The Ableism Embedded in Prejudice against Asexuals and Aromantics

During this year’s Blogging Against Disablism Day, there was a great submission – “There is ableism somewhere at the heart of your oppression, no matter what your oppression might be.” The essay is exactly what it says on the tin – that every form of systematic oppression has elements of ableism at its core. To better understand what the writer, Mel Baggs, means by that, go read the essay.

Some of the elements of ableism which are embedded in prejudice against asexual people are really obvious. In fact, plenty of people have already discussed them – a few examples are this, this, this, this, and this.

There is also a history, in the vocal asexual community, for some people to declare how healthy and abled they are. This is one way of playing the Unassailable Asexual Game, specifically, trying to become unassailable on the grounds of health / ability.

Per the ideas presented by Mel Baggs, in a certain way, it does not matter whether asexuality really is a disability. If asexuals try to prove their worth by proving that it is not a disability, they will either a) ‘succeed’ and further entrench ableist (i.e. anti-disabled-people) attitudes or b) fail, and further entrench ableist attitudes.

Mel Baggs’ essay also indicates that prejudice against asexual people as it currently manifests itself would not be recognizable without ableism. I think I am 90% percent convinced by this point. In a completely non-ableist society – where people were respected regardless of their bodily and mental abilities – would people still practice prejudice against asexuals? I find a hard time imagining that people who respect the wide range of bodily and psychological diversity embodied by disabled people would *not* also respect asexual people.

On the flipside, is it possible to secure widespread respect for asexual people while sustaining ableism? I think it is possible to significantly improve attitudes towards asexuality without doing much to reduce ableism, but ableism is worth challenging anyways, even if it doesn’t help asexuals. Reducing ableism helps asexuals, not just because some asexuals are disabled, but because reduced ableism creates an environment which is also probably more asexual-friendly.

People See What They Expect to See (or, I Can Pass as Part-East-Asian??!!)

I cannot recall any instance in the United States when anybody thought I was anything other than a white person. Maybe, maybe there have been instances when people thought I was Latina, but since I can’t remember clearly, that means it has only happened rarely, and some people consider some Latinas to be white anyway.

So, when I was in Taiwan, it was rather surprising when some people assumed I was of partial east-Asian descent, or even fully of East Asian descent.

Usually, the latter only happened if they saw me from the back, and then they would be surprised when I turned around and they saw my face. However, I am astonished that I can pass as an East Asian even from the back. My hair, aside from being longer, is basically the same as my father’s hair was when he was my age. When he lived in Japan, women were fascinated with his hair because it was so different from the hair of Japanese people. It is the kind of hair which rarely occurs naturally in East Asian people.

The thing is, people alter their hair. Even in the United States, a lot of people are surprised to learn that, yes, my hair is naturally the way it is, I haven’t altered it beyond basic hair care. And people in East Asia also alter their hair. So maybe, when people in East Asia saw my back and my unusual hair, they assumed I was a local person who altered her hair rather than a foreigner whose hair is naturally like that – because they expected to see local people, not non-Asian people. Even though Taoyuan City – where I live – has a relatively large population of non-Asian people for a Taiwanese city, in any Taiwanese city which is not Taipei, non-Asian people are a rare sight.

(Fun fact: when I visited Kyoto, shortly after I moved out of Taoyuan, one of my reactions was: this city is full of white people! I don’t think I would have had that reaction if I had gone to Kyoto straight from the United States, or even Hong Kong. However, Kyoto has way more white people than Taipei, let alone any other Taiwanese city.)

When people actually see me, it’s pretty obvious that I have some non-East-Asian ancestry, and my speech makes it super-obvious that Mandarin is not my native language. Yet many people have assumed that I have an East Asian parent (usually Taiwanese, in encounters which happened in Taiwan) and are very surprised to learn that I do not. Apparently, it’s not just that they expect to see East Asian people in East Asia, it’s also that they do not expect non-Asians to be able to have conversations in Mandarin.

It’s kind of an odd way to see just how different the perceptions of people from a different society can be.

