Explaining Asexuality

So, in spending a lot of time with my family over the holidays and being out about everything (except my atheism), I found myself doing a fair bit of education about asexuality. It wasn’t even the first time I’ve tried to explain asexuality to some of my family members, but they just didn’t quite get it the first time around, or in some cases the second or third. Honestly, I don’t understand why some people have such a hard time understanding asexuality. I had a hard time understanding it at first because I wasn’t sure what sexual attraction was, having never experienced it, but surely it must be easier for people who do know what sexual attraction is to understand what the statement “does not experience sexual attraction” means?

This may have been a rather naive assumption. Sexual attraction, it seems, is rarely experienced by itself in isolation from other related feelings/states (e.g. libido, romantic attraction), and it is probably conceptually difficult to sort it out from all the other things it usually goes along with. So when you ask someone to consider that someone does not experience sexual attraction, they might assume that person has no libido because sexual attraction and libido are intertwined in their thinking. And low libido is something that is often considered a problem to be fixed (and sometimes it is), so the person assuming that low libido is the cause of a person’s lack of sexual attraction will assume that their asexuality is a problem to be fixed. This person will then tell the asexual in question things like “it might just be your depression” or “have you had your hormones checked?”.

The most frustrating thing I have been told after trying to explain asexuality (though it only happens with people who already know I am trans) is “it might change after you start hormones”. The thing is, I’m not really sure what effects hormone levels might or might not have on sexual orientation. In the case of testosterone, I can probably expect an increase in libido/sex drive, but that’s got nothing to do with my sexual orientation. How can I explain that I am (almost) certain that taking hormones will not affect my sexual orientation? Because some trans people do say they experienced a shift in their sexual orientation. Just because this shift may be experienced during HRT does not necessarily mean that it is caused by HRT, however (a common hypothesis I see is that it is not HRT, but living more truly as one’s self which causes a trans person to experience what seems to be a shift in sexual orientation).

I really feel like I’m treading on thin ice, talking about what might or might not cause a change in sexual orientation. I’m speculating. I really don’t know. I don’t have enough information to say anything terribly useful one way or another. I haven’t seen any scientific studies on the subject (and a quick google didn’t bring any up). I just know that I’ve seen some trans people saying that their sexual orientation shifted sometime during transition. I haven’t seen any ace trans people saying that, though, and, conceptually, a shift in which gender one is attracted to makes more sense to me that a shift in whether someone is sexually attracted at all. But even if starting HRT could make me not be ace anymore, the fact is that I am ace right now, and that is important to me, and I wish other people would understand. Saying “maybe it will change when you start hormones” feels like the worst kind of dismissal.

But other people don’t understand, and I still don’t quite understand why, and I wonder what I could do differently to help them actually understand this time around. I have tried more than one tactic in my efforts to explain asexuality. Sometimes I have focused on explaining why misconception are wrong, and other times I have tried to explain asexuality in more depth, focusing on a strong conceptual framework and spending less time debunking misconceptions (and then found that people still had misconceptions anyway). I think one of the things that actually got across this time, though, was explaining how asexuality causes me to see the world in a different way. I explained how I just don’t understand all this attraction business, having never experienced it myself, and I talked about the rather naive way that I used to view romance. I talked about how I have never been able to detect flirting (while noting that this is variable among asexuals in general) and how I never really understood why kissing is supposed to lead to sex. Later I was told that explaining these sorts of things had helped them understand asexuality better (whereas I had previously been told repeatedly that they still didn’t really understand). That was rather a high point of this whole educational effort.

One of the low points was when one of my family members tried to draw a parallel between asexuality and atheism in order to test whether they were understanding correctly. They certainly made it clear that they didn’t understand atheism, but how could I explain that properly without drawing some suspicion as to my location within the atheist closet? I wanted to debunk their misconceptions about atheism, too, but instead I just said that, no, that isn’t a good comparison, and brought the conversation back to asexuality. It caused quite a lot of inner turmoil to just let such blatant misconceptions sit like that, though. I hate being in any sort of closet…

I’m not sure where this post would end up going if I keep typing, but I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t have put something about intersectionality in the title. Explaining asexuality to allosexuals seems inexplicably difficult to me. It’s even harder when you also have to explain that your asexuality is not some side effect of a disability or of being trans or whatever else people try to say is the real cause. Apparently it’s easier for people to try to explain away your asexuality than to modify their conceptual framework of sexual orientation to include asexuality.

