A couple months ago I agreed to be interviewed for a story on my experience as an asexual woman. The read-back I was promised never happened, and the story was published without my approval. It not only contained misleading statements, but had been written—sans consent—in first person. And one of the more egregious inaccuracies stuffed in my mouth was this:
“In many ways I’m just like your average young woman. I love putting on heels and a dress to go on a night out with friends.”
First off, this is a laughable misrepresentation of my lifestyle; my “nights with friends” generally involve art supplies or homemade pizza, with no special dress code required. But on top of that, the author apparently felt compelled to feminize the asexual chick with traditional trappings of Lady Flavor. She wanted to reassure the magazine’s audience that I’m Still A Girl. Because you know what they say about girls who don’t like guys. Our femininity immediately goes up for debate.
I’m an aromantic asexual woman, meaning I’m not sexually or romantically attracted to anyone. Gender-wise, I’m pretty girly. I don’t do many traditional WomanThings™, but I’ve never felt masculine or androgynous. And until or unless I mention my asexuality or aromanticism, I’m unquestioningly read as a woman. It’s interesting how quickly that falls apart when I discuss my sexual and romantic orientation. The folks whose minds are blown by some apparent contradiction tend to fall into one of two camps:
1. “You’re asexual/aromantic, so you can’t be a ‘real’ woman.”
2. “You’re obviously a ‘real’ woman, so you can’t be asexual/aromantic.”
Either way the invalidation falls, it suggests others are the gatekeepers of femininity, and that these arbiters understand my identity better than I do.
“Congratulations on being an unremarkable woman.”
I received the above comment from a man as part of a screed on why asexuality is a myth. The crux of this fellow’s “argument” (if it can be called that) was that ALL women are asexual. They only want romance, you see; they put up with sex to get it. Conversely, men only want sex, and they tolerate romance to get that. There is, in fact, no reason for a woman to label herself asexual. It’s part of the definition of womanhood: the ladies don’t want or need sex, but they necessarily need romance, and it doesn’t really matter as long as they put out.
In this dream world made up of his unfortunate projections, I suppose gay men have sex but never romance, and lesbians have romance but never sex (unless it’s in porn, for men’s entertainment), and sex toys and porn made with women in mind are figments of our imagination. And bisexual people, pansexual people, nonbinary people, asexual men, and probably transgender people are mythical creatures in Sex Is For Men Land.
Happily, the sexual revolution helped kill this poisonous narrative; people became free to celebrate sex—even women who were previously thought to have no sex drive—and everyone lived happily ever after. Huzzah!
Well, except that now some assume everyone who doesn’t celebrate sex or include it liberally in their lives is suffering from internalized oppression, sickness, or an abusive past, necessitating a constant stream of concern directed at those who don’t partake. This concern, of course, is 100% totally for our benefit; after all, why should they heed our explicit requests to stop “helping” us when they’re motivated entirely by kindness? They just want us to have what they have! They just want us to know the real meaning of life and how real love works! There’s no way we’re harmed by spending our formative years surrounded by people huddling solicitously about us, repeatedly expressing that our failure to go against our nature troubles them ever so much. Right?
Asexual people are just one group that’s hurt by the Sex = Yay mantra (along with racial, religious, and sexual minorities that are either fetishized or desexualized.) For asexual women, it means they’re erased; their orientation is framed as a side effect of living in a society that hates the female sex drive. Go on, girl! You like sex! You can admit it now! Great, eh? We’ve replaced a world in which a woman couldn’t be sexual with a world in which she must be.
Men who are asexual get to deal with the other side of this coin; with certain mainstream narratives in hypermasculine society pressuring men to define themselves through sexual success, the world can be a very cruel place for a guy who just doesn’t find people attractive. Not only can they be emasculated by these messages, but they are often assumed gay if they’re not seen chasing women—a nice symptom of asexual erasure—and if they actually are romantically but not sexually attracted to same-gender partners, they’re often told they’re suffering from internalized homophobia that won’t let them release their true sexual selves. And let’s not forget those asexual people between or outside the gender binary, who are regularly processed as being “confused about sex” due to their gender.
