This weekend was the fantabulous Skeptech, a conference about skepticism and technology. As per usual I had a great time and am currently quite exhausted (despite the fact that like a good little introvert I went home before midnight most nights). I have lots of Thoughts spinning around in my head from the weekend, but for now I’m going to focus on one interaction in particular. In the Twitter feed I got into a discussion with Kate Donovan and Tetyana about asexuality and eating disorders in response to a panel regarding bias and science. Without really thinking, I mentioned that I was afraid my ED would turn out to be the real reason that I haven’t felt sexual in quite some time, and it grew into a conversation about why that would be a bad thing.
The topic was a bit too large for Twitter, so I’ve been pondering it a bit further and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a combination of fearing that I’m relying too heavily on my own privilege, and an internalization of many of the myths about sexual identity and the process of finding one’s sexual identity. I am tentatively taking on the label of “asexual” but I’m terrified that at some point in the future I will feel a wave of sexual attraction and it will turn out that I’ve been lying to everyone and that the real reasons I feel this way are medication, my eating disorder, and depression. Here’s why that seems so scary.
One of the things I worry about is taking the name and label of an oppressed group if I have not truly experienced the oppression that they live. It’s somewhat akin to a white person claiming that they’re racially oppressed. It’s an offensive concept at best, and at worst it muddies and obscures the real struggles that people of color experience, delegitimizing their words and stories and thus making it harder for them to make changes to improve their situation. While asexuality isn’t quite on the same spectrum, I am afraid that I will be claiming their oppression when I’ve existed in privilege. If I say that I’ve had those experiences, that I am oppressed in the same ways they are, but it turns out that I’m really allosexual, straight, cis, monogamous…how hard will it be for others to take the worries of the ace community seriously? I’m also afraid of calling on the resources that have been put together for asexual people because I’m worried I’ll be taking something from those who actually need it.
I believe that these are important fears to have, especially for someone who is as privileged as I am. It’s important to think about whether your future actions and identifications could have harmful repercussions for an oppressed group. I don’t want the ace community to be taken less seriously because I casually started identifying as ace and then nonchalantly went back to allosexual. Aces are already criticized for identifying as queer because they aren’t oppressed enough, because they are supposedly all white, cis, het girls who have privilege shooting out of their asses. I don’t want to contribute to this stereotype. These are important things to consider when thinking about whether to take on a certain identity or not. I don’t want to be the ace whose asexuality is actually a disease, the person that others can point to whenever someone else says “I am ace” as a way to remind them “but what if you’re really not”.
But there is a whole other level of worry that comes on a personal level which is fully wrapped up in the expectations that society has for a woman to be available constantly, for women to make perfect choices, and for sexuality to be a linear progression. If my “asexuality” were actually just a result of my eating disorder, I would actually just be a broken straight person, someone who wants to be able to have sex but isn’t interested because of trauma/disease/stupidity. It’s scary enough if I am asexual to look at the past 10 years of my dating life and think that I’ve spent all that time chasing after the wrong things. It’s even worse if I was just horribly broken and made choices that hurt myself because I am so disordered that I can’t find healthy relationships and wouldn’t even pursue something that would end up being good for me. It’s too cliche to be a girl with an eating disorder who can’t have sex because she’s too self-conscious.
There is a large part of me that is feeling imposter syndrome around this. It’s not necessarily that I think being ace is preferable to being allosexual, but rather that actually finding out who I am feels too good to be true. This can’t be right, I’m too screwed up, I’m too lost, I’m too confused to actually have found some small piece of identity that is truly me. I have spent so much of my life with no identity but my eating disorder that accepting something else as an integral part of me feels wrong in many ways. I suspect that others who are in the process of recovery feel this way when they start to find good things.
Partially it’s that I’m convinced I’ll never know who I am, partially it’s that if something is going to replace the eating disorder in any way it needs to be quite strong, and partially it’s a fear: what if I try to find something that’s really me and it turns out it’s just the eating disorder in disguise? What if every part of me is just my eating disorder in disguise? What if I can’t even trust something as basic as my sexual impulses? This is deeply tied to the mental illness. I’ve been told so many times that I can’t trust things like my hunger cues, or my desires, or the voices in my head. This one must be wrong too, especially if it’s something so out of the ordinary as asexuality. I think it can be really damaging to teach people as part of their recovery that they have to stop listening to things that feel perfectly real and important.
I’m also a rule follower, a big part of having an eating disorder. A perfectionist. Everything must be just so. I can’t make decisions until I explore every possible angle and even then I often can’t because there is no right or perfect answer. The idea that I might identify as something and then find out that it’s wrong is terrifying. I’ll have embarrassed myself, I’ll have gotten the WRONG ANSWER about something incredibly important. I won’t be doing things right, I’ll have screwed up. That would be the worst thing ever, even worse than that time in first grade I got time out that I still remember.
