Primary Decomposition

Life in intersections

Because there have to be different words you can use

This is something that has grown out of my contemplating (again) writing an asexuality 101 post for Feministing (three months after the fact but trust me you do not want to see what my first attempts looked like), and thinking about how I would definitely, definitely add a section on the end a la “what I would like you, the reader, to do” (because 101 is basically providing a free education and I’ll be damned if I can’t ask for at least some minor changes in return), and wondering what I would put into it-

And the very first thing that comes to my mind is this:

Stop using the word “asexual” as a negative.

Part of me cringes at phrasing it this boldly, tells me that I should understand), that things like talking about the way disabled women or older women or fat women or the like are constructed as “asexual” are part of mainstream feminist thought and have been since before our movement existed (although *we* still existed, isolated and alone and feeling broken and inventing our own words for ourselves because no one would give us any-) and, you know, who am I to come along and point at this body of work and go “actually, I find this offensive?”

Another part of me goes – but, well, it is offensive. And it hurts.

It hurts every time I find a new blog that looks interesting and decide to search for the term “asexual” in a quick exercise in “how safe will this be?” and find – not nothing, no, nothing is what I am expecting. Worse than nothing. I find posts about how the stereotype of certain groups as asexual is wrong (but what about me?), how the way the older characters on a TV show are portrayed as asexual is downright frightening (how odd, I’ve been wanting better representation on TV for years now seeing as the only openly asexual character I know of is from a NZ soap opera – what show were you watching again?), over and over the talk of asexuality as a negative, as a stereotype that must be dismantled, and not one single post on asexuality as a sexual orientation.

Thanks! I am definitely going to feel safe in my sexuality on your blog!

It hurts when I wander into discussions about disability and sexuality and inevitably attention is brought to how disabled people are stereotyped as asexual and how this is completely wrong and it must be made clear that disabled people are sexual beings like everyone else – and you do not want to know how much *guilt* I have felt because I am disabled, and I am asexual, and it feels as if this means I am letting my side down!

(The unbelievable irony of this: one of the first things I think of when I consider how intersectionality applies to my own life is precisely that of asexuality, or to be precise aromantic asexuality, and disability. Because I find myself in the rather unpleasant position of realising that I will not be able to live on my own, but at the same time almost the only socially acceptable form for a cohabitant/caretaker/etc. for an adult reasonably-independent person is the romantic partner and I have absolutely zero desire for that kind of relationship, and adding it together with my career plans which make nonstandard living arrangements even more unfeasible the whole thing starts looking like an enormous Catch-22 – but I cannot talk about this because I am too busy feeling ashamed for being an asexual disabled person and besides, the words I need for it are in use.)

I stumble across this stuff absolutely everywhere, and it hurts, and I get sick of the implication that being asexual is something to be ashamed of or that being thought to be asexual is something offensive. Although, of course, I know the stereotypes they’re talking about, and they are there and are harmful and they need to be worked against… but wait a moment here, since when is being asexual such a terrible thing?

This is the main reason for this post: using “asexual” as a negative word for describing these stereotypes is not just offensive and hurtful, it is not even remotely accurate. I could possibly have put up with the hurt and feeling marginalised if I felt the term asexual was at least applied in a way where it was correct to use. (Yes, I am a mathematician at heart.) As things stand, you’re taking the entire load of negative things in these stereotypes, a lot of which have nothing to do with asexuality-the-orientation whatsoever, and dumping it all on us – and I hope you’ll forgive me if I would like that to stop!

Here are two examples of how I realised that these stereotypes don’t have much to do with asexuality as I know it:

Example one, there’s another really ugly trope associated with fat/elderly/disabled/etc. women apart from the “no sexual desires” one, which actually gives the lie to that – namely, that *if* any man should deign to want to have sex to such a woman she should immediately bow before him and gratefully accept because it’s not as if she’ll get any better offers-

But wait a moment. Us asexual folks are rather… well, we’re asexual. If a random guy offered me sex, I would laugh in his face. If Brad fucking Pitt offered me sex, I would laugh in his face. I’m not attracted to men, the same as I’m not attracted to women. I don’t want to have sex. With anyone. Ever. This stereotype, to me, paints these women as sexual creatures (which is obviously not to say that any sexual woman must immediately consent to sex with anyone who wants her – but to associate that stereotype with *asexual* women is patently absurd), who clearly want to have sex and have sexual desires. So how come we get the blame?

