Rape Culture: An Asexual’s Perspective on Coercive Rape

The other day, I posted about asexuality and coercive rape, and an interesting discussion evolved in the comments. I highly encourage you to read that post, and the comments, and then read what Elizabeth over at Shades of Gray had to say. She wrote some of the posts that I linked to in that post. Her points are important, as she gives a much clearer understanding of the situation than I could hope to. I’m reposting it in full here (emphasis hers):

Interesting discussion! I am glad this topic is being raised among people who are otherwise not likely to come across asexual discourse. :)

First, I want to explain something about asexuality, because it seems to me that some of the commenters here are getting the meaning of asexuality confused with the meaning of its individual morphemes (not + sexual), rather than understanding it in the way that asexual people typically understand it. Asexuality is about a lack of sexual attraction, not about lacking a sex drive or not being sexual in any other way (in fact, plenty of asexuals have sex drives). Asexuals aren’t sexually attracted to men in the same way that straight men aren’t attracted to other men. And they also aren’t attracted to women in the same way that gay men aren’t attracted to women. Thus it is parallel to the other three widely accepted sexual orientation labels, and I think it should be considered a fourth option (rather than dismissed as “category x” as Alfred Kinsey apparently thought it should be).

If the definition is still unclear to anyone, please read this post. It’s not really geared towards outsiders, but it does address some of the most frequent issues with miscommunications between asexuals and non-asexuals that I have encountered. For the record, I agree with ignorantarmies‘ point about labeling yourself whatever you want. Labels (and all words) are useful in social settings. If you just make one up without ever working towards its social acceptance, it’s doomed to be an empty word. There are a few people in the asexual community who think that asexuality should be defined intuitively based on however each person thinks it fits their life, but I don’t think that’s tenable as a definition. I think that asexuality should have an objective definition… however, due to the internal nature of sexual attraction, and the fact that there is currently no way of objectively measuring it (penile plethysmography and the like are flawed because they measure arousal, not attraction), you can’t really go around telling people they are or aren’t asexual with any real degree of accuracy (although admittedly, in the six-ish years I’ve been around, I have seen some people in the asexual community that I suspect may not actually be asexual).

With that said… Not being sexually attracted to other people in a world where it is expected that you should be to the point that it is not even considered POSSIBLE for a person to NOT experience sexual attraction is… alienating, to say the least. I think that asexuality really ought to be recognized as an option, because a person who is asexual can go their entire lives thinking something is deeply wrong with them, without ever being able to identify what the problem is. An asexual woman who thinks she’s heterosexual (because she doesn’t know that asexuality can exist) might get into a romantic relationship of some kind, even a marriage, and find that she is especially susceptible to coercive situations, or even outright rape. And that’s the issue I wanted to bring up.

Personally, I believe that NOBODY, asexual or not, should ever be expected to have sex against their will, even if they are married to the person who is coercing them. Ever. And if marriage (or any romantic relationship) is really meant to be an institution which allows a sexual free-for-all with absolutely no thought given to consent, well then that’s a pretty skeezy institution, in my book. It puzzles me why domestic violence does not apparently include marital rape, why beating up your wife can land you in jail but raping your wife (in far, far too many places) won’t (and yes, I get that rape is much harder to prove, but it should at least be considered a possibility). What is the difference? Why is one apparently condoned (and not even accepted as “real” rape), while the other is not?

What constitutes a “real” rape?

Did M rape me? No. Did he come close to it? At one point, yes. I don’t think he meant to at all, and if I had told him to stop, I think he would have. I didn’t give him that choice because I didn’t want to give him the opportunity to choose to ignore my rescinded consent, even though I was 95% certain that he wouldn’t. The 5% of doubts that I had came from his playfully pushy and mildly coercive behavior, which was largely behavior that is considered socially acceptable and even expected. I think that he was greatly affected by rape culture, had absorbed a lot of ideas from it without ever examining them or realizing that he SHOULD examine them. I doubt he had ever even heard of the term “rape culture” at all.

I kind of take issue with people saying that he was the “wrong” person for me, because in many ways he was the “right” person—and in fact, I think the ways in which he was “right” for me outnumber the ways in which he was “wrong” for me, and I would never have arrived at this level of personal growth had I not met him. I think the issue is way, way too complex to characterize him as “right” or “wrong” for me.

