For December’s Carnival of Aces, about staying in the closet, I’d like to write about my own struggles with my fellow Christians. Thinking I should tell them about asexuality, feeling I can’t.
I am a practicing Christian who identifies as neither hetero nor gay, but as demisexual. I’ve explored my sexuality in my mid-twenties. I’m from an open culture and a liberal church and a loving family.
Aside from a few private conversations, I am in the closet. This blog has a pseudonym. Acquintances don’t know and, mostly, don’t ask.
Part of me just doesn’t want it. Sexuality is mine, not for others to know or judge. As a woman, you’re too quickly an object anyway. I honestly love being a sexual subject, undisturbed, not much noticed because of beauty or age or behaviour. Unshamed and as such, unashamed. Not harrassed so far and yes, I’ve been lucky but I can say this for my country: people can just be people.
One drop of acid in all the honey…
I dread to speak of asexuality to my brothers and sisters in faith. At the same time, how the hell are they going to get informed, given a fair chance to be a constructive part of the discussion, if someone doesn’t speak up?
After several hours’ bible study and arguing in prayer, I can only conclude the following: the core of the Christian gospel holds for sexual natures and behaviour as it does for any part of us. In other words, being Christian, you believe you are forgiven any wrongdoing, you believe you are loved. You believe this is a base to build an awesome, joyful life and be a good part of humanity. More to the point, you believe all people are loved, equally, by a God whose say-so you’ve accorded the absolute and ultimate authority.
I felt confirmed in my own faith and practice. I felt the more puzzled by why sexuality, any (a)sexuality should be a problem. I felt the most surprised by my own troubled and continued silence.
Why can’t I come out to fellow Christians, if I believe God Himself is alright with my demisexuality?
Truth is: I’m scared.
I don’t believe most of my fellow Christians obey God. I have seen them exclude, discriminate and commit violence on people with other sexualities. It does not inspire confidence. I have found some of them to be as proud as the Israel chastised by old-testament prophets. I think them to be so far from the truth, sometimes… will I be accepted in my lifetime?
Yes, by some. Not by others. But fear speaks in black and white, not shades of grey.
I have trouble quantifying exactly what my concerns are. I can’t say what would be the correct course, for one community to engage the other. On a personal level, it’s silenced me. It may do for a while yet.
Bit of a disclaimer: in this post I discuss two different uses of the pronouns. The re-introduction of “they” as gender-neutral pronoun for general use and the use of different pronouns by people with non-binary gender identities. These are NOT the same, but I hope to show that the former can serve as a stepping stone for understanding the latter for cisgender people who’ve never thought about pronouns before. Later in this post, I reject “zie/hir” as viable gender-neutral pronoun for general use. It is my personal opinion that “they” fits this role better. On the other hand, it and other lesser-used pronouns can be very useful tools for expressing that you gender identity does not match that of other people, I think. I do not want to dive too much into that side however, because I know too little. That said, enjoy (hopefully)!
Imagine a bridge, silhouetted against the sun. From either end, two indistinct shadows approach. That they raise their arms and embrace in the middle, you can just about make out. After a few moments, they walk on. One turns back, raises their arm again and waves. The other never notices, their head bowed and deep in thought.
Later you’ll recount this story to a friend, how happy and fleeting a moment it seemed. Since you never saw the figures’ features due to how the light fell and the distance, you use “their” as a gender-neutral possessive pronoun. You scarcely give it a thought, seeing how often it’s used these days. It’s simply useful that you don’t have to guess whether to call them “he” or “she”.
Even less on your mind is how crucial pronouns are for people not strictly male or female, or how, when you read Shakespeare in high-school, you never stumbled over the gender-neutral pronoun either. It’s so normal. Grammar’s just boring facts. Right?
When I first registered on the asexual and demisexual forums I was puzzled by the need to specify a preferred pronoun. Other languages have two second person singular pronouns, formal and informal. Dutch has “u”, German has “Sie”, French has “vous”… In addressing “you” in English politely, I have to bust out the modal verbs and the honorifics. I filled out what I’d say in my own language when asked what my preferred pronoun is. “Zeg maar jij.” You’re allowed to use my first name and address me informally. In one latinate word, to tutoyate, use “tu” and “toi”.
In English it’s about gender identity, probably the most quantifiable characteristic of it to show up in the asexual community. Your preferred third person singular pronoun. He, she, they, or something else. “They” in particular interests me, because it’s making a come-back as a gender-neutral pronoun in general.
