I’m kind of a complicated girl, and I have a lot of different facets to my identity. I’m binary trans. I’m lesbian/super-super-gay. I’m queer. I’m “assigned Jewish at birth”. And I’m also asexual. At least to a degree. So, I take up a few letters in the LGBTQIA+ acronym. Eventually, I might just go do a panel of expensive and unnecessary tests to find out my sex, but I haven’t gone down that road yet for a variety of reasons.
Out of all of those letters, it often feels like the T is the “biggest”. And in some ways, it is. I make the joke that, in terms of my career, I’m a “professional trans person”. It’s only a half-joke, really, because there’s a lot of truth to that. But the fact is, that when I’m not out being an activist, or running the blog, or putting out a book, or doing workshops on trans issues… well, it’s actually not always that big a deal.
Like if I go down to the shopping mall right now, provided that no-one recognises me, being trans is a non-issue. And that’s true of a lot of spheres in my life. Sure, there are times when it becomes very relevant – if I need to produce an ID document, or go see a doctor, among other examples. But in the course of regular day-to-day life, those times are the exception and not the rule.
And, as time continues to pass since I transitioned, it takes up less and less “background brain space” – which is a good thing, I think. Because being trans is tiring, but thinking about being trans all the time is even more so.
And, I find that people even kinda understand the trans thing when it does come up – at least on some level. They often have a whole bunch of misconceptions, and usually some inappropriate questions too, but it’s a concept that has the potential, at least, to make sense.
Or at least it feels that way compared to, say, asexuality.
I mean, I’m asexual, and I don’t even understand it completely. So I get that it’s a difficult concept.
Except for that, if you break it down, really it isn’t.
All it means is that, as someone who is asexual, I don’t experience sexual attraction to other people.
It’s really not that difficult a concept, except for that very few of us know what sexual attraction is, or what separates it from a bunch of other concepts that we just kinda think are all part of the same thing.
It’s frustrating, because the lack of understanding can be a serious problem. It’s another thing that I have to be apologetic for, or potentially feel inadequate about. I need to state it up front so that I’m not accused of misleading anyone, or misrepresenting myself.
And not just that, but before I properly understood it, it made me feel very different… or even broken.
So this is how I managed to figure the concepts out – maybe the same will work for you?
Not every two aces are alike
(In case you were wondering, “ace” is shorthand for an “asexual person”). But this is an important point. Asexuality is best thought of as a spectrum – on one end, you have complete absence of sexual attraction, and on the other end, you have sexual attraction that is conditional or perhaps sporadic.
I’m what is usually called “Gray A”, or “graysexual”. It’s a vague term that means I’m largely asexual, but I do sometimes experience attraction. More specifically, I’m demisexual. It means that, in the context of a really strong emotional bond, I might find someone sexually attractive. Not always, though.
Some people never experience sexual attraction. Some do, but not to the same extent as allosexual (that’s fancy-speak for “not ace”) people do.
You can’t make assumptions about anyone – even if you know someone identifies as asexual, it could mean a whole range of different things.
We have to decouple romantic attraction from sexual attraction
This one sounds trickier than it is. A lot of people kinda live under the assumption that the two go hand in hand. But I’ll prove to you that they don’t. Know what a one-night stand is? Yeah, I thought so. It’s okay, you don’t have to put your hands up.
So one can experience sexual attraction in the absence of romantic attraction… and the reverse is true, too.
Of course, some people are aromantic, as well as asexual. Or aromantic, without being asexual. Do you get where I’m going with this?
Terminology 101: attraction, desire, orientation, behaviour
Right. Here’s where we get technical. Bear with me.
Sexual attraction: *rowr*. I want to jump dat.
Romantic attraction: I want to hold hands and go to movies and adopt kittens with you!!!
Sexual desire: Oh my, I am horny!
Sexual orientation: Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual – it’s how you identify in terms of who you’re sexually attracted to. The people you want to jump. Or, it’s the kind of people that you’re okay having sex with, if you don’t have attraction. Some of these are shitty and obsolete (hetero-, and homo-) because they try to couple orientation to gender identity, which is bunkum. You can use things like androsexual or gynesexual if you want extra credit.
Romantic attraction: Homoromantic, heteroromantic, biromantic, panromantic – it’s how you identify in terms of who you’re romantically attracted to. The people you want to hold hands and adopt kitties with. Again, the same caveats apply.
Sexual behaviour: The physical stuff that we do. Alone, or with someone else. Masturbation, oral sex, penetration, whatevs.
Now, being asexual affects only one of the above. Can you guess which?
That’s right. Sexual attraction.
Asexual people can have an orientation
Like me, for example. I’m asexual. But also, I’m lesbian. Totally and utterly. If I’m getting into a relationship with someone, it’s not going to be with anyone who isn’t a woman. Because I’m lesbian.
Asexual people can have sex, and they can enjoy it. Or not.
So, if you don’t have sexual attraction, can you still get turned on? Sure, maybe you can. We’ve all had those moments, haven’t we? That’s desire, or libido, or horniness.
