's something that's being asked, somewhere. I've been lucky enough to meet a lot of asexuals, and I've seen racial diversity in those I've met. As much as exists in my particular area as a whole? That, I don't know. As far as the question goes, I find it impossible to even guess at it directly. To do that, I feel like I'd need some sort of data both about asexuals and about the racial makeup of other queer identities. I think it's a multi-pronged question, but there is one small (?) prong I feel confident tackling. And that's class.

I don't think it's that surprising to state that at least in America, race tends to map onto class. In different regions of America, you'll find people of various backgrounds who predominate as "the poor". The constant is that the higher you go in terms of socio-economic class, the more white people there are. Of course, there are non-white people who are affluent and there are plenty of poor whites. However, when I look at the very rich people in my area, and then look at the people in poverty, I am generally looking first at white people, then at people of color.

So while class and race aren't permanently married, they can be connected statistically, and this is an idea you'll have to consider buying into in order for the rest of this post to relate to asexuals and race. My thesis here is that while I may not be able to prove (or disprove) a racial divide in people who identify as asexual, I may be able to prove that there is a class divide.

First, a fact: Most of the information available on asexuality is on the internet. And a lot of people still don't have access to the internet. "The digital divide" is a reality even in America. When poor people do have internet access, they might be using public or shared computers, and would have to accomplish the essentials rather than doing exploratory research on sexuality. If you're a low-income person, you might not have a job that requires you to use a computer, and you might have not learned to use one. This especially applies to older people, if the advent of computers happened when they were already out of school.

There's also the fact that when you're in poverty, you might not have all that much free time. Time-saving conveniences cost money, so being poor usually takes up a lot of someone's time. Since asexuality is the lack of a feeling, I think it can be a lot harder to realize you're asexual than to realize you're gay or bi. For me, I don't think it was a coincidence that I discovered I was asexual when I was able to spend some time in relative solitude, away from my everyday life. A lot of people in poverty don't have that opportunity. College is a prime time for people to question their identities, including sexuality, but you have to be able to afford to go there, at least in the US. Your income doesn't affect how thoughtful you are or how much you question. But, there are certain environments that are more conducive to those things than others. Being in poverty can include a lot of urgent worries like unsafe living conditions or medical problems you can't afford to fix.

I think one reason for the class disparity isn't that AVEN (the place from which most info on asexuality springs forth) is inherently classist or anything but that it just doesn't have the resources to target particular groups of people beyond the media that comes to us. Hopefully, this will change in time. I think that in the future, people of all classes will know about asexuality, however, right now, I think that knowledge of asexuality is largely skewed towards people who are relatively more affluent, or at least come from families fitting that description. I know some readers will be thinking, "Well, I'm asexual, and I'm poor". But it's not individuals I'm talking about here, it's general trends. And of course, people who weren't able to find out about asexuality due to class-based reasons (or any reason, I guess) won't be reading this and commenting here. So that's my theory...or at least, one potential circuitous route.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Attraction: Less is More?

The OkCupid blog had one other article I found interesting, and this was about response rate based on people's attractiveness. As you might imagine, pretty people get more responses (although of course, who is and isn't pretty can be subjective). However, the article also had some more nuanced findings, which were that while most men, no matter how they look, go for the most beautiful women, women tend to shoot for average-looking men, even if these women are much more attractive themselves. Yep, it's the "King of Queens" effect in full force-- something we see all the time in movies and TV, but apparently people follow the same patterns when it's just them and their computer. Art/life, or life/art? (I'm aware that referring to "The King of Queens" as "art is stretching it.) Interestingly, Kevin James is married to a modelesque woman in real life.

Maybe this has to do with the fact that women know that a lot of really good-looking guys have become kind of...full of themselves. We all know "that" guy. However, I think we've also all met "that" heterosexual man who is not all that conventionally good-looking, but is just as cocky and feels just as entitled to female attention as the "hotter" guys.

So my question is this: For asexuals, does appearance matter more, or less? I think it could really go either way. "Less" is the obvious answer because duh, we're not sexually attracted to anyone. However, a lot of us still experience some kind of non-sexual attraction, in which looks might be a factor. "More" actually makes sense to me because as someone who isn't into men or women on any consistent basis, it takes a lot to catch my eye. Like I said, "pretty" is subjective, and I've definitely been attracted to people in the past who looked good to me, but still wouldn't beat Johnny Depp (or whoever else the girls go wild about) on You know how people say "I'd go gay for ____", ____ being some hot celebrity of the same sex? I'm not implying there's a "right person" who will "make us sexual"-- you should know me better than that by now. But for someone like me, who only has a crush on someone once every 5 years, it obviously takes some kind of panache, and a lot of it, to get me interested romantically. Or maybe it's just random and my 5-year mark was drawing near.

On a related note, it feels confusing sometimes to be an asexual who is romantically attracted to people, but only very rarely. It sort of puts me in a rock/hard place situation when it comes to dating. ("What dating?" Yeah, yeah.) Nothing has, of yet, compelled me to become romantically involved with someone I'm not attracted to. However, the fact that I do have rare attractions can give me the vague feeling that I'm "missing something" the rest of the time. I don't doubt that for me, this is what's normal. And I'm assuming there are others who feel the same way. But still...