Is it unreasonable to expect sexual content warnings in ace spaces?

I’m sex-repulsed—not only when it comes to the idea of engaging in sex myself, but also as far as seeing sexual content in films, reading about sex, or hearing sexual references. While encountering these things doesn’t make me physically ill, and my level of tolerance does depend on the context and purpose and how explicit the material is, in general I have a strong aversion to all sexual content.

Because of that, when I’m watching or reading something I like to know beforehand if it contains any sexual material. Film ratings are great for this; I can see before I start a movie that it’s rated R for sex, and factor that into my decision of whether to watch it or not. If I do watch it, I’ll know what I’m in for and can be prepared to fast forward the sex scene(s) or look away. Even when I can’t avoid the content or choose not to, just having that mental preparation makes a big difference.

In my time in the ace blogosphere and Tumblr, though, I’ve come across sexual images posted on ace blogs with no warning beforehand. I’ve seen recommendations of ace-friendly or -relevant media that I’ve happily sought out, only to be startled to find that it contained sexual content. And… I’m kind of tired of that. While, in my experience, blog post-type writing by aces does tend to carry sufficient warnings about mentions of sex or anatomy (and I really appreciate that), I don’t feel that ace spaces are entirely safe for sex-repulsed people.

I write this wondering if I’m asking for an unreasonable accommodation—is this just an individual quirk that I should deal with on my own? You can’t have content warnings for everything anyone could possibly dislike or be bothered by. But in ace spaces—spaces for people who don’t experience sexual attraction, many of whom are sex-averse or -repulsed—I am surprised that warning for sexually explicit content isn’t more of a thing.

And, I think it should be. Sexual content is everywhere in western society, and apart from movie ratings, it’s not warned for at all. There’s nothing I can do about that but deal with it, but after having to deal with it so often, one reason I turn to ace spaces is that I expect them to be a refuge from sex-saturated mainstream culture. So it’s really disappointing when they just repeat the same patterns.

I’m not asking that all sexual content be removed from ace spaces; I’d just like to see a note mentioning it before graphic images, or in parentheses after a recommendation, or on the homepage of a website. Putting up warnings has so little cost; it just requires a little extra time and doesn’t take anything away from those who are interested in or like sexual content. It would be such a small effort to make to help ace spaces become more friendly to repulsed and averse aces. I feel like anyone who’s ace themselves should be fully on board with that goal.

I strive to make this blog a safe place for sex-repulsed and -averse aces, so I always mention if there’s any sexual content in the media I recommend and will put content warnings before posts containing sexual material (if I ever write any). But if you ever feel that I haven’t adequately labelled something—which applies to trigger warnings, too—just let me know and I’ll fix it.


Sex-aversion and purity culture

Inspired by “Asexual, because reasons” by Siggy and this post by Coyote. Also kind of a follow-up to my last post.

Before I knew the word “asexual”, I didn’t think about why I was the way I was; I just accepted it as something about me. But since discovering the term, I’ve wondered many times if I’m ace or sex-averse (I use that term somewhat interchangeably with sex-repulsed, because it’s broader but still encompasses sex-repulsion) because of something in my upbringing—especially the purity culture that I was immersed in through my church.

I knew that I didn’t want to have sex before I was old enough for Sunday school classes on purity, so I know those didn’t cause my asexuality or my personal sex-aversion—I was already not just uninterested in sex, but actively did not want to ever do it. But I do think purity culture contributed somewhat to my overall sex-aversion—I’m not just repulsed by the idea of engaging in sex myself, but don’t like to see it on film, read about it, hear people talk about it, or think about other people doing it. And it’s not just that I feel squicked by those things; rather, sex—any sex—has a wrongness about it to me. I don’t actually think that sex is inherently bad or wrong, but, hard to admit as it is, that’s my instinctual, unconscious reaction.

And I really wonder if I feel that way about sex because of hearing over and over how harmful sex is [outside of marriage], how it’s a sin [outside of marriage], how it will leave you scarred, broken, damaged [outside of marriage]. I’ve read stories of people who grew up in purity culture having issues having sex with their spouses; while that “outside of marriage” is always tacked on, and at least in certain churches/circles there’s plenty of talk about the goodness of marital sex, being told about the badness of premarital sex over and over still makes an impact. So thinking that I, who was already predisposed to not be excited about sex, internalized these messages isn’t very far-fetched.

