Asexuality and ambiguity: Coming to terms
By: Dženana Vucic
I was 22 the first time I masturbated. This surprises people since I’m pretty sex-positive and never shy of telling embarrassing stories about my ‘love life’.
A friend bought me a hot pink bunny-shaped vibrator for my birthday, and I spent two weeks staring at it with some trepidation before my curiosity won out.
I had tried before, of course, but without success. Without any bodily response at all, really. There were brief experiments in the bath, in bed with pillows, sitting over that seat on the bus. Nothing.
When I was 16, I told two friends that I’d never had an orgasm. They gave me the ‘homework’ of touching myself that night and reporting the results the next day.
There was nothing to report: I tried but nothing happened. I got bored, read a book.
Image by Jagoda Jago
Before 22, I’d never had the urge to touch myself. I’d never been turned on, except as a direct result of someone else’s touch. I’d never looked at someone and wanted to have sex with them, or watched or read anything that got me in the mood.
When friends joked about getting wet or hard at the sight of someone, I assumed it was a hyperbolic extrapolation of the moments preceding actual intercourse, a crude joke with no real relation to bodily experience.
The thought of looking at someone and wanting to have sex with them purely out of sexual attraction was – and is – so far removed from my understanding of my body and my desires that it’s almost impossible for me to imagine.
In high school, I toyed with the idea that I was asexual. There was barely any information online and so my understanding of what it meant to be ‘ace’ was crude and patchwork.
It seemed an identity precariously balanced against being a woman. And being a woman, as everyone knew, meant not masturbating, and only wanting sex when you were in love.
The repression of female sexuality was so normalised that I couldn’t tell the difference: was I asexual, or was I merely woman?
Still, I ‘came out’ as asexual a few months after the failed masturbation test. At the time, the word had little social meaning – my friends laughed, asked if I would spontaneously produce a child and made amoeba jokes. I explained it sometimes, but mostly I stopped talking about it. And then a boy asked me out and I said yes.
He, and the serious boyfriend that followed him, were attractive. I recognised this on an aesthetic level. They were handsome – almost prototypically good-looking. I dated them because they asked.
There was something very Pride and Prejudice about my turning towards them, my feelings premised on a sense of gratitude at being seen and desired rather than any desire or romantic interest of my own. They were beautiful, too, and to be found sexually attractive by beautiful boys was a reward in and of itself.
I fooled around with my first boyfriend and had sex for the first time with my second. I was 17 and it was fine. It hurt, but not too much. It was awkward, but not too much.
It didn’t get better, though, and we fought and almost broke up over this thing that neither one of us knew quite how to put into words: we didn’t like sex.
It’s important that I say ‘we’ here because that’s the truth of it: he didn’t want it either. It had been too soon for him; he hadn’t been ready. For a while, we stopped having sex altogether.
The next relationship I fell into was a mostly sexless one. We didn’t often talk about why but when we did, it was shame-faced, teary and hotly argued. I was always the cause of these arguments, always the one wanting to know why we weren’t doing it.
I didn’t want to have sex per se, but I wanted to be desired and saw sex as the physical manifestation of that.
I know this one-sided narrative is unfair. In trying to explain the sexual dynamics of these relationships, I’m reducing them and the people involved.
In trying not to put words in mouths, I’m leaving out important questions about what it meant for my cis-male partners to not want to have sex, or to not want to have sex as much as we’re taught (cis-)men should.
I also don’t want to suggest that I didn’t enjoy sex with my partners. It’s just that my relationship to it was dictated by factors outside my physical desires – I wanted to be close to my partners, I wanted to enact what I thought was sexual liberation, I wanted to feel wanted.
My first experience of sexual desire was with a partner, M, who I was deeply in love with. I was 24 and I decided I couldn’t possibly be asexual if it felt like this when he kissed me. I decided, too, that my mother had been right.
I was raised in a Bosnian Muslim household and sex had always been considered a sacred act, reserved for marriage and for the person (definitely of the opposite sex) you loved.
My mother had been careful to explain the beauty of the act, that it was a special thing between two people intimately bonded to one another. As a kid, I thought this was very sensible, but as I grew into adulthood and into my politics, I became convinced that her ideas were old-fashioned and un-feminist.
