Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Let's talk about sex(uals)

or: The self-definition problem.

I am immensely proud of my friend Jenni, who is on the BBC News website! Well, in the Magazine section, but that's still nearly news. ;) The article's mostly cut together from her segment in BBC Three's tiresomely-titled documentary "How Sex Works" - she's on at ~18 minutes in, talking about defining as asexual, in her usual articulate and incisive way. Asked to sum up what being asexual means, she helpfully soundbites:
"For me it basically just means that I don't look at people and think 'hmm yeah I'd have sex with you,' that just doesn't happen," says Jenni.
I don't do that either; as someone who defines as asexual (although is willing to consider that actually ey's just repressed ;) ), I've been reliably informed that Normal People Do, so I'm happy with that definition.

But some of my 'sexual' friends (yes, that's the converse of asexual - it means you do experience sexual attraction to people) are less happy. Fair play, they agree, it's a good job of summarising a complex concept in 5 seconds of a BBC Three programme which is mostly about twentysomethings getting off with as many people as possible. But even so, they say, I'm not like that, it's not just about that, I don't objectivise people like that... the unspoken subtext is "I'm not one of those sexuals".

And thus we find ourselves with a fascinating problem: when faced with the concept that asexuals exist and therefore by process of elimination they belong to the group "sexuals", some people suddenly realise that they're not comfortable with the way their group - the majority group - is portrayed in the media.

Usually this only happens with minority groups; one parallel is gay men in earlier decades potentially feeling dissuaded from coming out because of media-based assumptions that all gay men are ridiculously effeminate (Elton John, Julian Clary, Graham Norton, the guy from Will and Grace, Mr Humphries, any character James Dreyfus has ever played). Or perhaps they have come out and then well-meaning(?) friends have said "But you don't seem like a gay... are you sure?" But... you can't not come out as sexual, because the default assumption is that everyone is sexual. And the default portrayal of, well, everyone in the media goes roughly as follows:


This freaked me out rather when I was growing up, as did the accompanying incessant teen badgering of "who do you fancy? who do you fancy? would you do Jonny Wilkinson? you wouldn't do Jonny Wilkinson? you don't fancy anyone? then you must be a lesbian!", facilitated by magazines like J17 for girls or GQ (which sadly isn't short for "GenderQueer", but I like to amuse myself by pretending it is) for boys. Don't tell me it's not pervasive; don't blame me as a poor confused asexual for thinking you guys are all trying to shag each other right, left and centre (which is, incidentally, a fun party game). I've been reliably informed, remember? By... um... the media! They're reliable, right? You must all be like that! You mean you don't run around rubbing your thighs and panting as soon as you see someone hot? You can't really be one of those sexuals...

And this is why I'm incredibly excited (not like that) to see asexuality (finally) being discussed in the mainstream media. It's not just because greater visibility will benefit all those who haven't yet heard of the label and don't realise that it would fit them, that they're not alone, that there's a lively support network they can access. It's also because those who wouldn't self-define as asexual will be prompted to think more deeply about their orientation, and perhaps start to question the way SEX is dealt with in the media, and perhaps feel less ashamed to speak out as "different" the next time they're stuck in a game of nervous, exaggerated, face-saving sexual one-upmanship with friends who worry that not thinking about sex every seven seconds will make them look "gay". As the article mentions near the end:
The question that fascinates [University of Warwick sociologist] Carrigan is the future effect of a visible asexual community on people who are not asexual. [...]
Right on. But the self-definition problem crops up everywhere: discomfort with giving oneself a certain label because of the people you're then implicitly associated with. For example, until I was nearly in my twenties, I wouldn't have been caught dead calling myself a feminist, because the only "feminist" I'd met so far (protip: she really wasn't one) was a daffy female teacher who was obsessed with putting down men and provoking tiresome arguments about battles that had already been won. I've now learnt more about proper feminism and am proud to call myself a feminist in a bid to reclaim the label, but lots of people shy away from it for similar reasons.

