A post about the “I should have realized I was asexual” phenomenon.
There are several patterns in asexual narratives with regards to the part of life or period of time before a person began identifying as ace. One of the worst of those patterns includes the pain of feeling broken, irrational, and subhuman — and we know, more or less, where that pain comes from. Its roots are easy to trace.
The pattern that produces more confusion, upon reflection, is its opposite: when individual aces are slow to come to the realization that they’re asexual, even in the face of glaring evidence.
This happens for a variety of reasons, such as incorrectly understanding what sexual orientation refers to, not knowing that there’s more than one type of attraction, et cetera, and while misunderstandings are a part of it, I think that one of the contributing factors to keeping some aces in the dark about their asexuality is the same set of cultural processes that makes other aces feel hyperaware and painfully cognizant.
The story goes like this: we’re shown sexual attraction as a normal thing, the expected thing, told that sexual attraction and sexual desire are an essential part of humanity, with few examples to the contrary or of asexual characters who aren’t inhuman or pathologized, and in this way, the culture knits allosexuality to a human subject position, until they are so tightly bound together that it would take a great deal of concentrated effort to mentally untie them.
Experiencing sexual attraction is supposed to be a part of Selfhood, and asexuality is a component of the Other, the unfathomable, the damaged, wrong, unrelateable, and nonsentient.
In narrative media, sexual attraction is a tool for constructing a subject position, in that a subject looks sexually at another person and that act alone is supposed to establish them as the experiencer, the reference point, the point of view character (as opposed to the experienced, the viewed, the object). Sexuality becomes akin to a synechdoche for perception and agency. And, to be clear, this process (especially in Western visual media) has gendered origins, rash with heteronormativie misogyny where straight (white) men are the center of the world. And so, to claim back and assert subject their own subject positions, people turn these patterns on their heads and subjectify the objectified — and, in the process, one of the tools used to construct subject position is the experiencing of sexual attraction.
Which is all important and not my place to comment on.
But, in a context where “we are all sexual beings” keeps being passed around and Allosexual vs. Not is overlaid onto Self vs. Other, aces have not one, but two, self-denying and incapacitating options for how to understand themselves:
“I am not a sexual being, therefore I am not human.”
“I am human, therefore I am a sexual being.”
As misapprehensions of the asexual self, they are two sides of the same coin, unaware vs. broken, human vs. alien, self vs. other, worthy vs. lacking. Because if you see yourself as normal, as healthy, as a person… then you’re taught to take for granted that that means being allosexual, too, because you’re taught they’re the exact same thing.
And, in practice, even after an individual has come to identify as ace, I think this expectation feeds into some of the self-doubt, too: when you’re feeling comfortably normal and just like a regular person… you begin to wonder, are you’re sure you’re asexual? Are you sure you’re that weird? You don’t feel that O t h e r and outlandish, so you can’t really be. That’s just a little too out there for you, you know?
In the absence of powerful certainty — which has its own crushing disadvantages — there is a predisposed gravitational pull toward aces thinking of themselves as automatically allo on the basis of nothing but their comfort with their own Selfhood.
That’s how you get results like this:
- “I knew about the existence of asexuality from a young age. I encountered the term while researching other LGBT+ identities, and accepted immediately that asexual people existed. But it took almost a full decade before I realized that it applied to me.” [x]
- “It does make me wonder a bit though how I never figured out that I was asexual sooner.” [x]
- this entire series of submissions
- “I conflated aesthetic attraction with sexual attraction when I was younger. I didn’t know that there was an experience others were having that I wasn’t; no one talked about it in clear terms.” [x]
- “I guess I was sort of passively straight in that I never really questioned it” [x]
Passively straight is a fantastic term to encapsulate my particular experience, because while I was pretty sure I didn’t feel strongly attracted to people of the same gender enough to be bi or gay, I was always able to avoid spending enough time thinking about it to realize that, if you’re heterosexual, that means you’re, y’know, attracted to people of a different gender in a way that is sexual — not just physical but sexual — and I… wasn’t wired like that.
Yet I still thought of myself as straight, or at least allo, because I didn’t know how to recognize my differences in a way that preserved a sense of internal normalcy.
This particular societal motif of Self vs. Other in regards to human sexuality did that to me, and it did that to a lot of other people, too.
That’s why it was scary to realize I wasn’t straight. I don’t even live in that dangerous of an area for people like me, I was reasonably sure my parents wouldn’t try to send me to therapy if I came out, I knew that I wasn’t in any kind of danger — yet I felt viscerally, personally afraid to go forward. To admit I wasn’t what I’d always taken for granted I was.
Because, in my culture, being confident that you’re straight — and, sometimes, just that you’re allo — is the same as being confident that you’re the Self and not the Other.
That’s also why straight people will say “Don’t worry,” when their friends start to question their own straightness. It’s meant as a reassurance of normality, of humanity. Don’t worry, we see you as normal, it’s fine, I’m sure you’re just like us.
Because, under their framework, an acknowledgement of mere difference means being dangerously Othered. And those who are Other cease to be wanted or relateable.
Given that this is the culture we have to navigate and the material we have to work with, it is absolutely healthy and crucial when aces do the mental work to reconcile the fact of their sentient Self with an aspect of themselves that is culturally Other, to then knit those two together, assert the compatibility of the conventionally incompatible, and say, “I am asexual.” So that, inside us, two opposing poles can become one whole.
In order to recognize that in the first place, what we have to acknowledge is that the notion of an Asexual-Self is not something readily provided for us the way Allosexual-Self is, that a part of our symbolic infrastructure is built to accommodate allos (especially straights) but not us, and that a subject position that many of us thought we had access to is ours no longer.
That’s why, for me, it felt like I was losing something. Some kind of safety, a refuge.
Suddenly without it, you have to build these things on your own, out in the wilderness without a map, faced with a puzzle — a big tangled clump of knots, really — that you didn’t realize until now was yours to deal with. Difficult, daunting, and uncharted — though technically possible. Not all people are “sexual beings”. Asexual people are human. We should be allowed to make that much room for ourselves.
But this is where it gets frustrating: in order to undo the glossed-over seam in our culture between allo(hetero)sexuality and humanity in our media and culture, in order to turn this around and make a deliberately asexual subject position…
What do we use?
For, while I’m not bothered by asexuality being defined by an absence, what this means for us, in narrative terms, is that there is no distilled, conveyable way to be actively asexual, in the way that there are for the subject positions of all other sexual orientations. There is the Straight Male Gaze, the Straight Female Gaze, the Gay Gaze, the Lesbian Gaze, and perhaps least frequent of all, the Bi/Pansexual Gaze, (alternatively: the gynophillic gaze, the androphillic gaze, and the skoliophillic gaze) but according to this mode of ordering things — where the intersection of sight and sexuality is a vehicle of subjecthood — asexual people do not “gaze” at all.
That’s not to say you can’t write asexual characters, obviously, but it does mean that some of the tactics that others use, particularly for liberation and self-empowerment, are not available to us.