By Abby Ferguson
Sex is everywhere. Literally everywhere, or at least that’s how it feels. It’s the reason most of us are here; it’s a constant theme in films and music. Growing up it’s whispered about in high-school halls, boasted about in group-chats, romanticised, criticised and speculated about. It’s overwhelming – and within all of this we nervously explore our individual sexual identities. Which left me at a bit of a loss.
I realised that something was ‘different’ about me when I was about 14. At the time there wasn’t a particularly pressing need to address that, I could mimic the conversations being had by my peers, the majority of whom were probably as clueless as me. I went on for a long time thinking something was wrong with me, and would occasionally Google my ‘symptoms’ – why didn’t I want to have sex?
The Internet was really not my friend during this time. I unfortunately happened upon an anonymous question forum where a man had spoken about his wife’s lack of sexuality, apparently she apologetically declared herself a ‘dud’. They’d been together for a long time but he wondered if it was acceptable to ask for a divorce on these terms because clearly something was wrong with her. He hadn’t been able to ‘fix’ her like he’d hoped and now he was close to giving up entirely. Reading that really damaged my view on relationships, love and my own future, where
I needed hope and reassurance I found what felt like a blanket rejection. It took a long time to see that being myself and being in a happy relationship were not mutually exclusive things. I felt as apologetic as that woman did about who I was and how I felt, because, yes- sex is everywhere. In many ways that’s such a positive thing, and decreasing the taboo approach to it might have helped me feel less inhibited about talking through how I felt. But the images and rhetoric I saw and consumed surrounding sex at that point in time dangerously linked sex to a woman’s value. Despite identifying as a feminist I struggled to see my worth if I didn’t have the ability to offer sex.
I used circumstance to explain away the ‘problem’. I’d had a silly crush on a boy for years and told myself that the reason I didn’t feel a certain way about anyone else was because I could only see myself with him, which put my mind at rest.
When I was 16 I kissed him at a party and felt nothing, which sent me into a total tailspin. I finally stumbled upon the term ‘asexual’ and I was horrified that there might be an ‘un-fixable’ reason as to why I felt the way I did. I didn’t know anybody else that was asexual, so again I took to Google to find out if there were any asexual celebrities, just to feel a bit less alone. On a list of about 15, several were fictional characters, some were people who later came out as gay, and several more were historical figures, centuries passed, who had no recorded romantic partners. As soon as I learned what ‘asexual’ meant I knew that was what I was, I finally had an understanding of my sexual identity. And I hated it.
I couldn’t reconcile this label with my personality, I was outgoing, romantic, and to be perfectly honest, a terrible flirt. I had crushes on boys, I wanted them to find me attractive, I liked it when people were attracted to me, I wanted a big grand romance to happen at some point in my life, I liked being physically close to people, I wanted to fall in love one day, I wanted children. I knew who I was now but I couldn’t accept it. I couldn’t see past the fact that I was somehow damaged goods. It has never been in my nature to want something and just accept that I couldn’t have it – so I decided I would pretend.
Enter: alcohol. At possibly the worst time it could have been introduced to my life. I drank so I could be honest with my friends and tell them how I felt, but would immediately brush off what I had said the next day. I had a friend who (with all of the well-meaning in the world) was shocked at my plight and offered to send me a list of different vitamins and so on that I could take to help make me a more sexually minded person.
For years I was half-open about who I was and had some excruciatingly embarrassing conversations about asexuality, where I would recite the information I’d found online and then awkwardly try to frame it in the context of my own identity, which I was still learning more and more about. There would be the initial release of finally being honest, and open, followed by a question and answer session, where I’d try to water down what I’d said to make myself seem less alien.
No matter how polite people were, the look of genuine surprise and inability to understand always hurt. Some people were not polite – sometimes I got asked anatomical questions, deeply invasive questioning about how my body worked, some refused to believe me and others told me that they couldn’t ever be with someone like me. Increasingly, I’d find myself walking down the street and looking at everyone around me, feeling like I was, and always would be missing out on a universal, humanising thing, a sixth sense of sorts, and that lacking it was going to make my life very hard.