There’s also an element of internalized misunderstanding of how sexuality works. One of the things we’re taught is that you figure out what you are and then you be that thing. Usually you figure it out in high school or college: you “experiment” and then realize you’re gay/straight/bi/whatever. Then that’s your life. It’s fairly simple. You might make one mistake and date the wrong gender or try a poly relationship and realize it’s not for you, but then everything is figured out. This isn’t actually how sexuality works, in reality there’s some fluidity, there’s often a lot more confusion, you may think you’re one thing and then discover a new term or community that you think fits you. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying on different sexual identities to see which one feels the most like you.
But I’ve internalized that you figure it out and then that’s it, anything else is wrong or improper or a LIE. You might be repressing part of yourself if you ever end up changing. You’re probably misleading your loved ones. You’ve probably destroyed at least one relationship asking for something, setting boundaries when you really didn’t need to, trying to be something that you’re not: there was no reason to ask for space to try something new if you aren’t going to identify that way FOREVER, and doing so was really quite selfish. At the very least you’re just a really screwed up person who’s flip floppy and shallow and attention seeking because there isn’t any other reason to change. Obviously none of this is true. We all get to ask for whatever we need when we need it, but the implications for my relationships if it turns out I’m allosexual are confusing and frightening.
I think one of the things that makes recovery from an eating disorder so difficult is trying to suss out which parts of your life are you and which belonged to the eating disorder. For some reason coming to the wrong conclusions (even if you can change your mind later) feels like the end of the world. It seems as if more of your life has been stolen from you, as if you’re doing recovery wrong, as if you’re just too stupid to realize that your whole life was the eating disorder.
This is one of the reasons that I wish labels were both more common and less important. Reality is that people probably have some core identity but that they have some fluidity. For some reason taking on a label has reached a level of importance that people view it as All That Defines You. Particularly if you come out or have a few relationships in the mold of that label, you’re never ever allowed to change. If identity labels were more like career labels or relationships, something that’s important but that you can grow out of, it might be less scary to try some things on as you, then realize that you’ve grown into something else. That fluidity is hugely important in reducing the shame that people feel when they realize they might not be what they thought they were. I think we all deserve the space to learn.
Thanks for the post Olivia!
With regard to your point about “taking the name and label of an oppressed group if I have not truly experienced the oppression that they live”, there’s an important difference between the analogy you provided and asexuality. Being white visible feature that’s basically unchangeable (unless you are MJ, I guess), whereas sexuality is the label you tag on to yourself. That’s probably not the best way of saying it but basically, if someone (or an institution) is going to be oppressing people on the basis of their stated sexuality, then how can they tell if someone is just “making it up” (in the extreme case) or is being legitimate? Maybe this is a silly example, but if you are being harassed because you said you are gay, for instance, the harassers aren’t going to really care if you are 100% sure about it or 80% sure about it, or whatever. Do you know what I mean?
W/r/t: “how hard will it be for others to take the worries of the ace community seriously?” — I also get this fear, but you are NOT responsible for the whole community and how people react to the community as a whole. First of all, your intentions were never to hurt AND, in the time you identified with the ace community, you fought for social justice/recognition. Presumably you don’t think that EVERYONE in the ace community is faking it/has underlying physiological problems/disorders that explain their asexuality, in which case the SJ stuff you’ve done (even just talking to people about it), is helpful. If people think that the community/members of the community are not legit because you may, at some point, no longer identify as asexual, well, I mean, that’s speaks volumes about them in my opinion. I mean someone saying they have anorexia nervosa when they actually don’t (or when they think they do but don’t actually) doesn’t negate the legitimacy of AN.
w/r/t: “I’m also afraid of calling on the resources that have been put together for asexual people because I’m worried I’ll be taking something from those who actually need it.” — This sounds very much like the mentality that a lot of people have with eating disorders — that they are not really sick enough to warrant the resources that are available to them, that someone sicker (with the “real” problem) should have the resources. While that may be, technically, true, if you feel you need the resources/support, then you need the resources/support. Resources are put out there for people who feel they need them. That’s it. There might be someone who is “more” asexual than you just as there might be someone who is sicker in their ED, but that doesn’t negate that your access to those resources is legitimate and warranted. Certainly someone who is not asexual isn’t going to be taking those resources just because, you know what I mean? You are using them, presumably because you feel the need to and presumably because you have/may benefit from them.
I don’t want the ace community to be taken less seriously because I casually started identifying as ace and then nonchalantly went back to allosexual. Aces are already criticized for identifying as queer because they aren’t oppressed enough, because they are supposedly all white, cis, het girls who have privilege shooting out of their asses. I don’t want to contribute to this stereotype. These are important things to consider when thinking about whether to take on a certain identity or not. I don’t want to be the ace whose asexuality is actually a disease, the person that others can point to whenever someone else says “I am ace” as a way to remind them “but what if you’re really not.”
