An Open Letter to Matty Silver: Response

I received a reply from Matty Silver in response to my previous post, which I posted on Twitter. I thought I would share it here and add some final comments.

Dear Jo,

You say that the asexual community needs acceptance and support not disbelief and condemnation and you find my article “incredibly disappointing”. You state: “It is worth pointing out that I have yet to come across a piece of academic writing that ‘discredits or disbelieves asexuality as you do”.

I would have thought that the AVEN community, who proudly announce on their website that they strive to create honest discussion about sexuality among sexual and asexual people alike, could deal with an article that differs from their opinion.

Nowhere in my article do I say the asexual community has got it wrong. Neither do I suggest “that it’s easy to label yourself asexual and that you are all deluded souls, snatching the first label you come across to hide behind because you are scared or repressed”. Neither do I deny or pathologise asexuality.

You state: “Being asexual is a source of pride for me. It is a part of who I am, a label I am proud to wear, a subject I am happy to talk about .Labeling ourselves as asexual is an act of belonging, courage, and freedom. For most of us, that doesn’t come as easily as your article seems to suggest”. Again my article does not suggest this as you can see from the links I provided and the photographs that accompanied it.

I very much agree with you Jo, that if someone doesn’t experience sexual attraction, doesn’t have a sense of sexuality, it’s not a problem unless the person thinks it is a problem and it causes distress. However, that was the case with the client I discussed in my article and who I will talk about later.

Let’s agree to disagree with my statement “that we are all sexual beings from the day we are born to the day we die”. If scientific research one day finds out that’s not the case, I happily will retract my statement.

This is another statement you make: “What the asexual community needs from sex therapists (and everyone else!) is acceptance and legitimation, not disbelief. We want people to actually listen to our experiences, not pick and choose individual quotes that suit their purposes.”

“Articles like your own only contribute to the marginalisation of asexual people in a society that already upholds (hetero) sexuality as the only way to be.” Surely society has progressed beyond this seemingly old-fashioned statement?. 

Let’s first explain why I wrote this article. I am an accredited sex therapist in Sydney and write a fortnightly blog for Fairfax Media’s online Life-Style page about sexual issues, which are mainly educational. I am not an academic or a researcher, and the articles have to be less than 700 words, which means I can’t always include all the information I would like.

If you use this link you can access them all, and you will find that I have written about many issues, involving a lot of research. I have a file of 60 articles about asexuality, collected since 2009 and I can assure you I wrote this article with no intention of being disrespectful.

I specialise in sexual dysfunction for both men and women, and help couples who have relationship problems which are usually sexually related. I have been in full time practice for about six years and have spoken to hundreds of people. I take a sexual history from every client I see, which means that I have a broad understanding of the sexual problems or issues people experience or struggle with.

The client I mentioned in my article was unhappy that she had no interest in sex; she was distressed, which is why she came to see me. She wanted to explore with me the possibility of her being asexual. After some sessions, she decided she was not asexual but she was petrified of intercourse.

I certainly would never want to change anyone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction or doesn’t have a sense of sexuality and identifies as asexual.

You say: “We want people to actually listen to our experiences, not pick and choose individual quotes that suit their purposes”.

Most of the articles, I have read are by journalists who explain what AVEN is about and usually interview asexual young people. These were some of their quotes I used in my article:

“I enjoy physical contact, and I don’t find sex offensive. I just don’t want to interfere with someone else’s bits and pieces or have them interfere with mine”.

“For me sex is revulsion, it really is, just ugh, cuddling is OK but not kissing”

“I don’t want to marry, nor have children, because of the sex involved!”

“The thought of penetration, of being touched or having to touch someone makes me shudder”

As a sex therapist I can’t ignore the fact that some of these people may be experiencing sex phobia or sexual aversion. Contrary to what you may believe, for some women the thought of sexual intercourse may cause extreme anxiety or a panic attack. They fear that sex may hurt, feel embarrassed about the look of their vaginas, are scared of being naked in front of somebody else or of having to touch a penis.

The same can happen to young men who may experience some sort of sexual dysfunction that turns into performance anxiety, which then turns into avoiding sex.

You mention that you are an asexual activist, and you are always happy to see asexuality featured in public discourse. Maybe it is time that the asexuality community stopped seeing anyone who has a different opinion as “the enemy”.

