There’s an article somewhere on anagnori that I now cannot find because I’m bad at searching through tags that posits that we use sexuality (and to a lesser extent romance) as shorthand for agency or humanity. Think about movies or books in which there is a character who is evil or repressed or very, very bad, and they begin to loosen up. The way we know that they have “become human” is when they have a relationship, when they fall in love. Whenever we see another species, or a robot, or anything foreign and we want to make it relatable, we stick it in a sexual relationship with a human being. We use romance and sexuality as a way to signify emotions. Very rarely are the first glimmers of humanity something other than a romantic relationship.
Another place that we see this is in how we talk about objectification. When you are objectifying someone, you have agency. By being sexual, you are the active participant. We see “gaze” (which is a very sexually loaded term) as being a subject, whereas if you aren’t gazing on something else, you are likely to be an object, a receiver of the gaze.
We also tend to view people who don’t have either romantic or sexual tendencies as less than in some way. We like to refer to sexuality as “a human impulse”, and in order to be a full and real human being, you probably have to have sexual desires (sarcasm). We point towards sexual experiences as universal, and view sexual activities as part of becoming an adult. For many people, sexuality is a big part of the way that they come to integrate their body into their sense of self. It allows them to feel empowered to use their bodies as an expression of their self.
So how do you come to have a healthy sense of self and agency, one that integrates your body, when you don’t have a sense of sexual attraction?
For many people (including myself) the answer is that you don’t. I have been uncomfortable with connecting my asexuality and my eating disorder in the past because having an eating disorder definitely does not make one a gold star ace. It is quite possible that having an eating disorder is part of why I don’t have an impulse towards sex, but I would actually like to posit the opposite: being asexual contributed to my eating disorder.
One of the main ways that people use eating disorders as coping mechanisms is to create identity and assert self in a world that seems out of control. Something that felt intensely out of control to me in my high school years was sexuality: I didn’t understand it. The first time someone kissed me all I felt was fear. I had crushes, but all I really wanted from my crushes was to be liked in return and to hang out, to feel special. When I finally started getting serious with a boyfriend, I was absolutely terrified of all contact and refused to initiate anything.
And yet all around me I was receiving messages that sexuality, sexual desire, and sexual attraction were important and inherent parts of being human. In order to be a subject of stories or movies or narratives, in order to be deep and real, in order to have agency, I needed to have that gaze that looked sexually on others. I needed that desire in order to be autonomous.
I could clearly feel that gaze on me from others. I felt clearly objectified by the people that I was involved with. But because I never felt like I could return their desire, like we were equals in the proposition of sexuality. I had no way to assert my identity, my selfhood, my autonomy, when it came to matters of sexuality.
It became very easy to hate my body as a sign of the ways in which I didn’t have any power because sexuality is a bodily experience. My body was the site of others forcing themselves on me, of my own lack of self, of the ways in which it seemed I didn’t deserve care or respect. Because I wasn’t feeling any sort of sexual attraction towards other people, it was nearly impossible for others to view me as a subject of desires. The further I moved into this space, the more I began to discount my wants and needs: they didn’t matter sexually, so why should they matter in any other context? Most particularly when it came to my body, it was easy to do this because I was already paying little attention to what my body wanted in other contexts.
Asexuality in a culture that is saturated with compulsory sexuality is a recipe for dissociating from your body, which in turn is a great way to trigger an eating disorder.
I don’t blame my eating disorder for my asexuality. It’s the other way around.