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July 31, 2010 / missmarymax

Sexuality as a Solid: Fluidity’s Flip-Side.

The Web’s foremost Asexy Beast — also known as my friend, Ily — caught my interest this morning with a post on sexual fluidity.  It’s a fairly concise discussion-starter, (which I highly recommend reading, plus-comments), but in case your hyperlink-clicking abilities are impaired, or you’re concerned you’ll be unable to find your way back, I’ll share a few tidbits here:

“Fluidity” can imply many different things, but no one ever really goes into what exactly they mean when they use the term.  If someone asked me how sexuality is fluid, I’d probably say something like, “Well, I guess it’s common to not be 100% asexual, 100% heterosexual, and so on for any other orientation.” […] However, I’m not sure that’s what most people using the term mean by it.

[…] Another issue I have with the term is that it seems like it’s mostly queer people who ever mention it. Maybe queer people are just next-level when it comes to this stuff, but if sexuality in general is fluid, then heterosexuals are just as fluid as everyone else. There’s this idea among asexuals that in the future, there’s some chance of us becoming sexual. However, no one ever says that one day, sexuals could become asexual. It seems like kind of a double-standard, sometimes.

What fascinates me about some of the questions Ily raises is how far the term “sexual fluidity” is straying — in application — from how it’s intended.  (Or at least, how it appears to be intended, in those cases where I hear it discussed.)  For starters, a major point of believing in sexual fluidity is breaking down the “absolutes” inherent in a label, breaking down the mandates of how we should feel based on what we call ourselves.  Yet, Ily (not without basis, I’d argue) considers the “sexuality is fluid” claim overly “absolute.”  (Hello, irony and unintended consequences.  Fancy seeing you again.) 

Now, in my experience, when people –particularly people who are accepting of sexuality (and of marginalized sexualities) — mention “sexual fluidity,” they generally do so to emphasize that a certain desire, practice, or experience is “okay” — even when it’s not entirely in keeping with one’s past desires, practices, or experiences.  In other words, “sexual fluidity” — in its best use — is an attempt to constantly re-affirm someone’s right to self-identify (and have that self-identification accepted/ respected).  It intends to free us from being limited by our labels so that we can more fully experience whoever we are, as we are in that moment.

But I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that that particular use of “sexual fluidity” is not the one irking Ily — or those who recognize their own discomfort in her words.  People who are accepting of queer individuals aren’t, after all, the only ones who draw on the “sexual fluidity” terminology.  It’s also a Big Winner among those who disagree with certain orientations (or disagree with them for specific people*), and it can be appropriated to support the notion that some identifications are (and should be) mere phases. 

When Ily speaks to the fact that queer people generally mention sexual fluidity more, I realize my own issue with the term: sexual fluidity, in my experience, is mentioned to queer people most.  For me, the issue isn’t that we’re the only ones talking about this; it’s that it’s brought up — most often — in response to our identities.  As Ily points out, it’s unlikely that a straight person will have it suggested to them that their sexuality is fluid,** but anyone who has ever come out as bi or as ace (etc) could probably tally off a good number of people who’ve suggested this identification might/ will/ should change at some point. 

If I were going to stand by sexual fluidity as a useful term, I’d do so based on the “ideal” use I outlined above — the version that’s basically just “you have the right to self-identify — in every moment — as you choose.”  But I think below the surface of the Asexy Beast discussion is an often-overlooked hierarchy of self-identification.  Said self-identification hierarchy mirrors the hierarchy of heternormativity/ heterosexism more generally.  It’s responsible for the number of times a straight person self-identifies and is told “Duh, why are you telling me this?”, for every time a (lucky) gay or lesbian person hears “I love you anyway,” and a bi/ ace/ [insert marginalized-even-in-the-margins identity here] is met with “Well, I understand that you think that’s what you are.  But give it time.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love the ace community in part because it’s generally accepting of its members’ (and allies’) fluid identifications.  I love that my ace friends — (and in general most of the friends I’ve had who were worth having) — haven’t policed the changes in how I or others sexually identify.  For me personally, the “fluidity” claim is liberating — because my experience has been (somewhat) fluid.  For someone whose experience has been more “solid,” however, this same rhetoric can feel like a false expectation.  Ily notes that her personal “feelings towards sex, romance, and whatever else […] comprises a sexuality (or lack thereof) have always been about the same. Only [her] ability to understand and explain it has changed.”  Because of stories like hers, I think it’s important for us to make sure that — for  every moment we spend  iterating how totally okay it is for sexual identity to shift — we’re also emphasizing how totally okay it is for sexual identity to stay the same. 

