The “privilege” framework is weak

1. Allosexual privilege

I can give a lot of reasons why “privilege” is a weak theoretical framework for social justice activism. But as it is for many things, I didn’t come to this conclusion by just working through all the reasons, I came to it via an experience. So I’ll start by sharing that experience.

In fact, it’s an experience shared by most asexuality activists of a certain generation. There was a time, around 2011, that activists tried talking about allosexual privilege. This was widely regarded as a failure, and now we don’t talk about it anymore, except to tell newer activists that it’s a bad idea.

The whole debacle is well-documented. This was around the time that the asexual tumblr community was formed, and asexuality discussion that used to be held internally was for the first time exposed to a much broader audience. A lot of ideas were refined during that time, often by way of flame wars with TERFs.1

One of the biggest flame wars was over the concept of “sexual privilege”. As with many flame wars it was a lot of nonsense, but there were a few substantial critiques that came up.

1. People objected to the word “sexual” as a way to refer to non-asexuals. I have long agreed with these objections. Nowadays, the word “sexual” is deprecated, and we use “non-asexual”, “allosexual”, or simply “allo”.
2. “Allosexual” is a category that groups together straight and LGB people. Many LGB people simply don’t have many of the privileges on the allosexual privilege checklist. In some cases, people may be disadvantaged precisely because of their allosexuality.

At least one advocate for allo privilege has since disavowed the idea, agreeing with the latter objection. Instead, they recommend compulsory sexuality and amatonormativity as alternative frameworks.

2. Stuck in a binary

I somewhat agree with the above, but I think this is already an extant problem in the concept of “privilege”, not just in its application to asexuality, but in its canonical application to race. White privilege is often just a way to talk about Black disadvantages, so it implicitly frames things in terms of a particular binary. And what if we want to talk about Asian, Arab, Native American, or Latin@ disadvantages, especially those that are distinct from Black disadvantages?

There are three options. 1) We include Asian/Arab/Native American/Latin@ disadvantages in the White privilege checklist, even if that means that some items in the checklist are shared by both White and Black people.2 2) We make separate privilege checklists in relation to each ethnic/racial minority. 3) We just don’t talk about other ethnic/racial minorities within the privilege framework.

And maybe it’s not that much of an issue because Black disadvantages overlap so much with those of other racial/ethnic minorities. But this is a problem in every established privilege framework. “Male privilege” focuses on the male/female binary, and so where do trans people fit in? “Cis privilege” focuses on the cis/trans binary, so where do non-binary people (not all of whom identify as trans) fit in?  “Straight privilege” focuses on the straight/LG binary, so where do bi, pan, and ace people fit in?

As for class privilege–we mostly all agree that class privilege is a thing, but it tends to be a less useful concept because there are clearly more than two socioeconomic classes. Class privilege is most successful as a concept when people make artificial binary distinctions like the one between “the 99%” and “the 1%”.

3. The cracks show

I’m not saying that these problems with “privilege” can’t be addressed. They clearly can. For instance, every good introduction to the concept of White privilege talks about how, yes, some White people are disadvantaged for being poor, but no, that doesn’t invalidate the idea of White privilege. And yet, when the same kind of problem shows up for cisgender privilege, monosexual privilege, or allo privilege, suddenly it’s a tough nut to crack.

It seems like “privilege” is only available as a framework to groups that already have some degree of power. This is not to say that Black people, women, and LG people are especially powerful to have established well-known privilege frameworks. But there’s a particular kind of power gained by having a coherent community where ideas can be incubated, established, and then continually brought to public attention until it achieves widespread acceptance. This is precisely the kind of power that you tend to lack when you’re a small and invisible group suffering from hermeneutical injustice. This is why we seem to have more trouble talking about privilege from a ace, bi, nonbinary, or trans perspective.

This is what I mean when I say the privilege framework is weak. Even people who generally accept the concept of privilege suddenly find it uncompelling as soon as it’s used in favor of any group they don’t already agree with. What good is a framework that is only robust when it’s arguing for something you already believe?

4. How do we evaluate “privilege”?

Throughout this article, I talk about privilege as a theoretical framework. I don’t think of privilege as a raw fact about reality, it’s simply one of many lenses we can use to understand reality and explain it to each other. There are many alternative frameworks, for example instead of “male privilege” we also have the concepts of “patriarchy” or simply “sexism”. All these frameworks come with their own problems, and may be useful in different situations.

