Friday, January 27, 2017

Magical and Alien Diversity

One trope I see a lot in speculative fiction is using magical and/or nonhuman characters as analogues for real-life diversity. I'm not talking about the trope of fantastic racism, where a difference with no real-life equivalent gets treated with discrimination modeled after real life. No, I'm talking about having the character, for all intents and purposes, match the real life definition for a marginalized group, but with that trait explicitly attributed to their magical or nonhuman status. The genderless alien race, the autistic robot, the magically blinded character, you get the picture. The person meets the features of a real-life marginalized group (usually either disabled or LGBT+), but this trait is explicitly linked to their magical or nonhuman status.

This trope has often been criticized, and rightly so. Partly, this can be problematic because readers hoping for representation get faced with a character who's magical or nonhuman being the only one like them in so many stories, which is frustrating and alienating. It also often comes from a place of cowardice for the writer - many writers use magical or nonhuman analogues because they're afraid of misrepresenting the real-life characteristic, or because they don't want to face the true challenges faced by mundane humans with that characteristic. And lastly, it can be linked to the desire to make every 'nonstandard' character trait be plot important - you can't just have a minor character who happens to be having a psychotic episode, instead, they have to be psychic so their bizarre ramblings are plot important.

I agree with those issues, and would love to see more characters in speculative fiction who's minority identities have nothing to do with whether they're human or not or what magical features they have (like Nora and Mary Lou in Vampire Diaries, who are both vampire siphon-witches who just happen to also be lesbians). But even so, I still like the magical and nonhuman portrayals of human forms of diversity. There are some interesting things that can be done when you explicitly link a particular feature with a magical or nonhuman category.

First, it makes it easy to explore the idea of a society where that trait is the norm. The easiest way to explain having a culture where everyone is intersexed and/or agender, for example, is to simply introduce aliens who reproduce in a non-gender-dependant manner. A species of blind underground trolls could be used to explore how a society is built without sight.

Secondly, while deciding to avoid the real-life equivalent so you can avoid getting stuff wrong can be cowardice, it can also be quite practical. If your story requires something to happen that we don't know how to do in real life, or that physically can't happen in real life, making them a fantastic analogue avoids the fridge logic moments for those who know how these things work, and can avoid getting your readers derailed by controversial discussions that you'd rather not get involved in. (An example would be the story idea I had for some kind of magical event causing the majority of children born shortly afterwards to turn out gay.) It can also lessen the risk that your story will become dated when new research changes our understanding of a minority group's characteristics.

Thirdly, stories with fantastic analogues might draw in more prejudiced readers who would never have read that story if the character was seen as part of a real-life group they dislike. While we certainly shouldn't censor all of our stories for the sensibilities of prejudiced people, a story about a shapeshifting race with no true gender might get read by someone who has no desire to read a story about a non-binary human character. What's more, a children's story with these creatures might find its way into the hands of a child who has no access to representation of realistic non-binary characters, because such characters are seen as unsuitable for children by the adults responsible for them. Fiction can have a great power to open people's minds, especially if it's not obviously intended to communicate a message.

And there are many interesting things you can do with this trope. One Star Trek episode I saw focused on an alien race where most members were non-binary, and the few who had binary genders were subjected to reparative therapy to force them to conform to the norm. I'm currently working on a story setting with vampires who are aromantic asexual but feel what can best be described as 'parental attraction' towards people that they want to turn into new vampires. I also wrote a short story once about a species in which children were universally psychopaths until they hit puberty, allowing me to explore how a parent would guide a child through the experience of feeling empathy for the very first time. None of those stories would have worked if the characters were actually members of the real-life minority they were designed to resemble.

And lastly, in a setting where non-marginalized traits are fair game for being linked to magical or nonhuman characters, why not have marginalized traits be treated the same way? In a setting that has aliens who can assume any form and spend most of their time mindlinked to each other, it would be unfortunate if the creators felt that making a species genderless or mute was out of bounds.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Do Asexuals And Aromantics Have Heterosexual Privilege?

I just came across a list of heterosexual privileges. I've heard acephobic/arophobic people claim that heterosexual aromantics, heteroromantic asexuals and aromantic asexuals have heterosexual privilege. So, let's look at the list.

Having  role  models  of  your  gender  and sexual  orientation [edit: and romantic orientation]

This definitely doesn't apply to any aromantic and/or asexual people. It's easier to find gay or bisexual role models than asexual or aromantic ones. In mainstream media, asexuality is represented by problematic fiction suggesting we can be cured or are lying, and the occasional interview with asexuals. Aromantics have even less representation - especially allosexual aromantics.

