Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Alone Together

"Oppression is depressing."--Miriam Greenspan

A while back, I read the book A New Approach to Women and Therapy by Miriam Greenspan, who I think is pretty brilliant. It was published in 1983, so parts feel dated now. But, other elements are still relevant, sometimes scarily so. Recently I rediscovered the book on my shelf, and remembered that at least one section of the book was very relevant to stuff I've blogged about. It dealt with gendered ideas of "aloneness". Of course asexuals don't have a monopoly on "dying alone!"-type worries, but it's an idea that tends to be foisted on us, whether or not it's a personal concern. (Warning: Gender binary ahead.)

Greenspan gives two scenarios. In the first, she's sitting at a bar talking with a female friend. Two men approach them and comment that they are out alone. When Greenspan responds that they aren't alone, but with each other, the men assume that they're lesbians. In the second scenario, a woman is sitting by herself at a sidewalk cafe, reading a book. A man approaches and asks her if she's waiting for someone. Greenspan writes that this women is "perceived in relation to an absent other (214, emphasis hers)."

She claims that "Women in relation to other women are both culturally understood and actually perceived as being alone...Women internalize this social definition; in the company of women and children, we often experience ourselves as alone. Only with a man are we not alone (213-14)". Of course, she mentions the disparity in the images of bachelors vs. spinsters. My own mental associations support her point: When I think of the images that come to mind around the word "bachelor", I envision a man who is active, surrounded by women, male friends, or activities. On the other hand, I agree with Greenspan that "spinster" brings to mind a woman sitting alone in a dusty attic. She writes that "the very word [spinster] evokes black spiders in a corner weaving webs for no one...Solitude is a male virtue, a female affliction (213)".

(For another example of the above, see the unsolicited issue of Women's Health magazine that arrived at my house. In an advice column, a woman asks how she can get her boyfriend to respect her wishes for alone time. The response is something like, "Point to your stack of Glee DVDs and say it's your version of the fantasy football draft." This is problematic on more levels than you probably have patience to read about, but here, female aloneness finds legitimacy through stereotypically male terms, and it's assumed that men can only understand a woman's desire for solitude through a "male" analogy.)

In my own experience, I've seen this "alone together" concept borne out again and again. I find that often when women are talking with supportive groups of people, that's exactly the time when they're most likely to bring up how alone they feel. When someone of any gender says "I'm so alone" in a group, I know they're referring to their desire for a romantic relationship. But I think it's significant that general aloneness is mentioned, rather than the lack of a specific relationship.

Men can also feel alone without women, especially older or more isolated men who have internalized the idea that emotional intimacy is only appropriate or possible within a romantic relationship. But, I would agree with Greenspan that a man alone at a cafe table is still sending a very different social message than a woman. Over the years, I've blogged about the many social messages that I've internalized. This, oddly enough, isn't one of them. I've felt disrespected and marginalized for my lack of "a man", but never lonely for this reason. When someone assumes that I'm waiting for a man, it jolts me out of my own imaginary world where my gender is secondary to my personhood. Since childhood, I related to our gendered-male ideas about solitude: "But a man alone is a great artist, or a brave adventurer, a mind unshackled by convention, a free spirit (213)". This is no more inherently male than the color blue, but it's coded as male anyway.

Greenspan goes on to explore the concept of "ego boundaries" as they relate to gender. Basically, it's hard to have a strong sense of self if one is always waiting for an "absent other" to show up. Weaker ego boundaries can indeed have advantages, but they're devalued in this culture. Even though I don't feel like I'm waiting, I still wonder how much of my anxiety over external approval and disapproval relates to my gendered experiences.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Yes! This sort of relates to my last post.

It's not frequent, but I do experience aesthetic attraction. I can find people "sexy", although my definition of this might be different than that of other people's. I have no desire to even interact with "sexy" people, let alone actually sex them up. I just note their attractiveness and move on. Aesthetic attraction always makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable, but it never happened enough for me to figure out why that was. So recently, when I noticed an especially good-looking person, I tried to capture the moment. Sitting with my nonsexual attraction, I just felt sad. My exact thought was: "I'm incomplete". I know, it's melodramatic, but sometimes my mind goes there.

For sure, it's another incident of internalized asexohating, but I also wanted to talk about the tropes underlying this specific thought pattern.

