Since I started identifying as asexual about two months ago, I’ve been reflecting on my childhood memories through the lens of asexuality. Now that I’m less afraid of differences between myself and sexual people (less afraid because I’m no longer labeling the differences as wrong and abnormal), I’m able to see more and more how I was not like the other girls I knew growing up.
I’ve been wondering how I understood these differences at the time, since I didn’t know about asexuality. Without knowledge of the truth about my sexual orientation, how did I come to understand myself? What were the stories I created to explain my experience? (Without access to the truth, were the stories I told myself untrue?)
I think the differences may have emerged for me as young as age 10 or 11. I remember that the other girls in my fifth grade class began to talk about “cute” and “hot” rock stars and movie stars. I didn’t know that you were supposed to cut out pictures of cute boys from Tiger Beat and Bop magazine and hang them on your bedroom wall. I never got that impulse, or memo, or whispered command–whatever it was that the other girls got. I didn’t know what defined “cute,” what criteria one used to see the different between “hot” or “not hot.” It was as though the others could see a color on the light spectrum that I couldn’t. I didn’t even know what it was I didn’t see. I only knew that I was supposed to see it, and I didn’t.
When my ten-year-old self looked out on her world and began to see that she was failing to fit in, failing in some deeply fundamental way, what did she think? How did she make sense of it? Try as I might, I can’t recall the thoughts. I do remember, though, the feelings. This is the age when I began to feel WRONG. I started to feel not good enough, flawed, and always, afraid of being truly seen.
When I was fifteen I went with a friend to a teen Bible Study group at the Fellowship Bible Church. We studied a book called Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life Under Christ’s Control. My memories of this book (which I read more than 20 years ago, so forgive me if I’m off the mark here) are that the author spent a lot of time yearning for and desiring her boyfriend in a way that I couldn’t relate to one bit. Her desire was so strong that she needed seek Christ’s strength to avoid being drawn into this guy’s body against her beliefs. I found not having sex with people quite a lot easier than all that, and I had no need for Christ’s help in controlling myself around boys. Not having sex was so easy for me that I could have become a nun, if only I believed in God.
As an adolescent and teenager I learned a great deal about the ways that sex could be dangerous, even lethal. I came of age at the height of the US AIDS epidemic, a few years before the anti-viral treatment cocktails. I don’t remember much about sex education from my youth, but I know that I came into my teen years thinking sex was an extremely dangerous act. I believed that any episode of unprotected sex would 100 percent of the time result in HIV infection. Or, at a minimum,pregnancy. What I must have found so confusing was that my peers willingly had sex, despite the fact that it would (definitely) kill you. In fact, people seemed to NEED to do it. I definitely never had that need. By now, the difference must have felt so enormous–as large as life and death. Without access to the identity that helped explain the difference, what tricks of the mind did I employ to understand it?
I can remember some of the stories I used at the time. I told myself I was an artist-in-training, above needs of the flesh. I had larger goals, bigger dreams, no need to distract myself with boyfriends or other petty desires.
These were all partial truths. Yes, I was on a special path, training to become a professional ballet dancer. Yes, dating was discouraged by my teachers as a distraction. But also (also!), I was an asexual teenager, denying my sexuality because I didn’t know such a thing was a thing. What is the price I paid for constructing my world out of half truths?
Later, I fell into full-time mental illness, an all-consuming eating disorder that would destroy my life into the next decade, but also provide the perfect alibi for my lack of sexual attraction. Always, beneath it all, was fear. Because regardless of the stories I told myself to explain why I was different, what I truly believed in that deep, nonverbal part of myself was that my lack of attraction made me wrong, flawed, damaged, and unlovable.
Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. I’ve been combing through my past, asking myself to resurrect and bring to light the thoughts I used as a child to build my understanding of myself and the world. Perhaps this is a useful exercise, perhaps not. But today I’m wondering if the more essential question is, what are the thoughts I can give to my younger self today so that she can grow up again feeling whole, feeling okay, feeling good enough, feeling loved, feeling free?