Content warnings: discussion of abuse (with a few examples given, including one having to do with food restriction) and boundary violation, discussion of anti-sex-averse sentiment, mention of sexual violence, animal death in the context of a metaphor
In the past few months, I’ve seen a lot of posts in ace communities stating that “asexuality has nothing to do with whether you want or like sex.” This isn’t a new assertion, but it is one that often makes me uncomfortable for reasons that are hard to explain. However, recently, Talia wrote a post using Schrödinger’s cat as a metaphor for how we should approach aces attitudes toward sex, and I finally figured out how to verbalize my discomfort.
The assertion that “asexuality has nothing to do with whether you want or like sex” is uncomfortable to me, because I specifically identify as asexual because I don’t want sex. Asexuality, for me, is a hard limit.
On boundaries (or lack thereof)
This probably isn’t shocking to anyone who’s been reading my blog for a while but let me say it clearly: I grew up in an abusive family. When I was growing up, my parents would only respect my boundaries if they thought they had been set for legitimate reasons. For example, we weren’t allowed to lock the bathroom door, which meant that, regardless of what you were doing, someone could (and usually would) barge in without knocking. My first few romantic relationships were also abusive, and featured repeated boundary violations (along with gaslighting about whether I had in fact set a boundary and whether the boundaries I set were legitimate and worth respecting).
As a result, setting healthy boundaries is difficult for me. (This is a common issue among people who grew up in abusive environments.) When I set boundaries, I have the constant fear that I’m going to be punished for saying no or that my boundaries will be ignored if they haven’t been set for a “good enough” reason. It also requires constant energy expenditure to make sure that my boundaries aren’t eroded, as my first instinct when people apply pressure is to bend and avoid the worse repercussions of a wholesale boundary violation. I don’t have as much trouble telling people when I want something (although I won’t pretend that it’s easy), but when I don’t want something, it’s hard for me to put my foot down. To give a very minor example: due to childhood abuse involving food restriction, I will eat anything that’s put in front of me (unless it’s something that will make me physically ill), including food that I genuinely dislike. I have a caffeine allergy, so I have no issue refusing things with caffeine in them (since I have a “good reason” for not wanting to consume them). However, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I don’t like pizza, but I eat pizza at least twice a month because inevitably someone orders pizza and it’s easier for me to eat something that I don’t like than it is for me to ask whoever is ordering food to maybe order something different.
There’s a post about White Collar I’ve been trying to write for the past three years that identifies the lack of one’s own desires as something that reads incredibly asexually. The reason one of the main characters of that show reads as ace to so many people is in how he has no desires or boundaries in relationships (romantic and not) and will accept whatever conditions in order to be loved. Maybe physical expressions of affection are the price that we pay in order to make the relationships we care about work.
This really resonated me, because it’s often what I feel pressured to be. It’s why I wrote things like
My boundaries, wherever they may lie, deserve to be treated with respect. My needs, although they may be non-standard, are just as valid as anyone else’s. I am not required to rationalize or explain my needs and boundaries in order for others to respect them.
My history of trauma paired with my sexual orientation may make relationships more difficult for me and may require my partner(s) to communicate with me more than is “standard,” but I deserve to be treated with just as much respect as someone without that history and/or sexual orientation. My need for additional accommodation does not mean that I deserve less affection or that I am required to compromise more than my partner(s) in other areas to “make up” for my “baggage.”
in my ace survivor’s manifesto. And, to be clear, this is an issue sometimes caused by people pressuring me to bend my boundaries and sometimes caused by a partner saying, “I’d really like it if you _____” and me going, “Well, I don’t like that but it doesn’t literally make me physically ill so I can’t say no.” I recognize that that’s not a good or healthy way to approach compromise (and, oh, how I hate that word, because inevitably I’m the one who has to compromise, because my boundaries are too extreme and I just need to, as @aceadmiral put it, “accept whatever conditions in order to be loved”), but unfortunately these things take a long time to unlearn and I’m trying to chip away at 20+ years of programming with only a plastic spoon and my sheer force of will.
