It wasn’t just me thinking this? Rant about sex-positivity in asexual spaces

(warning: talk of sexual coercion and repulsion-shaming)

I read the newest issue of F-ace-ing Silence, which brings up the topic of sex-positivity in asexual spaces, which to me personally, has been one of the thorniest topics for a multitude of reasons.

On AVEN, back when a call for submissions was announced, and I was tempted to write a submission.

Reading through the third volume, it brought up the issues that I’ve been concerned about. For so long, I didn’t know if I weren’t the only one who actually felt that way, or if I had just taken a lot of things the wrong way when I first found the asexual community, particularly AVEN. Thinking I was still taking things the wrong way was what held me back from making a submission.

When I first found the asexual community, I was sure I wouldn’t be welcome. The issue here was two-fold, and both sides are directly related. Issues with terminology, since I’m not originally from the asexual community was one reason. The other is that my first impressions of what I recognized as “sex-positivity” were very bad.

When I was lurking AVEN, one of the first things there I remember reading was about how “sex-positivity” is enforced, and I took it to mean that one is supposed to only say positive things about sex, and be open to, or at least indifferent towards it personally, implying that it’s bad to be repulsed by sex or have ideological reasons against it, even in asexual spaces!

I saw others on AVEN respond that someone can be sex-repulsed but still be sex-positive, a statement that I found highly objectionable. I interpreted that statement as: It’s okay to hate sex, as long as you’re still open to it, or at least be apologetic about never having it, and cheerlead everyone else’s sex lives.

“You Know, But Let Me Tell You”, on page 8 of the zine sums up how exhausting the approach taken with a lot of asexual visibility efforts is. Having to put in so many caveats makes what one intended to say a lot longer, and a lot less clear, making what’s said less about explaining asexuality itself, and more of it is reassuring others that we aren’t shaming them, whether they want sex or not.

If we’re talking about asexuality in a matter-of-fact way, shouldn’t it be implied that there’s no intent to alienate or shame anyone?

Why do we have to keep doing this? Is it because a lot of people, even within the community still assume focusing on the sex-favorable must come at the expense of the repulsed, and vice-versa? What can be done to break this cycle of doubt, so when explaining asexuality, and how asexuals can each feel differently about sex, we can just get to the point right away?

“Disclaimer” on page 9 brings up the fact that in asexual spaces, even when it’s clear that talking about being repulsed by sex is okay, there’s still a lot of pressure to reaffirm sexually active peoples’ feelings in the process. There’s so much pressure to that we still end up having to downplay how we feel by burying it in disclaimers. That was exactly my concern with the “you can be sex-repulsed but still sex-positive” rhetoric. It’s not just any kind of sex-positivity, but a certain kind that puts others’ pleasure above one’s own right to feel repulsed by sex, or their right to say no to sex. A form of self-censorship in order to make the repulsed more “presentable” to mainstream society.

Ace Theist described this phenomenon as “The Shame Clause“. That the repulsed are pressured to put in those disclaimers is also a double-standard, because while it may still be hard for the “sex-favorable” to talk about their experiences in asexual spaces due to being rather few in number, they aren’t expected to put disclaimers in their own experiences to reaffirm the repulsed and celibate. They aren’t assumed to be shaming the repulsed and celibate.

It’s kind of a vicious cycle. How do we challenge the assumption that being sex-repulsed doesn’t automatically mean sex-shaming without explaining it outright? Because being a sex-shamer is a misconceptions asexuals face, especially the repulsed, but why does that misconception about the repulsed still exist in, and is perpetuated in asexual spaces?

My guess is that it’s due to backlash against an earlier era of the asexual community history, but I don’t know if that really holds up anymore. It’s been such a long time ago, and few people who were involved in the asexual community then, are still involved in it now. Maybe that backlash still exists even if few who originally witnessed it are left, because it changed the whole social climate within asexual spaces.

In that era, from about 2006 to 2008 or 2009, many of the most vocal repulsed asexuals were elitists who constantly attacked others and derailed conversations. If the backlash against them still exists today, because of how it changed the social climate in asexual spaces since then, then it’s not fair for the repulsed asexuals of today to still continue to have to prove that they’re not elitists either, to avoid being shamed and attacked.

However, doesn’t the pressure to put all of these disclaimers also reinforce the assumption that a repulsed person must be shaming others for having sex, if they don’t put in the disclaimers? Why can’t we just say we’re speaking for ourselves, without others reading anything further into it?

Because my first impressions with what I’ve recognized as sex-positivity were so bad, and still thinking that it means one must be open to sex, were why I’ve felt threatened by people advocating for it. I just can’t shake off my experiences. I’ve talked about this on AVEN before, but some of the self-identified sex-positive members said that my friends back then, those pro-sex extremists, don’t count as being truly sex-positive, and that they’re “sex-normative” instead.

