Allonormativity, Self vs. Other, and the Delayed Realization

A post about the “I should have realized I was asexual” phenomenon.

There are several patterns in asexual narratives with regards to the part of life or period of time before a person began identifying as ace.  One of the worst of those patterns includes the pain of feeling broken, irrational, and subhuman — and we know, more or less, where that pain comes from.  Its roots are easy to trace.

The pattern that produces more confusion, upon reflection, is its opposite: when individual aces are slow to come to the realization that they’re asexual, even in the face of glaring evidence.

This happens for a variety of reasons, such as incorrectly understanding what sexual orientation refers to, not knowing that there’s more than one type of attraction, et cetera, and while misunderstandings are a part of it, I think that one of the contributing factors to keeping some aces in the dark about their asexuality is the same set of cultural processes that makes other aces feel hyperaware and painfully cognizant.

The story goes like this: we’re shown sexual attraction as a normal thing, the expected thing, told that sexual attraction and sexual desire are an essential part of humanity, with few examples to the contrary or of asexual characters who aren’t inhuman or pathologized, and in this way, the culture knits allosexuality to a human subject position, until they are so tightly bound together that it would take a great deal of concentrated effort to mentally untie them.

Experiencing sexual attraction is supposed to be a part of Selfhood, and asexuality is a component of the Other, the unfathomable, the damaged, wrong, unrelateable, and nonsentient.

In narrative media, sexual attraction is a tool for constructing a subject position, in that a subject looks sexually at another person and that act alone is supposed to establish them as the experiencer, the reference point, the point of view character (as opposed to the experienced, the viewed, the object).  Sexuality becomes akin to a synechdoche for perception and agency.  And, to be clear, this process (especially in Western visual media) has gendered origins, rash with heteronormativie misogyny where straight (white) men are the center of the world.  And so, to claim back and assert subject their own subject positions, people turn these patterns on their heads and subjectify the objectified — and, in the process, one of the tools used to construct subject position is the experiencing of sexual attraction.

Which is all important and not my place to comment on.

But, in a context where “we are all sexual beings” keeps being passed around and Allosexual vs. Not is overlaid onto Self vs. Other, aces have not one, but two, self-denying and incapacitating options for how to understand themselves:

“I am not a sexual being, therefore I am not human.”

“I am human, therefore I am a sexual being.”

As misapprehensions of the asexual self, they are two sides of the same coin, unaware vs. broken, human vs. alien, self vs. other, worthy vs. lacking.  Because if you see yourself as normal, as healthy, as a person… then you’re taught to take for granted that that means being allosexual, too, because you’re taught they’re the exact same thing.

And, in practice, even after an individual has come to identify as ace, I think this expectation feeds into some of the self-doubt, too: when you’re feeling comfortably normal and just like a regular person… you begin to wonder, are you’re sure you’re asexual?  Are you sure you’re that weird?  You don’t feel that O t h e r and outlandish, so you can’t really be.  That’s just a little too out there for you, you know?

In the absence of powerful certainty — which has its own crushing disadvantages — there is a predisposed gravitational pull toward aces thinking of themselves as automatically allo on the basis of nothing but their comfort with their own Selfhood.

That’s how you get results like this:

  • “I knew about the existence of asexuality from a young age. I encountered the term while researching other LGBT+ identities, and accepted immediately that asexual people existed.   But it took almost a full decade before I realized that it applied to me.” [x]
  • “It does make me wonder a bit though how I never figured out that I was asexual sooner.” [x]
  • this entire series of submissions
  • “I conflated aesthetic attraction with sexual attraction when I was younger. I didn’t know that there was an experience others were having that I wasn’t; no one talked about it in clear terms.” [x]
  • “I guess I was sort of passively straight in that I never really questioned it” [x]

Passively straight is a fantastic term to encapsulate my particular experience, because while I was pretty sure I didn’t feel strongly attracted to people of the same gender enough to be bi or gay, I was always able to avoid spending enough time thinking about it to realize that, if you’re heterosexual, that means you’re, y’know, attracted to people of a different gender in a way that is sexual — not just physical but sexual — and I… wasn’t wired like that.

Yet I still thought of myself as straight, or at least allo, because I didn’t know how to recognize my differences in a way that preserved a sense of internal normalcy.

This particular societal motif of Self vs. Other in regards to human sexuality did that to me, and it did that to a lot of other people, too.

That’s why it was scary to realize I wasn’t straight.  I don’t even live in that dangerous of an area for people like me, I was reasonably sure my parents wouldn’t try to send me to therapy if I came out, I knew that I wasn’t in any kind of danger — yet I felt viscerally, personally afraid to go forward.  To admit I wasn’t what I’d always taken for granted I was.

Because, in my culture, being confident that you’re straight — and, sometimes, just that you’re allo — is the same as being confident that you’re the Self and not the Other.

