What is asexuality? It’s an understandable question to have. Asexuality, or the lack of sexual attraction to others regardless of gender, is a little known orientation. Society has effectively erased it, rendering it invisible and unspoken.
The erasure of asexuality as a visible and acknowledged identity is a problem. The fact that we don’t talk about asexuality, that many of us don’t know what the word means, is a problem. Words are the basic building blocks of our communication with one another, be they spoken, sung or signed, and therefore lay the foundations for our conceptions of self, and of each other. Being deprived of words to describe yourself, words like “asexual”, can often make the depths of fear and confusion even deeper and darker – and, in contrast, finding words can often be the first step away from these feelings. This is why discussions of identity erasure must be a part of our discussions around the queer community, orientation and identity.
K. Ho’s recent article on the politics of coming out addressed many of the difficulties surrounding the words we use to come out, from differing pressures put on folk who use “different” words, to differing access to those words. Our society, which is heteronormative (based on the idea that heterosexual is the “standard”) and cissexist (associates bodies with a strictly enforced gender binary) often leads to the erasure of identities that are less easy to categorize. This erasure can make coming out more difficult even for those willing; people with identities like asexual, bisexual, pansexual, non-binary gender/genderfluid/genderqueer, agender, trans, intersex and Two-Spirit are often forced to explain their identity every time they come out. The challenge of articulating and explaining erased identities, especially when using a vocabulary which is often new to mainstream conversation, can lead to rejection or dismissal. Inability to articulate your own identity can greatly problematize coming out to oneself, too.
In this article we wish to bring visibility to asexuality, an often erased identity. However, we must acknowledge the place of privilege from which we speak, both in attempt to situate ourselves in the dialogue around defining identities, and to limit our voices taking up space which rightly belongs to others. Being cisgender, white and middle-class allows us to avoid many of the pressures attempting to silence marginalized folk; our identities as women who identify within MOGAI (Marginalized Orientations, Gender identities, and Intersex) as a bisexual woman (OD) and asexual woman (KM), however, remind us of the necessity of education on marginalized identities like asexuality.
Recognizing the importance of personal experience in identity construction and definition, we have chosen to structure this article as an interview – the best way, we feel, of acknowledging we are not authorities on this dialogue, only participants.
OD: How were you introduced to asexuality? How did your understanding of asexuality change throughout your discovery process?
KM: Our society is one inundated by messages of how to grow up and what to be, some more toxic and pervasive than others. Growing up, I didn’t feel that I was wrong, exactly, but that I wasn’t measuring up to what society and the world wanted of me, and I couldn’t figure out why. If the world was a puzzle, I was the solitary piece whose edges just didn’t match up on one side. I knew – it was hard not to tell – that romance was very important. True love, marrying and having sex were just integral parts of life, and yet I couldn’t seem to figure out how to stumble into it. It was some kind of world-spanning, universal conspiracy which I was conveniently left out of.
The result was that I felt out of place everywhere, so I ended up questioning everything I thought and felt. I had more than a few moments of trying to force myself into liking someone who was conventionally attractive, just because then I’d be finally doing what I was supposed to. Simply liking being around someone always led into intense self scrutiny – was this a crush? Was this what it felt like to want to date someone? I had no real certainty about this one facet of myself for a few years – enough for it to nag at me all the time. I was proud of my other differences, but love was some kind of universal human experience – so why couldn’t I take part in it?
Eventually, I did go through a Google search to figure out just what was up, and that was how I finally found my solution – I was asexual, a person who didn’t experience sexual attraction. Moreover, I was also aromantic, or someone who didn’t experience romantic attraction.
For someone with no knowledge of what was wrong with me and my situation, the deluge of words and terms I learned on that day were a godsend. I had a name for myself, and it proved that there was nothing wrong at all!
If I embraced my new labels with more than a little enthusiasm, it was because until then I’d had no foundation to stand on at all. It’s a common experience in the queer community to latch onto what can finally explain you and prove that yes, this is what you are! But with learning that I was asexual, let alone aromantic, came an entire new set of hurdles that I hadn’t expected back then. I thought that once I knew what I was, everything else would just fall into place.
OD: What impact did coming out as asexual to other people have on your identity and your conceptions of asexuality?
KM: I had thought my family open-minded – and to an extent, they were. I had done my best to sound them out for how they felt about queer identities, and they had always been willing to listen to me before.
Let me be clear: coming out as asexual is very different from coming out as homosexual or bisexual, let alone opening up to someone about your gender. Asexuals don’t experience the consistent oppression and hatred that other, more visible orientations and identities are often submitted to.
Instead, what asexuals experience is erasure. In media, in society, in the eye of the world, we don’t exist. We are invisible, and thus the response to coming out as asexual often isn’t vitriolic – it’s dismissive.
My family didn’t react with shock or fear, but they also quite clearly didn’t believe me.
The most common response was that I was mistaken. “It’s just a phase” and “you’re a late bloomer” are frequent, frustrating replies to telling someone you’re asexual. There’s also “you haven’t met the right person yet” and even just looping around in jokes that I’m a plant or an amoeba. I soon learned that if I wanted to come out to anyone, I had to either lead them through a lengthy explanation of asexuality and the terms relevant to it or just not waste my breath.
This wasn’t entirely a surprise – but it was also a daunting task. The asexual community has had to define limits and orientations on a spectrum many wouldn’t even consider, and to an outsider the expansion and creation of new terms to suit those on the spectrum could make the whole concept seem baffling, or impenetrable.