I understand what they’re getting at, that sex-positivity is supposed to be positive towards people’s choices to have (consensual) sex, and that if consent is valued, then that ought to suggest that the choice to not have sex is also respected.

However, in practice, it can’t be denied that there are manifestations of sex-positivity that are ignorant of consent. These manifestations reinforce rape culture, by espousing that sex is uncritically good and empowering for everyone, making it more difficult to be able to justify opting out of sex. Sex shouldn’t be seen as the default, and something to have to justify opting out of in the first place, but this manifestation reinforces this issue.

This rhetoric can be used as a bludgeon to coerce someone into sex, allegedly “for their own good”, which is what I’ve had used against me first-hand. Now I didn’t cave into sex back then, but I was on the verge of doing so, because their rhetoric tore down my defenses, making me feel like it was no use upholding my boundaries.

These manifestations also do nothing to help survivors of sexual violence. My friends, although they thought coercion was acceptable in order to “liberate” me, still fell under the definition of sex-positivity because they were still positive towards consensual sex in general. They’ve changed since then, and aren’t extremists anymore, but the damage is already done.

The argument that they weren’t truly sex-positive is the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. Those who identify with sex-positivity, and are against sexual coercion under all circumstances need to critically challenge those whom are ignorant of consent within their own movement.

It also can’t be denied that there are manifestations of sex-positivity in asexual spaces that are ignorant of consent. On page 3, it’s noted that sex-positivity in asexual spaces didn’t used to be this way, but had taken a turn as a weapon of compulsory sexuality over the past few years:

“This was before we’d had time to see “sex-positivity” play out in ace discourse in harmful ways, as a tool of compulsory sexuality within our own community; before we watched “enthusiastic consent” used as a weapon of sexual coercion; before all the ace ( on ace ) sex-cheerleading…” F-ace-ing Silence, issue 3, p.3

The rhetoric of how some asexuals have sex, has also been used as a tool to coerce an asexual person into having sex:

“Overall, that was a time before the limited mainstream recognition of asexuality collided with an ( insidiously neo-liberal / individualist version of ) “sex-positivity” to promote the all- familiar “we’re just like everyone else except for sexual attraction… and look even aces have sex!” ace assimilationism. Before most of the stuff took shape giving aces a stake in our own collective subjugation to compulsory sexuality.” F-ace-ing Silence issue 3, p.4

After all, if “aces can have sex”, why don’t, and why won’t you? Don’t you want to prove you’re not one of those militant sex-haters? I was being sarcastic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if any asexuals have been pressured into sex by someone who said things like these seriously.

What happened over the past few years to cause this? The same article cites that back around 2009 or 2010, that “sex-positivity” in asexual spaces wasn’t like this, and it used to be easier to opt out of sex. I’m not sure about that, because in that same time frame, the repulsed were attacked on AVEN a lot just for talking about being repulsed. There are blog posts written at the time that said that AVEN isn’t a safe space for the repulsed. Since I wasn’t involved in the asexual community at the time, I’d appreciate if someone can vouch for either of these statements.

It’s not just a matter of what is said, but how it is said. Another issue is that this particular form of sex-positivity lacks nuance. Just because most asexuals are physically capable of having sex, doesn’t mean they all want to, nor should be expected to. Just because some can enjoy it doesn’t mean that all should be expected to.

The particular manifestation that is mentioned is assimilationist rhetoric, making the asexual community as “presentable” as possible to mainstream society. Even if that’s not the intent, the point is that rhetoric that was intended to explain how behavior doesn’t determine orientation, has been co-opted as a tool of coercion.

EDIT: I removed the parts mentioning the repulsed and sexual violence survivors being targeted by that rhetoric. I apologize for the implications of what I said earlier.

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9 thoughts on “It wasn’t just me thinking this? Rant about sex-positivity in asexual spaces

  1. Laura (ace-muslim)

    This is something I’ve noticed well and i was glad to see the submissions in f-ace-ing silence that talked about it. I think a lot of it is from the larger society, but there are a lot of complex internal politics in ace communities that play into it.

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  2. queenieofaces

    …can we not uncritically quote that statistic that most anti-ace sexual coercion and rape is focused on sex-repulsed aces? Because A. we literally do not have any data to actually back that up so that is being pulled entirely out of thin air and B. again we’re using survivors as rhetorical devices to support an argument that isn’t actually about survivors (sex-averse aces are the most oppressed). I’ve asked people to stop doing this for several years at this point, so could we stop?

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    1. Sennkestra

      Yeah, that’s a good point. It can also contribute (albeit unintentionally) the implication that non-sex-averse aces don’t have problems with sexual coercion because they are automatically open to sex anyways, which, is really not what that means.