That’s also why straight people will say “Don’t worry,” when their friends start to question their own straightness.  It’s meant as a reassurance of normality, of humanity.  Don’t worry, we see you as normal, it’s fine, I’m sure you’re just like us.

Because, under their framework, an acknowledgement of mere difference means being dangerously Othered.  And those who are Other cease to be wanted or relateable.

Given that this is the culture we have to navigate and the material we have to work with, it is absolutely healthy and crucial when aces do the mental work to reconcile the fact of their sentient Self with an aspect of themselves that is culturally Other, to then knit those two together, assert the compatibility of the conventionally incompatible, and say, “I am asexual.”  So that, inside us, two opposing poles can become one whole.

In order to recognize that in the first place, what we have to acknowledge is that the notion of an Asexual-Self is not something readily provided for us the way Allosexual-Self is, that a part of our symbolic infrastructure is built to accommodate allos (especially straights) but not us, and that a subject position that many of us thought we had access to is ours no longer.

That’s why, for me, it felt like I was losing something.  Some kind of safety, a refuge.

Suddenly without it, you have to build these things on your own, out in the wilderness without a map, faced with a puzzle — a big tangled clump of knots, really — that you didn’t realize until now was yours to deal with.  Difficult, daunting, and uncharted — though technically possible.  Not all people are “sexual beings”.  Asexual people are human.  We should be allowed to make that much room for ourselves.

But this is where it gets frustrating: in order to undo the glossed-over seam in our culture between allo(hetero)sexuality and humanity in our media and culture, in order to turn this around and make a deliberately asexual subject position…

What do we use?

For, while I’m not bothered by asexuality being defined by an absence, what this means for us, in narrative terms, is that there is no distilled, conveyable way to be actively asexual, in the way that there are for the subject positions of all other sexual orientations.  There is the Straight Male Gaze, the Straight Female Gaze, the Gay Gaze, the Lesbian Gaze, and perhaps least frequent of all, the Bi/Pansexual Gaze, (alternatively: the gynophillic gaze, the androphillic gaze, and the skoliophillic gaze) but according to this mode of ordering things — where the intersection of sight and sexuality is a vehicle of subjecthood — asexual people do not “gaze” at all.

That’s not to say you can’t write asexual characters, obviously, but it does mean that some of the tactics that others use, particularly for liberation and self-empowerment, are not available to us.

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28 responses to “Allonormativity, Self vs. Other, and the Delayed Realization

  • luvtheheaven

    Your first tag ( “all people are sexual beings” GOD that phrase will be the death of me) – yes. I think that really, truly, was my problem for so long. I fully believed that was true with my whole self and so your dichotomy which does seem remarkably true, that asexuals either think “I am not a sexual being, therefore I am not human” or “I am human, therefore I am a sexual being”… obviously I do fall into the latter! You’ve clarified this for me, it’s enlightening and I appreciate your thoughtful and philosophical post here. ;) This was very well written and thank you for linking to one of my blog posts too within it.

    • acetheist

      Thank you. It was a monster to hammer out, but I hadn’t seen much discussion of this particular angle before and wanted to get it out there. It was the only way to make sense of my own situation, too.

      Your post is useful for demonstrating how this logic gets used against us by well-meaning people, so thank you for writing it.

  • breakingthewordcage

    Wow, your paragraph expanding on ‘passively straight’ is pretty much exactly what I meant–I knew I wasn’t attracted to other girls, but I never stopped to question if I was actually attracted to guys either.

    And now you’ve got me thinking on how to be actively asexual–because I’m tired of being passively straight–but it is rather difficult. I can, what, actively not be attracted to other people? Actively not look for romantic-sexual relationships? I’m sure there has to be something, but what it is I don’t know.

    • acetheist

      Oh hey, it’s you!

      It’s pretty much a riddle without an answer. The best I’ve managed so far is wearing lots of ace symbols, sabotaging sex jokes, and being more vocal about my actual thoughts whenever somebody calls something “sexy”.

      • luvtheheaven

        Yeah I was thinking being vocal about the fact that you’re asexual, replying “I’m asexual” whenever it is relevent, wearing T-shirts with Ace colors or just “I’m Asexual!!” written on them, etc would be the only way to be actively asexual.

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  • Oddity Specs

    Hello! I’ve been ghosting around your blog for a while and I think it’s REALLY grand. Thank you soooo much for this post (and for all your others). I’d read lots of posts from the other angle from various people, but it was neat to see someone address it from this. I was one of those “individual aces are [that are] slow to come to the realization that they’re asexual, even in the face of glaring evidence” and “passively straight”; I just didn’t question it. I just thought everybody (I use that as a very loose and hyperbolic term) was exaggerating and/or idiots and/or brainwashed by a sex-obsessed culture. I know, what an arrogant twit (and I call myself a reasonably logical person, too. Huh.). When I found asexuality described me, it was both relieving and humbling. It wasn’t scary for me to realise I was ace because the world suddenly fell into place and that was more comforting than alienating — it was a lot more alienating for me to feel like the only sane person than to know I’m different, and finding out I’m ace has made me kinder and more understanding than I used to be. Sorry for the biography, I just thought it might contribute to how allonormativity can be alienating when one is ace and doesn’t realise it.

