This post is cross-posted here from my own blog, A Life Unexamined.
One of the things that interests me about (a)sexual identity and sexual orientation is the models we use to talk about and conceptualise them. I’ve seen two main ways of doing this in the queer community, which have then been transferred over into the ace community as well. First, there’s the ‘born this way’ idea, so arguing that gay people are born gay, or bi people born bi, or lesbians born as lesbians. And second, there’s the idea that sexuality is fluid and changing. Sometimes, both these ideas seem to get used together as well, which can get a little bit confusing.
Both of these ideas have some interesting implications when you look at them from an asexual perspective, or apply them to asexual people. I thought I’d explore a few of those here today.
Are ace people born ace?
Let’s start by looking at the ‘born this way’ model of queerness/aceness. I think one of the strengths of this concept is that it clearly defines that sexuality or sexual orientation aren’t choices people make, but rather an inherent part of them. As such, it’s gained a lot of support in the more mainstream parts of society – because if you were born a certain way, then you can’t be blamed for being that way, or harassed, or turned straight. Of course, those things still happen, but someone who believes in this model is less likely to decide that someone’s sexuality is something they can set straight (pun intended, because I celebrate every time I manage to say something witty). It also has the nice effect of challenging the mentality that ‘heterosexual’ is somehow the universal default setting for people’s sexuality from birth.
So what does this idea bring to the table for asexual people? Well, I know that many of us aces struggle with feeling defective or abnormal, especially before we find out that asexuality (and other people like us) exist. And even then, a lot of aces wonder if they just are this way, or if there is still something wrong with them, or if some negative experience has ‘made them asexual’. But if aces are born asexual, that means that there is nothing wrong with them– it’s who they are, an intrinsic part of their identity, and no-one can change or question that. Being able to say ‘this is what I am and that’s all there is to it’ is a powerful statement in itself. It’s a statement that needs to be made, because many of us have always been ace and probably always will be, without there being any discernible reason (who needs one anyway?).
However, for other people, it’s not as simple as saying that they were born the way they are – both because asexuality works in some fundamentally different ways to homo-, bi- or pansexuality, and because sexuality in general can’t be simply explained by a catch-all explanation.* In particular, the idea that people are born asexual doesn’t always work for demi- or grey-asexual people, or for people who didn’t find out about asexuality until much later in life, or for aces who might have experienced sexual attraction in the past or very sporadically. And visibility plays a huge factor here too: can you say you’ve always been ace if you didn’t know asexuality even existed until a few months ago?
Or maybe asexuality is more fluid than that?
The idea that sexuality and sexual orientation are fluid is one that has also gained an increasing amount of valency in the queer community. Generally, this includes the idea that sexuality isn’t always fixed, but that sexual behaviours and preferences can change over time: often along non-linear, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey lines (that is seriously the most useful DW quote ever). I think it also better incorporates the idea that sexuality is socially and culturally influenced, especially in terms of what relationships should be pursued, who with, and how the whole thing should happen.
In the asexual community, a fluid model of sexuality can be far more accurate for describing the experiences of demi- or grey-ace people, and even plain old asexual people. Many people find that their sexuality changes over time, or may experience sexual attraction at some points in their lives, but not others. The risk with the ‘born this way’ model is that asexuality tends to be seen are more or less static, and sometimes people who are located more towards the middle of the sexual-asexual spectrum feel alienated because they aren’t ‘ace enough’. The idea of fluid sexuality can therefore seem more inclusive and welcoming to people who aren’t sure where they stand yet, or who don’t want to stand in only one spot. The idea of asexuality as a tool rather than a fixed identity fits in here as well. Viewing asexuality as a way of understanding and thinking about identity, of finding your feet or figuring yourself out, and about breaking down prescriptive social expectations seems to go hand in hand with the idea that sexuality as less rigid are more malleable.
There are some drawbacks to this idea too though. Like the previous concept, some people just don’t see their sexuality as fluid at all, but as stable and constant. It also seems to me that a fluid perception of sexual orientation might not be as useful for defending asexuality from its critics. If sexuality is seen as completely fluid, then it’s easier to see asexuality as something abnormal that can still be changed, or just a phase someone is going through (and if you ask me, that is completely legitimate in itself – but not everyone is going to think the same). So the fluid sexuality model might not be as useful from an activist or visibility perspective as the ‘born this way model.
So which is it then?
Well, it’s not as simple as choosing one way of thinking over the other. Both concepts have some things which work really well for asexuality, and some that don’t work so well. The thing is, whichever idea you choose, some people are going to fit into that model, and some aren’t. Maybe some asexual people are born that way, and have never experienced sexual attraction and never will. And maybe other asexual-spectrum people find that their sexual orientation and identity changes in the course of their life. There’s no inherent value of one over the other. And there are as many different asexual people as there are queer people, as there are heterosexual people.
The important thing to take note of in this case is that just because a concept works for you, it might not work for the next person over. For example, I’m pretty sure I’ve been ace most of my life, even before I knew asexuality existed. But I also know people who identify as ace now, but aren’t sure if they were actually born asexual. So when we’re talking about our experiences with being asexual or demi or grey, we have to recognise that someone else might have a completely different understanding of their sexuality. Running around telling someone they’re not a proper ace because they say their sexuality changes is just as uncool as telling someone that all sexuality is fluid, and their aceness is just a phase they’ll get over. On the other hand, understanding that there are different ways of conceptualising sexual orientation and identity is really useful for building a stronger ace community.
Is there anything I’ve missed that you think is important to note? Please feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts on this post!
*Most of these things can actually be said about the queer community as well, but for the sake of this post I’m focusing specifically on asexuality here.