People of All Orientations Can Choose to Which Intimate Relationships They Consent

The other day, I read this essay in which a bisexual dude compares the arguments for excluding bisexuals to the arguments for excluding asexuals. As I was reading it, it occurred to me that, at the heart of those arguments for exclusion, there is a deep-seated insecurity about the validity of same-sex intimate relationships (what I mean by ‘intimate relationships’ includes, but is not limited to, sexual, romantic, and queerplatonic relationships).

Let me explain.

The idea behind the arguments for bisexual and asexual exclusion is that bisexuals and asexuals have a ‘choice’ about entering same-sex intimate relationships, therefore they do not need protection from hatred towards non-straight people. It is heavily implied that homosexuals do not have a ‘choice’ about entering same-sex intimate relationships, therefore they do need protection from hatred towards non-straight people.

First of all, homosexuals do have a choice about whether or not they consent to same-sex intimate relationships. For example, here is writing by a gay Christian who abstains from homosexual sex for religious reasons. I do NOT share his religious views, but he clearly has a choice about what he does with his personal life. Everybody, including homosexuals, has a choice about whether or not they consent to same-sex intimate relationships.

The idea that heterosexuals have to enter mixed-sex intimate relationships because, um, something, and that homosexuals have to enter same-sex intimate relationships because, um, something … *ahem* it smells a lot like compulsory sexuality.

And the idea that homosexuals cannot help getting into same sex intimate relationships, unlike bisexuals and asexuals … well, that has all kinds of problematic implications.

It goes back to the arguments of many gay-rights activists that homosexuality is not a choice, therefore they should not receive so much hate. I 100% agree that homosexuals should not receive hate on the basis of being homosexual. However, I don’t think that has anything to do with whether or not it is a choice. [For the record, I do not consider my own orientation – asexual – to be something I chose, and seems consistent with my knowledge of the world that sexual orientation is mostly not a matter of personal choice.] Even if sexual orientation were a choice, and even though the behaviors which people consent to absolutely are a choice, that does not justify throwing hate at people.

And once one has wrapped one’s head around the idea that it’s wrong to throw shit at people on account of their sexual orientation, regardless of what kinds of intimate relationships they have or don’t have … well, it’s harder to exclude bisexuals and asexuals from spaces for people who deal with shit on account of their non-straight orientation.

In Spite of Growing Up in a Society Full of Allosexuals, The Allosexual Experience Still Doesn’t Make Sense

Like the vast majority of people, I grew up in a society heavily dominated by non-asexual people. Therefore, I ought to understand non-asexual experiences well, right?

Eh, heh heh heh.

Yeah, I know a heck of a lot about allosexual experiences. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I know more about allosexual experiences than any non-asexual knows about asexual experiences, including non-asexuals who have done extensive research into asexuality.

There are, however, still a lot of things about allosexual experiences which I do not get.

For example, you know that statistic about how people think about sex every seven seconds? I don’t believe that’s true, even for non-asexual people. It simply boggles my mind that people would think about sex that often. Every hour, sure, I could buy that. I do not think about sex even every hour, but accounting for the fact that I am asexual and non-asexuals, obviously, are not, I can buy that the vast majority of adult allosexuals think about sex at least once and hour. But every seven seconds? Seriously?

This conviction that that statistic is not true is not based on any real evidence. If someone presented a robust study which proved that, yes, most allosexuals generally think about sex at least every seven seconds, I would have to admit that to my knowledge. But even if I accepted that on a intellectual level, I do not think it would ever make sense to me on an intuitive level.

There are some things which allosexuals take for granted that everyone is aware of, so it’s not said explicitly, and it happens to be something which asexuals generally are not aware of, and then we don’t get it. Thus, when asexuality is acknowledged, and when people take into consideration that some of the people they may be communicating with may be asexual, I am more likely to understand more about allosexual experiences than if everyone assumed that there were no asexuals around.

On the other hand, with something as personal, private, and intimate as sexuality, there are some things one probably is not going to grok unless one is walking in a similar pair of metaphorical shoes.

