Monday 28 December 2009

Q + A with Joy Davidson (part 1)

This series is designed to give me things about the small world of asexuality to talk about, other than the slightly insular view of things running round other blogs, and the very insular view of things running round my head. Each time I update it, I'll pull another question/answer from this article, and analyse them. I'll try to be relatively fair about it, giving an asexual perspective, but also considering Joy's perspective.

I have no idea what the copyright situation is with quoting things. I'd like to point out that the copyright on this article belongs entirely to ABC News, and I'm quoting directly from it for the purpose of analysis.

Part One:
I am 19 years old, and I've been having a lot of trouble convincing my parents that I do not experience sexual attraction. After watching the asexuality story on "20/20," my father looked at me during your comments and gave me a very snide "See?" as if he feels that I should force myself to do something that I have absolutely no interest in. Is there anything I can say to my parents that will make them understand that sex just is not for me?

This seems to be the relatively confident asexual to start off, so no-one can accuse the article of bias. However, notice that they don't use the term asexual in relation to themselves. Also notice that (if these letters are indeed genuine), Davidson's own comments have caused increased friction in at least one family with an asexual in, and are used by the father as an authoritative justification of his doubts.

This is also the comment that should be easiest enough to answer. Even someone who doesn't believe in asexuality should see that someone who doesn't want sex at the moment should be given space by their parents, and just needs to adress how to get everyone communicating properly.

Davidson Responds:

I hope you can see the weird humor in having a dad who says, "Be more sexual!" while most of your friends' folks are probably saying, "Wait!"

A humor that a lot of asexuals have pointed out. Some have said there's a magic age of about 16, after which they suddenly get a bit more involved in Project Grandchild.

But I would hate to think you're rebelling against your father's pressure. Rebellion may be part of growing up, but knowing when someone has a good point, (even if it IS your dad!) is part of being a grown-up. In this instance, your dad is picking up on the idea that lack of interest in sex can be based on something other than an irreversible condition called asexuality.

I suppose the crucial difference here between Joy and I is what we've read into the letter. She says 'picking up on', while I think 'refusing to let go of' is probably more accurate.

I don't feel it's worth mentioning that the unsubtle way in which she immediately says "You're rebelling" is quite insulting. It seems people often use whatever's there to justify it not being proper asexuality. In this case, the girl may very well be rebelling. However, the only information in the letter is that she has a dad who's annoyed with her. QED- she must be in a rebellious phase!

Also- irreversible condition. Why don't we have more asexuals who ponder language bias? It's struck me that it's an interesting aspect of the asexual movement.

I totally believe that you're not inclined toward having sex right now. But do I know for sure that you will never be interested? Not without a crystal ball. We all develop sexually at different paces. Some of us are sexually precocious, and some of us are late bloomers. Just because someone is in her late teens or early 20s doesn't mean she is necessarily in full bloom. What you feel now may not be who you are so much as where you are in your own unique cycle of development. By labeling yourself too soon, you run a serious risk of mislabeling yourself, then feeling duty-bound to live up to it.

"I believe you. But I don't." At this point, she's stopped answering the question and just started listing her own views. I hope she gets back to the problem with the father soon, because it seems to me that the girl is pretty mature about knowing what she wants and turning her identity into the problem is just going to make her relationship with her dad, and those of thousands like her, more difficult.

There's no doubt that when you feel like an outsider, when all your friends seem boy crazy or girl crazy and you're not, you'll want to gravitate to a group that better reflects where you stand. I'd be down with that 100 percent if the group in question stood for accepting how you feel right now but also supported the possibilities for change. I'd be more comfortable, too, if the group offered education instead of an "if you think you are, you are" approach to the matter of asexuality. Lay psychology is sometimes intuitive and smart, and sometimes more about inclusion than pure wisdom.

Now, these are interesting criticisms of the asexual movement, and I'm not just going to brush them aside (although it's obvious at this point that the original letter mentioned asexuality, and that it's been whitewashed out).

The question of whether asexuals are 'allowed' by the movement to change their ways is a long one. In my recent change from asexual to who-knows (which is now approximately back to demisexual), I found that asexuals were all entirely enthusiastic about me questioning myself, but I did feel constrained by the asexual label, and there is a certain fear of leaving it that has to be adressed, if we're sure that eager asexuals aren't just denying their partly sexual natures. I'm aware that both Joy and I are rambling horribly, so for now, I'll just ask that you read this post by the formerly asexual-identifying Venus of Willendork, written with Joy's objections in mind.

