Feb 072013

So at last I watched the documentary (A) Sexual that I helped fund.

Man oh man. I’m totally showing some of that in my class. Totally!

You know why?

Because there is, to me, nothing more beautiful than folks who are totally willing to go and be exactly who they are, even when the world doesn’t want them to exist.

And there is nothing more stunning than people who are members of oppressed groups denying the professed internal experience of another person.

It happens all the time, all over the place. Back in grad school I did a talk on bisexuality with the GLBT student organization. One of the gay undergraduates said to me, “I think that when homosexuality is fully accepted, there will be no bisexuals.”

And I said “I think when homosexuality is fully accepted, there will be more bisexuals than anything else.”

I don’t know if that’s precisely true, but I do know that when someone tells me what their internal experience is, I believe them. When someone tells me they’re gay or lesbian, I believe them. When someone says they’re attracted to people without reference to gender, I believe them. When someone says they’re not interested in sex with anyone, I believe them. And I don’t think it takes a PhD in sex to recognize that each individual is THE ONE AND ONLY EXPERT on that individual’s sexuality.

Asexuality is just another variation on human sexuality. We’re all made of the same parts, just organized in different ways. And if somebody says that’s their internal experience, well they’re the only ones who knows that.

But why would gay people deny the existence of bisexuality, or fear and shun asexuals?

Another experience from grad school: I had my first formal training about trans* stuff. We were talking about discrimination and hate crimes, and I asked, “Why does anyone feel threatened by transpeople? Why would anyone waste energy hating someone who isn’t doing anything to hurt anyone else?” (This was before the moral foundations research.)

And my supervisor said, “How do you feel about your gender?”

I thought about it for a minute and said, “Pretty good!”

And she said, “People who hate trans people often don’t feel pretty good about their gender. Seeing someone else living their gender according to their own rules feels threatening because it means the rules about gender may not be worth following.”

I do wonder how much of that dynamic goes into the fear and shunning that some gay folks express about bisexuals and asexuals. I wonder if they feel like there isn’t room in the tent for such diversity, when they’ve had to fight so hard for something as relatively simple (in its easy analogy with heterosexuality) as homosexual relationships. I can understand it, if that’s what’s going on. But I’m really, really ready for the world to move past that.

Oooh! Also? Cynthia Graham is in the documentary, and she was my clinical supervisor! So that was a thrilling surprise.

Emily Nagoski

  9 Responses to “(A) Sexual”

Comments (9)
  1. The bad treatment / response issues has a lot to do with it being the nature of the beast to bully minorities ~ This nature is not easy to see. Especially when you don’t realize that humans are really really good at creating sustainable wars.

  2. Ooh, I’m really looking forward to checking the film out, Emily, so thanks for pointing out it’s now available.

    And I’m basically 100% with you on the taking people at their word thing when it comes to gender identity and sexual desires. Here’s a question for you, drawing on some push-back I’ve gotten from queer friends who are skeptical about believing peoples’ gender/sexual identity claims; I’m wondering how you would address this objection (because I’m not sure how to push back effectively against it). The objection is this: What are we to do when a person’s actions contradict their words? For example, if someone says they’re straight but express desire for same-sex individuals (or are involved in sexually-intimate relationships with same-sex persons)? Is this not a cue that the person is an unreliable narrator (my objectors say) about their own lives?

    My general response is that, despite the possibility that the person may be in denial or outright lying, we have no better way of assessing their identities; they are the best possible reporters on their experience, so we’re stuck accepting it even if we hold internal doubts about their veracity.

    But I realize in other situations it would be (more) acceptable to call someone on those inconsistencies. Like, for example, if someone professed to be a proponent of non-violence but smacked their partner around, or advocated interventionist wars. It would be justified to say, “Hey, we don’t believe you’re a non-violent activist because of your behavior.”

    Yet the area of self-identity feels different. Thoughts?

    • My partner’s always saying that there are all kinds of reasons to get into a relationship besides the sexual. People don’t always do the behaviors they want, or want the behaviors they do…There is a significant difference for nearly everyone between their Dream Life and their actual lives, so why would sexuality be any different, right?

      I’ll be interested to hear what Emily has to say.

    • The thing about labels is that they are a tool for us to communicate to other people things about ourselves. Sometimes they won’t perfectly reflect our actions, but it’s not really useful to say “this contradicts your label, therefore I don’t think that you’re really that thing”.

      In my own life, I have always identified as feminist since I knew the word. But when I look back on my university days, I realize that a fair amount of my actions and beliefs were not consistent with feminist principles (even though I thought they were at the time). Does that mean that I wasn’t a feminist, or that I was lying/wrong about my “feminist” label? No, it just means that I’m an imperfect human who is impacted and shaped by her culture.

      I think part of the problem with labels that express a sexual orientation is that we see it as a simple, cut-and dry thing — “Do you have sex with only people of the opposite sex? Yes? Then you’re heterosexual!” — but the reality of human sexuality is much more complicated and messy. For instance, there’s questions of general sexual attraction and general romantic attraction (and whether or not they intersect, or are separate), as well as specific sexual attraction and specific romantic attraction (and how they do/do not intersect with each other, and with a person’s more general attraction).

      Pulling another personal example, when I was first coming out as bisexual (which, btw, is not the label I think best describes me but is the best for communicating my general orientation to the most people) and testing the waters by coming out to my closest friends, one of them (a cis guy) asked me, “Are you just sexually attracted to women or romantically as well?” I answered, “I don’t know. I mean, I know I’m sexually attracted to them, but I don’t know about romance.” Their response? “Well, if it’s just sexual attraction then you’re not really bisexual. It’s normal for women to respond sexually to each other because of how sexualized women are in the media.”

