Crocheting, Cake, and Queerness: On Asexuality
By Elise Nagy
Lately I’ve been thinking about how much I’d like to be able to join a club for asexuals. I know that might sound a little odd. You might wonder what we’d do besides crochet and eat cake (both admirable activities). If you know nothing about asexuality, it’s probably impossible to understand why asexual people sometimes feel a sense of belonging in queer communities, and why they don’t necessarily fit comfortably in the heteronormative “boy meets girl, they bang, eventually they settle down and get married and wear chinos and have babies” story. A lot of asexual people seem to exist between these two circles, never quite welcomed or understood in either.
So what is asexuality?
Let me very generally lay out asexuality, as I understand it: asexuality is defined by a person’s consistent lack of experiencing sexual attraction. Some people argue that asexuality suggests a total lack of desire for sexual activity, kissing, frottage, masturbation, etc. included, but sexual activity—as anyone who lived through Clinton’s presidency can attest—is a murky and vague category of stuff. Asexuality is sometimes thought of as an umbrella term almost analogous to “queer,” in that asexual people can just identify as asexual, or as grey-a (somewhere along the asexual spectrum but not claiming a total and consistent lack of sexual attraction or desire), or demisexual (only experiencing sexual attraction for people who are already very emotionally close), and the list goes on. This doesn’t mean that asexual folks never have sex, because we in fact often do, for myriad reasons. Some of us never do, and some of us identify as sex-averse (rather than simply apathetic about the whole shebang, pun fully intended).
Another component of identity that most asexuals consider is romantic attraction or affection. Just because asexual people don’t experience sexual attraction in the same way or at the same magnitude as sexual people, we can (unless we’re also aromantic) still fall in love and have relationships. Some asexuals are heteroromantic, meaning they fall in love with people of another gender; some are homoromantic, meaning they fall in love with people who share their gender. Some are bi-romantic. Some are panromantic, and fall in love with people of all genders. I hope you get the idea.
Some sexual people have a hard time understanding how anyone can fall in love without sex being a key factor, and conversations about asexuality often take us right down to fundamental questions about what love is, what being in love means, how those aren’t quite the same, and how we classify the difference if sex isn’t explicitly involved. I like to think of it as that sweeping, swooning feeling when you want to stay up all night talking to someone, when you get butterflies thinking about how fantastic they are, when their laugh makes you laugh, when looking at them sometimes makes you feel like your lungs are just going to burst with contentment, when you want to curl up in their life and stay awhile. All of that is possible without sexual attraction, and it’s distinct from a more platonic or general kind of love.
What does queerness have to do with it?
Such a huge part of recent queer and gay, lesbian, and bisexual organizing has been around bringing those sexualities into the light—about rooting out and dusting off the shame, about decreasing the policing and the violence, about making queer sex a less taboo topic—and that’s totally understandable and necessary work. It does, however, sometimes leave the less sexual among us twiddling our thumbs or wondering what’s for lunch or trying to recall that one poem we had to memorize in fifth grade—what was the third line?—if only to have something to do besides listening to yet another story about your awesome sparkly sexy times. It’s not that we’re prudish or disapproving. It’s just that we all have different thresholds and eventually get bored and start feeling more than a little alienated, wondering when the conversation might shift to any queer issues we’re similarly passionate about. Talking about sexuality can be a powerful tool for personal and political liberation and transformation, but it has its limits, and it sometimes seems like queer and feminist communities don’t see those limits.
I identify as a panromantic demisexual. What a delightful polysyllabic mouthful, right? It’s oddly superimposed over a life that just is what it is. I’m also not over-fond of the linguistic implication that it’s a “half” sexuality, because demisexuality is way more complex and alchemic than that. It’s not some middle space between asexual and sexual—it’s more like asexuality with a twist. You might wonder why I’d like the sense of solidarity that would come from more understanding and inclusion in queer spaces: as someone with a lot of romantic (mostly lady-) friendships and overwhelming, terrifyingly giddy crushes on kind and brilliant boys it’s not like I’m often the target of queer bashing. The last time someone called me a lesbian like it was a bad thing (behold the joys of lesbian baiting) was totally non-violent and only because I was making the case for voting for Hillary, so you can guess how long ago that was. It’s not like our lack of visibility goes hand in hand with a lack of rights—I’m not even sure what “asexual rights” would look like beyond the same kind of consent or agency everyone else deserves.
More inclusion for asexual people in queer spaces may seem like a petty request, like I’m redirecting focus away from important issues, but visibility in all of our variances and idiosyncrasies is an important queer issue.
We exist in the margins of everyone else’s communities, and it gets lonely and tiring. Asexuals are largely misunderstood creatures, and some respite from that misunderstanding would be a relief. Some asexuals identify as queer because of their asexual identity alone, because they aren’t heteroromantic, or for any number of other reasons. This is kind of contested by some other queer people, though, and even when asexual people are welcomed in queer spaces, our concerns aren’t often prioritized. Forget prioritized—they’re hardly discussed.
