This post was written for the August 2013 Carnival of Aces. This month’s theme is “teenagers.”
You’ve probably seen the posts, either on AVEN or on tumblr, where some teenager writes in and says, “Hi, I’m [age] and I just found out about asexuality, and I think I might be asexual.” Almost invariably, whoever is writing the response welcomes the OP to the community, and then reminds them that even if they turn out to not be ace later, even if they turn out be a late bloomer or confused or whatever else, that doesn’t mean that they can’t identify as asexual right now.
Strangely enough, when someone in their twenties or thirties sends in the exact same message, they’re significantly less likely to get this reassurance. In fact, they’re likely to just get a welcome without any sort of commentary on whether or not they might not identify as ace later tacked on.
Since this month’s Carnival theme is “teenagers,” I want to take a moment to consider the “you might not be asexual forever” disclaimer that is so commonly offered to teens (especially teens who are new to the community). I’m not interested in condemning people who offer the disclaimer–heck, I’ve done it a few times myself. But I would like to stop for a minute and think about whether the disclaimer is ultimately helpful for teens or whether it merely perpetrates negative stereotypes and throws teens into another doubt spiral.
Pros of the “you might not be asexual forever” disclaimer:
1. Nobody can accuse us of being some sort of (a)sexuality police state. As I’ve written about before, when people (misguidedly) accuse the asexual community of being “dangerous” to LGB folks, they occasionally reference the fact that we’re some sort of brainwashing cult of anti-sexuality. Actually, we’re kind of the opposite. Most resources (especially 101 resources) tend to go out of their way to make the point that, hey, you might not be asexual forever, and, hey, it’s okay to change your identity labels at any time and for any reason. This policy makes us look a lot less threatening to the people in the LGBTQ community who are concerned that we might force people to pretend to be asexual to avoid being ostracized or harassed.
2. We provide space for teens who may change their labels. Figuring out your sexuality is hard, and there are going to be some teens who identify as some flavour of ace and then realize that there are other words that fit them better. If we acknowledge from the beginning that, yes, sometimes you find labels that fit you better, and there’s nothing wrong with that (and we won’t chase after you with pitchforks), it might diminish the angst of those teens who discover that a non-asexual spectrum label works better for them.
For that matter, we provide space for teens who wind up changing labels on the asexual spectrum. Someone enters the ace community thinking that they’re asexual and then based on conversations or new experiences or epiphanies at 3 a.m., they realize that they’re actually grey-A. Or someone comes in thinking that they’re demisexual, and then realizes that, actually, plain old asexual is a better label for them. People may discover that they fall in a different place on the asexual spectrum than they originally thought, but if they were told upon entering the community that they might wind up revising their labels but their feelings right now are still 100% legitimate, they might not experience as much angst over label-changing. They will, at the very least, know that they can say, “Hey, guys, I know I said I was grey-A, but actually I’m demisexual” without getting thrown out of the community/eaten by crocodiles/accused of being a deceiving deceiver.
3. We legitimate someone’s use of the “asexual” label (and their feelings) even if they’re not 100% sure. There are people out there who say, “No, you can’t identify as [the thing] unless you are 100% sure you won’t change your mind later!” But when we tell young aces that it’s okay to use the asexual label now and reevaluate later if necessary, we at least give them a place to stop and take stock. And a lot of those aces who aren’t 100% sure later become 100% sure! (Or as close to 100% sure as you can get on the asexual spectrum.) And the fact that they are allowed into the community even if they aren’t 100% sure means that they have space to explore and think and talk to other aces without being shoved in one direction or another or told to come back when they’re “less confused.”
As for the folks who identify as ace and then realize that they’re not actually ace or that other labels fit them better, well, I’ll just quote a comment that slightlymetaphysical left on the post I linked to earlier:
Also, as a queer allosexual who probably fits the ‘used asexuality as a form of denial’ stereotype, I sometimes wake up in cold sweats at the idea of having not identified of asexual. It did, and is still doing, so much for me, I can’t imagine my life without that part of my history. And even for gay (cos this is probably primarily about monosexuals, bi/pan folks would be more likely to pretend to be straight) kids who gain less from the asexual community, pretending to be asexual and gradually building up to identifying how you really feel is a WHOLE LOT more productive than feeling broken and having lots of relationships/sexual experiences you don’t want with partners who will probably also end up hurt. I know those aren’t the only two options, but faking asexuality still comes out on top.
So, yes, creating a space that allows teens (and non-teens as well!) to explore their sexuality is a pretty cool result of the disclaimer.
