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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Fri Jan 29, 2016 9:40 pm    Post subject:  Reply with quote

I'm still on the gender books, though the latest is a different beast to most of the others I've read: Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto-Sterling (Basic Books, 2000). Fausto-Sterling is a biologist, and most of her focus is on biological subjects. It's interesting that some of the most readable and convincing books about gender I have read have been by biologists (thinking also here of Julia Serano) who aren't devotees of the gender-as-societal-construct model beloved of some theorists, but acknowledge that sex and gender do not exist in a vacuum, and that neither biology nor society alone can help us to make sense of gender.

At around 500 pages this book is a daunting prospect, but the main text covers only about 250 pages, the rest consisting largely of notes. This, Fausto-Sterling says, is deliberate, so that the lay reader can read the book without notes if desired, while the specialist can delve further into her sources. It's ingenious and well achieved.

The book's scope is catholic, and I confess that for most of the second half, particularly as it dealt more and more with rodent hormones, my eyes glazed over; but the earlier sections, investigating the classification of intersex bodies and their pathologisation over the centuries, were fascinating. For a period during the twentieth century, once surgery had become sufficiently sophisticated to permit operation on sex organs, it was common practice to 'fix' intersex children to help them fit into a binary gender, keeping their intersexuality secret from them. One imagines that as often as not this created untold problems when adolescence arrived. Well meant, perhaps, but monstrous. The practice, thankfully, is dying out.

Fausto-Sterling finds interesting real-life cases to illustrate her points, such as the case of Maria Martínez-Patiño, an athlete who was found to have androgen insensitivity syndrome when she failed a gender test in 1986 and was thereby disqualified from the Spanish Olympic team. A more recent example (more recent than the book) is that of the South African runner Caster Semenya. Two instances where the superficialities of the gender binary are exposed. (Within the last few days, new international rulings have been announced that permit transgender athletes to compete in their correct gender class, with certain restrictions – progress, I suppose.)

Fausto-Sterling's discussion of transgender is restricted to a handful of pages, but what she writes is sympathetic and nuanced.

Given the discrimination and violence faced by those whose cultural and
physical genitals don't match, legal protections are needed during the
transition to a gender-diverse utopia. It would help to eliminate the 'gender'
category from licenses, passports, and the like. The transgender activist
Leslie Feinberg writes: 'Sex categories should be removed from all basic
identification papers—from driver's licenses to passports—and since the
right of each person to define their own sex is so basic, it should be
eliminated from birth certificates as well.' Indeed, why are physical genitals
necessary for identification? Surely attributes both more visible (such as
height, build, and eye color) and less visible (fingerprints and DNA profiles)
would be of greater use.


If I got lost in the neuroscience of the book's later chapters, it was for want of trying. Fausto-Sterling's debunking of tired masculine/feminine brain theories to do with the corpus callosum reminded me of Ben
Goldacre's writing. Her clarity of expression is very pleasing. Another bit I liked:

Development, to paraphrase the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, is a
moving target. As an organism emerges from a single fertilized egg cell, it
builds on what has gone before. By analogy, consider how a forest grows
back in an empty, unmowed field. At first annuals, grasses, and woody
shrubs appear, then a few years later scattered cedars, willows, hawthorns,
and locusts. These trees need full sun to grow, so as they get larger, they
create so much shade that their own seedlings cannot survive. But the
white poplar does well under the conditions created by the cedar and its
companions. Eventually, the poplar and other trees create a cool, leaf-
covered forest floor on which the seedlings of hemlock, spruce, red maple,
and oak thrive. Finally these create conditions for hemlock, beech, and
sugar maple to grow. These new trees, in turn, create a microclimate under
which their own seedlings thrive, and a stable constellation of trees, called
a climax forest, finally develops. The regularity of such a succession of
growth does not result from some ecological programfound in the genes of
cedar, hawthorn, and willow trees, 'rather it arises via a historical cascade
of complex stochastic [random processes that can be studied statistically]
interactions between various' living organisms.


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Sun Feb 21, 2016 8:07 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

My latest read is a memoir, The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal and Social Transformation from Female to Male by Max Wolf Valerio.