      Now, my friend’s response was bullshit. And not particularly helpful. It’s also the kind of thinking that kept me identifying as heterosexual longer than I would have if there wasn’t such a stigma against bisexuality (which I think is a part of the general resistance to the idea of fluid, complicated sexuality). But it also highlights that “sexual orientation” means different things to different people; for some, it requires sexual attraction AND romantic attraction, whereas for others it is JUST romance or JUST sex, whereas others use different criteria altogether (such as being defined by who they choose to date, rather than who they are attracted to).

      The thing about the push-back you are getting is that your queer friends are assuming that they know everything to know about another person’s situation, thoughts, and feelings. They don’t. People are entitled to define their sexuality in whatever way makes them comfortable, for whatever reasons. Sitting in judgment over a person’s chosen labels because they don’t act in a way that you think they should achieves nothing aside from making you come off as a jerk.

      Now, accepting people’s chosen labels doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to have questions, or want to understand the reason(s) why a person uses a particular label. Personally, I think (if it’s situationally appropriate) it’s okay to bring up questions if you see an action that isn’t consistent with the way a person wants to be viewed. Casually discussing labels and self-identification and even saying something like, “Something I’ve been curious about is that you [do X thing that is generally part of Y label] but identify as [Z label]. My personal definition of [label] is [definition]. What’s yours?” can lead to some good discussions, as long as you don’t push them into discussing things they aren’t comfortable with and you ask questions and listen to their answers without judgement.

      Anyway, sorry for the tl;dr comment… I hope it was helpful.

    • I work with college students, who are busily trying to figure out what the hell is going on with their lives, and they do tend to try on the various identities they’re introduced to in their academics. They say, “I’m queer” or “I’m a dyke” or “I’m a stone” or whatever. Which is fine and great, and exploration is how we find what’s right.

      And they do the same thing with everyone else’s identity too: “She’s a stone” or “They’re queer” or “You must be trans.” Which is not fine and is how we oppress people with labels.

      They learn stuff, and they feel like they’ve got a new tool. A hammer. And when you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail to you. But having a hammer doesn’t give you permission to go around hammering everything.

      It’s a tendency I’ve had to address directly during my sexual orientation lecture. Though I provide a framework for thinking about sexual orientation, I have to say OVER AND OVER AND OVER that the only way to determine what someone’s sexual orientation is is to ASK THEM, and if there’s not a match between what they say and what they do, that doesn’t matter. Identity is a choice. Behavior is a choice. Internal experience is personal and private. And if they don’t match each other, so what? As long as the person isn’t hurting anyone, it’s up to them entirely and none of your business. People tend to be happiest when there is congruence among what they feel, say, and do, but dude, shit is complicated, and sometimes happiness is not the most important goal.

      I have a rule that I teach when it comes to giving critical feedback (like, “You say you’re X, but your behavior looks like Y”), which I stole from “How to Hug a Porcupine”:

      You may not give critical feedback if it’s none of your business. And caring does not make it your business.

      It’s your business if (and only if) you’re being directly impacted. Your roommate’s body odor is your business. Her sexual identity is not. Whether or not she behaves respectfully in your room is your business; whether or not she should be with her romantic partner is not.

      So what if they’re in denial or lying? There are reasons for that – and those reasons are nearly always very, very, very important, or else they wouldn’t be in denial or lying. Pointing out what you think is true, when it’s in contradiction to what the person says is true, will not help the person. What will help the person is hearing, “It’s so great that you’re X, and thank you for trusting me enough to tell me! I feel curious and I’d like to know more. Could I ask you some questions?”

      Of course it helps if you really do just feel curious and compassionate, and not judgmental. If you feel judgmental, or lied to, or believe the person is in denial, that’s a sign that either (a) you’re not the right person to have that conversation or (b) the conversation actually should be about YOUR internal state, of which you are an expert, rather than about theirs, of which you are not.

      Anyway, that’s what I tell my students.

      • Thank you, scooter, tekanji, and emily for your thoughtful responses and suggestions! I’ll feel better equipped to respond next time this sort of identity policing comes around (inevitably) in conversation…

  3. “And there is nothing more stunning than people who are members of oppressed groups denying the professed internal experience of another person.”

    It is SO HARD to keep from doing this. I’ve just been reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, which is brilliantly insightful on this very topic, and I think even she goes way too far in the chapter on her “submissive streak,” which she blames totally on early damage to her self-esteem. Now, that could be true for her, but it’s NOT true for lots of other folks who are sexually submissive, and I kept expecting her to put in that disclaimer… but she never did, leaving the general reader with a very false impression of her actual opinion of BDSM. (But see http://juliaserano.blogspot.com/2011/08/whipping-girl-faq-submissive-streak.html, where she says she should have put in a disclaimer.)

  4. I went to a screening of this documentary here in Chicago this past summer! It was wonderful. Dan Savage’s comments in it were extremely disappointing, but I can’t say I was surprised by that.

  5. It was your blog that caused me to find out about (and look for on Netflix) this documentary. Thanks. :-) (And I found your blog due to looking up “Sex at Dawn” but that seems to be another discussion topic entirely!)

    I have no idea why it’s so hard for people to understand that sexuality (and other things about us humans) may be just as pigeon-hole-able (oo… a new term!) as the visual spectrum. Heck, the whole “men see pink, women see mauve” thing has been joked about to death… why should the rest of our perception of our world around us be any different?

    I have two girls, and they’re still young enough to be forming their own beliefs and opinions of the world around them and how they fit within it. I hope to be able to instill in them the idea that as long as they’re happy in their own skin, then that’s what counts. Thanks for sharing the link (and thanks for the rest of your blog).

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