And then there’s that other thing that I am

Burgers is teh sexeh, cause BOOBS

I’m not secretive about the things that make me different.  I am very open about being queer, nonreligious, autistic, bipolar, vegan, nerdy, and short, however it makes me relate socially.  What I do not hide but do talk less about is that I also identify as demisexual.

It’s a difficult conversation to start,  because very few people know what that means or have even heard the term before, and it seems pointless to provide a lengthy explanation of a subject many will believe too personal to talk about in the first place.  But if my goal in this blog is to air subjects that make people uncomfortable– allowed to do so, because hey, I’m already a weirdo anyway– then there’s no avoiding the subject. “Personal” doesn’t have to mean “private.”  The fact that the asexuality spectrum is so personal— not a visible or controversial lifestyle that seems to affect anyone else– makes it important, and also largely voiceless in conversations about sexuality.  But do be warned, TMI will probably follow if you’re sensitive about that kind of thing.

I’m an incorrigible eavesdropper, so I’m ripe with anecdotes about strangers’ conversations.  This is a totally unscientific means of gathering data, but I like to think it shows me the rough lay of the land at least in certain circles of people, without having to actually talk to them.  So I want to point out that in the past year or so, I’ve overheard approximately five discussions about asexuality, also generally assumed to be aromantic.  Example:  “I have a friend who says she’s asexual.  Like, she just doesn’t get urges.  I can’t imagine being like that but it sounds a lot easier.”  [Awkward laughter ensues all round.]

There’s still a value placed on celibacy in our society, even when we don’t talk about it.  How else do we explain the fact that there’s still any debate about abstinence-only sex education, and furthermore, that this debate is publicly centered only around the efficacy of this curriculum, rather than its moral foundation?  Or the fact that Catholic regular and secular clergy still follow a vow of celibacy, and that again, concerns with this ethic arise only when sexually deviant behavior emerges alongside it?  Science fiction shows envision an evolutionary progression that leads us away from physical forms altogether.  Sex is the stuff of mimesis, melodrama, and indulgence.  De facto desexing, as much as castration, leads us to believe that certain figures are trustworthy, non-threatening, and disciplined.  This stereotyping is transferred to views of the aromantic asexual.

Number of times I’ve ever heard anyone actually say the word demisexual out loud unless I brought it up:  Zero.

There is, as I mentioned, an entire spectrum of (a)sexuality– as slippery and nuanced as the number of individuals who fall on it, which is everyone.  That kind of nuance is beyond the scope of this post and the limits of my qualification to express.  I happen to find that the definition of demisexuality aptly describes my characteristics, and that’s what I am able to talk about.

Five hundred words in and I still haven’t bit into the meat of the topic at hand.  Move it along, headcheese.

There are lots of definitions of “demisexual” on the internet, but so that we can be perfectly clear, I’m going to make my own.  I am inherently unable to experience physical or sexual attraction to any other person unless I also have an emotional attachment to them.

That doesn’t mean at all that I have to be madly in love, in a serious monogamous relationship, or seriously committed.  There are lots of kinds of attachment.  Some are based on an untenable situation but are just as real at the time, and that’s okay with me.  Others simmer longer.  Either way, from the point that a connection and attraction is established, my feelings proceed pretty much as any sexual person’s do, so there’s no need to go into detail.  It’s the beginning that’s the thing.

At its root, speaking only for myself, I absolutely require trust, mutual respect, and intellectual kinship to develop anything more.  Sometimes that happens right away but doesn’t last.  Other times it takes a while to be realized.  Or anywhere in between.  But most often– especially given my general unsociable nature– it just isn’t there, and sorry, I’m just not interested.

In practical terms, this means I’m shut out from sexual-normative culture in a number of ways that might sound trivial, but over the course of a lifetime prove frustrating and sometimes hurtful.  As a teenager, I watched my peers develop celebrity crushes that became more sensual with each passing year, and couldn’t relate.  I was called a “dyke” because a classmate said her dream vacation was to Hawai’i where she could see a lot of buff, shirtless men, and I just looked confused and said I wanted to go to Antarctica instead.  Meanwhile, no one whom I actually had any feelings for in real life was remotely interested in having anything to do with the weird girl.

