The Emergence of Asexual Identity
“I am an asexual person wondering if my lack of sexual interest might doom me to relative loneliness – a life with many good and special friends, but without a lifelong, deeply loving, committed bond to anyone.” On December 17th, 1990, C. Bryja opened a discussion topic entitled “Committed, Loving, yet Asexual Relationships” on Usenet: a communicative network popular in the early 1990s and still active today. Bryja opened her post with the preceding message for whoever had access to the server, the desire to engage, and the fortuity of encountering it. What made her declaration important was its transmission through a newly available and increasingly public forum – computer technology.
By the early 1990s, the Information Age was dawning. It was a time when digital sharing and communication, although cumbersome, were becoming more accessible to the general public. Newfound access to discussion systems like Usenet meant that groups on the social periphery held more leverage to amplify their voice to a previously unreachable and ever-expanding audience. Usenet is organized into repositories known as newsgroups each intended for topical text-based communication between users. Discussion occurs in a manner much like email, albeit with less privacy, while newsgroup topics range from political discourse to popular subcultures, much like discussion forums operate on the Internet today.
Bryja’s discussion topic was posted at soc.couples – a newsgroup frequented by those seeking relationship advice; she thought of it as a “good newsgroup to discuss a MAJOR personal concern of mine.” Bryja was not explicitly concerned with the innerworkings of a relationship, but whether one could even manifest for an asexual person like herself: “everybody around me seems to be sexual, and seems to make sex an important ingredient in their emotionally committed relationships … it hurts being alone; I don’t want to grow old alone; I want to share the sorrows and glories of my life with someone who will always be there to share their own with me … I even want to adopt and raise a child or two and do [not] want to do that alone either.”
In this vulnerable personal message, Bryja defined her asexuality as a “lack of sexual interest” – an absence of feeling not shared by the vast majority of other human beings. She wondered if her asexual identity had diminished her ability to form a committed coupling – to find a suitable “match.” Understandably, this isolating experience worried her greatly and prompted feelings of uncertainty in her regarding what was to come of her future. However, although Bryja openly questioned if her asexual identity had marginalized her into an “extreme minority,” and asked fellow soc.couples users whether they thought “lots of potential ‘spouses’ [were] out there” for her given the rarity of her identity, she did not express discontentment in actually being an asexual person.
In fact, Bryja clarified these feelings in a postscript aimed at potential doubters: “For those people who want to call into question my asexuality, please don’t! Yes, I’ve tried sex. I’ve had two sexual partners in my life – one of each gender – one where there was great love between us – one where there wasn’t. I know what I’m saying ‘no’ to. I just don’t care for it.” Yet, despite openly signposting this for readers, one user still expressed hesitation at Bryja’s self-identification with asexuality. Although they appeared to be well-intentioned (at one moment stating that it wasn’t their motive to attempt to bring Bryja “on the right track”) their tone throughout much of their reply exuded a certain condescension:
“Don’t worry about the way you feel. Don’t think too much about ‘it’. Maybe, just maybe, there comes a time when you meet a really nice person … Some people need more time … All I’m saying is what you think is asexuality could actually be just the reaction to not having found the right person (emphasis added) … The reason why I think that this could be the case is that you are actually fond of finding a person to huddle and cuddle, to have a relationship (just w/o sex). That’s very o.k. But the appetite often comes with the food. It can happen that you find a person who will bring to rise the appetite for sex even in you. Give it another try, is my advice.”
Not only does this user’s rhetoric suggest that they could possibly know Bryja better than she knew herself (i.e. “what you think is asexuality could actually be…”), their phrasing positions asexuality as a potential by-product of sexual solitude – wearing the identity as a mask, even if unbeknownst to you, until the “right person” comes along. Their response also encourages Bryja to abandon her own certainties of identity (“Give it another try, is my advice”) by reminding her to remain aware of the possibility of sexual desire arising in sensual scenarios (“you are fond of finding a person to huddle and cuddle … but… it can happen that you find a person who will bring to rise the appetite for sex even in you”).
I’ve learned from repeatedly coming out myself that receiving doubtful responses from people who disbelieve or don’t understand asexuality, despite their intentions, is very common. How Bryja framed her postscript seems to convey this understanding. The seemingly well-intentioned advice that asexual people may just have to “find the right person” was unfortunately not an anomaly reserved for a response to a Usenet post in December of 1990, as many asexual people today are aware. Threads on the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) forum located at asexuality.org (the most popular contemporary discussion space for asexual people today) have frequently emerged over the years interrogating the commonality of this phrase when asexual people come out. An AVEN user who created a discussion post in 2012 entitled “You just haven’t met the right person” asked: “How often have some of you heard this? I'm prepared for a lot of it once I declare myself to the wider world….” Several other asexual people acknowledged its overuse in the post’s replies. Another in 2014 echoed essentially identical sentiments, with nearly every user indicating that they had been on the receiving end or at least were aware of its use. Many other discussion topics and responses in previous and subsequent years have reverberated similar sentiments on the phrase’s commonality in this context.
What the endurance of this phrase over decades of time can tell us about societal perceptions of asexuality should not be minimized, especially given the phrase’s deeper assumptions. Not only does this “find the right person” rhetoric invalidate asexual identity as merely symptomatic of non-sexual solitude, which has been conditioned to be perceived as inferior, disconcerting, or embarrassing in the mind of the invalidator (even if in a sub-conscious manner), but also that there is a deeper cause or source of asexual identity: in this case, not having found the “right” sexual partner. If asexuality is a symptom of this “problem” rectifying its source becomes a “solution,” even if that solution is the expectation that you ceaselessly look for “Mx. Right” until they are found, and you are no longer asexual. Asexual identity is thus interpreted as an expression of wrongly “giving up” on the pursuit of sex – a quest which has been deemed essential, natural, and normal – rather than of genuinely finding comfort in an identity which represents an aspect of oneself.
This article is an excerpt of Ending the Pursuit: Asexuality, Aromanticism, and Agender Identity, a book in the process of funding on publishing platform Unbound.