Violation of [small, “insignificant”] boundaries

Coyote wrote recently about the violation of nonphysical boundaries, and on unwanted physical touch that doesn’t seem to fall into the category of sexual assault. This post doesn’t have a lot to do with the second topic, but the idea of unwanted touch is still relevant because what this post is about is boundaries, physical and nonphysical, spoken and unspoken, and how little respect people sometimes have for them.

I’ve written before about receiving unwanted (nonsexual) touch from my family. And, as I said in that post, it’s not really a big deal… or maybe I’ve just been taught not to view it as a big deal. If a family member, say, puts a hand on my shoulder, and I pull away, or express my unhappiness with a “Don’t”, I’m the one who’s seen (by the rest of my family) as at fault. The other person wasn’t doing anything to hurt me, they didn’t know I didn’t want to be touched, so I should lighten up and not make it into an issue. Respect for my boundaries and the importance of consent for nonsexual touch aren’t talked about; those ideas aren’t valued. A lot of kids grow up with this idea that they don’t have a right to object to touch from others (as well as other boundary violations), and that can be harmful when, having internalized that idea, they feel like they can’t speak up against abuse or sexual assault, like they can’t tell anyone, because it’s not really a big deal; they don’t have a right to be upset.

But even when this idea doesn’t lead down that path, it’s still a damaging one. I don’t want to have to accept touch that feels like a small violation of my boundaries, of my personal space; I want to feel free to say something when someone puts an unwanted hand on my shoulder. And I want other people to agree that I have a right to object. And more than that, I want them to think or ask before they assume that they can touch me; I want them to be aware that I may have boundaries in place, even when I don’t spell them out.

And I want this with nonphysical boundaries too. When I was with my family for Christmas, there was a plate of cookies on the table, and I took one. And one of my immediate family members said, “No, take a bigger cookie! You need to gain some weight!” and actually picked up my cookie and replaced it with a bigger one. And having someone trying to physically control what I ate, because they’d decided I was too thin, was disturbing to me. If they had actually been concerned, and had approached me in private to ask about my weight, that would have been weird but okay; I wouldn’t have been bothered by that. But obviously this person wasn’t really worried or they wouldn’t have been kind of joking about it… but they still felt the need to try to make me eat more than I wanted to.

I didn’t really say anything but just switched the cookies back when the person wasn’t paying attention anymore. It wasn’t worth an argument, but I also wasn’t going to give in and let someone else decide what I ate.* This person was policing me, saying that my own choice of how much to eat was wrong, so they were going to step in and fix it, make it right. And sometimes, interventions like that are needed (I don’t have personal experience with eating disorders but I imagine that some of what I’m saying here doesn’t apply in those situations). But you should never try to change someone’s mind or behavior through force, through making them feel powerless. Listen to them, give your opinion if you must but don’t insist that they’re wrong about their own body and that you know what’s best—and this applies not just to food but to touch, to unwanted photos like Coyote wrote about, to everything. Everyone gets to set their own boundaries, and everyone else has to respect those boundaries, even when they think they don’t make sense or are too extreme.

As Coyote writes, “I think there’s connections to be made in the way we think about ‘acceptable’ and ‘reasonable’ boundaries and the doubts we have about enforcing them. I want to confront the fact that writing about this feels whiny in light of more serious matters. And I want to provide the world with more examples of boundaries that feel petty and arbitrary that I’m demanding respect for anyway, to encourage everyone to be as petty and arbitrary with their boundaries as they want.”

People make decisions for other people all the time, assuming they know what’s best for someone else or just doing whatever they want and not caring what it’s like for the other person, not caring that what to them is a comforting hug is to the person they’re hugging a violation. And it’s the people who object—the ones who say, “I don’t want a hug, I don’t like hugs”; the ones who say, “I’m eating enough, thank you”—who are seen as in the wrong, in need of correction. Can we please start changing that?


*Side note that’s relevant to me and my perceptions of certain situations but not really to the point of this post: I could perhaps be called a control freak; I feel a strong need to be in control of my life and circumstances, and can have trouble coping when I’m not. And I think part of that comes from being physically small; practically every other adult or even teenager I come into contact with is larger and stronger than me. And the fact that I could be physically overpowered by everyone I meet freaks me out a little, even though I haven’t consciously thought about it like that before. I feel small, I feel weak, and so to cope with the feelings of vulnerability that go along with that, I try to maintain as much control as I can—whether that’s by objecting to small cases of unwanted touch or not letting someone else dictate my food intake. It’s like… I have to grab onto every little way I can find of keeping control of my situation, because I go into every situation knowing I don’t have physical control.