The reader, they…
Gender’s pervasiveness can be a bother when I’m speaking or writing. I may want to address a reader neutrally. It’s easier, in a Germanic language such as English, but I can’t avoid pronouns forever.
These days, business letters often leave off honorifics. Readers are as likely to be men as women, and both are to be respected equally. In speaking or speculating about a hypothetical person it’s good to be able to leave gender open to the imagination…
I’ve seen “zie” and “hir” proposed for use in these contexts, but they feel a little like Esperanto. Good in theory, not viable in practice. Traditionally, “he” is used when a person’s gender is unclear, and “she” in a feminist response to that, to even the playing field.
I’m glad I’m now able to speak of “them” instead being forced to pick “he” or “she” when addressing an unfamiliar person in the third person. A few years ago, it still felt ungrammatical, but now it’s almost natural.
So even in a cisgender world, a gender-neutral pronoun is a wonderful thing. Let’s hope the Powers Who Guard The English Language will allow it to dwell once again within their hallowed halls and grammar books in the future.
See, the use of “they” is a revival of sixteenth-century practice according to the Oxford Dictionary’s website that debates the use of “they” as third person singular. It got changed to “he” in cases where people spoke of a person with an unclear gender around 1850.
Yes, when people complain about using “they” for a gender-neutral pronoun, you can legitimately say “but Shakespeare could do it. Why can’t you?” and be speaking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you Shakespeare. So did Jane Austen, Louis Carroll, Walt Whitman and the King James Bible.
The boxes they cannot tick…
I cannot imagine how crucial the choice of pronouns is when your gender isn’t simply masculine or feminine… Then it’s less the polite “Stranger, I respect I do not know your gender” and more the humane “I recognise this basic fact about your identity.” I get that much, but I think that scarcely covers how much of an impact it has.
Language, naming what we are and where we’ve been, is powerful. Being able to name what I am has helped me immensely in my sexuality. If gender identity, how it really works, not just male-or-female, can be expressed more accurately in language, in pronouns, it goes a small way towards being accepted.
It’s already a smaller mental step, I think, to go from “use they for strangers” to “use they for people who prefer it” than from “third person singular is he or she” to “we need to add a new pronoun (e.g. zie/hir)”.
Conceptions of gender trickle down to institutions, such as in countries with forms with more than two options for gender, “male” and “female”. Or like social media sites who have more than two radio buttons (sometimes after a big kick in the butt). Or like Amsterdam, who’s done away with the need for gender registration at a local level altogether as of last week. Thus declaring gender less of a clear-cut and crucial fact of identity, and allowing for a shades-of-grey type situation that’s closer to reality, much like a gender-neutral pronoun does.
I was at first confused, and still strangely tickled by the question “what’s your preferred pronoun?” (and yes, I’m keeping “Zeg maar jij” because I hope someday someone will ask and we get to be dorky about language together). Now, I like the concept’s logic, how it fits in with a bigger change in language, the revival of the gender-neutral pronoun “they”. I like how a little bit of useful pre-Victorian grammar is returning in our Internet-era English. I also like how it offers some openness in the language, a measure of politeness, when gender identity matters. That even in English, I can offer respect by way of pronoun choice, even if it’s in third person instead of second.
So, what’s your preferred pronoun?
- The use of “they” as third person singular, according to Wikipedia
- They versus he or she, according to Oxford Doctionary website, and the debate about its use
- The common use of “they” before 1850 by famous authors, on the Telegraph (UK newspaper) blog
- A good blog about several different pronouns that were proposed as an attempt to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun.
- Documents existed that described how to use zie and hir and zir.
- Good guide for content creators about asking about gender in forms in a good way.
- On pronouns in social media such as Google+ (article)
- Facebook, of all websites, has enough options for its users, says the Daily Mail
- Some countries recognise more than two gender identities but the US government won’t, for now, a petition and its official answer
- Amsterdam’s solution sounds cool, doing away with registering gender altogether (Dutch)
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Liberties were taken with the script format.
When I open my eyes I am on the sofa, still dressed and you in a chair, crick in your neck. I fail to rub the sleep out of my face and the pain out of my lower back while you blink and take in the ceiling.
“Omelet?” I ask.
