Bridging the gap between asexuality and sex-positivity
I was halfway out of my best friend’s car, but paused to make one last comment about some blog post discussing the asexual spectrum.
“It said you’re on the ace spectrum if you only want to have sex with someone once you really get to know them. That’s not being ace. That’s everyone. Everyone works that way.” And, as a parting shot: “It’s just advertising that wants women to think otherwise.”
“It’s really not,” he said. “Haven’t you been listening?”
He would later say he’d gotten a hunch that I was not only missing the point of the conversation, but missing something big about myself. In hindsight, I imagine this was a woke conversation weighed down by teenage training wheels. I’ve travelled the confusing road to realizing I’m on this spectrum, which defines those who experience little to no sexual attraction. I am specifically demisexual, the definition of which was so normal to me I didn’t think the alternative was real.
Now I’m listening and realising that no, it isn’t just advertising or mainstream masculinity that doesn’t get me; it’s feminism, too. It seems to me, the more artistic, fierce and enthusiastic feminism’s expression gets, the more its motto swerves from ‘boss lady’ to ‘boss in the bedroom.’
In theory, asexuality and feminism are a perfect match; it’s hard to find an asexual person who isn’t some flavour of feminist. Feminism is about dismantling societal systems and reframing the stories that came before us and threaten to follow us into the future. Asexuality challenges those structures just by existing. How do you control and define women by their sexual desire, if that desire doesn’t exist?
Despite how their goals intertwine, I’m not the only one in the asexual community feeling the stirrings of judgement from fellow feminists, especially when it comes to the powerful undercurrent of sex-positivity. This messaging has made me feel more and more disconnected from mainstream feminism.
In her article “Is sex-positivity failing asexual women?” on Medium.com, Vena Moore writes, “the takeaway from sex-positivity for some women, including myself, is that it’s ‘all sex, all the time’ […] where those who are averse to sex are deemed irrational.” By celebrating saying ‘yes’ to sex, sex-positivity also acknowledges when it’s someone’s right to say ‘no.’ But to some aces, once the manifesto turns into Tweets, talks and think-pieces, it seems many sex-positive feminists don’t actually trust that aces know why they’re saying ‘no.’
In their own words
My own ace experience includes feeling like I’m constantly out of step with what the rest society thinks. To see if others felt the same incongruence as I did, I ran a small survey. It went to anonymous, mostly asexual respondents, ranging from 16 to 26 years old. Most said that feminists, whether in casual conversation or organized groups, just don’t understand asexuals—or even know that they exist.
One respondent said people sometimes say that asexual people can’t be sex-positive because they don’t have sex themselves. Another noted that asexuality is misunderstood even in the LGBT2QQIA+ community despite their inclusion in the acronym (well, mostly—we still have to share the A with ‘ally’), so it’s not surprising the conversation hasn’t been picked up by mainstream feminism. Another said they experienced a lot of shame for being ace and added that feminists could do better by moving away from the idea that the only way to become unchained by the patriarchy is to have sex.
The reality of asexuality is not as simple as an eternal, resounding ‘no’ to sex. Jeanette Sabourin, president of InQueeries, MacEwan University’s pride alliance, also surveyed people on the asexual spectrum. While many of the respondents admitted that they had been in nonconsensual sexual encounters, 96 per cent of respondents said that they had been in an enthusiastically consensual sexual situation that they felt harmed them or their relationship.
People often suggest to Sabourin that the participants didn’t understand consent. But as a fellow ace, Sabourin sympathized: they consented not because they wanted to, but because they felt obligated. Being ace can involve being perfectly in love with someone and thinking you must say ‘yes,’ because what reason do you have to say ‘no’? Sabourin says education about asexuality would empower ace people to be more aware of potentially harmful situations.
Sex has become the framework by which most gender-based activism seems to define itself. However, casual sex, partnered sex, kinky sex, vanilla sex and even conversations about one’s choice to do those things are not necessarily what empowers an ace. As women have found more freedom to be sexually experimental and uninhibited, the unspoken implication has become that those who are uncomfortable, unwilling or just plain uninterested are still trapped and that they need to pursue feminism harder in order to sexually liberate themselves. Since some asexual people are outright disgusted by sex, this is a deeply problematic implication.
