I was scrolling down my Tumblr feed the other day, when I came across a post in all caps that read, “THE ‘A’ DOES NOT STAND FOR ‘ALLY!’”
I immediately got the reference, and chuckled a bit, because it’s a common misconception about the LGBTQIA+ acronym I used to have. It wasn’t until I started to question my own sexuality that I understood the A represented a sexual orientation I hadn’t realized I was: asexual.
I first considered that I was asexual about three years ago, when I was still a virgin. I had met the perfect guy, but I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t want to sleep with him.
For some reason I thought I would feel something magical and intense, and in that moment, I would know it was the right time. It seems silly, but for someone who has never experienced sexual attraction, that is how I imagined people decided they wanted sex.
That feeling of readiness never happened. Eventually, I became impatiently curious, and figured I’d try it out. My first time was more of an experiment for me rather than a real desire to have sex.
As an asexual person, “ace” for short, I do not experience sexual attraction, which is what generally characterizes aces. As an added bonus, I also do not experience sexual desire and sometimes feel a bit sex averse. Asexuality has a spectrum, so there is a lot of diversity in the asexual community, people who experience varying levels of attraction, desire, and aversion.
I wasn’t ready to accept my asexuality three years ago. After misunderstanding it for about two years and reading about alternatives for why I had no desire for sex, I decided to take an online test that was supposed to tell me if I was asexual or not.
My results: You’re probably asexual.
Of course, this test wasn’t an end-all-be-all. The research and scholarly evidence behind it were only a step or two above a personality test on “Which Marvel Super Villain Are You?” you’d find on BuzzFeed. But the test had some truth to it. It told me something I kind of already knew, but didn’t want to admit.
I really didn’t want to be asexual. I was a feminist who’d written articles about sexuality and embracing sensuality. My college thesis was a 25-page paper on the sexual agency of women in hip hop. I wasn’t quite sure how my feminism was supposed to include a sexual orientation that would, without hesitation, choose a piece of cake over sex.
Feminists like me celebrate women who are sexually liberated. We applaud women who embrace their sexuality. We root for women like Yonce in the “Partition” video, who unapologetically enjoy their sex lives. This was the type of woman I aspired to become. Which is part of the reason my asexuality didn’t sit right with me.
In celebrating and aspiring to be this sexually free Bad Bitch, I denied part of who I was.
Unfortunately, my experience is not a unique asexual experience.
Many aces like me struggle for self-acceptance and acceptance in a society that deems heterosexual sex normal. We wonder why we’re so different and worry that something is inherently wrong with us. At the same time, we have to answer questions from concerned friends, family and partners, such as, “Are you sure you’re not gay?” “Were you abused as a child?” “Are you sure this isn’t a phase?” and “Have you talked to a therapist about this?” Asexual people have to learn to cope with internal and external ideas and misunderstandings about their sexual orientation, which can make embracing it rather difficult.
On Tumblr (which is somehow both a safe and triggering space for aces), I’m sometimes confronted with posts that sound something like, “Everyone likes sex. If you don’t like sex you’re weird.”
I often see arguments like this online as rebuttals to slut-shaming. People who write posts or comments like this sometimes mean to empower sexually-active people. Their intentions are to be supportive, but in their execution they forget to acknowledge, or maybe just aren’t aware that there are people who aren’t interested in sex for various reasons.
I think people who write these comments have a 101 approach to sex positivity – celebrating sex without any intersectional perspective. Many of us make this mistake, as we’re all newbies to sex positivity, feminism, and/or social justice at one point in our lives. And there’s always so much more to learn and explore on the topic of sexuality. With new info and insights, we frequently have to amend our previous ways of thinking about sexuality.
For example, there are two concepts I learned as a newbie to sex positivity that contradict one another in the context of asexuality and asexual relationships: First, that sex is natural and normal. Second, that consent is vital in any sexual relationship.
