Need to know?

I was reading Queenie’s recent post about not being gay this week, and I (predictably) had a lot of feelings. And I got caught up in thinking about it. What does it mean to be asexual?

I spend a lot of time worried about asexual identity. I’ve been writing about asexuality online for years, and every week I go down to my local coffee shop and sit down and talk asexuality with my friends. I’ve stood up and talked to total strangers about my masturbatory habits and worse, my intimate emotions, in an effort to educate people about aces. I must have invested hours, days, weeks of time over the years trying to figure out how to be open about who and what I am. This identity means a lot to me.

And I’ve had a lot of disinterested and uncomfortable responses over the years when I try to talk about being ace. I’ve run into a lot of people who have gone “why do you care about this?” or who have in some way been confused about why this is an important identity for me. Do you know, when I told my mother about my relationships, the first thing she asked me was whether I’d been lying to her all this time about my identity? It didn’t seem to her that asexuality should be important enough to invest years of pushing at her to accept it, when I might have been using it as an excuse to hide my gayness.

So why am I trying so hard? What does it mean to be asexual? Why do I need people to know this about me? What kinds of things define asexual experience, anyway?

I don’t know. I talked a little bit about asexual culture when I mentioned how much we like labels and theories some time ago, and certainly those cultural influences—the way I think about sexuality and orientation, the way I automatically reach for certain concepts—those are important to me. They’re a part of me. I like to share that history with people, explain the lineage of the ideas I carry with me and how they have grown and changed over time, and ace culture is inextricably part of that. But cultural influence isn’t the whole of why I cling to my identity with such force.

Perhaps some of the rest of the problem has to do with perception. Right now, to most people, I present as some shade of ambiguously queer or outright gay, depending on whether I’ve mentioned my partner(s) recently and how much attention they’re paying and whether they’re thinking about my orientation. And I’m mostly fine with that. But… “gay” isn’t actually that much closer to my reality than “straight” is. I don’t meet people’s expectations for “lesbian” any better than I do their expectations for “straight woman,” is the thing. And uncomfortable, strange looks when I fail to behave and feel as expected are… well. Uncomfortable.

It’s important to me that people who are close enough to me to know about my personal life know why my relationships are a bit unconventional. Why, for example, I never had an abrupt transition from “non-dating” to “dating” with my partners. Why I never have anything like a crush to talk about, and why I so frequently get awkward when people start talking about how hard dating is. I want to cheer people on, but I don’t have anything to contribute in the way people frequently expect me to.

And it’s, paradoxically, important to me that people understand why I have such a hard time reaching out to non-aces. It’s important to me that people understand why I am conflicted about reaching out to LGBTQ groups, because I don’t have the luxury of automatically belonging in that acronym, and I have seen enough people explode with rage at the thought of including me that I’m not willing to assume I’m welcome. (I know that this is a skewed perception, and that views like this are more common online than in actual offline spaces. That doesn’t seem to help, and the experiences I’ve had that shaped that view are very ace-specific.)

Part of that’s because talking about it is difficult for me—90% of the time, I have to do some form of 101, and I am frequently trying to build relationships with people I really, really do not want to field questions about my masturbationary habits from. For example, my coworkers and other professional contacts are not people I want to have thinking of me as “that one woman with the weird sexual identity.” Outing myself is sufficiently difficult and involved that it’s often not even a feasible option. And even when I’ve outed myself already, discussing more involved aspects of my orientation–like how I can have committed relationships at all, or why I have gender preferences–involves wading through a thick, mucky swamp of confusion and ignorance. It doesn’t have to be maliciously meant to be exhausting.

And the remaining times I’ve tried to talk about my experiences, even when I’ve already explained what I am and what that means, people just… don’t want to hear about it. It’s not important. Things like my parents’ complete refusal to deal with my frustrating inability to be straight, or my problems making the gynecologist understand that no, I really am not having sex, and yes, I’m okay with that, and yes, I would still like to be on the Pill for other reasons. Things like body image issues, when like every woman on the face of the planet I worry whether I am fat, or ugly, or insufficiently groomed. Like worrying I will be alone for the rest of my life, or feeling uncomfortable and insulted when people tell me they wish they were ace, too. I have had friends I thought I could trust brush all of these off as unimportant because I was ace, and obviously asexual people don’t have real problems. I wish I was kidding.

Identifying as asexual is such an isolating experience, too. I’m very lucky in that I have an offline community, now. So when I’m having family problems or I’m trying to decide whether to lie to the gynecologist and maybe be believed or to tell the truth and be ignored, I have people I can go to and vent about that over scones and tea. Now, anyway.

But I grew up with literally no one off the internet who would have had any idea what I was talking about. I grew up feeling—if not completely alone, then detached from any meaningful form of community support. I was one of the lucky ones, because I knew I wasn’t broken and I knew that in theory, other people like me existed. It was just that they were so rare (are so rare) that I could never expect to actually meet and talk to them. I could find people like me on the internet, but no one to stand breathing in front of me. And even now, finding other people like me takes sustained work. I’ve built most of the offline community I’ve had access to. When I inevitably move in five or ten years, I expect to have to build a new community from scratch. And I’m still invisible in the broader culture.

It’s perhaps not a surprise that the queer narratives that resonate most strongly with me are those that come from times and places when people could not be open about their sexuality. Not because I’ve ever been afraid of physical beatings or the safety of my life—mostly, the people who are really viciously hateful about my sexuality save their vitriol for the internet, where I’m not sufficiently human to make them think about what they’re saying. But it’s an endless, subtle push to be silent, a society that has no concept that I exist, and a culture that doesn’t even have a box on the census form to allow for my existence.