Some deal with it by calling themselves something new (like "equalist"), which doesn't have the baggage of the past, but will never have the weight of history. I've just dealt with it by declaring that my "feminist" teacher wasn't a 'real' feminist - by denying her her self-defined identity. Is that allowed? Probably not; people do similar things all over the place. Another way of dealing with it is to sub-categorise yourself: for sexuals who aren't "that kind of sexual", or asexuals who aren't sure exactly which side of the "line" they are, there are conveniently divisive terms like demisexual and grey-asexual to help you narrow down your potential network of peers even further. Or, just don't label yourself at all... which works fine, until you find yourself labelled by implication ("if you aren't asexual, you must be sexual").

Fact #1: people will always try to label you. Fact #2: whatever label you end up with, you'll always be sharing it with a certain proportion of dickheads. In my opinion, the best thing you can do is choose your labels with care, and then BE AWESOME so loudly that you drown out the dickheads. So, my sexual friends, go for it: tell the world that you're sexual and proud, but that:
"I have never been obsessed with sex. I've not been one to have to go out at night and have to have someone to have sex with, because that's what people do… so I'm not all that concerned about it". [Jenni's partner Tim]
For every "label" you can think of, there are a million people using it who come in a million different shapes and sizes. Our society is starting to recognise inter-group variation to a much greater extent than only a few years previously (adding and accepting new labels like "asexual", "heteroromantic", "genderqueer", "neurotypical"), and this is frickin' awesome, but it's just the beginning. The much-needed next step is to come to recognise intra-group variation: whatever labels we take, we flavour them with our own uniquenesses.

Maybe society will gradually learn to accept that everyone, male or female (or, obviously, anything else), gay or straight (or... etc.), neurotypical or neuro-atypical, sexual or asexual or somewhere in between, is just part of a big lovely spectrum - no, not even that, a big lovely infinite space on twelve axes[1] - of people. A big ask, and hard to keep one's head wrapped around 24/7, so let's keep our labelly crutches for now. But let's never be afraid of them, ashamed of them, or constrained by them.

[1] Yeah I know. Shuddup.


  1. Ooh, very interesting post (I mean, your posts are normally very interesting, but this time I'm actually getting round to saying so.) As far as I'm concerned though, I think that the reason I don't do labels isn't because of who I'd share the labels with or anything - it's because, after nearly 25 years of being me, I still don't know enough about me to know how to (or to want to) label myself. And labels are not necessarily permanent - they can't be, because people change in many ways - but I think that if I were to give myself labels I would be in some ways mentally stuck with them. Hmm. That made more sense before I wrote it down.

  2. Time to declare myself an anti-labelist and collapse into a paradoxical wormhole.

  3. @Janet: that's fair (and made sense). I admit to being biased in that I really like labels. :D I'd be interested to know how you feel about other people non-consensually labelling you, though.

    @James: nice.

    EDIT: Jenni has informed me that use of the term "sexual" to mean "a person who's not asexual" can be controversial, and some people within the asexual community are trying to think of alternatives. Clearly I'm behind on discussions; sorry about that.

    This noted, however, I'm going to let my use of the word stand, because the reasons for which it's deemed potentially offensive illustrate my points:

    1) It unfortunately implies that "sexual people" are "being sexual" (i.e. sexually active) constantly, which of course isn't necessarily the case. But unfortunate implications are almost unavoidable when coining or using labels (e.g. the "feminist" example, or the binary-gender-assumptions underlying "homo-/heterosexual"). I'm all in favour of finding a better alternative, but if "sexual" does become the accepted term, perhaps less-sexually-active people reclaiming it would counterbalance some of these implications and lead to a more healthy and balanced view of "sexual-ness" in the broader sense(i.e. "being sexually active").

    2) Labels-as-nouns are generally less pleasant than labels-as-adjectives, since they imply depersonalisation: "an asexual person" is a person who happens to be asexual, but "an asexual" is reduced to that one characteristic. Without intending any disrespect, I'll indulge in a little table-turning by keeping this usage in, since it's usually the privileged majority (99% of whom are statistically likely to be 'sexual') who unthinkingly depersonalise the minority like this ("our new neighbour is a Black", "I don't want my daughter going out with a transgendered", etc.).

    And with that, I may just have not only left a tediously overlong comment but also been insensitive and boorish, so I'll leave other people to pick up the debate :)

  4. DEBATE!!!

    Sorry, I think slowly. I did eventually manage to distill the essense of my obviously highly valuable contribution...HERE;