A Is for the Asexual Spectrum

asexual flag
The asexual Pride flag

Every Pride Month I debate writing up a sort of coming-out personal blog post to properly explain my basically misunderstood (if not outright disbelieved) sexual identity, but every year it seems silly. I have friends whose sexualities are met with cruelty and violence: Pride Month is about supporting them, allowing them the freedom to be themselves without fear. I don’t need that kind of support for a sexuality that, at worst, is simply laughed at. Well, I don’t need it now, I realized just today. I could have used a bit of it as a teenager. So that’s why I’m going to share it here on GeekMom instead of my personal blog: so parents of teenagers falling somewhere on the spectrum of asexuality can maybe offer a bit of that support for them.

First, we need to discuss terminology. Asexuality in humans has nothing to do with asexuality in other life forms: no human being reproduces by cloning themselves. Yet. It also has very little to do with the actual act of sex. Being asexual does not necessarily mean one is celibate (though it could), and it’s just as likely for a person to be celibate (purposely refraining from sexual activities) without being asexual, which means simply (through no choice, trauma, or health issue) lacking sexual attraction. Just as other sexualities are defined by who a person is attracted to, being attracted to, well, nobody, is a sexuality in and of itself as well.

On top of this, asexuality is on a spectrum. A lack of sexual attraction doesn’t mean a lack of ALL sexual attraction. Some people do, indeed, feel no sexual attraction whatsoever, and can fully identify as asexual. But other people simply feel less sexual attraction than average, or they feel it in only certain circumstances. There are terms people can use to describe where they fall on the spectrum: gray-ace (short for asexual) being the most general way of saying, “not completely asexual, but not quite typically sexual, either.” There are even more ways to describe the combinations of attraction and drive (and lack thereof) that could fall on the asexual spectrum: the Asexuality Visibility & Education Network goes into more detail than you ever thought possible in their forums. “Demisexual” describes somebody who does not feel sexual attraction unless they’ve already developed an emotional bond to the object of attraction, and this is the term I myself identify with.

“So what?” most people chime in when I get to this point in the description. Most people want an emotional bond with someone before they’ll have sex with them. But again, you’re jumping the gun there. Sexuality is not about the action of sex. It’s about the attraction, that simple feeling of desire that hits you without any choice on your part. Just like a bisexual person isn’t any less bisexual just because they’re in a monogamous relationship, someone’s place on the asexual spectrum isn’t defined by what they do, but what they feel.

Just to confuse the matter, there’s another aspect of attraction, the mental/emotional side. Imagine removing all physical desire from the concept of being in love: this is what’s left over. This mental/emotional attraction is actually called “romantic attraction” in the asexual community, even though romance is so strongly associated with physical attraction in our society. Romantic attraction in this sense can be completely separate from sexual attraction. Romantic attraction is on its own spectrum, with people feeling little to none (“aromantic”) or lots and lots, without it having anything to do with sexual attraction. I was thinking about this while writing about Anne of Green Gables last week; while it’s certainly possible, as my daughter does, to read Anne’s feelings for Diana as a lesbian crush, there’s also no particular evidence that those feelings are physical in any way. She’s got romantic attraction, in the mental/emotional sense, out the wazoo, though. “Romantic” is one of her favorite words—everything is romantic—she’s constantly falling in blissful mental/emotional love with everything from people to trees to clothing. Anne is way up there on the romantic attraction-amount spectrum, and, as “pansexual” refers to someone who feels sexual attraction regardless of gender, because Anne feels “romantic” attraction so broadly, she’s probably best described as “panromantic.”

two line graphs.
If you were to plot out my Romantic Attraction and my Sexual Attraction, this is where I might fall.

Oh, and guess what? So am I. I feel things passionately, and fall in love quickly and carelessly. I’m a panromantic demiheterosexual, which is about the most boring excuse for a queer identity ever. Nothing seems unusual about it at all. I’ve fallen in love with plenty of guys in my days, and, having developed that emotional bond (though in nearly every case, one-sided), I felt sexual attraction, too. So normal. But I felt so absurdly jealous when my best friend came out as a lesbian because my panromantic self was indeed madly in love with her from a mental/emotional standpoint, but the sexual attraction was simply not there. Again, you don’t choose these things, neither the type of person you’re attracted to nor whether to feel attraction, period.