Kind regards,

Matty Silver

Silver’s response disappointed me, because as I see it, she made no effort to engage with my overall arguments.  Despite the fact that she quotes sections of what I wrote at length, she takes no responsibility for the implications of her article and the way she contributes to the marginalisation of asexuality.

Firstly, she denies outright that she said anything to discredit or question the existence of asexuality or its community, and that anything she said pathologises asexuality. But if you look back to the original article, she states:

I believe people who claim to be asexual should explore a full range of possibilities that may affect their sexual desire. A number of things could be going on, but a person’s sexuality will always be present.

This reads to me as saying ‘people who are asexual must have an underlying cause for their asexuality,’ and the fact that she then goes on to speak about sex-phobia and sexual aversion disorder strongly implies that the underlying cause is one of phobia, repression or disorder. The quotes by asexual people she uses are pulled from various media pieces and are decontextualised; you can see two of the articles she has drawn from here and here. Neither see asexuality, or their lack of sexual interest in other people, as a problem.

Furthermore, in a comment, Silver said this:

I personally don’t believe belief that asexuality is a “sexual orientation” or that anybody is born asexual.

There is nothing ambiguous about this statement. Asexuality, as described by AVEN (not the ‘literal definition’ that Silver has pulled from thin air to suit her own purpose), is a sexual orientation, one where people are not sexually attracted to any gender. For Silver to say that she has never suggested that the asexual community is wrong is ridiculous. For her to continuously demand scientific proof that people can be asexual before she accepts someone’s personal experience of their identity and sexuality is accurate is hugely problematic.

Later parts of her response are copied and pasted directly from her original article, which to me shows a lack of interest in actually engaging with my concerns. I am well aware that people do suffer from sexual disorders or problems that are based in fear or repression. However, it seems that this is actually the focus of Silver’s argument. So why bring asexuality into the picture at all, if this is what she actually wanted to talk about?

Some parts of her response seem completely out of touch with what society is like. For instance, she states that surely we have progressed past heteronormativity in the present day. I would say we have not. Any queer-identifying person (and a good lot of heterosexual people as well!) will agree with me. Surely if we had progressed past heteronormativity, we wouldn’t still be arguing about marriage equality, for one.

In my experience, the asexual community welcomes discussion of asexuality and sexuality in general. I cannot say that I speak for all of it. But what I cannot accept is people whose ‘different opinions’ directly contribute to the marginalising of a minority sexuality and have a harmful effect on that community. I find it baffling that Silver cannot seem to see or accept that her article is doing this. I also find it sad, because as someone in a visible, influential and authoritative position, I feel Silver could do a lot of good for the asexual community and for anyone who is questioning their identity and sexuality if she put her mind to it.

It would be as easy as writing an article that went like this: ‘I had a client once who was concerned that she was asexual. I told her that there were a range of possibilities. She could have some issues she needed to work through. Or she could be asexual, which would be perfectly fine, because it is a perfectly valid side of the spectrum of sexuality. Ultimately, the only person who could decide which possibility fitted her better was her. And whichever she ended up with, I was able to provide support and encouragement.’

Unfortunately, Silver seems determined to make sure no-one sees asexuality as a valid sexual orientation. Well, at least I can say I tried.

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7 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Matty Silver: Response

  1. Yeah, there are some serious problems with Ms. Silver’s response, as far as I can tell. One of the main issues is that she seems personally affronted that people have actually questioned her ideas about asexuality. I mean, it’s all very well for her to go on about the ‘AVEN movement’ can’t seem to tolerate different opinions. Well, if anybody can’t seem to tolerate different opinions, I would tend to say it’s her. She is getting really defensive. But why? People from the asexual community are trying to ‘deal with’ her article in a respectful and intelligent manner, and she seems to find that a threat. The thing is, if anybody publishes their ideas, it’s inevitable that they won’t be universally accepted, right? Nobody is obliged to take her words seriously.
    But, you know, privilege.
    Why does she keep demanding ‘scientific’ proof, but does not engage with any of the learned literature you cited in your response?
    Also, I don’t seem to recall you saying anybody was ‘the enemy,’ so it seems misleading to put it in quotation marks as though you did. But then, she seems to treat AVEN as synonymous with the asexual community, when really it’s simply a website. So I wonder how familiar she really is with the asexual community. Also, I can’t help but be bemused by the way she assumes you’re a spokesperson for AVEN? Weird.
    I actually wonder if she is a bit out of her depth here. I mean, she is a sex therapist, not a specialist in sexuality or sexual orientation. They’re very different things. I’m going to hazard a guess this might be the first time she has had to deal with people objecting to something she has written– normally, she writes on sexual disfunction, yes? Not minorities. By her own admission, she is not an academic, and her ‘research’ seems to predominantly include reading media articles. Oh well.
    The good news is, Jo, that every time somebody googles her name now in relation to asexuality they’re not just going to find the SMH article– they will also find your rebuttal. In other words, you’ve done your bit to help people understand asexuality better; anybody who is struggling to understand why they don’t feel sexual attraction now has the benefit of another perspective, and perhaps a more helpful one.
    *hugs* You’re awesome, and you do a great deal of good here. ^_^

