Ace is the loneliest number

So it’s Asexual Awareness Week this week – which means it’s probably fitting that I spend a bit of time musing on the whole ace thing. I fly the queer flag loudly and proudly, as I’m sure you know by now, and I claim a good few letters from the ol’ LGBTQIA+ alphabet soup in describing my own identity. Sure, I spend a lot of time speaking about trans issues- because it often feels like that T is the trump card, in a way. Once you’ve come out as trans… well, that’s where a lot of people just fixate, and any other kind of queer that you happen to be just gets thrown by the wayside.

Let them eat cake

    Let them eat cake

When I’m not being a professional trans person, though, it’s really some of those other letters that play a much more prominent role in my day-to-day, actually. Being trans is a complicated business – for me not least because I chose to transition medically, socially, and bureaucratically. But for all of those struggles and adversities, and for all of the visibility I create around trans issues… well, once the documents are all taken care of, and the hormone levels are stabilised, it all becomes not-so-much-of-a-big-deal actually. And I recognise, of course, that just in being able to say that, there’s a whole lot of privilege involved – I’m well aware of that.

But the point remains – in the course of my life, if I have to rank them in order of import, I’d say that “queer” is the label that most significantly contributes to defining who I am. Second place goes to “L”for “lesbian”, and third place to “asexual”. I still meet with a fair degree of surprise whenever I say anything about my sexuality – almost as if there’s an assumption that I’m (or maybe that all trans people are?) straight. So the word “lesbian” tends to raise a few eyebrows. Say the word “asexual” though, and it’s just glassy-eyed stares all around. The non-verbal equivalent of a slack-jawed, “What even is that?!”

Asexuals get a bit of a raw deal, to be honest. It’s a concept that most allosexual (people who are not asexual) folks struggle to understand. Or, in a lot of cases, don’t even bother to try to understand. Even within the queer community (and to be clear, not all asexuals will identify as queer), we can feel very othered. Oftentimes, our place in the acronym is even given over to “allies”, further serving to invisibilise and marginalise us.

I’ve always struggled to understand why, but somehow asexuality is regarded by a lot of people as savage, barbaric, or animalistic. Or, if nothing else, it’s seen as unnatural; a sort of pathology. I find it ironic, because we literally aren’t doing anything – but somehow, that’s seen as a threat.

I’ve spoken before about what asexuality is, and I’m going to try not to rehash too much of that. Instead, what I will talk about are my experiences, and the process that I’ve been through in trying to unravel how my own sexuality works. And the disclaimer, as always, applies – this is true of me, but not necessarily of anyone else.

One of the most difficult challenges I encountered in trying to understand myself was recognising my gender dysphoria and trying to separate it – and its consequences – out from the rest of my identity and experiences. And it really was a challenge, because for so many years of my life, my experience can be summed up by saying, “I knew I was different – I just didn’t really understand how or why”.

In my adolescence and young adulthood, this really manifested as an “I’m different from other guys” phenomenon. In retrospect, it all makes sense – I never was one of the guys at all, so of course I was different to them! But at the time, it was all just a mishmash of different things – the amount of space I took up, the way I interacted with the world, my sexual responses, my behaviour and mannerisms, the way I related to women and my simultaneous inability to relate to men. I conflated them all under a single umbrella of “difference”. And instead of unpacking them, I kind of just figured out (as best I could) how to compensate and blend in (not always successfully, mind you).

If I look back, I’m sure that there were people in my life who expected me to be gay. I mean, the thought occurred to me, of course – but I’d never experienced any kind of attraction to men or male-identified people (something that holds true to this day. Even Luke Cage – I mean, I can appreciate the aesthetics, but it doesn’t push any buttons!)

The irony, of course, is that I was gay – am gay. But a gay woman. That was the missing piece to make sense of it all.

In retrospect, there have been points in my life where my libido has fluctuated. And certainly, I’ve noticed some changes there as I’ve broken free of the awful influence of testosterone. Of course, my libido was never especially rampant. But recognising it for what it is, and being cognisant of the influence that hormonal balance has on such, I’m better equipped to differentiate between libido and attraction.