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Appearance, part 8: Appearance and Christianity

Christianity isn’t the only religion that places restrictions, implicitly or explicitly, on the appearances of its adherents—Islam, predictably, is another that springs to mind—but it’s the only one that I have personal experience with, and I ended up with enough to say about it alone to fill a whole post. Also, I should note that my experience is with Protestant Evangelical Christianity, but I’m sure at least some of this applies to Christianity in general. This topic overlaps with appearance and sexism in that Christianity has much stricter appearance rules/guidelines for women than for men (although there are some conservative Mennonite and Amish groups that regulate men’s facial hair and everyone’s clothing), and because these rules are often, if not always, for the benefit of men. The main one that I have in mind is the idea of modesty.

Once a year, my high school Sunday school class would split the guys and the girls (because of course certain things apply to girls only and certain others to guys only), and while the guys learned about not lusting, the girls learned about helping them out by dressing modestly (among other sexual purity-related topics). Of course, what is and isn’t modest is subjective, but we were taught various modesty tests, like, “Does your shirt still cover your midriff when you raise your arms above your head?” and “Do your shorts go past your fingertips when your arms are at your sides?” If the answer was no, your clothing was immodest and you shouldn’t be wearing it around guys—because guys are visual, and even a glimpse of a girl in supposedly immodest clothing could cause them to commit the sin of lust (an idea that made me kind of afraid of men).

I went to Christian camps where two-piece swimsuits were banned; if a girl had brought one, she had to wear a t-shirt over it when she swam. The tightness and lowness of girls’ shirts and pants was also monitored, and the shortness of dresses… you get the idea. If you want to see exactly what lengths some people went to to try to define modesty, check out this post that discusses a survey where teen Christian boys gave their opinions on the modesty or immodesty of different items of clothing, as well as postures and actions. Reading through that survey made the post’s author conclude that to be modest, you basically have to not be female—because every single thing that was asked about, from wearing jeans to stretching, was considered by some guys to be immodest.

As the author of that post says, this is a really harmful attitude because it implies that women’s bodies are bad, the source of men’s sin—and that when a man lusts after a woman, the woman is at least partially to blame. And what is that but rape culture? The idea also has the effect of making women feel bad about their bodies. At a youth retreat, I witnessed one of the other girls crying when a (female) youth leader pulled her aside and asked her to change her shirt because it was short enough to sometimes reveal her belly. The youth leader did it in a really kind, gentle way, but that didn’t change the fact that a girl was being told that her stomach was a problem—or that she was in tears over it.

The woman who wrote this article has experienced even worse situations, and received reprimands that aren’t nearly as gentle or well-intentioned. The article is somewhat upsetting (because of how badly she’s treated by some people, and the effects their words and attitudes have on her; content warning for internalized fat-shaming), but definitely worth a read because it shows what this stance looks like when taken to the extreme, and what a harsh toll it can take on women and girls.

Christianity seems to have kind of an obsession with women’s appearances; besides modesty, there’s the idea of fighting vanity—the point of the mirror exercise I mentioned in this post was to help the female participants not focus on outer beauty, a goal that people support with Bible verses directed to women, like “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self” (1 Peter 3:3-4)—and also the idea that women owe their husbands attractiveness, which I mentioned in that post as well. In contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Evangelical Christians discuss men’s appearances. My youth group had no rules for guy’s clothing (swimming shirtless was fine); there was no such thing as male modesty (although now there is, at least in parody articles).

I want to end with a quote from an article on modesty by Rachel Held Evans, a Christian author I admire and whose blog and books I enjoy (even if I disagree with her on some things):

While popular culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to get men to look at them, the modesty culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to keep men from looking at them. In both cases, the impetus is placed on the woman to accommodate her clothing or her body to the (varied and culturally relative) expectations of men. […] Women are left feeling ashamed of their bodies as they try desperately to contort around a bunch of vague, ever-changing ideals.

The article goes on to try to hash out a more biblically-accurate idea of modesty (and it’s worth reading if you’re interested in a re-examination of modesty within a Christian context)… but I’m going to end there.

Read the rest of my appearance posts here.

Genderless and asexual: two interconnected identities

This post is for the January 2015 Carnival of Aces, which is on Nonbinary People and Asexuality. Yesterday I wrote a sort of disclaimer about whether or not I actually “count” as non-binary, which can be read here if you’re interested. It explains why I call myself a genderless woman, a term I use below.

