The Invisible Asexual

Asexuals.

Moss on the wall, Kildale

Photo by Miss Steel

Hold up, wrong image.

Photo by trollhare

That’s better.

I grew up under the assumption that, at some point in my teen years, the heterosexuality fairy would gift me with the desire for candlelit dinners and ravenous sex. Days after a terribly awkward prom night, I discovered AVEN, and the existence of asexuality and aromanticism. The internet continues to be the only place I have met anyone else (openly) asexual.

When I first came out to my mother, she said I hadn’t found the right person yet, and promptly forgot the entire conversation. The second time I came out, she asked me what asexuality is. One stranger, whose advances I rejected by declaring my general lack of sexual attraction, purred, “You never know.” Among the people who immediately accepted the legitimacy of my sexual orientation, only a few members of the campus Queer Student Union didn’t need me to define it. Even in the QSU, one person asked, “Those actually exist?” He then mentioned the other possible asexual he knew—with the disclaimer that “maybe there’s just something wrong with her .” Assumptions that asexuality is an illness, or the result of some childhood trauma, are not uncommon. The DSM—apparently having not learned from its mistakes with homosexuality—continues to list asexuality as a psychological illness. Why is asexuality so invisible that even asexual people go decades unaware they aren’t alone?

Our society demands heterosexuality. Men must be openly, even aggressively, heterosexual, or homophobic men—a large and politically powerful group in the US—grow uncomfortable sharing bathrooms and locker facilities with them. On the other hand, women must be receptive to men’s sexual advances, or risk being branded “frigid,” “teases,” and/or “man-haters.” “Man-hater” in particular is associated with cis-men declaring women and passing-women lesbians, regardless of how the women identify themselves. I am unsure how society views non-passing transfolk’s sexualities.

If a cis-person is not overtly heterosexual, they are labeled homosexual. If they are sexually active across genders, or declare their orientations, they may be acknowledged as bi- or pan-sexual.  However, the celibate are not assumed to be asexual. Even when asexual people declare themselves as such, they are met with skepticism, or diagnosed. Sexuality is so prevalent in our culture, from our music to our television to our sense of humor that some people have difficulty comprehending not relating to that culture. In a culture as sex-obsessed as ours, asexuality is too alien to understand, so it is flippantly brushed aside as a mere lie or childish confusion.

Asexuality is gaining recognition, thanks largely to AVEN and asexuals’ ability to spread information and connect with each other over the internet. Only eighteen months ago, the front page of the AVEN forums were filled with members who lived for decades, thinking of themselves as monstrous and broken, before learning about asexuality. Now, the front page is filled with teenagers and young adults who, finding themselves out of place among their hormone-riddled peers, confidently adopt the title “asexual.”

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Surveillance Culture and (Not So) Digital Harrassment

Cyberspace is a place of visibility where producers lose control of their content at an viral rate. It is the stage of mass exhibitionism and mass voyeurism, a surveillance culture like those explored in We Live in Public, and that openness has given birth to cyberstalking.

Image by Paintedrose13

How easily can internet users separate their digital presences from “real life?” The web seems like the perfect place to escape from the oppression of a person’s physicality. It is a place where anyone can adopt any identity, regardless of their offline appearance—except that the digital and physical worlds often play off each other. We use email and Facebook to augment our IRL relationships, and friendships (and romances) formed online frequently lead to physical meetings. Even when we separate our online personas from our offline identities, we often talk about our lives: annoying coworkers or customers, family difficulties, funny stories about friends. Maybe we discuss romances and school, or mention the current weather or a local store offhand.

Our anonymous accounts begin to describe us. References to being female on Reddit are oft-met with comments announcing whether or not the woman has posted nude pictures on the site, and pictures of “attractive” (slim, White, clear-skinned, apparently close to the age of consent but on which side is dubious) women are met with sexually harassing private message and photographs of penises (“unattractive” women are harassed publicly and violently). Implicating oneself as female in FPSs inspires enemies and teammates alike to abandon strategy in favor of (team)killing the trespassing woman.

