We’ve all talked about the really bad coming-out responses here before. You know, the ones where you out yourself and people order you to go to a doctor, or ask you about your rape history, or tell you that that’s not a thing humans can be.
I want right now to talk about a different form of pushback: the person who goes “….okay? I don’t care.” Or “Why are you telling me this? I don’t care who you sleep with.” On the face of it, this seems like a way better response to get! A good one, even!
Except… not so much. Because in my experience, the people going “That’s fine, don’t care” are the ones who also become aggressively confused when I try to actually talk about my life from a perspective that’s informed by my asexuality.
If you’re in my life and I tell you I’m asexual, you should care. Not because I want you to ask me about my sex life*, and not because I want you to know what’s going on in my bedroom. But because being asexual informs my lived experience, and because it colors my take on so many aspects of my life. When I’m not out to people as asexual (not generally queer), I find myself being quiet about all of them or being very careful about exactly what kinds of things I am willing to discuss. For example, here are some–not all!–aspects of my life which are deeply informed or colored by my asexuality:
My family. I don’t particularly want to get into much detail here, but my relationship with my family has been rocky for a while now for reasons that are very, very tied up in my sexuality. I am in the process of trying to fix things, but the whole situation has been very exhausting and very much a source of stress for me for a really long time. It is difficult to vent to a friend about why, exactly, you are having problem with your family when you can’t explain what those problems are.
My relationship with my partners. Innocuous stuff like “oh, where’d you meet?” is really hard to talk about if I’m being careful about saying I’m ace—I met both of them on AVEN first and through social groups facilitated by the Transyadas later. The fact that I’m poly is another thing that’s nearly impossible for me to talk about without being openly ace, because the things people think about poly are so far from my experience that it’s impossible to skate by without explaining I’m asexual.
It was also really hard for me to figure out when to say “okay, I am in an official Relationship.” I don’t generally do the whole queerplatonic song-and-dance outside of asexual circles because frankly, who has the time—instead, I definitely do go by normatively romantic terms, insofar as “partner” counts. But when my relationships were newer, there was not really a definite transition between “friends” and “dating” in the same way people expect to see. It’s difficult to explain that without first explaining how I work in terms of building affection and relationships, which seems to be missing a lot of the steps people expect to find. Which in turn means that I don’t mention my relationships at the appropriate “times” and then wind up trying to explain why I stayed quiet for so long.
Also, shit like “why we all hate Valentine’s except for the cheap chocolate afterwards” is a little hard to really get into unless I want to fudge a bit.
Everything touching on marriage and dating in general. I am deeply conflicted about marriage and my relationship with it is still a bit uneasy, because I am an asexual person who is confused by the notion of romance and because I am an asexual person who quite literally grew up assuming that marriage was Not For Me. For this reason, I feel weird when people refer to me as a ‘wife’—because that feels like a word that doesn’t fit me—or to my partner as my ‘wife.’ (Partner does not actually identify as female, which plays into that.)
It’s difficult for me to explain why I’m uneasy about it without bringing that up, because I have no reservations about my partner or my relationship with them or even the legal baggage that comes along with that. And this comes up quite a bit, both because I got married in March and then again because I was so quiet about it that most of the people I know through work only started finding out in the last two months, when I made offhand remarks about it. (It is possible that I assumed people would be better about reading between the lines on that one than they actually are.) I was so quiet exactly because I am only partially out at work, and I am definitely not comfortable being out around particular lab members.
I also have political opinions about marriage which are influenced both by my asexuality and my queerness (see below on that). Unfortunately, because I am one of the few same-sex-married people that a lot of my work-origin-friends know, that means that marriage comes up quite a bit. And then I’m also in the middle of a legal immigration process; well, I vent about that a fair bit because it’s by turns tortuously slow and mindboggling expensive. But it’s hard to explain why I got into that kettle of fish and invested this much in a long-distance relationship to start with outside of the context of being ace.
And then on the gripping hand: dating comes up in casual conversation, folks. It comes up in small talk. It comes up in social bonding—and if any of you have never tried to hang out and bond with a group of mostly or entirely heterosexual women, whoo-ee, you’d be surprised how little you have to say if you have no stories or opinions to put forth about dating and men! It comes up when friends are complaining at you about how frustrating they find dating and how much they wish they could avoid the whole thing. When I am out, people at least tend to get why I go “….I’m sorry, that sucks? There, there.” They tend to be really unrealistic about my life and experiences in the process, but at least there isn’t a weird pause as the other person wonders why I’m not saying anything.
My social life. As it stands right now, nearly all of my good friends fall into two categories: people I met through my work and academic life, and people I met through local and online ace communities. When the two worlds collide—as when work friends meet ace friends at a party or while helping me move, however—answering simple questions like “oh, how’d you meet?” can be tricky. I have an ace friend who I met through the offline meetups I help organize. She works with children, so she is adamant about not being out at work. She also goes to a local dance night with an organization and has encouraged me and a couple other people from meetup who looked interested to come too, but she knows she has a coworker who also attends. So she’s asked us, if we ever run into the coworker and are asked how my friend and I met, to please prevaricate and say “ah, we were friends of friends” or something similar.
