It turns out I never did have Sexual Aversion Disorder or Hypoactive Arousal Disorder or Frigid Selfish Wife Personality Disorder. Yet, after I learned that asexuality existed as an orientation, not a mental or physically illness, I was still left with an uncomfortable truth: Asexuality may not be the cause of it, but I’m broken all the same.
There is no single reason I can point to and say, Right there is the cause. That is why I feel so lonely and incapable of developing intimate relationships. There are the suspected culprits: mismatched needs and temperaments between myself and my parents, childhood abuse by a baby-sitter, the caustic culture of the ballet world where I spent my youth.
There’s also my asexuality.
No, I’m not suggesting asexuality is wrong, or disordered, or in any way a flaw. But, the fact that I am asexual and grew up in such an amatonormative and heteronormative culture that I didn’t even know asexuality existed—these realities of my existence deeply harmed me. As a result of lack of awareness about asexuality, my response to my asexuality was, well, disordered, and contributed to the core of emptiness that later led to clinical depression, a raging eating disorder, and an inability to sustain intimate relationships.
I recently spent my 38th birthday alone. I received the obligatory Happy Birthdays from the three coworkers in my small office, plus some birthday wish texts from my family. After work, I went to a coffee shop to write for a little while, and then I went to bed early. This might have been my preferred way to spend an evening, had I not been acutely aware that I was supposed to be surrounded by loved ones letting me know how glad they are that I was born. I’ve never been one to make a big celebration of my birthday, but I have to admit I felt panicked fear rising. There’s no one in my life for whom my birth and my presence in their life is primary. And I need this.
I’ve been reflecting on the relationships of my childhood and teen years, trying to pin down when I lost my ability to connect with others. As a child, I felt curious about people, interested in getting to know them, comfortable showing myself to others and letting them know me (never all of me, even then, but certainly more than I allow today). I had best friends, primary relationships with other girls my own age that were intimate and mutually caring.
At some point in my teens, I became aware of a shift. It seemed that everyone (but me) was moving away from friendships to meet their intimacy needs and into primary romantic dating relationships. I truly couldn’t understand why people wanted such a thing, why anyone needed anything but a good friend to love. I didn’t hear the call that everyone else did, but I saw what I was supposed to be doing. I saw that there were romantic relationships that were now the Reason for Living and the Most Important Thing. I saw that Falling in Love was taking my friends away from me, rendering me less important, secondary.
These dating relationships were driven by sex, another thing I couldn’t understand. I watched with growing unease as all the females I knew caught this bug in which they felt the need to be close to boys (and some, to girls), to touch them, to put their mouths on them. Inwardly, I withdrew from the very idea with horror and revulsion: You want to put what, where?
I was terrified that I would never develop the mandatory desire for a boyfriend, that I would be exposed as flawed, as wrong in an essential and deeply shameful way. I had no language to understand what was different about me, since the words available (straight, gay, or bisexual) didn’t fit, and I didn’t know there had ever been another soul on earth that felt the way I did. I decided no one could ever know my secret.
Even more frightening was what I did want. I wanted what everyone else did: love, loyalty, commitment, and intimacy. I wanted mutual caring and interdependence. I wanted to love deeply and with abandonment of self. I wanted to be seen, truly seen—and loved anyway. Yet, I had absorbed from my culture the message that this type of love was reserved exclusively for primary romantic partnerships, that the only way to gain access to real love was through sexual intimacy.
I also heard that my wanting intimacy from a relationship that wasn’t sexual was deeply inappropriate. It was needing too much. And from my family, I had absorbed the message that needing too much was just about the worst thing a person could do.
Since I was a young child, my response to unmet need has been shame, followed closely by a willful denial that I need anything at all. As I was finishing up high school and moving on to college, I threw away and destroyed any relationships that I still had, acting out of unconscious fear that was buried so deep I couldn’t possibly have named it. It was a time of underground panic, of violent earthquakes deep in my psyche. A time of cracking foundations, disrupted growth, frantic clawing for safety. At the surface, I found purchase in (what felt like the security of) disorder and obsession.
None of this came above ground for me until I was in my late thirties and learned about asexuality. First I discovered the word, then I discovered the community. It wasn’t until I found community that I felt safe enough to really hear the truth about my asexuality—I couldn’t come home until I had hope there was a home for me.
I’ve recently begun attending a monthly asexual meet up in my area. We’re a small group for such a large city, but I’m grateful to meet, in the flesh, four or five other people who are like me in this fundamental way. We don’t talk much about asexuality when we get together. We talk about what everyone else talks about—current events, viral Youtube videos, our neighbors with all the cats.
I don’t feel connected yet. Simply meeting other asexual people doesn’t instantly fix years of dysfunction and confusion. Coming home doesn’t mean I’m not terrified of what’s in the basement, spooked by the shadows on the walls. But for the first time, I feel more hope than despair.
It’s not just freedom from the fear that I’ll find myself in that horrifying position of realizing (too late) that the person I’ve been talking to has been flirting with me. It’s not just that when I’m with other asexuals, I can settle into the security of knowing that they are not heading toward that path that is closed off for me. Being with other asexuals gives me the soul soothing knowledge that I am among people who have the same needs I do, needs for love and intimacy and connection, and that they too are seeking to meet these needs outside of the normative path.* It’s possible that here, I won’t be left behind, that I will find people to see and to love. That I can allow myself to be seen—truly seen—and loved anyway.
*Not all asexuals choose to refrain from sexual and/or romantic relationships, of course.