I personally love the self-definition of asexuality. I'm not sure Joy quite grasps the consequences of denying people the right to define themselves. One reason asexuals don't offer an education is because there is none to offer. Not just asexuality, but sexuality too, is indefinable. There is very little concrete knowledge out there about sexuality, and only the possession of concrete knowledge that someone else doesn't have can possibly raise someone to the level of a Teacher, rather than a Wise Friend.
There is also absolutely no way of deciding any sexuality other than self-identification. Without self-identification, there would be no sexual orientation in the world.

However, the idea of the asexual community offering an education is an interesting one. Maybe, rather than leaving the vulnerable minds of new asexuals in the care of whoever stays in AVEN (and that place, especially the repeated threads, does get a bit too dull after a while), and the occasional awesome but jokey flow chart, it would be better if some form of asexual authority eventually arises to put together some sort of e-guidebook for those questioning if they're asexual. A serious flowchart, perhaps. The FAQ of AVEN is a good example of one or a few asexuals committing what's often thought of as the horrific crime of speaking for all, and maybe it's something that has to be done occasionally, as little as possible, to gain respect. Maybe there should be some sort of protocol for 'am I asexual' and 'I am (or varient). What next?'. Maybe Joy's right, and it's too important a thing to leave to chance, as the term becomes better known, and we get more and more asexuals who aren't neccesarily keenly introspective and able to navigate their own way round finding out if they're asexual.

In addition to the timing of sexual development, there are plenty of other legitimate reasons that someone could feel asexual without being in a permanent or irreversible state. The short list includes endocrine imbalances, history of trauma or abuse, subconscious negative attitudes about sex, fear of being swept up or losing control, depression, anxiety, and the effects of undiagnosed medical conditions. Some people might even just like feeling "special" or "unusual." In fact, there are so many convoluted possibilities that only a trained person can help you sort them out.

More of the same.

Is it scary to dig around in your emotional and physical recesses? Good grief, yes! But when you have another 70 or 80 years of life ahead of you, don't you owe it to yourself to spend a few of them doing that kind of excavating?

I completely agree with her here. And we do need to encourage this kind of thought. But, at the same time, it's already being encouraged more than she realises, and there's no need to police the first few years of everyone's asexuality to make sure they doubt themself all the time.

Also, I did spend years and years not just questioning, but actively trying to invent sexual attraction. And a lot of questioning, of course. This girl's older than me, and Joy's completely dismissed the idea that she could have already spent years trying to figure things out.

Even if, in the end, you are more convinced than ever that you're incapable of being attracted to anyone, male or female, at least you will have come to that conclusion after educated and responsible consideration. I'd really like to see you give yourself the advantage of time, and, ideally, have at least a few sessions with a qualified sex therapist so that you can talk about all your feelings beyond the pressure imposed by either your family or your peer group.

*goes back and looks at the question*
*looks back through the answer again*
*looks at the question again*

You know what, this is what really harms asexuality. Joy Davidson here admits that not wanting to have sex, not feeling sexual attraction, can be a valid way to live your life. However, when an asexual reaches out to her for help, trying to find out how to live this life, all Joy does is melt into a flurry of reasons she might not be asexual. Yes, doubting yourself is important. But I would love, just for once, to see some professional advice about asexuality from the other side of the coming out line. It's like the only asexual issue is whether we exist or not, and we're too busy with that issue that we have no time to actually exist.


  1. I guess it's not surprising, the hard sell that Davidson is giving her own field here. She doesn't even try to make it subtle. There seems to be this trend that knowledge is meaningless unless doled out by a "professional". I also think it's insulting to tell someone that their ideas have no merit unless they're confirmed by "a trained person". You're figuring out your own personal sexuality here, not performing open-heart surgery. Way to make someone feel powerless! I agree that the constant back-and-forth on our existence is really tiring, and I hope we move beyond that soon.

    I also wonder if the letter is genuine. So you're writing about your dad's snide the person who enabled that remark? To me, that doesn't make a lot of sense.

  2. Your post is excellent. You've made very good points that speak to the complexity of the issues involved in attempting to answer a letter of this nature --even if it isn't "real." Were I to write a similar response today, I'd hope to include most of the concerns you've raised here.

    It's interesting to me that in the (approximately) 4 years since the 20/20 piece was taped and this Q & A was written, negative statements about me have abounded on AVEN forums, but only one person within the AVEN community has ever reached out to me to ask a question with an eye toward clarification. (A member emailed me a few years ago, which lead to a very illuminating correspondence.) In addition, other bloggers have attacked me personally, attacked my profession and related professions/professionals, and more--but I don't recall one ever contacting me directly to dialogue about issues or statements they found troublesome. As a result, a vast number of erroneous interpretations have been made and continue to be made related to my published views on asexuality or the early days of the AVEN movement (and often confusing the two).