For most intents and purposes, I’m plain old straight. I don’t feel comfortable claiming a queer identity come Pride Month or any other time because nobody’s ever tried to keep me from living the American Dream because of who I want to be married to.

AND YET. I’m not what people think I should be. I have felt embarrassed and broken and frustrated, realizing how I don’t fit into what society expects. How much more does someone who is more asexual and aromantic than I feel like there’s something wrong with them? They deserve to be heard, to be accepted, to wave their flag in the Pride parade, too.

So I’m going to share some of my experiences growing up demisexual here, in the hope that you might notice how awkward asexual tendencies can feel in the world, and give some thought to the kids who might be feeling so much more awkward about it than I ever did.

Asexuality Is Not About Being a Prude or Repressed

It’s interesting that asexuality as an acknowledged sexual identity is a fairly recent development, and most of that is because of the sexual revolution. Before that, sexuality was something that was not discussed in polite circles, something reserved for marriage, and society itself was rather asexual. Only when people started proclaiming, “These feelings are perfectly natural! Everyone has them! Stop repressing your sexual feelings and embrace them!” did a few people start to wonder to themselves, “But what if I don’t?”

I was pretty goody-goody as a child, so at first, when my peers started getting all giggly and boy-or-girl-crazy and fascinated by sex, even I assumed I was just being a “good girl” about it. “We are too young to worry about that sort of thing,” I stubbornly insisted, to make up for the fact that I just blatantly didn’t worry about it. I worried instead about the fact that all the other kids thought I was nuts for not worrying about it. This was back in the day when it was considered an insult to be called “gay,” so I did worry that that might be my problem. Except it wasn’t. I had no more sexual interest in girls than I did in boys.

“You HAVE to have a crush on ONE of the New Kids on the Block,” the girl across the street insisted. “EVERYONE does. Why don’t you?”

“Because… they’re too old for us,” I finally decided.

She scoffed. “Nobody’s really going to marry them! We just pick the one we would date if we could!

“Well… which one’s the youngest?” I asked, still stuck on the practicality of dating someone older. She said it was Joey, so I told her I picked Joey. I didn’t give a hoot about Joey, really, but I had to pick somebody.

Even my good friends made me feel left out, with their boy-obsessed giggling and freaking out and comparing the latest teen heartthrobs in teen magazines. “Which do you like best?” they’d ask, and when I’d say, “I don’t know, what are their personalities like?” they’d sigh in frustration, “this isn’t about their personality, we’re just rating their looks!”

“Well… none of them. None of them are smiling.” Honestly, that was the only way I could even start to find a still picture of a guy attractive. When they’d ask what physical part of a guy I most often am attracted by, my answer was, “His smile. It tells me more about his personality,” and my friends would just groan and say, “Why are you so hung up on personality? We’re not talking about finding a husband here, we’re just judging their looks!”

And then when we were older, there’d be carefree discussions of “Who would you do?” i.e., who would you sleep with of the following options if there were no repercussions? And I’d answer, “but I wouldn’t,” and they’d keep insisting, “This is theoretical! Who WOULD you do if there were no repercussions?” and I still couldn’t give an answer. They saw my “I wouldn’t” as a choice I was making for ethical or practical reasons, so of course if I only understood there was no reason to say no, I’d have an answer, right? But I simply could not get my mind—or was it my body?—to work that way, no matter how my peers insisted that everyone could have an opinion on this if I only understood that I wasn’t actually breaking some religious code. I simply had no desire toward anyone in these theoretical discussions.

I eventually realized I was using my former goody-goody attitudes as an excuse. They might have made me an easy target for teasing, but at least a goody-goody attitude made more sense than simply just not feeling it.

