Unearned Privilege.

A new post, in honor of the cool folks who were sweet enough to hang with me at Pride Sunday, and then on top of it to say they like the blog. It’s only fair, as I’ve admittedly not posted in far too long.

I started thinking about this (again) partly as a result of Pride, actually. I can’t pretend it wasn’t awesome to stand in a crowd of (far too many) people (for my taste), and watch the parade of queer-friendly non-profits, queer-parented families, queer couples (in many cases, newly-married), and other random folks down Market Street. I wouldn’t want to pretend that, obviously. And of course, it got even more awesome, after I managed to find my way to the proper corner and meet up with the fun asexy folk, and wander around with them. We chatted with a few of the nonprofits about collaborations and meetups and whatnot and discussed the possibility of AVEN members participating in the parade next year, instead of simply spectating, and I realized this whole “casting off of the asexual label” hasn’t given me the freedom that I hoped it would. Perhaps, it’s facilitating that freedom, but if so, it’s doing so more slowly than I would have wished; it’s making it possible for me to accept “myself” as my main label instead of simply, inherently pushing me to have accepted “myself” in that regard. This irritates me, and it’s a little disappointing.

I think my main issue with the lack of a label now is that I feel like a bit of a fraud no matter where I’m grouped. In a “sexual” grouping, I can’t escape the sense that I don’t fit, and that I don’t particularly want to fit. I have this need to explain all of the ways that I’m in keeping with many people who identify as asexual, — that I still don’t particularly want sex, that it still creeps me out to imagine wanting sex, that I don’t know how I’ll ever reach a point where I do want it, if indeed I ever do. Yet, with asexual people, I have this sudden sense that I’m misrepresenting, that I’m some sort of two-timer, who has all the perks of asexual community without the struggles involved in coming out as asexual, which leaves me feeling lousy as well. I don’t like the idea that my decision not to identify as asexual is actually just a way of avoiding coming out, and the potential fallout. Honestly, I don’t think that’s the case, but given my prime worrying skillz — (have I mentioned those lately?) — I can’t help considering it.

I hadn’t really thought about privilege (and lack of privilege) in terms of (a)sexuality, until Ily posted a comment on this post at Musings on an Asexy Theme mentioning it. Largely, I think I missed that particular thought because I still personally view asexuality less as a sexual orientation and more as a secondary spectrum that defines how orientation (homo/ bi/ hetero/ etc) is expressed. For whatever reason, though, it didn’t occur to me that — obviously — the lack of privilege that comes with other minority sexual orientations would basically be a given with asexuality as well. In some ways, because I am strange, I am more compelled to identify as asexual because of this lack of privilege. It’s not that I’m a masochist — (heh, wouldn’t that require sexual pleasure?) — seeking to be oppressed in as many ways as possible; it’s simply that it’s incredibly uncomfortable to admit to having privilege. I learned this in a Race and Ethnic Relations course I took a year or two ago, in which I constantly found my (privileged white) -self biting my tongue to keep from saying, “But I’m female, and I’m gay, so I really do understand oppression. I am so much closer to you oppressed folks than I am to these oppressors, I promise.” Obviously, my insistence on bringing the conversation back to the ways in which I was oppressed did little to help further my understanding of the ways in which I contributed to the oppression, which was a barrier against dialogue and by extension, change. I learned this eventually, after reading many a Peggy McIntosh article, and did a better job of recognizing my privilege so I could take part in the change.

The thing about privilege that strikes me in relation to asexuality is that I don’t have to actually be “sexual,” or any specific mainstream definition of “sexual,” in order to have it. I have the privilege ascribed to “sexuals” by default, as long as I don’t come out as asexual. It’s the loophole of the closet, I suppose. After all, as long as you don’t come out as homosexual, a heterosexist society will assume that you are straight and ascribe you the corresponding privilege. There’s no need for you to actually be straight. Granted, the lack of self-knowledge, or the constant secrecy, or whatever else your closet experience is, will – in all likelihood – eat you alive. But your privilege will stay in tact.

It weirds me out that my sexual privilege, in this regard, (if not in regard to its same-gender orientation), remains in tact. The only constructive thing I know to do with that information is to seek further insight into how privilege manifests in terms of sexuality (versus asexuality) and begin to unpack what McIntosh calls the “invisible knapsack” of privileges individuals in the dominant group carry around without even realizing it. Looking at “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” her article containing the original list of examples of racial privilege granted to Whites in our culture, I’m curious what asexuals would suggest in terms of social privilege they notice granted to sexuals but not to themselves. A few examples come to me quickly – “I can identify my sexual orientation without others assuming I am repressed/ mentally ill/ et cetera,” “I can easily find others like me represented in various forms of media,” and even “Other people have heard of my sexual orientation.” I highly doubt however, that this even begins to exhaust the depth of the list, which leaves me curious what other privileges asexuals would point to, if asked. I suspect that while some of them – the assumption that I’m mentally ill, for instance – may overlap with the experience of a gay or bisexual person, they may be more intense. (Homosexuality, at the very least, has been removed from the DSM.) I also suspect there would be many privileges granted (“even”) to homosexuals, but denied to asexuals, and I’m curious what would land in that category, as – presuming I don’t take on the asexual label at some point – I will need to know what privileges society is granting me for no good reason whatsoever, if I intend to successfully challenge that ascription.

And I do, of course, intend to challenge it. There’s a line I remember from another class, which in my mind I link to McIntosh as well, but I can’t find it in any of the articles I’ve searched, which leaves me wondering if actually belongs to Larry May and his essay “Shared Responsibility for Racism”. The idea of it is simply that when a person begins to confront privilege they wrongfully hold, they often feel a sense of guilt for the quality that makes them privileged, although they have no control over it. May (if it is May) suggests such guilt is misplaced, that actually people should only feel guilty for failing to take a stand against the injustice rooted in their privilege. This concept helps me to live as a white person in a society rooted in white supremacy without completely hating myself. I’m hoping that, as someone who (complicated facts of the matter aside) will at least be presumed sexual, it will help me to let go of that guilt as well.