Attraction has always been a rarity for me. Rare as in it’s something that happens once in the span of years, if at all. On the few occasions that I have felt it, it’s always (without exception) been directed towards other women – which is pretty much how I know I’m a lesbian. Now, don’t get me wrong – I can look at a girl and think she’s cute, pretty, beautiful etc. I can admire her wit or her intellect or her strength of character, or any combination of the above. But actual, physical attraction? You know, that feeling you get in your gut, that magnetism, that pull? Almost never.

In fact, just a few months ago, at the beginning of this year, I was starting to question if I’d ever felt attraction at all. I’d been in relationships before. I’d had sex. On occasion, I might even have felt desire – but I was actually uncertain if there’d ever really been any attraction, or if I’d just been going along for the ride.

Now let me pause for a brief disclaimer. A lot of asexual people, even in the absence of attraction, may have desire. They may engage in sex, and they might even enjoy it. Their reasons can vary – but the point is, some of us can and will have sexual relationships, even if the attraction isn’t there.

As for me, at that point, I really didn’t know. So much had changed in my life, and a lot of it had changed quite recently. At that stage, the last relationship I’d been in had lasted far too long, and ended far too messily for me to accurately piece together those sort of details. But I was questioning, quite seriously, if I was capable of feeling attraction at all.

You see, asexuality isn’t a binary thing (I mean, what ever really is, right?) It’s not absolute – think of it more as a spectrum. What ties us all together is that we don’t experience attraction the way allosexual folks do. Some of us experience no sexual attraction whatsoever. Some of us experience sexual attraction, but only under certain circumstances. Some of us experience it sometimes, but not always. There’s a whole range of identities that exist on the “asexual spectrum”.

At that stage, I was trying to figure out whether I was just totally ace, or whether I was demisexual.

I got the answer soon after, when I fell for someone hook, line and sinker. Like all the way – emotionally, physically, intellectually. And I felt attraction, and it was unmistakeable.

So there it was – still definitely asexual, because attraction was a rarity. But it could happen – which pretty much meant that “demisexual” was the label that fit me best.

Now, it’s great to have a label that fits, because it goes a long way towards normalising these experiences that can start to feel very out-of-place in a world that seems to take some baseline capability of sexual attraction for granted. I mean, just think about the way we market things like jeans, fragrances, even motorcars. Think about the conversations we have with our friends. Think about Tinder. So much of the world is crafted and designed around an assumption of allosexuality.

And then there’s us. Us who don’t feel it, who just don’t experience this magical feeling of attraction that everyone else takes for granted.

So there’s a word, and it fits. But I still feel a little broken inside, because so much of the time, there’s just numbness in that space where I imagine most allosexual people have attraction. Don’t get me wrong – I love meeting new people, and I love making new friends, and I love that I can have emotional connections in the absence of anything physical or sexual in nature.

butwait / Pixabay

But on the flipside… well, just imagine what dating is like. Searching for that spark, that flash of lightning, those butterflies in the stomach… knowing that you’re capable of experiencing it, but that it’s such a rarity. And what’s the implication if it isn’t there? Does it mean my heart isn’t in it? Does it mean there’s no potential? Am I guilty of leading someone on if I pursue a relationship with them, hoping that those feelings develop and acknowledging that perhaps they never will?

What does it all mean, and how important is attraction anyway?

The truth is, I don’t know. Because for all those handful of times I’ve ever felt it, all it’s ever done is get me in trouble.

My track record isn’t great when it comes to romance and attraction. It’s always someone who’s incompatible. Either because they’re a cheater, or they’re poly, or there’s some religious barrier, or they’re straight. You get the picture. On my most recent attempt, it was someone who was self-loathing, consumed with internalised transphobia, and a liar, thief and coward to boot. And it left me pretty broken and scarred. Come to think of it, there was a good degree of ace-phobia there too; one line I remember with clarity was “asexuals shouldn’t be allowed to date the rest of us”, in fact.

There’s this inclination to amplify the signals we receive, especially if we receive them scarcely. To think that there’s some significance to attraction, that it means something in terms beyond the physical or the chemical. It’s a hard notion to shake; I mean, after all, if I am capable of feeling attraction, can I ever be in the right relationship if that attraction isn’t present?