“Tomatoes and peas, please.” Your shoulders crack and sleepy warmth pins my hip and arm to the counter.
I smile. The more veg your food is, the lighter your heart. I hip-check you out of my way and make us breakfast while you shower.
“My turn for dinner?” you ask, halfway through the omelet.
I nod. “Jenny’s coming as well.” When you grumble I shoot a pea at you nose and you flick drops of lukewarm tea at me.
When you put down your fork I snatch clothes from my room before you can hog it again to play with your hair. “Oy!” you say from yours and I laugh at you.
I don’t feel discriminated against… I do feel a little invisible. That seems to be the trend where asexuality, in all its varieties, is concerned. For me the result was ignorance: realising there was such a thing as demisexuality in my midtwenties… in a country where variations in sexual orientation are actually part of secondary school sex ed curriculum. And reading other ace people’s stories has made me realise that’s actually not all that late to discover your ace identity. Two posts I’ve read this week show the other side of invisibility: erasure. What you encounter after you’ve discovered your sexuality, and other people remain ignorant, sometimes wilfully so.
On the Asexual Artists blog1, Emily Griggs replies to the question, “Have you encountered any kind of ace prejudice or ignorance in your field? If so, how do you handle it?” that, “A little over a year ago, I attended a panel on queer comics at a major comic event. One of the panelists began their answer to a question with the phrase that was something like “the queer experience is about the moment of sexual attraction.” The other panelists and the audience nodded along, and I was far too shy to raise my hand to disagree. I’ve never experienced overt aggression or belittlement for being ace, but that passive erasure was deeply painful.I was just starting to get back into comics, I was trying to write a script for one myself, and here a room of people who should have been my greatest allies were telling me that I didn’t belong without even noticing what they were doing. And it’s a kind of microaggression that’s happened again and again to me in all areas of life: this passive assumption that sexual attraction is universal.”
Flying While Falling Down blogs that her sexual identity’s been evolving from her initial sexual orientation as a lesbian to her current position, of being asexual, and that part of that was not feeling accepted by an explicitly sexual community anymore…2
One thing that really resonated in Emily’s interview was her description of a common misconception she encountered: “the idea that asexual people don’t enjoy sex or have low/nonexistant libidos by definition. It’s hard to make people understand exactly what not experiencing sexual attraction feels like, and how it’s different from the above.” I do not feel sexually attracted to people, precisely, but I can see myself having sex and getting other things out of it… emotional satisfaction, physical closeness, and at some point down the road, maybe procreation.
In addition, I feel that sexual identity, from attraction to action, from fantasy to solo-exploration to something involving partners, is far, far more complicated than we give it credit for. It’s really, really not an on/off switch, or even an ace/gay/bi/hetero dial.
The real upside, though? Even when ‘erased’, or late to the party due to ignorance, knowing more about your sexuality means that you aren’t invisible to yourself any longer. “I have the language to explain my needs and preferences without lies or half-truths” says Emily, and it’s true, given a label, and given the words, means being able to know who you are, and verbalise who you are and what you want. So even though I feel a little bit uncomfortable sticking on a label that makes people go “What’s that?”, it’s with fizzy-drink fuzzies that I realise I can answer the question.
P.S. And when they react to your answer? Well, at least I know enough to answer the most common misconceptions.3 And AVEN’s done a survey, useful for some stats to back up your explanations.4
- Asexual Artists’ interview with Emily Briggs.
- Flying While Falling Down’s post “Changing Labels: Letting Go of Being a Lesbian”
- The Stranger’s article on Misconceptions about Asexuality
- AVEN’s census
Writing a good post about a subject that’s new to me in my second language, with specific words and sensitive matters I’m not clear on… it’s like a pot of gold. There’s a rainbow involved, I don’t know when it will appear, but I’m not going to stop chasing after it, even when I never seem to reach it. Because I can’t stop thinking, stop writing, stop wondering.
Several posts and articles I encountered recently made the importance of language very clear… Joss Whedon tries to propose “genderist” as a replacement for “feminist” in a speech that I decided not to link to in my previous post1. Five minutes’ research pointed out that a) it’s unnecessary2 and b) genderist already is a word, used to describe those who discriminate against transgender and genderfluid people3. Urban Dictionary is inconsistent on the subject4.