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5 Responses to “Unearned Privilege.”

  1. The Gray Lady Says:

    Hmm… you know, beyond what you mentioned, I haven’t really thought a whole lot about what privileges I’ve been denied for being asexual. I might just think on that and try to come up with a list.

    I can sort of relate on the “feeling like a fraud” thing, though. Since I’m not “completely” one or the other, or at least don’t completely fit in with people’s ideas (even my own ideas, sometimes) about how I should be if I identify as _____ (and I leave that blank because that’s pretty much how it’s been with all the labels I’ve ever taken on), I’ve had a lot of moments where I think, “I’m X, but X’s don’t Y, so how can I still say I’m X?” Ultimately, it’s always still made the most sense to call myself asexual, even though I am maybe more like an ultra-hyposexual, if you want to get specific. But I’d really much rather blur the existing lines, than draw more lines so that I can toe them. There’s only so much room in the sand, you know!

  2. Ily Says:

    Again, good to meet you the other day! 🙂 I really believe that privilege can be used for good…when you’re part of a group that’s only 1% (well, probably more, but no one really knows) of the population, allies, especially active allies, become essential. I think they should always be welcome at asexual-themed activities, because we can get so much more done with them than we could without them. So yeah, if someone realizes they’re not A, but they remain an ally, I will still support them 100%.
    And this might seem like a weird question, but do labels have to define you? For me, the asexual label just helps me find people who are most like myself…there is no written-in-stone asexual definition, but if there is one, I probably haven’t followed it perfectly and probably won’t in the future. To me, the only purpose of a label is to build community, but it’s funny because they do end up impacting you in other ways as well. Interesting stuff.

  3. Hallu Says:

    Ooh! Listing privileges looks like fun. How about:

    – No matter what city I am in, I can be sure that I can find bars and clubs catering to people who share my sexual preferences.
    – I can always find dating and social networking services in my area that cater to people of my sexual preferences.
    – If I choose to mention my habits in masturbation, fantasizing, or a similarly private area, I can rest assured that the people I am speaking to will not use this information to invalidate my sexual identity.
    – If I choose to mention that I am sexually inexperienced, I can be reasonably confident that no one will use this information to invalidate my sexual identity.
    – If I choose to mention that I am sexually experienced, I can be reasonably confident that no one will use this information to invalidate my sexual identity.
    – If I choose to mention my sexual orientation to a therapist in the course of unrelated therapy, I can be confident that the therapist will not make changing my sexual orientation the focus of the rest of my time with them.
    – If I choose to mention that I have been sexually abused, no one will tell me that I have an obligation to change my sexual orientation in order to “recover” from the abuse.
    – No one tells me that I am an incomplete or naive person because of my sexuality.
    – If I should happen to fall in love, there is a pretty good chance that the person I fall in love with will be reasonably compatible with me sexually.
    – If I should happen to find a partner who IS compatible with me sexually, and if I choose to be open about this, I can rest assured that the relationship will be taken seriously and that no one will insist our sexual practices make us “just friends”.
    – If I am open and honest with my partner about my sexual feelings, I can be reasonably confident that my partner will not feel dehumanized or unloved because of what I have told them.
    – My partner might cheat on me behind my back or otherwise betray me, but at least they won’t tell me afterwards that my sexuality was what forced them to do it.
    – I can watch television, read a magazine, watch movies, read novels, or surf the Internet without fear of being exposed to material that disgusts and upsets me.
    – I can watch television, read a magazine, watch movies, read novels, and surf the Internet and easily find characters who have sexual desires I can relate to.
    – If my friends are engaging in a sexual discussion that embarrasses or upsets me, I can ask them politely to stop without having my sexual identity ridiculed.
    – I am rarely, if ever, told that my sexual orientation is going to change at some unspecified point in the future.
    – If I find a partner who loves me, I can be reasonably confident that I will not be repulsed or alienated by the way that they choose to express their love.
    – I am rarely, if ever, told that my sexual orientation makes me unable to love.
    – I am not told that I should refrain from speaking about my sexual identity, because there is “nothing to say”.

    Come to think of it, most of these only apply to vanilla monogamous heterosexuals. Curiouser and curiouser.

  4. willendork Says:

    Gray Lady: “I’d really much rather blur the existing lines, than draw more lines so that I can toe them. There’s only so much room in the sand, you know!” …So. very. true. I may have to quote you on this. I need to learn to quit toeing lines so much myself; maybe then, I’ll stop trying to draw lines I can toe more effectively.

    Ily: I think the “do labels have to define you?” is a definite “no” in my book. Unfortunately, I don’t always live up to that; I tend to stress over them in a way that suggests I land closer to the “yes” category. But perhaps it’s more about how I suspect others will expect of me based on the label than what I expect of myself. Here’s hoping I can kick this to the curb and just enjoy my place in this community, regardless of which label (asexual, ally, fellow crazy activist :)) attaches me to it.

    Hallu: Curiouser and curiouser, indeed! I always think it’s super-interesting to see where the different non-dominant orientations have overlapping experiences (and where they’re distinct.) There’s so much food for thought in your list; thanks a ton for sharing it.

  5. Effects of Privilege « Shades of Gray Says:

    […] Jump to Comments A while ago Venus of Willendork made a post in which she discussed privilege, which I have had in the back of my mind as a topic for future discussion since. The subject came […]

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