Why Asexual Identity Emerged in the Millennials’ Generation

I recently read the article “When it Comes to Sex, Baby Boomers Aren’t Normal”, which is a response to various essays about Millennials (that is, people born between 1980 and 1996) having less sex than Baby Boomers and Generation X. This quote contains the premise of the article:

Instead of asking why Millennials are having less sex, we could also ask why Boomers and Gen-X had more. Rather than asking why Millennials are so weird, we could compare birth cohorts in a way that doesn’t assume any of them as the baseline. Sexual norms and practices are in constant flux, and we ought not treat them as fixed.

The article also points out some other problems with the hand-wringing over why Millennials aren’t having ‘enough’ sex. For example, many statistics about how much sex people have DO NOT distinguish between consensual and non-consensual sex. It is very difficult to measure the frequency of non-consensual sex, but according to the article, the indicators we do have suggest that one of the main reasons that Millennials have less sex than the Baby Boomers and Generation X is that sexual assault is significantly less common among Millennials (i.e. a disproportionate portion of the decrease in sexual activity is a decrease in non-consensual activity). If this is true, then it’s a wonderful change. The article also claims that Millennials are less supportive of rape culture than Baby Boomers and Generation X, which might explain a decrease in non-consensual sex.

Anyway, what I want to discuss is how the emergence of an asexual identity fits into this pattern of Millennials having less sex (note, I am only going to discuss this in the context of the United States because I do not know enough about how these things play out in other societies).

A disproportionate number of people who participate in asexual communities are Millennials, including me. Contemporary sexual communities, so far, have been largely built by Millennials. Why has asexual identity become more prominent in our generation rather than other generations?

A common answer to this question is ‘The Internet’. The internet no doubt has something to do with it, but I’ve always felt that that’s a complete answer. I think another part of the answer is the way that American culture is shifting.

I think compulsory sexuality became especially overt in the Baby Boomer generation (of course compulsory sexuality before, simply that it was less blatant), and that was one of the reasons why they engaged in more sexual activity than earlier generations. As the Millennial generation emerges in a world which has been dominated by Baby Boomers, the resulting generation clash created a space for an asexual identity to emerge. In other words, my theory is that generations before the Baby Boomers did not deal with Baby Boomer level of compulsory sexuality, thus there was less pushing the asexually-inclined people to identify with asexuality. Then, asexual identities *rarely* emerged in the Baby Boomer generation because it was a particularly hostile environment. Now, the Millennial generation has lived with Baby Boomer attitudes, but is itself calmer about compulsory sexuality, so there was both the motivation and a sufficiently supportive environment for an asexual identity to emerge.

Anyway, this is more of a theory I have than something I have concrete evidence for. Maybe if I did actual research, I’d find that this does not explain the emergence of an asexuality identity in American culture after all.

What I Got out of Everywhere House as an Aro Ace Reader

The cover of 'Everywhere House' which shows the phrase 'Women Fight Back!' graffittied on a wall above the legs of a dead body. I recently read the novel Everywhere House by Jane Meyerding. It is a murder mystery set in the radical feminist lesbian community of 1970s Seattle.

Some aspects of the story which stood out to me as an aromantic asexual are:

1. The protagonist, Terry Barber, is a lesbian woman. Her best friend, Roger, is a heterosexual man. On Terry’s end, she hides her close friendship with him from her radical feminist lesbian companions because they would disapprove of her close friendship with a man. Her friend, understandably, does not like being treated like a dirty secret. Likewise, as he gets on with his heterosexual life and eventually gets engaged to a woman, he struggles with maintaining the friendship with Terry. Most interesting to me is that it is clear that Terry is more comfortable with and more willing to confide in him than with her lesbian girlfriends. I like that it turns the relationship hierarchy (romantice + sexual relationships are more important than friendship) upside down.

2. There is a lot of discussion of queer politics, particularly how different lesbian groups interact with each other. For example, Terry’s girlfriend, Ellie, is an assimilationist lesbian – she just wants lesbians to be treated like ‘normal’ people. By contrast, Terry’s housemates want to change the political and social order. However, among the ‘political lesbians’ there are many different strains of radicalism, and Radical Lesbian Group A may have very bad feelings about Radical Lesbian Group B. Asexual group politics are not quite like that, however the idea of subgroups within subgroups, sometimes based on thoughts rather than experiences, is familiar. Of course, a major theme is the interaction between lesbians and society as large, how lesbians (particularly radical feminist lesbians) are considered less credible ~because~ they are lesbians.