When forced to pinhole my identity, I have to admit that being demisexual makes me feel way more queer than being able to romantically love people of all genders. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been lucky to have queer friends and know queer people, but I’ve always felt more deviant, condemned, and misunderstood—by queer and straight people alike—for never dating and rarely being attracted to anyone in the way everyone else suggests “normal” people should be.
Now, this condemnation is quiet. It’s much more peaceful than the hatred that people in relationships that are clearly read as queer are likely to face. No one’s going to kill me for having a sex drive that resembles an elusive endangered species (though corrective rape can be a devastating concern for asexual people whose partners ignore consent with the belief that asexuals can be “cured,” or whose partners can’t come to terms with asexuals who are literally never “in the mood”). The condemnation is usually more like befuddlement, really. A disbelief, a reluctance to take me at my word when I say that it’s exceedingly rare for me to feel sexual attraction, that it’s just not an important part of my life, never really has been, and might never become one. Even in the most feminist and sex positive circles (in fact, especially in the most feminist and sex positive circles) jaws have dropped and eyes have narrowed at my claims that orgasms are great for plenty of people, but I really couldn’t care less about them personally.
While sex positive feminism has done important work and made strides in understanding and accepting our desires and lessening our shame, compulsory sex positivity sometimes gets a bit carried away, leaving too many people out in the cold. To listen to some sex positive feminists, everyone everywhere is having fantastic life-shattering sex all the time, and it’s The Most Important Thing Ever, and if you’re not having fantastic life-shattering sex all the time you’re obviously sad, broken, and—gasp—repressed. Our feminist sex positivity has to make space for survivors of trauma and abuse, for people living with body dysmorphia, for people with disabilities or chronic pain, for any and all people who are ambivalent about or averse to sex, but who are steadfastly committed to practicing good consent and decreasing the stigma surrounding sexuality (especially the sexualities of women, particularly women of color, and queer folks, who have oft been not only shamed but criminalized.)
This condemnation and misunderstanding from otherwise enlightened people does take a psychic toll. Other people’s doubt makes me doubt. It does sometimes feel like this self-assuredness is snagged on something in the back of my brain, that although my main activity is introspecting and I know myself almost too well, I still can’t quite claim asexuality enough to defend it or even talk about it much in my day-to-day life.
Part of my hesitation to talk about asexuality is because I believe that sexuality and romantic attraction are often fluid. We learn and we change and we want and need different kinds of love or attention or satisfaction at different times. Staunchly situating myself in one corner and then defending and reinforcing that identity doesn’t really interest me, which is part of the reason I tend to identify as queer or queer adjacent. Queerness has historically opened up opportunities for fluidity, for people to move through and around their own sexualities without necessarily ascribing labels or limits, realizing that those sexualities are some combination of desire, performance, enculturation, chemistry, and an elusive x-factor.
I’m not at all interested in “coming out” as demisexual or panromantic for the same reasons many people take issue with the whole concept of coming out as gay, lesbian, bi, or queer. What if you come out and then you start exploring or discovering a new part of your identity? Do you have to come out again? How? To whom? Send out a memo to all relevant friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues: “Hey, by the way, I know I said I was _____, but update! After an eye opening experience last weekend I think ____ might be more accurate. Please mentally file me away in the folder designated for those people now!”
And why should disclosing our sexual orientations or preferences be a compulsory part of community building anyway? This cuts right to the quick of age-old questions about the limits of identity politics. It’s great to find people who can empathize with your triumphs and troubles, but those groups have boundaries that are permeable and wobbly, and sharing an identity with someone doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll share beliefs or goals. Also—while there’s certainly a political purpose served by being here and queer, relentlessly reminding people that the whole world isn’t straight as an arrow seems like a weird burden to put on not-straight people. It may be idealistic, but straight people should just hold themselves accountable for remembering, honestly.
Are asexual people just damaged? Repressed? Confused? In denial? Ugly?
Part of my reluctance to talk about asexuality stems from a pretty consistent effort on society’s part to erase and dismiss asexual people’s accounts of their own feelings and lives. It’s daunting to think of the people who’ll scoff and write me off. It’s daunting to think of the diagnoses the psych-inclined might be ascribing to me. It’s hard to trust myself as an authority on my own life and feelings when I’ve grown up in a world that does its best to convince us that asexuality is temporary or just an unfortunate side effect of emotional damage. As traitorous as it seems, I still sometimes feel like I’m just waiting to be proven wrong. This is another reason we need to reframe sexuality as something fluid: we should be able to change without having people tell us our previous selves were somehow mistaken, phases, temporary confusions.
