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An Asexual’s Lack of Words
I have spent A LOT of time looking for the words to describe my sexuality. Often, this endeavour has failed because I did not possess and was not provided with the proper words. As such, many situations have been defined by an unsatisfying lack of words.
I believe this word-lacking is recognisable to many asexuals. As a newly emerging sexual orientation, we have had to invent our own words and to redefine phrases to suit us. Lacking words is confusing and self-destabilising. However, to me, it has been a driving force as well; it has motivated me to work to increase people’s awareness of asexuality and to expand our vocabularies, lest others feel confused and alienated.
I want to cover a few of the instances, where I lacked the proper words.
To me, these instances exemplify how it is sometimes difficult to articulate asexual experiences.
At first, I lacked the word to describe my sexuality. Entering my teenage years, it wasn’t difficult to notice that my peers experienced a sudden interest in sex. I did learn to appreciate flirting and cuddling, and to feel a certain pride when hooking up (i.e. snuggling) with someone at parties. However, I never felt any desire “to go further”.
Quickly, I felt odd. For a while, I told myself that I, too, would eventually have sexual urges. It was hard to convince myself, though. I certainly didn’t experience sexual attraction to either boys or girls (I luckily grew out of this binary thinking). As such, the words I knew, i.e. “heterosexual”, “homosexual” and “bisexual”, didn’t fit.
At the age of fourteen, I had a very fortunate epiphany. I decided to see what would happen if I added the negating prefix “a-“ to “sexual”, and I typed it into Google.
The first hit was Asexuality Visibility and Education Network. I browsed the website, read countless posts on the forum pages. I was baffled. Here, people gathered around a word I felt I had just made up.
Asexual. The posts on the forum told stories of people having experiences that mirrored my own.
Asexual. I no longer lacked a word to describe my sexuality.
That said, he word “asexual” has never been enough to make sense of my emotional and physical experiences, and at times, it has been challenging to reconcile “asexual” with these experiences.
I lacked the words to describe the desire I had to be closer to certain people in a manner that didn’t fit with the conventional understanding of the term “friendship”. In other words, I fell in love. The asexual community had already come up with a word, I could use: Romantic orientation. I could even add whatever prefix I desired.
I lacked the words to reconcile certain physical sensations with the concept of asexuality. A few days every month, my reproductive parts demanded attention. I would spontaneously get wet, ticklish and very responsive to touch. At some point, I learned to call this sexual arousal. But why would I – an asexual – get sexually aroused? It wasn’t correlated with a desire for sex. It wasn’t even triggered by sexual motifs. In time, I experienced this sensation while cuddling and kissing. Doubt grew in my mind whether I was truly asexual, though I still had absolutely no desire for sex. I was left feeling alienated from my body. With the words at my disposal, I couldn’t match my mental state and the physical sensations. No one seemed to frame this physical sensation outside the sexual sphere. It seemed to be unimaginable to have this feeling without sexual desire.
I couldn’t familiarise myself with my body until I happened upon a TEDTalk by Emily Nagoski on unwanted sexual arousal. This taught me the distinction between mental and physiological arousal and arousal non-concordance.Today, I lack the words to articulate my motivation to be sexually active with my current partner. In presentations (mine and others’), “to please a partner” is often mentioned as a reason why asexuals are willing to have sex. However, that phrase seems unfit to cover why I have sex. I could say I do it to please my partner. However, this isn’t the full truth. And it seems to indicate I’m willing to have sex in spite of being asexual or even though I would rather not. Which is not true. I could say I have sex, because I want to. And to some extent, yes. However, it seems to indicate I feel a desire to have sex. Which is not true. There is no independent desire in me to have sex, and I feel no more sexual attraction than before.
Thus, I’m still struggling to find words, and I suppose it’ll take time before I possess them all.
Expectations for a Happy Life
My heart was racing. I was drawing breaths faster than I could count, deeper, louder. The sound of my heavy kicks echoed in the beautiful, hostile landscape where the silence was loud, as I plunged my boots into the steep, ice-clad mountainside with full force. Almost there. The sun had risen only hours ago and having climbed through the cold, black night, it was a relief to now watch it shine on the object of my long-time desire.
With a single, determined push I cried out and swung my ice axe, burying the blade in the gleaming white snow one last time. Tears of joy rushed to my eyes and my limbs were shaking from fatigue and the overwhelming euphoria. Finally, after four years of training, learning, preparing, dreaming, obsessing, it was mine: The summit of Kyajo Ri – a rarely climbed peak that lies tucked between two valleys in the backyard of the busiest region of Nepal’s Himalayan mountains.
Dreams come in many shapes and sizes. As an aromantic asexual, someone who feels neither romantic nor sexual attraction to others, my own dreams lay long buried under the pile of expectations and assumptions that had been thrown at me since I was very young.
