Asexual Politics: Trigger Warnings and Microaggressions

Note – The views expressed in the following article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ace Times or of other contributors to the publication.

Asexual communities are primarily online communities that shade to the left of the political centre (reflecting LGBT+ political inspiration). This entails that if you participate in asexual communities in the 2010s, you’ll encounter with some frequency two favourite left-wing political correctness concepts: trigger warnings and microaggressions. And if you’re like me, you may have some serious doubts about this burgeoning trend.

It’s ironic that I first encountered trigger warnings in the asexual community when reading responses to comments about asexuality made by American sex columnist Dan Savage. Savage is known for his attention to LQBTQ issues (he identifies as gay), and for his cynical, politically incorrect style. When interviewed in the documentary (A)sexual (Angela Tucker, 2011), he makes a few remarks which reflect that style and the fact that at the time he was uninformed about asexuality. He expresses doubt that asexuals could masturbate and still be asexual, contends that asexuals must inform sexuals of their orientation before starting a relationship, and suggests that in certain cases asexuality may be a manifestation of repressed homosexuality or some deviant sexual kink. Most strikingly, he thinks that it’s ridiculous for asexuals to participate in pride parades: “It’s funny to think about, you’ve got the gays marching for the right to be cock sucking homosexuals, and then you have the asexuals marching for the right to not do anything. Which is hilarious, like you didn’t need to march for that right, you just needed to stay home and not do anything.” Comments made by Savage subsequent to the release of the documentary suggest that his understanding of asexuality has improved. The main point of contention between him and some asexuals is that he still thinks asexuals are ethically required to inform potential romantic partners of their orientation. (1)

I agree with some of what Savage says. Asexuals who object to his informed dating requirement seem to be motivated by the fact that it’s hard to meet other asexuals. But it’s hardly ethical to allow a romantic partner to be deceived about an issue as fundamental as sexual orientation until that person is already heavily invested in a relationship. Asexuals who think otherwise are being selfish. I have mixed thoughts regarding Savage’s other comments. His opinion on masturbation is intuitively plausible but factually incorrect (so the kind of mistake an uninformed person could reasonably make). It’s understandable that asexuals who are used to having their identity questioned dislike his suggestion of sexual repression, but it probably does occur in a limited number of cases. And his scepticism with respect to asexual participation in pride parades ignores the fact that the asexual community has legitimate reasons for raising awareness. That said, it’s questionable whether pride parades are the right venue (the reception at the San Fransisco event as depicted in (A)sexual would suggest not), and there is a certain absurdity to asexuals demonstrating which is rather amusing.

In any case, the point of the above discussion is to make apparent the absurdity of a culture that places trigger warnings above such material. The concept of trigger warnings originates from feminist websites with content directed towards those who have experienced sexual assault. Since a significant percentage of sexual assault survivors experience PTSD for a period after the event, there is a reasonable concern that those people should be informed of graphic material which could trigger PTSD symptoms. Now, however, trigger warnings have proliferated in scope, encompassing not only material that could reasonably be predicted to cause trauma for people who have suffered a serious personal violation, to encompass essentially anything within the realm of identity politics to which someone might take offence. There’s a significant difference between experiencing a PTSD flashback and just being pissed off that an interlocutor is uniformed when talking about your particular sexual or gender identity, or that they disagree with you on ethical grounds. Instead of providing a reasoned response, people declare that they are “triggered”, as though they have a right to never be offended when participating in democratic discourse. An opportunity to educate and make allies is turned into an exercise in shaming and shutting off debate.

This culture of shaming is continued through attention to microaggressions. These concern comments made by members of a majority with respect to members of a minority which are perceived by the latter group as being insensitive and as making them feel like outsiders. Essentially, the kinds of comments that piss people off. Asexuals regularly hear comments of this sort. This may happen when asexuals inform others of their orientation, and are met with one or another of the “asexual bingo” line of responses. It can also occur when asexuals encounter assumptions of compulsory sexuality in social situations, such as being roped into playing a drinking game at a party where the premise of the game assumes that everyone is sexually active.

From reading the online discussion of microaggressions that takes place within the asexual community, however, one gets the impression that the majority of microaggressions asexuals encounter originate from other asexuals. This is the view presented by some members of the asexual community who reject participation in AVEN, on the grounds that the forum site manifests a cissexist, transphobic, ableist, racist, rape culture. The preferred outlet for these members is the Tumblr microblogging service, where they make personal blogs detailing their grievances with AVEN. Initially, I was puzzled to encounter such vitriol. The odd really bad comment appears on AVEN, but it is a paradigm of moderation and civility compared to the majority of the Internet (if one really wants to be pissed off, try reading the comments below articles from any mainstream newspaper, and head over to Breitbart News Network to truly test your luck). But from looking into the issue further, it appears that what offends members of the Tumblr community so much is a combination of a small number of AVEN members known for being outspoken and politically incorrect and certain discussion threads on AVEN which do not conform to the Tumblr social justice community’s ideology (note – add “warrior” after social justice if you’re sufficiently cynical).

