Monday, January 24, 2011

So what is this "sex" stuff anyway?

A close companion and ally of mine recently brought up something that was starting to formulate in my mind, but hadn't reached fruition: how the hell do you define sex, anyway? What does it mean when you say you've had sex with someone?

Answering this is important to me as someone who questions what "sexual attraction" is in the first place. How could I say for sure whether I experience sexual attraction if there isn't a clear idea of what sex is, in the first place?

Now, if the hegemonic idea of sex is when two or more people stimulate one another's genitals, then sexual attraction would mean (at least in part) that you are attracted to someone because you want to stimulate/be stimulated in the genital region. One of the problems with defining sex as genital stimulation is that what is involved in "stimulation" is rather blurry. Do you have to touch someone? What about cybersex? What about some forms of BDSM, where no one is touching at all, and maybe not even speaking or acting in ways that (for others) might be perceived as sexual?

I also have to wonder if genital stimulation is even a necessary component of "sex." What if you get a good foot massage from someone you're interested in, and you feel an intimate connection but you're not on the road to Orgasm City?

My friend suggested that sex is anything which one or more partners involved decide is sex. In that case, I can look back at many things that have happened in my life and now redefine them as sex. Which would mean that, rather than saying I've had 5 sexual partners, I would have to change that number to 10 or maybe 12. Sometimes making out with someone could be considered sex, or being tied up, or even just looking into someone's eyes for a long time can be totally hot.

I'm totally willing to leave the word sex open to interpretation, or even begin using a different word to describe the things I want to do instead. Maybe "experience intimacy" would be better, since the word sex is so historically laden with concepts of genital penetration.

I still think that sexual attraction is defined by specifically being attracted genitally, which I think is part of the reason I reject sexual attraction (conceptually) and consider myself asexual. I mean that I repudiate hegemonic concepts of sexuality so much that my asexuality is in part a way of rejecting that whole institution.

If you could redefine sex, how would you?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Etsy Shop For Zines Is Open! AF#2 is OUT!

Good news!

I have just opened a shop on Etsy for my zines: Asexual Feminism, and my perzine Asexy.

and by the way, Asexual Feminism Issue #2 is now in print and for sale!

Check it out!

Sorry for the lack of updates recently. I have been working on my zine, adopted a kitten, and have been indecisive about writing topics.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thoughts about Social Cues and Sexual Assault

I was inspired by Lock's blog post, Social Cues I Just Keep Missing, to write this response. My intended response seemed too long for a comment.

Lock discusses how those of us who are asexual, and especially if we are neuro-atypical or have mental illnesses or disorders, can have some difficulty interpreting sexual social cues or can be surprised at finding that we give off cues by accident. Lock also writes about how there are those who take advantage of cues, though they may be unaware of the miscommunication in some cases.

It reminded me of how, during my freshman year of college, I found myself in a situation that I'd been completely unaware of stepping into. Late one evening a male acquaintance invited me to his dorm to hang out with him and his girlfriend and have some drinks. They were both already drunk, and his girlfriend was on the verge of passing out. We conversed for a while, and I don't remember too much of the evening. I do remember that just as I was leaving he said (with disappointment and frustration), "I invited you over because I thought you were going to have sex with me and my girlfriend. Why did you come over?" To this day I am totally baffled at the possibility I gave off some cue or failed to pick up on his cues. I have no idea how this happened.

It's also possible though that there were no cues, and his statement was a last desperate attempt to guilt me into having sex with him and his (by then unconscious) girlfriend. As a side note, this person also claimed to be a feminist, which is horrifying in a very special way.

I think that people who rely on sexual cues and nonverbal communication are treading dangerous waters, particularly when approaching new potential sex partners. If they're trying to get someone to have sex without asking for consent, they risk sexually assaulting someone.

Also, the tendency to ignore rejection I think not only has to do with wanting sex desperately, as Lock suggests, but also with masculine imperialism or something of that nature. I'm not suggesting that people go around thinking, "I'm going to ignore this rejection because I want to bolster my confidence and sense of power by conquering this person sexually," but I think that kind of attitude is subliminal culturally.

The more I think about social cues, and how confusing they are and how they vary geographically and culturally, the more I am convinced that they actually hinder intimacy rather than promote it when we rely on them. The cues that we each learn vary so widely that it's unlikely that any two people will use and understand the same set of nonverbal cues. While the cues themselves do not hinder intimacy or cause sexual assault, the cultural attitude that there is a universal code which we can learn and interpret rather than communicate verbally is a serious problem. We can't help it that we send nonverbal signals. But it is problematic that we sell books and magazines and have television programs that claim to instruct on social cues so one can get intimate without asking, taking short cuts to avoid being uncomfortable.

If you have to seriously question whether someone's facial expression or way of looking at you is sending a message about wanting to perform a particular act, it's probably time to start asking questions. And if you can't ask questions because you won't accept rejection, then you shouldn't try to engage at all. If all you have to go on when you advance sexually is social cues which you've interpreted in your own favor, and you haven't asked for consent, then you could be sexually assaulting that person. It doesn't matter if you feel like your intentions are harmless when you touch someone without asking first, not asking is a way of dominating even if all you are doing is giving a hug.