M ultimately arrived at the conclusion that asexuality is not a sexual orientation but rather a disability, and told me that he had to give me “special treatment” in order to properly deal with the situation. I disagree with this notion. I don’t think that asexual people deserve “special treatment” but rather, the same kind of consideration that you would (or should) give to anyone. I have no sexual disabilities or dysfunctions of any kind. Regular old patience, kindness, and respect go a long way.

I really don’t think that asexual people are necessarily all that different from non-asexual people. I think that EVERYONE should have their boundaries respected, wherever those boundaries may be. Of course, in a romantic relationship, compatibility becomes an issue, and some asexuals may not be compatible with some sexuals. But it depends on the people in question. My girlfriend thought that compatibility would be a huge issue between us when we first started dating, but as it turns out we have more problems deciding when to watch a movie than when (or how) we have sex. And for us, the relationship really isn’t based on sex at all. We work it in, but we could probably stop having sex completely and still be okay romantically… and in fact we do do that, on occasion.

I don’t really see how romantic relationships are supposed to be meant solely to provide a space for legitimate sex. (In fact, I’m rather confused about what counts as “illegitimate” sex as I don’t see how such a judgment can be legitimately made. Sex is sex. You don’t have to be in a romantic relationship to have sex, and I think it’s fairly common and reasonably acceptable to have a fuck-buddy these days. Plus, I think most people will tend to say that “love” is the primary reason why they get into romantic relationships, not sex.) I don’t see how emotional bonding is intrinsically connected with sex. I don’t think it is, and for me, it’s even somewhat counter-intuitive to suggest that sex creates emotional bonds. Sex really doesn’t do that for me. It took me a couple of years to finally see how sex can even be considered intimate on more than just a physical level, but I don’t so much think it’s the sex itself that is intimate, but rather that intimacy already created through other (non-sexual) means is being expressed through sex.

What really bugs me about the idea that romantic relationships are all about sex is that… it seems so… shallow. Do people really see romantic relationships that way? How could that be fulfilling? It seems like the relationship is just an excuse, just a structure that you use to make it socially acceptable to have sex. It doesn’t seem like a deep connection with another person is necessary or even desired… and in that case, why get into a relationship? You could just have sex without worrying about it, and it would be a lot less trouble. Who cares about the stigma? That will probably go away gradually as more people actually do it… and you don’t really have to let people know that you’re having sex with someone you’re not in a relationship with, do you?

I see romantic relationships as enjoyable and desirable because of love, not sex. Forming a deep emotional connection is what matters to me. Economic connections follow because on a practical level, it makes sense to facilitate the emotional connection. Sex can be part of forming a deep emotional connection… or not. It doesn’t have to be. I do it because I’m okay with it and it’s enjoyable on some level, but it’s not something I crave or something that makes me feel particularly connected to my partner, any more so than just talking and laughing and sharing my life with her does. I don’t see how my relationship with her would be any less of a romantic relationship if we stopped having sex, and it bothers me that most people wouldn’t consider it a “real” or “full blown” romantic relationship. Actually, a lot of people think for some reason that I must be incapable of experiencing love after I come out to them as asexual… including M, up until almost a year after I met him. I don’t want to go on too long about this, but I think that point is important to consider, and I hope that people will keep it in mind.

With that perspective, does it change any of the thoughts or questions you had before? What do you think about what she had to say?

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  1. Joanna Cake
    Posted February 7, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    So an asexual is someone who has no desire for the act of sex itself – for stimulation of the genitals? So no masturbation either?

    I agree with Elizabeth absolutely that a relationship is about intimacy and so many people view the sex act as intimacy when they should be focussing on their emotional connection as much as the physical one.

    Having sex with Ruf is just an extension of our intimate connection. Sometimes we can just lie there with him inside me, hardly moving, and yet it is the most completing thing I have ever experienced… but that's because of the mental and emotional connection as well as the fact that we are physically connected for that time.

    But, saying all that, I think the sex act itself is probably more important to him than it is to me now and I dont know whether that's because of the hormonal imbalances of my Menopause or because I have reached a stage in our relationship
    where I dont always need to demonstrate my love for him by doing something sexual.

    There was also an occasion with Ruf where I said 'no' and he just carried on regardless because he thinks Im 'playing'. It's my own fault. I should have a key word. I knew he wasnt going to hurt me but the frustrated powerlessness of the whole situation left me in tears.