As a pre-teen, I remember reading articles in young girls’ magazines about how to get boys to like you. I remember teachers saying we would all soon be swooning over our opposite sex peers, as our sexuality would blossom and turn our brains into goo (their words, not mine). The message in all of this was clear: feeling sexual and romantic attraction was part of being human; wanting sexual relationships was essential to our mental and physical well-being; forming romantic (and exclusive) relationships was the key to a happy future. Without a doubt, we would all grow up to do exactly this.
I remember buying into all of it. I mean, why wouldn’t I? Sex and romance were everywhere. From magazines to television to advertisement to general discourse, it dominated every word I ever heard about life and happiness. Truthfully, as a young person, it never once occurred to me to question if this package deal really was a one-size-fits-all recipe to a fulfilling life, because I never heard anyone anywhere suggest otherwise.
Since the norms were all I could see, I followed the them. Or, I tried to. I failed miserably, of course, at this task of forcing myself into situations unnatural to me to fulfil a dream it took me years to realise wasn’t my own. Instead, what plagued my thoughts was the fear of what was to come: Surely, I would be lonely. Miserable, in fact – everyone said so! In the midst of it, I overlooked the biggest clue of them all: I wasn’t lonely. I wasn’t missing sex. I wasn’t missing a romantic partner.
I was 25 when the wondrous world that is Google lifted the heavy burden off my shoulders and provided the answers I had unknowingly needed: I am asexual and aromantic, I am not broken, there are many others like me – and I will not be miserable, unhappy or lonely because of it.
Very recently, while sitting at a Copenhagen coffee shop, I turned the first page of a random women’s magazine lying on the table. The first article was, if you were to believe the headline, about how to achieve your dream. “Think hard… what kind of wedding do you really want?”. The dice were cast. I read on: a long speech in favour of abandoning traditional, boring ceremonies and personalise your wedding. Never a single word that marriage might not be every women’s die-hard dream. It wasn’t a wedding magazine, mind you.
Fortunately, my journey toward my dreams had started years earlier. Come my 20’s, I began to travel the world on my own. I volunteered at a wildlife farm in Africa and fell asleep not with a lover, but with lions and cheetahs in my arms. I dived below the surface of the ocean and explored the magical world underneath. I walked the most beautiful trails on the planet and developed an overshadowing passion for high altitude mountaineering. I made friends all over the world.
I don’t claim that any of these adventures are out of reach to people who naturally desire sexual and romantic relationships. But today, I genuinely do believe that not feeling these needs and thus no longer spending time, energy and resources pursuing them, including having to consider the wants and needs of a significant other, has allowed me to pursue adventures unhindered, unproblematically, and a lot more frequently.
Dreams come in many shapes and sized. As do distractions. I will no longer be distracted while living my dream.
An Asexual’s Experiences with Sex
It’s peculiar how the things we are not (e.g. straight) and the things we don’t do (e.g. have sex) can have an immense impact on our lives. Here, I’d like to share a few snapshots exemplifying how (no) sex has structured my life as an asexual.
At 17, I remember sitting in class, my ears red with embarrassment. My classmate had just been informed by another classmate that I’d never had sex. “ARE YOU A VIRGIN?!” the classmate had cried out. At this point, I knew I was asexual, had no interest and wanted no part in sex. But I had not yet learned to be critical of the term “virgin” and felt the stigma of having it thrown at me (though I did wish to remain “that way” for the rest of my life). Another thing I had not yet realised was that I could say no for the simple reason that I didn’t want to have sex at all. I had not yet fully understood that I didn’t owe sex (in any form) to anyone; that I didn’t have to allow other people to touch me where I didn’t want to be touched. Lacking these insights, I had let people touch me “down there” without desire or pleasure, but because I felt obliged to. In every case, I did eventually express verbally or physically that I didn’t want to, thus avoiding sex.
At 23, I remember a session with a psychologist I was seeing due to depression. For several sessions, I had deliberately avoided the topic of sex. However, at some point I told her about a guy I had met recently and was getting slightly romantically involved with. Now, the topic of sex was unavoidable.
I explained to her that I was asexual and had informed this guy that I didn’t intend to sleep with him. At first, she seemed supportive, but then she urged me not to exclude the possibility of having sex with him (and in general) and to rather “feel my bodily impulses” while being intimate with him – as if I didn’t already feel and understand them. I was devasted. I had finally gotten close to embracing the word “no” and feeling confident that I could say no now and for all time. And now this psychologist was telling me that I was wrong to do so and that it would hinder my happiness (three years earlier, another psychologist had told me something similar, indicating that my asexuality was “an expression of my need to stay in control”).