People who fall along the asexual spectrum often have their personal experiences psychologically pathologized. I’ve had a psychiatrist wave away my musings about maybe being asexual only to assure me that it was all just an extension of my social anxiety, that I was just too nervous to let myself be attracted to anyone, despite all failures of logic therein. Instead of one of an infinite number of acceptable and natural iterations of human sexuality, asexuality is seen as a disorder, sometimes even the result of trauma or abuse. Sound familiar? Because that’s the same claim psychologists and laypeople have made for the phenomenon of the existence of gay and lesbian folks for decades. (nb: while some asexual and queer people might have a history with abuse or trauma, it’s not really a cause and effect kind of thing.) While homosexuality was only recently expunged from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the American Psychiatric Association’s bible—asexuality is still in there, it’s just called Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder. You might know it more colloquially as frigidity, particularly in reference to The Ladies, which brings us to the ways that asexuality is strongly gendered.
Common misunderstandings around asexuality lead people to believe that asexual women are just cold or repressed and asexual men are emasculated or unnatural. Despite misconceptions, being asexual doesn’t in any way mean you’re incapable of nurturing, connecting with, or feeling passionate about people. Asexuality is often mistaken for prudishness. Neither is asexuality in women just an internalization of the shame that’s surrounded female sexuality for centuries. That’s another issue entirely.
Whether or not asexuals should be able to identify as queer, asexuality does represent a split away from heteronormativity—or archetypal ideas of straight coupling. Even heteroromantic asexuals don’t quite fit the mold. Hand in hand with heteropatriarchy and anti-lesbianism (both concepts that suggest that there’s something inherently flawed with a woman if her highest priority isn’t sexually attracting men) is the idea that certain women identify as asexuals as a matter of saving face, because no one would want them anyway. There are so many things wrong with that, I’m not even sure how to sort them out. Here goes: 1. Asexuality is real, and it’s pretty insulting to asexuals everywhere to suggest that we’re just making it up for dignity’s sake. 2. No matter how far they may be from idealized and unrealistic beauty standards, no one is undesirable to everyone.
Brief public service announcement: however weird or gross or ugly you feel, someone somewhere will want you. Seriously. Seriously. Not just in spite of those things that make you feel weird and gross and ugly, but sometimes even because of them. Love and sexuality are wacky, complex things, and however much it sounds like a cliché or wishful thinking, the traits you don’t like about yourself are traits someone somewhere is currently fapping to or swooning over on the internet, if it’s any consolation.
Sometimes when people are talking about asexuality in the context of their own celibacy they fall into this trap of trying to explain away all “reasonable” possibilities for their lack of a sex life—it’s ubiquitous, but the most recent example that comes to mind is from an essay at XoJane. The author writes, “Lifelong singlehood carries a pretty strong stigma. Already I want to rush to assure you I’m not creepy or emotionally vacant. I’m not overweight, dour, ugly or dull. I’m not a social outcast or terrible company. I don’t have bad skin, poor hygiene or body odor. I’m a regular, semi-attractive person with friends, a job, weekend plans, and creative pursuits.”
As I see it, that kind of attitude is just indicative of a major solidarity fail on behalf of aces. Scapegoating fat people, or “emotionally vacant” people, or people on the margins, or people who aren’t conventionally attractive isn’t the way to move asexuality into a more visible place in the world. We don’t need to justify being asexual, or explain all the ways it’s really okay because we’re still totally “normal” and “pretty.” It’s okay to not be totally “normal” and “pretty.” It’s okay to not be totally “normal” and “pretty” while being asexual.
What should happen now? What would happen in an ideal world?
If feminists and queer folks are really interested in sex positivity and demystifying sexualities, we need to stop acting like asexuals don’t exist or aren’t important. Many asexuals are perceived as queer, and suffer the social effects of that without the benefit of any support from queer communities because they don’t identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. While some asexual people might not suffer from the same kind of overt heterosexist violence people who are perceived as more obviously queer do, there’s still plenty of stigma and confusion surrounding who we are and where we fit in.
With effort and education we can take away that stigma and confusion. Until then, we asexuals need to band together, to find comfort in each other.
That’s why I’ve found myself googling “Chicago asexuality club” lately, to no avail. In my (admittedly biased) experience, asexual people are some of the greatest people ever. We’re intellectually curious, we’re kind, we’re ferocious. And we can provide one another with a unique kind of understanding that I haven’t found in mainstream feminist or queer communities. We’re political and self-aware and emotionally intense.
Who wouldn’t want to sit around crocheting and eating cake with people like that?
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Elise Nagy is the Founding Editor of the Ellipses Project. She recently graduated with a B.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies, with a concentration in Gender, Arts & Culture, double minoring in Art History and English Lit. She’s fascinated by women’s mental illness narratives & intrigued by the possibilities of radical narcissism through self-representation in feminist art. Embodiment confounds and grounds her. Elise splits her time between Chicago and Northern Michigan.