I don’t like that isolation and silence are part of what asexuality means to me. I hope that in the future, that won’t be the case. I hope that people beginning to identify as ace now won’t carry the same kinds of baggage I do, and that they’ll find it easier to seek whatever support they find most useful. But for me, right now, those things are integral to what it means for me to be ace, along with all of the rest of it. And I want people to know these things about me, because I want to be known and understood by the people who matter to me.

Is that too much to ask?

About Sciatrix

Sciatrix is an American graduate student studying ecology, evolution and behavior. She identifies as asexual and has mostly given up trying to sort out the whole romance thing for now. She has previously blogged about asexuality at Writing From Factor X. In her free time, she trains in canine agility and knits oddly cabled hats.
This entry was posted in asexual identity, Coming out and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Need to know?

  1. Jo says:

    No. No, it’s not too much to ask. And I can identify with this a lot, because sometimes I wish I could have this big flashing neon sign above my head that says ‘I’m ace and not into you and these cookies I made you are not a come on!’ I want people to know that I’m ace, because I’m so much more comfortable with people thinking I’m ace (and potentially wierd and strange) than I am with people assuming I’m a non-ace straight person (I feel more comfortable in a queer identity than a straight one, and the thought of people thinking I have sex with people is strangely terrifying).

    So I’m out to pretty much everyone who asks or wherever I can slot it into conversation. But the thing that is harder for me is not being able to talk about the fact that I’m in a relationship, because there are just so many issues tied up in that that I am not willing to go into with most people. And because my relationship and my partner mean so much to me, there is much more at stake in telling people about this than there is about me outing myself as asexual.

    But anyway. Great post, Sciatrix, and I can definitely relate.

    • Sciatrix says:

      Ha, I don’t care about what people think my sex life is–I care way more about my behavior being misinterpreted as aloof or prudish or judgmental of other people, as opposed to “Iiiiiii have no experiences that would let me talk here, so I’m going to be quiet” or “I would really love to come to your queer event but I am somewhat concerned I will panic.” I do make it clear that I am not into dudes/not straight fairly often because I would rather be mistaken for gay than mistaken for straight, but I find that less fraught than outing myself as ace for a whole mess of reasons anyway.

      Relationship issues are also huge for me, especially because I’m currently way less willing to talk about the poly thing offline than I am about the ace thing. I get enough invasive questions about how a relationship between two ace people works as it is; I really don’t want to answer the question about how three ace people works, and especially not the one about how that’s different from close friends. (I don’t know either, okay! We’re just committing to each other okay, is that enough for you people?) People can get surprisingly nosy about it. Or maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, given how people react to other aspects of ace identity…

      • Jo says:

        Yeah, it’s funny how that differs! Like I really don’t give any thought to people thinking I’m prudish or judgmental, mainly because I am a loud and outspoken feminist and wear my feminist hat with bells and flashing neon signs and all that. But I do feel the same on the ‘rather be mistaken as gay than straight’ thing.

        And yeah, totally with you on the poly thing. I also feel like it’s weird in my case because neither of the people involved in my relationship actually identify as poly or see it as a personal thing. It’s more that we somehow ended up in a poly-structured thing, kind of, maybe? Strangely enough, the very few people who do actually know stuff have been very accepting with it, but I don’t trust anyone to react the same way. Given how nosy people can be, as you say. (I actually have a post for here in the works on poly relationship structures and how they can be beneficial to ace people looking for/in relationships, and how relationship structure doesn’t have to be linked to poly identity. After my five assessments are done. Gah.)

        • Sciatrix says:

          Yeah, one of my partners actually identifies as poly and has spent time in poly circles, and the other is more like me and went “Well, this seems to be working, cool!” Every time I poke into virtual poly circles, I poke my head out going “this is not all that cutting-edge, and also weirdly heteronormative and…. not aimed at me,” so I’m pretty comfortable stealing the basic idea of multiple relationships at once and not holding tight onto the identity itself. I’d be really interested in seeing that post! Once your assessments are done, mind. 🙂

  2. Zanna says:

    Love this post. Thanks x

  3. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    Great post. Thank you.
    Where acquaintances and co-workers are concerned, I’m usually torn between not wanting people to assume I’m straight and really hating doing the 101 plus inquisition. Most of the time, I go the way of lesser resistance and tell people that I don’t have a man in my life and I most assuredly am not looking. (For whatever reason, no one has ever done the logical thing and asked about women.)
    At the same time, I’m aware I’m not doing the community any favors with this policy, furthering exactly the same silence and isolation that you mentioned. Yet I don’t seem to hate the silence enough to get over my inertia.

    • Yeah, I’m the same as this. Especially since I don’t want to get into long and involved explanations about all of this with co-workers. Saying nothing is definitely the easiest path. I wonder if this is true for many aces who are no longer in a school/college environment.

      • I don’t really talk about it with coworkers, but it never really comes up. I have a couple of copies of my book hiding in a drawer, so if it ever did come up, I’d be able to deflect most of the awkward questions by handing one over.
        I think I give off an air of complete disinterest in those matters, and that’s probably why it never comes up. Where most people have a picture of their significant others and/or children on their desk, I have a frame with an internet “Missing Image” icon. When the talk turns to sex, I pretty much zone out, just like I do when the talk turns to cars.
        I wrote last year about being an “Invisibility Activist”, where I’m so open and vocal online, but silent and invisible out in the real world.

      • Carmilla DeWinter says:

        Hm, considering what I know about friends from the meetups in southern German, who are all above college age: there’s definitely a bias towards keeping things quiet.

        • Sciatrix says:

          Of the people I know in non-school work settings, the bias is also to keep it quiet. This is particularly true of the people I know who work with children, who are very careful to keep a lid on anything that isn’t very very straight-sounding.

  4. Pingback: Asexuality, Shame, and the Importance of Ace Pride – From Fandom to Family: Sharing my many thoughts

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