This post is my submission to the January 2018 Carnival of Aces under the theme of “Identity.” Specifically, this post deals with topics of sexuality, identity, alienation, labeling, doubt, touch, trauma, and abuse.
This impetus for this post is a tumblr post about “being stone vs. being asexual” that Rowan shared with me, after it came up as a recommended post on their dash. There’s maybe a few different things I would question in that post (emphasis on question, since some of it is beyond my depth), but maybe chief among them is how stone sexuality & asexuality are being presented as either/or, i.e. mutually exclusive.
But before I get into that, I want to talk about what my own influences are and where my current understanding of “stone” draws from.
While I don’t know exactly where I first encountered the term, one of the more in-depth accounts that I’ve read is “What Is Stone” by Xan West [cw:
blog has erotica book covers in the sidebar, post itself talks frankly about sex & sexuality and has explicit parts]. Some key points: 1) they (Xan West) do not tie it to a specific gender identity, 2) people use “stone” to mean a wide range of things, 3) stone is not the same as having boundaries/limits because everyone has boundaries/limits, 4) there are negative stereotypes/prejudices about stone identity, and 5) being stone is not just about absences and refusal, but about what is present, too.
Some time ago, I tried reading the famous Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (you can find a pdf download of it here — I recommend looking up a list of trigger warnings before you read because it’s notoriously hard-hitting & I can’t supply them all). I got about five pages in and had to quit because I couldn’t even handle it. Some notes: 1) this book is not an autobiography but is known to be majorly autobiographical; 2) Leslie Feinberg identified as both trans & lesbian and went by she, he, and ze pronouns depending on context; 3) what stuck with me the most, out of my brief scrape with Stone Butch Blues, was one little description of an unnamed tertiary character that arises in a very brutal paragraph that I won’t quote in full here. It’s a recollection of “the most stone butch of them all” being targeted for harassment. There’s only a teaspoon of elaboration on what that means — and that elaboration is not about her gender, or who she’s attracted to, or how, or in what ways she did or didn’t have sex with women. There’s just this offhand addition, right after the narrator labels her as the most stone butch, elaborating that she was “a woman everyone said ‘wore a raincoat in the shower,'” as a metaphor for how stone butch she was.
…A woman who wore a raincoat in the shower? That’s what it says. And as best I can tell… something about that “covered even when alone” scenario would suggest that body/nudity dysphoria or sight/touch-as-vulnerability and a certain physicality of “closed”/coveredness to that can be (can be) extremely salient to a stone identity, enough to qualify a character as “the most stone butch of them all.”
More generally, the definitions I’ve found of “stone” and “stone butch” read a lot like the one in The Historical Dictionary of the Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movements, which defines “stone butch” as “a butch lesbian who derives sexual pleasure from pleasuring her partner, but does not want to be touched herself.” Its brevity highlights the components that are considered perhaps most “important” (or most common) to being stone, but its simplicity elides complexity not just by being so specific but by being so general — after all, there must be something more underlying this, given the fact that, technically, to “touch” (transitive verb) also requires experiencing the contact oneself, and a definition like this feels like one of those that gets at some “generally understood” idea without really spelling it out. “Topping” is part of it, maybe, but defining what it means to “top” could easily be an essay unto itself.
Alternatively, the section “Lesbian Masculinity: Even Stone Butches Get the Blues” in Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinity (which I haven’t read through fully because of the writing style, sorry) says that “the ‘stone’ in stone butch refers to a kind of impenetrability… The stone butch has the dubious distinction of being possibly the only sexual identity defined almost solely in terms of what practices she does not engage in” — (& while we’re here, the title is obviously a reference to Feinberg’s book — ze’s kind of a big deal in the cultural history of “stone butch”).
I also would be remiss not to include a note about Cor’s posts on paper/stone as an influence of mine — here’s one taken from cos stone tag, for a sample.
So, if I’m going to talk about this, this has been my preface, not of “what I believe,” but of what I’ve been exposed to and what’s shaped my understanding.
Defining “stone” and “asexual” as mutually exclusive or pitting them against each other as either/or is a stance I’m not on board with. So, that begs the Big Question: Why would an ace identify as stone?