"Anita is a real tomboy," my mother announces to people regularly by
the time I am eight. She is amused, not overly alarmed. My parents,
aunts, and uncles all think that I will grow out of this "tomboy phase"
and magically become the feminine young lady that they envision me to
be deep down. Somewhere, beneath that surface, that subterfuge of
riotous boy play and tough boy talk, is a real, genuine girl. I'm told over
and over that it's a "phase." "Don't worry," my aunt Florence says,
"you'll change your mind about getting married." I'm not worried, and
this unsolicited reassurance irritates me. To back up these claims, my
mother and aunt declare that they too were tomboys, as many Indian
girls are – riding horses, barrel racing, ice skating – active, athletic,
free-spirited. Even as I hear them talk about their childhoods, I know
without being able to articulate it that my feelings are different in
dimension, in texture, in meaning. I know, somehow, deep down, that I
will never grow out of it, and furthermore, I don't want to.


I identified with this quite strongly, the sensation of being misread by adults and not being able to set them right because of my conviction being so instinctive, not reasoned. I suppose I felt different – why? because I thought I was gay? which I did from the age of about 8, though it didn't really last, and I think I was as much attracted to the idea of being different as I was to other boys. (Sorry for being even more than usually self-indulgent. You don't need to know this stuff. It's cheaper than therapy, that's all.)

I've been disappointed in myself recently. An excellent university-wide photo campaign called 'I Don't Exist' has just started, its aim to highlight the lack of legal recognition in the UK of those whose gender is neither male nor female. I think I've still got a way to go before I get to grips with the concept of permanent non-binary gender. I've come to think of non-binary gender as a useful thing for people at the start of a transition – they can try out a new gender as a middle ground between male and female as a first tentative step in the other direction – after all, it's a brave step to start a transition – but occasionally I find myself thinking something like, well, isn't it time you decided? It's an unwelcome reminder of my conservatism. Body gender isn't binary, that much is obvious (see Anne Fausto-Sterling above – it's only recently that surgeons have started 'fixing' intersex people so they confirm to the imaginary binary), so why should societal gender be? I never had much homophobia in me – after all, I had in myself the evidence that homosexuality both existed and was OK – but I have 30 years of transphobia that I've internalised without realising it that still needs dismantling if I'm to treat other people with the respect they deserve. Diversity of gender should seem as natural as diversity of sexuality. I'm not beating myself up about it, I'm just conscious that I've still got work to do (and need to reread S. Bear Bergman, who is quite the best writer I've read on the topic).

As for Valerio, I liked his company (though the sex and drugs and counterculture and so on made me think we wouldn't have a great deal in common), and his book is pleasingly catholic in scope, a memoir but not a handbook, and clearly the perspective of just one man. That makes it easier to tolerate the bits where I rebelled quite strongly against what he wrote. His sympathy (or so it seemed) for men in the thrall of testosterone, unable to control themselves around women. He never condones rape or anything like that, but he is alarmed at the power of his sexual urges during his transition. Aggression and violence too. His masculinity feels so far removed from my own, and I don't know if that's because I've been brought up not to grope strangers or what, but it did feel alienating to me at times. You don't speak for me, I wanted to shout. That said, the most interesting bits of the book relate to the ways in which he experiences things differently post-transition, which he is in a unique position to be able to relate, having lived as both female and male. The change of perspective.

The copy I read is a library one I catalogued myself several years ago, having bought it for a student, who was presumably doing their dissertation. What did the marginal annotations mean to them, the underlinings and bullet points? Things that were useful to their essay, or things they identified with personally? I wondered.

