In my forties, I have come to accept that the label “asexual” fits me better than any other label for sexual orientation that we humans have come up with so far. Since figuring this out, I haven’t made a big, brave coming-out speech to anyone. That is not to say that I could fairly be called “closeted,” either. I’ve mentioned it in conversation without any fanfare to a handful of people who probably weren’t surprised. I post enough articles and cake memes and interviews with Yasmin Benoit on my Facebook page that anyone who knows me well enough to be my “friend” on social media has probably figured it out by now.
The reasons for my avoidance of a big, brave coming-out moment are many. For one thing, I have a lot of mental-health crap going on that is a subject for a different essay but that makes just living exhausting sometimes. I don’t have enough fuel left in my tank at any given time for a dramatic act of courage.
For another thing, how often is this really going to be something that anyone needs to know? I mean, I don’t want to get into “har de har har, stupid asexuals marching at Pride for their right to do nothing” territory here, but—seriously. Nobody needs to know this. I suppose I should tell my doctor and my therapist, but if my therapist turned out to be one of those people who pathologize asexuality, I think it would break my heart, and does anybody need any more heartbreak right now? As for my doctor, honestly, I think he probably figured it out when we were talking about antidepressants and he got into discussing those side effects that might affect your sex life and my reaction was basically a marginally more dignified version of “LOL, yeah because that totally matters..”
At the end of the day, though, the main reason I don’t really feel like staging a grand coming-out party is this: if you’ve known me for a long time, you’ve already seen me try on and then reject every sexual orientation known to a hillbilly girl from Kentucky whose adolescence took place in the 1990s. I wouldn’t blame anybody for thinking, “Okay, but in college, you were straight and then you were bi and then you were gay, and then you had that nervous breakdown and dating kind of went on the back burner. And now you’ve—what, read about a new sexual orientation somewhere?—on the Internet?—and we’re going to start this all over again?”
You might be wondering how someone who experiences minimal-to-zero sexual attraction ends up parading around wearing one sexual orientation after another over a number of years. I think the answer begins way back in my childhood. Don’t most of the answers?
Even as a small child, I had already started receiving information that I would store away, and which would later make me feel broken. When I was maybe nine or ten, old enough to be nosy about how sex worked but also not fully wanting to know, I would leaf furtively through women’s magazines when I could do so mostly unobserved. One of the first things I learned about sex was from these magazines that in all the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”-type articles, there was something wrong with the less sexually driven partner in the couple. Even at a distance of thirty-plus years, I remember clearly the husband who complained of his wife’s wearing “those touch-me-not flannel nightgowns” in the winter. I remember, even as a small girl, feeling angry and thinking it wasn’t fair for the wife to be pilloried for wanting to be warm in cold weather instead of spending every minute of every day dressing her body with the express purpose of signaling “let’s get it on” to her husband. I remember understanding clearly that telegraphing “let’s get it on” to a man was something I would be expected to do one day, whether I really felt like it or not. I think that even if later, during my adolescence, I had been fully aware that asexuality was actually a valid identity, and not just a punchline, I would have rejected it for a very long time based on this early knowledge. Long before I even got my period, I already knew that to be the woman in the “touch-me-not flannel nightgown” was to be an abject failure as a woman, as an adult, and as a human being.
As I understand it for a lot of people who don’t fit nicely into the boundaries of heteronormativity, their awareness of being Different begins when they’re too young to experience sexual attraction but old enough to know that their crushes and daydreams are Different. My brain didn’t provide me with the courtesy of a “You are different” red flag at that point in my life, because most of my little-kid crushes were on male fictional characters. In retrospect I can see that even in my taste in early heteroromantic imaginary crushes, I was a little different. Other little girls recognized, in an innocent way, that Harrison Ford was devastatingly attractive in the original Star Wars movies. Me, Sir Alec Guinness was my boy, because Obi-Wan was just so chill about everything. This was a quite a crush-worthy attribute to a kid who had a lot of temperamental adults in her orbit.