(among a lot of ace folk, this is a question that doesn’t really need asking or answering, but I’ll answer it anyway to have an answer on record, since OP’s posts suggests to me there’s an audience who hasn’t heard it).
First of all, you have to remember that “asexuality” is an umbrella term (commonly also described as a spectrum, but I prefer the umbrella metaphor, sometimes, for its relative nonlinearity). People come to identify with asexuality and its cousin, gray-asexuality, for a variety of reasons, and over the years I’ve come to better appreciate and acknowledge that diversity of experience rather than trying to hem it all in to one singular orthodox definition. Yes, AVEN has a popular one-sentence definition on their front page. No, that is not the end-all be-all. There is more than one way to be ace, which is important to remember before you jump at someone for doing or saying something that “conflicts” with identifying under the asexual umbrella.
With that said, conceptualizing a simultaneous stone & ace identity becomes easier when you remember some of the specific subgroups that exist within that diversity of experiences I mentioned, including:
- aces with dysphoric, particular, or complicated relationships to sex, touch, gender expectations, and their own bodies
- aces who have and like sex
- aces whose reasons for having sex are… not entirely self-centric
- a loaded subject. we’ll get to that.
As an aside:
Looking at this list, you may think there’s something missing. What about gender identity + additional orientation labels? In particular, what about butch lesbian aces? Initially I did not include “aces who are lesbian” (or trans and/or nonbinary, for that matter) or otherwise talk about other orientation labels + gender identity here simply because the OP of that instigating post here does seem at least aware of lesbian asexuality already, based on another reblog. Then, digging into the notes, I found this exchange about a specific individual’s personal sexual identity + practices:
[redacted]: Hm.. I identify as asexual but I also have comfortable sex with my girlfriend. Even though I’m not sexually attracted to her, I enjoy it because it’s intimate. Can I both be stone and asexual?
[redacted]: i personally would say no. when youre stone you still expierence sexual attraction, you still actively seek out sex and want to have sex with a woman. when youre ace you dont seek out sex, because doing so would mean you expierence sexual attraction.
…The conversation did continue after that, but I’m highlighting this just for this part of the exchange: 1) one person said “I identify as asexual,” and 2) part of the response to that person was what basically amounts to “No, you’re not.” So if anything’s at issue here, it’s that: not that ace can be combined with lesbian, but that ace can be combined with stone.
I don’t want to spend this space rehashing how an asexual identity can possibly be compatible with a variety of sexual practices and preferences (or, put differently, some reasons why someone who “seeks out sex” [wording from OP] might identify as ace). Instead, let me say this: historically and culturally the asexual community is a place of minutiae modeling, or as it is more derogatorily known, “splitting hairs.” This makes more sense when you understand it as a facet of the asexual community’s origins — that, if we take 2000s HHA as “the early ace community,” then practices like aces separating sex & romance and labeling themselves accordingly dates back to its first few years of existence, even if it took a while for “romantic orientation” labels to solidify as they’re known today (see that entire comment section for more history on “romantic orientation”). When older identities like bi and gay and het are being combined with asexuality (whenever people identified with more than one), that can require reworking and rebuilding one’s understanding of what it means to label an “orientation” at all, since in my culture we usually think of one’s “orientation” as something you only have one of. When we’ve got aces identifying with more than one, then we have aces having to work through explaining to themselves how that can possibly be. And that’s just one example of the kind of introspective and theoretical modeling and remodeling I associate with aces and the ace community.
I’m sure someone might object to me simplifying ace community history this way, but as noted by Sci in 2013, it’s a facet of ace community culture to question assumed combinations and break even the small things down into more tiny pieces. It’s a lens that has existed for a while and seems to me to still exist. Rather than answer through that lens, this time around, I just want to say that it’s a lens that exists — that this is one way of understanding and relating to the broader subject of sexuality. I say this so that you know, before you (sincerely or not) ask why aces do the kinds of labeling-and-definition things that we do, you would be best equipped and prepared to actually understand the answer you’re looking for once you accept that this is a mindset, style of speaking, and way of relating to words and ideas that 1) you’re bound to encounter and 2) for us, serves a purpose. It is not fair to bemoan us for making things complicated. We did not choose for other people’s understandings to render us illegible.