Learning  about  romance and relationships  from  fiction,  movies,  and  television

Again, not true for aromantic or asexual people. Although not all romances show the characters having sex, the vast majority imply that they eventually will want to do so. And models of how to discuss asexuality and negotiate ace/allo mixed relationships are not found in mainstream fiction at all.
And as for aromantics, while there are certainly characters who don't seek out romance, or who are in a relationship that could be interpreted as a QPR, I can't think of any work of fiction I've seen that explicitly describes a character as wanting deep personal connection without romance. And portrayals of characters who want sex without romance are frequently negative and colored by slut-shaming - especially if the character is female.

Living with  your  partner  and  doing  so openly to all 

This is probably not a big issue for hetero aces, assuming that they can actually find a suitable partner. But for aromantics, QPRs tend to confuse people, often being mistaken for romance (which is especially problematic for a romance-repulsed aromantic) or else treated as 'just' friendship.
QPRs are also more likely to involve individuals who don't have a compatible sexual orientation (so a heterosexual aromantic could easily have a same-sex QPR). And siblings can be QPRs. Lastly, many people seek out multiple QPRs. If a QPR is mistaken for romance, they could be targeted with homophobia, anti-incest sentiments or anti-polyamorous sentiments.
On the legal side, unless a QPR choose to get married, they lack the legal rights to care for each other in sickness, help their QPP immigrate, or share custody of a child.
And speaking of immigration, both romantic aces and aromantics could easily run afoul of the procedures for detecting immigration fraud marriages. A marriage that doesn't involve sex or where the partners don't have all the trappings of romance with each other (eg don't live together, don't sleep together, have sex with other people, or just generally don't have the right body language around each other) could be mistaken for a marriage purely for immigration purposes.

Talking  about  your relationship  and  the projects,  vacations,  and  family  planning steps  you  and  your  partner  are  working  on.

As an asexual, aromantic prospective single parent, I've found that my discussions of my plans for motherhood often get detailed with questions about whether I'm married, how I plan to get pregnant, and so forth. I also feel afraid to explain my situation fully with people who may be opposed to single parenthood or ART. An aromantic person who is coparenting may have difficulty explaining the nature of their relationship with the other parent(s), or why their relationship doesn't have the trappings of romance. For example if their coparent lives in another residence, or has another partner, they can either let people assume a divorce or breakup is involved or else have a lot of complicated explanation.
A heteroromantic asexual in a relationship would have a more superficially typical situation than me, but if their relationship is sexless or has very infrequent sex, this complicates family planning. They may need to do at-home artificial insemination, or have sex more often than they'd like during the female partner's fertile period. The asexual partner could suffer feelings of burnout or frustration with how frequently they are having sex. All of this issues would be very difficult to discuss without having to get into explanations about asexuality.

Expressing pain when a  relationship  ends, and  having others  notice  and  attend  to  your pain

This is a tremendous issue for aromantic people. The end of a QPR can cause grief on par with losing a romantic relationship, and yet QPRs are frequently mistaken for friendships - even by the QPPs!
The situation of one person (usually aromantic) viewing a relationship as a QPR while the other one (usually alloromantic) sees it as a typical friendship is very common, and can easily lead to hurt feelings for the one who feels more strongly about the relationship.
Many aromantics grieve when a 'friend' (who they have a one-sided QPR with) announces that they're romantically involved or getting married, because it's generally expected that a person in a romantic relationship will devote less to their friendships. Expressing this grief can lead to perceptions that they're romantically attracted to that person.

Not  having to lie  about attending  LGBTQIA social  activities,  or  having  friends  in  that community

So far I haven't heard of people getting verbally or physically attacked for their connection to the aromantic/asexual community, except by aro/acephobic LGBT people. However, more subtle discrimination probably occurs. I know of a person who had her work with asexual visibility on her resume while applying for jobs, and applied for many jobs without any offers. When she deleted mention of her advocacy work, she was hired almost immediately.

Kissing/hugging/being  affectionate  in public  without  threat  or  punishment

This is definitely an issue for people with QPRs that would be stigmatized or unacceptable romances. My brother and I are very close, and I consider us to be in a QPR, and someone at our church put in an anonymous call to the police claiming my brother was sexually abusing me. It was cleared up fairly easily, but it really frightened us. My best guess is that she took our hugging, cuddling and general comfort with touching each other as a sign that we were romantically and sexually involved. (The fact that she assumed my younger brother was a sexual perpetrator, as opposed to me being a perpetrator or us having a mutual relationship, is clearly sexism at work.)

