A blog by an autistic asexual

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Being asexual, being autistic

This is a post for this month’s Carnival of Aces, whose theme is analogies to an asexual experience.

After reading Queenie’s submission to this month’s carnival, in which she said that she could not imagine a world in which she was not asexual, and Jo’s post spurred by Queenie’s, where she posits how an identity such as asexuality can become undetachable, I started to think about my own experiences with undetachable identities. I realized that a lot of my experiences as an asexual person have been analogous to my experiences as an autistic person, and not only because both identities for me are undetachable.

Autism is undetachable from me because it literally describes how my brain developed. I can learn coping skills, I can study social skills, and I could even learn to pass as non-autistic, but that doesn’t change that my experience of the world (especially my sensory processing and how I relate to others) is fundamentally different from a non-autistic person’s. A neurotypical person is able to acquire social knowledge in ways that I as an autistic person can’t. My experience of the world is filtered through autism, whether I want it to or not. Both autism and asexuality affect the types of relationships I desire with others.

Similarly, asexuality has made my experience of interpersonal relationships fundamentally different than if I were not asexual. Asexuality very strongly shapes the types of relationships I seek out, and how I interact with others, especially because the types of relationships I seek out with others are atypical in ways other than lack of sexual attraction. I would not have been able to have words for those relationships without having interacted with the asexual community.

I have experienced similar types of adversity for being an autistic person and for being an asexual person, sometimes at the same time. I was once at an asexual visibility event In New York City where a few of us from the AVEN meetup group were in a park holding up signs that said “Ask an Asexual.” One passerby asked us if we were autistic. I was the only once who said I was, and he proceeded to completely ignore me while lecturing the other aces there about how they should be evaluated for autism, presumably so that they could be “cured” of both things. Other than that one time, I have experienced people wishing to cure me of both things, but separately. It is worth noting that being autistic involves facing a far more dangerous kind of cure rhetoric than being asexual: As far as I am aware, there is generally no widespread eugenicist motivation in people who desire to cure asexuals of asexuality.

I have experienced being told to shut up when I have attempted to advocate for myself as an autistic person and when attempting to advocate for myself as an asexual person. I have been told that my experiences and opinions don’t matter. In the case of autism, it is because I have asked for something so that my environment is more accessible to my sensory processing, or because I have said I don’t want to be cured of autism. In the case of asexuality, it’s because I have asked for a discussion to be inclusive to asexual experiences, or because I’ve said lack of sexual attraction is not inherently a problem in need of fixing.

While for me this analogy ends here, I wonder how other autistic aces have experienced autism and asexuality in relation to each other.

A question begged, in asexual and demisexual vis-ed

I have been involved in demisexual visibility work on Tumblr for some time, to the point of making charts to explain it:

click to enlarge

[Demisexuality chart transcript here]

I included the note in the corner because when talking about demisexuality, I have frequently had to explain that demisexuality is a different phenomenon from preferring to get to know someone before having sex.* In order to demonstrate this, it is necessary to give examples of situations where a person is experiencing sexual attraction without willingness to have sex, and vice versa.

A person might be sexually attracted to another person but unwilling to have sex with them for any multitude of reasons: sex repulsion, a history of sexual abuse, and medical problems that cause pain during sex (e.g. vaginismus) are only a few. Likewise, it is possible to be willing to have sex in the absense of sexual attraction. Though sex repulsion is very common among asexuals, it is not unheard-of for a non-sex-repulsed asexual person with a non-asexual partner to occasionally be willing to have sex with the partner.** Additionally, it is unrealistic to assume that a person who willingly chooses sex work is sexually attracted to all their clients.

In drawing attention to that sexual attraction refers to something different from willingness to have sex, these conversations about demisexuality beg the question of what sexual attraction actually is. I don’t have an answer to that question. Although asexual-spectrum visiblity and education efforts have made it clearer what sexual attraction is not, the definition of sexual attraction has still eluded us. But I think that pointing out things sexual attraction is not—it’s neither sexual arousal nor willingness to have sex—is a step in the right direction, though indirect. When such things as sexual attraction are often described as “you know it when you feel it,” I think it means we have to be indirect.

* Another way to respond to this argument about demisexuality is to point out that when a non-asexual-spectrum person states such a preference, the person is saying that sexual attraction by itself is not sufficient for them to be willing to have sex with the person, and thus that they are already experiencing sexual attraction, and by definition not demisexual. While this can be a satisfying answer for the purposes of visibility, it still begs the question.

