Warning and Advising: A Community Conversation, Part One

Handdrawn illustration of a yellow pasture against a background of hills and sparodic trees. Scene is overlaid with the dark green/light green/white/grey/black stripes of the aro pride flag. The text Aro Worlds Discussion Post sits across the image in a black, antique handdrawn type, separated by two ornate Victorian-style black dividers.

Advisory: Discussions of cissexism, heterosexism, allosexism, allo-aro antagonism/erasure and amatonormativity; examples of sex negative language. This piece also uses the word queer and contains sex and sexual attraction mentions.

Or: why the aro community should discuss our use of content advisories, particularly in light of how they other, alienate and exclude allosexual aromantics.

Not even a decade ago, it was difficult to find queer works that didn’t warn for queerness. Stories (usually from indie presses or posted to LiveJournal, FictionPress or Fanfiction.net) that depicted people like me came burdened by warnings of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender characters who may, gasp, engage in sex that didn’t include one cishet character boning a cishet character of the other binary gender.

I’m not talking about genre tags, like labelling a work “lesbian romance”. I’m talking about lines like “readers should be advised that this fic contains sex scenes between two men” even though the story was posted to a community collating m/m fiction. I’m talking about lines like “this fic is about lesbians and hate comments will be deleted” even though the piece was tagged as “lesbian”. I’m talking about a culture where it was deemed vital and necessary to warn for queer people engaged in intimacy. By contrast, the sex in cishet relationships merited warnings for explicitness, not people.

Often these warnings were placed on the same line as advisories for violence, sexual assault, explicit sexual acts or other content society recognises as potentially distressing. When I left comments telling authors what it feels like to keep seeing this sexualisation as a queer and transgender reader and writer, I earnt rejection, denial, refusal and abuse. I don’t know how many hate messages I got; all I remember is that nearly everyone I spoke to told me that they would keep on warning.

Even if warning for queer were somehow a value-neutral advertisement, the lack of comparative warnings for heterosexuality positioned this otherwise.

The lesson I learnt, a queer writer and reader cutting my teeth in that culture of warning, is this: queer sexuality, romance, intimacy and affection has no state where it doesn’t deserve warning.

The lesson I learnt is this: my sexuality, my gender identity and my sexual behaviours are so unusual, dangerous, abnormal and provocative that my existence must be warned for lest people object to me.

The lesson I learnt is this: I can’t be a good, normal or morally unambiguous person because unambiguously good or non-problematic things aren’t warned for.

For years, I felt that my sexuality and my non-cis experiences of gender and gender identity couldn’t be value-neutral states of being. Instead, they were equitable to warnings for sexual assault or violence. The authors who told stories about me put up walls to defend themselves against the literary equivalent of gay panic, readers reacting with hate to unwarned-for queerness. Few regarded the harm those walls might do to their real-life subjects.

I was a monster, capable of provoking fright, fear, distaste and hatred.

I was, and am, queer.

These attitudes made it difficult for me to come out, to interact with the world as a queer person. These attitudes diminished my pride and confidence. These attitudes positioned me as other even within the communities meant to shelter me.

This is the cultural context in which I operate; these are the scars I still bear.

Has the world changed since? Yes. I can find mainstream genre books with surprise queer relationships and characters. (And sometimes these characters are even the protagonists!) I no longer feel that my existence comes with warnings designed to head off people’s objection to my inclusion. I see more genre tags than warnings!

I don’t live in a world free of hate or prejudice. My family told me this year that they only find my non-queer writing beautiful and worthy of their pride, so I know that it is still a dangerous, complicated thing to be a queer creator. But I do not feel that my queerness is by default something for which queers and allies are expected to warn for.

Except.

Except in the a-spec and aromantic communities.

If I post into general aromantic tags, I feel that I am expected to warn for the behaviours commonly associated with my experiences of sexual attraction. Not just for explicit sexual content (which most people regard as reasonable) but also casual or non-explicit sex references or mentions, depictions or mentions of sexual attraction, and depictions or mentions of behaviours associated with experiencing sexual attraction and sexual relationships.

To type the word “sex” without elaboration, unwarned for and untagged, feels unwelcome, even risqué in aromantic and a-spec spaces.

In doing this, I am taking a new blow to skin that hasn’t finished healing, a purple bruise forming before the greens and yellows left by the first hit had any chance to fade. I am perpetuating what I fought against all those years ago: a community culture where it is normal for a queer allosexual person to warn for writing about queer allosexuality.

The aromantic community acknowledges experiences the world outside of a-spec spaces disregards: amatonormativity, allosexism, sex repulsion and romance repulsion. We acknowledge that some people are so repulsed by sex or romance that Western society is inaccessible to them. We acknowledge the damage in the assumption that everyone experiences sexual and romantic attraction, together and inseparable. Because we need to make our community more accessible than the rest of the world, we advise for sex mentions and content, romance mentions and content, amatonormativity, allosexism. We’re seeking to deconstruct the attitudes that hurt us, and part of how we do that is through warnings and content advisories.