So that is what it’s like from my perspective, an asexual who has grown up immersed in a culture of allosexuals. What about the allosexuals who did not grow up in a culture dominated by asexuals?

For them, it’s even harder for them to ‘get’ our asexual experiences. Is that a problem? It depends. In most contexts, I don’t think a deep understanding is necessary. What is most important is respect – things like respecting personal boundaries, respecting self-described identities, respecting non-harmful differences in behavior.

And I try to remember how hard it is for me to understand them when I get frustrated by how they do not understand me.

Shifting Away from Ableist Language

This is for Blogging Against Disablism (BADD) 2016 – go read other submissions!

When, years back, I was first introduced to the concepts a) ableism, and b) ableist language, my first reaction was “How can we stopped using *all* of these words?! It’s hard.”

But when I actually tried to excise ableist words from my vocabulary … I found that it was not nearly as hard as I expected it to be.

(For those who do not know what ableism and ableist language are – ableism is to disabled people what sexism is to non-male people and racism is to people who belong to a non-socially-privileged race – here is an overview of ableist language)

I cannot speak for anybody else, but I think in my case my thought of ‘it’s hard’ was my ableist privilege telling me that I should not have to inconvenience myself for the sake of disabled people (background: I am currently perceived by society as being abled, and I can do the things which ‘abled’ people can do, which means I now have abled-privilege). Once I actually put in a effort to change the language I use, I found that, actually, it did not require that much effort on my part after all.

A key part of changing my language use was understanding why I was changing it. I got the ‘why’ from many insightful writings by disabled people about their experiences, including many essays from previous years of BADD.

Before I go into the next part, I want to make something crystal clear – if the ONLY benefit of avoiding ableist language (words like lame, stupid, ‘bound to a wheelchair’, etc.) was to reduce the harm which ableism does to disabled people, it would still absolutely be worth doing.

However, I have found that changing the language I use to avoid ableism had additional benefits. It has taught me to be more careful and thoughtful about my language in general, not just with regards to ableism. And the way which taking out ableist words makes me thing about what I say, I feel, makes the things I say more precise.

For example, instead of saying ‘stupid’, I can say ‘uninformed’ ‘thoughtless’ ‘reckless’ ‘uneducated’ ‘ignorant’ ‘bad at analysis’ ‘failed to make connections between the facts’ ‘ridiculous’ etc. Notice how all of those substitutes for ‘stupid’ are more precise about my meaning than using the word ‘stupid’.

Of course, choosing more precise words does take more effort than using a catch-all word. You know what a really good catch-all word for bad things is? It’s the word ‘bad’. Simple, isn’t it?

Learning that I could use the word ‘bad’ whenever I wanted to say something was bad, without needing to think about a more precise term *or* possibly hurting a group of people I did not intend to hurt, really helped me reduce my use of ableist language. Is saying that something is ‘bad’ as emphatic as a number of ableist words which indicated that something is very bad? No. But if it that important to me to convey that something is really bad, or that it is bad in some specific sense, then I can go ahead and find the precise terms I wish to use. I find that, a precise description of how bad something is often packs more of a punch than ableist language anyway.

Here is an example:

Ableist way: That movie is lame.
Precise way: The plot of that movie jumps all over the place, and the actors were totally miscast. I fell asleep after the first hour.
Simple way: That movie is bad.

So, in summary – 1) reducing the ableism in my language was not as hard as I thought it would be when I was first introduced to the concept of ableism and 2) pruning ableist words out of my vocabulary had improved my use of language in general.

I’m the kind of person who would rather read Ann Radcliffe than Jane Austen

In high school, I remember the sensation of being the only girl I knew who *did not* like Jane Austen stories. In particular, I remember this time when we were having a vote on which movie we were going to see (it was after the final exam, so the teacher was letting us watch movies for fun). None of the guys in the class voted for Pride and Prejudice. Nor did I. However, every girl in the class aside from myself voted for Pride and Prejudice, so guess which movie won the vote. I ended up groaning with the guys through it. It was all the more weird since I cannot think of any other situation in high school when it was guys vs. girls and I was on the guys’ side.

