When I saw that the theme for this month’s Carnival of Aces was doubt, I was excited. That’s because to my mind, self-doubt is one of the central components of an asexual experience as we know it. It is, after all, the flip side of the continual questioning so common in ace spaces. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most popular piece on asexuality I have ever written by a large margin, If You Can See the Invisible Elephant, Please Describe It, is all about the experience of self-doubt.
I have been identifying as asexual comfortably for an unbroken eight years—nearly a decade—and I still doubt myself occasionally and keep a watch for sexual attraction, in case I’m wrong. I expect to go on doing that indefinitely, too. I think that’s an experience unique to aces—in every other context of sexuality, I hear “questioning” bandied about as a temporary stage, something you eventually find an answer to, instead of a permanent low-grade murmur in the background. As an answer, asexuality tends to simply offer up further questions—sure, you can come to the conclusion that you’ve never experienced sexual attraction before, but can you ever be sure that you never will? And what does it feel like, anyway; how would you notice? Shouldn’t you pay attention, in case it hits you suddenly and you miss it? Is this it? Is that?
It’s not like the doubting and the looking out for attraction happen in a vacuum, either. We live in a world that encourages us to question our identification. “Could you really be a late bloomer?” “What if it’s really a hormone thing?” “Have you gotten seen by a doctor?” In my experience, questions that boil down to “Are you sure?” are perhaps the most common reaction I get to outing myself and talking about asexuality. The only thing that comes close is outright denial that asexuality is a valid identification—less a query that we’ve checked alternate explanations and more an assertion that this explanation has to be the wrong one. This isn’t exactly a recipe for self-confidence.
We’re under so much pressure to doubt ourselves that it seeps into the way that we think about things. Everything in the most common operational definition is about what you want, and why, and so you end up spending huge swathes of time thinking about that and wondering: do I want this because I want it, or do I want it because I think I should?
Is it really an asexual experience without that little shiver of doubt, of second-guessing yourself, of watching very carefully for the moment when everything changes and you have to process a new and unexpected form of attraction?
I think it ought to be, and yet I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone in ace communities who never engages in self-doubt, who never places their relationships and social interactions and reactions to people under the fish-bowl lens of self-introspection. Doubt, at least at some level, seems to be so central an experience that I think it shapes our community. I expect that the famous tendency to navel-gaze and partition experiences into finer and finer categories is a response to that basic level of self-doubt: what, exactly, am I missing?
There are some positives to doubt: doubt means you’re paying attention, both to yourself and to others. It means that you’re always thinking about what you’re feeling and what you’d like to feel. I don’t think people who have always been truly certain ever quite understand what it is to think that much about what your initial reactions to something are. (I suspect self-doubt is, at its core, the reason that asexual-identified cis women have a higher level of accuracy about what their bodies are doing in reaction to sexual stimuli than cis women from other orientations. Doubt means that you have to pay attention.)
But the thing is, there’s also a lot of negatives to self-doubt. The biggest one for me is spending the mental energy that it takes to look for the hint of something unusual in your reactions and emotions, like a laptop constantly searching for a wi-fi network that never appears. That can be exhausting, especially if you take it too far or if you can’t find an easy answer right away. And constant, permanent self-doubt can be poisonous. When you’re doubting all the time, when you don’t entirely trust yourself to know what you’re feeling and whether it counts as sexual attraction (or romantic, or any of the other shards of experience we think about), it’s easy to listen to someone who says confidently from the outside, “I know who you are. It’s obvious.” It’s not, and they don’t have as much information as you do to work with in any event, but it’s very tempting to listen anyway.
(This is why I love the ace community I fell into in 2005, which had taboos on saying “I know what you are” and made you work through it for yourself anyway. There’s no easy answers in this kind of thing, and looking for them makes you vulnerable to someone else making a snap judgment, erratic in its accuracy and reliant on incomplete information. I don’t know if those taboos still exist in modern ace communities—I confess, I’m not hanging out where the people who are just beginning to think about identifying as ace are these days—but I hope they do.)
As I get older and settle into myself more, I find those periods of panicky self-doubt have begun to pass. It’s less and less common for me to poke at a new relationship or my reactions to new people in my life for signs of a crush or sexual attraction. I occasionally still get comments on If You Can See the Invisible Elephant from earnest allosexual people who are eager to explain to me what sexual attraction feels like to them, and I confess I tend to find them uninteresting and dull, if well-meant. I don’t need to figure out what sexual attraction feels like. I’m pretty sure that by any reasonable definition of the term, I’m not experiencing it.
And I’m happy about that. It’s going to take a pretty life-altering experience for me to change my label at this point. If I miss out on that experience because I’m not looking for it or paying a ton of attention to my reactions all the time, that’s okay. I’m enjoying where I am! Being asexual is pretty awesome for me, and I’m increasingly comfortable in my own skin and my identity. And in the end, isn’t that the end goal for all of us?