On Partnership and Ace Guilt

[ warning for some perhaps-more-intense-than-usual talk of sexual pressure/coercion and guilt-tripping/victim-blaming ]

Remember when I wrote this post just a while ago?  I’m revisiting that topic again in light of things such as this incident and this comment and this message, but mostly because of the thread beginning with this comment:

While I agree in theory, it’s far more complicated than this in practice. You’re right; they don’t NEED sex. And yes, they should 100% respect their partner’s boundaries, desires, limits, etc. But we can’t forget that for many people, sex is intricately (and irrevocably) tangled up in so much more than bodily pleasure; it’s about confirmation of self-worth, of physical and/or emotional and/or romantic desirability, even proof for some that they can move past the darknesses in their own past and the uglinesses they see in their own bodies or souls. For some people, they don’t just “like sex”. Just like for some asexuals, we don’t just “not like sex”. It’s so much more complicated than that for everyone involved. I’m not saying you should have sex with your partner to give them an ego boost if your’e sex-repulsed – I’m just saying that until you’ve had a partner begin to literally physically, mentally, and emotionally destroy themselves trying to deny their own sexuality for your sake, you can’t act like asexuality is more important in a relationship than allosexuality. They are both equally important, and each partner should compromise to (and only to) the extent to which they are comfortable. So please don’t minimize the agony a partner can go through in a mixed relationship – leaving isn’t an option when you know the person you’re with is the one you should spend the rest of your life with.

To me, this comment raises a lot of red flags, but to avoid commenting on a specific situation which I don’t know all the details of — this is my general stance:

  • I am all for minimizing the agony a non-ace partner can go through in a mixed relationship, primarily because I believe it doesn’t hold a candle to the agony of being pressured to sacrifice your needs in order to provide for someone else’s wants.
  • I am unconvinced that not getting sex can really make someone “destroy” themselves.
  • And what I do believe is that convincing someone “if you don’t obey my wishes, I will destroy myself” is, inherently, an act of emotional manipulation.

This comment actually hits on what I’ve been trying to get at, which is that our very individual-centric “you don’t have to have sex if you don’t want to” rhetoric is 1) correct but 2) insufficient to combat the guilt over the perceived-selfishness of not having sex with our partners — because we care about them and can be led to see pleasing them as a vital expression of that.  That’s why I think stating “you’re not selfish for saying no” isn’t going to cut it, as revealed in the comment quoted above — because, through omission, we still speak of wanting to break someone’s boundaries as something morally valid.

Instead of assuring an individual ace that their “no” isn’t selfish, we need to turn this entire discussion around.  If your partner grouses about your boundaries or tries to bend them to their liking, they are being selfish toward you.  Why should they get to prioritize themselves ahead of you?  How is it right of them to treat you like that?  Sometimes, in these cases, it’s not just an absence of selfishness on your part, but a presence of selfishness on their part.

And the moment you start approaching the matter from that angle, you’ll see the real issue emerge, the individual-centric rhetoric reflected back at you in all its hollowness.  You’ll hear, “yes, they should 100% respect their partner’s boundaries, desires, limits, etc. But.”  “Laundry isn’t the favorite activity of many people – as sex is for my wife. But.” “I’m not saying that being in a healthy relationship means you have sex.  But.”  So in order to make further progress on this front, we need to address what comes after the “but.”  All those exceptions and qualifications and unspoken assumptions and fine print, that’s what needs to go on the agenda.  That’s the conversation that I think needs to happen.  That, to me, is a vital ingredient in the dissolution of ace guilt — the shame begotten of the fear that sexual “deprivation” can harm someone, the contrition for our intrusion into others’ lives, and the internalized demand for penitence.

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11 responses to “On Partnership and Ace Guilt

  • captainglittertoes

    Thanks again for your writing. It’s really helping me process my own assault and abusive relationship.

  • Aqua

    Thanks for writing this. This is a subject that hits me hard, but it’s very important to address. In the relationship I was in, I never did cave into sex, but I felt guilty and selfish, and still caved into other intimacy he wanted, although I was still repulsed by it. I felt like it was the least I could do, but it wasn’t enough. I still felt this way, without being told I was selfish.