3. The sex scenes were pretty awkward. It wasn’t that they were all fade-to-black – fade-to-black sex scenes can be pretty smooth – it felt more like obligatory sex scene + super fast and jerky fade to black. By obligatory, I mean that it felt like the sex scene was happening because the writer (or the editor, or somebody) decided that a sex scene was necessary to demonstrate Terry’s lesbianness rather than because the plot or Terry’s feelings seemed to be leading into a sex scene. Since I have read very little lesbian fiction, I was willing to entertain the possibility that I simply am not familiar with the conventions of lesbian sex scenes.

Since this is a novel about lesbians published by a publisher (New Victoria Publishers) which specializes in lesbian fiction, I had assumed that Jane Meyerding herself is lesbian. Shortly after finishing the novel, I found out that, actually, Jane Meyerding is asexual. Knowing that the writer is asexual (and possibly aromantic, though since she has not said that explicitly, I’m not going to assume) put all of the above in a new light for me.

I don’t know whether or not Jane Meyerding identified as asexual at the time she wrote this novel. Either way, I think it is a worthwhile contribution to the literature of Fiction by Asexual Writers.

Names Acknowledge Existence

The theme for this month’s Carnival of Aces is “Naming It”.

One thing which is sometimes said about asexuality as a sexual orientation is “But why do you need a name for it?”

Swankivy answered this question pretty well years ago. In short – things which exist tend to have names, and to have a name for asexuality is to acknowledge that it is a thing which exists.

Since a large part of the human asexual experience is to doubt whether what we feel is what we really feel, and to learn how to not trust our own feelings because our culture tells us that we can’t be feeling what we are feeling, having a name is a big deal. Having a name acknowledges that it is a thing, and suggests that we can know our own feelings, that we can trust ourselves to know ourselves.

For those who remember the series of posts I did on In Love and Warcraft Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), one of my major criticisms was that even though the protagonist was plausibly asexual, the play never used the word ‘asexual’ or acknowledged that it could be a valid way to be. Even if the play had ultimately used the word ‘asexual’ just to say that the main protagonist was *not* asexual, I would have probably been okay with it, since it was more important to me for the play to acknowledge that asexuality is a thing than for it to have an actually asexual protagonist. However, as the play currently is, it has a protagonist which many asexual people would identify with because she seems like an asexual, yet never affirms that being asexual is *okay*. To someone who is asexual, but does not know how that word is applied to humans, or is not aware of other asexual humans, I am afraid that story could encourage them to doubt and distrust themselves even more. And it would have been so simple to fix just by *briefly* mentioning asexuality in a non-derogatory context.

That is not to say that the word ‘asexual’ is never misused – it definitely is sometimes misused. For example, when disabled people who do not identify as asexual are said to be ‘asexual’ on the basis of their *disability* rather than their *feelings with regards to sex/sexual attraction/etc.* that is a misuse of the word ‘asexual’.

However, when the word ‘asexual’ is being used in a way which is somewhat it accordance with the way it is used in the asexual community, I generally feel better about an essay/story/etc. when they use the word than when they don’t. Using the word means that they acknowledge our existence. When the word isn’t being used, it is much more likely to be something which erases us and claims that our feelings are not valid.

The Way Social Pressure Bends Identity

In “A Matter of Discrete Divisions”, Coyote discusses the social pressure on people questioning various aspects of their identity to eventually resolve their questioning.

Some aspects of my identity may have been subtly pushed by such social pressures, but I still accept those parts of my identity. I can take back those aspects and go back to questioning if I want to, but I don’t want to.

I want to make this very clear – what I am about to describe applies to me, specifically, and is not intended to be a prescription for how other people should identify. I don’t want other people to feel obligated to treat their own identities the way I treat my identities.

As I indicated in a previous post, my approach to aspects of my identity I question at this point in time is ‘if it’s too hard to figure out, the answer is probably no’. For example, I figure that, given that it is so darn hard for me to figure out whether or not I experience romantic attraction, that means it’s either ain’t there, or it is so irrelevant to my life that it might as well not be there, therefore I am aromantic.

That approach also applies to gender – I feel very little discomfort with other people treating me as a cis-female, so rather than going through a questioning process to figure out whether I really am cis-female, I just accept myself as such. It’s close enough to accurate that I don’t want to invest the effort to discover an identity/label which describes me more accurately, even though I suspect a more accurate identity/label/description is possible. If my discomfort with being pegged as cis-female were greater, I would probably find it more worthwhile to question my gender identity.

Now, part of the effort/cost of questioning is dealing with other people, including the pressure to not be questioning indefinitely. Coyote describes it as:

I have to wonder if there’s some ticking clock I wasn’t made aware of, counting down until my time is up. ‘Cause sure, you can be unsure, but you better get that uncertainty settled eventually. Better get everything straightened up nice and exact and classifiable. Not now, not yet, that’s fine, but eventually.

I don’t think this is the only effort/cost of questioning – I think, even in the absence of social pressure, there would be elements of ‘Is this really X, or is it really Y?’ However, this kind of social pressure increases the effort/cost of questioning.