I have tried to read Pride and Prejudice twice. I think I got as far as page 80. Both times, I found the novel so boring I could not go on. I also have tried to read Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. I at least managed to get past page 100 in Mansfield Park.

Oh, and I actually managed to read Northanger Abbey all the way through. I even enjoyed it. And to a large extent, that’s because it’s a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe.

I did read The Mysteries of Udolpho in high school, and I loved it. Sure, the first hundred or so pages can be tiresome, but hey, the mysteries start within the first twenty pages, and I am willing to read long descriptions of beautiful landscapes.

I would never argue that the work of Ann Radcliffe has greater literary merit than the work of Jane Austen, but I love Radcliffe fiction in a way I don’t think I would ever love Austen fiction, even if I ever manage to read P&P to the end. It’s got adventure! Mystery! It’s gothic! And yes, The Mysteries of Udolpho is much more romantic, in the sense that it combines the landscapes of poets like William Wordsworth with high human passions.

This is one of those things where I wonder – does it have anything to do with me aromantic? I don’t know. I’m sure there are tons of aromantic people who love Jane Austen stories too. I certainly can love witty romantic comedy myself. And it’s not like the stories of Ann Radcliffe are less romantic.

Of course, there were times when female readers did favor Radcliffe over Austen. Radcliffe was a bestselling writer in her own lifetime; Austen not so much. So maybe women literate in English in the early 19th century were more aligned with my literary tastes than the female readers of the present.

Apparently, Speaking Chinese in the San Francisco Surprises People Less than Speaking Chinese in Taiwan

In Taiwan, whenever I opened my mouth around strangers and started speaking in Chinese, people would be shocked. Not always, but often. This was even true if I was in some remote part of Taiwan where few foreigners ventured and practically nobody spoke English.

Furthermore, when I walked into bookstores in Taiwan, people would often be amazed that I can read Chinese. On the contrary, the few times I have entered Chinese bookstores in San Francisco, nobody raised an eyebrow.

This struck me as odd. Sure, it is not unreasonable to presume that a random white person wandering around Taipei cannot speak Chinese. My experience is that most random white people wandering around Taipei cannot speak Chinese. But in remote parts of Taiwan which aren’t touristy, or even smalller cities like Changhua and Pingdong, any white people who are wandering around likely can speak some Chinese. And even in Taipei … is it so shocking that somebody who is in Asia can speak an Asian language??!!!

Now, I’m living in San Francisco. The overwhelming majority of white people here cannot speak Chinese. In fact, the percentage of white people in San Francisco who can speak Chinese is several order of magnitudes lower than the percentage of white people in Taiwan who can speak Chinese. Yet when I open my mouth and speak Mandarin here, it surprises native Chinese speakers a lot less than it surprises native Chinese speakers in Taiwan.

What gives?

I don’t know why this is. But I can speculate. First of all, Taiwanese people have told me that language is in the blood, and that Taiwanese people can speak Chinese well because of their ancestry, just as I can speak English well because of my ancestry (of course, only a minority of my ancestors came from the British Isles, and most of those ancestors were Scots-Irish rather than English, but Taiwanese people generally do not think about such things). These people believed that a) because the do not have white ancestry, they could not become fluent in English and b) because I do not have Chinese ancestry, I cannot learn how to speak Chinese. This is an extreme version of a common sentiment in Taiwan that non-Asians simply cannot understand Taiwanese/Asian culture, or hope to become fluent in Chinese. Hence the surprise when someone like me can carry a conversation in Chinese.

Native Chinese speakers who are in San Francisco are much less likely to entertain such notions. They generally have a much more nuanced view of white people, and are more aware that it is possible for people to learn additional languages. Though Taiwan itself is a multicultural society, it is not as diversely multicultural as San Francisco. In short, native Chinese speakers have a better understanding of what actually happens when very different cultures interact.