Since this happened a week after I’d read how Flibanserin might cause asexuality to be treated as a low sex drive that can be cured with a pill5, and BytheGoddess’s post on how asexual people can be recast as the romantic or celibate version of gay, bi or hetero6, I realised I’d run into a problem.
My lexicon is lacking. The words I have do not satisfy me, and they fail in conveying what I mean with the care it deserves. I want to use antonyms, colloquialisms and synonyms in order to avoid using the same word twenty times in the same post. I want words that rhyme for poetry and be able to vary the style of my posts… I don’t want to sound academic when writing what’s on my heart.
I’ve hit the point where I stop being comfortable writing whatever. The Flibanserin article in the New York Times points out the danger of not making the proper distinction between not being interested in sex and asexuality… the former might erase the latter. Cake at the Fortress paints an even starker portrait7 of how two words for the same lifestyle, celibate and antisexual, might divide a community because they indicate two different philosophies, or at least, two groups that disagree on several points.
I know I’ve used celibate and abstinent interchangably for choosing not to have sex, because those are the words I know, with little thought for what connotations they might have and who would feel included and excluded by the labels.
As far as wishing to have sex to some extent, I’ve run into a lack of words… How to describe, for example: 1. the state of engaging in sexual fantasy, but not actively masturbation or the act of sex. 2. a person who sees people as sexual, but will never act on that, because the act isn’t interesting. 3. being indifferent to sex in general but strongly interested in it for the sake of procreation.
I know I still switch too easily between romantic, sexual; loving a friend, loving a partner platonically and loving a partner sexually; wishing there were different verbs for all three… When writing about what I am, I confuse “demisexual” as my identity with “asexual” as my community.
Stuff can be described, but it feels… clunky. I guess I still have a ways to go.
- Joss Whedon proposes Feminists should be called Genderists, youtube video
- A good article pointing out the various reactions to the above speech and problematising the coining of a new word
- Genderism explained succinctly
- Urban Dictionary thinks genderist comments are about women, while genderism is about discrimination of the transgender and genderfluid
- NYTimes writes about Flibanserin
- By the Goddess’s post “I’m only going to say this once”
- Cake at the Fortress’s post “A tale of two sites”
Having had sexual education in a liberal country, I got a basic introduction to the variations in couple configuration. Most guys like girls, but some like guys. Most girls like guys, but some like girls. And some guys and girls like both. Go forth, explore and be merry. Though do it with condoms, because STIs are evil. And then I got get a long, graphic presentation about exactly how evil STIs are, and me and my traumatised classmates compare mental scars during the break. And that was about it.
If you were lucky, and you had a good teacher giving you sexual education, they’ve spent some time on the fact that you need to communicate before having sex. If they were really good they will have roleplayed this communication and you spent a good part of sex ed giggling, but understanding the principle. I hope you had that. If you’re a teacher, PLEASE include it in your class.
And I had clever parents, I learned to talk about sex from them. I’m actually able to talk about sex with them and with my brother. It’s invaluable, talking about sex with people you’re in a platonic relationship with, that you trust, especially from another gender and age group. If you want to have a good sex talk, Laci Green gives her top ten tips in this sex+ episode.
If you weren’t lucky, this is the best advise I can give you: talk about sex and sexuality. Start online, if that takes the pressure off. Talk about not having sex. Talk about the wanting as well as the having. Talk about the body parts, the mechanics, the emotions. The prejudice and the social consequences. Talk about good places to get sex toys and lubrication. It has helped me a lot over the past year.
No, I haven’t had sex. Yes, I am now comfortable with the wanting, and ready to explore the having. All because of being about to talk about it.
And yes, this blog is absolutely a place where you’re free to ask questions and talk about sex. That’s what it’s for, you can read what I’ve been discovering, and perhaps you can share some of your thoughts as well.
Demisexual isn’t a common label, or one that you adopt out of the blue. For me, and in the handful of stories I’ve read, it was an act of recognition, a satisfaction of finding a label for symptoms of a sexuality that wasn’t entirely normal. It’s not a label with a history of oppression. It’s not one that’s likely to lead to more than puzzlement in our family and friends. But it’s definitely been an epiphany, to be able to say, I am demisexual. I have an accurate term that goes with the description I’ve compiled of my sexuality.
I’m going to be describing what I’ve understood about my sexuality in a pair of posts. Here I will focus on the chronological perspective. The other on what I notice of my sexuality in daily life. They’re a personal account, not meant as a general definition, that I hope will clarify how I came to call myself “demisexual”.