    Given this background, I am especially appreciative of the thoughtful style of analysis you used in writing this post. Your critique wisely addressed what was actually there on the page, in context--or wasn't, and perhaps should have been--keeping in mind what might be relevant to a 19 year old struggling with family acceptance. You obviously spent a great deal of time and care in composing this post. I hope that young people--and, yes, to me 19 is still very young;)--who are addressing asexuality today will find it, read it, and be enlightened by your efforts.
    Joy Davidson, Ph.D.
    New York City

  3. Kudos to you for engaging on this Dr. Davidson, and once this finds its way to a thread on AVEN I'm sure you'll have some more people reaching out for discussion with you. Probably part of the reason no one has e-mailed you is that we regard you as a celebrity--and of course you can't be pen-pals with a celebrity. :P

  4. Joy- wow. Thank you for reading and commenting. Embarking on this project, I knew the one thing I'd hate for it to be was an excuse to take every excuse to belittle your arguments, and yet it'd be difficult to contain the bias I naturally feel in the circumstances as an asexual. That's why I was relieved when I saw that some of your arguments did strike me as genuine concerns about asexuality, and even more relieved now that I know you may be watching and forming your own opinions on what I write.

    I honestly don't know why the idea's never occured to me or many other asexuals before to contact you and have a mature discussion about this (though, for me, Anonymous' idea that you seem too important to directly pester is a large part of it), away from the media appearences in which you've encountered us before (and which are often not the best places to have nuanced discussion). I'd be thrilled if this post became the start of a freer discussion.
    I'm still aware that, as an asexual, I'm quite biased in this, so, if you want, I can send you the posts in this series before I publish them, in case you have any objections.

    20/20 was a long time ago, and I hope that, in this time, you've gained more confidence that asexuality isn't a flash-in-the-pan movement. When you say that you'd change your response if writing it again, does that mean that, once you've encouraged scepticism and questioning, you'd adress the relevant issues to the possible asexual? If so, and you're willing to acknowledge the experiences of the confident asexual as fact, I think this overrides your caution of anyone adopting the term, and shows you to support individuals who identify as asexual, whatever problems you have with the movement.

    Thanks again for commenting, so wonderful to hear from you.

  5. I'm very glad to engage in a dialogue about all of these issues. I care deeply about these matters, so I'm pleased that you're open to talking, too.

    At the moment it's late and I'm reading this after a long day, so forgive me if I don't respond to everything you've asked. I'll just comment on a couple of items for now.

    First-- you asked if I'd like you to send me your blog posts before you print them. My answer is: if there is something specific you'd like me to address, you've only to ask. This is your blog and you should continue to say whatever you want to say here. I don't want to interfere--although I am grateful for your offer. If something I've said in the past (or even now) strikes you as "off kilter" or truly objectionable and you want to question me about it before you post, I'd be happy to respond.

    You also wrote: "does that mean that, once you've encouraged skepticism and questioning, you'd address the relevant issues to the possible asexual?"

    Answer: Absolutely!

    Actually, that has always been the case--although given the degree of editing that 20/20 did, and given my own concerns back then, I can see where that point wasn't illuminated at all. In the early days of AVEN, many of the statements made by its leaders set off alarms for me and, as a result, I emphasized certain points and by default under-emphasized others. However, that was then, and time has passed, and I think AVEN and the movement at large has grown up and learned from experience and become more responsible, too. So I am not nearly as cautious or as protective (some might say "overly protective!") as I was back then, because more information is available from a variety of resources now, and people are listening to each other and dialoguing with a more refined sensibility -- as your blog so aptly demonstrates.

    I look forward to keeping this conversation going. Feel free to email me directly whenever you wish.

  6. Thanks for all your comments. It's wonderful to hear that your opinion of the asexual community has increased. I can't think of anything else I want to discuss right at this minute, but I'll be carrying on looking at the article, and I assume you'll be able to find my new posts however you found this one, and hopefully the dialogue will develop from there.

  7. Sounds good to me ;)
    I hope you have a fun New Year's eve and a happy, fulfilling 2010!

  8. Heehee, I would have finessed my response more had I known the author of the piece we were talking about was actually reading...while I do think people in American culture are way too into "professionals", which can make people feel powerless in all kinds of instances, I guess I was pretty snarky while stating bad.