I was told constantly that I didn’t know myself or my own mind – a pretty irritating mindset to deal with when I had spent years trying to find out! – and that had its own effects. The people around me questioned my every attachment to someone new, joking that I had a crush, that I wasn’t uninterested after all, and while I defended myself fiercely, I secretly wondered the exact same things. I finally had a label and some ground to stand on – but what if it wasn’t true? What if I was fooling myself, clinging to asexuality to make myself seem more special?
Society told me that I was wrong about myself, because of age, because of circumstances, and subconsciously, I believed it.
I wasn’t alone in this, though. Eventually, I found my way to the largest hub of education on asexuality – AVEN, or the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network. The AVEN forums became a safe space for me, because the litany of questions I asked myself were asked by hundreds of other people. We had all been through the same casual dismissal of an important part of ourselves, and it was there that I started coming to terms with my identity and taking real, conscious pride in it.
AVEN wasn’t a perfect solution – its own community was prone to policing and erasing certain identities, a fact which I became more aware of as time passed – but if the label itself had given me ground to stand on, here were the first building blocks to developing an understanding of just how intertwined my orientation was with my identity. The more I understood, the less I doubted myself and my experiences, which finally lifted that particular burden off my shoulders.
OD: As previously mentioned, there is a lot of contestation around terms and definitions in the queer community, as is the case in many other identity-based communities. You mention that the process of coming out to others, and even education through online communities like AVEN, involved elements of identity policing (the enforcement of identity “norms”). Can you speak to the presence of identity policing in the ace community, and the effects it has had on the politics of representation within and outside of the community?
KM: First of all, I’d like to bring up the issue of just how many terms and labels exist on the spectrum. Some people find them confusing, or deride them for splitting hairs. However, the asexual community should always strive to be a safe space for all who feel they belong on it – and that means accepting that different people will find different words for their identities. We should not regulate how we define ourselves for the convenience of allies. It might be difficult to balance educating others with being a safe space, but the latter should always take precedence.
However, once a community grows large enough, it begins to create standards for itself, legitimate or not – and the asexual community’s no exception there. Over my time on AVEN, and later through interacting with the community on Tumblr, I expanded my awareness of not only who it included, but who it didn’t, or who were given less visibility within it.
Asexuality exists on a spectrum, with common overlap with aromanticism. Romantic orientations are as varied as sexual ones – to be homoromantic means much the same thing as homosexual, only based around on a different feeling. It’s rare to differentiate between the two, as romantic orientations usually follow a person’s sexual orientation: if you are attracted to men, you also fall in love with men. However, the split between romantic and sexual orientations is very notable in the asexual community, as many people find they have no interest in sex, but still fall in love. This necessitated the development of a new label to help define them.
Romantic asexuals, generally speaking, often dominate discussions, both within the community and when educating people outside of it. Aromantic asexuals are perceived as cold or unfeeling, while romantics are easier to identify with and understand. They are closer to society’s view of what is normal, which gives them an implicit advantage. Those on the spectrum who aren’t as easily understood or empathized with – aromantics and asexual survivors, predominantly – are sidelined in order to make the spectrum easier to understand as a whole. The community dismisses and erases identities within it, just as society erases us as a whole.
I’ve mentioned several times that, as with many identities and orientations, asexuality is a spectrum. Inevitably, I’ve also encountered views that certain parts of the spectrum are more distinctly asexual (and more legitimate) than others. Demisexuals and grey-asexuals – those who may experience sexual attraction in erratic or very specific circumstances – are often considered less legitimate because they are not 100% asexual all of the time, despite receiving the same treatment and suffering from the same problems as other asexuals. I brought up asexual survivors earlier – they also suffer from this view.
Hypocritically, younger asexuals – teenagers like I was when I first stumbled upon the label – are often reassured by the community that they can change their identity as they grow, and that sexuality is fluid. It’s okay to grow out of asexuality, but the fact that some people come into it later in life due to their own experiences isn’t mentioned half as much.
There’s one more facet of the community that has to be mentioned, though. The asexual community is predominantly white in the public sphere. I’ll add that, while trying to draw attention to this, I am also white. I automatically speak from a position of privilege, and thus I will keep my own words on the matter brief – it’s not my place to talk over those who are personally affected by this. The public face of asexuality – the groups that march in pride parades, who show up and speak at conferences – are often composed with a clear majority of white people. There aren’t many discussions on the nuanced and complicated intersection of race and asexuality, despite the clear impact different perceptions and cultures have on coming out and queer identity. Our society has fixed views on who is allowed to be sexual, which overlaps with not just race and the effects of colonialism but mental and physical ability – views that are just starting to be noticed and discussed.
As a community, we have to acknowledge this and work to make our space more diverse and open to true intersectionality. Here are a few articles written on the subject, from better perspectives than my own.
Still, asexuality has made a lot of progress when it comes to visibility. Things have gotten a little easier since I first joined the community. Make no mistake, coming out still often means explaining yourself and a view of the world that is incredibly dissonant with our society’s view of the significance of romance and sex. Asexuals are forgotten or ignored – by the world at large, by the queer movement, and even by our own community.
All the same, the fact that I’m sitting here, able to answer these questions, means a whole lot. Little by little, we’re progressing to being seen and understood.
Kasia Medyna is an asexual activist, feminist and writer, currently living in Mississauga, Ontario.
Olivia Dziwak is a Canadian Studies major at the University of Toronto, currently on exchange to the University of British Columbia. She has been writing on queer issues for the past five years, and is an outspoken intersectional feminist constantly in pursuit of anti-oppression education, as well as opportunities to share that education. Follow Olivia on Twitter @OllieOdd.