The other part of this answer… is that “having comfortable sex” and “enjoying sex” and “actively seeking out sex” and “wanting to have sex” and “sexual attraction” are, under that lens, neither all describing the same thing nor inherently subsequently-bound (if-one-then-the-other) anyway.
But if you’re confused by that or get caught up in that, you might end up getting nowhere fast, and I’m not even as concerned with that as I am about someone telling someone who IDs as ace that they’re not really ace. This is the takeaway here: We don’t need you telling us we’re wrong about ourselves the moment someone speaks up to say they’ve had experiences you didn’t account for.
Asexuality and a stone identity are not the same thing, but ace stereotypes and stone stereotypes already share common ground.
According to Halberstam, “masculine untouchability in women has become immutably linked to dysfunction, melancholy, and misfortune” and “the stone butch role consistently draws criticism for being untouchable.” In more specifics (bolding added):
The stone butch tends to be read as frigid, dysphoric, misogynist, repressed, or simply pretranssexual. The stone butch defines an enigmatic core of lesbian sexual and social practice in that even other lesbians often ask about the stone butch, “what does she do in bed?” […] The stone butch occupied, and continues to occupy, a crucial position in lesbian culture… despite numerous attempts by lesbian feminists and others to disavow her existence, indeed her persistence…
Similarly according to Xan West (bolding added):
the stereotype of the Stone Butch is perceived as a sad and dysfunctional figure who lacks desire, or does not experience pleasure… the Stone Butch is perceived as withholding (and therefore… selfish), asexual, damaged goods. […] Stone folks and our partners are often treated badly for being stone. People sometimes partner with us hoping to melt our stone or “cure” us of being stone. We often internalize the idea that our stoneness is a problem, needs a cure, means something is deeply wrong with us. We sometimes start thinking of our sexual boundaries as illegitimate or hurtful to others.
The prejudicial lens against stone butches sees them as dysfunctional, damaged, frigid, selfish, repressed, illegitimate, hurtful, and — ! — asexual. Compare this to anti-ace prejudices, ignorance, and hostility, and you’ll see much of the same pattern.
Like being stone, being ace is sometimes taken as an invitation to nosiness. Even the “What do they even do in bed?” question is replicated in the form of what Queenie has called “But what about The Sex?” — a question leveled at asexuals’ romances & partnerships with invasive bewilderment. Like being stone, being ace is treated as an invitation to pathologization. Concerns about trying to “cure” us of sexual dysfunction were especially inflamed when the FDA approved a drug marketed for elevating female sexual desire. Like being stone, being ace can come with daunting expectations, internalized guilt in sexual or would-be-sexual relationships, and accusations of being selfish and lacking empathy. See also anagnori’s ace invalidation map that charts out some of the common patterns.
Because of many of these patterns, many aces feel pressure to be “the unassailable asexual,” the perfect unblemished being possessing no traits whatsoever that might allow some person to challenge their asexuality. In particular, ace survivors of sexual violence may face the double-edged sword of “Did something happen to you?” Which is to say, a common perception is that asexuality is a sign of being “damaged,” an idea invoked to treat our asexuality itself as a problem, and as Queenie has discussed, this creates an impossible conundrum for aces who actually have had “something happen to them.” In general, both being stone and being ace have been seen as dysfunctional, as illegitimate, and as inappropriate — and these ideas have been used as justification for mistreatment in relationships. Exposure to these ideas in relationships embeds the ideas further in our psyche, which sets us up for more of the same, which embeds the ideas further…. (Do I link my own narratives here as demonstration and take the risk that entails? Do I trust you to believe me?)
…While compiling links for this post, I revisited this particular example linked among the links in the previous paragraph, originally posted to the “placiosexual” tumblr, and while that particular blog is no longer accessible, the help of the wayback machine can confirm two interesting details here: 1) “placiosexual” was defined according to the person running that blog as “when one feels little to no desire to receive sexual acts but expresses interest/desire in performing them on someone else” and also that 2) they described placiosexuality as “within the asexual community.”