The digital realm, allegedly an escape from the inequality and danger that women face offline, is transformed into a minefield, where a single misstep can permanently destroy a persona. A single instance of revealed (or mistaken) identity results in days-weeks-months of harassment, depending on the victim’s continued use of a given persona and the location in cyberspace that the victim identified as: a woman/person of Color/ transgendered person/non-heteronormative/having a mental disorder or physical disability/a combination of any of these.

The harassment does not always end with the deletion of a given online persona. Woe betide the person who utilizes the same username for different webspaces. And if a harasser locates a victim’s Facebook, workplace, real name, telephone number, or address, the rest is relatively easy to discover. If the victim is unfortunate enough, isolated harassment becomes full-blown stalking, complete with cyberbullying across multiple websites, defacement and take-downs of their personal sites, and threatening phonecalls. Reddit is fond of financial attack by “pizza bomb.”

The digital is inextricably connected to the physical, because it is produced by people who exist offline. The internet enables instantaneous global communication, and can thus provide a safe space for people living in homogeneous environments, but also provides a record of its users’ activities and opens users to the threats of harassment and stalking. Prosumers do place not only their content, but also themselves, before the eyes of the online world—and all its offline users.

Compulsory Heterosexuality: the War on Lesbians

Trigger Warning: Rape

Photo by Pierre Nel

“Compulsory heterosexuality:” the idea, proposed by Adrienne Rich in 1980, that society requires women to hold heterosexual lives, and that is primarily enforced through violence against women. Contemporary society is less discriminatory toward LGBT+ persons than 1980s America, but queer women are still marginalized, alternately brushed off and attacked.

Lesbianism is culturally treated as if it does not exist. Porn featuring lesbians, but targeted toward men, fetishizes the sexual unavailability of gay women. Search “lesbians” on Google and the second and fourth results are porn. Lesbianism and bi- pan- and polysexuality are often brushed off as “just a phase” or “experimenting.” Asexuality is treated as a disease or grab for attention. This heteronormative culture is demeaning and hurtful, but not dangerous, right?

Photo by Greg L.

Wrong. Some current cultures–including American subcultures–force or coerce adolescents and adults into heterosexual arranged marriages. A few days ago, a Hong Kong billionaire put out a $65m award for the first man to marry his daughter—in response to her marriage to another woman. Then there’s the violence of “corrective rape.”

“Corrective” rape is the rape of lesbians by men, with the alleged intention of “curing” them of their lesbianism and thus making them sexually available to men. It is a result of a culture that denies the legitimacy of lesbianism and refuses to protect queer women from hate crimes. South Africa, where gay women are afraid to walk the streets and are harassed by police, has recently come under international scrutiny for its institutionalized violence against gay women. And South Africa is not the only country with “corrective” rape. Gay women are raped in Kenya and India. They are raped in the United States.

American lesbians live in a society that refuses to protect them. When they are raped, their attackers are unlikely to be arrested, let alone convicted. This past February, a bill to finally extend protection against domestic violence to same-sex relationships passed the Senate Judiciary Committee—after being voted against by every Republican.

And how does the internet impact compulsory heterosexuality? As seems to be the usual, the web empowers both the oppressing institution and the factions that combat it. Porn fetishizes lesbians, propagating the idea that gay women exist to satisfy male sexuality and denying the legitimacy of lesbian relationships. Blogs, forums, and other web 2.0 sites provide spaces for the safe discussion of sexual orientation, and give rise to empowerment movements like Hollaback and Project Unbreakable. The internet spreads media that eroticizes violence against women, but also helps people unite to fight against it.

Contemporary society recognizes the existence of non-heterosexual women more than the society of 1980s America, but feminists have a lot of work left before gay women are safe.

Clinic Proposition: Or “Why I Am Now Obsessed With Periods”

Elizabeth, Eduardo and I recently created a video proposing a potential women’s health clinic:

Our focus on menstruation was initially conceptualized as a response to the second-wave feminism described in Morgen’s Into Our Own Hands. The gynecological self-awareness of Our Bodies, Ourselves and Carol Downer’s cervical self-examination movement struck us most powerfully, and we saw parallels between the ignorance of and shaming of women’s genitals in the 70s and the ignorance and shaming of menstruation today. We initially wanted our clinic to be broader in scope, providing information about birth control and counseling for eating disorders, but as we became more excited about removing the taboo on periods, the other issues fell by the wayside, to be picked up by other clinics.

