[CREATIVE NONFICTION] Ace Representation: A Delicate Balance
“If you got a really good Jersey tomato and a really good tomato from somewhere else, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” said someone close to me, not long after I had come out to them as asexual. “So, what does that say about labels?”
The other people in the car probably didn’t hear the insult, but to me, the message was loud and clear. Labels sounded dumb when put like that and I tried hard to remember why I’d wanted one. Actually, I distinctly remember saying I didn’t; it wasn’t anyone else’s business if I liked, wanted, or was repulsed by sex. But it was still important to me that people recognized my sexuality as a real thing and not a desperate grab for attention.
By freshman year of college, I knew something was different about me. I had a fairly serious crush on an upperclassman, but any discussion of potential intimacy with him, or anyone for that matter, made my insides churn. I wrote it off as nerves, but deep down I knew it was something more.
The first time I heard about asexuality was through a comic strip by Adri Tibbs on Tumblr. It started with a definition – “Asexual: One who does not experience or rarely experiences sexual attraction to any gender, or who otherwise has very little interest in sexual activity, if at all.” She explained how this differed from celibacy or abstinence, which are choices not to have sex, implying it’s still something you desire. As I scrolled down, reading the dispelled myths and misconceptions of the sexuality, I began to wonder if she was describing me.
As I continued questioning my sexuality, I tested the dating pool online. I’d warn them upfront: I wasn’t looking for sex and many said that wouldn’t be a problem. We’d keep talking and once I mentioned the fact I was still a virgin and had actually never been kissed, their behavior turned around. It seemed there was nothing more appealing than this concept of taking away my innocence. While I had a screen between me and the guys I talked to, other asexuals aren’t as fortunate, and their vocalization of their sexuality may lead to assault or rape – an extreme version of the common reaction, “You just haven’t found the right person.”
I didn’t dare come out to any of them. I barely knew how to define it for myself and I still considered myself somewhat of a freak since at the time I knew no one else like me.
I am, however, far from alone. Studies have shown that at least 1% of people are asexual, which in relation to the global population is far more than any newly identifying asexual expects, despite the small statistic. The findings are controversial, as many who are asexual don’t necessarily know what asexuality is; they might not even realize they don’t like sex or don’t experience the same pleasure others do from it.
“It is often more difficult to recognize the absence of something, sexual or otherwise, than it is to recognize the presence of something,” said Anthony F. Bogaert in his 2015 review article “Asexuality: What It Is and Why It Matters” in The Journal of Sex Research. This observation helps explain how someone could not realize they’re asexual. The media and societal standards make it so that an unidentified asexual is more likely to consider themselves isolated and “broken” than completely normal and asexual.
“In The Rocky Horror Picture Show, we had 20 minutes before rehearsal to do what is called self-exposures and self-constructions,” said Kyle Brassil, a senior cinema and photography major at Ithaca College. “An exposure is something that went on in your day that you want to share and a construction is saying something positive to someone else. I remember saying an exposure about realizing I’m asexual and saying this makes me feel good. I don’t feel broken anymore. This feels awesome.”
“I was in a healthy relationship that was serious and I was kind of realizing that I wasn’t feeling things I thought I should be feeling,” said Maddy (last name withheld), a senior integrated marketing communications major at Ithaca College. “At first I thought it was a lack of emotional connection with people. Then I did research about it and talked to people and kind of fell upon asexuality as an explanation of what I was feeling. Even though I’m not really open about it, it feels really good to know that it’s a thing.”
Since research and recognition of this identity are fairly new, definitions can be vague, but many have found this liberating and have molded the label to their own definition. And while they all include a lack of interest in sex (or at least indifference), the exact terms of the situation vary.
“Personally, and to people who know me really well, I identify as asexual and biromantic,” said Colleen Kremmelbein, a senior English education major at Ithaca College. “For me, that just means that I’m attracted to my own gender and every other gender, but not sexually.”
“I identify as asexual,” said Maddy, “and my definition is that I am human, with hormones, feelings, and nerves. But I just never have experienced the feeling of being sexually attracted to someone or feeling like I want to have sex because I want to have sex.”
While these two sound like they have parallel definitions on the surface, when you look closer, there are significant differences. Kremmelbein is sex-repulsed, whereas Maddy has absolutely no problem with having sex – it’s just not her first choice in activity.
“I could lie in bed and watch a movie or we could have sex,” said Maddy about spending time with potential partners. “To either one, I’m pretty indifferent, as long as I get to spend time with you. And if it’s something I can give to you, not as a gift, but as a way to be open and intimate and deepen our connection, of course, I’m going to do it.”
Being asexual doesn’t seem like something that could affect more than the bedroom, but with a lack of representation, the assumption is that no matter how you identify, you’re going to be sexually attracted to someone.
“I went to LGBT meetings and I found that a lot of the time that was more ostracizing than just interacting with regular people,” said Maddy. “There’s this reaction of ‘Wait, hold up, you don’t like it at all? We like it, just with different people, but you don’t like it at all?’ I’ve told my friends that I don’t go to these meetings because it’s [isolating] for me. They don’t see it because they’re a sex positive person. And I mean I’m fine with being sex positive, I’ll talk about it, I’ll do it, I’ll have fun, but I don’t want to sit in a room talking about the great sex you had last night.”
“I was in The Vagina Monologues,” said Cameron (last name withheld), a junior theater studies major at Ithaca College, “and I wasn’t connecting at all with the cast. There were two of us who were virgins and, in addition to that, I don’t even have any interest in sex.”
While the play is centered around having a vagina, at its heart, it’s truly about feminism. For their cast mates, this meant being loud and proud of their sexual experiences, which quickly turned into pressure to do things like masturbate or encouragement that Cameron and the other virgin shouldn’t worry – certainly one day they’d lose their virginity. These statements were said as if it weren’t possible to not want sex.
“All these characters were so sexually driven,” said Cameron. “and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I was like, ‘This is a lot.’ And there was so much pressure.”
This discomfort arises from the assumption that sex is a necessary part of the human experience and the fact that life without sex is so rarely depicted.
“There are so few genuine depictions of asexuality that I think people just have no idea about it,” said Wil Williams, an international student and scholars’ assistant at Northern Arizona University who personally identifies as bisexual and whose husband is asexual. “I was the same way, to be honest.”
“My initial reaction was a lot of different things,” she said, remembering when her husband had realized his identity. “It wasn’t my most noble moment, to be honest. Fear was predominant, but relief was also a factor. I’d been so ingrained with the idea that a sexual relationship was something integral to a romantic relationship, and I was glad I hadn’t just become unattractive to him.”
Since then, they’ve figured out ways to get around the presumed obstacle.
“[My husband] still gets worried sometimes that it’s a problem, or that I deserve ‘more,’” Williams said, “but the sexual aspect of the relationship is just so unimportant. Really, the adjustments I had to make were just getting physically used to the change and getting over this societal belief that sex is mandatory in a relationship.”
The social discomfort is minor in comparison to the biases and mistreatment of other identities and sexualities. For those of us whose only diversion from the heteronormative is our asexuality, we have the privilege of keeping our identities private or at least to the confines of the bedroom. And the relationship troubles are more than navigable. We understand that. But the label and our desired acceptance of it are not to demand rights or some higher form of recognition or accommodations. The label is for us. A reminder we are different, not broken.
Lisa Laffend is an Ithaca College alumna with a degree in integrated marketing communications and a minor in writing. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Buzzsaw Magazine, Cake: A Music Zine, Gambling the Aisle, 30 North, ZoetIC, and Thrice.