Finally, after six years on testosterone, I got my chest surgery. The
money I received as the advance to write this book is actually what
made that possible, a surprise solution that I had not anticipated. With
the chest surgery, I now experience a feeling of completion, of
newfound comfort in my body that has made my life more satisfying.
The sensation of having a flat chest is liberating. And is it ever flat!
When I first got the surgery, I was amazed at just how flat I felt.
Walking down the street, I realized that this was a new and entirely
different sensation from what I had been used to. Even when I was
binding, and my breasts were flattened out and virtually undetectable
(so convincing that many people thought I had gotten the surgery
already), my chest felt weighty, with a fullness in front. Now it's like
being a knife in the breeze. My body has a compact lightness, which
undoubtedly makes me feel more complete as a man. It's a relief to be
able to take off my shirt with lovers; I even walk around shirtless in the
house or outdoors. Initially, if the doorbell rang or a housemate's friend
or lover was over and I hadn't yet gotten dressed for the day or had just
gotten out of the shower, I would instinctively cover my chest with a
towel. Or wonder, Where is my binder? before I went out for the day.
A wave of relief would come over me when I looked down and
remembered that I didn't need one anymore. And a smile.


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Mikeharvey



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PostPosted: Mon Feb 22, 2016 12:32 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Most interesting post, Gareth.  Thanks for making me aware, more aware, of this subect. Did you catch Rebecca Root on 'A Good Read' recently?  She chose a graphic novel the name of which escapes me.


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 22, 2016 6:33 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Rebecca Root's great, she was in the best play I saw last year, a verbatim piece called Trans Scripts at the Edinburgh Festival. I saw she'd been on A Good Read but haven't heard it yet. Discussions of graphic novels on that programme haven't been wholly successful. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home was chosen a short while ago on an episode that unfortunately featured Rod Liddle. He didn't like it at all, which is a blazon of honour. They could quote him proudly on the cover of future printings. I looked up Rebecca Root's programme and her choice was Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. I know of Chris Ware's work but haven't read any myself. His Building Stories looks beautiful (http://www.parkablogs.com/picture/building-stories-chris-ware), but I suspect the concern of spoiling it somehow would make it a trial to read. Some books are so carefully assembled you hardly like to touch them. I like books as objects, but I'd rather read a battered old Penguin copy of Jane Austen than a Folio Society edition.


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Mikeharvey



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Location: Lancashire

PostPosted: Tue Feb 23, 2016 11:57 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I will be reading 'The Last Chronicle..' in a Folio Society edition.  I've got hundreds of FS books in this house.  I joined in 1958.  There are so many books here. They're crowding me out.....
Among the most attractive FS editions I have are 'Mistress Masham's Repose' by T.H. White, 'Journey to the Moon' by Cyrano de Bergerac illustrated by Quentin Blake.....


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Fri Feb 26, 2016 6:37 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Read this week: Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera, edited by Mary Ann Smart. It's a selection of papers given at a September 1995 conference at SUNY (the State University of New York). I didn't realise until after I'd finished it that only a lunatic would read such a book cover to cover. You ought to read the article on Don Carlo only if you're doing an essay on Don Carlo, and say to hell with the rest. But as a complement to Susan McClary's book Feminine Endings, which I read last year and which clearly influenced many of the contributors to this book, I thought it might be interesting.

It wasn't, really. I was handicapped by not knowing well enough most of the operas under discussion, and didn't have the patience to follow the authors' arguments. These academics love to hook you at the start with an anecdote about, say, the Metropolitan Opera Quiz, and then lose you just as quickly with paragraphs of theoryese. I made the right decision not to go into musicology; that is to say, it made the decision that it wasn't for me. I couldn't have coped.

That's not to say that I didn't like bits of it. Philip Brett on Britten is always readable (probably because in this case I did know the source material, Peter Grimes), and I managed not merely to follow but even to enjoy Linda and Michael Hutcheon's chapter on Salome. In some cases I felt gender and sexuality were a secondary consideration, which might explain why the book felt like there was no unifying theme. (The fact that it was by many different authors with many different research interests and perspectives may also have had something to do with it.)

Lawrence Kramer's article 'Opera: Two or Three Things I Know About Her' stood out for being more bizarre than the rest, couched in the theory of Derrida and Freud. I couldn't say if it was coherent or not as I didn't understand it, and the handful of bits I did seemed either laughable (intentionally so in the case of a sentiment like 'Poor Siegfried: he can't hold on to the phallus because his penis keeps getting in the way', but more often not) or offensive (some crass stuff about autism in particular). Remind me not to read him again in a hurry.