If I wasn’t asexual, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t currently be identifying as genderless. For one thing, I would never have come across the word if it wasn’t for my involvement in online ace communities. After growing up in a conservative Christian environment, reading ace blogs has exposed me to so many new concepts and ways of looking at the world and made me realize just how limiting and inaccurate the pre-fabricated boxes that society attempts to place everyone into are. While I realized on my own that I didn’t strongly connect to the feminine gender, I had never heard of people being neutrois/genderless/genderqueer until I started hanging around ace communities. So I would never have found a word to describe the way I feel about my gender—maybe even never have thought about it much more—if it hadn’t been for reading about the experiences of other, ace community-connected people.

But I also wonder if I would still feel like I was genderless if I experienced sexual attraction. Of course it’s pointless to speculate about what might have been, but I do think it’s interesting and useful to investigate the connection between my asexuality and my non-binary gender, or lack of gender (if you’re interested, here’s a post that discusses more generally the possible relation between being ace and being transgender).

I’ve written before about not wanting to be viewed as feminine, because being feminine can mean being seen as an object of sexual attraction/desire. Allosexual* women (and men) often do want to be seen that way, as least by certain people and under certain circumstances. But, being a sex-repulsed ace, I never do. Were I a feminine-identifying (sex-repulsed) ace, I would struggle with how to express my femininity without feeling like I was being sexualized by other people and society.

Being genderless, then, is a way for me to opt out of sexuality, and the expectations that come with it. Feminine women are often assumed to be heterosexual, and masculine women are often assumed to be lesbians (assumptions that erase femme lesbians and bi/pan women as well as aces). But as a genderless woman, I’m free, at least to some extent, of those assumptions. I express my genderlessness by dressing in as gender-neutral a way as possible. While people will look at me and most likely still see a woman, it’ll be a woman who doesn’t quite fit into society’s molds for female people. A woman who, hopefully, is human first, female second, and whose sexual orientation can’t be inferred from her appearance (although, if anyone did look at me and assume I was ace, I definitely wouldn’t mind as long as the person was ace-friendly).

So for me, being ace and genderless go hand in hand; I can’t really separate the two. I can’t imagine myself as a feminine or masculine ace, because in our sex-normative culture both of the binary genders have become so entwined with sexuality—society tells us that to be a woman is to be sexy, and that to be a man is to have a voracious sexual appetite. As an ace, I don’t fit into either of those paradigms.** On the other hand, I think that if I did experience sexual attraction I would be fine with other people seeing me as either masculine or feminine, because I would want other people thinking I was sexually attractive—and, at least in mainstream culture, sexual attraction is often connected to (stereo)typical aspects of the two binary genders (e.g. muscles on men, smooth legs on women).

Basically, I look at the gender binary and all the cultural assumptions and associations that have become wrapped up in it, and say, “That’s not me.” And a big part of that is because I’m ace.


*I’ve been following the latest Tumblr debate about this word to some extent, and my usage of it here doesn’t mean I support either side; I’m just going to continue to use it as long as it’s still the generally accepted term.

**Not that all (or even most) men and women do fit them or want to, and I definitely don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a masculine or feminine ace—I’m just saying that identifying as either of the binary genders wouldn’t work for me. I know that masculine and feminine people of every sexual orientation struggle with sex-normative stereotypes of their gender, and then certain groups face the opposite problem of having the dominant narrative say they aren’t or shouldn’t be sexual. So to some extent everyone has to deal with being a certain way but not matching up to the stereotypes of that identity, and that definitely doesn’t mean their identity is wrong. For me, opting out of the gender binary altogether was the best way to deal with that, but I recognize that that wouldn’t work or be a good choice for everyone.

Am I non-binary? A disclaimer of sorts before my January 2015 Carnival of Aces post

This post is somewhat of a repeat of parts of this post; I kept the repetition because I like having a more succinct summary of my experience of gender (this post is 1,000 words shorter than that one!). This post is also somewhat of a follow-up/addition to that one.

