Thoughts on Privilege/Oppression rhetoric, and it’s relation to asexuality

(this is very long and rambly and full of confusing extended metaphors…be warned)

In my experience with such discussions, privilege and oppression are used as binary states: if one has privilege, one is not oppressed (in that area at least); if does not have privilege, one is oppressed; if one is oppressed, one does not have privilege, one is not oppressed, one is priviliged.

Here’s the thing though: Privilege and oppression are not mutually exclusive complementary opposites. “privilege” as a word basically intuits a state of existence in which one has certain advantages. Presumable the opposite would be a state of existence in which one is at a disadvantage. That is not, however, what the term “oppression” implies.

“Oppression” implies that there is an active oppressor, some agent working actively to make the lives of some specific group worse. It is not only a description of a state but also of a cause.

The thing is, though, as I understand the theory behind it, privilege/oppression isn’t intended to be about the actions of some specific group of people, but rather the existence of the mechanisms of society a whole. It is intended to focus on the state of a group of people, not necessarily on who directly is responsible for that state (because the answer is: everyone. The whole point of institutional/societal oppression is that is caused by the entire existence of a system, not merely an individual or even a group of individuals – all members of the society are implicit in it’s reproduction to various extents).

I think that this difference in word connotations vs. theoretical background is why people get so hung up on whether asexuals are “oppressed” – since there does not seem to be some group of people actively out to harm us* how can we be oppressed? And if we are not oppressed then surely  by default we must be privileged.

(* this is of course a matter of debate, but that’s a different argument to be had)

Because of these and other problems with common privilege/oppression discourse, I prefer to speak of things in terms of social “advantage” and “disadvantage”. These also carry the benefit of being less emotionally and poltically charged with alternate meanings, and being better compelments to each other. In addition, I think speaking of things as being various combinations of advantages and disadvantages allows more nuance than simple binary states of “privileged” or “oppressed”.

Within this framework, I think it’s also useful to differentiate between something like “active” and “passive” disadvantages:

On the one hand, you have the “classic” forms of active disadvantage, in which actions are taken specifically with the intent to discriminate against some certain group – things like barring women from voting, making homosexual acts illegal, denying African Americans full citizenship, etc.

On the other hand, I would argue that you also have more passive forms of disadvantage, which (usually) are not deliberately enacted by any particular group, but are aspects of society that tend to not get consciously realized; here it is often not so much about what is done but what is not done. Passive oppression is every time that an LGBT group or news story discusses lesbians and gays but omits any mention of bisexuality. It is when media characters of your group are overwhelmingly underrepresented. It is when you lack access to basic social scripts for relationships or identity that fit your experiences. It is when people react to your identity with “what? That can’t be true”.

To reference non-asexual dialogues, active disadvantages are things like gay-bashing. Passive disadvantages are things like bisexual invisibility and erasure.

For a confusing metaphor to try and further explain the difference: Imagine life as a ladder that we try to climb. Advantage would be people giving you a hand up. Active disadvantage would be when someone kicks you down. Passive disadvantage would be when the ladder is covered in grease and you can’t pull yourself up.

And I think by separating it like this, it may be a little easier to understand how asexuality fits in. As asexuals, we tend to have fewer problems in terms of active disadvantages, but we do often have more passive disadvantages.

In addition, while we have fewer people kicking us down, we also have fewer people helping us back up as well. – this is what things like “the sexual advantage” and “sexual privilege” have usually been trying to articulate, even if occasionally in a problematic way. It’s important to remember though that acknowledging that a group has some advantages that others don’t doesn’t mean negating the fact that they may also have much more active disadvantages as well.

It is nuances like that that I believe “oppressed vs. privileged” fails to capture. For example, a gay man may risk more potential for active disadvantages (gay bashing, etc.) than an asexual person. But on the other hand, an asexual faces more passive disadvantages (lack of representation, lack of social scripts, lack of awareness, etc.). Other disadvantages are shared by both groups.

Despite those problems, though, a gay man may also have access to many advantages – things like support organizations, political support, out celebrities, legal defense funds, educational materials, allied social movements, stories they can identify with – that an asexual person has no access to. Does that negate the active disadvantages a gay man might face? No. But neither do the active disadvantages that asexuals are spared negate the passive disadvantages and general lack of other advantages they have to deal with as well.

The closest way to approximate privilege-oppression from this system would be, I suppose, to total up advantages and disadvantages (though this is still imperfect). And when you do so, it is clear that asexuals weigh in on the disadvantaged side.

And this is why, I would still say that yes, if we insist on using a privileged/oppressed binary, we fall in on the side of the oppressed. Though I would rather not rely so much on that binary at all.



About Sennkestra

I'm an aromantic asexual and a bit of an [a]sexuality nerd, recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in linguistics. When I'm not reading stuff on the internet I like to cook fancy food, watch anime, and make costumes and other arts and crafts projects.
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13 Responses to Thoughts on Privilege/Oppression rhetoric, and it’s relation to asexuality

  1. L says:

    Thing is, privilege/oppression isn’t a “one and done” kind of deal. There are a thousands of different ways for a person to have privilege or not have it (not necessarily be oppressed, as you say) on any given day, for any given situation. While common discussions don’t seem to address the nuances of privilege and oppression, the model itself does account for all of the nuances and in-betweens that you describe here.