It’s hard to look at that definition and not see an echo of stone. Consequently, on the one hand, I’m bracing myself for a cry of appropriation. On the other hand, as much as I’m not personally invested in the niche gray-asexual microlabels some corners of the deck have come up with, I don’t think you can really… appropriate… feeling a specific combination of sexual desires. I also think it’s interesting that someone came at this same basic concept (wanting to “perform” sexual acts and not “receive”) from an asexual starting point and an asexual lens, dubbing it placiosexual rather than stone, and considering it to fall under the asexual umbrella.
I think a lot of stone folks would object to being considered ace, and that’s fine by me. But the existence of multiple people who use the “placiosexual” label and consider it to be ace-related suggests to me an existing tendency to read asexuality and stonelike tendencies as not just compatible, but naturally related and in coalition with each other.
Is that a right way to view the situation? I don’t know. Maybe not.
Regardless of what is true or should be true about a stone-ace community connection, accusations of dysfunction, repression, and selfishness are familiar to aces and stone folk alike, and I think that treating them as “two different but separate things that can get confused for one another” instead of “two different things with overlap” not only strips each of their complexity, flattening them down to a soundbite definition, but also has to ignore that an overlap of stereotyped (mis)perceptions can go hand in hand with an overlap of experiences.
So, with those things placed up front — what shapes my understanding of stone, how I derived my understanding of how stone asexuality can be possible, and the overlap I already see in the social context of asexuality and stone — why have I considered identifying with stone?
It has been hard to put into words, and when I say “considered,” there, I do mean that with the full weight of ambivalence. Identifying under the asexual umbrella and with the notion of stone is complicated. It’s complicated not just because of “stone” being policed as a lesbian-only identity label (and, as noted, the message that aces shouldn’t identify with it, even aces who are lesbian), although boy is there that. It’s also complicated because of some ace-specific baggage all its own.
I could talk here about how I don’t feel “qualified” to judge for myself, with my gray-asexual identity and murky sexual preferences and lack of “enough” sexual experience (aka virginity). But without going in-depth with that, a part of me also wants to say that even if you’ve never been on a romantic dinner date or had a romantic relationship, you can still have a sense of what restaurants you’d personally like to ask someone out to, or how you’d feel about receiving a bouquet of red roses from your romantic interest, for instance, or for that matter whether you prefer to be the-one-to-ask-out or the-one-to-be-asked-out or whether that matters to you at all. You can still have a sense of direction about what you might like or dislike in that situation that would inform the direction you took if that situation ever did arise, even allowing for the possibility that real-life experience might change your mind on some things or prove different than expected. Yet still I have my nagging doubts that say I need to “do it” in order to know, even though… before someone consents to their first experience of sex… my impression is they usually… have some… idea… of what initial position to try, or what role they want to start out at, or one of those kinds of things, rather than going into it 100% ignorant of what they might possibly want out of the experience. I might be holding myself to a different standard. I might be totally off base. I could talk about that. I could even talk about that, that standard of qualification and credentials, in relation to the wrongheaded idea that “straight girls might kiss other girls and might have crushes on other girls, but they couldn’t really know that they were lesbians… until they had sex,” as analyzed by Queenie.
…but that? That’s not really the ace-specific part. Not unless you count the fact that I have the same “small puddle” problem as many aces and being arcflux feels like a major contributing factor to my doubts that I’ll ever be compatible with anyone.
No, the ace-specific baggage I was referring to is the ace-specific baggage of the rhetoric of “to please their partners,” this big wicked triangle between aceness, stoneness, and interpersonal trauma.