** It is worth noting that this behavior should not be interpreted as common or expected among asexuals without sex repulsion. Expecting sex from an asexual person just because you’ve heard that some asexuals are sometimes willing to have sex is abusive behavior.

Emotional investments

It has happened to me before, a few times, that I got emotionally invested in a character in a book or show, and that character suddenly died, so I stopped reading or watching the series because I couldn’t handle experiencing the series without that character.

I think I have gotten better at recognizing becoming emotionally invested in a fictional character’s fictional well-being because it doesn’t seem to happen to me anymore, perhaps because now I have real people in whom I am emotionally invested, who are also emotionally invested in me.

I think that when I would get emotionally invested in fictional characters, it was a thing that protected me from feeling lonely. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong or unhealthy about getting emotionally invested in fiction, because it can be a very valuable coping mechanism that protects a person from feeling lonely. I also think that my past emotional investments with fictional characters gave me some preparation for the possibility of bad things happening to real people I care about. It obviously won’t shield me from feeling sad or powerless, but it serves as a sobering reminder of how there are many things that are out of my control.

And that’s why I don’t make judgments about people who get very emotionally invested in the fictional affairs of fictional characters.

Forgiveness

Trigger warnings: This post is about abuse.

A few weeks ago, I watched a documentary about the Amish, where an Amish woman spoke about what forgiveness meant to her. Her school-age daughter had just been murdered. This Amish mother described forgiveness as a state of mind where you give up your right to revenge and let nature (God, in her words) take its course. Forgiveness does not mean you believe the person did no wrong. It means not holding a grudge.

I find this definition of forgiveness very attractive, but I am not completely certain that it is compatible with my beliefs regarding abuse. I do not hold a grudge against an abusive partner I had several years ago, but I don’t want to say I forgive him. If I said I forgave him, people around me would interpret this as my saying he did no wrong. Additionally, if that person were to enter my life again, I would not trust him not to hurt me again, and I would avoid him for my own safety. It is common for people to interpret this behavior—avoiding a past abuser—as holding a grudge, even though it’s about safety.

I harbor no malice for my past abuser, but part of my healing process was to experience anger about everything he had done to hurt me. It was necessary for me to feel angry and to imagine revenge, in order to feel safe and secure. I emphasize imagine because I never set out to hurt my abuser. My imaginings of revenge were private. I was able to get to a point where those imaginings were no longer necessary, but I don’t think it’s my place to say that every survivor of abuse can. Nor do I think that it would make sense for me to say that every survivor of abuse should aspire to hold no grudge. Grudges can be a very powerful tool to use to feel safe.

So while I really like the idea of being able to get the release of not holding a grudge againt a person who has wronged me, I don’t live in a world where I can have faith that the person will become a better person. Because I live in a society that delegitimizes being non-cisgender, I can’t trust that the high-school classmates who harassed me ten years ago for being non-binary will ever come to realize that they were wrong to do so. I have to be afraid. For my own safety, I can’t forgive them.

An explanation of my disappearance

I have been absent from this blog since September because around then, my life became a whirlwind of paperwork and bureaucracy. Over the past five months, I learned to crochet, was professionally evaluated for autism and ADHD, was diagnosed with both conditions, was rejected for SSI, filed an appeal of that rejection, got engaged, lost my food stamp benefits for a month when people at the office lost my recertification paperwork, opened an Etsy shop to sell crocheted items (including asexual pride hats!), and just recently was approved for SSI on basis of being an extremely anxiety-ridden autistic person whose sensory processing is not compatible with normal jobs.

I am very happy that things in my life are generally looking up, and now that my time of constantly dealing with bureaucracy is (mostly) over, I will be able to devote more time and energy to this blog.

The New Asexual Elitists

Trigger warning: This post contains potential references to rape and abuse.

I want to draw attention to a piece in the most recent issue (#25) of AVENues (download links are here), a bimonthly newsletter that the asexual community of AVEN produces.

In the July/August 2013 issue of AVENues, user Talia wrote a piece called “Asexual Elitism is Alive and Well,” in which they discuss a very prevalent manifestation of asexual elitism that is not often recognized as such. Talia introduces the subject:

AVEN rejects asexual elitism by defining asexuality on its website homepage as “A person who does not experience sexual attraction” (The Asexual Visibility and Education Network). This definition allows an asexual to engage in any type or amount of sexual behavior; their identity only relies on the fact that they are not sexually attracted. On the AVEN forums, gbird143 expands on this by writing, “In theory, a person could even earn their living as a prostitute and still be a perfectly valid asexual” (gbrd143). While it might seem like we have exposed and challenged asexual elitism, I will argue that, in fact, we have only changed its superficial appearance.

