Am I actually asexual, or is everyone else conditioned to be obsessed with sex?
Spoiler alert, it’s both.
This past July marked the first time I’ve spent a pride month fully out as an asexual woman. Whilst our Western, generally progressive generation might not see this as much of a big deal, it got me thinking about how I finally got to a place where I can proudly declare my identity. Specifically, why it took me so long to claim it as my own.
The short answer? Internalised aphobia.
Like many LGBTQIA+ people, I can trace the beginnings of my journey to the first time I noticed an otherness in myself that seemed to be at odds with everyone else. For me, that was during my first year in an all girls high school, when conversations about dating, sex and boys dominated my lunch breaks.
“What about you?” I remember one girl asking me. “Which boy do you think is the hottest?”
Desperate to fit in and hide my otherness, I answered with the first name that came to mind. Then repeated that name when I was asked again. And again. And again. Until I had convinced myself that I actually had feelings for the guy.
In that particular heteronormative context, aphobia manifested in ways that are similar to other forms of queerphobia – strange looks when I expressed my lack of interest in boys, assurances that I’d find “the right guy” one day, being made to feel as if I was “broken” in some way. In 1980, American feminist Adrienne Rich coined the phrase ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ to describe the assumption that attraction to the opposite sex is a given; in this context, the onus of describing other experiences of attraction falls onto the deviating person to come out.
This only explained part of my experiences, however. Sure, attraction to men seemed to be a precondition for fitting in. But as I met other LGBTQIA+ people and developed friendships with them, I noticed eerie similarities with my Year 7 experiences. Conversations about dating and sex still came up, only this time, it wasn’t confined to the opposite sex. Attraction to men was no longer the unchallenged assumption, but attraction itself.
Feminist scholar Eleanor Wilkinson uses the concept of the ‘romantic imaginary’ to describe this idea, where “the desire for sexual and romantic love [is] always already presumed”. With these presumptions for sexual and romantic attraction, certain expectations follow suit.
My feelings for that Year 7 boy weren’t because of a genuine sense of sexual or romantic attraction to him (it’s okay for me to say that, we’re good mates now); they were the product of these expectations to be a desiring individual. They were performative, in the behavioural sense of the word; I was acting in a way that was expected of me to elicit a particular response. In this case, to elicit acceptance from my peers. And when I peeled back the layers of any time I felt even a glimmer of attraction before that moment, I realised I had never actually been attracted to another person before.
This should’ve been the moment I shucked off the last fetter of my internalised aphobia and claimed my asexuality as my own. But as any queer person knows, your coming out journey is never a straight line. It’s riddled with back-and-forths, new ideas that challenge you, and, unfortunately, forces that will rattle the burgeoning truth you begin to uncover about yourself.
For any ace person that was chronically online during 2015 Tumblr, any mention of ‘The Ace Discourse’ is enough to activate our flight-or-fight response. Other ace blogs have already traced the history of The Discourse, but in essence, this was an ace-exclusionist movement that was relatively confined to online American queer spaces. But it was important in shifting the ace activist agenda from fighting ace invisibility to fighting ace antagonism. It has parallels to the TERF movement within feminist spaces; arguments ranged from asexuals being “straights in hiding” to asexuality being a merely a mode of attraction rather than a valid identity.
As a young ace person still coming to terms with my identity, the most damaging thing about the Discourse was the fact that most of these arguments were coming from other queer people – members of the community that was supposed to take me in. “What am I,” I remember thinking, “if not straight nor queer?”
“Where does the real problem lie: in me, as someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction, or in society for conning everyone into believing that sexual attraction is natural?”
Now, I recognise these arguments to be a more insidious form of aphobia, one that emerges out of legitimate experiences of oppression, but wrongfully attributes blame to another marginalised group for perpetuating its own oppression. Like many exclusionist movements, The Ace Discourse stemmed from a desire to protect the safety and autonomy of online queer communities. But instead of recognising the overarching structural problem of compulsory heteronormativity and allonormativity affecting us all, it was easier for proponents of The Discourse to blame the “deviant” identities.
Efforts have been made in recent years to shift asexuals and other ace-spectrum identities from the peripheries. For example, the term ‘allosexual’ rather than ‘sexual’ is becoming the common term to describe individuals who experience sexual attraction. Developed within ace communities, the prefix allo, which translates to ‘other’, challenges the assumption of sexual attraction as the norm whilst centring asexuality.
So where does this leave me today? With a lot of remaining questions, to be honest. But I am far more resistant to aphobia in its many forms, and perhaps better placed to answer the question in the title of this article.
“… queer [is] not about who you’re having sex with, that can be a dimension of it, but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”
– bell hooks