Dating  the  person  of  the  gender  you  desire in  your  teen  years

Dating is a big challenge for both asexuals and aromantics, even if they're attracted to the opposite sex. For romantic asexuals, dating frequently involves being pressured to have sex they don't want, or feeling inadequate because their partner detects and is bothered by their lack of enthusiasm.
Many aromantics are romance-repulsed, and being in a romantic relationship makes them feel trapped or suffocated. A break-up feels relieving. Before discovering aromanticism, they often have a string of short-lived relationships, all ending because they weren't romantic enough or rejected romantic overtures from their partner.
In seeking friendships, many aromantic people described getting 'romance-zoned' when a friend gets romantically interested in them and can no longer see them as just a friend. This often leads to the end of the friendship.

Dressing  without  worrying  what  it  might represent  to  someone  else

I don't know if this is more of an ace or aro issue, but as a sex-repulsed aroace, I consciously try to pick clothing that doesn't show off my body, to reduce the likelihood that someone will be attracted to me.

Increased  possibilities  for  getting  a  job  or being  promoted

As described above, I know of a person who feels that she was hired in part because she'd removed the mention of her asexual advocacy work. I also know of a sex-repulsed ace who was fired for being unsociable to her coworkers because their constant discussion of sex made her uncomfortable. (Particularly her one coworker who liked to brag about her boyfriend's penis size.)

Receiving validation  from  your  religious community,  and  being  able  to  hold  positions in  your  religious  leadership  ranks

As I described in my post on asexuality and religious prejudice, someone who doesn't have a 'proper' sexual marriage can experience negative judgment from many Protestant conservative churches.
Aromantic allosexuals have it even worse, because they tend to prefer friends with benefits or other non-romantic sexual relationships, which are very much frowned upon by most conservative churches, especially for female aro-allos.

Adopting or foster parenting children 

Aros are more likely to be single parents if they choose to be parents at all. Single prospective parents are at a disadvantage for fostering and adoption, especially prospective single fathers. In international adoption, many countries have explicit rules against single parent adoption or single father adoption. In US and Canada there are no explicit rules against single parent adoption or fostering, but private adoption is subject to the prejudices of the birthmothers, and the foster care system appears to place greater scrutiny on single foster parents - again, especially for single foster fathers.

Being employed as a K-12  teacher without fear of  being fired for “corrupting  children”

I have not heard of aces or aros having issues with this. Please let me know if you have.

Raising children  without  threats  of  state intervention

Single fathers, especially of girls, are at a higher risk of being accused or suspected of sexual abuse. When you look at lists of signs of a pedophile, lack of interest or difficulty with dating adults is often listed as a sign. Ace or aro men are therefore more likely to be seen as potential pedophiles than het-het men.

Receiving equal  benefits  for  you  and  your partner

QPRs are not legally recognized, so aromantic people either have to get married to a non-romantic partner (if they can) or else miss out on benefits.

Legal marriage, which includes:
Public recognition and support of your relationship
Joint child custody  
Sharing insurance policies at  reduced rates Access to a hospitalized loved one 
Social expectations of longevity and stability for  your relationship 

A QPR has none of those rights, unless it can be disguised as a marriage.

So, out of 16 privileges, heteroromantic aces can access 7 of them, aromantic heterosexuals have access to 3 of them, and aromantic asexuals have only one of these privileges. So clearly, aromantic and asexual people don't have heterosexual privilege.

The biggest surprise for me was the realization that aromantic heterosexuals have it worse than heteroromantic asexuals. We tend to focus more on sexual than romantic orientation, but romantic orientation clearly makes a bigger difference to people's lives, and the prejudice they face. For an asexual person, being heteroromantic instead of aromantic nets them 6 different privileges. For an aromantic, being heterosexual nets them only two more privileges.

And this is a list intended for comparing straight people to LGB people. There may be other privileges het-het people have over aces and/or aros, which are not listed here.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Is Asexuality Subject to Religious Prejudice?

Online, I've encountered some people who are adamant that asexuals don't belong in the queer community - particularly cisgender heteroromantic or aromantic asexuals. One reason they cite is the idea that prejudiced religious people are fine with asexuality but are usually vehemently anti-gay.

To be honest, it doesn't really make sense to me why we'd let homophobes define what is queer. But in any case, is that claim accurate? Is asexuality (specifically aromantic and heteroromantic asexuality) fine with religious bigots?

Not really.

Generally, Christian conservatives are stereotyped as anti-sex. But that's not true. They're opposed to any kind of sex that occurs outside of a heterosexual marriage. But generally they expect that you will find yourself an opposite sex partner to marry, and you will  have sex with your spouse.

