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School's Out: Asexy Teens

A few posts ago, in Slut Shaming and the Empowered Young Woman, one reader commented on the way that asexuality is written out of a lot of the most visible debates on what it means to be mature, empowered, and sexually self-aware. She also observed that asexual feeling, identity, and relationship practices are so nonexistent in pop culture that it's almost impossible to know where to begin analyzing it. In her high school experiences as well as in mine, dating was one of the biggest status symbols you could achieve, and it was fairly well assumed that dating was the gateway to rounding those bases and scoring a home run, as it were. (I've never been too clear on that base analogy, and the fact that it doesn't really seem One Asian teen and one white teen appear in a TV still in mid speech. There is a news program caption that reads "What you don't know about teen sex"to translate for GLB people isn't its only problem.) As The New Goodnight Kiss documents, for some young people, sex has become a lot more openly casual than what I remember. But that activity still has a lot to do with teenaged pecking orders, even as it may also have to do with fulfilling experiences of sexual freedom or the development of positive relationships for some young people. So what about asexuality and youth culture? How do kids learn to associate certain values with being sexual and not being sexual?

There is SO MUCH important stuff that could be said on this topic, but here are a few observations that have always struck me as kinda paradoxical:

Family tropes and sexuality tropes do not mix.

Although children are often conceived through sex (but not always!) all the sexuality required to make the kid is often fastidiously scrubbed "clean." It's like a perfume commercial followed by a baby food commercial. One night, it's all seduction, edginess, and hedonism—and then the child arrives and it's all sunlight falling on a fresh-faced mother gazing at her infant swaddled in white linens (probably the mother and baby are white, too). In a certain system of logic, one image causally leads to another, but you can never see both at once.

 

A white blonde woman clings sexily to a white dark haired man while looking at the camera. Their skin is burnished gold. Caught in an indecent act, the ad is for Gucci's perfume "Guilty"

A white mother with brown hair smiles and holds a white sandy haired baby on her chest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These kinds of images are often very heteronormative, but even for queer people, or if other reproductive technologies (such as donor insemination, in vitro fertilization, adoption, fostering, etc.) were used to bring children into families (single parent, families, extended families, families of choice, etc.), the message we receive in a lot of ways is that adult sexuality and "childhood innocence" need to be categorically separated.

Kids are assumed, in some ways, to be asexual.

Puberty rituals and other initiations and practices around often explicitly mark a symbolic entry into adulthood or sexual maturity. But analytically, we know that kids are already sexual in their own ways, with different significances than adult sexualities. They're often interested in their own bodies, each other's bodies, their parents' bodies, and the bodies they see in commercial media. (I know I was! I spent an inordinate amount of time drawing shapely women with my crayons in those early years…)

A scene from the movie American Pie where a father has an awkward sex talk with his son. The son holds a porn magazineInstead of taking these early curiosities seriously, we often indulge in a culture of squeamishness about them and use "the talk" as a punchline—or better yet, the moment in "the talk" where the kid says "it's okay, I already know about the birds and the bees" and the parent/guardian/teacher heaves a sigh of relief and beats a hasty retreat. I don't think I've ever seen a scenario depicted that's anything other than deeply sympathetic about the plight of adults having to actually talk about "the facts of life" with kids. (The hang up-free hippie parents in Away We Go are only used as a foil to the "normal" couple who finds them disgusting). If I were a script writer, I'd insert a parent character who seems genuinely surprised that another adult is hell-bent on avoiding a frank discussion of something that they constantly joke about through innuendo, see commercialized, and perceive as a reason to be (over)protective with their children. (The "not my little girl!" routine echoes down through father characters since sitcom time immemorial).

Yet we market stuff to kids with a heterosexual and heteromantic (the romantic usually seen as leading to the sexual) framing all the time.A picture of several disney princesses with captions that describe their anti-feminist plotlines

Just look at the Disney princesses, children's makeup, fashion, Bratz dolls, the new LEGO. The narrative behind almost every song, TV or movie plot, popular fiction, etc., uses a "boy meets girl" tension to move the story along—or a "person meets person," scenario, if we're lucky.

Although in one sense, there seems to be a desire to pretend that kids have no sexuality or sexual awareness—whether it be asexual, autosexual, GLBQQ2, pansexual, hetero, unlabeled or otherwise—we constantly feed them the narratives that give them a narrow sense of their options when it comes to forming social, romantic, and sexual attachments. Asexuality rarely if ever seems to be among them, unless it's as a casualty of trauma, dis/ability, nerdiness, or something else beyond one's control.

And although abstinence is a popular education tactic among many of the powers that be, it almost never occasions an intelligent conversation about asexuality and how they are not the same.

As I've alluded to in my post about Teaching Homosexuality, there's no end to the controversies surrounding the topic of sex ed. Has anybody been taught in elementary or high school about asexuality? I sure wasn't. Abstinence is of course mentioned as the best way to avoid STIs and unwanted pregnancy, but kids need to understand how abstinence differs from celibacy and from asexuality, which is a sexual orientation. Says AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, "asexual people have the same emotional needs as everybody else and are just as capable of forming intimate relationships." (Thanks to the reader mentioned above for this link!)