This sort of thing isn’t just unique to my friend’s life, either. A lot of my social anecdotes run back to people or experiences I’ve had as a specifically asexual person. I have had people blink at me and go “….how do you know so many people all over the place?” when I’m talking about people I first met in the ace community. And how do I answer that without lying if I don’t explain about asexuality? Hell, how do I even answer why I’d get so invested in online communities in the first place if I don’t explain? And it’s not just “oh how did you meet your friend?” it’s anecdotes and stories and funny jokes and things I heard from my friends, some of which are really, really relevant to the context of asexuality I got them from.
Everything touching on gender. I am a woman. If you have not tried to bond with a group of heterosexual woman before, in addition to the stuff about dudes and terrible jokes and career stuff, body image comes up a lot. My experiences with that are very, very strongly informed by my status as a masculine-of-center woman and my status as an asexual woman. And my experience being masculine-of-center is tied pretty deeply into my orientation again, because part of the reason I do gender the way I do is because I like signaling to other non-straight/cis people that hey, me too! And also I do gender that way because it’s comfortable, and a little because I don’t mind the side effect of signaling to straight dudes “hey, not interested!” even if not all of them get the message right away.
All of that said, it’s pretty common for me to mention having body image issues as a woman—because look, I’m not immune to general culture, I’m not immune to never seeing anyone with my body type in media, and I’m certainly not immune to the general background radiation of diet talk and thin = beautiful. Anyway. It’s common for me to mention this to female friends and to immediately get pushback, whether or not they know I’m asexual, because I can’t have body image issues, I’m too butch. And the thing is, the way that body image relates to me really is a little different, but it’s hard to talk about that when I’m getting protests that I don’t have it as bad as everyone else around me.
And then again, my experience as a professional woman is impacted by this. For example, I am a woman who works in a STEM field. I therefore pay a lot of attention to workshops and events geared at women in STEM fields and devoted to discussing issues specific to them. In my specific field, a hugely disproportionate amount of time and space, particularly on the issue of “work-life balance,” is devoted to 1) the difficulty of having babies in academia (when do you find time? How do you sacrifice stuff?) and 2) the difficulty of managing a household and a relationship when you’re a woman and no dude is going to sacrifice his career for yours. Neither of these issues are particularly relevant to me, and it’s bothered me for years now how heteronormative they are—for reference, the first piece I recall seeing on being a queer woman in academia came up only last year, over at Tenure She Wrote. It’s hard not to feel isolated by that.
Literally anything related to being queer. You may, if you are coming from a non-ace-but-otherwise-queer-perspective, note that a lot of the examples I’m using here are also strongly influenced by my being a woman who is, more or less, into other women. And you’d be right. This stuff all builds on itself! But my reactions to the “queer community,” for lack of a better term, are very much part and parcel of my interactions with those communities as an asexual person specifically. I get anxiety about whether I am welcome, I get anxiety about whether I’m queer enough, nothing speaks quite perfectly to my experience unless I’m making it myself.
And on top of that: for example, my parents’ refusal to deal with my identifying as asexual for quite literally years makes much less sense when I am eliding the fact that my identity is “asexual,” not “lesbian.” So does their confusion surrounding my preferred gender presentation. My interaction with queer politics and my opinions about them make much less sense without that background, too. So does how I relate to queer history role models and how those models are discussed—for example, I like to be able to quietly envision someone like Jane Addams as having had a sexuality like mine rather than having been what we’d today call a lesbian. There’s a lot of debate about that! And it’s hard to get into how I feel about historical revisionism without referring back to my own viewpoint as an asexual person.
Half the dumb jokes I make. For example, I’m currently on hormonal birth control for a medical condition. I think the fact that I’m on birth control, as an asexual woman who is in a long-distance relationship with two people who couldn’t impregnate me if they tried even if we were interested in having sex, is the funniest thing ever. Occasionally it comes up, and when it does I like to make jokes about it—but they’re not quite as good if I don’t get to mention the ace bit. I have a lot of pieces of my life like that–funny little things that require that bit of context for the joke to work, like my long-standing interest in animal sexuality and tendency to relax from “will not discuss sex ever” to “cracking sex jokes constantly” with people at very little notice. (That switch, by the way, tends to come approximately at the same time I out myself, because if I have to cut sexuality and my experience of sexuality out of all conversations entirely, I am generally not comfortable enough to make jokes about it.)
And there’s other innocuous little stuff that is weird for me to talk about without clarifying I’m ace–stuff like people who want to play the game “Fuck, Marry, Kill” or the cocktail party story about the dude who told me I couldn’t be asexual because he could smell my pheromones. Or the story about the time I was on a panel with my college queer group and I got the most adorable version of the masturbation question ever. Or my fondness for the dorky emo flag. Stories! I interact with people via stories, and it’s hard to do that when I can’t share so many of mine.
I’m not saying that I want people to necessarily respond with wide-eyed enthusiasm when I out myself. It’s a part of me, but it’s not a freak-show part, either. But I would like people to care a little bit, because I would like people to care about me. When I trust people enough to share this part of myself, it’s because I want to be able to relax around them and talk about my whole life, not the sanitized bits and pieces of it that it’s easiest to talk about. All of this stuff builds on itself and informs itself, and it’s relevant to a surprisingly large cross-section of my life. If I’m trying to build a friendship with you, or you’re a member of my family, or you’re a person I care about, I want you to care about me.
That is why I’d like you to care about the reality of my asexuality.
*Actually, please don’t; that’s invasive. I would love to say that it’s unnecessary to bring that up, but that’s another aggravatingly common genre of First Responses.