And, if you don’t have sexual attraction, can you still have sex? Sure you can. You can do it by yourself, or you can do it with someone else. A lot of people, if they are honest with themselves, will have had sex at one or another time in the absence of sexual attraction. For a variety of different reasons! Have you never had sex with a partner when you weren’t really feeling it, and did it just for their sake?
And, if you don’t have sexual attraction, can you still enjoy sex? Sure you can. You might not always, but it’s definitely possible. Sexual pleasure, and orgasms too, are all chemical reactions mediated by nerve cells. It’s physics and chemistry, nothing else. Same way a foot rub feels good, it activates the centres in the brain responsible for feeling pleasure. That doesn’t mean you have to have attraction for it to feel good.
And, if you don’t have sexual attraction, can you still have an orientation? Sure you can. I answered that one already, weren’t you paying attention?
So, if you’re asexual, you might choose to have sex, or you might not. And that decision might be based on various things. You might be doing it because your partner wants to, and you don’t mind. You might just be struggling to fall asleep and know that the oxytocin release after you masturbate to orgasm will help you drift off. You might just want to “clean out the plumbing”. Or you might think sex is icky and just not ever want to do it at all. They’re all totally valid options.
But the point is, that if someone is asexual, and they have sex, or they masturbate, they are still asexual. Even if they enjoy it. Even if they want to do it again.
Asexuality and me
So I’ve given you the breakdown, at least as I generally understand it, and as I explain it to others when I do sexuality education. And the reason for that really is just so that I can reflect on my own experiences – because that’s what this blog is about.
I used to feel pretty broken, because I didn’t feel sexual attraction the way other people did. I wondered what was wrong with me. I wasn’t like all the other pubescent kids, and it was a little unsettling. I even found it uncomfortable to pretend.
Now, there is a caveat to my story. I was a young, closeted trans kid, and I didn’t even have the tools or the context then to understand that I was trans. I was going through the wrong puberty, and the kids that I was supposed to regard as my “peers” really weren’t my peers because they were the wrong gender. So yeah, that made a difference. I felt super out of place, and I didn’t know why.
It wasn’t until later in life that I’d understand the two processes that were going on – that I was trans, and that I was ace.
I wondered about my sexuality for a long time. Even until recently. Once I had discovered the term “asexual” and read up on what it meant, I definitely felt a resonance. A lot of things started to fall into place. And I kind of assumed that I was demisexual, because I was sure that I had felt sexual attraction in the past. I just took for granted that I had.
But then I started to think about it, and it got really confusing. Sex had always been a problem for me. I’d never especially enjoyed it, and I’d never especially desired it. Sometimes I wanted to desire it, but often it just never did anything for me. So when I started looking back, I had to ask myself if I ever really had experienced attraction.
Now don’t get me wrong. I experience romantic attraction, there’s no doubt. And I even have physical attraction – I can look at a girl and think “oh wow, she’s really cute/pretty/beautiful”, and I can feel that pull. But it’s not a sexual thing. Having other forms of attraction made it harder for me to figure out my sexuality, because I didn’t always know how to tell the difference.
Going on HRT made things even more complicated, because when your testosterone falls to zero, your libido takes a hit. And like I’ve explained, libido and attraction aren’t the same thing. So now, I was in a position where I had no desire, and no sexual attraction, even if I did sometimes experience other forms of attraction.
And it didn’t make figuring the past out any easier. I imagined that I must, by default, have had sexual attraction, but I couldn’t be sure. I couldn’t remember what it felt like! Maybe I had never felt it at all?
It made me wonder if I was actually just totally asexual, instead of demisexual as I’d previously imagined.
The truth is that, when it comes to the past, I still don’t know.
But I am definitely demisexual. I know this, because now I have experienced sexual attraction. And it happened within the context of a strong emotional bond. And it was unmistakeable.
That doesn’t mean that everything is cut and dry though. Because being trans still makes things complicated.
The dysphoria and the body issues affect my sexuality as well. Even if I have attraction, and even if I have desire, not being totally comfortable in my own skin means that sexuality is still a tricky thing to navigate. It makes it difficult to relax and be at ease, and be fully present in the moment, because my mind is always wandering, fixating on the things that I’m uncomfortable with.
It means that sometimes it’s easier to just think of sex as something that “doesn’t matter to me”. Sure, the suppressed libido makes that easier. But it’s a barrier to intimacy and connection nonetheless.
And it’s especially jarring when that gets in the way on one of those very, very rare occasions that I do feel attraction.
Of course, sexuality is a dynamic thing. It can change as we change, and as we understand ourselves better. Sometimes we might question it – and, when we find the answers, they may surprise us. Or not. But being open to that process is an important thing.
Nonetheless, despite all the challenges and difficulties and questioning, it’s nice to know that there’s a word for all this. That I’m not abnormal just because I don’t feel attraction the same way most people do. And it’s nice to know that even if sex isn’t on the menu, cake definitely is. Because what could be better than cake?