Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Asexuality Awareness Week: obligatory Asexuality 101 post!

I always have trouble with concepts that are ineffable.

Well, ineffable's the word I like to use, but you could substitute "visceral", "intuitive", "instinctive" - anything where one's supposed to just know. In case you hadn't guessed, I'm more the analytical kind. Anything that can't be broken down and worked through by logic, I have problems with. Religious experience is ineffable, so is love; they don't come with checklists. Gender identity, too - some people have a very strong intuitive sense of their own gender, which might lead to comfortable, happy cis-ness or raging, unbearable dysphoria. Me, I just look at gender blankly, and fumble about trying to work out if I have one or not.

And the big one, as in so many other situations, is SEX.

Sexual desire, sex drive, sexual attraction - they're all about as ineffable, visceral, intuitive, instinctive as they come. Or so I'm led to believe. Which is why it's so difficult to satisfactorily make sense of any absence thereof. If you have it, you damn well know about it. If you're female-assigned with an overwhelming attraction to female-assigned people, it takes some pretty impressive skills of repression not to realise you're homosexual (even if you find it hard to admit it to yourself, or act on it, or come out as such). Or so I assume. But if you lack any kind of strong attraction, you can find yourself barking up all sorts of trees in your uncertainty. Maybe you're gay? Maybe you're bisexual? Maybe this is what attraction feels like? Maybe sex is supposed to hurt? Maybe if you keep on doing it you'll eventually develop a desire for it?

This week is Asexuality Awareness Week, and since it took me maybe 20 years to become aware of asexuality as a concept, and then another two or three years to become aware that it might actually apply to me, it's something I'm very much up for people becoming Aware of. The thing is, not only am I convinced that more people are asexual than realise it, I also think that the (intuitively analytical ;) ) way asexuals tend to approach that big broad complicated concept of SEX can be beneficial for people of any orientation.

Asexuality is a sexual orientation: the word is analogous with "heterosexual" or "pansexual", not with "transsexual" with its annoyingly confusing etymology (and before I identified as asexual I accidentally referred to myself as such several times when what I meant was "agender"). And the point of an orientation is that it is directed at someone: a homosexual has sexual feelings towards some people of eir own gender and not really any towards people ey considers to be of a different gender, a pansexual has sexual feelings towards some people but their genders play no part in determining which ones, and an asexual has sexual feelings towards... well, nobody.

But an orientation is a complex thing, more so than happily ineffable sexuals tend to give it credit for (well, the non-analytical ones, at least). Because one can have sexual feelings but not towards anybody; one can also have feelings towards people which are not sexual; and as for what sexual means, that'll be a whole 'nother post. I have definitely, ineffably, experienced sexual arousal (and I can tell objectively, because it involved my sexual organs - *ticks off on ineffability checklist*) - but it's been triggered by [the thought of] certain acts, not by [the thought of] any other person involved in the act. I have definitely found myself drawn to people, attracted to them... but by what? To what end? I'm drawn by their personalities, I want to spend time with them, make them happy. That is not sexual attraction, but romantic attraction. (Sometimes I want to touch them, but that'll come under the whole 'nother post.)

Arousal vs attraction and sexual vs romantic are two very important concepts of distinctions drawn up by those clever, analytical, non-intuitive members of the asexual community with too much time on their hands. It's all too easy to assume that sexual arousal goes hand in hand with sexual attraction, or similarly that sexual attraction goes hand in hand with romantic attraction. (In the interests of completeness and the spirit of bewilderment, I'm still trying to work out whether romantic arousal is a thing.) But they really, really, really don't, and you can cause yourself all manner of problems by assuming that they do, no matter your orientation. You can end up in a relationship with someone whose personality doesn't suit you at all, because you rationalise that "I'm attracted to em, right?" - when perhaps ey's incredibly sexually attractive but leaves you completely cold in romantic terms. Equally, you can feel obliged to try and initiate inadvisable sex with someone, whether you're already lovers or whether you just get on like a house on fire, because you're attracted to em, right? - and having sex is what you do with someone you're (romantically) attracted to, right?

Or, of course, you might be ragingly sexually (and also, optionally, romantically) attracted to someone, but just find yourself completely unable to get it up. And then, because neither of you understand that sexual attraction and sexual arousal don't automatically correlate, ey assumes you don't like em any more and you have an unpleasant argument.

The cute thing about having unpacked the concept of SEX like this is that you can now declare yourself to be asexual, but homoromantic - attracted to some people who are of the same gender as you[1], and keen to spend time with them and engage in close and profound relationships with them, but uninterested in having sex with them. Or alternatively, you might think all this selection-by-gender stuff is nonsense and want to declare that you're pansexual, but your genitalia annoyingly seem to think otherwise. It's simple: you're panromantic (you think people are awesome) but you're gynesexual or androsexual (you're only turned on by bodies of a certain shape). And people of any sexual orientation might be aromantic - uninterested in engaging in that kind of a relationship at all (though they might well still be perfectly sociable people with many very good friendships).

[1] this is getting annoyingly clunky, so here's a fun word: androromantic! It means romantically attracted to men! It's still irritatingly binarist but less confusing for genderqueers. Similarly gyneromantic means romantically attracted to women; cf androsexual, gynesexual.

Thus there's a great deal to be gained, in the realms of self-acceptance, self-knowledge, self-security and sensible decision-making, from separating out one ineffable concept (sexual attraction) from another (romantic love). Because, in truth, certain aspects of this big broad unapproachable topic of SEX aren't all that ineffable. In our society we have a dangerous tendency to mysticise sex, to romanticise it, to hold it up as The Big One, the uniquely incomparable experience. But it's not magic; it's a desire not unlike most other desires. It comes and goes, it is satiated or it wanes or it becomes unbearably strong, it affects certain people, at certain times, in certain ways, more powerfully than others. To riff on the classic metaphor, I might be someone who generally likes cake (let's go for the absurdity factor and call it cake-eatual), but at the moment I might not feel like having any cake (I might have no cake-ual desire). Or at other times I might see a piece of particularly tasty-looking cake and feel cake-ual arousal, then eat it and feel cake-ual satisfaction. (I am almost certainly not cake-romantic. But, having said that, I might be something like cake-aesthetic: I might enjoy spending time baking, decorating, trying out new recipes, without this necessarily being accompanied by a burning desire to eat the results immediately - enjoying cake on an intellectual level as distinct from a level of OM NOM NOM DELICIOUS CAKE.)

It works for plenty of other stuff too. Like, I spent a long time wanting to write a post because it was Asexuality Awareness Week but not knowing what angle to take; before I wrote this I felt intellectually frustrated.

So there you have it: my take on the classic Asexuality 101. Maybe it's helped you understand asexuals better, maybe it's helped you understand your own interpersonal feelings and motivations better, maybe it's even helped you realise that asexual is a word that fits you. (And just like any other label of sexual orientation, and many other labels besides, it's a matter of self-identification, so the only criterion for "Am I asexual?" is "Do I want to use the word asexual to describe myself?".) But hopefully, whatever starting point you're coming from, you'll agree with me that a lot of the ideas I've talked about here are useful, even necessary, in a culture which seems to be so saturated with SEX, so fixated on it as an unquestionably universally permanently desirable thing, so unwilling to accept that some people might not be that interested in it (whether they identify as sexual or asexual, romantic or aromantic), so ill-prepared for negotiating the complex interplays of sexual and romantic desire, interest, attraction and arousal which make up the ever-changing, multi-faceted, three-dimensional human experience we're taught to simply call SEX.

Enjoy the rest of the week, and for a hell of a lot of awesomeness, try going to

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