Fast-forward to high school. I was widely considered to be such a horrific accident of nature, both in personal appearance and in personality, that nobody would want to date me. A hilarious prank phone call among my male peers consisted of calling me on the telephone and expressing some interest in me. That was it. That, with some creative vulgarity thrown in here and there, because people also thought I was a prude, was the whole prank. Hilarious. I’m not recounting this so anyone will feel sorry for me. I just want to make it extremely clear that during those teenage years when a lot of people discover that they are different, I didn’t have much opportunity to test my assumptions about making out with people, and how much I would doubtless enjoy such a thing. Nobody wanted to kiss me until I was a freshman in college, and when that poor unfortunate soul did kiss me, I mostly thought, What the fuck just happened?—not in the pleasant, dazed way that a late bloomer might think this thought after her first kiss, but in a frozen, horrified way. Kissing was not what I thought it would be. It was not what I thought it would be in a profoundly upsetting, something’s wrong way. I talked to a couple of other people, sage and world-weary eighteen-year-olds like myself, about this experience, and they assured me that there were, in the words of one friend, “lots of gross boys to kiss,” and that kissing would improve once I found a kissing partner better suited to me.
My college years continued along and involved a modest amount of dating and fumbling and other boy-involved activities, which sometimes seemed like fun if I was drunk, but which, when experienced sober, mostly felt like What the fuck is happening right now? During this time there were a couple of girls I liked a lot, as in liked, as in liked the same way I had liked Sir Alec Guinness in Star Wars as a kid. One of these girls was someone I maybe would have ended up dating for a while if I hadn’t been too chickenshit to say anything to her about it, although in the end it was just as well, since I tended to botch romantic relationships pretty badly. Quite naturally, after a while I thought, Well, maybe I’m bisexual. I wasn’t always completely comfortable with that label, but it seemed to fit better than anything else until I started seeing a therapist at around the age of twenty-two.
It is very hard for me to talk or write about my first adult experience with psychotherapy with any degree of fairness or coherence, but I will try. I see a good therapist now. I suspect that this therapist I saw when I was barely out of my teens was not very good. She was a kind human and I wish her all the best, but I hope she’s a nutritionist or something now. She had what, looking back, were probably some strange, rigid, and antiquated ideas about sexuality and gender, even for 1999. Once, she said to me that she knew I had some issues around my sexual orientation because “the first time we met, you said that you were bisexual and then you never mentioned it again.”
To this day, I do not fully understand what I should have said to this woman in order to qualify as demonstrably bisexual. Was I supposed to make notes on everyone I found attractive during the week? I didn’t ask at the time, and now I guess I’ll never know.
The short, probably-unfair version of events is that my therapist convinced me I was gay. The truth is probably a lot more complicated, and I probably bear a large share of blame for filtering what I said in my sessions in such a way as to tell my therapist things that I sensed she wanted to hear.
Naturally, coming out as a lesbian didn’t fix anything, either, because as it turned out, I could go out with all the women I wanted to, but no matter what I called myself, I couldn’t do a damn thing to shift how resentful and unenthusiastic I felt about being expected to have sex with people. I behaved badly in relationships as a result, and sometimes I behaved in ways that make me wonder, in retrospect, if maybe I’m a little bit aromantic as well, but I’m not really prepared to contemplate or discuss my relationship to the aromantic spectrum at this time, because I am already so damn tired of being different.
Baby aces now are like, “I came out really late in life, like twenty-four.” I was on the younger side of twenty-five myself at the time in my life that I described above, and a lot of other stuff was going on in my life that isn’t relevant to this essay, and I ended up having what we used to call a nervous breakdown. I wasn’t really going to therapy much at that point. I guess my therapist thought that since she had set me on a path that could, in theory, lead to a stable romantic relationship, I was cured and didn’t need any more help. I tried to reach out to her in one final session. I don’t remember what I said. Something about the scary thoughts that were taking up an increasing amount of space in my head. She probably gave me a pep talk and we probably both thought that that was it, that I’d be fine.
