This series can be read on The Asexual Agenda, Resources for Ace Survivors, and Concept Awesome.
Trigger warnings: mentions of sexual violence, including corrective and coercive rape; manipulation of survivors and their stories for political means; statements implying that all allosexual people are rapists; victim-blaming survivors of coercive rape; pretty nasty discourse about non-aromantic people; anti-LGBTQ sentiment. If you think this needs additional warnings, just drop me a line and I’ll be happy to add them.
If you’ve seen a post about ace survivors, there’s a very good chance it was in the context of ace survivors being proof that asexuals are oppressed. In fact, ace survivors are often used as trump cards to win political arguments on everything from the oppression of asexuals to the oppression of sex-averse aces to the necessity of separating asexuality from LGBT movements. This sort of rhetoric is a huge issue for ace survivors, as it treats us not as complex individuals whose needs and desires matter to the community but as pawns to be used or discarded at the whim of the author.
Let’s take a closer look at an example of this sort of rhetoric:
Furthermore, I’m never going to allow anyone to forget that LGBTQ sexual people, the same as their heterosexual counterparts, are the abusers and rapists of asexuals who try to connect with them romantically.
— “The Outlier,” The Thinking Asexual
If you haven’t read the full post, let me try to summarize it here. The Thinking Asexual, who is a fairly popular blogger in aromantic asexual communities, is arguing (among other things) that asexuals and aromantics should split off from the LGBTQ movement (and that aromantic asexuals should split off from alloromantic asexuals). To quote further:
I’ve long felt like asexuals specifically don’t need to latch on to an LGBTQ community that is sexual at its core, made of people who aren’t much different than heterosexuals in this regard. I acknowledge that there are homo-, bi-, and panromantic asexuals, many of whom will date LGBTQ sexual people and even fuck those people or marry them. But the way I see it, asexuals as a group have very different needs, experiences, and goals than queer sexual people do as a group. I acknowledge that there are aromantic queer sexual people, but how welcome they are in the LGBTQ community that is dominated by romantics remains to be seen on a grand scale.
By the way, if you didn’t already figure it out from the quote, The Thinking Asexual has a huge amount of scorn for anyone who experiences romantic attraction, and refers to non-aromantic LGBT folks as “drinking the Kool-Aid of romance fantasy” at one point. (This is a common theme in their writing; they have also referred to the “altar of romance and sex where you [allosexual alloromantic people] worship.”) Anyway, one of the reasons why aromantics and asexuals should split from LGBTQ communities is that, apparently, LGBTQ people rape “asexuals who try to connect with them romantically.”
Here are the problems with this quote:
The Thinking Asexual is creating a Narrative of The Way Sexual Violence Happens to Aces (aces try to connect romantically with LGBTQ people and then get raped). I’ll talk more about this issue in the next post, so let’s put that aside for the moment other than to note that this is a massively skewed perspective on both ace survivor demographics and how sexual violence happens to aces.
The Thinking Asexual is using ace survivors as rhetorical devices to argue for something not only totally unrelated to ace survivors but that doesn’t help ace survivors in the slightest. How can we prevent aces from being assaulted? What can we do to help and support aces who have been assaulted? That’s not the concern here. The concern is that readers understand exactly how terrible LGBTQ people are–so terrible that they rape aces. The aces themselves don’t matter; only the fact that they were raped matters. Ace survivors are used for shock value, but then discarded once the point has been made.
Also, the presentation of all LGBTQ people (and all heterosexual people!) as rapists certainly isn’t doing any favors for LGBTQ survivors (both ace and not) or ace-LGBTQ relations in general.
The Thinking Asexual’s argument is basically “Ace survivors. Therefore, we should split from LGBTQ.” In fact, this is the way that a lot of arguments in which ace survivors are used for political means are structured. Other examples include:
- Ace survivors. Therefore, aces are oppressed.
- Ace survivors. Therefore, sex-averse aces are the most oppressed aces.
- Ace survivors. Therefore, straight people are terrible.
- Ace survivors. Therefore, aces are queer.
and so on and so forth.
Have you ever heard of The Sexy Lamp Test? Well, it might be worth applying The Oppressed Lamp Test to these sorts of arguments. Can you replace ace survivors in your arguments with an Oppressed Lamp–i.e. is your argument drawing on something specific about the experiences and feelings of ace survivors or is it using ace survivors as short-hand for “oppressed, beaten, helpless things you should pity”? If you’re using “ace survivors” to mean “super oppressed aces you should feel really bad for,” you’re probably using ace survivors as rhetorical devices. You could alter that quote from The Thinking Asexual to say, “Furthermore, I’m never going to allow anyone to forget that LGBTQ sexual people, the same as their heterosexual counterparts, are super mean to the saddest and most oppressed of aces” and you wouldn’t lose any meaningful content.
It doesn’t really matter whether I think that these sorts of arguments are valid or not; what matters is the way that ace survivors are used in these arguments as trump cards, for shock value, to convince the readers of the rightness of the argument rather than to improve the quality of life of the ace survivors in question. In her powerful piece on the rhetorical use of mentally ill aces, Tristifere writes:
Let’s be very clear – you’re not saying these things in order to help asexuals who live with those illnesses. You’re saying it to legitimize asexuality in a very specific queer narrative of oppression and suffering, hoping that if you make it sound bad enough, you’re allowed into the club. This is respectability politics. […] Respectability politics appropriates and misuses this particular mental illness narrative because it suits the political goal, while other narratives are silenced.
This is the exact same way that ace survivors’ stories are used–we are used to prove that aces are oppressed (because aces are raped), that aces are queer (because aces are raped), that aces should avoid LGBTQ people (because aces are raped), etc. Ace survivors are simultaneously positioned inside the community (because how else would the argument work?) and outside of it, as an Other to be pitied.