When I saw the topic for the Carnival of Aces this month, which is Nonbinary People and Asexuality, my first thought was, “Do I count as non-binary?” I only recently came to the conclusion that I’m genderless—you can read all about my process of coming to identify with that term in the post linked above if you’re interested—and being so new at this, as well as being an atypical genderless person as far as I can tell (more on that below), I’m a little nervous about assuming that I qualify as non-binary. Of course there’s the idea of one’s self-identification being the most important and that other people don’t have the right to label-police you, but if a member of a privileged group started going around saying they identify as a member of a marginalized group, that would obviously be problematic and could be hurtful to actual members of the marginalized group, and I definitely don’t want to do that by claiming “I’m non-binary too!” when maybe I really shouldn’t.*

My reservation comes from the fact that, while I do identify as genderless, I still see myself as a woman, and at the moment don’t desire to change that. The reason is that who I am and my life up to this point has been significantly impacted by always having viewed myself, and always being viewed by other people, as female. I want to acknowledge that; I don’t want it to disappear. I don’t want to get rid of that part of my identity. Also, being a woman makes feminism personal to me in a way it can’t be to cis men. And so I’m currently identifying as a genderless woman.

It follows that, unlike most of the neutrois or other genderless people whose accounts I’ve read, I don’t desire to alter my body to make it gender (or sex) -neutral. Rather, my body and my internal sense of my gender are somewhat disconnected. While if I could magically have a sexless body I might consider it (and I know I would choose to do so if I lived in a different world, a world without compulsory sexuality and a patriarchy to fight against), for now it is important to me to continue to be seen as a woman. If I’m a woman, I can show the world that you can be female and have hairy legs. I can show society that being a woman doesn’t have to mean being girly, or going all the way to the other side and being masculine. I can feel solidarity with other women worldwide who face the oppression of the patriarchy, because I’ve felt it myself. Losing my femaleness would mean losing all of that.**

So while I’m maybe not non-binary in a typical way (although maybe there isn’t a typical way to be non-binary!), I think the descriptor does fit. For one thing, I’ve realized that calling myself non-binary is important to me (just as being a woman is), because the more self-identified non-binary people there are, the more the gender binary—which I believe is a false construct—will be called into question. And, when it comes down to my internal sense of my gender, I’m definitely not masculine or feminine. And that’s the definition of non-binary.


*Pegasus’s discussion of the term “cis” is relevant here—some people would say I’m cis, while others might say I fall under the trans* umbrella.

**For a similar-but-different perspective, read Rotten Zucchinis’s musings about specifically not wanting to change hir body to match hir gender and being torn between feminism and a non-binary identity in “Body Politics: With(out) Gender”, found on page 7 of the zine that can be downloaded here (it’s formatted for printing so you have to jump around to read it in order, but it’s worth it). In another piece in that zine (“Invisible Monster Hiding in Plain Sight”), ze writes, “Gender—the way people usually think about it—is just another dimension of the human experience that doesn’t apply to me. And that isn’t because of my body. I don’t have a problem with my body—I have a problem with what my body means to other people,” which is quite similar to how I feel (see this post and this one where I talk about my discomfort with being read as feminine).

Appearance, part 7: a critique of body-positive feminism

I’m planning to wrap up my appearance series soon, but I keep coming up with ideas for new posts…

It’s hard to define “feminism” as one unified movement, because there are so many different branches, some holding views that are in total opposition to others. When it comes to feminists’ attitudes toward appearance, some think that to be a feminist you can’t care about your appearance at all or take any steps to beautify it. I definitely don’t agree with that, and I’ve discussed my reaction to one example of that kind of attitude in this post. On the other extreme, though, you have the “sexy equals empowered” feminists (an idea I may write a post on later), and a bit more toward the middle there’s the idea that loving your body, flaws and all, is an essential part of feminism. And that’s what I want to critique in this post (mostly using two Everyday Feminism articles about the body positivity movement that capture a lot of what I’d like to say). Continue reading

“No love interest = not straight”

The Asexual Agenda’s latest question of the week is about contrived romance in movies, and it got me thinking again about something related that I’ve pondered on and off before. As many people have already pointed out, the majority of mainstream movies have a romantic storyline or subplot, which means that it’s downright strange to see a film’s main character reach the end without having had a romance or love interest. And it’s always great to see films like that, as they challenge amatonormativity and lend credence to asexuals and aromantics. But a lot of people explain these characters’ lack of love lives by saying that they’re queer, which can actually lead right back into supporting amatonormativity.

The two movies that I’m specifically thinking of are both recent Disney/Pixar films. Merida in Brave shows no desire for romance. The internet says, “Merida is gay!”* Elsa in Frozen has no love interest. The internet says, “Elsa is gay!”** In ace/aro communities, people may headcanon Merida or Elsa as ace and/or aro. And I’m all for aces and aromantics, and queer people of all stripes, finding and appreciating characters who look like us, especially when there are so few in mainstream films. But my problem with assuming that any character who isn’t proven straight must be queer is that that idea says, “If you don’t have a romantic relationship at the moment and aren’t actively pursuing one or making it clear that you want one, you can’t be straight”—that everyone who is straight is going to be seeking romance all the time. It says that romance is the most important part of every straight person’s life story, that they can’t have periods of their life that don’t involve it but are still interesting.