For a Catholic, the only religiously supported means of opting out of sex is to become clergy (nun, priest or monk). I could see that working for many aromantic asexuals, although not everyone with that orientation is suited to that lifestyle. But it very much doesn't work for heteroromantic asexuals.

And most Protestant churches don't have celibate clergy, so that option is out. And if you're not a member of celibate clergy, regardless of what brand of Christianity you're in, you'll be expected to marry an opposite sex partner.

For an aromantic asexual, this means feigning romantic feelings. Some aromantics are romance-repulsed, so that would be very difficult and unpleasant for them.

A heteroromantic asexual doesn't need to feign any emotions to find themselves an opposite sex partner. But once they get married, the problems begin.

In most Christian traditions, sex validates a marriage. It's to the point where if you've never had sex with your spouse, even if you fulfilled all the other requirements to marry them, many churches wouldn't consider the two of you truly married.

Furthermore, many Christians don't necessarily require consent for marital sex, especially the female partner's consent. Marital rape is considered acceptable in many Christian churches - indeed, in many cases, 'withholding' sex from your partner is a sin.

This is obviously a big problem for sex-repulsed asexuals. But even sex-indifferent or sex-favourable asexuals are prone to getting bored with sex, or simply not being willing as often as an allosexual partner is. They might get away with it if they're male, but a woman who refuses her husband sex runs the risk of him ignoring that refusal.

Plus, babies are expected in these religious traditions. If you're not making enough babies, then people start to wonder if something's wrong. And using ART is sinful - although you might get away with IVF using your own gametes, as long as you don't discard any spare embryos, and possibly find a way to collect sperm without masturbating.

Speaking of masturbation, while some asexuals have no libido, and some are just as happy masturbating as having sex, there is a group who are actively turned off by sex, but nonetheless have a libido. (For example, autochorissexuals are excited by sexual fantasies that don't involve them, but turned off by the thought of getting involved.)

And masturbating is definitely considered a sin in most Christian churches. Masturbating because you're single is sinful but understandable. But masturbating in preference to sex with your spouse? That's definitely not OK.

So far I've discussed only Christianity. But from what little I know of Islam and Judaism, conservative groups in both religions have broadly similar rules, and being asexual would be just as unpleasant.

So the answer is yes. Both aromantic and heteroromantic asexuals are subject to religious prejudice. It simply takes a different form that the prejudice against people with same sex attractions. But then again, so does transphobia. Prejudice is prejudice, no matter what form it takes.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Signing Gloves: Useful for AAC

Recently there's been a bunch of hype and controversy over this invention:

These gloves are designed to detect when the wearer produces signs and speak the equivalent word out loud.

The criticism has focused on several points. Firstly, proper ASL has a different grammatical structure than English, so word-for-word translation might make about as much sense for ASL->English as it does for Japanese->English. (Not a random comparison, by the way - as someone learning both ASL and Japanese, I've noticed the two languages have some grammatical features in common that aren't found in English, such as starting a sentence with a topic phrase.) ASL also uses nonmanual markers, such as furrowed brows for wh-questions or shaking your head to negate a statement, which will be missed by these gloves.

Secondly, and more importantly, the gloves only translate one way. Let`s say a Deaf person wearing these gloves signs something, and the gloves say it out loud. Then their conversation partner responds verbally, and they have no idea what that person just said to them. Not very useful, is it?

However, both of these criticisms are only an issue for Deaf signers, and not for hearing signers with AAC needs.

Firstly, most hearing AAC signers have much better receptive than expressive verbal language. Some disabilities, such as apraxia or tracheotomy needs, don't affect receptive verbal language at all. Others cause delays in receptive language, but not as severe as expressive language delays. So if the person they signed to responds in speech, this doesn't pose a problem in the slightest. While having signs modeled by others is important for learning, they don't need the signs to understand what others are saying to them.

Secondly, regarding the grammar issue, most AAC signers don't use ASL grammar. They're typically taught to sign using key word signing, a variant of SimCom where only a few key words are signed as the sentence is spoken. (An example, with signed words bolded: "Let's go get something to eat.") Since their models use telegraphic signing with English word order, that's what AAC signers tend to produce as well. They also don't tend to use ASL nonmanual markers, instead using similar body language to hearing speakers.

So, who would benefit the most from these signing gloves? Uncommon Sense's post, The Limitations of Sign Language for Children With Speech Delays, is relevant here. She lists four reasons that using aided AAC is preferable to signing - most people don't understand signs, children shouldn't depend on another person to translate, fine motor issues lead to garbled signs, and aided AAC can be learnt more quickly than signing can (I can confirm that this is true for me, too).