And yet, when in love, sex felt exactly like the thing she had described. It was passionate and tender and stupidly like the movies. I wanted it, which seemed an unalienable aspect of that greater desire to be with him.
When we broke up, my sense of desire stayed tightly bound to him. I continued to date, continued to have sex, but there was no burning, no urgency. I thought about asexuality again, turning to ace websites to try and separate what it was that I had felt from what I didn’t feel.
This time, there was more information, but no greater clarity. Asexuality is, by most standards, characterised by little to no sexual attraction to other people (regardless of sex/gender).
This information, though, meant little to me, and even less when the websites made clear that aces date, fuck, masturbate, fall in love, get aroused, have orgasms. Get married and have children and have affairs. That they experience romantic, aesthetic, sensual and emotional attraction. That what they don’t experience, or what they don’t usually experience, is sexual attraction, as distinct from sexual desire.
I found myself hung up on what this meant, clicking through Google search results and going in circles around myself to understand the difference between the two. ‘Sexual attraction’, as in finding a person sexually appealing and wanting to have sex with them. ‘Sexual desire’, as in wanting to have sex, whether for pleasure, connection, conception or some other reason.
I answered the checklist questions and came away knowing that I hadn’t experienced sexual attraction as defined, but not knowing whether I had experienced sexual attraction as I would define it. Definitions are slippery. Definitions are not objective.
I was single for four years after M and I broke up. I dated a lot in that time, sometimes out of low self-esteem, sometimes out of boredom, sometimes for want of company.
I always stopped short when things seemed to be getting away from me, at the point when the other person started looking at me a certain way.
I had been in a relationship almost continuously since I was 17 – almost eight years of coupledom with only a few months break in between each new partner – and I didn’t want one again. I had a mid-20s realisation that I didn’t actually need to be with anyone.
I liked being single, liked all the time I had at my disposal, liked the way I could fill my days with books and hobbies and friends. At its best, dating seemed an extension of that. A romantic connection, though, felt entirely impossible.
Up until M and I broke up, I considered myself straight. I’d never felt sexually attracted to a woman, after all.
It hadn’t occurred to me that the fact that I’d never been sexually attracted to a man might render the situation more complicated. Assumed heterosexuality is common to the asexual experience.
This is unsurprising. ‘Compulsory heterosexuality’, as Adrienne Rich called it, is common to the human experience. We’re conditioned into it, our sexuality forced into the shapes society dictates.
It hadn’t occurred to me that I was anything other than straight until I was lying next to my housemate and my insides became heavy, a weight pressing low in my stomach. Until I wanted to reach out and touch her, but didn’t.
After Moses Sumney’s album Aromanticism came out in 2017, a friend (and ex-lover) sent me a link. “Lol,” he wrote, “it you.” My housemate had been listening to it too, and one night as we sat around smoking and listening to ‘Make Out in My Car’, I realised all of a sudden: no, it wasn’t me at all.
I find it hard to navigate this space of asexuality and its adjacent identifications.
I find it hard to know what desire is, what attraction is, what it means to have wanted that ex so much, or to have felt things shift when my housemate and I kissed.
When I started dating women, I started calling myself bi, but only sometimes, only to certain people.
When I moved back to Bosnia, I found myself starkly outside of these questions. Sex, desire and attraction relate differently there, in ways that I don’t understand but which feel familiar. I am the eldest cousin on one side of my family and, even at 29, assumed a virgin.
Though I didn’t say it, I thought my cousins – most of whom are in their mid or early 20s – were incredibly repressed. I considered myself worldly and knowledgeable for all the sex I’d had, and they had not.
When my eldest cousin asked, “But how could you want to have sex with someone you don’t love?” I didn’t flinch. I told her that in Australia, sex is an important part of a relationship, that it’s necessary to know if you’re sexually compatible.
I cringe now at my flippant response, the way I turned her question into a sign of female subjugation rather than an acknowledgement of what I had actually experienced myself – that an emotional connection is, at least for some, a necessary prelude to sexual attraction/desire.
This, in Bosnia, is normal, unquestioned, uncategorised. In the West, though, there is now language for it: ‘demisexual’ describes a person who experiences sexual attraction only after they have developed a strong emotional connection to another person.
