Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Asexuals Who Aren't Asexual

I identify as asexual. I have never felt any feeling I would call sexual. I don't look at anyone and feel a physical reaction in my genitalia. I don't feel a pleasurable sensation if I touch myself there. Physical contact with another person may or may not be enjoyable for me, but it does not make me feel any sexual feelings. I never feel an urge to do anything sexual.

But apparently most people who call themselves asexual are not like that:
  • They might masturbate and enjoy it, but not want another person involved in it.
  • They might feel sexual attraction towards someone, but not enough to bother acting on it.
  • They might try to act on sexual attraction only to find it unexpectedly disappear.
  • They might feel sexual attraction that is satisfied by physical activities that can also be non-sexual, such as hugging or kissing.
If you feel any of those things, fine. But please stop calling yourself asexual!

This may sound harsh, but here's my reason:

When I try to tell people I have no sexual feelings, I often get met with frank disbelief. Sometimes I get accused of repressing it. Sometimes I get told there must be something physically wrong with me and I need to see a doctor. Sometimes people just don't seem to get that I can actually be happy without any sexual feelings. Sometimes people insist I just haven't met the right person - which is possible, but if I never do meet that person, I don't really mind that.

When I was younger, I didn't realize it was possible not to feel sexual feelings. And since I'd never felt any, and hadn't heard frank descriptions from others about what they felt like (my school sex ed lessons talked more about physiology than feelings), I assumed I was sexual. I mistook nonsexual liking for crushes and tried to express them in the way I thought crushes should be expressed. I almost got raped once as a result of this behavior. (Though the real fault lies with the guy who tried to rape me, I wouldn't have been in that situation in the first place if I'd known I was asexual.)

If I hadn't been so socially unskilled about acting out attraction, I might have actually ended up in a romantic relationship. Which would have been upsetting for both of us, me because I doubt I'd be willing to put up with enough sex to satisfy my partner, and my partner because he or she would have found out that I'd been unintentionally deceiving him or her, and have invested emotional energy in something that never could have worked out.

I think there should be a word for people with greatly reduced and/or non-social sexual desire. People like that need to know it's OK to be who they are, just as much as people like me. But stop taking the only word I've found to describe my own sexuality, and using it for something as foreign to me as any sexuality is. I really don't think I have any more in common with 'sexual asexuals' than I do with gay people - we share the experience of having an atypical and devalued experience of sexuality, but both groups feel feelings I can't even imagine feeling.

Asexuality is not being disgusted by sex (it's possible to not care either way, or conversely to want sex and be disgusted by it). Nor is it not having sex, because behavior is not the same as feelings. But it is also not reduced sexuality, or situation-specific sexuality, or non-social sexuality. It is no sexuality.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Average is Not Subjective

In the course of research for a class assignment, I found this article. And although I agree with her overall argument, the author of that article makes a common and annoying mistake:

"To complicate matters, definition #4 has arrived on the scene to indicate that normal has
to do with any intelligence and development that is 'average‘, and, furthermore, that normal
means 'sane' or 'free from mental disorder.' But what is 'average', but an artificial and
impossible construct that none of us statistically embody, and what does it mean to be 'sane'?
Simply put, #4 has circled back and elaborated upon the first (#2) reading of normal: that a
society (or its power-owners) decide what the ranges of 'normal' intelligence and development
are, and whatever falls outside of those ranges is then labeled as sub-normal, extraordinary, or
insane. In this sense then, we all exist in some way as deviations, or as 'abnormals'."

This indicates a complete lack of understanding of the statistical meaning of the term average. It is not some arbitrarily defined, artificial construct, defined by people with power. It is a mathematical property of a group of data points.

To decide, based on some measurement scale, whether a characteristic of a person is 'normal' or not requires three things. Firstly, you have to have an accurate and reliable scale (otherwise, the data points may or may not be normally distributed, but they won't reflect anything 'real' about the person). No scale is completely accurate - for example, how many rulers measure height/length to 1/5 of a milimeter (and even one that did would have some level of precision it couldn't measure)? But as long as it's close enough, it can tell you something of use.

Secondly, you have to have a continuous variable. Although you may not be able to measure each data point, all the data points in between the extremes must be possible. In terms of height, for example, you could be five feet 8 inches exactly, or five feet 8 1/2 inches, or 5 feet 8 1/4 inches, or even 5 feet 8 7/276 inches. Some of those heights may not be measured properly, but they do exist, or at least could. In contrast, whether or not you are an American citizen is not a continuous variable. You either are or you aren't. If there are intermediate points (eg 'landed immigrant'), there is a clearly definable number of those options.

Thirdly, the population must have a normal distribution. What this means is that if you find the average of the data points (calculated by adding all the points together and dividing by the number of points), most of the data points will be pretty close to this average. In fact, there is a number known as the standard deviation, calculated by taking the difference between each point and the average, multiplying it by itself, adding them together and taking the square root of them. In a normally distributed population, 68% of the points will be within one standard deviation of the average, and 95% will be within two standard deviations. (For an example of a trait that is not normally distributed in our population, take breast size. There are two separate peaks in the distribution - one for men and one for women. But if you separate out the genders, each gender has a normal distribution of breast size.)

So, for a given data point, representing a specific person's score on a specific measurement, how 'normal' they are represents how close they are to the average. Typically, we define any score that is two or more standard deviations from the average as being 'abnormal'. For example, with IQ (which meets the criteria of reliability, validity and normal distribution, and approximates a continuous variable), the average IQ score is 100, and the standard deviation is 15. So, the 5% with abnormal IQs are equally divided between those with an IQ over 130 and those with an IQ below 70. (In other words, 2.5% of the population has a cognitive disability, and 2.5% are intellectually gifted.)

So average is not an arbitrary number. No matter what weight people think they should be, the average weight is always the sum of all people's weights divided by the number of people. (This average may, and in fact has, changed over time, but it's a 'real' change, not a change in perception.) Even if no one happens to get the exact measurement that constitutes the average, this does not mean that everyone is abnormal, because not everyone is the same distance from the average.

I know I'm abnormal. To me, this is a neutral statement. On some highly significant psychological characteristics, I score more than two standard deviations away from the average score. (For example, my tested IQ is 137.) Abnormal does not mean bad - it means atypical, in a measurable statistical way. Normal is a real, measurable thing, and so is abnormal. And admitting that does not mean you have to accept the societal baggage applied to those terms.