That said, asexual women make up a majority of the asexual population—in a 2011 survey of nearly 3,500 members of Internet-based asexuality communities, 64% identified as female—and regardless of whether that is because there simply are more asexual women or because non-women aren’t coming out/participating in communities/realizing they’re asexual as often, it does mean asexual women usually represent the public faces of the awareness movement. With the notable exception of David Jay (the founder of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network), women are more frequently featured in news pieces about asexuality, and they receive some pretty heinous treatment when put under the microscope.
While male asexual people are commonly assumed gay/closeted or processed as if they’re not even men, female asexual people get the usual main course of invalidation with an additional side helping of misogyny. If we’re not available for sex, then, hell, what are we for? Comments directed at asexual men often speculate about what might be wrong with them, but comments directed at asexual women consistently contain fury and violence and disappointment at the idea of a woman who isn’t performing her perceived duty on the planet: satisfying a guy.
“What a waste.”
As a lady-type, I’m used to having my self-worth reduced to my ability to interest a man. Women from most walks of life have encountered equations like this:
Unwanted sexual attention + “I have a husband/boyfriend” = Dude gives up.
Unwanted sexual attention + “I’m not interested/not attracted to men/not attracted to you” = Dude judges this unreasonable and keeps trying.
In other words, when a woman isn’t “taken” (by a guy), it doesn’t really matter what she says; she’s fair game. Dude will respect some absent dude’s claim on a woman, but he won’t respect her word. That woman is Not Being Used. That woman is Up For Grabs. Those are the rules. But what’s this? A single woman who doesn’t want to be partnered? That’s impossible.
People of all genders deal with unwanted attention, but women are especially likely to be regarded as resources rather than people. It is unfair, according to many a manbaby I have spoken to, that I’m selfishly hogging my goodies. Such a shame that only I get to be in my body.
“But you’re hot! I’d do you!”
As a woman who is never “taken,” I am frequently subjected to “buts.”
“But you’re single!”
“But you’re passably attractive!”
“But you get lots of offers!”
Indeed, how could I be asexual given all that? It just doesn’t compute . . . because women’s sexuality is widely regarded as being about other people. If all the conditions are satisfied—I’m not “taken” and people would “take” me—then there’s simply no excuse for me to avoid dating and having sex.
“But I don’t want to,” I say.
Isn’t that the most relevant question, after all? Whether I want to?
Nope. I don’t get to say no if I’m not saving it for the one I’ll say yes to. My but doesn’t count.
“Sexual attraction is not something that is said verbally. It’s a vibe—something you communicate to me unconsciously. Sex is an instinct, not a choice.”
The above horrifying quote was uttered by a fellow I met when I was nineteen years old. There I was in college, uninterested in the sexual experimentation and freedom the away-at-university experience often brings, fairly inexperienced in my “career” as an outspoken asexual woman. Back in high school, I’d never developed any sexual or romantic attraction to anyone, but despite that I did date a couple of people. Peer pressure and consistent “you don’t know until you try it!” messages made me think I needed to investigate before I was sure I didn’t care for it, but what I was really looking for was a magic switch to shut everyone up. I wanted to fill the quota; I wanted to experiment “enough” to make everyone else agree that I’d given it a fair try and could legitimately be believed now.
That never happened. It turns out that for asexual people, there is no threshold we can cross that’s “enough”; if we are not converted by sex, then surely we did it wrong, or with the wrong gender, or with the wrong person, or ruined the experience by expecting to hate it. We find ourselves trying to prove a negative—a scientific impossibility—and ultimately either cave to expectations or live in defiance of them, secure in the hard-won knowledge that we are qualified to describe our experience and we deserve our boundaries respected.
