People can understand strange desires; not having desire freaks them out
July 10, 2015 1:26 PM   Subscribe

DoubleX Gabfest: The Beazel Better Have My Money Edition - "On this week’s Gabfest, Slate’s Hanna Rosin and June Thomas join New York editor Noreen Malone to talk about what it means to be asexual, Rihanna’s music video for 'Bitch Better Have My Money' and other prefatory uses of bitch, and the 1939 film The Women."
"Other items discussed in the show:

'Asexual and Happy' by Kim Kaletsky in the New York Times
'Young, Attractive, and Totally Not Into Having Sex' by Kat McGowan on Wired
'Meeting and Understanding the Asexual Community' by Mark Carrigan and Holly Falconer on Vice
Dan Savage’s column on asexuality
Rihanna’s 'Bitch Better Have My Money' music video
Katy Waldman on the prefatory bitch in Slate
Lady Gaga’s music video for 'Telephone,' featuring Beyoncé
The Women (1939)
A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell"
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (27 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Refreshing discussion of the asexuality spectrum with three women hosts! (Links very good, too.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 1:27 PM on July 10, 2015

Is this the official thread for BBHMM?!
posted by pxe2000 at 1:58 PM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, no. That's over here.
posted by notyou at 2:02 PM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

It baffles me whenever I hear that therapists, of all people, are unable to imagine that a person could be asexual. I mean, you could spend all day listing varieties of human sexual attraction, behavior, and experience—and even if some therapists would call some of them pathological, I don't think they'd deny that they exist. What makes asexuality different? I'm not asexual myself, but if someone tells me (as a couple of people have) that they basically have no sex drive, who the hell am I to tell them they're mistaken?

It's not even hard to imagine an underlying physiological cause. Before puberty, everyone is asexual. Maybe, in (at least some) asexual folks, the biological process of puberty unfolds a bit differently than it does for most people, and the sex drive never gets activated. It would be surprising if that didn't happen at least occasionally.

To come at it from another direction: it's clear that the strength of the sex drive varies between individuals. So, if you acknowledge that some folks have very low sex drives, how is it so difficult to imagine that some folks' sex drives are so weak as to be negligible?

Grrr. If you're not at least aware of asexuality at this point, and you're unwilling to believe what your patients tell you about their own experience, then you're a really shitty therapist.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:00 PM on July 10, 2015 [10 favorites]

People can understand strange desires

This why I, for one, totally empathize with Ariana Grande's donu-sexuality.
posted by octobersurprise at 3:00 PM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

[Couple of comments deleted. If you're starting with "I don't want to challenge anybody's identity but" and along the way you allude to armchair psych diagnoses and sex-under-the-influence stuff that will seriously push buttons for people here, please rethink. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 4:24 PM on July 10, 2015 [11 favorites]

I think I am somewhere along the asexual spectrum (and a tad aromantic), and it's sort of interesting to me that the reactions from other people have never really been that bad. The first time I actually told someone, a person I went to high school with, was asking about my relationship status and if I had ever been in one as a general catching up discussion; and after telling him that I actually didn't have any interest in any part of it the response was that of "oh that sounds nice, it's one less thing to worry about." In general, when I explain that I'm just not really interested in anyone I get "that's kind of weird, but okay."

The other sort of noteworthy reaction that I've had was another person just assuming me to be someone in love with their work, in place of a person. It's interesting to me, because the jump that they made didn't seem to be about an absence, but rather a redirection of desire from people to a task. I think this is because there are plenty of stories of people who dedicate themselves to their work or hobbies and leave time for nothing else, so it's a bit more accepted and understood by people.

I do miss out on a key thing that this piece is talking about though, which is maintaining a romantic relationship without needing to have a sexual one, and I think it's the confusion between these two things being separate that confuses people; mainly because (as was mentioned in the articles) we are presented the two as a whole thing rather than two separate things that sometimes can work together.

