Getting Differences Patched vs. Perfectly Matched.

Last night, in a fit of boredom, I started searching the interwebs for interesting posts on sexuality and asexuality, and came across something that, if I were a little less masochistic, I probably would have had the sense to leave at the first hint of biphobia.  But, as someone who has never really come out as asexual (unless you count those couple of times I came out as questioning, prior to rethinking my own desire to use the term), encountering such serious and misinformed prejudice regarding the asexual community as I did in that post kind of startled me, and I wanted to at least understand (better) what my asexual friends are up against.  I’m hesitant to quote or link the piece here because I sort of feel like that gives power to the wrong narrative, the way that responding to Fred Phelps (or someone similar) would give power to the wrong kind of words, but I think it’s more established in the larger world that what Fred Phelps touts is prejudice.  In some ways, the asexual community and the allies of that community still need to respond to these claims, because how else will we reach a point where they are classified as nonsense?

Rather than parse every problem that I have with womanbythewell’s post on asexuality, I’m just going to do what I can to address her main argument, which seems to be that, by engaging in romantic relationships with people of all sexual orientations (or any sexual orientation, as opposed to strictly relating within the asexual community), asexual people with sexual partners are “selfish […] abusers.”  As evidence, she offers two rather discouraging stories of relationships sexual friends of hers have had with asexual partners.  In one, the asexual partner abruptly “quits” having sex with the sexual partner, except in those times when he worries she might be considering leaving him.  In the second, the sexual person believes that her asexual partner refuses to understand her needs and her feelings of pain and frustration.  The latter relationship ends, supposedly as the result of the asexual person’s “refusal” to understand; the first relationship continues with the sexual partner feeling increasingly rejected and in pain.

I don’t offer either of these stories as models of asexual/ sexual relationships or relationships in general.  Leaving the issue of sex or no sex behind for a moment, there are other clear problems in these partnerships.  For the couple that suddenly “quits” having sex, there’s an abrupt and presumably undiscussed decision that changes an important aspect of the relational contract.  The structure of the relationship is altered without a real dialogue, and I would argue that the lack of communication would be detrimental in any relationship, regardless of the issue it was around and whether the partners had the same orientation or two different ones.  Still, I don’t dismiss the importance of (no) sex in this scenario.  While it’s fairly easy for me to imagine the main problem here as a lack of communication, I can recognize that I might feel differently if I had stronger and more consistent sexual desires of my own.  Given that the sexual partner views sex as a need, the new relational structure has only met the (sexual) needs of the asexual partner, and no compromise has been discussed, let alone tried.  I’ll work my way later to the claim that asexual partnering with sexuals is fundamentally selfish; however, I do see the decision (by any person, of any orientation) to look after their own needs without regard for their partner’s as a fairly selfish one.  Perhaps in these particular relationships no compromise is possible, but I think it’s the lack of an effort toward one (on both sides, as far as I can tell), that leads to the issue.  Particularly in relationships that begin when one person already identifies as asexual and the other does not, (rather than relationships like I understand at least one of these cases to be, in which a person identifies and comes out as asexual while in an established relationship), I think it’s crucial to establish a mutual understanding that “sacrifice,” “compromise,” and taking pleasure in another person’s pleasure (whether that stems from sexual gratification or relief at not having to sexually engage) are necessary.  That said, I’m reminded of a rather spot-on Carol Queen quote I discovered in an interview at her website, which pointed out that issues of time and commitment can be as problematic for “monogamous twosomes” as for “poly people, because it doesn’t have to be one’s time spent with another lover that leads a partner to feel under-appreciated — it could be commitments to work, hobbies, or friends that leads to jealousy.”  As someone who always assumed she could never be in a poly relationship because of the insecurity I feel and the suspicion that I would leap pretty quickly to a place of jealousy, I found this insight incredible.  It hadn’t occurred to me that those same issues could be equally problematic in a mono relational structure.  Likewise, I don’t think it’s occurred to womanbythewell that problems such as neglected needs, one-way decisions, lack of communication, and a relational structure that serves one partner and not the other are problematic in any relationship, orientation(s) aside. 