I was not fine.
There was a long period that it would be a digression to describe here, but I pretty much needed full-time care from my family and I had to read mostly children’s books for quite a while because my attention span and my mental maturity were too badly shattered to process anything else. How it felt for my mother to have to bring Blue Bug Goes to School home to her twenty-four-year-old former honors student, I cannot imagine, but she did, and as a direct result, I am alive to bore you with this gut-spilling essay today. Anyway, a girl who is reading about the adventures of Mousekin and Blue Bug is not in any condition to be going on dates with anyone. So I just took that whole confusing sexual orientation journey and shoved it in a box and buried it somewhere in the wastelands of my mind and let people assume that I was straight, because that’s most people’s default assumption even though we all know it shouldn’t be.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I didn’t think about this stuff at all during my twenties and thirties. Once I got my head together enough to read anything more complex than Mousekin Finds a Friend, I made the tactical error of looking at women’s magazines once in a while. (Yes, I know, because women’s magazines made me feel so good about myself when I was a kid. I’m a slow learner.) Maybe I’m magnifying this in the funhouse mirror of memory, but it seemed like most of the women’s magazines of the early 2000s strongly implied that I was an all-around spoilsport for not having sex with anyone I could get my hands on, on every possible occasion. I don’t remember early 2000’s Internet feminism being a great environment for an asexual woman, either. Even though in theory, you weren’t supposed to measure yourself by how desirable you might be to men, you were, in practice, expected to prove how liberated you were by having lots and lots of sex. An attitude of “Ugh, do I have to?” was definitely regarded as suspect. You were repressed, or you were a religious fanatic. At any rate you were certainly a dupe of the patriarchy and you were definitely letting the side down.
I had heard a little bit about people who identified as asexual, but I refused to see this as a label that applied to me. I think a lot of reasons factored into my refusal. There was some part of me—and I am not proud of this—that thought, “Surely that’s not a real thing.” I also probably thought, “But I still like people! I mean, like them, that way!” Also, at some level, although I don’t remember thinking about it consciously at the time, I was probably already just so fucking tired of being different. I shelved any suspicions I had that this label might be in any way applicable to me, and told myself that eventually I would start dating again and everything would be fine.
Fast-forward to the last few years. All of a sudden, people are talking and writing about asexuality like it’s a real thing, not a joke or something that needs to be treated with medication. Gillian Anderson, for whom I have been hot forever (wherein “hot for” means that I want to be drinking tea on the couch with Gillian Anderson and maybe she is sort of leaning against my arm) is on that one show asking an asexual character, “How could you ever be broken?”, and I feel a profound recognition that is most accurately, if somewhat ineloquently described as Holy shit. This was me all along.
Nowadays I can’t go to an evil giant online retailer without the magical algorithm bot informing me of several books that have been written about asexuality, and thus far, to my great astonishment, none of them have been about how to cure it and make asexual people “normal.” Magazines are running articles about asexuality as a genuine, if statistically rare, sexual orientation—and not just niche magazines aimed at people who actually are asexual, but magazines that you can buy in the grocery store.
I suppose you could say that this essay is my big dramatic coming-out moment, except that I lack the fortitude, or maybe just the emotional resources, even to put my name on it. I can’t bear the idea of someone coming up to me at work to tell me they saw this essay. Maybe it’s just as well that I’m a coward, in a way. The point of this essay shouldn’t be that I am the star of it. The point of it should be that if you are experiencing this same kind of mid-life discovery, or someone you care about just came out for the fourth or fifth time and you’re trying to wrap your head around it, maybe my tedious gut-spilling has helped you find some new insight into the situation.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s about time I went and put on the West Wing t-shirt I often wear to bed. I have not consulted any women’s magazines to determine whether it is more or less enticing than a flannel nightgown.