Photo Credit: Hooligantastic.
Lately, the topic of choice over at Asexual Explorations has been sexual repression, one that has been on my mind lately as well, in a slightly different sense. As Pretzelboy points out, the term “sexual repression” has roughly as many definitions as it does letters. Thus, when people use the term,
[s]ometimes they mean that a person isn’t willing to acknowledge their own sexual feelings. Sometimes they mean that a person is deep-down really interested in sex despite the plain reality that they aren’t. Sometimes they mean that not having sex somehow in a super-secret way causes neuroses. Sometimes they mean that a culture is sexually restrictive with its negative messages and oppressive rules about sex. Sometimes they mean that a person isn’t able to express their sexuality because of such rules. Sometimes that mean that a person who isn’t interested in sex must be disinterested because of such societal rules, ignoring the fact there might be other reasons for not being interested in sex (like lack of desire, for example.)
I’ve written — rather minimally — in the past about the accusation of sexual repression, particularly the definitions that resemble denial and a reaction to upbringing/ abuse. It’s a response asexuals who attempt to come out often receive, and I’ve stated before how my own experience of the asexual community defies its characterization (from folks like Joy Davidson) as a place where important explorations of self and sexuality are truncated. In response, largely, to Davidson’s claim on 20/20 that if you’re going to label yourself asexual, “You may as well label yourself not curious, unadventurous, narrow-minded, blind to possibilities. That’s what happens when you label yourself as…as…sexually neutered,” I pointed out that — since finding the asexual community — I had learned more about myself and my sexuality, expressed more curiosity, adventured further into the sexual world, and opened my mind up more to what sexuality is, how it works, and what it can be, than I ever had as a person defaulting into sexuality. Commenters on that post suggested a similar experience, which is mirrored in the livejournal forums, and presumably on AVEN as well, although I don’t frequent the forums there and therefore can’t speak to trends. For many of us, it seems, an asexual label — or even interaction with the community sans labelling, which seems to be more of my role these days — allows something that assuming sexuality does not. Introspection, an increase in knowledge/awareness (of sexuality as well as asexuality), and eventually self-actualization seem — at least for some of us — to be outcomes of our interaction with the ase community, even as Davidson and her doppelgangers claim this interaction fundamentally limits us from those experiences. I have seen more willingness to recognize and support fluidity in the asexual community, for instance, than in any other sexual community, straight or queer. Individuals bringing “confessions” to the table — of shifts in orientation within the homo-/ hetero-/ bi- scheme or from asexual to sexual, of realizations that trauma/ religion/ identity confusion/ etc did play more of a role in their asexuality than they previously realized — receieve, in my experience, a similar respect and support to those who come to the forums asking for support of their asexuality. I have yet to see the same for lesbians who come to identify as bi, etc. For many asexual people, there seems to be a fundamental value, which suggests that figuring out one’s identity, as an individual, matters significantly more than which identity one determines.
As David said on the Montel show a few years back, “here [in the asexual community] is a place you can come to explore yourself. Here is a place you can talk about yourself. We’re not saying, come to the asexual community, and then just give up trying to figure out who you are. It’s a community where we’re very actively asking questions about ourselves.” For some of us asking those questions, the answers lean — in time — toward sexuality. A year ago, I was trying to wrap my head around how to come out as asexual or potentially asexual; I felt recognized in what I read on the subject, and supported in the ace community. Now, although I still respond, act, think, and feel, much more like an asexual person than a sexual one, I recognize that I am — in all likelihood — someone whose sexuality, whatever it looks like, has largely been shut down through negative experiences. My sister’s statement to me last year, that it was less likely I was asexual and more likely that I’d been “raised by our parents” — (a reference, largely, to their body-phobic/ sex-negative perspectives) — has proven wise in a way I almost hoped, initially, that it would not. As the therapy I’ve been receiving for years (for reasons unrelated to sexuality) begins to explore this territory, it becomes increasingly clear that I am in many ways just what the Joy Davidsons of the world are seeking: the girl raised in a (bizarre attempt at rejection of) hyper-religiosity, in a culture of abuse and trauma, with medical conditions (and treatments) that can contribute to hyposexuality. I score at least 3/3 on the trifecta for dismissal. Davidson claimed on 20/20 that “there may be something, maybe something physiological, intricate, maybe something that has to do with trauma or abuse, or repression or a severe religiosity that has predisposed you to shutting down the possibility of being sexually engaged,” and here I am — the prototype for this explanation. And yet… I still don’t agree with her, and I don’t agree with her criticisms of asexuality or the community built around that identification.
For starters, although I can fathom a sexuality I do not yet experience, although I can recognize the multitude of factors that have (most likely) dismantled what might have been a much more “traditional” sexual development, and publicly claim them on this blog, I don’t project my experience onto all members of the community. Are there others in the community who have ended up there with the help of trauma or bizarre religious teaching? Certainly. Are they the only people there? I doubt it. And, given the relatively poor understanding the scientific community has about the development of desire, attraction, and orientation, isn’t it equally possible that people end up in other orientations for these same reasons? Straight girls try on homosexuality for a semester to rebel against their upbringing. Lesbians are constantly (if decreasingly) accused of responding to trauma inflicted by men through an attraction to women. Gender (and relationships between people of defined genders) are policed as medical issues. So, why is asexuality — which, if it is constructed through personal experience and biology, is no more constructed than other forms of sexuality — so unacceptable?
My personal stance, for some time now, has been that I don’t care what I “end up” being — asexual, sexual, or attracted to rutabagas — so long as I can feel that I am genuinely that, and not hiding out in an orientation that keeps me safe from personal realities too frightening to face. And so I move forward, attempting to understand and heal whatever I have left to understand and heal. In the meantime, however, I don’t find anything immoral about a temporary identification. I may have chosen against actually self-describing as asexual, but I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with a person similar to me who chooses to do so. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with choosing to identify a safe space, in which to do the necessary work.
For many, asexuality is not a safe space. It’s an identity, — and one that sometimes brings misunderstanding, pain, and rejection, even ridicule or betrayal. For others, it’s the exact security necessary to begin the difficult process of unpacking one’s past. Winter, one of the asexual people present on the Montel show said that “We [in the asexual community] are not a place you go to hide from your sexuality,” — and she’s right. That’s not the purpose of the community. “Asexual” is not intended to mean traumatized or confused. Yet, it’s unrealistic to suggest that traumatized and confused people will not end up there. Opponents of asexuality attack the community for providing a place to hide, despite the fact that it’s not the community’s purpose. It’s my personal opinion that rather than claiming none of us are hiding, or that those who are have no place in the community, we might choose to ask what’s wrong with hiding. I’ll say again that I value introspection and self-actualization. However, I know that exploring difficult issues and working to heal them requires the secure environment where one can do so “safely” and with support. Being badgered into sexuality has done nothing for me. Being allowed to identify as asexual has allowed me to address the possibility that I am not. So, while I agree with Winter’s statement that the ace community is not intended for hiding, I disagree with what follows, her idea that, “If you are just looking to hide from a problem, we aren’t the place for you.” The community, with its refusal to force sexuality, its tendency toward supporting folks, and the surprising willingness of (many) members to gradually educate themselves (and in certain cases, each other) about sexuality, may be just that place. I don’t advocate hiding forever, but I reject the idea that hiding temporarily can’t help. Sometimes we need support in what we have been — or feel we have been — to explore what we might become. Sometimes it’s only in finding a place to hide that we uncover the courage to seek.