Much of my childhood and adolescence was a project in molding myself according to the whims of heterosexual men. Virtually all aspects of a girl’s socialization involve learning to navigate the precarious balance between restraint and excess. For instance, we must dress and style ourselves in a manner that is attractive to men but does not imply that we are looking for the attention. We should demonstrate intellect but not to the extent that it might be intimidating. Somewhere amidst the double standards and swift condemnation, womxn are expected to carve out a space for ourselves and settle into a way of living that is composed, graceful, and unlikely to offend.
I internalized this mindset and my identity took form around it. As my voice started to deepen, I carefully modulated its pitch so that it wouldn’t come across as intimidating or suggestive or manly. When adult men leered at or catcalled or followed my teenaged self, I looked inward. What did it say about me when I stepped outside wearing clothing that accentuated the curve of my waist and the flare of my hips? Excuses came easy even when I was clad in a loose hoodie and sweats — I’d almost certainly looked in his direction a touch too long or I’d had too wide a smile on my face. One way or the other, I’d failed the balancing act and tumbled off the tightrope.
From a young age, I knew I never wanted children. Initially dismissed by others, my continued insistence forced a reluctant acknowledgment that yes, theoretically, not having children was an option. An undesirable one, certainly, and one that I’d regret but nevertheless a possibility. Living alone, however, was not something that I ever considered. To step into adulthood was to date and develop long-term relationships with the intent of settling down. This was maturity, wasn’t it? Maturity, and the natural endpoint of years of learning how to speak, act, and present myself in ways acceptable to men.
Crushes didn’t develop. My response to bodies deemed attractive in the media wasn’t much different from how I scrutinized museum artifacts. I turned down dates. I waved all of it away, claiming that I was simply too focused on my studies to devote attention to anything else even as I whiled away the early morning hours watching anime and scrolling through Reddit. I hoped that my mother’s knowing glances whenever she saw me speaking to boys or heard me mention a male friend held some as-of-yet unknown insight that’d dawn on me eventually — that romantic feelings were blooming and domestic bliss awaited. I accepted praise for being cautious, for having the “integrity” required to save myself for someone special; I never bothered to clarify that my lifestyle didn’t involve making a decision, that it wasn’t some kind of testament to the quality of my character but instead, it was simply my state of being.
I was nineteen when I first heard of the aromantic and asexual spectra. The only context I had for asexuality was microbial reproduction; aromanticism was entirely foreign and seemed to have even more troubling implications. As I read through online forum posts detailing experiences eerily similar to mine, I could only wonder what effect being aromantic or asexual or both would have on the heteronormative future I’d imagined for myself. How was I supposed to overcome my lack of romantic and sexual attraction? How could I make myself want to be in a relationship? And if I truly wasn’t interested in participating in any of that, was I supposed to declare that in a visible way? For instance, was it misleading to dress in a way that others would find appealing if I wasn’t available?
It didn’t occur to me then that, perhaps instead of looking inward as I’d been conditioned, the problem was situated externally. I had never considered that the system in which we operate is fundamentally broken. I’d never thought that I needed a new framework through which to analyze love, intimacy, and relationships, or to revise how I hierarchized relationships. Frankly, I didn’t know where to begin.
It’s the uncertainty that might be the most challenging part of discovering asexuality and aromanticism. The invisibility of these orientations, including a dearth of media representation, makes it difficult to envision a fulfilling life. How can it be, when romantic and sexual relationships are portrayed as integral to the pursuit of happiness? How can it be, when you are pressured to continually interrogate your identity and ask yourself if it’s trauma, or inability to get a partner, or if you’re repressed or otherwise defunct.
As a woman, I’ve been taught to view my value as inextricable from my ability to attract and keep a partner. To this end, I’ve learned to scrutinize myself constantly in order to keep myself in check and act just right. I’ve grown used to tolerating unwanted attention, excusing it as a consequence of my own behavior. I’ve rationalized away my lack of desire for a relationship, conforming to what’s expected of me, as I’ve done repeatedly throughout my life.
Coming to terms with being aromantic asexual offered an opportunity to pursue what I wanted for myself. To reject the premise that my existence is centered on my appeal to men. To stop juggling external expectations and to choose to speak how I want, behave how I want, and dress how I want. For me, it was the most unexpected and yet welcome avenue to be wholly and unapologetically myself.