And yet, talking was the least of the problems that alcohol introduced. The drunker I got, the easier it was to ignore all of my instincts, to silence the voice in my head constantly asking what I was going to do, and in the worst way possible I began to ‘test’ myself. Two of the worst experiences of my life happened because, despite my sober rationalisation, I deeply hated who I was and I was determined to ‘change’ myself, or at least prove to myself that I could bear it enough to one day be of value to someone. I forced myself into situations that I now have to live with horrible memories of.
It’s so difficult to negotiate between the part of you that feels damaged and the part of you that has done the damage to yourself. I was victim and perpetrator of my own trauma and I couldn’t explain that to anyone. With every try, and every fail, I had more and more negative associations with sex, and punished myself for not being able to just go with it, truly believing that unless I did, I would cost myself love, a relationship. That I’d never be able to have a family in the future.
My experiences had felt so isolating. I knew that there was an asexual community, but asexuality is such a wonderfully broad spectrum that even if I were to finally meet or speak to another asexual person it felt so unlikely that even they were sure to understand where I was coming from. I was incredibly hesitant about actively participating in the LGBT community because from what I saw online there was a big debate about whether asexual people were supposed to be involved.
I think it’s very important to acknowledge the fact that on mass, asexual people do not face the same discrimination and prejudice that other members of the community do, simply for being who they are. As a cis-gendered hetero-romantic woman as well I didn’t want to invade a space that wasn’t mine to participate in. Despite this, I found that talking to my openly gay friends really helped me navigate my confusion and my relationship with sex, and my sexual identity, and those conversations often represent to me hugely valuable milestones in reaching the point that I’m at today. With reflection, I do believe that there is a place for asexual people in the LGBT community so long as those differences in experience are respected and understood.
So here’s the weird thing. I’m now in a sexually active relationship. What I’ve found out though, is that it’s actually not that weird. My boyfriend and I were very close friends for a long time before we’d started dating and fortunately for me that meant he’d been around while I talked, drunkenly cried and stumbled my way through finding out who I was. That eliminated the need to have the conversation I had been dreading for years. Also, I trusted him and for the first time ever genuinely didn’t feel any pressure to do anything I wasn’t comfortable with. I think at that point it hit me that it should always have been that way, and I realised how horrifying it is that more often than not, it isn’t.
My boyfriend doesn’t get all the credit though. The main reason that I finally felt able to explore my sexuality in a healthy way is because I had eventually taken that awful pressure off of myself. I took more responsibilities on in my life, I started to take my life seriously again, I reminded myself that I was strong and capable of doing something other than having sex with a man, or worrying about the fact I didn’t want to. The relief of actually liking myself again for the first time in 6 years was incredible. Then came the relationship, and all of the things that were brought with it. It’s not to say that it didn’t come with its own difficult conversations, but they were honest and supported.
So I had come on this journey and found myself in the position that I’m in, and despite how much happier I was I still felt a loss. I felt like the identity I had worked so hard to come to terms with, embrace and celebrate was suddenly erased, or no longer relevant. I somehow felt like a fraud, as if I had wasted the time of everyone who had supported me. Then, I realised how ridiculous that was. There are plenty of sexually active asexuals whose stories and experiences are valid, and I am one of them.
Asexuality, and everything I had learned about myself while exploring it has made me who I am today. If I could go back in time and show my younger self where I was today I would have celebrated, rather than shamed myself. New data now suggests that 4-5% of the population is asexual, as opposed to 1%. There are so many asexual people with specific and different identities who deserve to be celebrated and whose stories are not often enough heard.
I want things to be different. I want us to talk more openly about sex, about consent, about alleviating the pressure to be sexually active. I want us to celebrate people of all gender identities for reasons other than sex, I want more representation, I want people to listen and be more receptive to experiences other than their own. I am so happy and secure in my identity now but that shouldn’t have to come at the price of some of the experiences I have had. I hope that in the future, it won’t.
For more info on Asexuality head across to http://sexpression.org.uk/asexuality/