Inherent to nearly all conversations about asexuality, on AVEN and in scholarly journals, is the assumption that asexuals either do not want to have sex or will have sex if it is the most convenient option. One example of this is gbird143’s claim that a person is still asexual if they have sex under “extenuating circumstances.” These circumstances are described as possible of being “less than a death threat” and potentially as small as “the path of least resistance which will avoid an argument” (gbird143). This is echoed in Mark Carrigan’s article, “How do you know you don’t like it if you haven’t tried it?”, when he describes asexuals as either sex-averse or sex-neutral. There are only two categories. Carrigan claims that asexuals exist who specifically want to have sex, but the explanation for this is that they have sex for the intimacy it offers (14). In all of these articulations, the asexual who wants to have sex because it feels good is absent.

I am one such asexual person who has struggled with the sex-averse/sex-neutral dichotomy because of the times when I sought out sexual pleasure from another person because it felt good. I refer to the partnered sexual activity I have had as “assisted masturbation” because for me, that was what it was. I had an itch that needed scratching, that required a second person to do it. There was no intimacy in the act, and the person did not have any kind of partner-relationship with me, nor did I want them to. (I have particularly struggled with whether or not “sex averse” describes me, because it only describes me if sex is defined as exclusively related to genitals. The sexual activity I have had did not involve any genital activity, but it was unquestionably sexual activity.)

Talia goes on to argue that much of asexual discourse and visibility efforts neglects to mention the category of asexuals who enjoy sex because it feels good because of the residual asexual elitism in the asexual community. While the asexual community has largely rejected the elitist idea that having sex means a person must be experiencing sexual attraction, the asexual community largely has not taken notice of that it is also elitist to believe that wanting sex because it physically feels good is incompatible with asexual identity. Talia postulates that the reluctance to identify that kind of asexual elitism is grounded in that the asexual community has stigmatized asexual elitism to the point where we are reluctant to critically examine our own beliefs to find out if we are actually being asexual elitists. Talia goes on to conjecture that in addition to the sex-averse and sex-neutral asexuals that Mark Carrigan has defined in his academic papers, there are also sex-favorable asexuals.

While I take the position that the categories of sex-averse, sex-neutral and sex-favorable are still inadequate (I don’t think either category describes me very well, because “sex” to me is not “sex” in most people’s opinions), I agree with the bulk of Talia’s argument that asexual elitism still thrives in the asexual community in the form of conflating sexual attraction and wanting sex and being unwilling to acknowledge the erroneous reasoning in it. Sexual attraction may be one form of wanting sex, but wanting sex for the reason that it physically feels good is not sexual attraction–sexual attraction means that you are attracted to a person, not to an activity. Masturbating because it physically feels good does not imply you are sexually attracted to yourself; why should having sex because it feels good imply that you’re sexually attracted to the other person?

I also agree with Talia’s cautioning us against being too aggressive about challenging this manifestation of asexual elitism. The goal is not to guilt people but to encourage them to be more willing to critically examine their beliefs. Stigmatizing asexual elitism in this form will only serve to make people unwilling to become aware of their own asexual elitisms, in whatever form they will take in the future.

Carnival of Aces: Asexuality and the sex-positive movement

This post is for June’s Carnival of Aces and it is a few days late.

I have a complicated relationship with the sex positive movement.

I can’t remember my first encounter with sex positivity. I remember that I very strongly identified myself as sex-positive for a long time, because I thought that was the only alternative to the sex-negative messages I received from my Catholic background. The first sex-positive people I knew had also been very serious about emphasizing sexual autonomy and recognizing that never wanting to have sex was one possible valid experience.

The sex-positive movement contains several different strains of people: there is the above-described strain who explicitly state their value of sexual autonomy and clearly articulate their acceptance of celibacy and asexuality–and there is another strain that misunderstands asexuals and celibates, and views them as repressed. While that other strain of sex-positive people does not explicitly advocate rape, it’s hard (read: impossible) to not be reinforcing rape culture when you are telling asexuals and celibates that they are repressed and that ideally, they should get over that repression and be having sex.