  2. I’d never thought of it that way, but you’re totally right. I dislike the term “privileged” partly because it also in some ways assumes the privileged person is actively and willingly taking part in that system – that is to say, if I’m privileged because I’m white, I’m consciously taking advantage of that fact and therefore furthering a broken system. I don’t think that’s true in most cases, which is why that term falls flat. But it is also true that asexuals do suffer from a lot of passive disadvantages. When you encounter any form of resistance WITHIN your own community (and here I mean the LGBT community as a whole), that’s not only a disadvantage but a big one. We shouldn’t have to have laws enacted against us to finally get other people’s support (though in many cases you could say certain anti-gay laws DO affect us, or at least those of us who identify as homoromantic).

    Anyway, all I really wanted to say is that I found this piece to be very well written and that it made some very good points.

  3. All of the advantages you list (support organizations, political support, out celebrities, legal defense funds, educational materials, allied social movements, stories they can identify with) were created by LGBT people, for LGBT people. These were created in the face of “active disadvantage”, which as you point out asexuals don’t experience. It seems disingenuous to merely refer to these things as “advantages” and ignore the fact that gay people fought long and hard (and sometimes died) to establish these things.

    We created these things for ourselves in the face of open, brutal hostility. I’m confident that asexuals can create them in the face of “lack of social scripts”.

    • Person says:

      There are actually active disadvantages, just they might not be as visible because of how small the group is and how foreign the concept of asexuality is to society at large. Corrective rape is a pretty huge threat. There’s also the issue of people treating you like you’re mentally diseased. Plus there are discriminatory laws as well. There are places that do not consider marriage as really valid unless the couple has sex. So, where does that leave an asexual couple?

      The invisibility is a very sharp double-edged knife. On one hand, the population is very small and society barely knows it’s a thing therefore they can’t actively witchhunt. However, once it becomes more visible, active discrimination might very well be more of a thing. There’s not many studies done on asexual discrimination since no one even knew it was a thing, but one study that was conducted last year ( shows evidence that people would actively discriminate (jobs and housing decisions) against asexuals because they see asexual people as not humans. And, surprisingly, this includes heterosexual and homosexual individuals. The invisibility also makes things hard for people who are discovering they’re asexual and think there’s something wrong with them. They’ll very likely feel ostracized from their peers/family and have no form of support, which can lead to cases of depression and suicide.

      No one is here to play the Oppression Olympics. But the whole “if you’re not suffering the worst then you have no real problems” is very stupid. By that logic, anyone not currently dying a slow and painful death from disease in a third world country should be completely ignored. No one is saying these problems are worse than anyone else, simply that they are there and they should be looked at since it is actively affecting people’s lives. And, since a lot of the problems asexuals face have similarities to problems that LGBT face (corrective rape, accusation of being mentally ill, physically ill, or wanting attention, discriminatory laws towards marriage, being seen as sub-human, ostracization from family/peers, etc.), it’d make more sense that they work together. Not saying they absolutely have to, but I think it’d be something helpful to both groups.

      One big thing about the LGBT group is that love (attraction, sex) come in a lot of forms and should be respected and accepted equally. So, wouldn’t furthering that by showing that the sexual spectrum is so diverse that some people aren’t even interested in sex and some people can even be in love with no sex further that cause?

      • Joy says:

        I love how you phrased your opinions, well done. I especially like your proposition in the last paragraph. I totally agree.

  4. Aydan says:

    I think within “active disadvantage” there’s another important distinction to be made, which is organized vs. unorganized. Active and organized disadvantage is what you say: people banding together to make a discriminatory law, or a hate group, or vote against a religious leader who supports same-sex marriage. But unorganized disadvantage is also extremely important: for example, hiring bias, whether conscious or unconscious, against women in most prestigious or high-paying professions; the stereotypes people hold about people of color that are not codified into law; someone not wanting to rent to a gay couple. These things can and do intersect with active disadvantage– there might not be laws on the books allowing women to prosecute these cases of hiring bias, or banning discrimination in housing. But even alone, unorganized active disadvantage is still really harmful. And I think asexuals may run into some of that as well– think of the MacInnis paper, or the ace who was pressured into receiving electroshock “treatment,” or aces who have been assaulted for being ace.

  5. Vivi says:

    This is interesting and all – but completely ignores the fact that a lot of asexuals are genderqueer or homoromantic (or more often, panromantic) as well. The latter cannot be differentiated from homosexuality by the casual observer, depending on the gender of the romantic partner the asexual chooses to acknowledge publically. (Besides, most asexuals in a romantic relationship still have sex with their partner – whether because they want to please them, or because they are pressured into it because they have no societal support to tell them that they shouldn’t have to.) And even aromantic asexuals can face gay bashing because they keep queerplatonic life partners of their own gender, or are simply mistaken for “in the closet” – precisely because most people don’t believe or even know that you can be genuinely uninterested in having romantic/sexual relationships. So unless you are talking exclusively about heteroromantic asexuals, this entire distinction between asexuals and the rest of the queer community is moot.

    As for ‘active oppression’ – what, the common threats of corrective rape, the systemic pressuring (by family, ‘friends’, marriage therapists, ect.) to give into sexual coersion, and two seperate diagnoses in the DSM-V that insist our sexual orientation is a mental disorder aren’t enough? And just because we can pass if we keep in the closet, and in case of the aromantic asexuals may have some advantage in staying in the closet if we want to, doesn’t mean we’re any safer if we try to come out of it. Any queer person is safer in the closet. Asexuals are the only ones where everyone seems to expect that we won’t mind hiding our true identity from the whole world. Because they think our orientation doesn’t matter. After all, it’s “not real”.

  6. Rowan Ve says:

    I think you might be interested in Iris Marion Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression,” OP, if you’ve never read it before.

  7. Pingback: “Privileged” ≠ “Oppressor”: why these two concepts should not be conflated. | Next Step: Cake

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