    When he did tell me I was selfish for not having sex, I did try to turn it around, and tell him he was selfish for continuously pushing it on me, but this was well before I found the asexual community, and well before discussions like these. I didn’t know how to counter his claims of sex being a need of his, other than the fact that no one will die from a lack of it.

    I believed that his agony for not having sex, was equal to, or worse than my agony of being pressured into something that still repulsed me, and felt like a sacrifice, because him not having sex was a sacrifice to him.

    I’ve heard a lot about allosexuals who feel like sex is tied to their self-worth, and sense of desirability, much like the comment that you quoted. However, I question if those feelings are natural, or have to do with sex-normativity, and need to be unlearned? I highly suspect it does have to do with sex-normativity, and that without it, sex would be just another activity.

    • Coyote

      I think it’s some mix of natural and learned. Being disappointed when you don’t get you want is understandable, in isolation, but to take that to another conclusion — that because its absence would hurt their feelings, that someone’s obligated to provide it — sounds like Nice Guy logic to me. ex. when you want to date someone and are rejected, it’s natural for that to hurt, but that doesn’t mean you can say, “because rejection hurts, your crush is obligated to date you.”

  • Calum P Cameron

    Interesting related fact: in most countries currently, organ donation is an opt-in system. To all extents and purposes, you are legally required to actively provide written consent if you want people to be allowed to take and use your organs after your death.The reasoning behind the opt-in system rather than the opt-out system appears to be largely centred around the idea that it would be a Very Bad Thing for someone to accidentally neglect to opt out and subsequently end up having their organs taken after death “against their will”. That’s how important the consent part of the process is. A person could be literally dying from organ malfunction, but they’re still not allowed to take advantage of someone else’s body parts unless the state is COMPLETELY CERTAIN that the donor gave willing consent to the process.

    In some crazy hypothetical world where sex WERE an actual medical need, IT STILL WOULDN’T BE OKAY TO TAKE IT FROM A PERSON WHO WASN’T WHOLLY WILLING. Judging by the current legal stances on organ donation, it wouldn’t even be okay in such a world to take that medical need from a CORPSE – I mean, even if one discounts the various reasons why sex with a corpse is already illegal anyway – without officially-verified proof of the dead individual having given written consent that their body may be used in this manner after their death.

    There isn’t anything special about sex organs that makes them more “fair game” than lungs or livers or hearts. The rules are the same: nobody gets a right to decide what they should be used for except the person whose body they are attached to.

    To follow that analogy through to the end, in the world we DO live in, where sex ISN’T a medical need, trying to pressure someone to give you sex is like trying to pressure someone to give you one of their organs, not because you need it, but just so you can add it to your goddamn organ collection. I’d suggest that such behaviour doesn’t just make you selfish, it makes you a borderline Hannibal Lecter. Of COURSE it’s uncool. Of COURSE the public sympathy should lie with the person being pressured to give up autonomy of their body and not with the person doing the pressure. And OF COURSE any society where that isn’t entirely clear is a dangerous society that needs to change.

    They’re your own organs. It’s your own body. It’s your own boundaries. It’s your own business. If they aren’t your organs, then it’s not your body, so it’s not your boundaries, and it’s none of your business – unless the body’s owner wants to say otherwise.

    …anyway, sorry for the rant. Please continue.

  • R

    I suppose this isn’t directly related, but the last sentence of that comment also stands out to me, perhaps because the longer I read ace discussions, the more I notice what I think is a really faulty assumption of a single, soulmate, person-you-are-MEANT-to-be-with-4-ever. Because, like, if a relationship doesn’t work, it doesn’t work? And in a situation like that comment described, I can’t rationally say it’s a healthy relationship to continue in that (if any) form. And just because there are a lot of other potential good things doesn’t mean it’s The Magical One, which is a really toxic mindset to have? AND then it can be turned, as that comment does, into the “But you’re my soulmate, you can’t leave me!!! We have to make this work!!!!” sort of thing. That can go sour really fast.

    But anyway. Thanks for writing this (and all your posts, really)!

  • Linkspam: February 13th, 2015 | The Asexual Agenda

    […] Coyote wrote about partnership and ace guilt. […]

  • Supportive Words for the Gray Areas | The Ace Theist

    […] showing love,” “they couldn’t keep depriving themselves,” “it’s different for people who aren’t ace“).  In some circumstances (use your best judgement here), you may be able to condemn […]

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