Why can’t Elsa be straight, but too busy dealing with the anxiety and guilt she feels about her power to be thinking about finding a man? Why can’t Merida be straight but interested in a different trajectory for her life than a traditional marriage? I’m definitely not advocating for more heterosexual characters than there already are, or saying that we must read every character as straight unless it’s explicitly stated otherwise (for ace/aro people, it hasn’t yet been stated that any mainstream movie/TV character is like us, so our headcanons are all we’ve got!). I just want society to recognize that romance isn’t, and doesn’t have to be, the ultimate goal for anyone, of any sexual or romantic orientation—and the belief that the only explanation for a character not having a heterosexual romance or love interest during the course of a movie is that they’re not heterosexual isn’t helping.


*Merida is also a bit of a tomboy, which apparently also equals lesbian. That’s not a good assumption to make either.

**Although at least with Elsa they had other reasons too.

Asexuality in Guardian of the Dead

I started seeking out novels with asexual characters once I realized there actually were some (here’s one list). I’m always excited when I start one; it’s just so unusual to see asexuality even mentioned outside of online ace communities that reading about a character who’s ace is a big deal. But I was somewhat disappointed in the way the ace character and asexuality in general were portrayed in the young adult novel Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. So this post is mostly about what I wasn’t happy with, but I do first want to start with what I liked. Mild spoilers ahead.

Pros: Kevin is not your typical cold/awkward/unfeeling asexual character (thinking of characters who aren’t explicitly ace but are widely speculated to be, like Sherlock, the Doctor in Doctor Who, and Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory). He’s the main character (Ellie)’s best friend, is quite likeable, and is an attractive, non-white guy who multiple girls are interested in. His asexuality is also accepted by the other characters, and seeing them treat it as valid and not question its legitimacy was nice. The book starts soon after Kevin has told Ellie about his orientation for the first time, and while her initial reaction is to say, “Maybe you’ll change your mind,” she stops herself, knowing that wouldn’t be appropriate.

Now, the cons: When Kevin comes out to Ellie the conversation pretty much ends there. Asexuality looks so different for each person—some are repulsed, some have a libido, some are also aromantic. But in Guardian of the Dead, what Kevin’s unique experience of asexuality is isn’t discussed or revealed at all. “I’m ace” is the beginning and end of the conversation; Ellie just makes her own assumptions about what it means and doesn’t ask Kevin any thoughtful questions.

Further assumptions are made when it comes to the relationship between Kevin and another good female friend of his, Iris. Iris has liked Kevin for a long time, but he’s never reciprocated—because he’s ace. Eventually, so that Iris won’t keep hoping in vain, Kevin tells her about his orientation, and while we don’t see this scene and thus don’t know exactly what’s said, by this point we’ve gotten the message that the reason Kevin and Iris won’t be having a romantic relationship is Kevin’s asexuality (as opposed to Kevin just not being interested in Iris in that way). However, we don’t know why exactly his asexuality is stopping them. It seems to be implied that either asexuality is always accompanied by aromanticisim, or else that an allosexual person would never want to be in a romantic relationship with an ace. Both of which are inaccurate and not ideas that should be spread.  Maybe the author didn’t intend either of these, but readers don’t know what the truth actually is (is Kevin aro? Does Iris feel the need for her relationships to include sex?), because what being ace means for Kevin is never discussed.

The last thing that bothered me is that Kevin’s character is never really developed. This is because he’s not actually around for most of the main part of the story, and when he is he’s either under a magic spell and kind of in a daze, or being lied to/kept in the dark by the Ellie. So the book starts by introducing an ace character, and then proceeds to basically remove him from the rest of the story, and not let us get to know him much more.

Some aces like the book’s portrayal of asexuality better than I did—see this and this (and here’s a review that mentions some of the same problems I saw, but also talks about other ways the book was well done). The author is also actively seeking to do representation better, and I am really glad that she’s aware of asexuality and chose to include it in her novel; at this point, I’ll take whatever ace characters I can get, and I’m sure plenty of people who might never have heard of asexuality otherwise were exposed to the concept through this book. But I do just wish that it had been represented a little better.