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      1. queenieofaces

        Yeeep. It also winds up creating some pretty nasty rhetoric about aces who consent to sex and then are raped (“they had it coming” is the worst I’ve seen, but there are also much milder forms such as “well they don’t really count as ace survivors because they weren’t attacked for being ACE [i.e. sex-averse I guess????]”).

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      2. Aqua Post author

        I definitely didn’t mean to imply that, and the worst part is, I’ve written something about how not being repulsed doesn’t mean being open to sex at an earlier point. It’s my fault for overlooking that for rushing through this post.

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    2. Aqua Post author

      I’m sorry about that. I wasn’t aware at the moment of the implications until you pointed it out, so I removed those parts. In my anger towards sex-positivity, and how it has been used as a tool of coercion against me for both my asexuality and repulsion, I got carried away, but that’s no excuse for what I said.

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  3. onlyfragments

    I think the issue has so many tributaries, it’s hard to pin them all down. I’ve been on both sides of the debate, being first sex-repulsed and now… not exactly sex-positive (I think that term is too complex/complicated) but sex-favorable in my own life, with my particular partner. And you know what? When I was sex-repulsed, I felt like there was no place for me in the community. Now that I’m more toward sex-positivity…. I still feel like there’s no place for me. I feel like I’m being branded as “allonormative” or assimilationist, or that I’m a bad role model for other aces because I’m giving in to compulsory sexuality. I don’t think the issue is necessarily imbalanced one way or the other; I think both sides can see huge negatives in the community. Which is sad, truly. You’re right; we should be able to share our experiences without having to worry that we’ll be strung up as speaking for the whole community. When I talk about asexuality and sex in my life, I riddle my writing with caveats and reminders that this works for ME, and may not work for YOU, but if you want to try then here’s how. I think we need more of that. More of “Hey, this is my experience” and less “this is EVERYONE’S experience and if it isn’t yours, you’re not really ace”.

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  5. Omnes et Nihil

    Thanks for your thoughts and I’m glad that you were able to find something to identify with in the zine– that was kind of the whole point.

    I realise this is mostly beside the point of what you were writing, and I don’t normally comment on stuff like this, but in the spirit of this month’s history-focused carnival of aces, I feel I should clarify something. (And please don’t be intimidated by my massive amount of words– that’s how I communicate and I can’t help it.)

    You wrote:
    “What happened over the past few years to cause this? The same article cites that back around 2009 or 2010, that “sex-positivity” in asexual spaces wasn’t like this, and it used to be easier to opt out of sex. I’m not sure about that, because in that same time frame, the repulsed were attacked on AVEN a lot just for talking about being repulsed. There are blog posts written at the time that said that AVEN isn’t a safe space for the repulsed.”

    I didn’t say people used to have an easier time opting out of sex in ace spaces– I didn’t say anything about that.

    What I said was that people used to have an easier time *using sex-positivity* as a framework for opting out of sex, and also that people used to have an easier time opting out of “sex-positivity” in ace spaces. [And when I said “sex-positivity”, I meant it as an ideological/political position, not as a(n inappropriate and inaccurate) term for aces who sometimes want to have sex.]

    I’m not saying that issues of tension between “aces who never want to have sex and/or who are repulsed by the idea of themselves participating in sex ever” and “aces who sometimes want to have sex and/or who are indifferent or actively into the idea of the idea of themselves participating in sex at least sometimes” are completely new. And I’m not saying that AVEN was a safe place for anyone back then.

    I’m saying these issues had a completely different shape back then than they do now. And these issues weren’t connected to “dominant discourse by aces about aces to non-aces” as they are today. There was barely even a dominant discourse by aces about aces to non-aces at all. And we were still dealing with non-ace attention being hyper-focused on whether aces masturbate… The issues were different.

    For example, the Non-Libidoist society shut down in 2007 and AVEN had an influx of anti-sexual people around that time. There were a lot of issues adapting. A friend of mine gave up being an AVEN mod there after actually having to use words like “anti-anti-anti-sexual sentiment” and “anti-anti-anti-anti-sexual sentiment” in attempts to mitigate conflict there.

    A-Positive started up in January 2008 in response to some of that. (I was active there in the beginning but that was a long time ago and it was a very different place when it started than it is now. And now, it’s not a place with which I’m interested in engaging.)

    And since zines in early 2009 and 2010 had articles written in 2008 and 2009… that was still sort of the context of all that.

    Anyway, point being, I was trying to communicate that there was a time not too long ago in real-world terms (though ages ago in ace history terms) that there were a lot more people critiquing what later came to be known as “compulsory sexuality” from *within* the framework of “sex-positivity” than there are these days. These days, a lot of people critiquing compulsory sexuality are doing it from a position of specifically rejecting “sex-positivity” in ways that just weren’t common back then.

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