In other words (which I straight-up ganked from Genderfork), “Who I am in the moment is who I am.” …Regardless of whether it completely contradicts who I was previously or matches that orientation identically.  The real issue, the underlying issue, is the right to be who we are in spite of expectations.  This has to include expectations based on who we’ve been in the past and expectations based on who we were “supposed to be” in the future.  Ultimately, this discussion has to respect our right to shirk all of it and simply be ourselves.

Whoever the frick that might be.

____

*What I like to call the “I have nothing against Gay People; I just cannot accept that you’re gay” effect.

**K, from Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction, points out in the Asexy Beast post that straight folk with SD are a potential exception.

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2 Comments

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  1. Ily / Jul 31 2010 1:49 am

    Yay, thanks for continuing the discussion! When I wrote in my post that “sexuality is fluid” is an absolute statement, it made sense to me, but I realize now that it sounds weird without further explanation. I think it’s a difference between using a concept called “sexual fluidity” and making the statement, “sexuality is fluid”. There are so many different definitions of “fluid sexuality” that everyone probably fits into at least one of them. But I feel like asexuals and bisexuals aren’t encouraged to be as strong in their sexual identities as gay people (in accepting environments) and straight people. (Recognizing that some people may not want strong a/sexual identities.) People tell us “you’ll change”, “be open-minded”, or relatedly, “you mean you’ll NEVER HAVE SEX?!?!?!” The dark side of fluidity is when it’s forced upon you, I guess, or expressed by unthinking people; those who don’t realize they’re dealing with a larger concept. I don’t know about the lesbian experience, but there is definitely pressure for asexuals to put on a “solid front” and not talk about any inconsistencies in our (a)sexuality. One really positive thing about AVEN, in my experience, is that people can talk about those inconsistencies without being told they’re not asexual. But talking to some non-asexuals, I’m not proud to say that I’ve edited stuff in order to reduce the amount of questioning I would receive. So it’s like some people expect your sexuality to change, but only in ways that they’re comfortable with.

    I agree that your “ideal use” is ideal. (Somewhere there must be a lolcat with that caption.) That’s how I tend to use it as well.

    • missmarymax / Jul 31 2010 3:49 pm

      Yes, yes, yes! I totally agree. I actually thought your statement that “sexuality is fluid” is (ironically/ problematically) absolute made a LOT of sense… that’s part of why it interested me. (Although it probably makes more sense when it’s not paraphrased as it is above… But then, I was starting to feel like I could have just re-posted your entire entry and the comments and responded to each part of it… which would have gotten a bit endless, I think.)

      I think the pressure is usually stronger on asexuals and bisexuals than it is on (even) gays and lesbians (in supportive communities.) I mean, I guess you could argue that it’s less intense toward *everyone* in supportive communities, but it seems like we’re still more comfortable with people identifying as “in this box” or “in that box” (totally and always) than we are with folks who identify as “in both” or “in neither.” In my limited experience, it seems that the people who are uncomfortable with my mentions of crushes on men-folk are uncomfortable because it confuses their notion of me-as-in-the-lesbian-box… not because it’s proof that I’m finally about to admit I’m something-else. People don’t seem as invested in me changing my mind about how I identify as they are for my bi and ace friends, and I think that extends beyond my personal experience to represent a larger trend.

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