I think that it would be cool to see more romantic relationships without anything sexual in the media, but I think that it already does happen on some level. Sheldon from the Big Bang theory was mentioned as an asexual character, as well as a character from The Walking Dead and Sherlock, but I'm not sure if I've seen an actual asexual relationship pulled off (I haven't watched TBBT or TWD so maybe they do?) The issue is that the sexual relationships tend to be implied rather than stated to the audience because of our culture, and it would mean that the piece itself would have to explicitly state that the relationship is purely romantic, which I'm not sure I've seen done. The closest thing I can think of is maybe Her.
posted by tealNoise at 5:19 PM on July 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

Before puberty, everyone is asexual.

I think it's a little more complex than that, but then the asexual experience seems to be as well.
posted by atoxyl at 5:19 PM on July 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

but if someone tells me ... that they basically have no sex drive,

Gentle and friendly reminder that libido and sexual attraction are not the same thing! (Though intertwined they may be.)
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:30 PM on July 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

They aren't?
posted by escape from the potato planet at 8:44 PM on July 10, 2015

I wish there was a transcript, because this sounds interesting.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:58 PM on July 10, 2015

I gather that some asexual people experience a physical imperative for sexual release, but because they don't experience sexual attraction (and thus don't have the urge to have sex with anyone in particular), the imperative either goes unanswered, or they just sort themselves out.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:09 PM on July 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

While the rest of the world was using the web to invent and gratify new pervy thrills, these people used it as a wormhole out of a relentlessly sexual culture. It might be the only corner of the Internet that is not laced with porn.

I wonder if this is a target demographic for convents and monasteries.

I think I am somewhere along the asexual spectrum (and a tad aromantic)

I know that is a technical term, but until proven other I will assume you smell magical.
posted by otherchaz at 12:19 AM on July 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Well I'm married and have a child, and for the life of me I can't remember why anyone would want to have sex either. I mean you're in bed, but NOT sleeping??? What a waste of time and energy, and I'm already exhausted. And for Christ's sake, can you people not type so damn loud? I just got quark off to sleep!!! I swear, if you wake him up I'm not looking after him, you'll have to take him to MetaTalk yourselves.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 4:53 AM on July 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

I don't read Dan Savage often, and that column reminds me why. What an unpleasant implication at the end there: If you care whether your husband has sexual relationships with other people, you're not really asexual.

This is kind of rambling, but.

The line between asexuality and sexual dysfunction has been hard to sort out, for me. The problem is that in our society, being sexual is such an overwhelming expectation that the question "Does it negatively impact your life?" is hard to answer. How do you know when your wish be sexual is because you aren't really asexual and there's something "wrong," even though you can't identify it, or because sexual relationships are so important in your culture?

Sometimes I settle on the idea that the line is not so important. We are who we are regardless of how we got there; whether something is "wrong" or not, the lack of interest is still there, and still how you interact with the world. If you can identify a cause, then it might make your lack of interest more changeable - but not more valid. What you do is up to you.

The term "asexual" itself is one that I have some problems identifying with, though. It's such a broad umbrella and most asexuals I've met are not like me. For example, introductions to asexuality normally carefully point out that a lack of sexual attraction is not the same as a lack of sexual or romantic feeling; asexuals can masturbate, or have romantic relationships. And that's great, because it's a misconception that needs to be addresssed- but at the same time it feels like the explanations are often deployed in a way that's like, "hey, we're not so different than you, we know what it's like to want to get your jollies off, or to be in love, it's just this one piece that's different."

You ever heard that joke that such-and-such percentage of people masturbate, and the remainder are liars? I've actually seen conversations where people bring up asexuals, and the response is "but we masturbate too."

There's much less discussion about asexuals who have little to no sexual drive or romantic drive at all. And that's where I am, and I feel kind of alone with it. My closest friends understand, I think, but it's hard to identify with the community, even though I appreciate (some of) their efforts to normalize being a person who is not interested in sex with other people. And it's also hard to say "I'm just not interested in sex at all," because I consume porn, enjoy stories with sexual relationships and so - in a sort of abstract way, though, I guess.

Well I'm married and have a child, and for the life of me I can't remember why anyone would want to have sex either.

I know this is meant as a supportive comment, but it really does drive home the rift in experiences pretty well: A lot of people don't want sex because something is wrong: problems in their relationship, being exhausted, medical or psychological problems ...