For example, the Tumblr allegations of rape culture on AVEN appear to trace to certain discussion threads where members consider reaching compromises with sexual partners whereby they will engage in at least some forms of sexual activity. The Tumblr community favours the “enthusiastic consent” definition of rape, by which any situation where an asexual partner compromises with respect to sexual activity will be viewed as rape (by definition, a compromise is not enthusiastic). It’s apparent that the Tumblr community defines rape in a way that is far broader than what the general population understands by the term (for example, anyone who has had sex due to verbal pressure from their partner when they were tired and not in the mood has been raped, according to the “enthusiastic consent” definition). Likewise, Tumblr accusations of racism, ableism, and transphobia appear to trace to threads where some AVEN members argue that placing those intersectionality issues front and centre could harm the asexuality movement. Their concern is motivated by the fact that asexuals have had to work to counter accusations that asexuality is really just a mental health or medical problem, and so they’re worried about projecting an image which could undermine that progress. These members are mistaken in thinking that this is a reasonable and fair way to approach intersectionality issues, but it’s an overstatement to call them racist, abelist, and transphobic. It would be more productive to address the concerns which lead some members to take this position, rather than throwing labels as insults before walking away from the discussion. (2)

To summarize, the Tumblr social justice (warrior) community uses language in the following manner:

1. They take a term describing a social justice issue – such as “rape”, “abelism”, “racism”, or “transphobia” – and define it in a way that captures far more than what the general population understands by the term.

2. This enables them to apply those labels to a large number of people who would not normally be considered to fit within their scope. That includes anyone who objects to this broad use of the label (so anyone who disagrees with the “enthusiastic consent” definition of rape is a rape apologist).

3. Since labels like “rape apologist” define a person as fundamentally ignorant and evil, the Tumblr community refuses to talk with anyone who does not use these terms in their preferred manner. Essentially, that means everyone who does not belong to the Tumblr community.

4. Furthermore, because labels like “rape apologist” define a person as fundamentally ignorant and evil, once the Tumblr community establishes that one of those terms applies to someone, they can infer that every other term they dislike applies too. So writers on Tumblr rarely just complain about say rape culture or transphobia on AVEN, it is usually cissexist racist abelist transphobic rape culture. On finding that the majority of AVEN members do not support these views, Tumblr writers label the whole AVEN community cissexist racist abelist transphobic rape apologists, and complain that AVEN gaslights them (makes them feel like they are crazy).

5. As a result, the Tumblr community loses the ability to make judgments of degree, so to them most people on the left of the political spectrum appear just as bad as those on the right. And they spend most of their time fighting with members of progressive movements over small differences of terminology (in the tradition of campus politics where the Communist club, the Marxist Club, the Trotskyist club, the Socialist club, and the People’s Front club spend more time fighting each other than they do fighting capitalism).

By now, it should be clear that the concepts of trigger warnings and microaggressions are hopelessly counterproductive. I may well be blacklisted simply for using the term “sexual” to refer to non-asexual people. “Sexual” is the term most commonly used on AVEN, but the Tumblr community prefers “allosexual” because they find that “sexual” is triggering to people of colour who are used to being sexualized in the media. This interpretation represents both a disregard for the context dependency of language and a disconnect from the concept’s original use (to indicate graphic material that could reasonably be predicted to cause someone to have a PTSD flashback). It now appears that it encompasses essentially all language and communication (not surprisingly, the Tumblr community is starting to find problems with “allosexual”, its own term). (3)

Social theorist Eric Hoffer is known for recognizing the importance of self-esteem in modern politics, as articulated in his 1951 treatise The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Briefly, his theory is that when inherited traditional value systems (usually religious systems, so for the West that means Christianity) lose legitimacy, people are left to build their own sense of identity by finding an ideology that will provide them with meaning. Through this process of social transformation, concepts of duty and obligation lose importance as the determining factor behind people’s political involvement becomes the desire to enforce their sense of self. Writing in 1951, Hoffer is thinking of mass movements like fascism and communism, and suggests that in terms of their psychological appeal, these ideologies so opposed in content are in fact interchangeable. They each offer their adherents a total worldview, and the ability to inflate their sense of self through contrast with the unbelievers. Hoffer’s theory serves to explain the subsequent 1960s counterculture and the “me” generation. And it serves even better to explain the “me-er than me” twenty-first century Internet generation. The ability for anyone and everyone to carve out a personal discursive space online allows for communities such as Tumblr, where a small group of people can create their own vocabulary which automatically enables them to identify as superior to everyone else.

The current fashion for trigger warnings and microaggressions on college campuses and in online communities is justifiably suspect because it represents an extension of this culture, whereby the minor annoyances of living in society are transformed into major social issues. Almost everyone is disadvantaged in some ways and a member of a minority with respect to some issues, so those who want to be offended will likely have an easy time doing so. This reflects a desire for people to turn themselves into victims, because doing so enables them to feel self-important through the act of shaming the perpetrator. In the process, it undoes the social ethic of cooperation and dialogue which used to animate left-wing politics. The effect is to erode the standing of the left.

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About the Author

I blog about whatever interests me. Originally, my focus concerned satirical food reviews documenting the hipster trend (hence the name). I've since branched out into writing about politics and philosophy. Lately, I've been covering asexuality/aromantic themes. HFP

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