Asexuality and the politics of memory, abuse and consent
By: C.A. Gardner
I had sex for the first time when I was sixteen. My boyfriend and I had a hotel for the weekend. The first night he set up candles and turned down the lights. It was respectably romantic. I faked a headache. At this point we had been dating for nearly a year and I had avoided the discussion as long as I could.
I even asked permission of my mother, in the hopes she would say no and I could use that for a bit longer. But here I was in this hotel and it was unavoidable. The second night I didn’t say no. Sex had become something I had to do to prove that I loved my boyfriend. So I did it. Our relationship eventually became mostly about sex. It was proof of love.
But the more sex we had, the less I loved him. Sex is supposed to cement relationships. It was constantly spoken about in high school, like a socially conditioned expectation. “Have you had sex yet? Has he done this yet? Try this.” We broke up just before my eighteenth birthday. I could not have been more relieved.
It wouldn’t be until I turned twenty-three that I learned the word asexual. The understanding of my sexual identity came with another heartbreaking realisation. I had loved my ex. I had only convinced myself I never loved him because, from that first time, the sex had never made me feel anything. The only reasonable answer I had in a world where sexual attraction is synonymous with love, was that I never loved him.
My thinking had convinced me that because I wasn’t sexually attracted to him, I must not have loved him. There was a lot to love about that boy, a realisation I only came to years later. Eventually, I also understood that I had begun to feel like a sexual object and that he, like many other teenage boys, had a lot of problematic behaviours.
That relationship ended with me feeling very broken and void of anything. My friends told me sex was great. The media constantly reinforced the idea that sex equals love. Yet I couldn’t equate any of those things with my own experience, so I assumed that something was wrong with me. I said yes to sex, even when I desperately did not want to. When I said no I felt nothing but guilt. I slowly but surely tore little bits of me away in order to protect myself.
After the break up, I had to not only discover who I was as a single person, but also as a person. I took a stand and moved away from my little town to Brisbane. I had bad housemates. I met some amazing people. I was sexually assaulted. I made risky decisions. I quit a full time job to return to University. I was making my own mistakes and learning from them.
I was following my heart and I built myself back into a person. In finding asexuality, I had discovered a missing cog and it felt safe, like the ground I was walking on had suddenly become solid. I still have a lot of fears around being asexual, but ultimately there is comfort in knowing I am not alone, that I am not broken.
Even now I struggle to name it sexual assault. I consented. I loved him. But, in telling the story to others, they frequently remark on the abusiveness of the relationship. I don’t think he ever intended to be abusive. Discussions of consent and sexual assault were not as common place back then as they are now. He had the same social cues to work from that I did. Perhaps I still excuse him of too much. It wasn’t until I discovered asexuality that I learnt I could say no to sex.
I can never know if learning about asexuality earlier would have spared me some of those experiences. Maybe I needed those experiences to be as strong as I am now. These conversations of consent and sexual assault are important, but for asexual people it comes with a reevaluation of previous relationships. I constantly ask myself: if I had had the knowledge of asexuality then, would I have made different decisions?
Every choice I made was one of repression, and at the cost of my own desires. I behaved how I was socially conditioned to behave, because I had no other knowledge to inform my decisions. My struggle with calling my ex an abuser also lies within societal expectations. There is a grey area between inappropriate behaviour and what men think is expected of them in a sexual situation and in turn how women respond to those advances. There isn’t a neat little box to place those relationships in.
Asexuality isn’t my box or even a label. It’s a piece of my puzzle, a clue to how I was made. My experience of asexuality is different to the next persons. That diversity of experience amongst people is a beautiful thing. To me, sex is something mechanical. The concept of sex as an intimate experience is just odd. I don’t find it remotely romantic. I sit somewhere in the middle, not sex-repulsed, but I don’t particularly enjoy sex. It’s kind of just something that happens, like washing the dishes.
C.A. Gardner is a bi-romantic asexual emerging writer and playwright based in Brisbane. A recent graduate of QUT, she is committed to usurping heteronormativity on page and stage.