    • acetheist

      Aw, why thank you. I’m glad I’m able to write things that are helpful to people. I had kind of a period of euphoria too, but… well, I cycled through a lot of things. Should’ve kept a journal at the time. But I’ve never been good about keeping journals.

      Anyway — thank you for the comment and for sharing your experiences. I hope people who read this blog also check the comments section, because there are some good discussions here sometimes. ;)

      • Oddity Specs

        Your posts are definitely helpful — instrumental in my understanding and realisation — and have helped my parents to understand (my dad, especially, who appreciates your clear and rational way of writing).

        There certainly have been some good discussions; when I came upon your blog, I ravenously read through everything you wrote to that date, then suddenly realised I hadn’t read any of the comments and went back through and did so. Now I make it a point to do so.

        • acetheist

          Goodness, you show these rags to your parents? You flatter me. But if good has come of it, then I’m glad. Part of my realization process was reading about other aces’ experiences, too, and so it means a lot to go on to be part of that process for others.

    • Calum P Cameron

      Ahem, if you’ll excuse me a second:

      OHMIGOSH IT’S ODDITY SPECS

      Thankyou. You may now return to your scheduled activities.

      • Oddity Specs

        In the specs – er, flesh – er, internet etherform. :)
        Actually, it’s (indirectly) your fault I’m here. Explanation: At some point last year when I was checking out your blog as part of seeing whether I would take a chance on buying one of your books when I got the money, I came across one of your posts (well, to be specific, the one about how sexism makes your job harder — which is brilliant, and I loved it, by the way), you mentioned being asexual; not having heard the term ever being used in reference to a human being before, I was decidedly curious and researched it, and, well, to use a Doctorism, hello!

  • Calum P Cameron

    Yeah, this pretty-much nails my thoughts on the matter.

    Although I can’t EXACTLY speak from experience, personally; I never thought I was “passively straight”, I just thought I was “a late bloomer”. I have nonetheless suffered from the “human = allosexual” fallacy, occasionally going to far as to wonder “What if they’re right? What if I DON’T exist?”. I must have given the ghost of Rene Descartes a lot of facepalm moments.

    This is all partially why the book I’m currently planning is headed up, protagonist-wise, by an aro ace. We deserve to be the viewpoint character in SOMETHING halfway-substantial.

  • breakingthewordcage

    Oh, I never thought of myself as passively straight either (that’s more a retrospective way to describe my experiences)–it’s more like I never thought of myself as ‘not-straight’ and I never tried to be actively straight (which I good, because that could have gone badly). I didn’t have any same gender attraction and I never questioned my lack of other gender attraction, therefore, since we live in a heteronormative society, I was ‘straight’.

    In some ways, though, I’m glad I didn’t question it too much when I was younger; had I realized that I was different before there was a big asexual community I might have flipped to the other side of the coin.

    (And, hi! I’ve been lurking around for a while, and I love your writing; when you mentioned me I figured I’d de-lurk to reply.)

    • luvtheheaven

      I truly thought I was straight, but by the time I experienced my first kiss (at age 22 – and 11 months lol, very close to 23) I knew there was a possibility I could be asexual although I was in deep denial/ignorance about how likely it’d be that um yeah, duh, that’s completely me, 105% lol – I knew about AVEN by then – so I guess in my life prior to knowing about asexuality, I was “straight” without being “actively” so – never going out on dates or anything like that.

  • Mxtrmeike13

    A few thoughts:

    1. I liked what you said about if we’re humans we’re inherently sexual, or if we’re not sexual then we’re not humans. I often fretted and became angsty in high school about that. I determined that I was some weird breed of human, and I was okay with that. But I would someday like to get back to viewing myself entirely as human and not just as myself, for lack of a better term.

    2. On the subject of your very last sentence, I’m actually incorporating an asexual character as the protagonist of my novel that I’ve been slaving over since college. I also want to go in depth on her feelings on the issue, because I feel like in the literary world, at least, this is a subject rarely (if ever) addressed.

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  • miyuki.

    Thank you! This, these are the words to describe my constant head-scratching over many years.
    I think it has a lot to do with how I perceive the over-importance of sex as heavier in my local culture/circle than it is. At least, I have too easily compared the overall sex-saturated culture with my own personal life and it just has enough of a gap from the average that I have felt ‘normal’ enough.
    Funnily enough, on the other hand, I feel like my aromantic friend has felt much more Othered and strange than me her whole life. I totally understand how this works now. Taking a step back, amatonormativity just has a wider scope and pressure than allonormativity in my experience. This has even been the source of a bit of a gap between the two of us, where my greysexualness/demisexualness never has been, haha.

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