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June 5, 2011 / missmarymax

Not That PDA: Unpacking the Notion of Asexual Privilege

Something about this privilege-denying asexual thread reminds me of The Princess Bride.  No, it doesn’t have the same comedic sense of adventure or cheesy soundtrack.  It doesn’t (to my knowledge) involve giants, miracle makers, or six-fingered men.  But the more I try and rationally consider the blog’s examples of “privilege” – the more I can’t help thinking-

(You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.)

To be fair, privilege in this context is not exactly an everyday term.  Sure, it’s spreading through the internetz from its ivory tower roots, (all hail Peggy McIntosh), but — as the blog itself somewhat ironically points out — many people “employ words like ‘privilege’ and ‘oppression’ to control social justice discussions without knowing what they actually mean.”  Ok, technically, PDA just affords this misstep to asexuals.  But plenty of ill-informed people who aren’t ace are busily ill-informing others.  Case in point: this tumblr feed.

So, let’s start by clarifying a bit.  In simple terms, privilege is the flip-side of oppression.  It’s the collection of unearned advantages systemically given to a group of people, based on their membership in that group.  Let’s hit some of that definition a second time, because I swear, the details are important. 

  • Unearned advantages: as in although you will not automatically succeed, and your life will not automatically be easy, and you will not be handed everything on a silver platter, there will be significant, social bullshit with which you will not contend if have White/ male/ cis/ straight/ able/ etc privilege. 
  • Systemically given.  Meaning: this is not something you experience in your life as an individual person.  Not having a plum allergy does not privilege me over my sister, (who has plum allergies) until society makes it significantly easier for me to find plum-including foods than for her to find foods without them.  This is an individual difference between us, but society does not make it easier for me to access the world as a non-plum-allergy-person than it does for my sister with the allergy.  It’s not systemic, so although it sucks royally at times, that sucking is unrelated to privilege.
  • Given to a GROUP on the basis of their membership in that group.  Your individual life may totes suck — even if you’re a straight white cis male of able-body, etc.  Your life can, indeed, suck in the face of privilege.  But you are still – as a straight, white, cis-male of able body, less likely to get followed around a store, pulled over, raped, beaten, misgendered, thrown from a bathroom, or denied housing on account of those identities.  On the other hand, if I do not fall into the privileged group, I am going to be hard-pressed to avoid these acts of oppression.

Here’s where things get especially tricky: privilege is not all or nothing.  (Years of whining “but I’m queer! I don’t have White privilege! I’m oppressed tooooo” did not, as it turns out, go very far toward actually making that true.)  So, for starters, you can have privilege in one sense but not in another.  (See white lesbians and Arab men and basically everyone on the planet, ever.)  Secondly, you might experience privilege in certain circumstances when you are perceived as a member of the dominant group, despite your actual identity.  For instance, I routinely “pass” as straight and am treated as such — which blows, but which also awards me certain privileges — in much the same way that a light-skinned person of color with Anglo features can somtimes benefit from White privilege while not being White.  Since other people are responsible for bestowing privilege, it often falls to others’ – fundamentally flawed – perception to determine who can access what and how fully.  In other words: who you actually are is less important than how you’re seen, and your different facets of identity can fall into very different places on the privilege/ oppression scale.

So, like the earlier version of Mmax who was all “let’s focus on how I’m oppressed and not how I contribute to oppression!”  – do asexuals fall into this category of people who have privilege without realizing it?

No. 

At least — Not because they’re asexual.  And here’s why:

For ace privilege to exist, there would have to be a systemic benefit to asexuality – a system of benefits denied to sexual people.  But ace people are not propped up socially at the expense of sexuals.  The vast majority of people don’t even know asexuals exist.  Are they more represented in our media, politics, history?  Far from it.  But, to be fair, these are not the charges PDA has leveled against the ace community; so let’s examine the argument on its own terms. 

“Because I’m asexual, I don’t have to worry about being called a slut. If someone does call me a slut anyway, it doesn’t matter, because I know that they’re wrong.”  (Direct quote, people.  Direct. Quote.) This claim is so ill-informed it deserves special mention.  Slut-shaming is a form of social policing that has basically nothing to do with actual sexual activity. (See “fag” as a tool for policing gender regardless of actual sexual orientation.)  See also: Charlie the Unicorn, Ace Detective, who has already thoroughly unpacked this ridiculousness. To presume that ace people can’t be slut-shamed not only misunderstands what motivates slut-shaming, it actually plays into the apologistic ideology guiding that practice.  It presumes that the basis of slut-shaming is actual sexual behavior, when in many cases the having of sex is far less important than the perception of a woman as transgressive.  In other words, presuming that ace people can’t be slut-shamed presumes that people who are slut-shamed are actually sleeping around.  And while they wouldn’t deserve to be attacked as “sluts” even if they were, the notion that everyone who’s called a slut is actually busily f**ing people is flat-out absurd.