First, connecting these three, there’s the contested & threatening idea of trauma as engendering the other two. Like I’ve discussed, stoneness is sometimes perceived to be a response to traumatic experiences. So is asexuality. Comments like these often have invalidating motives behind them (if: trauma response, then: needs to be eliminated), in a way that treats us as obligated to try whatever it takes to change. Because of that, a lot of aces react adversely to drawing identity connections to trauma. Yet that kind of invalidation can still be condemned while we acknowledge that trauma can impact many aspects of existence, and that’s okay. To quote Nakiya’s post on the Model Rape Survivor and the Unassailable Asexual, “Figuring out identity in the aftermath of trauma is hard enough without people insisting that your identity is not allowed.” While it’s not fair to define being ace or stone as inherently connected to trauma, all the same, when someone survives trauma, it’s not unusual or unfathomable for new sexual boundaries or aversions or relationships to one’s sexuality to develop after (if there is an “after”). Personally, I don’t know how much to connect my own impulses toward “don’t touch me” to various suspicious aspects of my upbringing, nor do I plan to try. That said, neither does it feel entirely unrelated when being sexualized against my will feels like such a defining facet of my existence here on this earth. Where people express the idea of “stone” as in “closed off, sexually non-receptive, literally f*ck off,” I am drawn like a moth to the flame. Even if it’s a flame that burns with how much it doesn’t want me back.
Second, complicating that, if we draw a line through “having sex to please their partners” (or “in a way centered on their partner’s bodies, experiences, and pleasure as focal point, where happiness comes through their partner’s happiness”) from aspects of the stone sexual role and into ace community issues, you might be able to understand more of the hesitance, because the issue of aces performing that kind of sexual role is something that has been a point of contention in the ace community for years.
Granted, I have never seen what I’m talking about be specifically labeled as “a stone sexual role” when these discussions occur, and I don’t think it should be. Rather, in one of the common narratives of aces and sex, some of the key words at play are usually the term “compromise” and the phrase “to please their partners.” To call this a loaded subject would be an understatement. With diversity in the asexual community comes tension between different groups feeling ignored or misrepresented, if not outright lied about, and if I were going to introduce someone to the flavor of that ongoing conversation, I might link this, this, and this. The fact remains: there are aces who have sex, and there are aces who have sex for reasons relating to the experience of their partners, and it has been a tricky balancing act to figure about how to talk about that ethically in a way that doesn’t endorse or facilitate coercion — because there are people out there who feel entitled to being sexually serviced and there are so, so many of us who have been hurt in different ways. Some people’s responses to this issue have been to talk about it in a way that blithely ignores the associated risks. Others have reacted by saying that sexual compromise isn’t possible and that asexuals can’t truly consent to sex at all. As mentioned, there is a very… vocal subset of people who seem to want us as aces to focus exclusively on “pleasing our partners,” like that emotional/interpersonal desire ought to override all else. There’s also an opposing subset who objectifies us when we do, as reflected in the creepy “living doll” comment directed at Sennkestra. It is, in short, a big, headache-inducing, trauma-laden mess.
These things are, by no means, the same as being stone or a stone sexual practice. If anything, I have reason to suspect some of the pressure here is for aces to accept a physically very un-stone role as recipients of touch, to let ourselves be touched, to let people “get to” touch us. And that sense of entitlement is a reason for me to bring a raincoat to the shower if there ever was one. But I also take partner-pleasure-focus as an interpersonal aspect of stone, too. And into any discussion of stone sexuality, I carry my repeated exposure to the phrase “to please their partners” in ace contexts as something fraught with emotional baggage and shaken scorpions.
None of this has said much about why I might want to identify as stone. At this point, setting aside all this baggage, I could also go into what present (vs. absent) sexual preferences I do have, the draws, the toppish inclinations (amid a very switchy overall relationship to touch — and I use switch here and not vers because the last thing I’ll ever be is versatile), the resonances I do feel in reading accounts of stone experience… but what’s the point? Announcing my own introspection would solve none of my issues and solve no one else’s.
Instead, I lay this out, all four-thousand-something words of it, as a tribute of ambivalence and hurt and fear. I don’t claim to know what “is” true about the definition of stone. I only know that I would like asexuals to be invited to the conversation.
I shouldn’t be waiting on anyone else’s approval to be whatever the heck it is that I am and yet–
A part of me still yearns for dialogue.