I'm not suggesting that you should ignore nonverbal cues if you think that someone is hinting something to you strongly, whether it is "come closer," or "get away," but that you should also check in and verbally confirm your suspicions. While those of us who have more difficulty than others noticing social cues may have heightened awareness of how confusing they are, I think that this confusion only confirms the necessity to not rely solely on nonverbal communication, because social cues are different for everyone.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I have been told many things since I started coming out as asexual. I have been told not to label myself. I have been told not to restrict myself. I have been told that I don't know who I am. I have been told that I try too hard to figure myself out. I have been told that I will change my mind, and I have been told that I am wrong. I have been told that it is oppressive for me to call myself anything other than queer. It is this idea I want to address, that using a word other than queer to define yourself as a queer person is both too limiting and somehow problematic.

I am aware that the words homosexual and heterosexual are medical terms which basically serve the purpose of delineating normal bodies from abnormal bodies. I am also aware that there are many queers (among them some of my friends), who believe that words other than queer--words like lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc--are oppressive to queer people because they reinforce difference and heteronormativity. Some people think that even using the word queer is playing the heteronormativity game.

When you tell a queer person that they are being oppressive by defining themselves, you are participating in a patriarchal practice as old as patriarchy itself. You are dominating and controlling a person by silencing them, taking their voice away. The worst part is that if you are queer and you tell other queers that their identities are wrong, you are oppressing your own allies who are already oppressed all the time.

Who is winning? When you tell a lesbian that her label is old-fashioned or that it is too narrow (too narrow for whom?), who benefits from this? When you tell a heterosexual queer person that they can never be queer if they continue to call themselves heterosexual, and that they can only be an ally, who benefits? When you tell an asexual person that they are limiting themselves, that they are confused, or repressed, who benefits from this?

To use the words of Audre Lorde, "if I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive." We need our words to understand ourselves, to find each other, to figure out our boundaries and our needs. If you don't need words that is your business, but it is hurtful to tell others to abandon their chosen identities when they may need them for their own survival.

On the flipside, I would like to extend my gratitude to my friends and allies who have nurtured me and taken the time to explore new possibilities for sexualities. I am thankful for your continued support and your enthusiasm, which never ceases to uplift my spirit. I only hope that I can be as nurturing to you as you have been to me.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Sensual Celibacy

Has anyone read Sensual Celibacy by Donna Marie Williams? I would like to hear some opinions of this book from asexuals and gray-asexuals. I am considering reading it, although I'm certain that her book is directed toward non-asexuals. Also I don't know that I am personally interested in choosing celibacy, although not engaging in sex (due to asexuality) has been my lifestyle for a long time now. However, I have to wonder if there are things in this book that could be relevant to asexuals or that would validate not engaging in sex while being sex-positive. Thoughts?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Talk It Out.

Something I express strong opinions about is setting up and negotiating boundaries within your relationships, especially if they have romantic and/or sexual components, in order to avoid dysfunction, pain, cheating, etc. This boundary setting can happen with friends, family, romantic partners, your friend's romantic partners, your romantic partner's other partners, your study buddies, etc. Stating how you feel about a relationship and checking in regularly is a good way to maintain your own health as well as the health of your relationships.

However, I have to admit that this doesn't always play out well in my own life. Today I had a conversation with a friend on the subject of communicating about the direction or shape a relationship takes while within it. Personally, I tend not to communicate beyond "I want to be your friend," "I enjoy your company," and "let's hang out." I do not usually bring up behaviors that I expect to be reciprocal and tend to let my friendships develop as they do. I don't enjoy setting up boundaries or giving names to my relationships. If I express discontent or try to set up boundaries and expectations, it's usually because I have been hiding my feelings.

This has posed a huge problem when it comes to romantic relationships for me, and I wonder if this is similar for other asexuals who have difficulty forming romantic relationships. I have very little practice at making my intentions clear and asking for what I want, and so what happens is that I either treat the situation as if it were a typical friendship, or I end up putting a lot of emotional pressure on the person I'm interested in without fully explaining what's happening for me and what I want. I need to work on this more seriously and hope that this post will help motivate me.

In my ideal world, however, communicating about relationships would happen all the time. I feel almost silly bringing up this topic because I think most people would agree that communication is important. Yet, so many of us (asexual or not) are desperate for love and/or cynical about it, not knowing how to obtain it or how to share it. I also think that this trouble is related to difficulty with communication. I don't mean to suggest that one has to communicate their feelings face-to-face all the time--I tend to express myself best in writing and know that many people have a similar communication style. What really matters, in my mind, is taking the time to express yourself and being willing to step back and listen with an open mind. How long this takes would vary each time that it happens and with each person. Like all good things, healthy communication takes patience.