We warn. With little meaningful conversation on what we warn for, when it is and isn’t suitable to warn, what behaviours need to be warned for even when they’re non-romantic and/or non-sexual, and how a culture of warning impacts those who don’t fit the image of the primary or dominant aromantic community member for whom we warn. We have a good grasp on why we warn, an important foundation for future conversations, but we have failed to build past it.

The needs of the sex and romance repulsed are voiced regularly in a-spec spaces, but we lack discussions on how best to accommodate these access requirements.

We rarely talk about the difference in handling sexual/romantic depictions and sexual/romantic references or mentions, and why we shouldn’t warn for the latter in the same way as the former.

We rarely talk about the reality that every sexual behaviour is also romantic-coded and how the expectation of warning for romance may result in allosexual aromantics having to categorise our expressions of allosexual aromanticism as something they’re not–romantic.

We rarely talk about making sure we stay on the right side of the line between protecting the sex-repulsed by warning for allosexual content and sexualising allosexual queer identities.

We rarely talk about the double standard in warning for sex mentions but not warning for the sex-negative language sometimes used in discussing sex repulsion.

We rarely talk about what it means to acknowledge in our culture of warning that aromantic allosexuality is an LGBTQIA+/queer identity subject to a long, ongoing history of demonisation and dehumanisation.

When well-meaning people are offering to tag discussions about allosexual aromanticism as “sex talk”, we need to address how we are sexualising, othering and failing to protect allo-aros in our efforts to create a culture of warning.

But wait, you may think. Nobody told you that you have to warn! If you hate it so much, why don’t you just … stop?

That’s true. Nobody said that I need to advise for “non-explicit sex mentions” on every Hallo, Aro post I make on Tumblr if I wish to use aromantic community and identity tags. Nobody needed to.

How many times have I seen people claim that “most aromantics are also asexual/sex-repulsed” in discussions about unwanted content in our tags? How many times have I seen discussions about sex repulsion and alienation in aro spaces by bloggers with only “aro” in icon and username? How many times have I seen untagged meme, art or expression posts describing sex as “ew”, “gross” or “disgusting”? How many times have I seen asexual-specific posts in aromantic community spaces? How many times have I seen aromantic-authored posts referring to behaviours, experiences and feelings related to my queer allosexuality as unwanted, repulsive or alienating? How many times have I seen posts about QPRs exclude sexual attraction or behaviours as a component? How many times have I seen posts insist that QPRs are primarily an aro-ace relationship model?

I’ve been told in a thousand ways that discussions of aromantic allosexuality won’t be welcome if I don’t first warn for it because allosexual content is not value-neutral in the aromantic community.

In making the aromantic community, we took asexual community norms about content and added “romance” and “amatonormativity” to them. We did not interrogate the usefulness of these norms, unchanged, in a community based on the truth that some aromantics are allosexual. We rarely acknowledge their suitability even when we know that romance is far less easy to distinguish than sex. We simply expanded a set of norms that suit asexuals and called the job done.

I see post after post on aro blogs where aro-ace stories and narratives bear no warnings for their references to or depictions of asexuality. Even a tag like #aroace for blacklisting options isn’t always present. At minimum, the aro community should be advising for all posts containing sex-negative language, yet it’s normal for allo-aros to endure unwarned-for, untagged posts describing sex as “gross” in discussions about sex repulsion.

Asexual aromantics less often need to attach content warnings or even tags on their shape of aromanticism, even when using sex-negative language.

Allosexual aromantics can’t not warn for our allosexual aromanticism if we wish to do something unconsciously discouraged by the aromantic community: depict, describe and celebrate our aromanticism as shaped by allosexuality in general aromantic spaces.

I’m not suggesting that we warn for asexual content in aro spaces. We can’t integrate allosexual aromantics into the aromantic community, however, until we address the inequity in how we handle aro-ace and general aromantic content versus allosexual aromantic content.

I understand that warnings for certain subjects and depictions in general aro spaces are required to make them more accessible for more aros. I am not seeking, in this post, to make a community where nobody warns for depictions of sex! I am not seeking to deprive the sex-and-romance repulsed the safety they need to participate within our shared community.

I just want to draw attention to the problems in our warning culture, the lack of conversations we have about navigating warning, and the ways this unspoken culture mirrors a history of sexualisation harming LGBTQIA+/queer aros. I want my community to understand that I have been long expected to provide content advisories for my non-explicit existence and what it means that I do so here.

I want my community to understand that it cuts me to the quick to feel obliged to warn for references to my allosexual shape of aro queerness while asexual aros rarely do me the courtesy of warning for sex-negative language.

I believe we can find ways to advise for content and keep aros safe without othering the rest of the community. I believe we can build spaces that don’t require certain warnings; develop warning practices for general spaces that don’t sexualise allo-aros; treat allosexual, asexual and general aromantic content equitably; and create a culture where we know how to navigate the ever-bewildering state of non-romantic content Western society oft-codes as romantic without romanticising it.

Only by beginning this conversation can we negotiate a better, safer culture for all aros.

The second part of this essay is a list of questions and conversation topics on the subject of content advisories and warning culture: things we can start discussing, evaluating and changing to build the community we all need.

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