Anyone who has seen Carrie know how traumatic a person’s first period (menarche) can be. We wanted our information to reach children before they began menstruating. Because we have known children who began menstruating as young as nine years old, we decided to start educating eight year olds. We could not rely on anyone that young coming to our clinic, so to educate children and preteens, we needed to design an outreach program. We also knew that we would be working with limited resources, so we limited the scope of our clinic to pubescent, who experience the most dramatic bodily changes and have not yet accepted menstruation as mundane. We selected twenty-one as the tail-end of puberty, based on how late in life we noticed puberty-related changes in our own bodies, and had our target demographic’s age. We decided to include all genders and sexes in order to choke off the ignorance and superstitions surrounding menstruation before it transformed into silencing and harassment of menstruating individuals.

What really caught our attention, as you can probably see in the video, was the unavailability of feminine hygiene products. Menstruation is a part of daily life, the products for managing it should be part of the daily landscape. However, we only ever see bathrooms with empty lack tampon dispensers or lack them entirely. Legislation seemed like the best way to unilaterally fix this problem, and we started working on the beginnings of a lobbying campaign.

The funding/payment part of the clinic was the trickiest bit. We didn’t want to be a publicly funded clinic because of the risk of being shut down. Knowing that government funded programs are at the mercy of bureaucracy, we preferred to be funded through private donations, and being paid on a sliding scale. This would eventually lead to getting sponsored by companies that sell products related to the menstrual cycle, like Tampax, Kotex, Midol, and Always. Being privately funded we would give us a better chance of lasting longer.

Then v. Now: the Janes v. Current Feminism

(Image taken by ge’shmally, 2008, used under Creative Commons)

Then: Midwives Out, Janes In

Though younger Americans have probably never met a midwife, fantasy fans might be familiar with them: women who traditionally helped pregnant women give birth in their own homes. Their presence banished men from the delivery room, and their modern elimination meant the removal of women from women’s health.

For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women” discusses the illegalization of midwifery in the United States, and what it meant to women’s health. Birth was no longer a natural process or the domain of women, but a medical event controlled by male doctors. Women who would have hired midwives—poor immigrant women, especially—were either left entirely without assistance, or used as guinea pigs at teaching hospitals where they often faced unnecessary surgery so that the students could gain experience for actual difficult births. At this point in history, women were nurses, never doctors. With midwives and abortion outlawed, women were denied the control of their own health.

The “Cooperative Jane Collective,” as chronicled by Morgen, restored some of that control to women. First, by bringing women to male doctors for abortions, then by performing the abortions themselves. At the same time, the book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and Carol Downer’s cervical self-examination movement taught women about their bodies rather hiding them. As their government stole women’s right to make informed decisions regarding their own bodies, grassroots feminist movements restored the same right, sometimes at the risk of arrest.

Now

“History never repeats itself; at best it sometimes rhymes.”

–Mark Twain

If the story of the Janes—a government attempting to restrict women’s control of their own bodies, combated by grassroots movements bringing the information and options women need to make informed decisions about their bodies—sounds familiar, you might be passingly familiar with current US politics.

Last month brought the official signing of (one of) Arizona’s recent high-profile anti-abortion bills, dating conception to a woman’s last menstruation, rather than the formation of a zygote. The purpose behind this is to build on extant abortion restrictions that limit abortion access based on the age of the fetus. It also means that women are pregnant until proven innocent. As many women who have visited an emergency room at any point since menarche know, this means limited healthcare access.

February saw the passing of a more controversial bill in Virginia, requiring women to have a transvaginal ultrasound before being approved for abortions. The law is designed to harass: an invasive medical procedure that further delays what is already a difficult decision for some of the people it targets. It is the legally-required physical invasion of a pregnant woman, using the threat of her health as coercion. The transvaginal ultrasound bill is the attempt to rob women of their control over their own bodies through government-mandated rape.