So, sometime in high school I began calling myself “nonsexual,” though I did fully expect to develop more typical attraction experiences later in my life. By age nineteen, I was still uninterested, and one night I found myself explaining to a young man I’d just met that I didn’t feel such things. He seemed to be listening. He took in the longish version of my story: Yes, I’d dated; no, I didn’t feel lonely without a partner; no, I didn’t feel sexual urges; no, this was not a decision (just a description!); yes, I found it insulting to be pursued, cajoled, harassed, and shamed into accepting sexual advances.
He paid attention. He nodded. He seemed to get it. Then we played some video games. And after the night was over, he asked to kiss me.
Reminding him of our conversation, I told him that wouldn’t be appropriate because I didn’t feel that way about him. After insisting that “the night is not complete without a good-night kiss” (what?), I told him his night would have to be incomplete. Finally he said he would settle for a kiss on the cheek, and I rolled my eyes and said “fine.”
Then he leaned over and began licking my face like a dog.
I screamed and ran away. He called after me, “I’M JUST TRYING TO HELP YOU!”
He then badgered me electronically for a good couple of months, trying to get me to date him, insisting that he could sense my hidden sexual attraction for him, sending me compliments, and occasionally insulting me or telling me I should come watch porn at his house. Why I didn’t block him earlier I have no idea. I guess there are a great many things I still hadn’t learned. But when he began to talk like a rapist—offering the quote above, among others like “I took psychology in high school and I believe you are in denial, so stop playing childish games”—I decided he was dangerous and elected to stop communicating with him. I never talked to him again, and to this day I consider the disrespectful pressure, online badgering, and Lickgate incident to be sexual harassment and minor sexual assault. And many years later, I talked to a reporter about it as part of a larger piece on asexuality.
Immediately the harassment began. One troll said I was hysterically trying to frame a simple kiss as rape. When called out, he further explained that I was a drama queen who’d made up the assault entirely to get attention. Oh yes. That old chestnut. Attention.
I can assure you that the kind of attention asexual people get for being asexual is rarely enviable. Over the years as I’ve waved figurative flags on the front lines of the asexuality awareness movement, I have received a handful of death threats and several dozen rape threats. Far more if you count the folks who simply call for me to be raped despite not being willing to “offer” their own services. For the record, it is many of their opinion that rape would fix me. Or at least if it didn’t, it would shut me up and punish me enough that I’d be scared into leaving the spotlight, freeing them to continue behaving as if asexual women don’t exist.
I’ve always found it a bit surprising that many of the worst harassers also pair their harassment with “shut up, nobody is hurting you.” I guess it looks that way to them, if both the asexual population and its members’ struggles are invisible to them until we start talking.
Society has very little besides shame and wrath for ladies like me who make themselves unavailable to men. Because popular conceptions of What Constitutes Feminine are determined by what makes us appealing to dudes, we’re punished if we live like our attractiveness to them is irrelevant. When I was younger I was consistently perceived as “saving myself” (for a man), but once I passed thirty, I was a spinster, a prude, an old maid, a cat lady.
Hey, wait, I don’t even have cats!
The terms applied to unpartnered men are generally benign or flattering: bachelor, stud, stag, player, maybe career-minded. But an “independent woman” is a caricature—widely mocked and used as a punchline, and if she’s career-minded, she’s also mannish, domineering, and unnatural. The same applies if she’s attracted to women: she’s assigned masculine qualities and her womanhood goes on trial.
But it’s not just independence or pursuing lady mates that results in one’s femininity being called into question. It’s not being partnered with a man.
Asexual and aromantic women are perceived as missing a key piece of female identity, and we’re expected to apologize for it. That’s why people suggest I’m less of a woman if I’m not with a man, and take great care to abuse me or treat me like a piece of false advertising instead of a person. That’s why that journalist stuck me in heels and a dress. And that’s why many asexual and/or aromantic women are shamed into hiding their identity—because they’ve internalized those messages and they’re terrified of losing their femininity.
We need more than a sexual revolution. Until women’s sexual agency includes acceptance of those who abstain, we’ll continue to see it celebrated only if it manifests along normative lines to serve dudekind.