And that's easy to understand, for a lot of people, but at the same time reinforces the idea that not wanting sex has an underlying cause. That it is something that happens to you, or that you choose because it makes your life less complicated or tiring. So it's really like ... it helps people understand but at the same time doesn't, I guess?

I wonder if this is a target demographic for convents and monasteries.

Well the whole religious thing. I can see how a celibate lifestyle could be seen as a way "out" of sexual expectations, but in the past, we constructed our sexual identities much differently than we do now. I don't think we'll ever know how many people joined religious orders for that reason. I do not think that we've ever really been a "target" demographic though.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:23 AM on July 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

So, for those asexuals who "sort themselves out" in order to relieve their physical imperative...this doesn't involve fantasizing about some kind of sexual contact with another human? It's hard for me to imagine it as a solely mechanical act. In my experience (which is obviously just that—my own, limited, singular experience), orgasm requires arousal, and arousal requires the involvement of another human (real, imagined, or depicted via image/video/writing/etc.).

No value judgments whatsoever intended in the above—just trying to learn more. Sorry for being a n00b.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 8:21 AM on July 11, 2015

It's hard for me to imagine it as a solely mechanical act

Honestly, this is really just a failure of imagination. This is how it works for you, but it's not how it works for everyone - not even everyone who experiences sexual attraction. Plenty of people can approach it as a "solely mechanical act."

And of course the specificity of fantasy can vary a lot too. There is a whole spectrum between "solely mechanical act" to "having a fantasy about a particular person." Not experiencing sexual attraction to real people does not rule out fantasies about scenarios, vague figures, and so on. And sometimes, even if you do fantasize about specific (real or imagined) people, fantasy might be all that you want. Our sexual fantasies are so influenced by our culture that it shouldn't be surprising that even some asexual people fantasize about partner sex when constructing a sexual scenario to get off to.

But here we are talking about how asexual people masturbate again...
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:44 AM on July 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

Thanks for being so open, Kutsuwamushi. I'd place myself somewhere on the asexual/aromantic spectrum myself as well, but I'm the sort of edge case who probably causes some 'semiotic confusion' for some people since I am occasionally attracted to some real people and sometimes have a sexual drive.

I guess the reason I identify myself this way is that I feel an experience of neutrality/'disconnection'/incompatibility/various other terms that don't quite get to the heart of the matter, towards 'real' sexuality and romance most of the time, in a way that seems distinct from both 'typical' sexuality, and 'typical' periods-of-low-libido, as people describe them to me.

But I agree that it is or can be more of a descriptor of a state which can change (as so many other things related to sexuality can), rather than (necessarily) a specific, locatable, identifiable condition with a particular cause and effect and consistent characteristics.
posted by Drexen at 9:15 AM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

So, for those asexuals who "sort themselves out" in order to relieve their physical imperative...this doesn't involve fantasizing about some kind of sexual contact with another human? It's hard for me to imagine it as a solely mechanical act. In my experience (which is obviously just that—my own, limited, singular experience), orgasm requires arousal, and arousal requires the involvement of another human (real, imagined, or depicted via image/video/writing/etc.).

I reluctantly identify as asexual. I feel like there must be better language available to describe the sliding scale of desire, but it is a fact that I have never desired or fantasized about sexual contact with anybody. I fantasize about things I find attractive. Some of these things are weird. Some are pretty conventional. None of them involve me - I'm nowhere in the mental picture - and generally they don't involve sexual contact either except for incidentally to get to a detail that's attractive.

"Drive" would also be the wrong word. It's something to do because it feels nice and if I'm not busy, like having a biscuit or a glass of wine. If I'm busy, it barely ever enters my mind.
posted by solarion at 9:22 AM on July 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

Honestly, this is really just a failure of imagination. This is how it works for you, but it's not how it works for everyone - not even everyone who experiences sexual attraction. Plenty of people can approach it as a "solely mechanical act."

And in no way did I mean to contradict that. When I say I can't imagine it, I mean nothing more than that. The fact that I can't imagine something doesn't mean it isn't so—I agree that we're dealing with a failure of imagination here. That's why I was asking—so that I can learn more, and perhaps become better able to imagine it, and therefore be better equipped to be supportive of asexual folks. Sorry that I wasn't clearer.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 10:02 AM on July 11, 2015

That's why I was asking

I guess maybe I wasn't clear on what you were asking. Was it just whether asexual people have fantasies involving a partner? Then the answer is "some of them do," but asexuals are so diverse it's probably impossible to give you a general picture of how they experience their solo sexuality.