After getting married at 18, I listened silently to my then-husband slaver over the skinny red-headed nurses at his workplace.  I’m not saying I never had crushes, or even serious connections, to other people while I was married; I’m no angel.  But I couldn’t help somehow feeling more deeply betrayed, and also without any ability to empathize, when he dwelt on these purely physical flirtations, in a way that’s very hard to explain.  It’s not that I think physical attractions are in any way wrong or disdainful.  It just felt like we were living in totally different mental worlds, like we did in so many other ways, which made the marriage even stupider and more ill-conceived than it was always going to be, and caused it to rip apart in a bloodier way than it perhaps needed to.

Then, entering the dating game relatively late, I met with another shock.  I’d assumed, long believing that I was of average looks at best, that I’d have to work to win over interesting people with my personality and sense of humor.  Instead I was faced with a decent number of people who hit pretty hard on me at face value, but turned out to not care about who I was, and naturally have next to nothing about them in common, or even compatible, with me.  Again, we were playing in two different arenas.  I wanted to feel something for them so that I could want to have sex with them.  They just wanted to have sex and save the rest for later, and I’ll say for the record that this was no different between men and women.

In addition to “dyke” I’ve been called “prude.”  But I’m not this way out of some manichaeistic desire for moral superiority or spiritual-physical purity.  I have a hunch that this epithet results from a sense of self-judgment and shame on the part of fully sexual people.  But it hurts, still, to be put down for being different, and the more so when there’s little or no visible community with whom to identify and commiserate.  I want to emphasize, therefore, though I don’t feel I should have to, that my feelings imply zero judgment on people who feel differently.  I have as much trouble understanding you as you do me, but honestly, I don’t give one single fuck about who and where and when and how and why you fuck.  Carry on and quit expecting me to be turned on by it.

It’s not like I didn’t try.  It’s not like I never had sex with anyone I didn’t care about.  If I hadn’t tried, I wouldn’t no with such conviction that I am unalterably demisexual.  It was crap.  Feelingless, boring, and soon forgotten.  Maybe not for you, and that’s fine– you have my best wishes.  But I won’t go there again.  If it comes down to it, I’d rather tend my own garden, thanks.

It’s hard, too, not to feel alienated when so much of popular culture is based around primary physical attraction.  It’s a truism that sex sells.  I’d feel more comfortable with this, maybe, if it actually sold to me.  Or maybe it would be more uncomfortable because I’d have to feel dirty when I was hot and bothered over something I view as explotative, misogynistic and crass, like Blurred Lines (NSFW) or this ad.  Instead I just roll my eyes a little, feel like an outsider, and think, “If I wanted to see boobs, I could draw some, and it’d be just the same.”

There are a lot of boobs in the world and a lot of shirtless men.  And I honestly don’t really care.  Don’t take off your shirt, at least, not until you show me who you are.  How you think, what you laugh at, what you care about, how you move, how you talk, whether there is a kindness and a curiosity and a weirdness about you.  Then I’ll care.  I’ll care a lot, about every hair and freckle and iris pattern.  Those who have loved me know this, and have loved or hated it.  Pretending is pointless.  Demisexual is just another thing I am.  It’s a thing some other people are, too, whether they tell you or not.  Now you know.  So talk about it sometime.  It might be the first time anyone around you hears the word.

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Parenting: the endless social experiment

I was nineteen years old when my child entered my life (twenty when he reluctantly saw daylight) and without a moment’s notice I went from a messed up young lower-class drudge to something a whole lot scarier:  a Parent.  Suddenly, a new life depended wholly on my choices.  That’s the obvious part.  But as he’s grown, something infinitely more complicated and just as inescapable has crept in.  A parent is the only philosopher in the world in the eyes of her young child, and whether she chooses to accept it or not, that responsibility is equally as heavy as survival.

