Growing up, teens face a frustrating double standard.
On the one hand, the messages most of them get about sex from parents, other adults, and school is that sex is very bad and you shouldn’t do it (at least not until you’re an adult and married to someone of the “opposite” gender).
On the other hand, the way sex is presented in the media suggests that the desire for it is so overwhelming and overpowering that you can’t possibly control it – a dangerous message that feeds right into rape culture.
So what is sex? A terrible sin that good people should stay abstinent from, or an uncontrollable, animal urge that’s so euphoric and wonderful that we can’t live without it?
Any young person would get confused trying to sort these messages out. For an asexualyoung person, though, it can be even harder.
Asexual (or “ace”) kids and teens get all the same messages from our culture that allosexualkids and teens get, but they can rarely relate to them.
For them, sex might be pleasant, but not really a form of attraction or desire (watch out: those words mean slightly different things!). It might inspire curiosity, but not insatiable lust or that butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling. It might be something they don’t care about one way or the other, or it might be something they’re actively repulsed or horrified by.
Asexual people experience and imagine sex in a variety of ways, few of which are considered “normal” in our culture.
For example, adults often tell asexual youth that they’ll “grow out of it,” which can be very invalidating. Even if your sexuality changes later in life, the one you’ve got right now is still quite real.
Adults may erase asexuality from sex education and from media depictions of sexuality and relationships. They may completely refuse to believe a young person who identifies as asexual because all teens are obsessed with sex, amirite?
This is a form of gaslighting, and it teaches young people not to trust their own perceptions of themselves and their desires.
All asexual people have to deal with comments like these, but they may especially impact young people who are just starting to think about their own sexuality and are less likely to have found supportive people and spaces that will affirm their identities.
So how can we be better at supporting asexual youth? Here are five ways to start.
Everyone keeps sending me this Atlantic article about a new OkCupid feature for nonmonogamous people, so I might as well respond to it.
The new setting, which became available for some beta users in December, allows users who are listed as “seeing someone,” “married,” or “in an open relationship” on the platform to link their profiles and search for other people to join their relationship.
[…] Though specialized dating sites for polyamorous people exist, this appears to be the first instance of a mainstream online-dating platform allowing two users to search for sexual partners together, as a unit.
[…] “Finding your partner is very important,” [OkCupid chief product officer Jimena Almendares] said, “you should have the option to express specifically and exactly who you are and what you need.”
Honestly, I know I should be excited about this Great Leap For Polyamory Recognition, but at this point, I’m not. I just can’t care. This feature only serves and makes visible one incredibly narrow, very privileged, and often harmful version of polyamory, and it has nothing to do with the polyamory that I or any of my partners practice.
Let’s start with the fact that Almendares refers to “your partner” (singular) and that the feature only allows you to link to one partner. When are non-poly people going to understand that polyamory is not about “your partner,” “the couple,” or “the relationship,” but rather about “your partners” and “your relationships” and the people in those relationships? This sort of couple-centric language may seem like an innocent holdover from everyone’s monogamous days, but it can have serious implications for how we treat partners who are more short-term, casual, or recent than others.
Sure, some people are totally fine with “joining the relationship.” I’m not writing about those people. I’m writing about those of us who dislike being solicited to become some straight couple’s fun queer sex toy, and those of us who are not interested in relationships where we are treated as intrinsically lesser because someone else got there first.
None of that means that the new feature is bad or wrong; I’m just explaining why I don’t care about it and why I’m annoyed to see it portrayed as a big victory for poly folks on OkCupid.
What really is cool is that OkCupid already lets people list their relationship style preference (I’ve included mine here as an example) and it lets you link to other users’ profiles in the text of your own profile. Many poly people use that to let others know who they’re already dating. You can also, of course, use it to mention friends and fuck buddies and whoever else you’d like. It’s lovely specifically because it doesn’t force you to categorize anyone based on importance. OkCupid also lets you filter by monogamy/nonmonogamy when browsing your matches, which helps people find potential partners who are interested in the same types of relationships they are.
If OkCupid already includes all these options that recognize polyamory, why is this one being touted all over my online feeds as evidence that the dating site is “finally including options for poly couples”? Probably because this particular option caters to such an easily-recognizable version of polyamory, by “allowing two users to search for sexual partners together, as a unit.”
Of course, if you ask just about any bisexual woman, poly or not, she’ll tell you that there has been absolutely nothing stopping two users from searching for sexual partners together as a unit this whole time. They do it quite often, and trust me, there’s never any confusion when I get a message from an account with two headless bodies in the profile pic that says, “My wife and I are looking for a hot young woman to have some fun with…” It is abundantly clear to me from the first message what sort of arrangement this is and how much value as a human being I have to these random strangers.