Why does this matter? Because purity culture is messed up and is hurting people—those who wait till marriage and those who don’t (cw for mentions of rape at the link). If you do wait, you might end up in tears on your wedding night. If you don’t, you’re considered “damaged goods” and shamed, either by other people or just by yourself, because you’ve been told again and again that you’re not worth as much if you sleep with someone before getting married to them.

But more important to me right now is, it matters because it’s okay to be sex-averse. It’s okay to not want to hear about sex, it’s okay to be uncomfortable with it, and it’s okay to not want to do it—and that holds true even if you got that way from unhealthy attitudes, or through some form of trauma.

People need to realize this, for their own sake and for the sake of aces, because some Christians who rage against purity culture use “asexual” to mean “broken”, and emphasize sexual enjoyment as an essential component of marriage and a hallmark of a healthy life (not linking because these articles were upsetting, but let me know if you want them). But these people shouldn’t view being able to have fun, guilt-free sex as the ultimate goal; rather, the goal should be acceptance of and support for people who don’t like sex, who can’t make themselves go through with it, people for whom it always feels wrong. Nobody should have to teach themselves to like sex in order to feel healthy or healed.

No matter where they come from, asexuality and sex-aversion are legitimate, and aren’t things that need to be changed or corrected. Whether you were born sex-averse, or picked it up somewhere, or had it forced on you, it’s still you, and while you certainly aren’t obligated to like it, it’s not inherently bad.

I’m saying this to everyone who’s been hurt by purity culture—including myself.

Growing up ace and Christian

This post is for the February 2015 Carnival of Aces, which is on Cross Community Connections. I’d been wanting to write about this subject already, and this Carnival seems like perfect timing.

I was homeschooled, so I never went through a sex-ed class. But I did get sexual purity Sunday school classes, where we discussed books like Every Young Man/Woman’s Battle­—the battle being with sexual temptation. And the whole time, my thought was, “Um, it’s not my battle!” But neither the book nor the youth leaders ever mentioned that as a possibility. I mean, the book titles say it all—every person’s battle (well, as long as you’re a man or a woman).

I assume the authors of those books and the teachers of the class had never heard of asexuality. At the very end of the girls’ book there was a short chapter on “What if I’m not attracted to guys?”, but that just meant, “What if I am attracted to girls?” At the beginning of the book the authors stated, “Everyone is a sexual being. Even when you’re not doing anything sexual, you remain a sexual person.” And I didn’t like being told that about myself, because it didn’t seem right, but I didn’t have the language or the framework to object to it.

I’d hear Christians say that sex is a gift from God, and I cringed away from that sentiment, because it wasn’t a gift that I wanted. I always knew I was different from everyone around me, and I think part of the reason I did (as opposed to assuming everyone else was like me, like some aces did growing up), was my Christian environment. Once, one of my peers took a vocation-discernment test and received “celibacy” as a possible result, and she reported that to the rest of the class with laughter—and everyone else laughed too. My asexuality didn’t go unexamined because of Christianity’s emphasis on abstinence; rather, I was surrounded by married people, and told that my peers and I would also get married someday. And I always knew what marriage meant. Sunday school didn’t teach “Don’t have sex”; it taught, “Don’t have sex until you’re married.”

My church and Christian culture in general told me sex was powerful, that it was hard for people to control their sexual urges, that it was normal to masturbate and fantasize and want to sleep with the person you were dating—but those desires had to be contained until you were married, when suddenly all your sexual needs would be fulfilled by your spouse. That meant I did not want to get married, because marriage equaled sex. It meant I thought I could never have a romantic relationship, because romantic relationships became marriages. It mean I thought I was destined to be alone forever, because the only long-term, committed relationship you could have was a romantic one.