Asexuality as a hard limit
In Asexuality 101 materials you’ll often see a line that goes something like, “Asexuality is defined by a lack of sexual attraction, not by whether or not you want to have sex.” Sometimes there’s then a line saying that some aces want to have sex while others do not, but pretty much across the board there’s a decoupling of “not wanting to have sex” and “asexuality identity” in 101 materials.
I identify as asexual because I don’t want to have sex. I also don’t experience sexual attraction, but that is less important to me than the fact that I never want to have sex. And, yes, I felt the same way before I experienced sexual violence, although I’m not in any way obligated to disclose that information for my feelings to be valid.
I’ve talked about this before, but one of the ways knowing about the concept of asexuality helped me is that it gave me a reason to say no to sex. I didn’t want to have sex, but without knowledge of asexuality, I didn’t have a “good” reason to say no. @starchythoughts has talked about this as hermeneutical injustice, and, more recently, @grison-in-space has talked about the importance of asexuality allowing you to not want, but you can probably also see how this slots cleanly into the issues I outlined above concerning boundaries.
There has been a lot of discussion about positive vs. negative definitions of asexuality over the years, and I have to admit that I don’t identify with most positive definitions. This is not to say that I think asexuality is a bad thing, but rather that, for me, asexuality is a hard limit, an always no, an absence that makes me safer and healthier when I acknowledge it. I’ve argued against “substitution” rhetoric in non-sexual relationships (“we do X instead of The Sex”) and talking about aces as being “just like everyone else” because, for me, that negation of something I am expected to want is a big part of my identity as an asexual person. I don’t want “something else” to fill the space that’s left behind, because when I say I’m asexual I’m putting up police tape and “DO NOT ENTER” signs. My lack isn’t bad, and trying to fill that empty space with something else can give the impression that you think it is.
When I say I’m asexual, I’m drawing a line in the sand and saying, “This is a hard limit and you don’t get to push on this.” Asexuality allows me to set boundaries around sex and not feel bad about it. (Although, to be clear, I still sometimes do feel bad about it, as much as I know that I don’t need to.)
The cat is dead
Instead of saying asexual people don’t want sex or asexual people want sex, I propose treating asexuality like Schrödinger’s cat. Erwin Schrödinger came up with a thought experiment of putting a cat, poison, and a radioactive source in a box. Until you open the box you have no idea if the cat is dead or alive, meaning the cat is simultaneously dead and alive. Until you ask someone how they experience asexuality, they simultaneously want to have sex and don’t. They also simultaneously have a sex drive and don’t. And so on. However most of the time it’s none of your business so be cautious and respectful about how or if you ask.
Let me be perfectly clear: I don’t think that this is a bad way to approach the problem. I would personally air on the side of caution and assume that aces probably aren’t interested in sex unless they specify otherwise (for reasons I’ll explain below), but I understand why it’s frustrating for aces who have sex to constantly have their identity invalidated by their sexual experience or vice-versa. My way of being ace is no more or less legitimate than anyone else’s.
Let me be perfectly clear about this too: My cat is dead. It is deceased. This cat lives no more. (This cat, in fact, was never alive at all.)
I am fine with treating asexuality as Schrödinger’s cat as long as it is only treated that way until the ace in question makes a clear statement about their cat. I am not okay with treating asexuality as Schrödinger’s cat when I have had people (some trying to date me, some not) who are convinced that because some aces have sex, I must be able to have sex (and will, of course, be willing to “compromise”).
“The cat is dead,” I say.
“Oh, but some other aces’ cats are alive,” they reply. “I read about it on the internet.”
“Nah, but this one is really, really dead, though,” I say, showing them the death certificate for the cat.
“Oh,” they say, “but it’s Schrödinger’s cat, so how can you really tell? It could come back to life later.”
This is, again to be perfectly clear, not a problem with aces who have sex; this is a problem with people who are unwilling to accept that my asexuality is a hard limit. This is a problem with people who take the fact that some aces’ cats are alive to mean that all aces have the potential to have living cats.