Example two: I’m reasonably sure the “asexual” disabled stereotype actually gets used against asexual people to invalidate our orientation.

This is how: There are a number of “standard” responses an asexual may get when coming out – things like “were you abused as a child?”, “are you a lesbian?”, “oh, you just haven’t met the right guy yet”, “do you have a hormone problem?” and other such cringe-inducing things. One of them is this: “Are you sure you’re not autistic?”

I tend to look at this with bemusement because, well – yes. Yes, I am autistic. I am also asexual. Autistic people have sexual orientations too, you know. And although it can be argued that tactile hypersensitivity caused by autism might make touch so unpleasant as to “turn” a person asexual… even if that’s the case, it’s not exactly as if anything can be done about it. (Seriously. It’s possible this is the case for *me*, as I really dislike being touched. But how on earth does it matter? There’s no treatment to reduce hypersensitivity so I’ll be lacking sexual attraction either way; the whole question of cause is really irrelevant.) The question “are you autistic?” is a non-sequitur, its answer has nothing at all to do with the question of the person’s sexual orientation. However, the way people *use* it is clearly meant to shut down the discussion, as if being autistic means you must immediately hand in your sexual orientation and withdraw from all discussions about sexuality (Exhibit A.)

I find this a very clear example of the stereotypes associated with the sexuality of disabled people (you can’t have an orientation! You’re disabled!), except that we can’t very well call it stereotyping them as asexual if it’s being used to silence asexual people!

The more I look at what the stereotypes actually are, the less I recognise my orientation. Asexuality is a lack of sexual attraction, but it doesn’t have to mean lack of dialogue about sex and sexuality, lack of doing things associated with sex and sexuality (sexy clothing, forex), lack of an opinion about the matters – really, what I see in the stereotypes is passiveness. Women belonging to certain marginalised groups are not considered to have voices when it comes to sexual matters – which also explains the seeming contradiction between “no sexual desire” and “not allowed to say no to a sexual advance” (note: *all* women get hit with the latter to some extent, but with further marginalised ones I believe it’s even more extreme). Identifying as an extremely little-known and marginalised sexual identity, on the other hand, is usually very much an active thing. And anyone who’s ever spent any time on AVEN or in the asexosphere knows better than to suggest we don’t talk about sex and sexuality.

These, you see, are the things I do not see in the stereotypes about various groups of marginalised women:

I don’t see them organising, making their own communities, creating their own vocabulary. I don’t see them talking – about life and love, about having sex or negotiating relationships or aromanticism, about how strange the whole sex thing is from the outsider’s point of view, about anything like that. I don’t see them going on talk shows, doing interviews, being in pride parades or indeed doing anything visibilitywise. I don’t see them in discussion with LGBT societies, I don’t see them in talks with psychologists about the DSM-V and the problem that is HSDD. I don’t see them reading and writing erotica (some from the anthropologist’s perspective, some because they just find it hot), I don’t see them making sexual jokes, I don’t see them laying out their attitudes towards sex (fascinated? Indifferent? Repulsed? In-between? A combination?). I do not see anywhere the width and breadth of asexuality, I don’t see our activism, I don’t see the vibrant life of our community, I don’t even see typical asexual attitudes. All I see is women being stripped of their voice and agency, women being presented as completely apart from the world of sex (except when someone wants to stick their penis in them, of *course*), and them then being called “asexual” because of it.