The thing is, I had landed right into a cultural theme that I believe is damaging to everyone: The idea of sex (and sexualized romance) as completion. That's why we have all these baseball metaphors for sex. It's the end goal of attraction. It ties in with the magic night trope, in which "scoring" at the end makes the night a success. By finding a person sexy and nothing more, I'm messing with the script, and the idea of sex as "consummation" or "sealing the deal". But I don't think there's much about sexuality that's actually so neat and linear. We like stories, and there is no story in my random aesthetic attraction. I try to make one up, about my incompleteness, but it isn't true.

For me, part of dealing with internalized asexohating is not only having pride in being asexual, but in being able to frankly admit the aspects of being asexual that are frustrating. And most importantly, why they're frustrating. The answer never turns out to be "because asexuals are somehow inferior". As for my aesthetic attraction, I feel like it defies logic. Whether it's some innate sense of logic or a cultural sense (or whether these can even be separated), I don't know. But the truth is, a lot about sexual orientation doesn't make sense. And we do have a very limited cultural view of what is "logical" when it comes to orientation and attraction.

Random aesthetic attraction: my silent protest against the baseball model of sexuality. (*wink wink*)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Asexuals are awesome! *hides*

How many posts have I read from asexuals seeking advice? Probably not a million, but definitely more than a thousand. A lot of answers to these advice-seekers repeat themselves, understandably. The most common might be, "We can't tell you if you're asexual or not". But I also frequently hear, "That person is not your friend". You know, the friend who keeps saying you're not really asexual and then tries to get you to have sex with them. There are plenty of others where friends are just rude about asexuality, not listening, and not appearing to care about that fact.

Are these people really terrible friends? I don't know...even in a friendship that's good overall, people can make some pretty big mistakes. But I'm guessing that with some of these asexuals, their interactions follow a pattern that I've identified in some of my own interactions. Someone says something hurtful about asexuality. You, the asexual, tell them how it ain't so. The person doesn't apologize or seem to understand why they were wrong. You feel bad. Yes...YOU feel bad. Because maybe it was your own fault for bringing asexuality up in the first place. Maybe you didn't express yourself well, or do a good enough job at educating. Maybe it's understandable that they wouldn't believe you, seeing as you've had sex, or were assaulted, or you write erotic stories.

I don't think this is just a self-esteem issue, but internalized asexohating. We have no official word for this, but I think it's one of the bigger issues that asexuals face. Even if we feel positive about our asexuality, the onus is always on the asexual to prove ourselves. It sort of reminds me of my experience being bullied in school. Although I wasn't directly blamed, the onus was always entirely on me to resolve the bullying. That I was incapable of doing this only made me feel worse, and more like I deserved the abuse I was getting. People tell us our orientation is too confusing or unusual to bother with understanding. It's not hard to start believing that they may be right, and that there is some inherent problem with the "difficulty" of asexuality and therefore, with us. I maintain that even if you can't prove yourself, that's no reason to beat yourself up.

The thing is, most of us have been receiving negative messages about asexuality our entire lives. I still receive them daily from our culture...and this is on top of all the other negative messages I receive for other "undesirable" aspects of my identity. I don't think that neutral statements, like the fact that we exist, can overcome the barrage of negative statements that we face. But, a lot of asexuals feel vaguely embarrassed and awkward about pride. Why should we be proud of something we can't control? As a group, we're terrified as appearing "superior". But if someone truly understood asexuality, could they honestly say that asexuals feel superior to the rest of the population? Without understanding, "you think you're so superior!" becomes a meaningless insult, like "repressed" or "frigid". And with understanding, I don't think anyone could make that claim. (This is basically what happened with the "demisexuals are slut-shamers!" thing. Most of the people saying that seemed to have little understanding of either demisexuality or slut-shaming.)

In writing this post, I read a bunch of information about internalized homophobia. As a means of coping with it, I heard two pieces of advice repeated: Acknowledge that internalized homophobia exists, and be as out as possible. The gay community is well aware that coming out can be fraught with danger, but still encourages its members to be out. They also seem to talk much more about the benefits of coming out, especially the benefits to the individual. On the other hand, in the asexual community, I get the feeling that there's no pressure to be's something that's seen as a completely personal choice. I don't know if this is good or bad, since there seem to be benefits and drawbacks to each way of thinking. But it's interesting.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I was thinking...maybe part of how we choose to identify has to do with which people are asking the questions that we most want the answers to.

*see the comments for further explanation!*