  2. I often find that a little word substitution can be illuminating:

    Let’s agree to disagree with my statement “that we are all heterosexual by nature from the day we are born to the day we die”. If scientific research one day finds out that’s not the case, I happily will retract my statement.

    I personally don’t believe believe that homosexuality is a “sexual orientation” or that anybody is born homosexual.

    I believe people who claim to be homosexual should explore a full range of possibilities that may affect their sexual desire. A number of things could be going on, but a person’s heterosexuality will always be present.

    “For me sex with a man is revulsion, it really is, just ugh, cuddling is OK but not kissing.”

    “I don’t want to marry a man, nor have children, because of the sex involved!”

    “The thought of penetration, of being touched or having a man touch me makes me shudder”

    As a sex therapist I can’t ignore the fact that some women who identify as lesbians may be experiencing sex phobia or sexual aversion. Contrary to what you may believe, for some “homosexual” women the thought of sexual intercourse with a man may cause extreme anxiety or a panic attack. They fear that sex may hurt, feel embarrassed about the look of their vaginas, are scared of being naked in front of a man or of having to touch a penis.

    The same can happen to young men think they are homosexual. They may actually experience some sort of sexual dysfunction that turns into performance anxiety, which then turns into avoiding sex with women.

    These kinds of comments could have easily been made by many therapists in 1974. In 2014? Only members of repressive religions/cultures and the right wing fringe would make such statements publicly.

    This, by the way, was the kind of shit I grew up hearing as a queer kid born in the US in 1968. It’s just as ugly and prejudicial when applied to asexuals in the present as it was when applied to gay/bi people several decades ago.

    I could care less if this woman is a professional. In my lifetime, professionals were part of a pattern of widespread institutional oppression against LGBT people. They once threw queer people into psych wards, medicated them, and gave them electroshock therapy… all because “science” said that human beings were, by nature, heterosexual and that other ways of being were unnatural aberrations, born of developmental mishaps and personal tragedy, bringing forth deep, underlying dysfunction.

    Resorting to “science” as a excuse to treat sexual minorities as defectives is just another way of saying, “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

    1. Yes, to all of the above! Especially this:

      Resorting to “science” as a excuse to treat sexual minorities as defectives is just another way of saying, “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

  3. Wow, that entire letter of hers was incredibly patronizing, not to mention passive-aggressive. You’d think someone who values “honest discussion about sexuality among sexual and asexual people alike” would try to actually engage in it.
    “Let’s agree to disagree with my statement ‘that we are all sexual beings from the day we are born to the day we die’.”
    What the heck? Why are you determined to protect that idea of all things? Do you really need scientific research in order to believe that there are people who are both sex-repulsed and asexual, and that it’s inaccurate to call those people “sexual beings”? What does that phrase even mean, then?
    “As a sex therapist I can’t ignore the fact that some of these people may be experiencing sex phobia or sexual aversion. Contrary to what you may believe, for some women the thought of sexual intercourse may cause extreme anxiety or a panic attack.”
    Why is she acting like sex-repulsion is a new idea to us? We know this. We accept people who are like this. Although unfortunately it’s a bit of an intra-community issue, many good folk in the asexual community aren’t going to react with shock and pity to the idea that someone strongly doesn’t want sex. A lot of us are okay with that.
    “Maybe it is time that the asexuality community stopped seeing anyone who has a different opinion as ‘the enemy’.”
    If you don’t want to be seen as the enemy, then… I don’t know, how about you stop fighting us?
    She’s the one who instigated conflict by declaring our sexual orientation not a sexual orientation and began repeatedly insisting that she’s determined to see us as “sexual beings,” despite having evidence right before her to the contrary.
    Good God, people who can’t apologize are frustrating.

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