Not only that, but these problems don’t automatically correspond with being asexual, or even with being an asexual who is romantically involved with a sexual person.  In my (admittedly limited) experience, a lot of people in these relationships, sexual and asexual alike, are strongly committed to making sure that their partner’s needs are met to the best of their ability.  There is an ongoing dialogue in such relationships about both sets of needs and potential ways to meet them.  There’s even an AVEN board dedicated to supporting — (not simply educating, but supporting) — the sexual partners of asexual people, as there’s an understanding among many members of the community that being a sexual person with a partner who does not sexually desire you or wish to have sex with you at all can be difficult both emotionally and practically speaking.  Both partners in any relationship, but especially in a relationship with such explicit challenges, need to work to understand not only their partner’s perspective but how their own perspective affects their partner.  To begin with, sexual people need to consider how a celibate lifestyle potentially ignores their partner’s needs and how their orientation can be misconstrued as a rejection of their partner.  Sexual people, meanwhile, have to consider the idea that their need to have sex doesn’t necessarily trump their partner’s need not to have it, and that the pressuring their partner to feel or do more sexually than (s)he is comfortable may actually push them further away.

In a sense, the discussion here actually revolves around consent.  Consensual non-sex as well as consensual sex.  I had a discussion with a (sexual) friend fairly recently, during which she said that she didn’t think she was up to a relationship with an asexual person because she desires sex and can’t imagine comfortably having it with someone who does not.  She suggested that doing so would be “glorified rape,” which strikes me as similar, in a way, to womenbythewell’s suggestion that not having sex with a sexual partner constitutes abuse.  In the same way that an asexual person might, for many reasons, choose to have sex with their partner or agree to establish a relational structure in which their partner’s sexual needs are met another way, a sexual person can consent to meet the asexual person’s need not to have sex, if indeed that’s a need this particular ace-person has, which… is not always the case.

The fact that not all asexual people refuse to have sex points to one of the reasons I strongly disagree with the comment that dating outside the asexual community is “selfish” on the part of aces.  In general, I don’t think that attraction — and even relationships, which are more choiceful than attraction — are as clear-cut as womanbythewell suggests.  Straight people have been known to date gays, choicefully in experimentation phases, and without realizing it in cases when the gay-person remained confused or closeted.  Bisexual people date not only other bisexuals but also gay and lesbian individuals, (and experience similar accusations of wanting everyone as a result.)  Even recognizing that the majority of straight people date other straight people and the majority of gay people date other gay people, I think there’s something telling in the fact that asexuals are currently estimated as one percent of the population.  To be completely honest, the fact that womanbythewell knew of two asexuals in her everyday life bowled me over nearly as much as her comments on them did.  I’ve lost count of the number of asexual people I’ve heard mention that off-line they know of no other asexuals.  As a community that is potentially so small, with such low visibility that even those who might identify as ase don’t know to do so, how are the bi-, hetero-, and homo-romantics of the world supposed to relate to anyone if they limit themselves to asexuals?  As romantic people, I don’t think the desire for relationship automatically establishes us as selfish, and I think those sexual people who have successfully created relational structures with asexual partners about whom they care deeply would probably be grateful that not everyone in the ace community feels it necessary to relate as womanbythewell suggests. 

Even if we limit the issue to one of “sex” or “no sex,” which I think simplifies things way past the point they should be simplified, I don’t think it’s fair to argue, as this blogger did, that asexuals should not “seek out” sexuals because they intend to live an “asexual lifestyle.”  From my perspective, problems in relationships between asexual and sexual people arise from an intention on the asexual person’s part to live a celibate lifestyle and an intention on the sexual person’s part to live a non-celibate one.  Not only are both parties responsible for considering their needs, their partner’s needs, their assumptions, and their partner’s assumptions, but a distinction needs to be made (yet again) between celibacy and asexuality.  Celibacy is a lifestyle and a choice.  Asexuality is an orientation.  You can ask how a partnership can work when only one person desires to live a celibate lifestyle (provided you are willing to listen to the answer.)  You cannot (fairly) ask how a partnership can work with someone who intends to live an “asexual lifestyle,” because as asexual people, what other lifestyle would you expect them to live?

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3 Responses to “Getting Differences Patched vs. Perfectly Matched.”

  1. pretzelboy Says:

    I think there are a couple of other important things to consider with sexual/asexual pairings. For one thing, there is the problematic notion that boy parts going into girl parts equals sex. On Apositive, there have been some good conversations about asexuals in relationships with sexual people who they found alternate sexual activities that both people could enjoy/were comfortable with. The second is advise my mother gave me when I told her I’m asexual but that I want to get married: “You’ll just have to find someone with a low sex drive.”