Was it how masturbation without such a fantasy could work? I think that would be pretty difficult to explain, but anyone - asexual or not - who masturbates that way could probably try.

I feel like there must be better language available to describe the sliding scale of desire

Yeah, this is how I feel. My experiences are a lot less categorical than a label implies. But on the other hand, it seems like the way a lot of people deal with this is to invent ever-more-precise label, and that doesn't fit me either. I do feel different, but a label doesn't really capture why, for me.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:37 AM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I read your intentions, escape from the potato planet, as being unable to imagine the experience of it being a "purely mechanical act". Like me imagining myself with 360 degree vision; I can get a decent handle on it but there's always going to be that gap where it's fundamentally different to how I see things.

Is this correct?
posted by solarion at 11:09 AM on July 11, 2015

Well, FirstMateKate told me that "libido and sexual attraction are not the same thing", which was news to me.

1adam12 clarified that "some asexual people experience a physical imperative for sexual release, but ... they don't experience sexual attraction (and thus don't have the urge to have sex with anyone in particular)". So I was just trying to understand what it means to have "a physical imperative for sexual release" without having any object for that imperative.

My question wasn't about masturbation per se. At any rate, it's (more or less) been answered—we needn't derail the thread for my sake. Thanks.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 2:19 PM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

That Dan Savage column was gross- how can he say her husband isn't fine with the arrangement? He's the opposite of asexual I guess, sex is THE most important thing to Mr. Savage.

Of course asexuality exists and has always existed. I think we live in an unusually hyper sexual period in our society, actually. If you read diaries and novels from the Victorian era it was common to have platonic love relationships (often same gendered) and that was an acceptable situation in certain parts of society. while in some cases the people could have been closeted same sex lovers, in other cases they were probably in sexless relationships.

And women were often assumed to have no desire for sex at all in various periods in history. That's of course problematic because of horrible gender stuff... In any case, the idea that sex is wanted by everyone all the time is also unique to our current society.

In any case, it's great that people who are asexual or on the spectrum can have a voice, I knew a handful of people in college who probably would identify with the label and who felt very lonely at that time.

That Rihanna video is beyond disturbing - I didn't make it that far into the podcast, but WTF?
posted by rainydayfilms at 4:04 PM on July 12, 2015

I have very mixed reactions to things I read about asexuality. Not mixed in the sense of believing or not that it exists (it's kind of clear to me that it does), but in the sense of not understanding why people don't. I mean, on a theoretical level, I get why people have ardent beliefs about whether somebody else's belief is "real." But this is one of those things it just boggles my gut (like I said, I get it intellectually) that people care about.

really, what does it matter to dan savage if jane or john are asexual?

or was it just that someone was wrong on the internet?
posted by lodurr at 11:42 AM on July 13, 2015

Well, okay, that's a really complicated question. I’d like to preface this by saying that this is going to be a very rough sketch of what I think may be going on for a lot of people here. I’d also like to explain that even a lot of people who are outwardly okay with me being ace have gotten increasingly nasty or defensive if I actually talk about what that means to me. Stuff like insisting I can’t have problems with my family because of my asexuality when I try to vent about those problems, or saying “shut up, don’t pretend you’re oppressed,” or looking incredibly uncomfortable and trying to shunt the conversation over to some other topic. So there's definitely some discomfort there.

It’s like trying to talk about your whole life and having people twitch and shout “lalalalalalalala stop talking!” when all you’re trying to do is make a stupid joke or explain where you learned Wordpress or talk about where you met your partner or what the fuck ever. Not private stuff, either—actually, if anything, non-ace people tend to be way more comfortable asking specific questions about my personal masturbationary habits than I am answering them. It’s not always as overt to start with as it generally is with, say, Dan Savage.

But okay. In my experience, a lot of pushback appears to come out of a sense of defensiveness. Particularly for people who grew up in a sexually restrictive culture that really did not fit them or give them room to be themselves, or people for whom it was really important to carve out a space for themselves against judgement on the basis of sexuality. This is especially true for many queer and kinky people—and even more so for the sort of person who winds up advocating for sex-positive causes. It’s also true for a lot of women, especially if they’ve gone through slut-shaming.