It started with that word so many parents dread:  Why?  Suddenly, as a sharply perceptive and insatiably curious two year old, my son wanted to know why it was raining; why the dinosaurs died; why humans walk on two legs; why playdough gets hard when you leave it out; why mommy needs to be alone so much; why carrots are orange… the list is endless.  And the trite answers were never enough.  Without fail, he repeated the question until a point at which the succinct, formulaic responses were exhausted and we entered the territory of theory, critical thinking, scientific reasoning– in essence, of belief, doubt, knowledge and meaning.

I have with such frequency indulged in this kind of questioning myself that it came as a shock to me how exhausting and disconcerting it was to be faced with such demands every day, by a person who still couldn’t put his own shirt on or count to twenty.  I realized that however often we might think philosophically, in order to function in the world we wear blinders the vast majority of the time, allowing ourselves the kneejerk assumptions that keep us from existential paralysis.  To be faced with an eager mind that has not yet formulated these assumptions is a momentous and kind of terrifying task.

I didn’t have a tried and true method of handling this job, so with much trepidation I faced it as a sort of endless experiment.  We would have to teach each other.  I would have to listen to what he needed and what he could understand; there was no possibility of preparing some kind of lesson plan to guide him through life.

Furthermore, no matter how intellectually open I tried to be, it was literally not possible to give him answers that wouldn’t guide him in a certain way of thinking.  I could be idealistic about it and convince myself I was setting him on the right path; I could alert him to the subjectivity of my explanations; I could feel cynical and try to ignore my limitations, but none of that would change the basic fact that I was molding my child into the person he will become.  I am the game master.  His responses are his own, but the cues, the board he moves on, are mine.

It’s my job to not just say what comes into my head, but to calculate how it will affect him, and monitor his response.  Sometimes it’s distasteful.  Sometimes it feels artificial and arrogant.  But I remind myself that it’s better than the alternative, which is to attempt, self-deludedly, to deny my power and let my words push him where they will.  I hate to judge others, but I see parents attempt that “strange denial” every day, and I see the chaos and confusion in the faces of their children; the parroting back of heartbreaking, thoughtless attitudes.  I do not want this.

He walks sleepily out of his room in the morning and finds me plucking stray eyebrow hairs by the bathroom mirror.  He wraps his arms around my kneecaps and asks what I’m doing.  I tell him.  He asks the requisite question.  I hesitate.  A multitude of answers flood over me.  Because I feel obligated to by society’s norms of what and how a female-bodied person should be?  Because when I didn’t, I was teased and put down for “looking like a butch dyke”?  Because I spend time looking in the mirror disliking what I see and agonizing over the best ways to make myself palatable?  Because I can’t excise the part of my mind that insists shapely eyebrows are objectively beautiful?

All those statements are true; but are they the truths I want him to carry with him?  No.  They are not ideas with which he is equipped to deal.  They serve no purpose to him, not now.  They are not shameful, but they are sad truths, and ones he not only can’t yet understand, but should not have to.  I settle on another truth, one that is kind, to him and to myself in his eyes and mine.  “Because I choose to,” I tell him; “I like the way they look better this way, and it’s fine to look however you choose to.”

This registers in his gaze.  “I want my hair to look like Shaggy,” [i.e., from Scooby Doo] he says, grinning.

Another day, he asks me why I have so many piercings, and I give him roughly the same answer.  “Can I get rings in my ears too?” he asks.  “Not now,” I say.  “That’s not a decision kids can make.  But when you’re eighteen, you can get any piercings you want.”  He considers this.  “Well, I don’t want to,” he says decisively.  He never wanted to.  He just wanted to know where he stood.  Sometimes, he is experimenting with me, as well, and I’m okay with that.

We are in a diner, indulging my craving for hashbrown potatoes with jalapenos and onions, and he is coloring a picture of two children buckled into a car’s backseat.  One of them, who has Princess Leia buns, is becoming blue with orange hair; the other, with glasses and a baseball cap, is getting orange skin.

“Will his hat be blue?”  I ask.  He doesn’t hesitate to think about this, but I immediately do, and become self-critical.  Since when do I buy so wholly into gendered signifiers?  Why would I impress such an assumption on him?  I try to make a quick save of the situation.  “Or her hat,” I amend.  “We can’t really tell, can we?”

“This one is a boy,” he says definitively.

“Why?”

