How old is old enough to be asexual?
I’ve written a lot, lately, about how sexism affects asexuals and our perceptions of asexuality. A lot of that sexism and misogyny centers around themes of experience, whether that’s using a woman’s lack of (the correct kind of) sexual experience as evidence that she’s not really asexual, or using the fact that she has engaged in sexual experience as proof that she’s not really asexual. The first part of this double-bind, as well as the more general idea that people with more experience can explain people with less experience to themselves, is rooted in ageism, but today I’m going to talk about ageism and asexuality more explicitly.
The Trevor Project is “the leading national organization preventing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth.” One of their affiliates defines this more specifically– “TrevorSpace.org is an online, social networking community for LGBTQ youth ages 13 through 24 and their friends and allies.” The New York Times’s “Coming Out” project features stories from teenagers as young as 15. The “It Gets Better” project is specifically aimed at teenagers. While there are many fair criticisms to be made of “Glee,” no one seems to be arguing that its characters are too young– or were too young, when the show began– to know they’re gay. As for heterosexuality, its undeserved status as the “default” sexuality means that rarely, if ever, is anyone who says they’re straight told they’re too young to know that for sure. Knowing that you’re straight as a teenager is considered completely normal.
So the idea that teenagers know their sexual orientations– even minority sexual orientations– is clearly not a controversial one in general. When it comes to asexuality specifically, studies indicate that the average age of first sexual attraction, for both straight and gay children, could be as early as ten, so we know that most teenagers have had ample time to determine whether or not they’ve felt it. We also know that the same 2004 study that gave us the 1% number found that asexual respondents were, on average, slightly older than non-asexual respondents, so we know that asexuality isn’t something teenagers experience and then grow out of.
In this context, it becomes obvious that telling asexuals they’re not old enough to know their sexual orientation is rooted in both ageism– the idea that anyone who can communicate about it is “too young” to know their sexual orientation– and anti-asexual ideology– the way this standard is applied to asexuals much more frequently than it is applied to members of any other sexual orientation. When I came out to my family, one of the responses I received amounted to “It’s just a phase,” even though I was in my twenties and had been dating men and describing myself as a straight woman for several years prior to that. Asexual people– usually women– who are in their thirties still report being told that they’re “too young” to know their sexual orientation, or that they’re just “late bloomers.” The fact that asexuals from this same age group are also told that they’re too old to have a sexuality, that their lack of sexual attraction is simply what happens to people in their thirties, shows that the point is to invalidate asexuality by any means necessary.
Ageism is a problem for the asexual community, but it seems to be a symptom of a deeper problem, which is, of course, the suspicion and distrust with which many people regard the concept of asexuality. For whatever reason, they think it cannot possibly be valid, and so they resort to any way that they can to invalidate asexual identities, whether that’s ageism (“You’re too young to know you’re asexual.” “You’re too old to call yourself asexual, that’s perfectly normal at your age.”) or the experience argument (“You can’t be asexual if you’ve never been in a ‘real’ relationship/never had sex/only had one sexual partner.” “You can’t call yourself asexual if you have sex.”) or sexism (“All women are asexual, you’re just normal”) or arguments about one’s romantic orientation or gender identity (“You’re not asexual, it’s just internalized homophobia/dysphoria/transphobia”) or arguments about the patriarchy (“You’ve just been brainwashed into denying your sexuality.”) Ageism is just an excuse, a tool to use to dismiss asexuality; if it weren’t that, it would be something else. The bad news is that it’s not going to go away until asexuality is accepted, but the good news is the ageist argument against asexuality is so implausible that there’s no reason to listen to anyone who makes it.