epershand: Tyler Glenn, with his face reflected in a window. (Tyler reflects)
I put more time than I probably should have tonight into being unhappy about the comment threads on the Feministing post An Asexual Map for Sex-Positive Feminism.

There were two things that bugged me a lot. The first was seeing a bunch of sex-positive people acting like assholes in all the ways that people who don't like the sex-positive movement always claim sex-positive people act. I really, really hate it when people in movements I feel strong intuitive agreement with start making the straw man arguments that our enemies put into our mouths. I've already had to significantly renegotiate my relationship with feminism on that front; sex-positivity, you're on notice.

The other thing that frustrated me was... when various asexual members of the conversation said things that pushed my sex-positive buttons, hard, and made me want to jump down their throats. /o\

So, there are two big things that I think were happening in that comment thread. The first, as several people in the comment thread noted, is the ambiguity between the statements "What you're saying is at odds with my intuition and so wrapping my head around it is going to take some work--please explain further!" and "What you're saying is unintuitive and incomprehensible--explain yourself!" and the ease of saying one when you intend the other.

The other is, I think, a bit more deeply rooted in sexual identity politics and the nature of conversations about them. The normative range of human sexuality is a very narrow segment of the available spectrum, with the normative female range drawn even more narrowly than the normative male range (see: virgin/whore complex). Any level of sexuality outside that range is marginalized; though the vocabulary is different for each end of the spectrum, the overall effect is similar, and anyone whose normal level of sexual interest falls outside that range is likely to have internalized a set of hot-button phrases that set off defensive "my identity is being attacked" alarms. Unfortunately, it turns out it's really difficult to explain life on one end of the spectrum without stumbling onto phrases that are often used as weapons against the other end of the spectrum.

Further, people who live outside the norm, especially when they gather together into communities, tend to develop narratives that center their own experience in opposition to the norm in ways that are just as marginalizing not only to people who are non-normative in different ways than they are, but to people who happen to be normative as well.

Normative people are not the problem. The systems that describe the norm, coerce people into it, and punish those who don't comply, are the problem. People (and companies, cough legos reference cough) are a problem to the extent that they engage in enforcement and punishment. But compliance with a rule doesn't necessarily imply being duped by it. And enforcement and punishment can come just as often and just as vindictively in defense of counter-cultural norms.

So, for instance. Let's talk about me a little bit. I'm a fan of talking about me. I'm the grand-daughter of a Women's Studies professor. I grew up in a former commune surrounded by environmental activist feminists. I grew up and went off to a women's college, where I came out and started dating. Then I graduated and moved to San Francisco and found a home in the LGBT, fannish, kinky and poly communities, with their substantial overlap.

In my head, the most transgressive sex I've ever had was penis-in-vagina missionary position sex. I was 25 before I ever tried it out, and WOAH was it a head trip. There were all these unspoken, non-negotiated power dynamics that played out in fascinating ways. There was a fascinating ritual of specific actions that happened in a specific order. There was never any trading off of roles like in normal sex! (Ok. Eventually there was trading off.) And it had all these fascinating inherent risks--like, there was just this thin latex bag preventing me from a life-altering mess of hormonal and other biochemical changes that would result in another human being growing inside me like in Alien.

Seriously, it was so trippy. Also it was really fucking hot. Unfortunately, it came along with all this intense emotional baggage about being a bad queer or maybe even a bad feminist for enjoying it so much. And while part of me found that guilt fascinating and transgressive and hot (lol masochist), it was also really, really hard to process.

Somehow, while they tried to help me out, my grandmother and mother and very many practically-aunts; and all the picture books about suffragettes and female scientists and how women could do everything; and Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sociology 101 and hanging out in the Jeanette Marks house and with my gay chorus and in fandom had... taught me an additional set of norms. One that's just as insidious and pervasive as the first set, even if what they said was different.

And while I've been working to neutralize them, to figure out how to pick and choose the ones I value and the ones I want to leave behind, I keep bumping unexpectedly into their strange and slimy trails and the fascinatingly sticky bits where they cross over one another.

I never told my parents about that boy I was having missionary PIV sex with (and never considered myself to be dating him) for fear that if I admitted I wasn't 100% gay they'd assume I was straight; it's highly likely that the only reason I was as comfortable as I was telling my parents about my current boyfriend is the fact that he's trans. (And yeah I know exactly how fucked up and lesbian gender-essentialist that is; trust me. Definitely working on that one.) I'm way more comfortable talking about my sexual interests when I'm in a toppy headspace, not just because I'm more confident when I feel in charge but because talking about my interest in control feels less shameful, less iddy, than talking about my interest in submission. I obsess over my body hair, and my pubic hair in particular--normally I shave it all but if I'm likely to have sex I suddenly get thrown into a tizzy--what assumptions will my partner make about me if they see the bare skin? Will they see, as I do, intentionally created vulnerability and a swath of highly-sensitive skin; or will instead they see a bad feminist a dupe and capitulation to patriarchal infantilization of women? I always, ALWAYS simplified any explanation of one of the most important relationships of my life, one that shifted back and forth along the spectrum between complex more-than-friendship and a deep romance where the sex thing only rarely hit wavelengths that worked for both of us, for fear that it be reduced entirely to friendship.

Because apparently when I was learning norms, I picked up "non-normative is better than normative" right alongside "masculine is better than feminine." Which left me believing not quite that masculine was better than feminine but... that I needed to be more masculine than feminine to defy norms appropriately, no matter what was intuitive, and no matter what my fantasies insisted.

So yeah, when I see an asexual person talk about how they don't understand why some women sexualize themselves, I get pretty damned defensive. I've been hearing the same thing from my internal Good Feminist monitor (and from many internet feminists) for ages and I'm only just learning to silence it. And when I hear sex-positive people claiming that coming up with a million categories to splice apart the complexities of sexual attraction and romantic attraction and intellectual attraction is nonsensical and pedantic? I get defensive about that too.

(And I get very grateful that there are intellectually curious and didactic people like Julia Serano and Hanne Blank and Clarisse Thorne to write very clever things that help me sort this all out in my head.)

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