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Wed Mar 02, 2016 11:06 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Not because I've run out of books to read about trans stuff but because I felt I needed to, for a reminder of what was so great and revolutionary about it, I reread The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman. I think what sets this apart from almost all the other books I've read on the subject is its positivity. Most books focus, understandably, on the hardship of living in a gender that confuses and upsets a lot of people, on various difficulties with bureaucracy, healthcare, society generally. It's good to get angry about this sort of thing, and it gets results – only 24 hours ago the Republican Governor of South Dakota, having been petitioned by thousands of people and having listened to trans people's testimonies in person, vetoed a bill that would have forced trans schoolchildren to use toilet facilities inconsistent with their lived gender, a small but significant victory over ignorance and paranoia – but it's also good to read about the joys of being trans, the liberation afforded by transition, the perspectives it provides that cis people like me aren't generally aware of.

This book is a collection of essays, and best read slowly, not raced through as I did on this occasion. Some favourites: 'When Will You Be Having the Surgery?' which smartly inverts the familiar question that trans people are asked by strangers with disturbing regularity; 'The Velveteen Tranny', which includes thought-provoking email correspondence between Bergman and a friend discussing things like authenticity; 'Getting Myself Home', about a stay in hospital where the consideration of the staff both delights Bergman and makes him conscious of his luck in having had such a positive experience; 'The Field Guide to Transmasculine Creatures', on the stupidity of classifying gender into binaries.

There are more locations than girl and boy, man and woman. Decamping
from one does not have to mean climbing into another. There's plenty of
space in between, or beyond the bounds, or all along and across the
plane or sphere or whatever of gender, and it is entirely okay to say, "I do
not like being a girl, and so I shall be a boy." But it must also be okay to
say, "I do not like being a girl, so I shall set about changing what it
means to be a girl," and yes, okay to say, "I do not like being a girl, and
so I shan’t." Totally okay. Not always easy, not always tidy, not always
something one can briefly explain – but can you say it? Of course you
can. Of course.

But would it be nice to have a destination? Well, yes.


Another of the many essays that I would dearly like to quote in full: 'Not Getting Killed, With Kindness', which sheds light on (for instance) the way in which Bergman, read more often now as male since his transition, as well as embodying masculinity somehow subverts it by being courteous to people who more often expect men to be rude and aggressive.

This book more than any other I've read brings home the importance not only of acknowledging the diversity of gender but of celebrating it in all of its forms and shades, and gives hope, not just to trans people but to everyone, that it can be done, and somehow achieves it without becoming unpleasantly self-helpy or wishy-washy (though there are fleeting moments of soppiness I could have done without, because of being British). I love it and will read and reread it.


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Wed Mar 23, 2016 6:41 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I can't remember the last Young Adult novel I read. It's a genre the mere contemplation of which bores me, and did so even when I was of an age to read it (issues – eurgh), but I've read a handful of YA books that are impressive, and I Am J by Cris Beam falls into that category. Beam is a cis woman, but has a trans partner and trans foster child, and her work with trans children seems to have been her motivation for writing this and other related books.

J is a teenager on the brink of adulthood who has known innately for some time that he is trans. Following a concatenation of circumstances that makes his life unbearable (parents he can't talk to, a friend who lets him down), he seeks to emancipate himself, starts dressing as male, and goes in search of testosterone, which he has decided will be the solution to his problems. Transition turns out not to be as straightforward as he hopes, especially in terms of bureaucracy, and over the course of the book he finds that people he might have expected to help him out let him down, and that support and guidance sometimes come from unexpected sources. It's not as simplistic a life lesson as that sounds; if it had been, I don't think I'd have found myself sitting at a bus stop on the verge of tears because of a friend of J's mother being suddenly revealed as an unexpected ally.

And yet for all its virtues, and there are several, it's hamstrung by its genre. Because Beam is writing for an imagined audience of teenage trans boys who are undergoing similar experiences, the story she presents has to be a worst-case scenario, in order that her readers can draw comfort from the fact that they're comparatively OK. J's parents are pathetic excuses for human beings (that's a way of saying simply that they're people, I suppose), not abusive but certainly far from supportive. If (as must happen increasingly in real life) J came out as trans and his parents reacted with kindness and understanding, would the book have been published, or simply rejected as a non-story? I want everyone to get along, that's my problem.