I tend to have a hand-on-a-hot-stove reaction to a lot of rhetoric surrounding aces who have sex–a lot of it, I fully admit, is my own baggage, but some of it can veer into slamming sex-averse aces or compulsory sexuality (which, reminder, affects all aces, not just sex-averse aces). When I say, “I’m asexual and I don’t want to have sex,” and people respond, “Oh, but don’t you know? Some aces want to have sex; being ace has nothing to do with not wanting sex,” it can feel like gaslighting, because I have been gaslit about my own boundaries with this specific rhetoric.
In the post I quoted above, Talia wrote:
I think there’s an important difference between “I came to identify as asexual because I don’t want to have sex and asexual people don’t have sex” and “I came to identify as asexual because I don’t want to have sex and that’s a part of the asexual experience.” In the first statement all of asexuality is conflated with your personal reason. In the second statement you come to identify as asexual because it can encompass or include your personal reason.
On one hand, I agree with this statement. Of course we shouldn’t be making generalized statements about how all aces feel about anything.
On the other, I wonder how many people are actually making statements like this (and how many of those people aren’t folks who are just coming into their ace identity) and, conversely, how many people out there, like me, use asexuality as a hard limit and see statements like this and feel like they are not allowed to talk about that experience because they might be hurting sex-favorable aces. And, to be clear, I am quiet about this experience because this is a constant, constant source of anxiety for me–that if I say, “I am asexual because I don’t want to have sex” people will A. shout me down as illegitimate (too repulsed, too traumatized, a bad community representative, why can’t you just use the sexual attraction definition like everyone else) or B. be hurt/alienated/chased out of the community because the way I experience asexuality has no room for their experience. And, again, I feel like this entire post is a series of “for me” and “personally” and “nobody else is required to experience asexuality this way” hedging, and yet I feel that I have to reiterate again and again, that this is how I experience asexuality personally, this is how asexuality is experienced by me, this is my experience of asexuality but if it’s not yours there is of course room for you and your asexual identity is still valid. Obviously I’m not the only ace who is told, “You have to watch how you talk about your own experiences because you could hurt someone if you frame it wrong”–sex-favorable aces are subjected to some of the same messaging–but when I see things like:
So many people have told me “I could never date an asexual person because they don’t want sex” I’ve lost count. I often hear or see both asexual and allosexual people say aces don’t want to have sex and/or they don’t have sex. In this post I’ll discuss how this common narrative is both inaccurate and problematic.
I wonder, is there space for me here? If I talk about my own experiences while doing activism, am I perpetuating a “problematic” or “inaccurate” narrative? Am I wrong for wanting people to hear me say, “I’m asexual,” and know that sex is off the table for me? (Am I hurting other aces?)
There are no easy solutions, obviously. The seesaw cycle is ruthless, and we’ve been trying to fix it for years. A lot of these aren’t problems that can be traced to or fixed by a single person. While I’ve talked about Talia’s post in-depth here, this is because their post is a convenient illustration (and the catalyst for my solidifying my ideas on asexuality as a hard limit) and not because I think they were being malicious (or, in fact, particularly harmful). Sometimes one person says something that sets off a chain reaction because of persistent societal messaging, a history of abuse, and a variety of other factors beyond their (or anyone’s) control. This isn’t about shaming aces who have sex for taking up too much space or slamming sex-favorable aces for talking about their experiences. Nobody’s asexuality should be invalidated based on their attitudes toward sex, and we’re all dealing with impostor syndrome.
This is instead an issue of competing needs–I need to be in a position in which I am not being pressured to have sex, whereas folks like Talia need to be a position in which people will know that they are open to the possibility of sex. While the ambiguity of Schrödinger’s cat can be freeing for some folks, for others it can be frightening or unsafe, especially if you (like me) have had experiences of that rhetoric of ambiguity being leveraged to disregard or invalidate your boundaries.
If I want you to take one thing from this post, though, it’s this: asexuality, for me, is a hard limit, an always no, a DON’T, a permission slip to not want something that it’s assumed that I inevitably will. That’s not what asexuality is for everyone, but that’s the way I experience it and the reason that I find it a useful identity term.