When I first read this definition, I was confused. I had assumed that this was the norm – that while some people really did get wet or hard at the mere thought of someone, those people were the exception rather than the rule.
Most people required some kind of connection first, surely? Not love, necessarily. But an emotional bond?
There is, in this, something of my own experience, and then, of course, something of my upbringing – the Eastern European in me, the Bosnian, the Muslim.
Demisexuality, even as a category that applies to me, is difficult for me to understand because it seems to require such a specifically Western, hypersexual understanding of sex and desire.
But this understanding is pervasive. Ads for perfume, for cars, for couches, even for yoghurt, are charged with sexual energy; films are just about required to have a romantically or sexually charged subplot; even feminism, which has often conflated sexual liberation with empowerment and empowerment with actual power, makes sexual attraction seem natural and inevitable (Women are horny too! Women can fuck as much and as many people as men can!).
The fact of sexual attraction is made so commonplace that we experience it as the norm. Even when we understand that sexuality is constructed, we tend to think that has to do with how and who we desire. The fact of desiring at all is taken for granted.
Writing about asexuality, Ela Przybylo draws attention to the ways in which sexual attraction is dominant in Western discourse and media, arguing that an asexual identity is a cultural phenomenon arising in response to the Western context of “sexual, coital and heterosexual imperatives”.
Demisexuality, I think, exemplifies this. So too, do the numerous other asexuality-aligned identifications.
In saying this, I don’t mean to diminish or devalue them. All sexuality is shaped by the world we live in. It is no surprise, then, that in response to the sexual imperatives of Western society, we have invented terminology to explain the way that we do not fit into that dynamic.
Because sexual attraction is presumed to be the norm, not experiencing it is seen as abnormal or disordered. Hypoactive sexual desire disorder, for example, which is experienced predominantly by women, is marked by a lack of sexual attraction to others and is pathologised by virtue of the distress and interpersonal difficulties it causes.
There is no ‘cure’, but women have been encouraged by their doctors to drink wine to get them more in the ‘mood’. Men are offered Viagra to ‘fix’ their erectile dysfunction or low libido.
Asexuality, on the other hand, is not a disorder, does not need to be ‘cured’, and therein lies its power.
For something to be a disorder, it must cause distress in the person experiencing it. Asexuality, which does not frame a lack of sexual desire as inherently problematic, offers a counter-discourse to the accepted Western notion that all ‘normal’ people want to fuck.
Ace identities rebel against Western capitalist scripts (whether from movies, porn or advertising) that position us as always wanting, and challenge ideas of ‘normal’ sexuality, thus de-pathologising and de-medicalising different levels of sexual desire/attraction.
Asexuality normalises the breadth and depth of sexual and romantic possibility, acknowledging the ways that desire is complex and individual and always shifting.
It is, after all, an identity of ambiguity – blurred distinctions between desire and attraction, between want and want.
It is an emancipatory act to recognise and celebrate yourself in all your difference, to normalise the wide diversity of human experience. And there is power in claiming your position, political and personal value in representing yourself, and by association, other selves like you.
And yet, despite my history with asexuality, I choose to call myself bisexual now. I do this because ‘bi’ feels like the truest expression of who I am, sexually and politically.
Because I was raised in a context that meant Western paradigms of attraction and desire didn’t make sense to me (no matter how hard I tried to enact them) and because I am no longer interested in supressing the Bosnian Muslim in me.
Because I don’t know and cannot understand the distinctions between attraction and desire, between physically wanting someone and wanting them emotionally and because the entanglement of the two needs no explanations or terminology in my cultural context.
Because that same cultural context sees queerness as abnormal.
I choose to call myself bisexual because, for me, it is the more politically important claim to make. Because calling myself bi doesn’t make me any less ace. Because we get to choose what we call ourselves.
Dženana Vucic is a Bosnian-Australian writer, editor and 2020 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow. Her essays, poetry and stories have been published in Overland, Meanjin, Stilts, SAND, Kill Your Darlings, Australian Poetry Journal, the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Rabbit, and others. She tweets at @dzenanabanana.
This article first appeared in Archer Magazine #15, the FRIENDSHIP issue
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