These two laws are far from inclusive of the attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade, piece by piece. Meet the anti-abortion laws enacted on the state level last year. If anyone feels like they are overly paranoid because they are seeing increasing attempts to regulate uteruses, link them to chart in that article. 2011 saw more than double the number of anti-abortion laws passed in any other year since before 1985.

And abortion illegalization is not the only way that legislation is attacking women’s rights to their own bodies. Birth control pills are available by prescription only, but unlike other prescription medications—like those for treating erectile dysfunction—whether insurance should cover them is controversial. Another serious issue of discrimination in the insurance industry is that being female is a pre-existing condition, though this is changing.

Today is not without its own Janes. Planned Parenthood, most (in)famous for its abortion services, also provides birth control, emergency contraceptives, STD testing, and breast cancer screenings, as well as a variety of general health tests and vaccinations. Planned Parenthood also provides information on body image, relationships, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and gender identity to protect their users’ mental health and prevent disorders like anorexia. It provides people, especially women, especially poor, with the information needed to make informed choices and the access to the choices they make.

Feminist blogs providing the same information are spreading. Images announcing safe spaces for people of all sexes, genders, sexual orientations, and body types are popping up on personal websites and doors on college campuses. Like Carol Downer’s cervical self-examination fought the hiding and shaming of women’s bodies, and empowered women to take their health into their own hands. The internet is spreading ideas of self-acceptance and information that is otherwise censored or ignored. Cyberfeminism is circumventing governmental oppression of women by returning control of their bodies to them. Grassroots campaigns are also actively combating governmental oppression by protesting and encouraging women to vote.

Current politics are less oppressive toward women than politics during the Roe v. Wade era, but still discriminatory, and still fought. The current, fourth wave of feminism is more inclusive than the second wave feminism of the Janes, which focused on helping middle-class cis-gender heterosexual white women. Now, feminism is a movement attempting to protect people regardless of their genitals, their genders, their skin, their lovers, or their money. It is imperfect, but it is improving.

Let’s Get This Started

Hello.

Though I suspect only my professors and classmates will read this, I’m going to pretend other people will, too. Maybe it will come true.

I’ve just been getting into blogging websites, and this url represents my first tong-term effort at being a prosumer. It also happens to be for a class I’m taking at Hunter College, “Feminism, New Media, and Health,” so the first few months of posts will probably hold close to those topics. If I have the time and neither of my professors ask me to keep on-topic, I’ll drop the occasional additional off-topic post (say that five times fast).

Anyway, who am I? I’m Catie Watson (hence Baron “Wat”—the focus on paternal lineage associated with my surname has bugged me for a few years now).  I just entered my second year at Hunter College, where I’m struggling to find the balance between three-desired-majors-plus-an-honors-program and actually surviving my undergrad education. I enjoy reading, writing, long walks on the beach

Scratch that last one.

What really drew me to this class was “New Media,” especially concerning the use of it to enact social change that the preceding “Feminism” implies. The internet has enabled me to find the information that my school textbooks did not teach. It connects me not only to my friends, but to the world, from silly pictures of cats to the livestreams and twitter feeds maintained by heroic reporters at Tahrir Square during the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Twitter actually enables users to learn about incoming earthquakes before they hit, as this xkcd strip points out. To me, New Media represents equal access to information and equal access to a voice—to those wealthy enough to have access to it. The internet is the greatest tool of the information age thus far, in some cases supplementing or even replacing the need for traditional (expensive) schooling through free courses and textbooks.

The internet is also a connection to humanity that can provide second opinions to the bullied and emotionally abused and access to emergency help. It is where I have seen people find emotional, social, and ideological sanctuary from homes where their religious affiliations and sexual orientations were hidden or led to them being abused. It is where some of these same people found physical sanctuaries after being expelled from their homes. It is a collection of humanity so vast that (nearly) all of its users can find a group where they feel safe and feel that they belong.

So what precipitated the start of this blog was my Feminism, New Media, and Health class, but my desire to proliferate information and to become one of those ideological sanctuaries led me there.

To seeing where this new path leads,

Wat