I find questioning tiring enough that I generally don’t stay there indefinitely – if nothing else, I’ll end up throwing up my hands and saying ‘This simply doesn’t make sense to me, therefore I’m not identifying as anything at all!’

The social pressure currently does push towards picking concrete (especially binary) identities over grey/ambiguous identities. However, I can imagine an alternate universe where social pressure goes the other way – where it’s considered fine to be questioning, say, one’s romantic orientation indefinitely, but that one shouldn’t identify as homoromantic, or aromantic, or biromantic, etc. unless one is 100% sure that is the ‘correct’ identity. In such an alternate universe, I would probably choose to identify as quoiromantic rather than aromantic.

So, by saying that in this universe I identify as aromantic, but in that alternative universe I would probably identify as quoiromantic, I am acknowledging that social pressure is a factor in my identity. Does that make my identity less authentic? I don’t think so. The whole point of having an identity is to help me interact with other people, and there is always some kind of social pressure when interacting with other people. Therefore, I cannot completely divorce identity from social pressure. And if I stopped interacting with other people, then I think the entire notion of orientation or gender identity, among other identities, would become pretty useless to me.

That is not so say that all kinds of social pressure are okay – I think some kinds of social pressure are harmful, including the type of social pressure Coyote describes – and I think it is beneficial to reduce or eliminate harmful social pressures. What I am trying to say that even identities which are partially shaped by social pressure are still valid.

What the Shikoku 88 Temples Route and the Pacific Crest Trail Have in Common

I have read multiple books on the Shikoku 88 Temples Pilgrimage and the Pacific Crest Trail. I have also walked short sections of both, and talked with people who were trying to complete one or the other.

Obviously, there are a lot of differences. The Shikoku 88 Temples Pilgrimage tends to go through settled areas, whereas the Pacific Crest Trail tends to go through wilderness. Most people who do the temples pilgrimage have a roof over their heads most nights, whereas most people who do the Pacific Crest Trail for any length of time camp outside most nights. The temples pilgrimage is about 1,100 km (670 mi.) long whereas the Pacific Crest Trail is about 4,250 km (2650 mi.) long. The temples pilgrimage was created for religious reasons by grassroots level religious devotees, whereas the Pacific Crest Trail was created by the U.S. government because a group of dedicated citizens advocated for it.

However, for all of the differences, there are a lot of striking similarities, or at least parallels.

Both have their own associated culture and lore. For example, the Pacific Crest Trail has the tradition of ‘trail names’ – nicknames assigned to hikers by other people (supposedly, one is not supposed to pick one’s own trail name). The temples pilgrimage has many of its own traditions, such as the tradition of getting a stamp from every temple. Some of these traditions are very similar – for example, the Shikoku practice of settai (giving things to the pilgrims) is very similar to the Pacific Crest Trail practice of ‘trail magic’ (giving things to hikers – this tradition also lives on the Appalachian Trail and other long-distance trails in the United States).

Both have spawned memoirs of the loser woman who is a personal mess and totally unprepared for the long trek, yet they do it anyway and discover themselves. I am, of course, referring to the bestseller Wild by Cheryl Strayed about the Pacific Crest Trail, but also Neon Pilgrim by Lisa Dempster about the temples pilgrimage.

Furthermore, both are treated as national trails – an experience which represents Japan / the United States. The Pacific Crest Trail is officially a National Scenic Trail. A lot of people attempt to complete the trails as a means of better connecting to their country. And these two routes do, in some way, represent the mythos of their respective nations. The temples pilgrimage represents a link with Japan’s cultural and historical past, in a region of Japan which supposedly has changed less over the past two centuries than the heavily populated metropolitan areas where most Japanese people live. The Pacific Crest Trail represents making forays into the ‘wilderness’, a pageant replaying the mythos of the United States of being a frontier nation where white people explore and settle areas which white people haven’t explored and settled before (yes, that is a colonialist view, but I am not going to unpack it right here). In short, I think it says something about Japan’s self-image that its great walk is centered on 500+ year old temples, and it says something about the United States’ self-image that all of it’s great walks, including the Pacific Crest Trail, center on great mountain ranges.

And though the Pacific Crest Trail is secular in nature, some people do use it for spiritual purposes, just as the temples pilgrimage is used for religious and/or spiritual purposes (I also would be unsurprised if people use the Pacific Crest Trail for religious purposes, but I do not have evidence of that).

I think the greatest thing in common between these two great walks is that many people use them to escape from ‘modern’ life. A lot of people who attempt both feel adrift – the ‘ordinary’ life of going to work every day is unfulfilling, or otherwise feel like their life is lacking in meaning – and they try to find this meaning by walking/hiking these routes. They go out to both learn about the world and to develop their own characters.