Feminism, as a whole, is a driving force behind so many revelations that have moved society forward. It opens people’s minds to more complex realities and identities, which can include ace education; sex-positive feminism can help by emphasizing the empowerment in all sexual choices—including all the reasons not to have sex.
And that, Sabourin says, advances the interests of both feminists and aces.
“If you have a hundred people and each one is yelling their own thing, it all gets jumbled up and easily ignored. But if you get those hundred people using their voices to amplify each other, suddenly they’re all heard […] The ability to amplify the voices of both communities moves both further, sooner.”
Asexuality also has a lot to offer feminist spaces. The literature for both groups explores how heterosexuality is ingrained in every facet of society. Asexuality not only challenges this, but questions the blueprint. Asexuality is often defined by its lack of desire. In reality, that’s usually just one aspect of so many diverse gender, sexual and cultural identities and variables that move beyond the predictable.
“One of the ideas in feminism was those who experience oppression have a greater understanding of things than those who don’t,” Sabourin says. “These unique viewpoints are so powerful.”
Ela Przybylo, PhD, faculty member of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program at Illinois State University, is the author of Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality. Her idea is adapted from Audre Lorde’s writings in Black feminism, lesbian feminism and anti-racist activism. Lorde challenges how people think about sexuality and redefines ‘the erotic’ as inner fulfillment that isn’t just about the body. The book is about creating opportunity to meet each other’s needs without adding sex to the equation, or even finding intimate meaning alone through experiences like painting or writing poems.
Asexual Erotics builds off of this framework. This can pull the conversation, even in feminist spaces, further away from the tangled and painful patriarchal, misogynistic and colonialist frameworks of having and politicizing sex. Both Asexual Erotics and Lorde ask how feminism would see the world if it wasn’t constantly fighting to take the politics of sex out of the patriarchy’s jaws and instead building it from the ground up on its own terms.
Dr. Przybylo says aces face “pressure to be really positive about sex but [are] still not always accepted in spaces that should also be for them.”
The concept of sex-positivity doesn’t need to be dismantled to make that space. In my survey responses, there was almost a self-consciousness in asking for recognition from feminist friends. While few felt any malice from friends, they were still ignored, invalidated, or brushed off.
Przybylo acknowledges the accidental creation of this wedge, especially when it comes to the LGBT2QQIA+ community resisting asexuality’s inclusion in their spaces. The sex-positive tenets which built such strong foundations for LGBT2QQIA+ activism have also pushed aces out, resulting in the exclusion of asexual people from feminist and LGBT2QQIA+ communities.
“It can feel really dangerous and unsettling when [sex and sexual attraction] are questioned, especially when you’ve had to fight—literally—for the right for people to have sex with each other. Of course, it’s going to be unsettling when you realize that not everyone wants to have sex or is sexually attracted in ways that have been articulated.”
Feminism as a whole has not outgrown society’s discomfort with aces and in turn, asexuality risks being uncomfortable with feminism.
But Przybylo doesn’t see these groups as truly separate. Most asexual values are grounded in sex-positive feminism. Feminist initiatives, like uplifting sex workers, advocating for reproductive rights and sex education and asexual initiatives have to be a part of that same agenda, because they are the same agenda.
“If there is a sex-positive feminism that doesn’t allow for [asexual people and asexual discourse], I just don’t think it’s sex-positive feminism at all.”
How do feminists—ace feminists like myself included—create solutions on the ground floor? Education about the deeply intertwined cores of feminist and asexual goals can begin the process, but Sabourin notes something even simpler.
From her unique position as an ace president in an LGBT2QQIA+ organization, she can see that InQueeries’ strong turnout of ace members is not the same in spaces without an ace leader like her. To fill that gap, Sabourin wants all organizations addressing LGBT2QQIA+ and gender issues to invite aces to talk with them. The tiniest adjustment can have a butterfly effect on understanding and accepting asexuals. Her simple solution includes just three words: “Any sexuality…or lack thereof.”