    Looking back at my now defunct marriage, for me it was destroyed by the lack emotional affection which led to my refusal to engage in sex and just mushroomed to finish any chance of intimacy. For him, it was the loss of sexual intimacy because to him sex = love. So he wanted to have sex with me to be sure that I still loved him and when I wouldnt…

  2. Welcome to Chicago, Jillinois
    Posted February 7, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    "Asexuals aren’t sexually attracted to men (or women) in the same way that straight men aren’t attracted to other men."

    Now THIS changes everything for me.

    I now understand the distinction between "not ever wanting sex ever" vs. "no specific attraction to a man nor a female."

    I get it.

    So does an Asexual ever have a sex drive? Do they masturbate?

    And I do believe that many, many relationships can be happy and healthy and involve little to no sex, no matter the orientation. In fact, I think a lot of couples end up this way later in life as they age. Sex IS important, however, and I suppose just like in any relationship, communication is key.

  3. Eve
    Posted February 7, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Very informative! I think it's an important distinction to make, that asexuality is lack of sexual attraction, but that an asexual person can still have a sex drive. I was a bit unclear on that point, so thanks for helping me understand it better.

    I agree with pretty much everything Elizabeth said. Sex does not equal love or intimacy. Nor is it inherently a part of relationships. It's not a given, and it's not the reason for the relationship. It's an important part of the relationship I'm in right now, but that's because it's what we both want, what works for both of us. It's not the point of the relationship. Sex is just one of our favorite ways of expressing our love. There's plenty of sexual attraction too, but if that were the main point, there wouldn't have been anything to hold us together during the rough patches. And because sex is not a given, but the result of mutual interest, there is never a situation where one of us consents to sex we don't actually want. (maybe because neither of us can enjoy sex when the other person isn't having fun because it feels potentially coercive and we both have a strong aversion to doing that to each other)

    If you want to indulge your partner sexually at times when you aren't in the mood yourself, that's your choice, but it should never be expected of you. And that can still be fun. I can enjoy giving a blowjob when I'm not horny. The point is that I want to do it, not that I "should" do it or that I'm expected to do it. And by extension of everything I just said, it seems pretty obvious to me that an asexual person should never have to have sex if they don't want to, even if the person they're with wants sex. Even if they're married. It may be a compatibility issue, but marriage or a relationship doesn't give you the right to have sex with someone, or even a "should". The only thing that can give you that is mutual choice.

  4. SevurdLove
    Posted February 7, 2010 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Since your first post on asexuality and somethings going on with my personal life I have been working on a post of my own which can be found here:


    I do understand the situation completely as I go through phases where I am attracted to one sex, both sexes, or neither sex. Trying to get a partner to understand the situation is very challenging and something I grapple with every time I have an extended relationship.

  5. alana
    Posted February 8, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Great post. I agree with everything Elizabeth said, but I’m still concerned about the space between coercive rape and… sexual compromise (maybe?). What made me uncomfortable about your last post was the way it seemed like every sexual encounter an asexual person has is basically coercive rape (though I don’t think you meant it that way but that’s how I felt reading it). Very thought provoking.

  6. grasexuality
    Posted February 9, 2010 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Yay! I'm happy to see the discussion keep going~

    I just wanted to quickly reply to Alana's comment with some reassurance that no, not all sexual encounters with asexual people are coercive rape. It's more of a worry, yes. But it's certainly not impossible for us to have fully consensual, enjoyable, even enthusiastic sex. (Though those last two are something I think you'd have to work at a bit to achieve, in most cases. The "good sex" learning curve might be a little bit steeper for asexuals.)

    I also totally understand what Eve (and someone else in the other thread?) was saying about not being in the mood but doing it anyway, and that still being fun. For me, that's pretty much always how it is… I'm not in the mood until my girlfriend arouses me, and then I enjoy it well enough. For me, "not in the mood" means totally indifferent to the idea, rather than opposed to it. On the few occasions that I'm actually feeling negatively about the idea of having sex, I tell her and she doesn't try to arouse me.

    As for whether asexuals masturbate or have a sex drive… Some do, some don't, and there's a wide range of feelings on the subject.

  7. alana
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Elizabeth, just wanted to say thanks for the clarification. It really helped.

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