The signing gloves eliminate the first two concerns. With signing gloves, an AAC user can sign to anyone who understands English and be understood, with no need for translation. They also bring the same benefit for verbal language that an SGD does - many kids using SGDs learn to speak better by echoing the SGD voice.

However, the gloves can't compensate for fine motor delays, and they don't help the AAC user or their models to learn new signs. If the gloves can be reprogrammed for each user, they'd be more useful for an AAC user with fine motor issues, but only to a point - if the user's production of two different signs is indistinguishable, or if they simply can't produce even an approximation of certain signs, the gloves won't solve the problem.

As for the learning issue, this is something that needs to be considered on a case by case basis, taking into account how young the AAC user is (how much do you need to catch up on?), whether they have access to a trained sign language instructor, what resources untrained caregivers have to learn signs, and so forth.

One of the big advantages of signing over using an SGD (the person always has their hands) is also lost by the signing gloves. I've seen no information about whether the gloves are waterproof or not, but I'm guessing they aren't. And no doubt there will be many other situations where the gloves must be removed - doing messy activities, fine motor activities, etc. However, anyone who can use the signing gloves can also sign without the gloves, provided their communication partner is able to understand them.

However, signing gloves also have a couple more advantages over an SGD. Firstly, an experienced signer can sign as quickly as most people speak, whereas an SGD user, no matter how skilled, will always be slower to communicate than a speaker is. The signing gloves don't seem like they would seriously impede signing speed (although their designer certainly isn't capable of demonstrating that!).

Secondly, they're quite portable. Ambulatory SGD users, especially small children and those with poor balance and/or strength, often have difficulty carrying their communication device around with them. Tablet SGDs are more portable than most dedicated devices, and there are various carrying straps and similar options, but none of them are as easy and convenient as wearing gloves.

In conclusion, while they certainly wouldn't work for everyone or in every situation, signing gloves seem like a promising option for some AAC users - especially if they've already had a lot of success with signing.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Asexuality and Feminism - What Are Women For, Anyway?

OK, so the blog carnival topic for January's Carnival of Aces is pretty broad - "Many Ways to be Ace". They suggest several ideas for how to approach this topic, and I'm choosing the first one:

How your asexuality intersects, or doesn't, with one of your other identities (ethnicity, religion, romantic orientation, gender, background, career, etc.)
My first thought was to write about autism, but I've written about being autistic and asexual before. And recently I've been thinking a lot about how my experience of oppression as an asexual woman very much feels linked to oppression experienced by allosexual women as well. In particular, my experience of pick up culture in practice is one of the primary ways in which I encounter prejudice for identifying as asexual.

Several years ago, while taking the bus to university, I had several guys try to pick me up. (I still regularly take that bus, but for some reason I haven't had pick up attempts in a while. No idea why.) I also got a pick up attempt in an MMO I play. From my own experience, I've learnt that saying I'm asexual only seems to encourage these guys. Disturbingly, so does saying I'm a sexual abuse survivor who's afraid of sex.

In general, most of these guys only seem to be deterred by the idea of me being 'taken' by another man. Or as the 'gallant knight' put it, whether I had a boyfriend who would be angry if he knew I was hanging out with another man. (Which, given that I did nothing inappropriate with any of those men, implies my imagined boyfriend is a possessive asshole in their minds.)

I've never been involved with another woman, but judging from this thread and this story I'm guessing that wouldn't count as 'taken' enough for them to back off. No, I have to 'belong' to another man, because they only care about other men's desires, not about my desires.

And this highlights a broader misogynist view of women. In the eyes of many men, we are here for the purpose of having men to have sex with us. What's the point of a woman who's asexual or a lesbian? We're not fulfilling our purpose. We're not giving men sex.

The flipside to this is that if a woman isn't lesbian/asexual or taken, she couldn't possibly be selective about which man she chooses. Especially if she's unattractive or undesirable in some way (which is the reason PUAs neg, to tap into women's socialization and make her feel undesirable so she'll be less choosy). An illustration of this can be seen early on in The Walking Dead TV show, when Merle is trying to convince Andrea to undo the handcuffs used to restrain him. He makes a crude sexual advance at her, and when she looks disgusted, he says she's a 'rug-muncher'. In other words, either she's interested in him, or she's a lesbian. (Andrea, by the way, is clearly portrayed as heterosexual. She's just not interested in misogynist redneck racists who pick stupid fights with other survivors in a zombie infested city.)

As an asexual woman, I'm seen as a challenge. Rather than being someone with no interest in men, I'm someone who needs to be cajoled into sex, to convince me that I actually do want it. I need a 'real man' to show me what it's all about.

Because that's what women are for, right?