Can you understand why I find that offensive? Can you understand that I really, really wish you’d find different words, more accurate words for that? Here, a couple of suggestions for you: desexualised, made sexually passive, stripped of sexual voice and agency – these may not be perfect but they are to me a million times preferable to the way things stand.

And, you know, there’s more in here (I’m still working through my thoughts on how feminists get stuck with “asexual”, which though still a negative has rather different connotations than above, and how this might for once have something to do with real asexuality and the stereotypes we get tarred with), but this post is getting rather long and the more I write the more clear it seems to me that you should not use the word for people’s identity as a shorthand negative descriptor for things which have little to nothing to do with said identity, *especially* if you engage in little to no discussion of said identity.

It is offensive, it is hurtful and I would very much like it if you stopped.

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August 21, 2009 - Posted by | asexuality, Uncategorized |

6 Comments »

  1. […] Because there have to be different words you can use by Zailyn at Primary Decomposition. Stop using the word “asexual” as a negative. […]

    Pingback by Linksplosion! Pick ‘n’ mix edition « Zero at the Bone | February 14, 2010 | Reply

  2. Herzlichen Dank für diesen wichtigen Beitrag!
    I also identify as a queer asexual woman, and while I don’t currently identify as disabled, I do have extreme tactile defensiveness and other sensory issues which have been “used” in arguments by others to question why I may be “forced” to identify as asexual. The situation from the outside becomes very complicated very quickly. For me personally, however, the situation is quite simple. I am asexual and I have sensory issues. One does not necessarily influence the other. You are absolutely right that there are far too few groups–heck, people even–organizing around the intersection of disability and [positive] asexuality. Let’s work to change that.

    Finally, I love the term “asexosphere”. I am definitely adding it to my vocabulary ;-)

    Comment by asdf | March 6, 2010 | Reply

  3. Hey, I know you wrote this a while ago, but I just found it, and yes – THIS. So much. It needed to be said.

    And I agree with you, it’s a little daunting to be told over and over that disabled people aren’t asexual – because yes, actually, some of them ARE. Like me, for example, who has Asperger Syndrome.

    At the same time, the ‘are you autistic?’ question, like you said, doesn’t make sense.
    I don’t know about autism, specifically, but for AS (which is considered ‘on the spectrum’) the % of people who are asexual is, according to the study done for the book “Asperger’s Syndrome And Sexuality: From Adolescence Through Adulthood” (pretty much the only real study into AS sexuality that I’ve ever come across), pretty much the same as for non-Asperger people. So obviously the ‘Autistic Spectrum Disorder = no sexuality’ thing is complete rubbish, anyway.

    I’m just really glad you put all this stuff out there.

    Comment by Ace | February 24, 2012 | Reply

  4. this part – “and you do not want to know how much *guilt* I have felt because I am disabled, and I am asexual, and it feels as if this means I am letting my side down!”

    i have to say, moved me, because i feel the same way being a survivor of sexual assault, when that’s always the first question i get after saying i am asexual. “were you abused?” “were you raped?” and I FEEL as if this means i am letting my side down too, to not be able to help prove that survivors of assault can be healthy sexual beings. and they can, but in my case, i am asexual. :/ im glad i read this. thank you for writing it.

    Comment by anonymous ace | October 13, 2012 | Reply

  5. […] This seems to be something that allosexual people just repeatedly fail to predict about asexual people.  Asexual people know they’re different, and know this difference has a profound effect on their life.  So-called “asexual” characters don’t ever seem to talk about it.  This is also true of “asexual” stereotypes of people with disabilities or people of certain ethnicities.  Here’s Kaz talking about “asexual” stereotypes of marginalized women: […]

    Pingback by The essence of an asexual character | The Asexual Agenda | June 22, 2013 | Reply

  6. […] looks at how asexuality and autism (mostly autism) contributes to the survival of the species. “Because there have to be different words you can use” – an essay which argues against using the word ‘asexual’ in a negative way. […]

    Pingback by Linkspam: Autistics Writing about Asexuality | The Notes Which Do Not Fit | September 16, 2016 | Reply


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