Asexuality is a sexual orientation, not a method of birth control or a stop on the way to "mature" sexuality. As one asexual blogger describes, it can refer to a spectrum that might include people who prefer no physicality with others, or only some forms, or only self-gratification, as well as people who don't experience themselves as having sexual "needs" or "desires" but will have and enjoy sex with their sexual partners. Asexuals can also have other sexual and gender orientations - an asexual person may also identify as heteromantic, trans, straight, genderqueer, lesbian, etc.

In other words, asexuality is as complex as the rest of the giant gray area of human experience, and it's not a "lack" of sexuality that can therefore be left out of the conversation.

Previously: The Sleepover Dilemma, Teaching Homosexuality?

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Comments

13 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Teaching Asexuality

I would definitely appreciate asexuality being discussed in classrooms or whenever the topic of sexuality came up. I identify as asexual and whenever I bring up the topic myself I either have to fully explain the concept or it's dismissed as irrelevant. Other than the lack of comprehension, there's usually an attitude of I just haven't matured fully or haven't found the right person. The paternalistic attitude nowadays is just bothersome and tiring, but when I was younger it destroyed my self-confidence.

I can remember waiting in high school for some sexual feeling to come. I kept waiting while watching my friends discover boys, consider homosexuality, become obsessed with dating and crushes and finally settled into their own sexuality. The entire time I stood behind them waiting for it all to click. When I finally started mentioning asexuality, a lot of acquaintances told me flat out I didn't know what I was talking about and it being impossible.

Teaching might not always work, but not having to introduce asexuality every time would help and open others to consideration rather than disbelief.

Thanks for your comment,

Thanks for your comment, Kylie. It's amazing to hear different people's stories about their experiences with these topics, especially when it's a reflection on what it was like in school. It really causes me to think about how much and how long I relied on what I was taught formally, and how often I took it for granted that that was the stuff I needed to know, the only "pertinent" information.

I know exactly what you mean.

For years, I was just "waiting for it to happen"... "It" being the arrival of a libido and sexual attraction to others. It's definitely considered naive, innocent, and childlike *not* to have those feelings, and I used to feel pretty badly about it.

When I was young, I didn't care. I figured I was a late bloomer, or special, or something. I thought I was lucky to escape all the drama that other people struggled with. Then one day at a sleepover, I played "Never Have I Ever," and I said "Never have I ever had a crush on someone." It was the truth, but my best friend's older sister called bullshit, and made me feel badly about it, and start questioning myself.

That passed quickly, but so did the years, and eventually I was 15 or 16 and seriously concerned about myself. I never said anything to anyone, because whenever I did, my opinions were met with a chuckle or an eyeroll and a "Silly Kendal," in a patronizing "One day when you're older" tone. You know the tone.

I'm not sure what led to even thinking about the correct search terms, but one day I searched "Asexuality in humans" in Google, and found AVEN and a blog called "asexy beast" and I finally learned about it.

My feelings on including asexuality in sex ed are mixed. On one hand, it's a very small percentage of the population, and if we were to have LGBTQ-friendly courses, there would be an awful lot of information to go through in a very short span of time. Health class in my school lasted for one semester, and also went through goalsetting/time management, drug abuse, healthy lifestyle (by the way, we should probably include Health At Every Size into Health class, because the way it was taught at my school was appalling), as well as human development and such.

However, it would have probably eliminated an awful lot of worrying and heartache if we talked about relationships without the expectation of sex and asexuality and all that.

I'm collecting stories on

I'm collecting stories on virgins (not on losing one's virginity -- on how it actually feels to be a virgin while living in a sexualized culture). I'm ashamed to say I didn't even think to consider asexual individuals' experiences. If anyone would like to share their story with me, you can use the private contact form on my blog (linked below). I would love to know more.

http://halfwaytoamidlifecrisis.wordpress.com/

I wish this had been

I wish this had been discussed more too. When I was fourteen I read Plath and her statement that she wanted to be "pure as the virgin snow" chimed with me. Her reasons did not. She wanted to get married to a man and have kids. That's the life she ended up having even though it probably wasn't the best one for her. I knew I wasn't interested in men, or marriage, or kids, and that I supported what little I knew of polyamory, alternative lifestyles and so on. So I was confused. Did Asexuality mean I didn't want to have sex, or that I didn't have a specific sexuality? How could I know that I was queer, yet call myself asexual? In the end I just followed the others and had very bad, weird sex until I was about 22. Only in the past year have I felt any genuine sexual attraction to someone.

For obvious reasons, the ideas behind asexuality can be mixed up with the more conservative messages about abstinence. Also, the queer community is stupidly sexualised - to the point where 95% of the time if you hang out with someone, the assumption is that you will have sex. 95% of the time we do. It's glamorous, apparently, and radical, but the fall outs, confusion and broken hearts suggest otherwise. More on this, please.