As someone who identified as gay (bisexual for few years, then lesbian for a while), and is now in a straight relationship (though I would still identify as lesbian, to be honest; my sexual preferences have not changed AT ALL despite being in a heterosexual relationship — I just found the right person who happened to be of the “wrong” (for me) gender, oh well!). I can relate to this fear/issue, albeit in a different way but still the same general theme: contributing to the stereotype (“it was just a phase”, and contributing to the idea that it is not real or something). But ultimately, while I absolutely understand the fear, I’d caution you against putting so much responsibility on yourself w/r/t the ace community.
I also had a few “scares” in high school of being straight. I thought, what if I just don’t trust men and if I stopped thinking that they were all rapists (I didn’t know much about feminist them or Andrea Dworkin, but I bet if I read her work then, I’d totally dig it/relate to it. I’m not sure as I have never really read anything lengthy by her), I’d find out that I’m not ACTUALLY gay, but straight? Like underneath the “baggage” I’m straight, it is just this extra shit that’s coloured my view and made me think I’m gay. That was a legit fear, esp. around grade 10 and 11. (I came out in grade 7.) I was so involved in GSA things at the time that the fear was particularly strong. (As it turns out, I just really think women are hot and that fear was unfounded, even AFTER I stopped thinking that all heterosexual sex is inherently oppressive; I knew logically that it wasn’t inherently oppressive, but I couldn’t shake off the idea that it was, or the fear that it was.)
“I think one of the things that makes recovery from an eating disorder so difficult is trying to suss out which parts of your life are you and which belonged to the eating disorder.”
I actually think the harder part is the fact that most things are a little bit of both. Your ED is not an external part of you that you can just pluck-out when you fully recover. You can’t really sort things into two neat piles, unfortunately. (I know, it would be great if we could, right.) I think realizing THAT is the harder part.
The latter part of your post seems that some of your fears might be stemming from the “classic” rigid thinking that’s common in patients with restrictive EDs. I have no idea where you are in recovery or if you are in therapy (and if it is even good, or whatever) but perhaps your fears regarding not really being asexual will go away, in part, with recovery? Probably not entirely, but perhaps that will help?
(I’m too lazy to edit this comment, so I apologize for mistakes.)
I am asexual, and most of my experience with the ace community is on tumblr for whatever that’s worth… but I, and the people whose opinions I care about, think that if you currently feel that the asexual identity or one of its related or sub-identities fits you, it’s fine to use that identity and label.
If your sexuality changes later for whatever reason, that’s okay; you can change your label and identity at any time. Just because you may feel differently later, that doesn’t invalidate how you feel right now.
I encourage you to explore more about asexuality, types of attraction, and other related topics. Even my allosexual roommate has found some writing by ace people both interesting and useful for understanding herself better (she identifies as bi/pan, but now feels that much of what she thought was sexual attraction to women is mostly sensual, for example).
There are various people I’ve seen asking things like “I’m only 14 and people say I’m too young to know but I think I’m asexual” and “I was abused as a kid and maybe this made me asexual? Does that mean I shouldn’t call myself ace?” and “Maybe I just think I’m ace because I’m depressed and on medication?” and all sorts of other things, and the good members of the community are welcoming, understanding, and accepting. Basically, questions like yours are not uncommon at all.
I’m mostly on hiatus from tumblrstuff but if you want to talk to me, a few times a day I check to make sure I don’t have asks or whatever. I can point you in the direction of some resources you might find interesting or useful, or just listen, or anything you think would be helpful.
Thanks for the support! I do want to clarify that I know a lot of these fears are unnecessary, and that I’m really not endangering the ace community by being uncertain. I just wanted to be honest about the interplay of my mental health and my sexuality.
I understand that, and I figured you were already aware of it — but it can still be reassuring to get some outside validation. At least for me, sometimes it works like ammunition to use against my jerkbrain when it starts telling me things that aren’t true.
[…] Got So Far to Go wrote about why she’s afraid of identifying as asexual. (Note: discussion of eating […]
[…] just read a great essay, I’m Afraid of Identifying as Asexual, by Olivia from the blog We Got So Far To Go. In it she discusses her asexuality and her eating disorder. This is rather relevant to my own […]
Great post, thanks for writing it! It got me thinking, so I wrote something of a response – it’s here if you want to check it out: http://deerthinks.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/everything-thats-me/
Thank you for writing this, I’m in a very similar position. I’ve had an eating disorder since I was a child, I have no clue what is me and what is caused by it. I tentatively identify as aro/ace, but I don’t know if thats real. I don’t know if its down to my anxiety or depression/ some other disorder, or if its all my eating disorder. Sometimes I think I’m just making excuses because I don’t want to be aro/ace. It really screws with your head, so thanks for letting me know I’m not alone in trying to figure this stuff out 🙂
Man you’re right it does feel way better to know someone else has the same feelings. I really hope you’re doing well with ED stuff. It’s definitely really confusing, but you’re not alone.
[…] the intersection of asexuality and eating disorders here: Sexuality as Selfhood and Body Hatred, I’m Afraid of Identifying as Asexual. And Beautiful Asexuality about body […]