It’s really easy to internalize “well, all that crap I went through, that’s obviously because society is anti-sex/anti-my-sex.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen queer people complain that heterosexist society just wants them to be asexual, for example, because of all the pushback you can feel for wanting queer sex specifically. And it’s further easy to emotionally tie that to being pro-sex, because the shaming about sex hurt you and pushing back against that shaming was a good thing for those people. Which makes sense! Shaming is terrible.

Now you get asexual people speaking up about being asexual and going “I don’t want sex, stop pressuring me to experience sexual attraction/get a date/declare my obvious homosexuality/be NORMAL already because this is my normal!” And people who are experienced with being shamed for wanting sex too much, or for wanting the wrong kind of sex, go “what the fuck?” Sometimes, the perception that asexual people often have that society is pro sex and the perception that other people have that society is anti-sex meet up with a bang, and since both sides have a lot of emotions and hurt tied up in their own perceptions, well, add a little human tactlessness to that and you have a recipe for a lot of anger and hurt feelings.

Incidentally, I’ve sketched out my guess about the origin for this defensiveness from the sort of people who might identify as sex positive here, but you can say pretty much the same thing about the defensiveness you see from a lot of other groups of people. For example, culturally conservative Christian types? The ones who are always going on about purity and unmarried sex being sinful? Yeah, a lot of people from that background are really in favor of getting married, and also of sex being an integral part of marriage. Those are often people who will sacrifice a lot to be able to do sex ‘right,’ and asexual people waltzing in and going “I don’t want sex, it is not a thing I desire” can set off a lot of defensiveness on its own. After all, what are you sacrificing and working so hard to control it for if the “reward” isn’t so great anyway?
posted by sciatrix at 12:28 PM on July 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

I think that defensiveness comes from a couple of places. First, the vast majority of parents raise their kids with either a shame model or a guilt model. So anytime you talk about anything like sexuality, most folks are quick to get their hackles up, no matter how carefully you try to frame it. Second, I think we don't have good language for communicating effectively "This is what works for me and this is what I want for me and it is not a commentary on others." It is just really common to talk in terms that imply that our own choices are "right" or "good" or something for the group as a whole.

My 28 year old identifies as asexual and there is a certain amount of ribbing between the two us in a "Okay, how did I wind up having YOU?" kind of way. But I have always set a high bar for just accepting him as he is and he seems to have a lot less social baggage generally on all kinds of topics. When public school stopped working for him, I homeschooled him and we were a military family that moved every few years. So what the rest of the world thought about him being him had a lot less impact than what I thought and I believe really firmly in respecting other people's boundaries to the best of my ability -- which doesn't mean I get it right, but he is my son, so he has a lot more context than folks who seem to routinely misunderstand me.

So one of the things I generally try to do is keep in mind that most folks are carrying all this shame and/or guilt and these judge-y voices in their heads that compel them to interpret things I say as if I am talking about them. I have spent a lot of years working on trying to learn to talk about me, myself and I and not say anything about other people as much as I can and that also gets a fuck-ton of push-back. But it has been a step in the right direction.

I don't know if that will help you at all and I have mixed feelings about even writing it, since you didn't ask for help and that is a boundary thing. But that is what comes to mind in reading what you wrote, sci. That I have this little private social experiment where I am definitely not Ace and I don't really understand it, but I don't give my son hell in any way. He can talk about it as he sees fit and have questions and wonder "what if..." without getting a lot of pushback about "see, see, you really are x, y or z" and, frankly, my own sexuality has been such a huge pain in the ass to deal with and it still is in certain respects and he is this generally happy person and I wind up kind of envying him. I sometimes think "Damn, I would get so much more done -- like my son does -- if I didn't spend so much goddamn time dealing with this shit." Only that isn't an option for me because I am wired differently from him, so I am just trying to find ways for dealing with me to be a life-enhancing experience instead of a burden and a pain in the ass.

I think I shall go blog now.
posted by Michele in California at 12:44 PM on July 13, 2015

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