He shrugs.  “Because I decided he is.  They are brother and sister.”

The results of my inadvertent experiment are confirmed.  There must have been uncountable instances in which I unthinkingly perpetuated similar gendered, archetypal ideas; so have all the other adults in his life.  Regardless of how he chooses to frame it, he understands that cartoon people with glasses and baseball caps are male; those with buns are female; and male-female pairings are by default siblings.  I have taught him to assume ideas that sicken me.  And I have proven that I still hold those assumptions much more than I’d like to admit.

The good part is:  Lesson learned.  Now I am more cognizant.  When we encounter characters whose sex and gender are not specified, I either use gender-neutral pronouns, or I challenge common practice by defaulting to feminine ones.  I’d be the last to say make any kind of gendered assumption, with or without signifiers, is an end goal, but in the interim it’s a way to compensate for the conditioning he’s clearly already internalized.

I watch him to gauge the results.  The change is slow, maybe imperceptible.  But I try, and I watch and listen.  That’s all I can do.  That’s all any of us can do.  The important thing is to know we’re doing it.

Why our disabilities hurt you, too

One of the most hurtful parts of living with a disability is that it comes to define the outward expression of personhood.  It’s easier for others to perceive that I am awkward and moody than for them to understand the qualities that lie beneath, often masked and hindered.  We become assumed to be so in need of help and understanding that we are able to contribute little to others in return.

I know who I am.  But it rarely shows.  I am, by nature, compassionate, industrious, creative, loyal and brave.  When asked what I value most in life, I answer without hesitation: kindness and a sense of adventure.  I dislike accepting help; my impulse is to give and care.

When I was younger, before I entered the stressful adult world and discovered how deeply my autism, social phobia, and mood swings impair my functioning, I had goals that others admired, and to which I still aspire, yet which I feel impotent to achieve.  I had a long-term dream of serving in the Peace Corps and of teaching overseas.  I wanted to travel and experience other cultures.  I wanted to use my linguistic facilities to help others as a translator in the non-profit sector.  I was active, for a time, with the anti-war movement, until depression and social phobia increasingly forced me out of public and leadership roles.

I’m not claiming to be any sort of creative genius, but I have so many ideas in my head that I lie awake at night rolling them around restlessly.  For five years I’ve been working on a novel about which I feel passionate and committed, but many times the pages gather dust for six months before I pick it up to write another several thousand words in a manic weekend or a peaceful break.  I’ve been praised for my ability to synthesize and interpret large amounts of data, particularly on literature and language, in innovative and incisive ways.  As I previously mentioned, playing with words has been the most consistent drive in my life.  And I strongly feel, though it’s a topic for another day, that words and language–intentionally or not– can shape who we are, socially and individually, and be a powerful force, however they are directed.  To use words intentionally has been my dream.

One by one, I have had to admit that these goals are simply not realistic.  We are encouraged in these days of positive psychology to believe that with enough willpower, we can achieve anything that is important enough to us; that we can choose who and what we are.  But now, no one can convince me that this is generally true. 

I did not choose my brain chemistry or the workings of my body.  I work every day to moderate its effects, but the ugly truth is that the most I can achieve, most of the time, is to lead a halfway functional, simple, unstressful life.  I maintain that bare minimum only by acknowledging my limitations.  When I strive for higher, better, more productive things, whatever success I manage is followed by horrific crash-and-burn.  I push myself, and I break. 

Only by taking have I found any strength to give back.  Excellent disability services have allowed me a modest measure of academic success.  Kindness from family and friends has supported me in keeping my own home and being the best parent I can be.  Recognizing my need for so much quiet, isolated recovery time between engagements and insisting on taking it lets me be a decent friend, and a support to a few acquaintances who struggle with their own mental health and don’t have anyone else to be there for them.

My point, then, is that when we are assumed to be takers, dependents, and resource drains, there’s some truth there.  But what’s acknowledged far too rarely is that taking is our only chance to give.  There is as much to us, good and bad, as there is to any more functional person, but it languishes unutilized and unappreciated.  For you, for the world, to benefit from our unique gifts, we need its kindness.  Your kindness.