It’s 2012, and I’m at a café with my friend. We’re both 16. I’m nervously sitting on my hand and I can feel it going numb. It’s been two years since I discovered the term asexuality – and I’ve spent the time since trawling through websites, blogs and videos relating to asexuality in an effort to understand my identity. This is my first time coming out. “Guess I’ll never be your maid of honor then”, my friend responds offhandedly, completely misinterpreting the explanation of asexuality I’ve just offered her. “But you’re way too young to know for sure. Maybe say that when you’re 50.” I’m left to wonder why my choices are limited to either sexual or sexually confused.
I can’t really blame my friend. Asexuality – a relatively new word for those who identify as having no sexual attraction – has been subject to mainstream online awareness for over 15 years, but is still relatively unacknowledged in the real world. The term was coined and spread in online communities by David Jay’s development of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (asexuality.org). The umbrella of asexuality covers asexuality itself, and identities on the spectrum of sexual attraction including, but not limited to: demisexuality – when a person needs to have a bond with someone before they’ll feel sexually attracted to them; and grey-asexuality – when a person feels occasional attraction, but not enough for them to feel comfortable with a sexual identity. These identities are different from aromanticism, which is when somebody doesn’t feel romantic attraction. These terms may be commonly used online but, as I type, my computer has underlined them with red spelling-error lines; my three attempts at explaining my identity to that friend have similarly mirrored this unfamiliarity. Much later, that same friend I told at 16 still firmly believes I am something akin to a nun – vowed off all relationships, forever.
I’ve had various experiences coming out as asexual since then, but most people I tell have never heard of it, and this inevitably leads to some uncomfortable moments. As well as being told I’m too young to know (solely by people the same age as me) or dismissed off the bat, a couple of people haven’t tried to hide that they felt sorry for me – they patted me on the shoulder, insisting that someday I’ll meet the right person out of some imagined need to reassure me that I don’t have to live a life of self-inflicted abstinence. As well-intentioned as these people are, asexuality isn’t being too young to know yourself, or about becoming a nun. It’s not being abstinent, and it’s not having no relationships. It’s just what it says on the tin, and neither sympathy or judgment will change how somebody identifies. I want to tell these people that I don’t need reassurance or doubt, I just need my asexual identity to be accepted as legitimate.
It might be society’s treatment of sexuality itself that leads to these sort of responses. It is bound up in gendered norms, and we are surrounded by conflicting messages: women are encouraged by society to simultaneously be sexual goddesses and pure angels, chaste and heartbreakers, and to consistently embody all possible interpretations of the “perfect woman”. Men are brought up in a culture that anticipates and applauds their sexuality (and encourages hyper-sexuality). Stepping out of that role supposedly undermines their masculinity, yet they’re also expected to be romantic and monogamous. These expectations also have a serious impact on anyone trans or outside of the gender binary, who are often held to even stricter societal norms of gender and sexuality than cis people are. These ideas of sex and how we should feel about it are portrayed everywhere: in songs, mainstream films and magazines, and often by our friends and families as well.
Amid all of this, discussing our personal feelings and attitudes towards sex – whether positive, negative or just neutral – is uncommon in the face of significant stigma. In my experiences of coming out, it’s talking openly about sexuality that makes people the most uncomfortable – me included. It makes some shift in their seats slightly when you mention that you don’t have sexual attraction, as they wonder why you felt the need to tell them something so personal. But in a world where everyone has a gender and a sexuality projected onto them throughout their lives, the constant pressure to conform to this predetermined identity makes speaking out difficult and necessary. Lacking the language or societal context to convey and discuss your own feelings on sexuality unites LGBTIA+ identities – asexual people included. We should feel able to keep talking (when it is safe and possible) about our experiences in order to survive and to thrive.
I believe the slow spread of awareness of asexuality is facilitating a conversation. I don’t mind my experiences of coming out – I’ve introduced people to a new way of thinking about sexuality. I like to think that the next time they saw something about asexuality, or met an asexual spectrum person, they were a little more open or prepared, and that they understood more than they did before.