It didn’t get any better after I discovered asexuality; when I Googled around at one point, trying to find a Christian view of it, I only came up with articles like this horror, which calls asexuality “sub-Christian”  (content warning in the “sexuality” section at least for heterosexism,  cissexism, binarism, and sex-normativity/compulsory sexuality). I also concluded, from a little more Googling and verses like 1 Corinthians 7:4-5—“The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again”—that it would be wrong to be in a sexless relationship with an allosexual. And nothing I had ever been taught contradicted that conclusion; the idea of a sexless marriage was never mentioned.

Christianity helped me realize I was asexual, even if I didn’t know that word at the time, because of its emphasis on sex and sexual desire/temptation. Christian culture is sex-normative, and it made me feel isolated and completely alone. It gave me a messed-up view of men as having voracious, barely-controlled sexual appetites, insisted that I was sexual even though that didn’t ring true for me, and told me that if I wanted a romantic relationship, I would have to have sex.

Hearing asexuality mentioned as a possibility alongside the talk of temptation would have been so validating; it would have been such a relief to have my feelings acknowledged and presented as okay. Instead, I had to wait till I was 20 to find out that asexuality was a thing, after suffering through years of compulsory sexuality from my (now former) religion. So what could Christians do better? It’s not hard: Know about asexuality. Be okay with asexuality. Don’t glorify marriage above singleness, and don’t glorify marital sex. And when you teach about sexual purity, mention that being ace is a thing—and that there’s nothing wrong with it.

Assailing myself

Reading Coyote’s post “When Being Asexual Is What Makes You Assailable” gave me a revelation. I’ve gotten the implication from other people (never stated completely explicitly, so far) that my opinion on certain things isn’t valid because I’m ace, but I’ve mostly held that attitude toward myself.

When I started this blog, I felt the need to tag some of my posts “ace-influenced(?)” as a kind of disclaimer, a way to say, “Being asexual might be impacting my thinking on this, so my opinion may not be fully valid.”

I’ve wondered if I’m sex-negative just because of my personal aversion to sex, if that aversion is actually the only reason I think of and agree with criticisms of sex and its role in society and relationships.

And when I say things like “romantic relationships don’t have to include sex” or “a romantic/sexual relationship isn’t necessarily the best kind of relationship”, I have this inner inkling of doubt, this feeling that I don’t have a right to speak on these subjects—because I’ve never experienced sexual attraction, and so can never have a fully valid opinion on the importance of sex in other people’s lives.

I see now, though, that those questions and caveats come from internalized heteronormativity; that I’ve absorbed the idea that any perspective not coming from a heterosexual isn’t “normal” or is automatically biased in a way that means it shouldn’t be taken entirely seriously. I don’t want to feel that way, and I don’t think I should. Being ace is just as legitimate as being straight—or gay, or bi, or pan. If allo people don’t have to preface their thoughts with disclaimers noting that their orientations may be influencing them, then neither do I.

Reading novels as a sex-repulsed ace

I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction written for adults, preferring to stick with older works or young adult literature. I enjoy YA and just never really had a reason to abandon that section of the library, except for my age, which I’ve ignored. I’ve recently realized, though, that if I want to write adult fiction, I should be reading more of it—but there are factors that have made me wary of venturing into that section, and one of these is the possibility of encountering sex scenes.

I consider myself sex-repulsed; while I feel like the term may be a little too strong for me, as I don’t get physically ill when hearing about sex, I’ve decided it fits better than sex-averse, which seems too mild. I really would rather not see/hear/read about sex at all if I can help it. If it’s mentioned in a book, fine, I can deal, but I really do not want to read a discussion of sex or a sex scene. Sometimes, though, you’re reading along, and suddenly—sex! Right there on the page, too late to avoid, images in your mind that you can’t un-imagine. While generally you do have some warning that it’s coming, and can thus skip ahead if you like, how do you know how far to skip? You have to look ahead to know when to start reading again, and then you’re practically reading the scene anyway.