Sex positive feminists taught me that my body was mine. They taught me that I could say “no” at any point in time and that my no meant no. That is a powerful lesson to learn, and I am so grateful for that foundation.
But as an ace in a relationship with someone who isn’t asexual, my “no” seemed to lose some of its power. My no seemed somewhat up for debate when sex is normalized and even expected in our society.
In sex positive spaces, we sometimes learn or assume that sex is natural, normal and an important part of a healthy relationship. When sex is good, we celebrate it. When it’s not good, we host workshops, publish books, and write articles about how partners need to be open about and communicate their sexual needs (Ironically, I am guilty of this in my own writing). This push for sexual fulfillment great, but when partners have mismatched sexual needs things get a little sticky.
A relationship including ace and non-asexual partners is challenging and involves a lot of compromise. For me, compromising meant I would agree to have sex every now and then, and for my boyfriend, it meant he would have to accept that we would not be having sex as frequently as he preferred. However, because my list of Top 10 Things I’d Rather Do Than Have Sex sometimes includes cleaning the bathroom and taking a trip to the DMV, having sex “every now and then” became every blue moon, and eventually became hardly at all. I turned down a good 90% of his attempts at sexual intimacy.
In relationships like ours, one partner cannot have their needs met while the other is standing firm in their ability to say no.
My boyfriend never pressured me, but I felt a societal pressure to have sex in order to achieve that “normal” relationship. Previously, I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to both honor my ability to say no and have what’s deemed a healthy relationship that involves sex at the same time. I feared that my constant “no” to my boyfriend’s requests for sex was counterproductive to maintaining our healthy relationship.
So I started feeling guilty and blaming myself for why our sex life was nearly non-existent. His sexual frustration built up while my frustration with my asexuality often brought me to tears every time I could not bring myself to have sex.
I turned to online ace forums and support groups for help. They all said similar things that I’ve come to use as affirmations: “You are not broken,” “Your relationship doesn’t have to live up to anyone’s standards,” “You don’t have to prove anything,” and “Your experience is valid.”
Aces like me often need reminders that our sexual orientation is legitimate. It’s not an orientation we learn about in school, or sex education. We don’t see it in the media. The “A” is often left off of the LGBTQIA+ acronym because people don’t know about it. And it’s not often talked about in non-ace spaces. There is a lack of awareness and education about asexuality that leaves some aces confused as to whether or not asexuality is even real. I was lucky enough to find a few ace-friendly spaces to remind me that it is okay to be asexual.
These same ace-friendly spaces deepened my understanding of what consent really means.
Our societal, sometimes newbie feminist ideas on what a healthy relationship consists of conflicts with the true meaning of consent. Consensual sex isn’t truly consensual if partners feel pressured into sexual intimacy by ideas of what a healthy relationship looks like.
When I realized and accepted my asexual experience as valid, my reason for having sex or not having sex changed. I stopped agreeing to sex because I felt I was supposed to. I stopped having sex because I thought it was normal. Instead, I decided if I would have sex based on whether or not I was willing.
Some aces do not mind having sex. Some aces experience little to no sexual attraction, but consider themselves sex-favorable, and will have sex if they feel like it. Some aces, like me, compromise if they’re in relationships with non-asexual partners. Because I fluctuate between sex-averse and somewhat willing to have sex, my boyfriend and I roll with whatever feelings I’m experiencing in the moment.
True consent came in my ability to dismiss societal pressures and define what a healthy relationship meant for me. Consent means I can say “no” as often as I like and not feel guilty about being asexual. Consent for me involves being unapologetic about my asexuality.
As an asexual feminist who embraces sex positivity and intersectionality, I have to remember that I have to be flexible.
Previously, my rigid ideas about sexuality made it difficult to embrace my own sexual orientation. But after understanding asexuality and how it influences my experience, I’m reminded that my feminism must be both malleable and critical enough to include my experience and the experiences of others.