People express their feelings of love in many different ways. Someone told me a couple months ago that they considered sex to be the highest expression of love. In some families, offering care is a way of expressing love. Sometimes giving gifts or doing favors is a way of expressing love. These are all expressions which are valuable, but in and of themselves none of these is love and none can take the place of communication. One can have sex without communicating and without loving; one can care for another without communicating and without loving; one can give a gift without communicating and without loving. Communication itself is not love either, but I believe it is the only method that is guaranteed to express your feelings about a person and about a relationship as accurately as possible.

Note: I was inspired to write this post after a community discussion on consent and intoxication that my friends and I put together. I believe that obtaining consent before engaging in any activity with someone, sexual or otherwise, is of utmost important. This post arose out of the realization that before we can even talk about obtaining consent, we have to acknowledge the importance of communication, period. If consent is an ongoing process, then so is communication. And if communication is blocked, difficult, or avoided, how can one even begin to practice consent?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What did we learn from our first gathering?

In the spirit of second-wave feminist consciousness raising stories, I'm going to share a couple stories with you today. If you don't like personal experience stories, go read about worm therapy or something. A few days ago I read "Poets Live The Questions: Jewell Gomez & Minnie Bruce Pratt" from This Is What A Lesbian Looks Like. My mind travelled off in remembrance when I read the question:

What did we learn about living from our first lesbian and gay gathering, event, dance, night at the bar?

I'm going to answer this by going into the first queer gathering I can remember, and then the first asexual gathering.

I must have been about 11 years old the first time I went to a queer gathering. I had no idea where I was going or who would be there, but one day my older brother C invited me to a party that his co-workers were having. C was working at booth that sold used books at the local street fair at the time, and he was roughly 16 years old. He rarely wanted to spend time with me, and had since my early childhood been verbally abusive to me. At that age I still wanted to be his friend and to have a good relationship with him, so although I was struck by the randomness of his invitation, I was grateful for the chance to spend time with him.

I didn't know anyone at the party other than my brother. If I had to guess I would put the average age of the attendees at 35, and most of them appeared to be woman-identified and were in lesbian relationships. I'm not just guessing that they were in lesbian relationships based on haircuts or clothes, rather they were paired off and sitting on each other's laps, holding hands, kissing each other, etc.

I remember sitting in a plastic lawn chair eating potato chips, watching my brother talk to people at the party, and shyly glancing at the other attendees out of the corner of my eye. I didn't stare at anybody because that would be rude. I was silent the whole time because I didn't know what to talk about and the attendees were absorbed in their own conversations. Why should they care about their teenage co-worker's kid sister? It wasn't an unpleasant or hostile environment, just kind of boring and awkward because I didn't know anybody, there were no other children present, and my brother was being social with other people. In retrospect, I think he only invited me because he felt that he needed a buffer, some kind of "feminine" presence to offset his hetero masculinity. I can only assume this based on what I know about my brother.

At the time this gathering was no big deal to me, even though to my knowledge I'd never seen a lesbian couple displaying affection before. I didn't know the word lesbian at the time, but it was obvious to me that they were couples similar to the way that I'd seen men and women together. It wasn't a big deal, but the memory has remained with me a decade after it happened although I was only at the party for perhaps a half an hour. Regardless of the short amount of time that I was there and my feelings about what I saw, I do believe that being present at this gathering impacted my feelings about homosexuality and queerness in general.

Shortly after the gathering I learned the words gay and lesbian, though I don't recall how. Probably through the internet. I do know that I was immediately accepting of homosexuality and that I recognized my own affectionate feelings towards both men and women (I came out in certain circles as bisexual at the age of 12). It is doubtful that I could have felt supportive of homosexuality at that age just out of the goodness of my heart, considering how heteronormative the culture I grew up in was. So in some respects I attribute my automatic positive feelings about homosexuality to my experience at that gathering, where people were just being themselves and having a good time. How could I have thought there was something wrong about that?

As far as my first asexual gathering, that happened this year. I can't remember if it was in February or March, but it was a lecture at Portland State University given by the Portland Aces meetup group. Most of the information wasn't new to me because I'd already been doing my own research, but I wanted to hear what they had to say, and honestly I wanted to look at and be in the presence of people who identified as asexual. The number of people there filled a small classroom. I think there were roughly 30 people in attendance, with multiple genders and ages represented. The lecture was fine, accurate, but like I said it wasn't anything new. What was really cool was after the lecture, during the questions, about half of the attendees came out as asexual or questioning. Some of these people admitted that this was the first time they'd heard about asexuality, yet they felt it described them. I didn't come out, but I did put myself on the mailing list. I haven't heard from the meetup group since then, though.

The more I think about it, the more I think that this was totally awesome. A mass coming-out of sorts!  I've never witnessed anything like that, really. This affirms for me something that I've questioned as I've come out (again and again), which is that asexuality is probably more common than it would seem from statistics (1%, anyone?). People tell me that they relate to asexuality quite often now, whether they feel fully asexual or think they might be demi, or just experience sexual attraction in a way that isn't represented by the dominant paradigm. So I suppose what I learned from this gathering is that aces are everywhere, just waiting to pop up and surprise you.