    To respond to Joy Davidson (if she's still reading, and I hope you don't mind this, SM)...I think asexuals haven't contacted you in the past because in your most public statements, even if they happened a while ago, you didn't appear open to a dialogue. I know that TV can be wonky in how it presents things, but to an observer, it looked like you were pretty solid in the views you gave. For many asexuals, we've tried and failed in our everyday lives to make the people we care about understand asexuality, so I hope it would be understandable why we would be hesitant, as individuals, to engage in that process with yet another person, let alone one we don't know.

    I think most people can respect when someone is willing to change their views and doesn't just stick to something for the sake of sticking to it. If you're more open to asexuality now than you were in the past, that's great, but people have had no way of knowing that. If they did, I'm sure that a lot of them wouldn't be so negative. If you've made clarifying statements since the 20/20 piece, they haven't been as easy to find as that one. I agree that a lot can change in 4 years, so I appreciate seeing your response here.

  9. Ily,

    Yes, we do have to be watchful on the internet, as we never know who is peeking:))

    I do understand how off-putting that 20/20 piece was. I tried to correct some of the misconceptions that arose afterward, but--you're right-- those statements never did get much attention. I even posted on AVEN--but my comment simply disappeared.

    Of course, that may not have been the best forum for me, since I did make some very critical statements about its leaders and their initial approach to building the community. But those statements were never meant to be dismissive of asexual people as a group, or AVEN's membership, at all.

    I also understand your point about people being disinclined to speak to me directly after 20/20. It's worth noting, though, that 20/20 is a highly edited, tightly produced news magazine. It's SOP for that kind of show to put a certain spin on the finer points of an interviewee's message for the sake of the whole story. In my case, nearly an hour of interview material was cut and pasted into less than a minute of air time. No surprise really--except for the way my answers to questions were nimbly cut and pasted.

    My recollection immediately after the airing was that some of my answers were paired with different questions than those I had addressed during the interview. For instance, in the finished piece, a statement I made during the original interview about a particular, unusual case (as relayed to me by the reporter) was shown preceded by a different question than the one she had actually asked me. And that question changed the meaning of my remark so that I seemed to be making a rather broad, potentially inflammatory statement when in fact I had made a narrow, situation-specific statement. In addition, my responses didn't seem to have a cohesive sense of logic to them because they were edited out of order and context. It's the old story of "Yes, I did say those things, but, no, I didn't mean them the way they sounded!"

    I think that's the side of this story that most people would have no way of knowing.

    Ily, thanks for finessing your second comment ;))
    All the best,

  10. Miss Davidson --

    I am glad you responded, but your past statements have done you a disservice. You have to reverse some of your previous positions.

    Yes, asexuals are challenging some of society's notions about sex and this may be felt as a threat to your profession, but we are not all that common.

    Encouraging someone to explore themselves is not a bad idea, but assuming, as the letter did, that it is most likely a physiological or psychological problem caused problems for many older asexuals who did not realize that is what they were.

    If your opinion has changed, I will cover it, although I warn you, I am a columnist here, not a journalist.

  11. Dear Shawn,

    I've read a few of your posts in the past, and now the above comment, and I'm frankly puzzled as to what is behind your statement that asexuals are felt as a threat to people in my profession. (By my profession I presume you mean therapists in general--or is it sex therapists specifically? FYI, sex therapists are licensed "regular" therapists with additional training and certification in human sexuality.)

    To my knowledge, asexuality poses no threat to anyone in the helping professions, sex therapists included. If anything, we tend to support giving a poke to society's common notions about sexuality--because those notions are problematic and contradictory. As you known, we live in a culture that on the one hand makes a fetish of sex in media and public discourse, and on the other shames and otherwise denigrates people for taking pleasure in any orientations, preferences and choices that conflict with society's limited vision. Whether one is "asexual" or "a slut" or "a homo," "trannie," or "kinkster" by society's standards they are all outside the mainstream, God-fearing, moralistic ideal. In that respect, asexuals and sex-positive or alternative folks have far more in common than they do differences.

    People in my profession are usually very supportive of the proud expression of healthy sexuality or asexuality. If one's sexuality provokes social change or upsets societal assumptions about sexual "normality," well, so much the better. That is why I perceive people in my profession as entirely unthreatened by the asexuality community. Given your strong statements to the contrary, I would very much like to understand what you feel might be threatening to us, or what has given you the impression that anything about asexuality is threatening at all.

  12. Not to be critical But is someone here trying to blow smoke and mirrors!

  13. You know, I am mostly an observer here. Like Ily, I moved on from AVEN because of the repetitive nature of the dialouge. I spend 99% of my time lurking.