At 24, I remember having a great night with a guy the last day of the Roskilde Festival – that is, up until the point where he pulled a condom out of his pocket, eagerly expecting me to have sex with him. Still struggling with the word “no”, a voice in the back of my mind whispered (or cried) that I owed this guy sex; that maybe everything would be all right, if I just pushed myself a little; that I shouldn’t deny this guy his sexual happiness; that if I said no, I would be the reason he had wasted his last night at Roskilde.
Again, hands were in the wrong places, and at some point, I fled “to pee” hoping he’d have fallen asleep by the time I got back. It was too difficult for me to simply utter “no”. He had not, and after him trying again several times (and me “blue-balling” him, as he put it), I apologised repeatedly for being so mean to him. Eventually, we fell asleep. Waking up, I was flooded with shame, and I left the festival forcefully holding back my tears.
Behind all of this lies a firm culturally dependent entanglement of sex and happiness and the unimaginable in not desiring sex. This has left me feeling wrong and inadequate, and in turn has led me to disrespect and overstep my boundaries several times. Today, I am still trying to unlearn blaming myself for and being ashamed of not wanting sex and saying no.
I don’t blame the people who got too close physically. I do blame society, though, for not explicitly teaching that not wanting sex is okay. I blame society for making me feel so inadequate that I’ve ignored my own integrity. I blame society for sending the message that not having had sex after a certain age is pathetic. I blame society for teaching that a no to sex is a no to happiness. And from conversation with friends and acquaintances (asexuals as well as non-asexuals), I have the impression that I’m not alone in experiencing the equation “sex = happiness” as an occasional burden.
As such, (no) sex structures my acts, experiences and self-perception, even though I really don’t want it to.
Black, Grey, White, and Purple
It never dawned on me that there might be others like me in my proximity. The feeling of being the only one, the odd one out, of being different had defined my experiences for longer than I could remember. Yet there I was, marching down the broadest streets in Copenhagen, pulling the flag through the wind high above my head – and I was far from alone. Others were marching with me. People who, until a few months ago, were complete strangers were there, wearing the same colours, waving the same flag, all of us bundled together in a small group of black, grey, white and purple, submerged in the moving sea of rainbow flags and glitter.
I hated it. The streets were packed with crowds of onlookers, and as I reluctantly and terrified strutted down the street near my home, my heart pounded and I felt very much on display. I listened to the reactions from the crowd as we passed by. “Asexual?”. The word rang again and again through the air, the tone of voice shifting as we moved and the spectators took turns reading the words on the banner outloud. I watched them. Some were shaking their heads, their eyes rolling backwards into their skulls and their voice heavy with disdain. A few sounded excited, but most people baffled, confused, or bemused. I hated it – but it was a start.
And it had started very recently indeed. Less than four months prior to the Copenhagen Pride Parade of 2016, I had sat down with about 12 people I had never met before. Having seen the notification on Facebook, we were now all gathered here for the founding general assembly for what would become “Asexual Association Denmark” – the first of its kind in all of Scandinavia.
It was quite daring, if you think about it; forming an association for people whose sexual orientation state that they feel no sexual attraction to any gender, and then parading it around in full public, thus actively defying what is generally regarded one of the most fundamental aspects of being a human being.
As I watched the reaction of onlookers at this my first ever Pride, I could see it: Every feeling I had ever had of being weird, broken, wrong, unnatural was carved into the faces of these people. In their faces manifested the society that had moulded me and taught me, in ways direct and indirect, that what I had always felt, how I experience love and life, is unnatural and wrong – broken.
But as I marched among my peers, I forgot about my pounding heart for a moment and remembered exactly why we had decided to do this: Up until this very moment, these people had no idea we existed. They had no idea that asexual is something a person can even be.
Then I thought about the most important part: All of the asexuals out there who weren’t any the wiser. The people who, like me and every asexual marching with me, had grown up in a world where people like us are invisible; who were going through life thinking there is something wrong with them; who had forced themselves into situations unnatural to them because of a society that constantly taught them, through media, adds, television shows, movies, general discourse and peer culture, that feeling sexual attraction was part of being human and an essential key to living a happy, fulfilling life. Those unknowingly asexual people could be in the crowd, never expecting today to be the day they finally found answers. They could be the family, the friends, the colleagues that these spectators would speak to about seeing asexuals in the Copenhagen Pride Parade. They could be the people who heard about the event in the news.
When you are invisible, no one can see you – not even yourself.
So I marched on, uncomfortable, but with my head held high, desperately hoping for the wonder and curiosity of the crowd to spread like rings in the water. We had a purpose.
And there, in a small bundle of black, grey, white, and purple, through the piercing discomfort, heart racing and throat tight, surrounded by my new supportive peer group: A feeling of warmth, of confidence and joy, slid around me like a blanket from within; a feeling of finally belonging.