Friday, June 20, 2008

Some reflections on coming to identify as asexual

I do not remember what I thought when I first found AVEN. I remember that I was using my laptop and it was dark outside. I was intrigued enough to think that I might be asexual but really wasn’t sure. I do not remember what I read first, though I do recall that the most helpful thing was the general FAQ and that I did not read that until the following day in a computer lab in the one of the libraries on campus. I also recall reading as much of the academic material that I could, which really wasn’t all that much. In retrospect, I do not think this was such a good idea—the “science of sexuality” is not a very mature field yet. Now that I have learned a lot more, I have my own opinions and some significant criticisms of some of those papers, which I had thought to be more authoritative than I should have.

Based on this, it is clear that I thought that in asexuality I might have finally found a category in which I belonged—perhaps I finally knew “what I was,” but there was this fear that maybe I wasn’t asexual and that I would have to keep searching to find “others like me.” I spent a lot of time searching through the welcome lounge on AVEN reading people’s experiences, trying to find one as close to my own as possible. Of course, I never did. The main concerns of others as they described themselves were not exactly the main concerns that had driven me to seek out asexuality, but not incompatible either, so I could not know how like or unlike my experiences theirs were. Still, certain things resonated with me—the sense of wanting to come out of the closest, if only I knew what closet I was in; finding kissing pointless and wet—I too had experienced this with my one and only girlfriend (It was a while ago, didn’t last long and didn’t go well.) Reading these caused me to reevaluate that experience: because I had enjoyed cuddling, I had thought of that as something sexual that I enjoyed and so I thought of myself as sexual, though I had been confused why I found some things utterly pointless. (In addition to kissing, which we quickly abandoned as I was evidently extraordinarily bad at it, she informed me that I was supposed to do something involving my mouth and her neck, but I found myself totally incapable of understanding how this was supposed feel good.)

I spent a great deal of time learning my way around the AVEN forums, trying to get as much information as I could about the range of experiences of asexuals—a time consuming task since people aren’t giving the information I was most interested in. People don’t tend to post long autobiographical posts, and they certainly don’t post case studies of themselves. At first I did this to figure out if I fit in the category of “asexual.” After I eventually decided that I was asexual, my spending large amounts of time reading posts continued. I had come to think of it as sifting though large amounts of information I was uninterested in (welcomes and “hi” and the giving of cake) to find what I wanted. (Though I did on occasion give out some cake myself.)

Perhaps fitting with my own overly academic personality, the moment in which I finally decided I was asexual was not while reading anything on AVEN or anything written by asexuals or even anything about asexuality. It was while reading a paper titled “A Sex Difference in the Specificity of Sexual Arousal,” that argued, using penile plethysmography and vaginal photoplethysmography, physical arousal to visual stimuli is a good indicator of sexual orientation in males, but not females. (Heterosexual males have more physical and subjective arousal to erotic images of females and homosexual males to erotic images of males.) I then became convinced that I was simply fooling myself thinking I might be at least sort-of heterosexual given that I have no arousal (physical or subjective) to either kind of stimuli. What’s ironic about this, is that I now believe that the paper overestimates the strength of the correlation between sexual orientation and physical response, and I no longer regard the penile plethysmograph to be a reliable instrument. However, by time I came to those conclusions, I had a much firmer idea about my own asexuality.

Having identified as asexual, I continued to spend a good deal of time reading the AVEN forums trying to find out as much about asexuality as I could. I recall DJ saying that in media portrayals of asexuality it’s important to make sure that we are seen as people rather than as specimens to be dissected. Acknowledging the truth of this for PR reasons, my first thoughts were, “I understand, but, damnit! I want to dissect you all! (figuratively, of course.)” I suppose this is the scientist in me. (Or mad scientist?)

In the graphic novel Fun Home, there is a scene in which the author recounts how when she first thought she might be a lesbian, she checked out a book from the library, trying to be very inconspicuous, fearing someone might notice, and eventually started checking out more, progressively having less concern about who might see. She then tries to read absolutely everything she can on the subject and eventually realizes that she ought to move beyond books to connecting with other lesbians. When I read that, I felt a twinge of envy—though I felt I shouldn’t given the difference between the stigma attached to being a lesbian versus being asexual. Still, how I longed to have been able to just read books and books about asexuality! To satisfy, to some extent, that longing to understand the sexual orientation I now identify as. But book length materials simply didn’t exist.

I think it is this—the feeling that I could do something to help change this situation—that has kept me as interested in asexuality as I have been. I do not think that I will be very helpful at mass visibility work. I do not feel that I would be a good public face of asexuality and do not think I would do well on TV. I’m not in touch with pop culture (I don’t even watch TV,) and I’m not particularly out as an asexual, with only about a dozen people knowing. But I’m working on a Ph.D. in linguistics and intuitively have a good sense of how social science works. I hope that at some point I can help asexuality make ground in academia though I’m not really sure how yet. It will be a long process, but as more and more people come to identify as asexual, I believe we will make progress.

1 comment:

The Impossible K said...

I feel the same way. Even though I'm comfortable identifying as asexual, it's frustrating to not have concrete, scientific evidence to explain the nuances involved. I'm not a mad scientist by any means, but I am extremely analytical.
And it would be cool, someday, to see a book on the shelves that references asexuality. Even cooler if you (or I) helped to write it. ;-)