Someone asked this question a while back, not specifically of me, but of the asexual community in general and, although most people were polite with their answers, you could tell they weren’t impressed with it. It’s rather like asking a gay man, “When did you become gay?”
With a few exceptions, those of us who identify as something other than heterosexual generally agree that your sexual orientation is something you’re born with. The implication that everyone is born straight, but some people change their orientation later in life is an assumption that offends a lot of people, but nevertheless, it’s still quite common amongst the ill-informed. The worrying thing is that this question was asked by someone who identified as asexual.
The first thing that people struggle to understand about sexual orientation is that it isn’t talking about your attitude toward sex or who you want to (or don’t want to) have sex with. Your sexual orientation describes who you are sexually attracted to. So, heterosexual people are attracted to the opposite sex, homosexual people are attracted to the same sex, asexual people are attracted to no-one, and so on.
But who you are attracted to isn’t necessarily the same as who you can enjoy sex with.
I came across the story of a young man who believed he was straight, but wanted to be certain he wasn’t gay before he proposed to his girlfriend. So, he went out and had sex with a man to see if he enjoyed it. After the experience, he concluded that sex with another man hadn’t been an unpleasant experience, but it hadn’t been especially enjoyable either, so therefore he wasn’t gay.
Clearly he was missing the point. He didn’t need to have sex with another man to conclude that he wasn’t gay. He just had to think about all the men he met throughout his life and ask himself if he found any of them sexually attractive.
And this is how we know that we are asexual from a very young age. In most people, sexual orientation becomes clear around puberty. When we start developing sexual urges, we also start to find people sexually attractive. Most of us will be sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex, some of us will be attracted to the same sex, and some of us will be attracted to no-one at all. (Hetero-, homo- and asexual are just 3 examples. There is also bisexual (attracted to males and females) and pansexual (attracted to anyone, but not everyone!), as well as some other variations of asexuality that I won’t cover in this post.)
The trouble is, our culture, with its emphasis on relationships that consist of one man and one woman, tends to come along and confuse people. For some teenagers, reaching sexual maturity is straightforward, and they know instantly who they are (or are not) sexually attracted to. For most, society’s expectations and the pressure to be “normal,” gets in the way. I am certainly one of those who succumbed to the pressure to conform to society’s expectations, and spent a long time dating boys in the hope that I would eventually find one I was attracted to. Of course, it didn’t happen!
For many people, the realisation that they are not sexually attracted to the opposite sex can lead to a logical, but erroneous, conclusion.
“If I’m not straight, I must be gay.”
I made this mistake myself, and I’ve spoken to enough other people who did the same to know I’m certainly not alone in this. Once again, society’s expectations play a big part in this. Our culture is so focused on sexuality that, for many people, it’s impossible to consider that they may not be sexually attracted to anyone at all.
When I came out as a lesbian, back in 1997, I was dating a lovely young man called Richard. We were getting quite serious about each other, and we had what I now realise was my ideal relationship. We were very affectionate with each other, we held hands a lot, kissed and cuddled, but he never tried to take things any further. For many romantic asexuals, it would be the perfect relationship. I knew I wasn’t sexually attracted to him, but I did have a massive crush on a female country singer, and after getting to see her perform live and close up, I decided this must be it – I was a lesbian. I broke up with him so I could search for my ideal female partner.
It was an exciting time for me, but it was also very sad. I was very close to Richard, and I dare to think I might have loved him. Looking back over so many years, it’s hard to dig through my tangled mess of emotions, but I do know he was a very special person, and breaking up with him hurt me terribly. I can only begin to imagine how it must have been for him.
Looking back, the thought also crosses my mind that Richard could have been asexual (although asexuals make up just 1% of the population, so it’s quite unlikely that I accidentally stumbled into a relationship with someone just like me). But we were in our mid-20s, we had been together a few months, and he had never said or done anything to make me think he wanted sex. He was probably just a gentleman!
But the point I want to make is that, even if Richard had told me he loved kissing and cuddling with me, but he didn’t find me sexually attractive and he never wanted to have sex, I would still have split up with him. Even though I was asexual myself, and I had no interest in sex, I was still under society’s spell, and I still believed there was someone out there who I would find sexually attractive.
This is how many of us seem to “become” asexual in our 30s, 40s, or older. It isn’t that we used to experience sexual attraction, but now we’ve changed. It’s just that it’s taken us this long to let go of the conditioning that our society places on us. It’s taken us this long to accept that sexual attraction is something that isn’t going to happen to us.
When I see people in their teens and 20s coming out as asexual, it makes me very happy. Not because they’re like me, not because they’re a beacon of light in our overly-sexualised society, but simply because they realise that being asexual is an option. Trying to force yourself to be something you’re not just because it’s what society expects of you isn’t healthy, and as asexual people become more visible, hopefully more young people will realise that it’s OK to not experience sexual attraction. You’re not broken, you’re not faulty … you’re just different. And you are not required to conform.