Certainly not all “unicorn hunters” (as they’re called in the poly community) are as objectifying, entitled, and heterosexist as the prototypical example, but in my experience, even the nicest and most consent-oriented ones are operating under a lot of flawed assumptions about queer women and what constitutes an equitable, mutually satisfying relationship. But whatever, this isn’t really the article to hash all that out in. I’m just saying that for many of us polyamorous folks, queer women especially, there’s no “victory” in any dating site feature that claims to make it even easier for these couples to target us.
Calling unicorn hunting “polyamory” feels to me a bit like calling same-sex marriage “LGBTQ equality,” except admittedly without the implications about oppression. Yes, both of these things are components of polyamory and LGBTQ equality, respectively, but both of them are frequently treated by the media (and even by many activists) as if they are the same thing. In the end, I feel similarly about unicorn hunting as I feel about same-sex marriage: do it if it floats your boat, but try not to trip over the rest of us on your way there and definitely don’t act like it’s all there is to fight for and make visible.
Before the chorus of But At Least They Did Something So Just Be Grateful For That begins, I’ll just say this: I’m not sure it’s at all a positive thing to continue perpetuating the idea that polyamory is all about couples looking for a hot young woman to “add” to the relationship. (By the way: even in an arrangement like that, the woman is not being “added.” She is forming two new relationships, one with each person in the preexisting couple, and each person in the preexisting couple is forming a new relationship with her. This is an important distinction.) I don’t celebrate it for the same reason I don’t cheer when a TV show adds yet another conventionally attractive white bisexual woman who sleeps with a ton of people and can’t commit to a serious relationship: there is absolutely nothing wrong with being that way, but it’s a stereotype that causes many people to have a negative impression of bisexual women, so can’t we at least portray a greater variety of bisexual women? Can’t we acknowledge that it doesn’t always look this way?
I would love for more people to know that polyamory can look like this. I would love for more people whose polyamory looks like that to have an easier time using dating websites. One very small and easy thing OkCupid could do (as could Facebook) would be to allow people to list multiple partners rather than just one, especially if the context is open relationships.
Remember: the whole point of polyamory is multiple partners. You may not feel the same way about all of them, you may not see all of them as often, they may not have the same genders, you may not share homes or bank accounts or parenting responsibilities with all of them, and you may even (though this makes me cringe for my own reasons) have rules about what you can and cannot do with some of them, but they are all your partners. There is no “your partner” and “the relationship” in polyamory unless you are currently only seeing one person. Hopefully the folks over at OkCupid realize this soon.
P.S. Here are some great perspectives on this from Ozy and Neil, because I like their writing and I want to show you that this isn’t just me.
I recently read Olivia’s excellent blog post, “I’m Tired Of Curating.” In it she describes her experiences as a mental health advocate and a person with mental illness(es), and it resonated a lot with me:
I’m not allowed to share these thoughts because they glorify an eating disorder, because I’m not actively telling people how awful it is to be sick, because I’m remembering how intertwined I am with the disease, the way it really is part of the way my mind works rather than something that needs to be kicked out of my life.
[…] I’m sick of trying to spin these thoughts into something useful or meaningful. Since I’ve started to write openly about treatment and recovery and mental illness, I feel as if I need to be a role model or someone that others can look to to see that mental illness does not destroy your life. And yet it’s consumed all of mine and I feel as if I’ve gained nothing except 50 pounds.
I don’t want to curate my words today. I don’t want to be careful not to trigger anyone or to mistakenly portray the ways I behave in a positive light. I want to be allowed the space to honestly portray my mental illness, including the way that it looks seductive when I’m anxious and overwhelmed. Right now restriction is the only thing that makes sense to me. I hate having to hedge that with the caveat that I know it’s not healthy and no other people shouldn’t do it and yes it will fuck up my life.
[…] As someone who has a mental illness and advocates for people with mental illnesses, sometimes I feel like I’m not actually allowed to have my mental illness. Sure, I get to talk about the experience and share inspiring stories or even stories about how nastybad it is and tips and tricks that I’ve picked up, but I don’t get to publicly have the thoughts and feelings that come with a jerkbrain. I don’t get to type “I think I’m a shitstain on the world” without people disregarding everything else I say. I don’t get to type “I truly would like to skip all upcoming meals indefinitely” without being accused of promoting unhealthy behaviors. Newsflash world: I have depression and an eating disorder. These are things that I think on the regular. If it’s too ugly to see it and you have to look away when I can’t be polished, then I don’t understand the point of my activism and advocacy. I don’t understand why I write anymore.
When I read this, it suddenly put my experiences into a context that made sense. Because I’ve been there.