When I was twelve, I had a crush. A vague memory of a tall boy with curls and grey eyes remains, but what still stands out in my mind: I loved this guy for who he was. He led our group on long hikes, and walked alongside the slowest member. He was able to pull together a group of arguing pre-teens, when he was only thirteen. And he was always fair, talking to us, or talking for us as a representative. It was innocent, normal, and it ended when he moved away.
When I was fourteen, my classmates were developing quickly and exploring kisses and crushes and staying up until midnight to dance awkwardly to late-nineties pop music. I wasn’t worried, since I was rather a geek, and I had several friends just as awkward and hesitant about all the sex stuff and developing bodies and let’s just focus on the brave new world on the internet, all right? We were the MSN Messenger people and the Livejournal teenage angst blogs and the text-based RPGs of yore. And at school parties we could still join in the Macarena, so.
By the time I was sixteen, I was well into a proper bout of depression and feeling like an alien anyway. Not being in love or wishing for sex felt normal when I was fighting to find the will to go to school each day.
By the time I was eighteen, I was glorying in being a first-year university student, finding friends, getting intellectual highs from doing what I loved all the livelong day and exploring all the interests I hadn’t dared to in high school. Sex wasn’t much a part of life if you didn’t party much and weren’t in a relationship.
At twenty I was entering a serious sexual crisis, because I didn’t exactly desire it, but I was sick with the desire for a partner and a family. I had loved kids for a long time and found it a lot of fun to work with them. And I was good at it. It took several months to accept that I might not get what I want until I found the self-respect and courage to step out into the dating scene. So I started on the self-respect.
Twenty-two-year-old me was back into a serious depression, worse than the last, and sought therapy not just for the symptoms but also the origin for the deep insecurities and their self-destructive consequences. It was a big turnaround.
At twenty-four I felt myself again, liberated, and far more secure than I’d ever been, and beginning to build a proper identity as an adult. Enjoying and expanding platonic relationships, taking risks in personal activities, daring to start a search for a dream job.
I was happy, and at peace with the fact that I would probably remain sexually inactive for the rest of my life.
And that was the point where my libido came roaring to life, after it had gone into near-constant dormancy halfway through puberty. I’d only felt attracted to the occasional fictional character. I was able to masturbate only rarely. I had romantic fantasies aplenty, but not really sexual fantasies.
After that point, I felt attracted to several guys I knew well, even two women, bunches more fictional characters, male and female. I even had two moments that I stood on a turning point where, if I had pursued the guys, I’d have fallen for them, hard, but I didn’t, knowing they were already attached.
There were still gaps, though. Strangers were as genderless to me as before, just… persons. Commercials that based themselves in sex appeal were still silly. Attraction still started with a combination of admiration and the same click I had with good friends, desire didn’t follow until I’d seen a person frequently for six months, and couldn’t happen at all if I didn’t trust the person.
So I started hopping through the internet, to see what women were up to these days when it came to sex. I started indulging in late night fantasies and physical exploration, to see what worked, what didn’t. Mental stimulation seemed far more powerful than physical, to the point where the best sort of masturbation was done in comfy clothes, hands behind my head and eyes closed.
At twenty-six, I discovered the word “demisexual”, a type of sexual where the libido worked intermittently, and emotion was very important. It fit so very well.
I pulled off my headphones, sat back in my chair and said, “he he”. In English, it’d have been, “finally”. It was such a big, giant relief.
Looking back, I think the biggest revelation is that not only do I need to have an emotional connection with another to be physically attracted to them, I also needed to have the mental space and the emotional peace I didn’t get until my mid-twenties in order to truly have a sexual drive in general.
The way I’ve started to wish to have sex in my mid-twenties doesn’t match what descriptions I have and have witnessed of teenage sexuality. I am not insecure about what I want, just ignorant, nor do I feel a pressing need to get it immediately. I feel ready to take on a long-term relationship, should dating go somewhere, but not the urge to go there immediately. I am an adult, and wish to have the sex life of one, not like a teen.
The coolest part of being demisexual? It has its advantages, too. Because I needed to be at peace with myself before I even wanted sex, I am alright being single. And because I know a person before I desire them, and that person knows me, I have a far better chance of predicting if it could go somewhere when I’m attracted to someone.
In the next part, less of the past and more about the present.