Like many young adults, I’ve been having some identity crises lately. In particular, I’ve started spending some real time with my wants and needs in terms of relationships: am I as monogamous as I thought I was? Am I really interested in a sexual relationship? Where do I want to prioritize my time and affection? As part of this, I’ve spent a lot of time reading blogs and articles about asexuality, trying to understand what it means that I’m perfectly happy without sex in my life and that I can feel intensely close to someone with no desire for sex.
As I’ve started to feel more and more of an affinity with the label “asexual” I’ve also found my anxiety rising and found myself unwilling to share that with many people who are close to me. The reason for this is that I’m not what one might call a “gold star” asexual. I have some sexual trauma in my past, I have a stormy relationship with my body at best, I have mental health problems, I have depression (which lowers sex drive) and I take medications which affect my sex drive. When I bring up the concept of asexuality, the first reaction on the part of many is skepticism that I could “really” be asexual because the reasons that I don’t have a strong sex drive may be the things I just listed. It can’t really be me if it came from the experiences that affect me or from medication rather than from some innate place.
I don’t think this kind of skepticism is relegated to asexuality alone. If a lesbian has had a bad relationship with a man in the past, many people will say she’s “only” lesbian for that reason. This is the whole reason that the concept of “born this way” has gained such traction: you can’t tell us that our identities are not our own if we’ve always been this way, if it’s innate, if it was not influenced by any of our life experiences. If you haven’t “always known”, then you must not truly be what you say you are.
Unfortunately this whole concept makes very little sense. We understand that other facets of our identity can change over time: who we love, our priorities, the job we want, the house we want, where we want to live, our nationality, our religion, our values, our politics. We also understand that for all of these things our environment and our genetics play a role. Yet for all that we don’t say that these identities are invalid because they can change. If someone was raised Christian and saw their Christianity as an extremely important part of their identity, no one would say that it wasn’t really them because they weren’t born that way. We would accept that someone’s background deeply affects our feelings and actions about the whole world.
From my personal experience and looking at the experiences of others, I deeply wish that we could take this same attitude towards sexuality. Throughout my history there have been a number of extremely negative experiences around sex and around my body. It makes perfect sense to me that going forward I would want to avoid those. Let’s take a less loaded example: say for example that for a long time I thought I wanted to ride horses, then had a bad experience such as getting kicked or falling and getting injured. No one would consider it weird or inappropriate if I didn’t really want to ride horses anymore, or lost any pull or desire towards horseback riding. Why is it considered inappropriate to feel averse to sex? Why is that invalid?
I think for many people, this is a problem because sex is considered an inherent, biological part of being human. Most people don’t see how their surroundings shape their sexuality because their bodies react to certain things naturally. Since they see their sex drive as occurring naturally, they assume that everyone else’s must function the same way, so if you don’t act on whatever feelings you naturally have you must be repressed. If your feelings change or are impacted in some way, then repression must have played a role at some point.
For asexuality in particular people find it hard to comprehend because it is considered natural to have a drive for sex, therefore there must be no way for someone to go without sex unless they’re repressing urges and hurting themselves in some way. I see a strong parallel to the way people view asexuality and the way people view eating disorders: you’re doing something against your very nature. The problem with that parallel is that not having a desire for food will actively hurt you. The same cannot be said of having no desire for sex. People have all sorts of different drives to different degrees (e.g. aggression, sexuality, competition, achievement), and there is no guarantee that everyone will have a specific drive that someone else views as essentially human.
What people fail to understand about changing, fluid identities is that we all build our identities out of the experiences that we have. All of us make some choices, whether conscious or unconscious, about how to think of ourselves, what makes us happy, and what is fulfilling to us. And for each of us, these things come out of the lives we’ve lived. It is entirely possible to create a happy and fulfilled life out of an identity that has grown up slowly. It’s also possible to adjust the way we cope with the world, what we want, what makes us fulfilled, based on the experiences we’ve had. In the aforementioned horseback riding example, that same person could go on to have an incredibly fulfilling life, still have a close relationship with animals and with nature, and not feel as if they’re missing out on anything.
Many people like to talk about their identity as if “It’s just who I am”. To me this seems to be a way to miss out on a lot of wonderful experiences and to be caught thinking that you can’t grow or change. There are times that I look back at things that have made me extremely happy in the past and I deeply miss those feelings, but I know that it wouldn’t be the same if I moved back. Of course nostalgia can play a role in our identities, but I want to be able to accept that my feelings right now are valid. If something is not causing me pain, why does it matter what caused it? It’s still a real and true feeling that I am experiencing. We really only have our subjective experiences out of which to create a sense of self. Undermining those subjective experiences because the cause isn’t “good enough” is a pretty insidious form of gaslighting and leaving someone feeling adrift.
So right now at this moment I feel like I am asexual. And for me that’s good enough. I don’t need to prove to anyone that it’s not “caused” by something. I don’t need to prove that it isn’t born out of some trauma. I don’t need to prove that it couldn’t change. Because this is my honest feeling and it is not a feeling that is leaving me feel as if I’m losing out on something or some part of myself. There is nothing broken about an identity that has grown because of hardship.