These grumbles aside, I admired I Am J. It's not a book a grown-up would want to read more than once, but it's sensitive and credible and occasionally exhilarating. I loved the passages showing J's delight at being correctly gendered – at being called dude or man, or being accorded the right pronoun. J is referred to throughout as he, him, his, even in discussions of his pre-transitional self. It's an important point, as it reinforces the authenticity of his gender to the sceptical reader (not that this is a book a sceptic would be likely to pick up in a month of Sundays).


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PostPosted: Tue Apr 05, 2016 6:19 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'm supposed to be writing about how to be a girl. I don't know how to be a
girl. And I sure don't know how to be a boy. And after thirty-seven years of
trying to be male and over eight years of trying to be female, I've come to
the conclusion that neither is really worth all the trouble. And that made me
think. A lot of people think it is worth the trouble. And that made me think.
Why? Why do people think it's worth all that trouble to be a man? Why do
people think it's worth all that trouble to be a woman? And hey, I'm not just
talking about transsexuals here. I'm talking about men and women, maybe
like you.


Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us, first published in 1994, is a modern classic of its type, and certainly one of the best books on gender variance that I've read. The mark of that is that there were bits I felt a desire to absorb, to quote, on almost every page. It contains biographical information, but it's not a memoir (that role is filled by hir recent publication, A Queer and Pleasant Danger – Bornstein uses the gender-neutral pronouns ze and hir), more an exploration of gender through the example of Bornstein's own life.

One thing that's particularly impressive is how dated it isn't. From the book's prelude, a short section about the construction of identity through fashion:

I identify as neither male nor female, and now that my lover is going through
his gender change, it turns out I'm neither straight nor gay. What I've found
as a result of this borderline life is that the more fluid my identity has
become, and the less demanding my own need to belong to the camps of
male, female, gay or straight, the more playful and less dictatorial my
fashion has become – as well as my style of self-expression.


These ideas about the unsatisfactoriness of a binary system of gender (and it is a system, a model – the fact that other non-Western cultures have different ones makes that evident enough) are becoming more and more widespread. Time and again Bornstein is ahead of the curve. Ze writes of being at the start of a transgender movement. Well, the movement has progressed quite a bit since 1994, but many of the ideas and arguments Bornstein propounds in this book are still at its forefront.

Perhaps the book's greatest virtue is Bornstein's humour, and hir good humour. Sparkiness and jokiness are the order of the day, with the eccentric presentation of the book, peppered with quotations from others, blank spaces here and there, and a variety of typefaces, adding to the effect. Most people would get angry about the indignities Bornstein faces every day, but hir reaction is generally one of amusement (or bemusement). Ze faces challenges with a can-do attitude that is infectious and an unusual lack of political correctness in hir language and hir general approach. Most people, trans or not, if you asked them a blunt question about their genitals, would rightly tell you it was none of your business. Bornstein, you get the impression, would chuckle and sit you down for a chat. Ze's a hard person to offend.

I think anger and activism mix about as well as drinking and driving. When
I'm angry, I don't have the judgment to select a correct target to hit out
against. I do believe that anger is healthy, that it can lead to a recognition
of the need for action, but activism itself is best accomplished by level
heads who can help steer others' anger toward correct targets.


I didn't love it without reservation. Sometimes a word will cause my mind to close down, and one of those words is shaman, which appears in this book with rather more regularity than desirable. But that's Bornstein, you have to take the whole package, warts and all – spirituality, Scientology, queer theatre and performance art. A sizeable chunk of the book consists of the text of hir play Hidden: A Gender, which draws parallels between hir own life and that of the intersex Herculine Barbin (1838-1868), whose case was publicised by Michel Foucault. It's bold and entertaining, though you'd need good actors to make the Marx Brothers skit work...