So I’ve stuck to young adult lit as a way of avoiding sex scenes. Some young adult books do have them, but often you can tell from the premise if that’s a possibility, and if it seems like it is I’ll stay away. With adult fiction, though, I feel like almost any story could have a sex scene thrown in. A few years ago I found a website that helps you discover novels that fit your preferences. I was excited to see that one of the options was “no sex”, and I tried it out, and since I liked the sound of the book that came up, I bought it. And then… there was sex. Nothing explicit, but the main character did have sex with someone multiple times during the book, and her sex life was discussed somewhat. So when even a book that is supposedly sex-free still has sex as a part of the story, I’m left feeling like I should stick with young adult forever.

I know a book rating system would be impractical, but it would be nice. Some young adult books have sexual stuff in them that I would rather not have read when I was younger, and I don’t think young teens should be able to stumble upon that kind of content when they may not be ready for it. But it’s so much harder to screen books as opposed to movies (I’ll write more about watching movies in a future post, but of course it’s super easy to tell before even renting a movie whether it has sex or not just by looking at the rating), and unlike what’s often the case with movies, there may be nothing about a book’s cover or blurb to indicate that it contains sexual content. I know there are websites out there that rate books (after a cursory look, Rated Reads seems like the best of the ones I’ve found), but so few of the books in existence are included—one site proclaims on its front page that they have 1,500 books in their database, which seems like a pitifully small number. And finding a book’s rating on one of these sites requires much more effort than checking on a movie.

So I’m basically left with two choices—avoid any book that may have sex, or be willing to put up with it. If I want to read contemporary adult novels, I think I’m going to have to do the latter.

Appearance, part 3: appearance and being ace

I recently read Anthony’s Bogaert’s Understanding Asexuality for the first time, and in one chapter he mentioned that asexual women might not feel the need to look sexually attractive (I can’t remember exactly what he said so if anyone else knows, feel free to remind me!). That rang true for me because, taking it a step further, I would specifically like to not appear sexually attractive to other people. When I was younger I did want to look attractive, or at least pretty, and I feel like there might not be a definite line between just plain “attractive” and “sexually attractive”, but for me it meant looking nice while avoiding any clothing that was too tight or showed too much skin.

It really wasn’t (or isn’t, since I still feel this way) such a reasoned-out thing, though; not “If I wear a low-cut shirt, there might be a sexual component to any admiration other people give me”, but something much more instinctual—“I would be really uncomfortable wearing anything that showed cleavage.” I can’t really fathom how people are fine wearing bikinis in public; showing that much skin strikes me as very vulnerable, and I could never do it. And I’m guessing these feelings all come back to that fear of being looked at as a sexual object, or even just a sexual being. I don’t want people to think of me that way, because that’s not how I am.

Teachings about modesty in high school Sunday school classes freaked me out because we was told that men were prowling around ogling women and thinking lecherous thoughts about them—or at least, that was my interpretation. The teachers said, “Dress modestly so you won’t cause your brothers [in Christ] to stumble”, but what I decided was, “I’m going to dress modestly so I won’t be a victim.” Not of any physical harm, but of being thought of sexually. And although I now know that these classes presented an inaccurately homogeneous view of men, I still feel that being seen as sexually appealing would be a form of victimization to me; one I would never know about, true, but still one I want to avoid.

I think this specific idea comes from being a sex-repulsed ace. I would never willingly engage in sex, and so the idea of anyone thinking of me in a sexual way feels like a violation of a boundary I’ve set up, and makes me really uncomfortable. So I try to avoid entertaining that idea, and the way I accomplish this isn’t by actually preventing anyone from thinking of me sexually (because it would be impossible to know if I’m fully succeeding or not), but rather by trying to make myself feel like no one is by looking as un-sexual as possible. Not giving anyone reason to think of me sexually allows me to assume that no one is, which makes me feel safe, even if this feeling is based on an illusion (after all, we were also taught in Sunday school, “Some guys will still lust after you even if you’re wearing  a sack!”)

Anyway, I’m guessing that this is at least part of—maybe even the main reason—why looking feminine in public makes me feel vulnerable (I think another part is that I feel more likely to be critiqued and judged by others when appearing feminine), and why I’m most comfortable presenting fairly androgynously. Maybe it also at least partially explains why I don’t prioritize my appearance particularly highly—I know not all aces feel this way, but I do wonder if it’s a factor for me.

Read the rest of the posts in the appearance series here.