Monday, October 5, 2015

Educator vs. Person

I talk a lot about things that aren't anybody's business.

Sometimes people ask me why I put up with the questions people ask. Or why I care so much about getting them an answer. Or why I create a bad example by teaching them it's okay to ask those questions of a stranger.

I think it all comes down to me as an educator versus me as a person.

Here are some of the explicit, "none-of-your-business" style questions I've been asked numerous times by strangers and new acquaintances:
  • "Have you had sex?"
  • "Do your genitals work?"
  • "Were you sexually abused?"
  • "What mental illnesses do you have?"
  • "Are you autistic?"
  • "Would you have sex?"
  • "Have you had your hormones checked?"
  • "Don't you want children?"
  • "Are you sure you're not gay?"
  • "Do you get horny?"
  • "Do you masturbate? Do you fantasize? Do you dream about sex?"
  • "Have you ever had an orgasm?"
  • "Have you tried counseling?"
I think we can agree that these are not questions most (polite) people would feel comfortable asking a person they'd just met or a person they don't know. But I've found that suddenly they become fair game from people who would otherwise know better as soon as I disclose I'm asexual. And let me stress this. I have literally been asked about whether I have a sexual abuse history by strangers who have not asked if I am okay with discussing those things. I have been asked whether I ever get horny at work by a much older co-worker. I have been told at a party that asexuality only makes sense if you've got a medical problem, and the fellow asked whether I did (and laughed when he said it). It's a bit baffling that mentioning my sexual orientation makes some people think it's okay to talk about these subjects.

And when I've occasionally made statements to the effect of "please be respectful when discussing our orientation with us--don't assume you are now invited to ask about my medical history, my sexual history, my biology, or my mental health," sometimes I get pushback from people who sound furious. They just want to understand, they explain, self-righteously defending their right to ask these questions. How are they supposed to learn if we won't educate them? And requests to look up information online are also often scoffed at. They don't want to just Google it. They don't know enough to be able to find the right information! It has to come from us! Why did we even say anything if everything else they want to know is none of their business?

The problem is that we change from "person" to "service provider" in these folks' minds, without our consent. They believe--and sometimes express--that we actually have given them permission to interrogate us about the orientation if we are comfortable mentioning it. They aren't thinking of us as individuals anymore when this attitude comes out. They are thinking of us as repositories of knowledge who don't have the right to privacy (unless we never mention it at all--then they'll respect our privacy, which translates to "assuming we're straight and treating us as such"). 

But I am an educator on this topic, and not a particularly sensitive one. I still don't think it's okay to suddenly ask me anatomical questions about my genitals or ask for explicit information about what sexual acts I have performed, but I understand that people who aren't thinking about me as a person are trying to access information about asexuality when they say these things. So what I try to do is provide that information at the same time as teaching them that they must always conceive of us as people. I don't want them to become defensive, which sometimes happens at first when they realize they've asked an inappropriate question, but there are ways to avoid the knee-jerk "how dare you make me feel bad for asking questions" response. Usually by making it less personal: For instance, if someone asks me BUT DO YOU MASTURBATE, I tell them the answer for the community (some of us do, some of us don't, just like anyone else), and tack on a request to be careful when asking personal questions about asexual people--to ask them in the general when possible. That they will be much more likely to answer your questions if they feel like their boundaries will be respected.

Unfortunately, even if they claim they just want to learn, they will sometimes explode if you resist their line of questioning in any way or ever imply that their requests for information are inappropriate. They may suddenly switch into "you're too unfriendly, ASEXUAL PEOPLE DON'T WANT ME TO KNOW THIS STUFF, guess I don't have to respect your group and it's your fault!" mode. And I've noticed that if you ever imply, even a little bit, that their questions are inappropriate, certain types of people will attempt to gaslight you and claim it's your personal unwillingness to educate that has poisoned them against being an ally forever after.

To those people, I say . . .  

I'm actually way more tolerant of invasive questions than most people, but I do not want to encourage curious parties to feel entitled to our personal details at the expense of our comfort. You should engage in educational questioning only with the continuous consent of the questioned person, and if you are going to shame a person for being unwilling to sacrifice their time, energy, and feeling of safety to satisfy your curiosity, I actually don't care if you "want to be an ally." I don't believe you at this point. Allies don't bully people into accepting unwanted interactions or disclosing information they've identified as too private to share with you. I don't want your support if it's conditional upon your having complete freedom to call the shots and set the boundaries. The people you ask these questions of should be the ones setting those.

As a person who has created a platform and encouraged educational efforts surrounding asexuality, I have put myself in a position to field uncomfortable questions. I still expect people to treat me with respect while doing it, and to potentially risk discomfort themselves when approaching me--meaning yeah, I do think it's better for them to ask whether they can ask about something known to be sensitive subject matter than it is to just assume any educator is fine with these subjects. Unless I have explicitly invited you to talk to me about a sub-topic of asexuality or you have seen me state openness about it and you know your question is being offered in the same context, I expect to be treated like a person--and those who truly want to support asexuality education efforts will never state that they have a right to dehumanize us in the process.


  1. In the autistic rights community, we call this being a "self-narrating zoo exhibit".

  2. In the autistic rights community, we call this being a "self-narrating zoo exhibit".