Note: the first two posts in this series were originally published at Confessions of an Ist.
This is a story about my younger self, and about how sexism (and homophobia, but mostly sexism) affected my identifying as asexual.
I grew up thinking I was straight, because straight was default and everyone was straight until proven otherwise. I wondered occasionally if I were gay, because I realized that I liked women and men about the same, but I decided I wasn’t gay because I didn’t want to have sex with women. I did wonder if I might be bisexual, but I concluded that I liked guys so that made me straight. I didn’t hear about asexuality for years.
I didn’t date much in high school. I dated more in college, always men. One relationship had a noticeable lack of physical chemistry (even for me), and, while my boyfriend didn’t give a lot of reasons for breaking up with me, I was pretty sure it had something to do with him wanting to go farther and faster physically than I did. I don’t remember thinking there was anything remarkable about this; I just concluded I was a little weird for not wanting to do that stuff, and that we were incompatible.
I had another boyfriend who told me he wanted me, wanted to have sex with me. I had no idea how to process this. I simply had no framework for understanding a statement like that. I had no idea what it felt like to want somebody. There were people I missed when they weren’t around, but I didn’t want to have sex with any of them, and my boyfriend was clearly talking about something far more physical. I was taken aback; I had noticed that other people were having much more sex than I was, and that there was something different about them as opposed to about me, but I hadn’t thought about what that was very deeply. I was more of a conservative Christian (and more judgmental) then than I am now, so I had put some of it down to different morals, but most of it I had just attributed to different life choices.
But my boyfriend at the time was also religiously conservative, so I knew that couldn’t be it. My conclusion was that that tired old chestnut, that men want sex much more than women do, must be true. I was kind of surprised to realize this, but the evidence seemed clear: he wanted me, I had no idea what he was talking about but didn’t feel anything like that for him, he was the guy, I was the girl. I couldn’t think of any alternative explanation for such a marked difference in our feelings. Not only did I not want him, I couldn’t conceive of wanting him or anyone else.
Once I realized that my boyfriend and I had significantly different levels of interest in each other sexually, which was something I thought was gendered, I became concerned about tempting him. After all, if what I thought was a sexist trope about women just not being interested in sex was apparently true, then maybe all that stuff that went with it, about “provocative” women being “bad” women, was true too. I wasn’t concerned that my boyfriend was going to pressure me for sex if I was too tempting, but I still didn’t like the idea of unintentionally turning him on. I didn’t like the idea that something that was platonic to me, like cuddling, could be sexual to him. So I let many of my desires go unfulfilled, and convinced myself that if we could just get to a stage in our relationship where we felt like we “could,” morally, have sex, whether that was an engagement or what, then everything would be okay. I focused on sex as the thing that would bring the intimacy I wanted, even though I didn’t really want sex.
That relationship ended before engagements or marriage became an issue. I figured out that the tired old chestnut about men wanting sex much more than women want sex was actually a tired old chestnut and not a universal truth– and what astounds me, looking back, was that I knew a lot of women who were having and enjoying sex. I had them as examples right in front of me. But I had no other way to interpret my experiences than through the lens sexism offered me, because the lives of my friends offered no way to account for my desires, or rather, my lack of sexual desires.
Looking back, I wish someone had sat me down and said, “Aydan, you know how you’ve never wanted to do anything sexually with any of your boyfriends?” And then, after I had finished sputtering and making excuses, had said, “Have you ever thought about what that means? Aydan, it’s not them, it’s you.”
And I wish someone had sat me down and said, “You don’t want what most people want, and that’s okay. What you do want, you’re probably not going to find in these relationships. Maybe you should stop trying, and figure out a way to get what you really do want.” It might have saved me some heartache, and something worse.
Because I’m not saying that I stayed in bad relationships because I didn’t know I was asexual and aromantic. But I am saying that if I had realized, had known what those things were, had realized that asexuality and not sexism explained my experiences– I might have made different decisions.
So, younger self, if you or someone like you is reading this, you should know that it’s okay to want what you want, even if it’s not what everyone else wants. Your desires are valid whether or not they are sexual. Make decisions based on what you want and not what you think you should want. Figure out what it is you want, and try to figure out a way to get it.