Again, I don’t have the answer. I do know that it gets pretty exhausting trying to chase that feeling. And I do know that explaining asexuality – or more specifically, in my case, demisexuality – can also get pretty exhausting. And that once you do, people look at you differently. It’s hard not to feel broken when everyone around you just assumes that you are. And when everyone around you is capable of feeling things that just aren’t there for you.

It’s not that I’m picky, or fussy. I mean, I am – I have high standards in a prospective partner, just like I have high standards to which I hold myself – but that isn’t responsible for attraction or lack thereof. It’s not an imaginary checklist against which I rank people to see if they’re acceptable. It’s not about standards of physical beauty, or intellect, or personality even. There’s no better way to articulate it than to say that it’s something that just isn’t thereNo matter how much I want it to be, it just isn’t – it’s like it’s missing. Absent. It’s like a coin-toss, except one that isn’t 50:50; it’s closer to 999:1 against.

la-fontaine / Pixabay

And there’s nothing I can do about it, but I still pay the price. Because that anti-ace sentiment is strong. As if dating wasn’t already hard enough, just being trans and lesbian (yeah, that already knocks out about five quarters of the total dating pool. And no, I didn’t get my fractions wrong), being ace is another immense barrier-to-entry. I’m still not sure if I really understand how to explain it all to a potential partner. And of course, if I am ever in that situation again, I’ll be scared of the outcome or consequences.

It’s hard not to feel guilty. And it’s hard not to feel broken.

And I suppose that’s why it’s so important to have an “Asexual Awareness Week”. To try get people to understand that there isn’t actually anything wrong with us. To remind us of the same thing. And for us to know that we’re not alone. Because asexuality can be a pretty terrifying – and lonely – space to try to navigate and make sense of, at least in my own experience. For all the wrestling I’ve done with it, I’m still trying to get a handle on it. And, at the same time, I’m often in a position where I have to explain it to others.

But ultimately, as with every other facet of my sexuality and gender identity, two things remain true. Firstly, that it isn’t a choice – it’s part of who I am, and I can do nothing to change it, even if I desired to. And secondly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it – the way I experience attraction is different to the way most people do. But different is not synonymous with lesser. Different doesn’t have to be bad, or wrong, or defective. More difficult to understand? Sure. Both by myself, and by others. But still, just different.

If I weren’t trying to cut down on the carbs, I’m pretty sure that by now I’d have earned myself some cake.


For more on Asexuality Awareness Week, check out the official website. More resources are available at AVEN.

And finally, my blog will be moving to a fortnightly update schedule – you can look forward to new posts every second Tuesday going forward.

3 thoughts on “Ace is the loneliest number

  • I’m not so sure if everything needs to be labelled. I would understand a name for people that really, absolutely don’t want to have sex and then some understanding can come from that. The rest are just variants. We don’t need to be a variant of asexuality. I really don’t want to add yet another label to myself! Especially since people these days (not you) seem to be so damn keen on labelling me as what they think I am. Or maybe what they want me to be to make them feel comfortable.

    • So the distinction I always draw when it comes to labels is whose label is it?
      If it’s a label that is applied to us without our consent (like you mention has happened to you), then it’s a violation. And as you suggest, people often do it because it makes them more comfortable.
      But if it’s a label that we choose and apply to ourselves, then it can become very empowering – it can connect us to people with similar experiences, it can give us a sense of validation (which, yes, in an ideal world we shouldn’t need from outside sources – but the world is not ideal), it can help us make sense of things that we don’t always know how to parse.

      Specifically with regards to asexuality… the differences between asexual people (wherever they are on that spectrum) and allosexual people can be quite significant. And interpreting those differences can be a difficult thing to do, especially in a way that’s healthy and doesn’t result in blaming ourselves. For me individually (and this is a sentiment that I’ve heard many other ace people express), finding a word or label that fit came as a relief – like a load off my shoulders. It helped me understand why I am the way I am, whereas before I’d perpetually struggled with that.

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