To be more specific, I have directly witnessed members of the sex-positive movement to do these things:

  • talk about sex to people who have expressed that they do not want to talk about sex
  • show porn to people who have expressed that they don’t want to see porn
  • assume that people who are uncomfortable with talking about sex or seeing nudity are repressed and need to get over it
  • think that the best way to get someone out of sexual repression is by forcing them to listen to sex talk or to see nudity

(I do not have an unblemished record. I am guilty of having, years ago, talked about sex to unwilling listeners in the name of sex positivity.)

I could not go to a going-away party for a former friend of mine, once, because the friend (who knew at the time that I was uncomfortable with nudity) wanted to be naked at their going-away party. Years later, I learned that this former friend regularly did the things in the above bulleted list in the name of sex positivity. I will not make a no-true-scotsman argument in order to prove that this former friend is not “truly” sex-positive, because the fact remains that people like this former friend form a significant-enough proportion of sex-positive people that this is a problem for the sex-positive movement.

I wrote this post back when I still considered myself a member of the sex-positive movement. At the time, I did not fully understand the term “enthusiastic consent,” or how relationships between asexuals and non-asexuals worked when sex was involved. I mention this old post because it suddenly in the past few weeks became more popular on Tumblr. In the post, though I didn’t perceive this at the time because I misunderstood the implications of the enthusiastic consent model (and misunderstood relationship dynamics between aces and non-aces), what I wrote amounted to that it is rape to have sex with a person whose response is a “yes” that is less enthusiastic than an “Oh my god, yes, fuck me right now!”

It is very common in the sex-positive movement for non-asexual people to agree with the idea that it is rape to have sex with a person whose consent is not enthusiastic. This idea strips many asexuals (and people with disabilities that affect how emotions are felt or expressed) of the ability to consent, by defining them as categories of people who are incapable of consent and telling them what their experiences are.

I feel very alienated from the sex-positive movement for the other people in it who believe that asexuals are repressed, for the people in it who believe that asexuals are incapable of consent, and because of the choice of name for the movement, which I have not until now felt it appropriate to mention. I do not believe that sex is an inherently positive experience. It is harmful to believe that sex is an inherently positive experience because the take-away message can be construed as “Saying no to sex is saying no to this awesome good thing. How can anyone do that?”

I share many beliefs with the first sex-positive activists I met: a strong value of sexual autonomy (especially of asexual-spectrum people and persons with disabilities), a willingness to critically examine existing and emerging consent models, and a commitment to working against rape culture.

I don’t self-identify as sex-positive because of the many people in the movement that don’t share those values with me.

Leaving a sexless relationship (tactfully)

I examine the search terms people have used to find my wordpress fairly often, and I noticed that in the past week, “leaving a sexless relationship with an asexual” was one of them.

If sex is something you need in order to feel right in a relationship with someone, a relationship with an asexual person who is not willing to have sex is not for you. Sexual incompatibility of this kind is not something that can be overcome. So this is a post about how to (tactfully) leave a sexless relationship with an asexual person if you’ve judged that a sexless relationship can’t make you happy.

The most important thing to do is to emphasize that nothing is the asexual person’s fault. Apologize for not previously communicating to the person that sex is something you need in a relationship in order to feel right, while reassuring your partner that you care for them. Emphasize that the relationship cannot simultaneously make both of you happy due to your incompatibility, and apologize for not previously being aware of this fact. Do not assign any blame at any point in the process: it is neither person’s fault if you’re incompatible.

No one enjoys a breakup, but you can reassure the person that you care about them by emphasizing that you want them to be happy in a relationship, which is impossible if they remain in a relationship with you, because it would hurt you to know they are unhappy. Apologize for any pressuring of the person that you have done in the past, and for the length of time it took you to come to the realization that a sexless relationship can’t make you happy.

You’re not automatically a bad person if a sexless romantic relationship isn’t for you. If you have needs that it is impossible for your partner to meet without being made unhappy, you are incompatible and it’s no one’s fault.

The development of gray asexuality and demisexuality as identity terms

This post is about the history of the usage of these and related terms on the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN).

Gray asexuality is a term describing a very diverse set of experiences of sexuality where a person’s understanding of their own sexuality is enriched by the concept of asexuality, but they do not quite fit the definition of asexuality. (For people interested in reading more about what “gray asexuality” refers to, Siggy at Asexual Agenda, himself a gray asexual person, wrote an excellent post about the multiplicity of ways to see oneself as between “asexual” and “sexual.”)

