Friday, June 21, 2013

On demisexuality, marginalization, and privilege

I wanted to share some musings on demisexuality.  

People who identify as demisexual fall between the sexually-oriented and the asexual (as you can see in this graphic courtesy of AVENwiki.)   Asexual people are marginalized in contemporary American society, which views sexual attraction as the basis of couplehood, domestically-partnered couples as the basic building block of a stable society, and being in an aspirationally permanent sexual relationship as the marker of maturity and mental health. (Note that this wasn't the case in the Victorian era, in which asexuality or at least demisexuality were considered normative for "women of quality," i.e. white middle-class women. Sexual attraction was viewed as completely unnecessary to a woman's marriage.)

Demisexually-identified people occupy a social position analogous to bisexual/pansexual people in the LGB community, and to genderqueer people in the trans* community. And like bi/pan folks or genderqueer folks, sometimes they experience a good deal of social marginalization, and other times they do not. For example, a person could identify as a genderqueer biromantic demisexual, but live as a typical-appearing woman married to a man, and experience lots of social privilege. Or ze could live as a lifelong singleton, mainly romantically interested in women, presenting very androgynously in a buzz cut with a bound chest, who is highly socially marginalized in a social world built around coupledom and sexual attraction, heteronormativity and gender policing.

Sometimes people with liminal identitites--the ones who break down the binaries of male/female gender identity, gay/straight sexual orientation, and asexuality vs. sexuality--are doubly marginalized, both by the "mainstream," and by the marginalized umbrella group to which they ostensibly belong. This is sad and reprehensible. Yet at other times, people who assert liminal identities really do come across as dabblers who want to play with the cool kids, and then go home to their lives of privilege.

All of this is introduction to the following anecdote: a cis woman college student asserted to me that she was demisexual because she didn't enjoy hookups. She wanted to get to know someone, feel safe with him, date him, and have her romantic interest fanned by his doing caring things like giving her little gifts before she wanted to have sex.

To me, that sounds exactly like the description of normative female sexuality as presented in a zillion (socially-conservative) critiques of hookup culture.

The central issue that socially isolates people on the asexual side of the spectrum is not feeling any sexual interest in other people, and in a demi person's case, feeling sexual attraction under limited circumstances. I can see how saying "I'm demisexual" rather than, "I don't do casual sex" could be quite useful in starting a conversation about one's limits without seeming prudish. But this woman wasn't experiencing isolation or marginalization due to demisexuality--she has a boyfriend, and from her description, seems to have had an active social and sexual history.

Really, the impression I received is that this woman hangs out in a feminist crowd that contains LGB folks and trans* folks, and as a cis woman who dates men, found that the language of demisexuality increased her coolness factor. And that felt appropriative to me.

But I'm not a person from the asexual side of the spectrum, so maybe I'm off-base here. Feedback is appreciated!


2 comments:

  1. Reflecting on this post, I want to reiterate something I've written about before: we always have to distinguish between *personal identity* and *material privilege*. My kid, who is mixed Asian and white, frames this clearly: only she gets to decide how she identifies--other people can't impose an identity on her based on how they read her appearance--but how people read her determines whether she enjoys privilege. Generally, other people in our area of the Midwest, where Asian folks are a small minority, "read" her as either Latina or white. It is clear to her that if she's read as white, she's generally treated much better than if she's read as Latina.

    So: a person can suffer psychologically because they identify with a marginalized group but are read as being in the majority. But when framed as being "normative" they enjoy social privilege due to how others frame them, and to deny one's privilege does a disservice to those who suffer poor treatment.

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  2. This was a very interesting post. Obviously, I have no way of knowing whether or not the woman in question actually does or does not experience sexual attraction and in what circumstances. However, it does appear that she didn't present her self-identification as demisexual in terms of sexual attraction, so then the question is whether she was unaware of how the demisexual community (and the broader asexual spectrum) defines demisexuality, or if she was in fact appropriating it. Without actually knowing her or having observed her or heard her comment I can't speak to her motivation.

    What I do know as an asexual and from my discussions with demisexuals who are members of the asexual community is that they feel very frustrated when non-demisexuals assume that demisexuality is how this woman presented it. She may be contributing to the further marginalization and invisibility of demisexuals by presenting a misleading image of this orientation.

    I think that this is separate from the question of how one is perceived by the majority. Conditional straight privilege is an issue that many people within the LGBTQ community face. For instance, bisexual and pansexual individuals who happen to be in a relationship with a person of a different sex or gender at a given point in time often struggle with the question of what privilege they have and what they should do about it.

    Because many asexuals do not have partners and therefore do not have partners of the same sex or gender, we can also have conditional straight privilege in some situations and this is an issue that I have often seen discussed in asexual circles. Most asexuals that I know are politically progressive and generally very aware of questions about privilege and oppression. The discussions are usually pretty similar to those found in the wider LGBTQ community.

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