Asexuality Is Not About Being a Late-Bloomer

But, me being panromantic and demi, not purely asexual, it wasn’t like I never got crushes. I knew the feeling for the first time when I was 11 years old, toward Fred Savage at the height of the Wonder Years‘ popularity. I understood what the feeling was, but it was embarrassing to admit to myself, to be honest, because with my peers I was always so negative to the concept of crushes (you know, that goody-goody mask I wore). Maybe it was okay, I reassured myself, because he was a TV boy. TV boys were better than real boys, who were dumb or mean or gross. Of course, TV boys were much easier to get to know than real boys, so they could break through that must-have-a-mental/emotional-connection barrier. A real in-person boy didn’t manage to get past that barrier until I was in 7th grade. This kid a couple lockers down from me told his buddy at the locker next to mine to stop picking on me, and I was so gobsmacked that a stupid boy would stand up to a friend of his for the sake of my wellbeing that I fell hard… for a few months, until I realized that, besides that one moment of empathy (that was really more of a “the joke’s getting old, pal,” to be honest), we had absolutely nothing in common, and my feelings dropped off as quickly as they’d begun.

My point is, I did have feelings, they were just pickier than my peers’. But whenever I mentioned how weird my peers were behaving about this pairing off business, the well-meaning adults in my life would just say, “You’ll understand someday. It’s okay to be a late bloomer.”

It got more irritating the older I got. I hit puberty at the perfectly average age of 12 and a half, and had quite a womanly figure. I was intelligent and even considered wise for my years (in, um, some circumstances at least). And the crushes I did have became more and more intense—they would last for years, and I could never possibly have any interest in anyone else in the middle of one: whomever I had fallen for was obviously the Only Guy Worth Loving In the Whole World, and I didn’t want anyone but him. So why would I want to date, whatever that meant? (In fact, when a mutual friend took it upon herself to ask one such Only Guy In The World if he’d go to the prom with me, he told her sure, if I’d ask him myself, and I absolutely couldn’t do it, because I knew he was only doing it to be nice, not because he was equally madly in love with me, and what would be the point?)

But I digress. I was explaining why it felt so belittling to be repeatedly called a “late bloomer.” Was it really blooming to have your hormones running wild? Surely I was more mature than kids who told dirty jokes?

It’s possible that people who’ve been called “late bloomers” on the issue of attraction in the past were demisexual, because “you just need to find the right person” is technically sort of true for us. But why should it matter if someone never found “the right person”? It should go without saying that there are other ways to be mature. If a young person is leading a fulfilling, productive life as a single person, why should they be labeled as somehow behind their peers simply because they’re not interested in finding a lover?

Asexuality Is Not a Medical Issue

Here’s the thing. Maybe a person does have a history of sexual trauma or other issue that makes them not want to be sexual. Maybe they have a hormonal imbalance that decreases their sex drive or a physical issue that makes sex unpleasant. But this is not what asexuality is.

You can simply not feel attraction without there being anything traumatic tied up in it. There’s no fear or hurt or sadness keeping you locked into yourself, unable to feel for anyone else. Sexual attraction is just not a thing you experience at all.

You can even have a perfectly active libido and still be asexual, believe it or not. Granted, many asexual people also have low sex drives, but it’s possible to have a high sex drive that is just simply not contingent on feeling attraction to another person. It’s all action, not attraction.

Likewise, you can enjoy sex (assuming you’re doing it willingly) without having chosen it because you were feeling sexually attracted to your partner. You can be all, “oh, hey, that was nice,” but seeing that partner later doesn’t necessarily trigger any particular desire to repeat the experience.

You can appreciate that a person might be aesthetically pleasing. You can love a person as a dear friend. You can want to get married or raise a family and even give birth yourself. You can be perfectly happy in life without ever once feeling sexually attracted to someone else.

Most allosexual people (a term that basically means “everyone who isn’t asexual”) have some people they aren’t attracted to, whether an entire gender or age or fashion sense. It’s no big deal to not be attracted to someone. Why should it be a big deal to not be attracted to anyone?

So that’s what I wanted to say. Yes, it IS possible to lack sexual attraction, and it’s a perfectly valid way to feel. So for the sake of all the misunderstood ace or gray-ace kids out there, don’t force the issue. Don’t assume “everyone” feels a certain way. Don’t talk like finding that special someone is the ultimate goal in life. Don’t tease a kid that their platonic friends might really be something more if they’ve never given you any evidence of that. Let people be themselves first without pairing them off.

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