The earliest mention I could find on AVEN of a theoretical identity-space between (or outside of) “asexual” and “sexual” was this post from October 2003 by AVENguy:

If anyone wants to play a fun game, go to some queer-ass conference (called something like “transcending boundaries”) and play a game where you try to think up a term/identity for every letter of the alphabet.

When you do you’ll be forced to think up new, interesting ideas like:

Semisexual

It occurs to me that we’ve got a spectrum of sexual intensity, but we don’t yet have a word for those who are halfway in between asexual and full-force sexual. I’d say that this is extremely important: right now we don’t have a way to talk about people who are asexual but maybe feel like being sexual once a year, or sexual people who are just relatively uninterested and don’t know what to do about it.

At the time AVENguy made that post, it was just speculation that there were people who could be described as semisexual. The specific term gray asexual did not come about until almost three years later in April 2006, when the user KSpaz explicitly self-identified as gray-A and defined it as descriptive of people occupying the “fuzzy” space between “asexual” and “sexual,” referencing the gradient in AVEN’s triangle logo. (It is worth noting that according to AVEN’s wiki, a proposed sexual orientation model from 1979 implies such a continuum.)

The term gray asexuality (sometimes referred to as gray sexuality) has been in usage since then in the asexual community.

The term “demisexuality” was coined a few months before “gray asexual,” by user sonofzeal, in a thread from February 2006 where he wondered if asexuals could still enjoy sexual activity. He stated in the thread that without an emotional bond with a person, he experiences no sexual attraction to the person, and he proposed “demisexual” as a term describing that phenomenon.

According to sonofzeal, with whom I recently exchanged private messages on AVEN, “demisexual” didn’t become a well-known identity term on the forum until the user OwlSaint began popularizing what it meant. In February 2008, OwlSaint wrote:

A demisexual is, in my book at least, someone who does not experience sexual attraction to people in general. I’ve yet to see a single person and think “hot” or “10 out of 10″ or “I’d like to hit that”. Sex with someone rarely crosses my mind and when it does it’s usually more along the lines of “could i force myself to with…. ew no”.

In that respect, I can and do identify as asexual.

However, with someone I’m in love with, it’s completely different, and I might as well be a “full fledged” sexual, but only with that one person. Full fledged meaning actually desiring sex, both for the physical and emotional aspect, being attracted to that special someone, and feeling sexual arousal in terms of wanting to do something on multiple levels instead of simply the biological reflex or “ugh not again”.

That to me is the definition of a demisexual. The person who invented the word may have a different definition, but that’s what it means to me. (http://www.asexuality.org/en/topic/29621-demis/#entry820575)

Sonofzeal’s definition from earlier differs slightly from OwlSaint’s: sonofzeal wrote in 2006 that he conceived of himself as essentially a sexual person whose sexual attraction requires having an emotional bond with a person first, and OwlSaint conceives of themself as an essentially asexual person who has rare periods of sexual attraction triggered by emotional bonds. Ultimately, their definitions describe people who experience sexual attraction to a person only after an emotional bond has formed with that person.

The term “demisexual” has persisted in the asexual community since then.

Persons of both gray-asexual and demisexual orientations find asexuality to be a useful concept in understanding their own sexualities, and that is why they are often referred to as on the asexual spectrum. Asexuality is not a 100% accurate description for them, but understanding the concept of asexuality is necessary in understanding the concepts of demisexuality and gray asexuality.

Carnival of Aces: The Next Generation

This is for April’s Carnival of Aces.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are young teens in the asexual community, and I think it’s important to welcome them. While it is true that a young person’s asexual identification may change, when I discovered the online asexual community at age 14, I found it immensely empowering to learn that I was not ever required to have sex in order to be a full person.

Now that I am almost 24 and have been steeping in online asexual communities for nine years, I am appalled at the people who today would have turned a 14-year-old me away from their community. Everyone around me at that time was telling me “You’re too young to know you’re asexual,” and it would have been extremely unhelpful (and even more devastating) for the online asexual community to tell me that as well.

I look forward to the asexual community becoming more sensitive toward young people who are exploring an asexual-spectrum identity. I will always defend the agency of young people to self-identify with whatever sexual orientation labels make sense to them, and I will respect their current self-identification because that matters more than what it may become in the future. I also believe in any person’s agency to dis-identify with sexuality, especially young people’s agency, because it is extremely disempowering and absolutely a symptom of rape culture to tell someone “No, of course you’re not asexual; you have to be a sexual being; you’re too young to say you’re not currently a sexual being.”

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