Identity politics are great in many, many ways. When people take on an identity, it allows them to feel like they have a place in the world, and It helps them communicate their experiences more easily.
As an asexual activist, I worked under the framework of identity politics for a long time. In order to explain the asexual identity, I had to explain the experiences that led different people to identify as ace. The visibility work I was doing was so powerful because it was giving words and focus to experiences that weren’t getting talked about. The really amazing thing, though, is that these experiences were familiar to a lot of allosexual people as well. The set of experiences talked about in the asexual discourse wasn’t relevant only to asexual people.
In a way, this has been the asexual community’s “motto” for some time – “it’s a tool, not an identity”. As a tool, asexuality has allowed people to identify the social mechanisms that shape expectations around sex and relationships. As a tool, it allowed people to reexamine how they approach sexual encounters, physical encounters, intimate encounters and so on. It allowed people to reexamine how they do relationships, and try and find what works for them outside of the normative plan.
But even communities who put an emphasis on asexuality being a tool, still base their existence on the ace identity. The community is open, first and foremost, for asexuals.
This creates some problems, because there’s a limit to what identity politics can do.
Identity politics, alongside a large set of advantages, also holds a considerable amount of disadvantages. Basing communities only around identities creates an exclusive club for those who chose to identify under the given label. The problem, as I see it, arises when faced with the conversations I had with allosexual people while doing visibility work. More than once I stood in front of someone who was heavily impacted by the ideas I was discussing, and not because they were asexual. The idea of rejecting the obviousness of sex, the idea of choosing whether to be sexual (and not just with whom), the idea of valuing relationships even if they’re not sexual – all these are extremely radical and potentially empowering ideas, even for people who do experience sexual attraction. The problem is – if any of these people want to continue talking about it, the only place to do so is in communities that are designated for people who don’t experience sexual attraction.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that allosexual people can’t take part in asexual communities. But this can be a less than ideal situation for both the allosexual person and the community of aces: I know that for myself, I would’ve felt uncomfortable taking space in a community that organizes around a label I don’t identify with*. Besides that, I think that a majority of aces might feel uncomfortable if more and more allosexual people, who find the asexual discourse relevant to their lives, came into the community. I think a lot of asexual people would definitely want to keep the asexual community with a majority of aces – which automatically makes allosexual people second-best members of the community. Part of the reason that an identity-based community can be so empowering is because of its exclusivity – for some people, a safe space can be created only with a closed community of other people who identify the same way they do, and that’s totally fine.
But the problem in hand comes exactly from that double-goal of the community. On one hand, we seem to want to open the discourse up for non-asexuals to recognize it and potentially benefit from it, but we close up the communities in a way that doesn’t really allow allosexuals to take part in the discussion as equals.
Are you suggesting to stop doing identity-based communities, and open the communities up for just anybody?
I think there’s a good reason to have identity-based communities. As I said, wanting to have an exclusive safe space is a NEED asexual people have, and it should be met. I think we should definitely have identity-based communities.
I just think that shouldn’t be the extent of the asexual community and discourse, because of the built-in limitations identity politics offers.
What I suggest is creating experience-based communities alongside identity-based communities.
The reason the asexual discourse is so meaningful to some allosexual people is because they can identify with a lot of the experiences that lead people to identify as ace, even if they also have experiences that would “disqualify” them from identifying as such.
I believe that if we could create more spaces to talk about the sexual oppression that works its force upon us all – such as the obviousness of sex – we would be able to open up the discussion to more people. We would be able to create more inclusive spaces, alongside exclusive safe spaces.
Personally, I feel like these spaces are also a need of mine – as someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction. This is because most of the people I interact with are not asexual. Most of the people I create meaningful relationships with do experience sexual attraction. So I have a huge interest in letting them have a space to talk about sexual obviousness, or about how we value relationships according to sexuality or romanticism. Until they have a space to practice these ideas, figure out how they affect them and how they want to deal with that effect – I’m bound to create meaningful relationships with people who might understand how important non-sexual and non-romantic relationships are in my life, but not be able to actually change their personal approach towards relationships. This is because such a change requires practice. And to be fair, I don’t think I have it down yet! I’m still practicing myself. And I feel like I could benefit from inclusive communities, based upon experiences talked about in the asexual community, but not exclusive to people whom their sexual feelings are limited to those experiences. This will not function as a replacement to the existing asexual communities. But it could definitely provide an alternative for those who are seeking for it – both asexual and not.
* Which is why, by the way, I never felt comfortable taking part in aromantic communities, even though the aromantic discourse, alongside relationship anarchy, is the only way I can find myself thinking of and constructing relationships in my life.