  2. The Gray Lady Says:

    All great points, and I’m glad you posted them. I, personally, as someone who has grown up with a REAL abuser, find it insulting that she could consider something so trivial as not fulfilling a spouse’s sexual wants abuse. There is a vast, vast difference between that and deliberate cruelty inflicted on one’s family members (whether that cruelty be physical, emotional, or both). At worst, the situation she described is manipulative, not abusive. But likely even that wasn’t the case, since these people probably realized they were asexual long after getting into the relationship–and that’s several times more likely to be true if they’re Christian and waited until after marriage to introduce sexuality into the relationship. One can only lie if one already knows the truth, after all; otherwise, they’re not lying, they’re just ill-informed (or delusional, or in denial, take your pick).

    Also, questions of selfishness vs. selflessness tend to bother me in general because of their tendency to encourage a victim mentality. I have found that it’s not usually useful to think of relational situations in those terms, since it more often blocks communication on sensitive issues like these than encourages compromise. Even worse that she dismisses an entire group of people as being selfish based on the actions of just a few (which she may not even fully understand, at that, since she has only heard her friends’ perspectives).

    She comes off as incredibly whiny, and acts as if these people are truly trapped in the marriage, instead of acknowledging that they DO have a choice. (Christian or not, if Jesus forgives all sins anyway, and the marriage really is that miserable with no way to compromise, wouldn’t it be MORE selfish to stay in that situation and inflict all your misery on your children? I admit to being biased because that’s exactly what my parents decided to do, but seriously, if there is a God, he is not going to hate someone for doing right by them and getting out of a bad situation.) I really want to hit her over the head with a clue-by-four.

    So in short, not only is she calling me selfish without ever having met me, but she’s also trivializing my experience as a survivor of domestic abuse. Winning combination.

    As a sidenote, it’s interesting you mention that tidbit about jealousy issues in mono and poly. Jealousy (or rather the underlying insecurity causing it) was actually what destroyed my first mono relationship. In either relationship style, in order to have a good working relationship, you either have to address the jealousy and deal with effectively, or sidestep it by telling your partner not to do x because it makes you jealous. With polyamory, you’re forced to address the issue if you want the relationship to survive, but with monogamy, you can get by without addressing it unless it’s very serious. It seems in a lot of cases, people who have been monogamous all their lives don’t really learn or don’t get in the habit of dealing with jealousy effectively, so they’re intimidated by poly because it would bring those issues up. It’s not that poly people are immune to jealousy, or that it never comes up in monogamous relationships; the difference is just that jealousy management is widely touted as a poly relationship survival tool, while it’s not for mono relationships (though I think it should be, since it does still come up).

  3. willendork Says:

    Pretzelboy: Very true. I always prefer to think of it as a continuum and probably would have gotten into what you mentioned if I hadn’t started to lose steam. Still, I’m glad someone pointed it out, since I got too tired to do so.

    Gray Lady: These are fantastic points. (Also, I think a “clue-by-four” is my new favorite phrase. I am so ganking that.) I was really offended by the definition of abuse, too; I agree it minimizes real abuse and classifies as abusers people who simply aren’t. I don’t see how you can abuse someone simply by being in a relationship with them when (as you pointed out) they are consenting to be in that relationship with you, and they do have a very real choice about whether they stay. It occurred to me, too, that her information was extremely one-sided and so even if her evaluation was less ill-informed about asexuality, it wouldn’t have been an accurate understanding of those relationships in their entirety. …Your comments about selfish-/selfless-ness are also well taken. I read something else in a poly blog that I thought was interesting the other day (I think it was the misanthrope one linked on my blogroll), which said that they had given up the question of “is this fair?” (which, to me, seems to create a similar victim/ victimizer dynamic) for the question “does this work?” What I love about the “does this work?” question, as far as relational aggreements/ dynamics/ et cetera go, is that it also sidesteps the need to do what is “normal” or socially approved or whatever and just define what works within the relationship between the two (or more) people involved. I think that’s true of these sexual/ asexual relationship structures as well. In the cases when they do work, either because the sexual person has a low sex drive, the asexual person can fulfill or allow the sexual person to fullfill their needs in other ways, (as Pretzelboy mentioned), or whatever — that’s largely what is going on: The people who actually are *in* the relationship take responsibility for creating a dynamic that works for everyone involved. That’s the failure I see in these examples (as they are presented), much more so than anyone’s desire to have or not have sex or willingness to sexually perform.

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