I have a general question: How do you determine when one of these frameworks is a failure?

Do you just think about it theoretically? Or do you look at the results? And if we do look at the results, what kind of results do we pay attention to? Do we limit ourselves to the cases where people have “correctly” understood the framework, or do we also pay attention to how the framework is commonly misunderstood? Do we just look at how SJWs respond to the framework, or do we also look at how effective the framework is at persuading people on the other side?

The longer I pay attention to conversations about privilege, the worse it looks. “Privilege” seems to be systematically misunderstood by both proponents and opponents, and those misunderstandings feed off of each other. I have rarely seen any conversation made productive by talking about privilege, and I have seen more than a few conversations made unproductive. I increasingly feel these problems are intrinsic to the privilege framework itself, and that usually some other framework would perform better in its place.

Readers may not be convinced, and well I could just be wrong about everything, so maybe disagreeing with me is the right thing to do. But I encourage readers to pay attention to how theoretical frameworks like “privilege” are used and abused, and to critically evaluate whether it is really useful.

1. TERF = trans exclusionary radical feminist. I’m being a bit simplistic here, since not all the anti-ace people were TERFs. But it was a good number of them, and the resemblance of anti-ace arguments to TERF arguments was pretty clear. (return)

2. IMHO, #1 is the correct way to “fix” the allo privilege checklist. It should just be merged with straight privilege. (return)


  1. says

    People tend to be blind to the issues of groups they are not part of. Even well established ones.
    I’m not sure the concept of privilege is weak, but how it is often applied is. There is a lot of talk about how white men have a lot of privilege, but not much about how women of color have relatively little, for example.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Thank you for your use of HTML anchors to guide readers to and from footnotes!

    Do you think you could teach this to other FtB bloggers?

    “Allo”, according to my dictionary, means “other” or “different”. Not that I care (except semantically), but this differs from my initial understanding of asexuality by implying autosexuality. Does the ace community divide between “auto-“s and “a-“s? [Cue cries of “splitter!”]

  3. says

    @Pierce R. Butler,
    One of my cobloggers wrote a guide on footnotes, so that’s where I would point other bloggers.

    To learn about the term “allosexual” in excruciating detail, you can look at the comment section in the link I provided. There’s lots of stuff about its previous usage in scientific literature, a false cognate in Canadian French, and several other competing terms. In the scientific literature, “allosexual” was indeed contrasted with “autosexual”.

    In the ace community, “autosexual” denotes an asexual with sex drive / libido / desire to masturbate. It used to be a more common term, but isn’t used very much anymore, perhaps because most people don’t really want to disclose that information, and perhaps because it turns out to be a bit of a granfalloon.

  4. says

    I think that the ace/allo/lgb privilege discourse you mention is also a general example of how common “privilege” analyses – which tend to assume that whenever two groups are treated differently, one is being “privileged” and one is being “oppressed” – tend to fall apart even more than usual when applied to differences of experiences among multiple minority or disadvantaged groups. (Which I think may have been part of what you were getting at in part 3?)

    (As a fair disclosure, I tend to dislike what I see as the over-simplification of privileged/oppressed phrasing in pretty much any situation, but I think this is one where it’s flaws become especially apparent)

    Like, in a lot of the “allo privilege” debates that I remember, the arguments were often something like:

    > Person 1: LGBT people are more likely than aces to have their relationships socially and institutionally recognized, so they’re privileged and aces are oppressed! (And if they are therefore more likely to face harassment because of those relationships, well, that’s just incidental homophobia)

    >Person 2: Ace people are less likely than LGBT people to be harassed for their relationships, so they’re privileged and lgbt people are oppressed! (And if that’s because their relationships are systematically erased and invalidated, well, that’s just incidental heterosexism).

    Basically, when you have two different groups with two different experiences, the difference isn’t always that one has it better (“privilege”) and one has it worse (“oppressed”) – and trying to assign them those values turns into a “the grass is always greener” situation where you get multiple groups arguing that, well, their current situation sucks so surely the alternative must be better. (Which is basically how we end up with ace vs. non-ace lgbt activists yelling “you’re privileged! No, you’re privileged!” at each other so often).

  5. parlance says

    This feels more like a misread of privilege as a framework than an indictment. I think you basically explained why intersectionality needs to go hand-in-hand when discussing privilege. Also, privilege is not a binary, but a spectrum.


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