In high school I openly identified as asexual, and I don’t think it ever stopped being true really.
My friend Erik introduced me to the term. We were in tenth grade and his friend Jared was driving us both home from some event on Cleveland’s east side. It might have been a debate event, it might have been a party at Jared’s parents’ house. I can’t remember, but we were jammed in the back of his car when he asked Erik about boyfriend prospects. Erik had broken up with a boy that had the most manicured eyebrows I’d ever seen, who wore glitter on his cheeks and who now works in DC doing interior design.
Erik scoffed at the question. “I’m not seeing anybody,” he declared. “I am asexual.”
We pulled into my driveway and I slunk into my home, opened up the purple Alienware laptop and Googled the term. A website and an online community availed itself. And though in a few months Erik had shucked the label and moved on to dating a perfectionist valedictorian from Erie, PA, I slowly absorbed the asexual label into myself.
In high school I was an active and vocal LGBT rights activist. I led weekly meetings of the Student Equal Rights Coalition, alongside Erik. We protested and pushed for queer rights protections to be added to the student handbook. We organized events that educated sociology and psychology classes about gay history and trans issues. Once, we met Dan Savage for late night pancakes at a Perkins by the local college. We raised awareness for hate crimes by collaborating with the school’s makeup/special effects teacher, and walked the halls covered in fake versions of the bruises and scars of actual victims, bios of their lives and deaths pinned to our bodies, crime scene outlines with similar bios pasted to the walls and windows of the cafeteria.
It was natural for teachers and peers to assume I was gay. I never minded it, or corrected it, and my identity existed for a while in a haze, unverified. And then I came out as asexual. I used to explain this fact of my past away, saying it was true then, but it was just true, flat out. There was no one at school I wanted. No one in the world. I felt removed from it all, gender and beauty and lust. It was interesting but struck me the same way faith did: inert for me. Woven from transparent, airy fibers I could not grasp.
When I came out, people were about as accepting as you could hope for in 2005. My sociology teacher told the class to respect how I felt, that it was how I felt right now and that was good enough. My friends asked me who I would fuck if I wanted to fuck people. Erik told me he once felt asexual, after his last breakup, but he got over it. The tentativeness of the label was emphasized again and again. But it was honored for the most part. Nobody questioned that I was making it up. My mom kept asking me pointedly if I had something to tell her. I told her I was asexual and she blinked until the moment was gone and it was never acknowledged again.
I went to college and got a boyfriend, and watched how friends’ reactions blew the word asexual away. I would tell them I’d started dating and having sex, and they would say, “So you’re not asexual anymore,” and the identity would be swept far across a flat plane until it disappeared from the horizon. I loved this young, over-sensitive, long eyelashed German major, and I was all too happy to shed my virginity like a snakeskin, so I could not be asexual. None of my friends ever asked me about the label again.
He asked about it though. He had to. We only had a sexual relationship for a few months out of the three years we were together. Then I told him I was asexual, or thought I was. He was hurt. He floundered between drunkenly dumping me, changing our Facebook relationship status to “open” without asking me, cajoling me into sex I didn’t want, and soberly declaring his love. My rejections hurt his self-esteem. He felt cheated. I could not force myself to feel a burning for him. My heart twinged for his affection and attention, but nothing moved me below the waist.
We went to the fetish shops in the Short North to buy toys, special outfits, and videos with grainy footage of bored women in hotel rooms. He told me we could still date even if we never had sex again. He left for an internship in New York. He screwed a buck-toothed girl with brown braids, and I did not mind at all. He got irritated when I cried at his face between my legs, and every time I felt too numb to want any touch. He saw my eyes roll to the ceiling out of frustration instead of delight, and he asked me to go to the doctor to get myself checked out.
That last one made me furious. I knew there was nothing wrong with me, that nothing needed fixing. All I wanted from him was companionship in our freezing attic apartment, laughs at house parties, drunken converations over cheesy bread and Keystone. I did not want the threesomes, the toys, the rolling around on the floors of parties with girls and boys alike, the nightly imitation of passion. I got it anyway, for a while.
The problem was, I was capable of sex, not repulsed so much as saddened and put off. My body shot full of frazzled electricity at his every touch; my gentials, numb as they were, worked fine, and responded. Every spurt of technical pleasure was sickening, unwanted, out of my control. It felt like being briefly possessed by a demon, held under some thrall I could not escape. My ability to physically respond sent a message to him: I could be with him, if only I sucked it up and bore it. Once, he held me on his lap as I cried, thrusting beneath me.
“I don’t want to,” I said, wracked with dry sobs.
“I know,” he said, gently, almost sympathetically. “You don’t want to.” He ran a finger across my underwear and my body responded. “But you need to, don’t you?”
Every attempt at placating him was a jolt of sadness. I came to associate coming itself with coercion, unpleasantness, guilt. I left for graduate school in Chicago and we broke up.
In Chicago, I dated a man who was so striking I mistook appreciation and envy for desire. It’s not an uncommon mistake in love: do I want to do you, or do I want to be you? I’ve never known the difference. What he wanted was much more clear: sex every single day. If he didn’t get it, he cheated and he raged.
