Negative Space: On Asexuality and Atheism -The Toast

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I don’t usually think of all the things I’m not. There is at least one universe full of things that I am not, so listing them all would seriously cut into my leisure time. Beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to it. Identity is supposed to be what you are—something inside of you that, if it cannot be seen, can be felt. A presence. In visual composition, we talk about positive and negative space. Positive space is where a shape or image is. Negative space is where it is not.

I am not a desk chair. I am not a ball of twine. I am not Alerce Milenario, the largest living cypress tree. I am not seaweed. I am not barbed wire. I am not a Sandhill crane. I am not a subterranean lake. I am not an out-of-date textbook on computer science.

I am not a believer. I am not sexual.

Growing up is just a cumulative series of realizations that don’t stop until your brain does. I realized I was an atheist when I was fourteen. I realized I was asexual when I was nineteen. And I only started to realize the connections between the two when I was 28.

I am not a math person.

Words are important to me. My M.A. is in Literature and Rhetoric, and I have seven years experience as a writing tutor. I took Latin in high school, which I saw mostly as a loophole to put more skill points into English. When I want to understand something, my first approach is to look at the words themselves.

Antonyms are words that pair up to represent opposite meanings. “Hot” and “Cold” are gradable antonyms—they exist on opposite ends of a spectrum; “Hot” and “Not,” though, are complementary antonyms—something is either one or the other. I see “sexual” and “asexual” as gradable antonyms; there is a range of experience from “I never feel sexual attraction” through “I sometimes feel sexual attraction” to “I constantly feel sexual attraction, and it is beginning to affect my productivity.” In contrast, I see “theism” and “atheism” as complementary antonyms: you either feel a higher power in your life or you don’t.

I am not a picky eater. I am not a particularly good violinist.

Our language is full of antonyms, but only some depend on the helpful prefix “a-,” which means “without” or “not.” Interestingly, it seems to be reserved to label things that are not just opposite, but are against the normal order of things. The atypical.

“Theism” and “sexuality” are standard. We understand what these concepts entail—their qualities and values and expression within our culture. They are so standard that when it comes to identifying their opposites, their antonyms, we resort to our prefix “a-.”

“What is that?” “I dunno. It’s not this.” An etymological shrug.

I am not comfortable around small children. I am not usually aware of how loud my laugh is.

Positive space is what we are trained to see. Seeing the negative space, the places where the shape isn’t, requires a shift in perspective. It’s not always an easy shift.

I am not a risk-taker. I am not good with conflict.  

The larger the deviation of your experience from the norm, the greater the surprise and the stronger the reaction from other people. Faith and sex are fairly universal human experiences, and there is such a wide variety of belief systems and sexualities to identify as that most people are surprised when I answer “none of the above.”

Then again, I once left a friend speechless when I told him that I had never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so you never know what norms people value the most.

I am not waiting. I am not confused. I am not lying.

Sometimes people simply express acceptance or indifference and move on with their lives. Sometimes. Religion and Sexuality are capital-letter topics, and most people have opinions. These are the four I hear most, in order of progressing belligerence:

“Don’t worry, something will change and you will feel differently in the future! You just need to give it time. You may be atheist and asexual now, but one day you’ll find your road to Damascus and meet some hot Gamaliel or Dorcas, and then won’t things be better? Never say never!”

“There are no atheists in fox holes. There are no asexuals in whatever the sexual equivalent is of fox holes.”

“Well, you should be trying harder. When was the last time you went to church? How many dates have you been on? Have you tried praying? Have you tried putting yourself out more?”

“You’re lying to yourself. How could you look at that sunrise and not believe in God’s grace? How could you look at Chris Evans/Hemsworth/Pratt and not want to sweetly bone them?”

I can, and have, addressed or deflected these questions. But they are difficult to dismiss because they feed directly into my own inner doubts.

I am not certain.

I define a large part of myself by what I don’t feel. I have never felt the presence of a higher power, so I call myself an atheist. I have never felt sexual attraction, so I call myself asexual. But the absence of feeling is hard to hang one’s hat on. Negative space does not have the same solidity as positive space. You have to keep tracing its edge, prodding like a tongue at a sore tooth.

Do I really not feel this, or is this just the way it’s supposed to feel? I will say that if I have been experiencing either God’s love or sexual attraction this whole time, I have no idea why you guys write so many songs about it.

What if tomorrow I wake up and I do feel something? How do I define myself then? Honestly, a girl starts to question her own perceptions, and when you’re living in a subjective reality, what else do you have?

I am not represented.

As if that weren’t enough, I am surrounded by messages that not only should I feel these things, if I don’t feel them, I am empty and broken and missing out on the best parts of life. Faith and sex are each considered prerequisites for experiencing the two of the highest forms of love. To fully experience spiritual love between creator and created, you must have faith. To fully experience romantic love between two people, you must have sex.

Depictions of spiritual love are typically confined to religious media, and except for the occasional vague Facebook post from relatives, these are relatively simple to avoid. However, there is no escaping the deluge of sex, romance, and the conflation between the two.

Being asexual is not the same as being aromantic (our prefix again!). There are certainly people who are both, but I do feel the desire to hold hands with someone, to watch movies and share inside jokes and file taxes jointly and all the other things romantic partners do when they’re not exchanging fluids.

Everything I have ever read, seen, or heard reinforces the idea that if I want to build a life with someone, we need physical attraction to make it work. People don’t consummate their marriages with a firm handshake or a high-five.

So I understand love the way I understand synesthesia. I’ve read about it, and talked to people who have experienced it, and I can observe its effects. But at the end of the day, it’s like the whole world can taste music and I’m just listening with my ears like a chump.

In the sleepless 3:00 a.m. of the soul, I wonder if I am capable of feeling love at all.

I am not sorry for myself.

There will always be a tension between what I think I should feel and what I don’t, but love is more than a feeling. Love is a choice. If I don’t feel love the way I think other people do, then I am free to decide for myself what love means. I am free to make my life what I want it to be.

I am not special. I am not alone.

My experience is simply one variation on the theme of Human Existence. I thought that by defining myself in opposition to the norm, I was separating myself from other people. Identity is a deeply personal experience–so personal that we forget that seven billion other people are going through the same process that we are.

I looked at people who could feel the things I couldn’t and think “at least they’re sure.” Bollocks. People doubt their feelings all the time–feelings are no more solid or reliable than their absence. People are infinitely variable in their details, but we all struggle to make sense of ourselves and our world.


I am not anyone else.

For me, atheism and asexuality are tied together by more than their shared prefix. I came to both of my initial realizations at critical points in my life where I was searching for an identity. In the years since, I have come to understand and accept the parts of myself that are marked by what is missing.

Negative space and positive space are simply two ways to look at the same image. Once you’re used to looking for it, you can’t help but see the negative space. The image remains the same, but now you have a better understanding of the whole than you did before.

Just because something is missing does not mean there is nothing there.

Anne Marquette is a level 28 Lawful-Good Academic. She is one half of Hubward Ho!, a 41-book Discworld project on the Internet.

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