Of course, these are hardly the only two great walks in the world – actually, the most popular great walk nowadays in the Camino Santiago in Spain. I don’t know much about the Camino, but here is a comparison of the Shikoku Temple trail and the Camino and here is a comparison of the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Camino.

Taking a 2+ Year Vacation from English Language Fiction

I recently discovered the Tempest Challenge, which is to stop reading fiction by straight white cis men who write in English for an entire year.

Before the ‘Tempest Challenge’ existed, I had actually done this myself. In fact I took it a few steps further – for a period of 2+ years, I only read fiction written in Chinese (with the exception of webcomics). The vast majority of that fiction was originally in Chinese, but I also read some Japanese-to-Chinese and Korean-to-Chinese translations. All of this fiction was by East Asians, which meant that I also happened to stop reading fiction by white people during this period.

Why did I do this? Mainly because I wanted to improve my Chinese, and to get good at reading Chinese, one has to get a lot of practice. And I didn’t want to read English-to-Chinese translations since I can read the originals in English.

This immersion experience definitely changed the way I think and perceive the world. Some of the changes were obvious at the time, whereas I am only gradually noticing some of the other changes years later.

For example, when I made up stories in my head to amuse myself, the characters tended to be white people. Since I’m a white person myself, that was not surprising. However, after a year or two of my immersion in Chinese fiction, the characters who appeared in my head-stories tended to be Asian, not white, by default. It wasn’t any conscious process or decision on my part, it’s just what seemed most natural to my imagination at the time. Now that I’m back in the United States and taking in a lot of fiction by white people, the characters in my head-stories are now mostly white people again, but … I am impressed that all it took for my imagination to shift that way was to just limit myself to Chinese-language fiction for a couple years (okay, the fact that I was living in a city with very few white people, where I could go weeks without seeing another white person, might have had something to do with it too).

As far as the subtler effects which I am only noticing later … a lot of that comes up when I am reading English-language fiction. English speakers tend to think in a way which is a bit different than the way Chinese speakers think (a lot of this is cultural), and things which I would have never noticed before now leap out at me as being a specifically English-speaker kind of thing. It’s hard to describe some of this stuff, because a lot it is me getting a feeling but not knowing how to explain it in words.

All and all, I think this was very good for me. This experience definitely expanded my imagination and perceptiveness (not to mention that a lot of Chinese language fiction is fun to read). And I think that I went really hardcore – as in, I refused to read English-language fiction (except webcomics) or even fiction which originated in English for years – made the experience much deeper than if I had simply stopped reading fiction by cis-het-white-males for a year.

I don’t think I’ll do anything like this again in my life, or even do the Tempest Challenge, but I think I would benefit by reading more fiction by a) people who are neither white nor East Asian b) queer people and c) disabled people.

Aces Become Sex Gurus; Aromantics Become Romance Gurus; (& Bonus Mini-Linkspam)

This is for the July 2016 Carnival of Aces – “Make ’em Laugh”

There is a phenomenon I have observed among both aces and aromantics: there is a tendency for them to become the go-to person for advice on sex and romantic relationships for their non-ace and non-aro acquaintances. This seems to happen mostly to aces and aros who have little to no direct experience with sex and/or romantic relationships.

What gives???!!!!

I recall one ace who had taken a test to determine which career was best for her. The result? “Marriage Counselor.” She said that her friends found that hilarious. IIRC, she said something along the lines of “If I were a marriage counselor, I would be like ‘Hmmm, your marriage has problems, have you considered divorce?'”

A long time ago, possibly before I identified as ace (I don’t remember for sure), my dad said that if I were a character in a soap opera, I would be the heroine’s best friend – the one she always turns to for advice. In retrospect, this casting may have something to do with the fact that I never showed the least interest in dating.

Maybe, for some bizarre reason, if someone is totally staying out of sexual / romantic drama, it’s subconsciously interpreted as a sign that they know the secret to dealing with sexual / romantic drama. In fact, the secret is that they simply don’t participate in sexual / romantic relationships in the first place. And then they share this secret, and advise the person seeking advice to simply break up … and hilarity ensues.

This phenomenon is already a theme in asexual and aromantic humor, for example this tumblr meme.

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Bonus: Mini Linkspam on Ace and Aro humor

First of all, there are the Aromantic Humor and it’s funny cause I’m ace tumblrs.

You all know about Queenie’s Sad Cookie, right? RIGHT?

I like this humorous post about fictional characters.

And finally, here is a Marvel Cinematic Universe fanfic where everyone is asexual and/or aromantic. Don’t read Marvel Cinematic Universe fanfiction? Me neither! Heck, I haven’t even watched any of the Marvel movies, and know little to nothing about most of these characters. I still laughed at these little vignettes. You don’t have to know squat about Marvel stories or characters to appreciate the ace and aro humor in these little stories.