As I approached the end of the book, I thought about the phrase 'gender variant'. It's a polite, acceptable term used to refer to the people Kate Bornstein would gleefully call freaks (and include hirself among their ranks), but it's just as unacceptable in its way as the bald insults. Variant from what? 'Real' men and 'real' women, I suppose. It's a term rooted, invested in the binary. But gender is a multifaceted thing, and it may be that each of our genders is as variant in its own way from every other. Several weeks ago I read a thought-provoking interview with Bornstein in which ze rejected the idea of gender as a 'spectrum', which is one I rather like, on the basis that it was still rooted in the idea of binary gender, with male at one pole and female at the other. I don't think this was Bornstein's image, but I pictured as hir preferred model a scattergraph, with genders dotted all about the place. Whether or not it's convincing, I feel more and more strongly that an enforced binary system of gender does no one any favours. I doubt it will be completely disestablished while this civilisation lasts, but as more varieties of gender become visible I suspect it will become less rigidly policed. Progress generally wins in the end.


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PostPosted: Sat Apr 16, 2016 12:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yesterday I read a shortish book (around 160 pages), Understanding Asexuality by Anthony F. Bogaert. Bogaert is an academic/sexologist with a particular interest in asexuality, and I hoped his book might make me better informed about a subject that's sometimes on my mind. Whenever the subject of asexuality comes into the news, a study (Bogaert's own) putting the amount of asexuals in the population at roughly 1% is cited. Putting oneself in the position of an asexual person, the world can seem an odd place, sometimes an unwelcoming one. Whenever someone on TV says 'Well, I'm a man with the normal sexual urges,' for instance, it invalidates those who don't feel sexual attraction. Sexual (or at any rate romantic) relationships are the cornerstone of not merely most novels, songs, films and TV dramas, but most people's lives. You might easily feel a freak for not being part of this world that, if you believe the media, everyone but you inhabits.

Given Bogaert is an academic and his publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, a respected one, I was surprised at the jokiness of his tone. This is a book for the general reader, but still. It makes you wonder if he takes his subject seriously. His quip about the evolution of sexual from asexual reproduction being called the 'little bang theory' is a typical example. I wasn't offended until he devoted a whole chapter to humour, starting with a dull joke about Viagra and then spending several pages wondering whether an asexual person would get this joke, and if not, why not? before a final paragraph admitting the whole chapter was based on unscientific supposition.

I'm convinced Bogaert means well, hints of creepiness/sexism aside, and he covers many interesting topics – the distinction between sexuality and romance, which is increasingly common (with plenty of people identifying as asexual but not aromantic, for instance), the link between (a)sexuality and gender, the problem of an asexual movement (it's strange to be united with others because of something you don't do, rather than something you do), the medicalisation/pathologisation of asexuality (doctors thinking of it as a disorder, which is much more common since the postwar sexual revolution), causes of asexuality (the insulting idea that if you're not into sleeping with other people there must be some vital part of your humanity missing, that perhaps the root is in childhood sexual trauma, say) – it's just that, as he admits himself, this stuff is only starting to be studied now, asexual people having been ignored for so long, and so there is little evidence to go on, and not much that can be said conclusively. Hence slightly comical stuff like this, the concluding sentence of his section on asexual attitudes towards art and food:

One thing is for sure, though, regarding eating habits and asexuality:
Our planet would likely be a better place, ecologically speaking, if
more people were asexual, because asexual people are not likely to
hunt down animals to consume them for their real or imagined effect
on increasing libido and potency.


The truest sentence in the book comes in a chapter about masturbation (perhaps I'm lacking the prurience gene, but I think I could have made it through this life without reading someone's theories about whether Emily Brontë masturbated or not, regardless of her (a)sexuality):

In other words, there are different types of asexual people.

The best bits of all, scattered sparsely through the book, are the testimonies from asexual people themselves, who speak more eloquently and insightfully about their lives than any theorist can:

I don't really consciously think of myself as asexual ... The label is
mostly a useful marker. So, my asexual identity is important in
certain contexts, and I can't imagine my life if I weren't asexual,
but it is not specifically important to me.


Perhaps that's the lesson to learn. We're all made up of different stuff, and sex drive (or lack of it) is just one part of ourselves. I was wrong to expect a book to answer the mysteries of life.



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