How many times have I seen someone use ace survivors to try to win an argument and then actively contribute to making ace communities safer for survivors? Zero, because using ace survivors to win arguments makes ace communities less safe for ace survivors. (As Elizabeth has pointed out, using ace survivors to win a political argument can also take resources away from those survivors by, for example, using up support service bandwidth.) In fact, The Thinking Asexual demonstrates a total lack of empathy for the ace survivors that they’re supposedly so invested in protecting from those horrible LGBTQ people in the very same post:
I don’t understand or empathize with asexuals who have sex they don’t want to have, who think that they should be willing to get fucked for romance and love, who buy into sexual society’s message that wanting/having/and liking sex is the only way to be normal and liberated. [emphasis added]
This quote demonstrates a total lack of empathy for aces who are coercively raped, and victim-blames them for being coerced into sex rather than creating resources to help them avoid that situation or helping them deal with the emotional or physical fallout of being coerced into sex. Does The Thinking Asexual think that asexuals who are coerced into sex don’t count as survivors? Or do they think that they deserve it, that this is what they get for wanting romantic relationships? Of course, after victim-blaming aces who are coercively raped, The Thinking Asexual uses them a couple of paragraphs down to prove the True Awfulness of LGBTQ People.
Look, it’s incredibly difficult to speak about experiences of sexual violence, and this sort of victim-blaming and black-and-white us-aromantics-vs.-them-alloromantics thinking really doesn’t help. It’s difficult to speak about experiences of sexual violence, especially if that may make certain members of the community decide that you’re not “really” ace and that you should stop making the “normal” members of the community look bad. It’s hard when speaking up may compromise your own safety. It’s hard when you have to fight against the ideals of both The Unassailable Asexual and The Model Rape Survivor. It’s even harder to speak up when you know that anything you say may be used to support a political argument you have no interest or investment in, that every time you speak people are judging how politically useful your narrative is. When your narrative may be exposed to a wider audience without your permission in order to support a political argument you may have no interest or investment in (or may disagree with entirely), speaking about your experiences suddenly seems incredibly daunting. Let me quote Elizabeth here:
It is very, very hard on survivors to be put in [the] position [of being used as proof that asexuals are “oppressed enough” to be counted as queer or included in LGBT+ communities]—it invites people to question our experiences or view us as in some way opposed to other LGBT survivors. As if we have claimed that our experiences are worse, or theirs don’t exist. As a result many of us will not be willing to talk about things like that. These Opression Olympic death-matches are always looming on the horizon, poised to break out at any moment. In that kind of context it’s very reasonable to avoid answering any questions where we’d have to put ourselves on the line.
When you hold up ace survivors as proof of whatever it is you’re arguing, you are silencing us, not helping us. When you treat us as oppressed, helpless things to be pitied, you deny us our agency and objectify us. You are making it harder for us to speak up, and if we can’t speak up, we can’t access support. We can’t make the resources we so desperately need, the ones that will help the ace survivors you need to fuel your political arguments.
If you care so much about ace survivors, if you pity us so much and want people to know how hard we have it, please show how much you care by actually supporting us rather than using us to win arguments. If you only care about us as long as we can be used politically, you don’t really care about us; you care about us abstractly, not as real people who inhabit the same communities as you. If you only care about us when we can be used politically and then in the same breath blame us for being assaulted, you don’t really care about us and also you are an incredibly crappy ally to us.
Special corner case:
On tumblr there’s been a recent push to “protect ace survivors at all costs.” I’m not going to bother linking to a particular post here because they’re not that difficult to find and they’re constantly popping up and being reblogged significantly more than any substantive writing on asexuality and sexual violence. You might think it’s odd that I would be critiquing this sort of statement–after all, isn’t it supporting ace survivors?
Well, yes and no. It is superficially supporting ace survivors, but it’s still using them for political means. These sort of vague statements about “protecting” ace survivors allow the OP and the rebloggers to feel good about themselves, to feel good about how accepting and progressive they are for caring about ace survivors, without actually doing anything to help ace survivors. Alright, you want to protect ace survivors but…from what? How are you going to go about doing that? What concrete steps are you taking to protect ace survivors? See, ace survivors have been making lists of concrete steps you can take to protect us for years, and yet those aren’t being passed around or reproduced; instead it’s vague calls to arms that don’t encourage any action aside from “protection,” whatever that means.
Furthermore, when you call for people to “protect” ace survivors, you infantilize and objectify us. You strip us of our agency. You are implying that ace survivors are helpless, that we have to be saved and protected by non-survivors. Never mind that ace survivors have written the majority of the literature on asexuality and sexual violence. Never mind that we organized our own (very successful) community. Never mind that we’ve been protecting ourselves and each other for years. Protect ace survivors, because they can’t possibly protect themselves!
I am not a sad puppy you can use to win your internet argument. I don’t appreciate your pity party, your political use of me and others like me, your insincere rhetoric about “we have to protect mentally ill aces” while you’re doing absolutely squat to set up the resources we desperately need. If you’re about to do these things while referring to me or this text – DON’T and know that you are part of the problem I’m talking about in this post.
If you care about protecting ace survivors, listen to us. Help us create the resources we need. Make communities safe for us. Stop silencing us. Stop using us to win political arguments. And, for heaven’s sake, stop using us as a vague and directionless rallying cry. We don’t exist for you to feel good about how bad you feel for us.
Up next: The One True Narrative of Sexual Violence Against Aces
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[…] outlined two of the major ways in which ace survivors are used as rhetorical devices–by using them to win political arguments and by creating a monolithic narrative of The Way Sexual Violence Happens to Aces. If you’ve read […]