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3 thoughts on “Explaining Asexuality

  1. I think a lot of what makes people have trouble understanding asexuality is (unfortunately) a simple inability to empathize – sexual drives can be a pretty significant force in people’s lives, and it can be hard to imagine not having that, but easier to imagine maybe never having had a satisfying sexual experience, so I think that sometimes when people try to figure out what an asexual person means when they say they’re asexual is “doesn’t enjoy sex” (which may or may not be true, but certainly isn’t the central sort of meaning of asexuality, which is more about not having a drive for sex, I think?), and from there, they get pretty quickly to “hasn’t done it right yet” (which is a giant facepalm).

    But your observation about ” Sexual attraction, it seems, is rarely experienced by itself in isolation from other related feelings/states (e.g. libido, romantic attraction), and it is probably conceptually difficult to sort it out from all the other things it usually goes along with” definitely hits the nail on the fucking head.

    I very recently realized that I was, and come out about being, demisexual. I have a sex drive, but I can only feel sexual attraction to people with whom I have an emotional connection. This was super confusing for me, because I didn’t relaize that when I had crushes on new people that what I was feeling wasn’t the same as what “normal” people feel, in that it was devoid of sexual attraction. I don’t know how I didn’t realize that it wasn’t there, but it isn’t, and it’s clear to me now in retrospect that I’ve always experienced relationships in a very different way than most of the people around me. There’s an entire sexual layer to new relationships that I never parsed properly (or that I assumed I had, and was then confused when my body didn’t respond as expected to someone I was so totally sure I *must* be attracted to, because I had wibbly-wobbly crush-y feelings and gah! it was so confusing).

    So now I’m no longer quite as baffled by other people’s ability to hop into bed with new partners – I get that there’s a type of immediate sexual attraction that I totally don’t get. I just wish that sexual people were better at having that same kind of understanding, because it seems like it should be easier to to imagine *not* having a feeling you’re familiar with than to imagine having something you’ve never experienced. I dunno.

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  2. “But your observation about ‘Sexual attraction, it seems, is rarely experienced by itself in isolation from other related feelings/states (e.g. libido, romantic attraction), and it is probably conceptually difficult to sort it out from all the other things it usually goes along with’ definitely hits the nail on the fucking head.”

    It does? Sweet! I always feel like I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about when I try to talk about sexual attraction or the typical thought processes/feelings of people who experience it; it’s just such an alien concept to me.

    Your first paragraph makes a lot of sense for explaining another thought process that might lead to some of the common misconceptions about asexuality.

    I always had a lot of confusion about crushes, too, and I’m an aromantic ace (I think? aromantic spectrum anyway, and definitely ace–I really really don’t understand romance, though). I guess maybe I was confusing squishes with crushes? but only when I had one on a guy, because of being taught that heterosexual is the ‘right’ way to be. Plus, you know, everyone is supposed to fall in love *rolls eyes*

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  3. Oh goodness, the discovery of the concept of squishes was pure revelation for me – the problem I had been having was that I actually thought that if I had squishy feelings about a person that automatically and *by definition* meant that I as sexually attracted to them. And I could *not* understand that I wasn’t. In retrospect, that was me being extremely dumb, but it’s easy for things to seem dumb in retrospect. I’m just glad I finally figured it out, since I kept sending so many mixed signals and confusing people I dated as much as I confused myself 😦

    And, just ugh to the “everyone is supposed t fall in love” narrative. The idea that love is that one thing you need to be a fulfilled and complete (especially if you’re a woman!) is incredibly damaging even to romantically inclined people, and fucks with genuine life priorities all the goddamn time. SIngle people are not broken, and they’re often living more full and less restricted lives due to their singleness. Bah!

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