But on the other hand…
Cons of the “you might not be asexual forever” disclaimer:
1. We’re reinforcing the idea that teenage aces should doubt themselves. Aces–teen aces in particular–are being told by basically everybody to doubt themselves constantly. When we say, “Hey, you might not be asexual forever,” we’re contributing to that constantly-searching-for-a-wi-fi-network-that-never-appears background radiation of doubt that Sciatrix wrote about for the Carnival of Aces last month. Some teens might take what is meant to be a comforting statement that it’s okay to change your label to reflect your understanding of yourself as a warning that says, “Sure, we’ll accept you as ace…for now. You better watch out for sexual attraction, though.” This warning means that I get notes in my ask box from kids (usually in the 15-17 age range) who identify as ace, have no reason not to identify as ace, but are terrified to identify as ace because what if something changes, what if it turns out I’m a lesbian, what if I wake up tomorrow and want to get it on?
By telling teens that it’s okay if they later identify as something non-asexual spectrum, we might be making it easier for them to switch labels later, but we might also be making it harder for them to identify as ace now. Sure, there might be that teen who says, “Well, I can identify as ace now, and if my label changes later, so be it,” but there might also be that teen who thinks, “Oh geez, this person thinks I’m not old enough to know that I’m really ace and I can’t identify as ace unless I’m 612% sure, because I will look super silly if I change my label later,” and gets thrown into a whole ‘nother spiral of doubt. Or else there might be the teen who thinks, “Okay, I’ll identify as ace now, but I’ll have to watch my feelings REALLY CLOSELY to make sure I’m not wrongly labeling myself,” and then you get the whole constantly-searching-for-a-non-existent-wi-fi-network problem again.
2. We’re reinforcing the idea that teenagers (especially GSRM teenagers) don’t (or can’t) know their sexuality. Remember how I said we don’t say the same things to people in their twenties, in their thirties, in their forties? Yes, you could say that teenagers are much more likely to change sexuality labels, but when a teenager who has known about asexuality for a year and has been identifying as asexual for six months gets the “you might not be asexual forever” speech, but a man in his thirties who has known about asexuality for 6 hours doesn’t, I have to wonder.
There’s a trend of not believing kids who come out as LGBTQ+–especially kids who come out as anything other than G. I remember that when a few of my peers started coming out as bi in their mid-teens, the adults around us rolled their eyes and said they’d grow out of it. (Strangely enough, none of them did.) Even the kids who came out as gay were asked whether they were sure, really sure, really spectacularly truly sure that they were 100% gay. Only one crush on a person of the same gender? Probably a fluke–wait for a second, third, fourth one. And when we tell ace-identified teens that it’s okay if you grow out of it, what they might hear is, “You’re too young to really know.”
In the most extreme cases, the “you might not be asexual forever” disclaimer can operate as a form of identity policing. Sciatrix wrote a pretty comprehensive post on this problem three years ago, and yet this is still a major issue in ace communities. By telling teen aces that they might change their mind later, that they might be late bloomers, that they might not be asexual forever, we’re pushing them out of the community until they’re old enough to be “certain.” Except that, as older aces know, there is no day you wake up and say, “Huh, I have passed the Sexual Attraction Reception Line, so I guess I am guaranteed to be ace for the rest of eternity!” There is no point at which most people are 100% certain in their asexuality, and so telling teens (whether directly or indirectly) that they’re too young to be sure just isolates them from a potentially supportive community for no good reason.
We don’t tell straight kids, “Hey, if you decide you’re not really straight later on, that’s okay,” even though there are loads of kids who identify as straight and then switch labels later on. (Don’t even get me started on how many of my friends identified as straight in their teens and then had a “so actually I’m…” conversation with me in their 20s.) Maybe we should. Maybe that level of constant self-doubt is good for the adolescent mind. I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that we treat GSRM teens differently than we treat hetero, cis teens; we say, “Are you sure? Are you really, really sure?” and in the background there is a constant drone of “doubt your feelings, doubt your identities, doubt your experiences, doubt yourself.” I don’t know about you, but I found being in a constant state of crippling self-doubt pretty exhausting, and I wouldn’t want to foist that on anyone.
What it comes down to is that I don’t know whether the “you might not be asexual forever” disclaimer is ultimately more harmful or helpful to teens. I think it probably varies from person to person, situation to situation, and community to community. A teen who is already doubting herself and is in a non-supportive environment would probably find the disclaimer much more harmful than a teen who is secure in his identity and in a supportive community of people who believe that he is capable of understanding and defining his own orientation(s). A teen who believes that adopting an identity term is binding and immutable would probably react to the disclaimer very differently than a teen who has grown up with the idea that sexuality is fluid and that they can adopt and discard labels as best benefits them.
It’s worth noting, though, that the majority of the pros apply to people who aren’t ace while all the cons apply to people who are. It’s interesting (and a little disheartening) that we’ve shaped so much of the way we welcome new (teen) aces so that they feel comfortable if they later stop identifying as ace and other non-aces don’t view us as a threatening force rather than (as you would expect) to comfort and support (teen) aces who are new to the community.