Sometimes he did both anyway. I was 21, depressed, new in town, and miserably lonely. So lonely that when my grandfather came to visit me, just looking at me made him cry out of pity. So I kept laying my body down for this striking, demanding man. I traded my presence, mostly still and occasionally quavering, for pillow talk and long walks to Evanston. In the process I endured a ton of abuse. The electrical currents in me curled up and frayed but still shot through with power despite my tears and discomfort. I hated the lack of control. I hated that when he held me down and bucked and my body shook, it made me look like I wanted it.
When his cheating became too much to bear, I took to trading my body for the friendship of others. I had already fooled around with boys and girls in college, hollowly moving through the life experiences my boyfriend at the time wanted, and which I thought Dan Savage would have wanted for me. I was young and not-straight, iconoclastic and wild, of course I wanted to straddle a girl in berry lipstick and a denim bustier and suck her nipples at a New Year’s Party. I wanted to because I thought I was supposed to want it. But I felt nothing.
I continued to feel nothing in Chicago, with a performer, a comedian, a cognitive science student and his biologist girlfriend, a college dropout, and a fellow grad student from Ohio State. In one week in the spring of 2010 I slept with three brand new people. That was my personal record. I felt vacated and bored until it was over and the time came to talk.
The one person my body truly burned for, back then, was the thin, strawberry blonde librarian my boyfriend kept cheating on me with. She was shy with a big mouth and a prominent nose. She wrote erotica about me and I found it on his computer. I cried and shuddered with sickening pleasure as I read it. Once, after she was attacked, I spent hours on the phone with her, listening and providing comfort. We were in love, in a way. I would spend hours every week looking at her photos online. She lived thousands of miles away but I knew every contour of her. I fantasized about her every couple of days.
I wonder if this is how attraction typically feels. It was cloyingly intense, guilt-ridden and sad. But it was beautiful, too. In another life we would have been great for one another. It was all spoiled by the man we shared, and the trauma he inflicted on both of us. It left my sexuality retreating even deeper within myself. It was utterly dormant for about half a decade after that.
I have been with my current partner for nearly six years. I can feel my pupils opening and my gaze softening when I look at him. Every time. From the day I first met him, my heart has twinged at every shared glance. He is delicately pretty, with a sweep of shiny dark hair and tightly muscled yet very slender arms. I love the whorls of black hair on his stomach and chest, the concavity on his sternum, the almond shape of his eyes and the crinkles that make them disappear when he’s laughing. I feel attraction to him in both my body and my heart. It was always both, even before I knew for sure that he was a good and loveable person. I intuited it and for once my intuition was right. I used to look at him and think: perfect, you are perfect, you are so perfect. Now we have been together long enough to actually know one another’s imperfections, so I look at him and think: you little fucking adorable weirdo I love you, instead.
I want him a lot, and I want other people sometimes in the abstract, but I’m still asexual. It’s exceedingly rare that I look at someone and feel a lurch of desire for them deep in me. I don’t fantasize about having sex with people that enchant me, with very rare exceptions. Mostly I think about kissing their foreheads or wrapping their dripping wet bodies in terrycloth towels. Even with my partner that’s predominately true. My body is still numb and my feelings are still murky. My libido is low, now, but not dormant. The wiring works. The bolts and surges of power make me twitch and gasp and feel as if my brain has been troubled by a swirl of smoke. And then it passes over me, and I’m clear and empty and cogent again, wishing I was always that way.
I never understood the worlds of gender and desire and I still don’t now. I like love and cuddling; I admire the types of bodies I wish I had, and the ways more capable people can move. When I catch people making out in the back of a gay bar or in a hotel hot tub, my heart sings and my eyes dart with interest. When I see a beautiful face passing me on the sidewalk, I smile and feel warmth on my face, but not as much as when I encounter a pleasantly fat corgi.
I don’t fantasize about sex with people. Very little real-life sex entices me. I have fetishes, but attempts at embodying them have left me sobbing or still. Reality and viscerality makes it all hollow and scary. My nipples feel like nothing and half the month my genitals protest contact by feeling ticklish and shooting my brain full of sadness. I feel odd about my body and its hardware, but those feelings come, like pleasure, in fits and starts. I don’t want T, with the clitoral growth and libido increases it would bring. Anything that would make me more sensitive downstairs is out of the question. I am both too sensitive and too dull. I don’t like being sexy, or watching other people in videos have performative, dead-eyed sex.
Sex, when I choose to have it, is initiated by me, with strict parameters set that are appropriate to what my body can handle at the time. I look my partner in the eye, nip at his earlobes with my teeth, tug at his chest hair, and feel excitement when he writhes or gasps in my grasp. That kind of electricity– passing through him, generated by me– I can handle. I love it. It swells my vulva and my heart. It’s my own electricity that I don’t like. With rare exceptions.
I have always been asexual, even long after I stopped using the label. Altogether I’m a strange, twitchy-numb constellation of asexual, agender, and bi. I think all three have always been true. I’m trying to love and honor every iota of it, to appreciate gorgeousness; to feel my body surge with excitement when I am safely in control of who is touched and how; to revel in the neutrality of my body, and to stop expecting it to behave the way bodies shaped like mine often do. I can turn the power on and off. There is nothing that needs fixing. Nothing that needs to be checked out.