This is sooo interesting,

This is sooo interesting, S.J.Ay. Your words resonate with me.And you're so right about the ways in which some understandings of queerness can be incredibly reductive. And then we have a very narrow, winding, path to tread in order not to "sanitize" our lives and representations of real sexuality, but also not to allow people to believe that queerness is only about having sex or that queer people are all about having sex.

Does the 95% come from a set of stats someplace? If so, please share the link! It's always useful to have studies to back things up, especially when other forms of argument don't seem to work. :)

Some stuff on abstinence+asexuality

Thanks very much for this post! I'm ace and this is stuff that really doesn't get talked about a lot.

One point I wanted to add in:

Abstinence and asexuality actually clash in ways that a lot of people don't seem to realise. There's two big issues that come to mind: first, that "abstinence" generally means "no sex until marriage"... which is actually just as problematic for asexual individuals as for *sexual, it's just the other half that's the issue. Lifelong celibacy isn't actually supported, and sexless marriage definitely isn't. Moreover, abstinence-only sex-ed can mean that ace people don't realise that their degree of sexual desire isn't typical until after they're married... which, needless to say, is a recipe for complete disaster.

The other big issue to do with abstinence is that it's frequently explained and taught in ways that normalize sexual attraction. That is - abstinence is supposed to be about resisting temptation, about self-control, about - well - abstaining from something you want. Teens are supposed to want sex, but not act on it. It's a framing that just doesn't work if there's no temptation to resist. Which in turn means that an ace going through abstinence-only sex ed or growing up in a culture that's sexually restrictive in that way can still end up feeling alienated and broken, and also that those sorts of sex-restricting attitudes frequently aren't nearly as welcoming to asexuality as people think. (I am reminded of Minerva's story about being told her asexuality made her possibly unsuitable for becoming a nun.)

Personally, I would kill to have kids in school be taught "and some people don't want sex, ever, and that's still okay." Because this is a message that's extremely important, but is missing from sex-positive sex-ed and abstinence-only alike.

addendum

I should add that not all asexuals are celibate in the first place.

These are fantastic points,

These are fantastic points, Kaz. Very astute observations about the rhetoric around abstinence (probably an interesting etymology, too!). I'm totally fascinated by the story you linked and the comment by the author's friend included at the bottom! (I have one foot in religious studies in my graduate work) I can see how that logic could play out in certain systems of thought and faith as both "you're abnormal" and "you lack the requisite temptation to give you an opportunity to virtuously resist." Fascinating. I learned from my supervisor this year that the joining of an order or ordination has also been understood sometimes as a way for gay people to resist social scrutiny and maintain abstinence. And it's also sometimes equally been a way for gay people to enjoy a homosocial environment and develop sexual and non-sexual same-sex or gender relationships in a less public environment.

"Moreover, abstinence-only

"Moreover, abstinence-only sex-ed can mean that ace people don't realise that their degree of sexual desire isn't typical until after they're married... which, needless to say, is a recipe for complete disaster."

YES. I am one of these people. Ace and married. Before I got married I thought I was just doing a really good job of being abstinent...LOL.

It gets worse

What I think is even worse then not talking about every orientations a person can have and that our perception of what we are can change as we go, is when we simply do not talk about any of it and hope Internet does it.

I was lucky to get a class on how to put a condom. That was all. I do not remember seeing anything else about sex except what diseases you can get from it and that babies come out after 9 months. I'm exaggerating but at that age it's pretty much all you remember. They also always have really great pictures to go with it...

Now what are they teaching the teens ? Nothing. In my province all formation on personal and social classes (called FPS) have been taken out of high school in the last year(s). The only way for them to learn about it is by themselves. How many kids in their teens want to do that ?

What do parents think of that ? They buy a little book they are sure their kid will read, even if they never read a book in their short life., and hope it will teach everything they have to learn.
When kids start high school they have sex with everyone, even if they don't know what it is, everyone is saying they are doing it, won't hurt if my kid says it too!
In the middle they are homosexuals, everyone does it anyway and if you're a homo you are also in a very big depression, but that's what teens do.
At the end, being anything else then heterosexual is being immature and if you don't have a girl/boyfriend you are left to be forever alone, because, obviously, everyone after high school are to marry the last girl/boy they date, whatever marriage is.

Ignorance is a bliss, supposedly, though I'm very scared of what will happen when all those kids get out of school and start working in the "real" world.

As an asexual teenager, I've

As an asexual teenager, I've been saddened, but not surprised by the comments I've heard from friends when discussing asexuality, such as 'So you're waiting until later?' or 'Boys are so much trouble, I think I'll be asexual too'. It's a baffling fact that many people know just enough about asexuality to misunderstand it, and they have little interest in learning more about it. Hopefully asexuality will one day make it into sex ed classes, but until then I'll probably tell classmates I'm celibate and leave it at that.