(This claim also presumes that asexual people never have sex.  Which is just flat-out untrue.)

PDA’s other accusations tend to be non-systemic or to argue about ace experience of heterosexual privilege.   In the non-systemic camp, we have claims like “I don’t have to worry about becoming pregnant or impregnating someone” — which, in addition to not being true, somehow overlooks the fact that this is also true for — guess who?! — those dyed-in-the-wool queers: the gays and lesbians.  Which explains why PDA quickly adds that ace people also don’t have to worry about “getting STDs” (because again, apparently, they never have sex).  Even in the event that this were true, it isn’t true privilege because it is not systemically granted, ala greater representation in media, greater access to specific jobs, government protections, etc.  These are certain challenges regarding which individual people who choose not to have sex (regardless of whether they’re asexual) get a pass.  (Another way to tell this is not actually privilege in the sociological sense is this: people who are not ace can access the benefit by not having sex.  Do me a favor and try to think up a choice a woman can make to access the other side of the glass ceiling or a choice a wheelchair user has to access the top of a stairwell.  Pretty darn tough, that.)  When none of us are allowed sex education because we’re all presumed asexual, (which — while none of us are allowed sex education, currently — is decidedly not for that reason), let me know, and we’ll reconsider this notion of ace privilege.

PDA’s other claims tend to be levelled on the basis that ace folks don’t experience heterosexism and homophobia, or don’t experience them to the same degree as (other) queer people, or somehow benefit from hetero privilege.   For example: “I don’t have to worry about being systematically discriminated against for my sexual orientation the way queer people do” (unless you count totally minor stuff like asexuality basically still being in the DSM.)  Also: “I can obtain access to queer-only spaces without experiencing the discrimination and oppression that queer people experience.”  See the “Iz in yr safe space, appropriaten yr experienz” argument.

So, for starters, PDA overlooks the diversity within asexuality (the existence of romantic and demisexual orientations that are same-sex.)  But in addition, the feed presumes that it’s impossible to be in a hetero relationship and/ or to experience hetero- privilege while being queer.  The first presumption erases bi folk, hetero trans folk, and many other non-ace members of the queer community. The second erases the extent to which many of us benefit from hetero privilege despite being queer.  (Remember that whole “based more on how you’re perceived than how you identify” thing?)  I can be queer and dating someone of a different sex — (I see your “opposite sex” and raise you a dismantled binary) — because “queer” is not a synonym for gay.  I can also be queer and experience hetero privilege in certain instances or certain ways.  To once again call on my new favorite John Green quote, the truth resists simplicity.

This is important for 2 reasons.  For starters, misidentifying hetero privilege as ace privilege suggests that aces are benefitting at the expense of queers.  In fact, the privilege they are (in some cases) experiencing is hetero privilege; it’s privilege based on the presumption that they’re straight, — something many of us experience, in a heterosexist system where we’re all considered straight until “proven” otherwise. So, it’s privilege based on the misinterpretation of their identity, not the identity itself.  More importantly, it’s vital that we not restrict queer space to people who never experience hetero privilege.  As the majority of bi people can testify that’s a model we desperately need to work our way out of.  The idea that gay and lesbian people are the only queers who exist or the only queers who matter has a surprisingly strong history, and while I like to think that we’re slowly killing off this misconception, well —

Miracle Max, the Princess Bride

There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.

This model, which I’ll call “you can’t be queer unless you experience oppression in the same way I do, and I can’t be privileged unless it’s in the same way as the people who are privileged over me” model is definitely one we need to — finally, irreperably, and permanently — declare ALL DEAD.

Further reading:

You don’t have to take my word for it.  Further thoughts on the PDA tumblr, primarily from ace folk themselves. (Note: you’ll need to join the community to view the post.)

An incomplete list of incomplete lists of privilege: A developing sexual privilege checklist, a cisgender (non-trans) privilege checklist, an able-bodied privilege checklist, a thin privilege checklist, and a male privilege checklist.

More on asexuality: the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, Asexual Explorations, Tips on Being An Asexual Ally.

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7 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Lori Adorable / Jun 5 2011 7:16 pm

    Oh my god that blog is just– no. I’d guess that the author was probably called an oppressive name by one asexual person and so zie decided to take it out on the whole community. Of course there are privileges that people who don’t have sex or don’t have much sex are in possession of, but as you so rightly pointed out, that’s not synonymous with ‘asexual privilege.’

    • missmarymax / Jun 19 2011 5:59 pm

      Thank you. It’s incredibly heartening to me to see that other people, y’know, GET this. 🙂

  2. Lysana / Jun 6 2011 2:27 am

    I am suddenly hearing an analogy of “not getting erections at random isn’t female privilege.” This sexual person thanks you for the clear and direct callout of that Tumblr.

    • missmarymax / Jun 19 2011 5:54 pm

      Ha. That’s a great analogy! Also: I think sexual people need to do our best to protect against the perception that we all suck this bad. So I appreciate your comment, immensely.

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