(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.