From Dissonance to Understanding
My story doesn’t start when I first heard of asexuality.
I lived on this earth for nearly 21 years before I heard the term in reference to a sexual orientation, and the absence of representation I experienced during those 21 years shaped me as a person in ways I will likely never fully understand. I grew up deeply uncomfortable with my own body, and it is only recently (I am now 32) that I recognize how much of that could have had to do with my asexuality. I endured years of pain and isolation because of a cognitive dissonance brought on by watching my peers go through their lives in ways I could not understand.
But I didn’t know that we were on such different planes. I thought I felt what they felt. There were no other options presented to me, but some part of me knew there was a difference. I couldn’t consciously label it as such; I just knew that there was something seemingly wrong with how I was experiencing things. I felt like maybe I was missing something even though as far as I knew there was nothing for me to miss.
It didn’t make sense. That’s what got me. The source of my pain was largely unknowable to me. I didn’t have any concepts or language to explain the disconnect I was feeling, even to myself. Because how do you know you are lacking a feeling so personal, so apparently ubiquitous? You just assume that you feel it. Or that you will, at the very least. So what if I didn’t seem to be feeling the same things my peers were feeling? It would all work out. I would figure it out. I had to, at some point. This is what I would try to tell myself.
So, I spent my formative years trying to come to terms with the fact that I just couldn’t seem to form relationships in the way I was supposed to — in the way that, intellectually, I felt I wanted to. My isolation and dissonance did not lead me to keep a lot of friendships. I spent most of my time at college barely speaking to anyone. When it came to talk of relationships of any kind, familial bonds were what I had to go off. I would read romance stories and watch movies and wonder what it would be like to matter to someone else that much, outside of my family. I read magazines with advice like “you’ll know when you’re ready” (for kissing, for sex). I trusted them and kept waiting to feel something.
But then one evening I was watching TV and there it was: asexuality. The possibility of not feeling sexual attraction was finally presented to me. It was a news segment, on 20/20, interviewing a small group of asexual people. It is still available on YouTube. If you watch it, you’ll see the reporter look on in skepticism and confusion as the people she’s interviewing try to explain their feelings. She then speaks with a sex therapist, who lists potential conditions or repressions that “might be to blame.”
Can we call this representation? I know that I did not, at the end of the segment, think that I had finally found my place (though clearly I remembered the video itself, well enough, after all these years). This particular interview treated asexuality as a problem and the people who claimed it as deeply strange, and it was still my only source of information on the topic at that time. If you look at the first few comments under the video on YouTube, you can see that even four years ago people knew to be offended by its content. I’m encouraged by that, at least.
But my experience was still defined by a lack of representation. I didn’t think I was asexual. By this point (2006) there was a small community online where I’m sure I could have learned at least a bit more if I’d tried, but the 20/20 interview wasn’t any kind of impetus for me to do so. I spent another several years growing and working and trying my best. I got help for my body dysmorphia and learned to eat food and wear clothes and exist in my own body with a level of comfort I had never had before. I made some friends. I attributed my lack of any kind of dating life to my body-related issues, and tried again to be normal.
And with the rapid growth of social media and online content in general, asexuality began to get more notice. At first the articles (and the comments below them) were still more offensive than not, but eventually, in my late 20s, I came across an article on the now defunct website The Toast, written by Julie Sondra Decker. That article and the conversations it inspired led me to finally realize the truth: I am asexual, and aromantic. Things finally started making sense.
But now I am experiencing a new kind of confusion. As representation grows, it almost seems unreal to me. I watched the episode of BoJack Horseman where the character Todd says out loud “I’m asexual,” and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt elated, but also like I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. I had gotten so used to nothing, that to have this kind of recognition was jarring.
I work on a university campus, and we have an LGBTQIAP+ group, and I want to be involved, somehow, but I don’t know how. I spent so many of my years of my life without representation, without the knowledge that I could exist this way, and I do not know how to talk about it out loud. I feel like a lot of the current efforts are not for me. I can look up meetups for aces in places relatively close by, but the attendees are all 10 years younger than me. I still feel as though I am on a somewhat different plane.
But even writing that out, I don’t feel sad about it. Not at this moment, anyway. I feel grateful for the understanding I get to have. For the comfort I am able to feel, in being myself, and getting to the place where I can write out this essay. I look forward to the day when I feel more comfortable saying the words out loud: I’m asexual.
Jess is an aromantic asexual cisgendered woman who does not normally write essays unless they involve pop culture analysis, and even then she prefers listening to podcasts. Professionally, she gets to nerd out all day in a library and teach students that research is both annoying and worth it. You can reach her on twitter @jessdotro.