Not only have I felt like I couldn’t share my negative experiences with mental illness, but I was also made to feel like I couldn’t share my victories, either. I once posted on my personal Facebook that I was proud of myself for having been (safely) off of medication for a year, and someone messaged me letting me know that I shouldn’t post things like that because it’ll make people who still need to be on medication feel bad, and that this might be helpful for me to know “considering [my] future career.” Except my personal Facebook page isn’t the same as my professional counseling website, and it’s not even the same as my blog. It’s my space to share my life with my friends. The purpose of my Facebook is to connect with my friends, not to affirm other people. Of course, I like to affirm other people and often try to, but that shouldn’t be an expectation placed on me. It shouldn’t have to be the primary goal of my self-expression.
So that’s a weird, narrow line we mental health advocates have to walk. We’re criticized for being honest about the ugly sides of mental illness (either because it means we’re “glorifying” mental illness or because we’re “confirming negative stereotypes” or [insert accusation here), and we’re criticized for “making others feel bad” when we’re honest about successful recovery. (And, yes, I get to simultaneously believe that there is nothing wrong with taking psychiatric medication and to be proud of myself for getting to a place where I am able to stop taking it. You can accept medical treatment as necessary and morally acceptable and you can be glad when you don’t need medical treatment anymore!)
As a result, we end up presenting a sanitized version of our actual struggles that’s neither overly negative nor inappropriately jealousy-inducing. “Jerkbrain’s really getting me down today, please send cute animal photos.” “Today sucked so I’m going to do some much-needed self-care.” And so on and so forth. Obviously, those can be completely valid and genuine expressions, but as Olivia pointed out, sometimes it’s a lot less pretty.
A while back, I wrote about a particular strain of criticism of people (generally teenage girls) who “glorify” or “enable” mental illness symptoms by presenting them in a romantic or sexy light. The argument goes that these blogs may discourage young people from seeing their mental illnesses as treatable (or seeing them as illnesses at all) and encourage them to do harmful behaviors associated with those illnesses–self-harm, restricting, purging, etc. In that post, I concluded: “It’s easy to say, ‘Don’t romanticize depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.’ It’s harder to say, ‘Don’t show symptoms of your depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.'”
Unfortunately, as I’m learning, it’s not actually particularly difficult to say that at all; you just have to be a little more subtle. Certainly nobody in our communities would ever come right out and say that people with mental illnesses should hide all of their symptoms; heavens no, that would be ableist. Instead, they fill our Facebook threads with condescending reminders to “take better care of yourself” and “that’s just jerkbrain talking.” We can discuss our symptoms as long as we make it absolutely clear that we hate the symptoms and the illness and are completely dedicated to the project of making a full recovery. To admit that sometimes we don’t want to recover is to “glorify” mental illness and “enable” others. It’s to “confirm stereotypes” about people with mental illness, as if the problem is overlapping with a stereotype and not stereotyping people to begin with.
The Mental Health Advocate Pedestal is real and it’s a narrow ledge to squeeze yourself onto. Be honest, but don’t freak us out. Motivate those who are still struggling, but don’t give a rosy and unrealistic perspective. Hate your illness because it’s unhealthy and bad for you, but don’t hate your illness because that’s ableist and implies that there’s something wrong with having a mental illness. Recover, but not so much or so visibly that you make others feel bad. Accomplish because it’s inspirational for others and because people with mental illnesses can do anything neurotypical people can, but don’t accomplish too much, or else are you sure you’re really all that mentally ill? Maybe you just want attention.
I used to blame myself a lot for doing what Olivia calls “curating”–for only portraying my depression in a particular way, not too negative and not too positive. Now I’ve come to see it as a double-bind that everyone who discloses mental illness is placed in, one way or another. Why is it that we’re the ones constantly accused of “encouraging” mental illness when everything about the way our society is set up encourages it? Why is a teenage girl who posts a selfie of herself with mascara tears running down her face any more responsible for someone else’s mental illness than the neurotypical adults who tell each other to “calm down” and “just get over it,” or the boss who creates a stressful and anxiety-provoking work environment, or the primary care doctor who fails to spot the warning signs of depression and refer their patient to a therapist, or the parent who tells their teenager that they’ll “grow out of it”?
We all contribute to ableism and mental illness stigma in various ways, and those of us who actually have mental illness tend to be more aware of that than anyone.
As usual, I’ve got no solution to this except to pay attention to your automatic responses to folks with mental illnesses discussing their experiences. Watch what makes you go “Wow, that is So Real, that is So Brave of you to share” and what makes you go “Uh, are you sure you want to post that so publicly?” The answer might be instructive.