    I also don't have the history with the asexual movement -- I am relatively new to the community (in the last 18 months). I came to the community at the end of what was described above as excavation, and I didn't pause at AVEN very long. I can't say that I knew who you were, Dr. Davidson. I came to this discussion via twitter, where I keep pretty close tabs on the other, non-AVEN, conversations about asexuality and the asexual movement.

    Before identifying as asexual, I spent five years questioning my identity. Relationships were ending because of lack of sexual interest on my part. I went into therapy. I began the process of ruling out physical factors by testing my hormones. Even though they were in they were in the normal range, I started hormone therapies to increase them. I begged my doctors, my therapist, anyone to make me "better". I didn't understand what made me different than any other person, and I suffered in shame for a long time.

    When I discovered asexuality through extensive google searching, it wasn't about discovering a community for me. It was simply about letting go of needing to be cured. That process was simple compared to the years before it.

    Though I agree with your advice, Dr. Davidson, that everyone do some soul-searching when trying to figure out their own self-identity, it would be immensely helpful if the professionals we seek help from have an understanding about asexuality. It wasn't my therapist, my psychiatrist, my primary doctor, my sex therapist, my family, my friends, or my fiance who suggested that I might be asexual. It was google.

    The problem here is that there are plenty of people who are trying to discover their asexuality. Not enough professionals know or believe yet that asexuality actually exists. The answer here, as in most things, is more education. I'm not the only one who experienced years of attempting to "cure" what wasn't wrong in the first place.

  14. (And, fail. I said that it was Ily who commented on the repetitive nature of AVEN, when I meant SlightlyMetaphysical. Apologies.)

  15. I realize this is a bit off-topic, however, I want to pass along some info I just received.

    Producers are working on a series for Discovery Health, and are seeking folks who are willing to talk about being asexual on air. They have also included Cougars, Swingers, 40 year old virgins and a long list of other unique situations/conditions on their call sheet, so I would caution you to beware of context and ask lots of questions before agreeing to appear. Nevertheless, this might be something some of you wish to do in the interest of public education.

    fyi-I am not involved in this program at all, nor am I slated to comment as an expert. I'm just responding to a request for assistance from a colleague by passing along the word. I don't know the producer, either.

    If anyone cares to make contact with the producer they can reach her as follows:

    Michele Spinak
    Sirens Media
    office: 301-920-9860
    cell: 301-792-9784
    fax: 301-920-9880
    email address is:

  16. Thanks Joy. I've put it up on AVEN, where there'll probably be more people to see it.

  17. Hi Joy,
    I have a different take on asexuality. I experience arousal, not attraction. I find "arousal" to be a form of discomfort. It seems to me that people are supposed to releive it through an orgasm. I can use sex to express feelings, but I just don't get the idea of "sexual pleasure". I find it interesting that there are actually some sex-therapists who agree with me on this.

    What is also true for me is that I DO experience romantic attraction. It's just hard to explain this to others. What is interesting is that 200 years ago, people generally had romantic friendships, wrote each other love-letters, etc. Anthony Rotundo is an has researched this. This is why many gay historians assert that Abraham Lincoln was gay,

  18. Hi Tommy Turpolene!

    From the polls I've seen on AVEN, its seems most asexuals can and do experience arousal and masturbate to varying degrees. Some do not.

    I do feel that asexuality is often incorrectly identified with experiencing a low libido. Granted, many asexuals do have a low libido. I, as many others, do not.

    Simply put, my libido is not stimulated by people. I am a sexual being--just not towards people of either gender. I have no problem masturbating, and it works great for me.

    Unlike you though, I'm not romantic. I've never been interested, and am still not. I had a feeling back when I was a late teen that I was different from my peers in my lack of perception of people as sexual stimuli. I didn't focus on it too much, and figured I was a late bloomer. It wasn't until later, after much self-reflection, that I realized that my curious lack of attraction to people was an intrinsic part of my personality.

    Will I change? I don't know and don't care if I do or if I don't. I'm 30 now, and I still don't see how people's libido leads them to have sex with each other. It does not disgust me (generally), it's just eternally puzzling, like like living a society that eats glass 3 times a day. Nothing immoral, understandably natural for others, but bizarre, and unnatural to me.

    That's what's so amazing about the sexual and asexual community. We are all so complex and different. Asexuals vary in libido as much as sexual people do, and their attitudes towards sex varies as well. Many of us are indifferent, others are repulsed. But then, many sexual people are repulsed by aspects of other people's sexuality. I tend to think there is nothing wrong with any of this. Our repulsions or indifferences are just as much an aspect of our personality as our fetishes and loves.

    I personally love spiders and reptiles (not sexually!), and I'm still puzzled why other people are repulsed by them.

    To each their own!