Monday, November 15, 2010

On being between

I'm gay and asexual.  Or, if I'm being precise, I'm between the two.  In the asexual community, the word for people like me is "gray-A", though I generally avoid the term outside the community.  That makes me a gay gray-A, which is cool because it rhymes.

Since this identity is somewhat unusual, even within the asexual community, people are always asking me to explain it, to give my personal experience.  But in fact, explaining and giving my personal experience are two very different things.  If I explained what gray-A meant, a lot of it would be correcting misconceptions, explaining what you don’t know about me.  If I gave my personal experiences it could be misleading.

If I had to choose between explaining something and telling people the personal details of my life, I’d rather do the former.  That’s why I often explain asexuality, identify as between gay and asexual, but rarely go beyond that.  Asexuality 101 is difficult enough, so why should I go further, into territory that could be potentially confusing?

And yet, I still think it’s important to get my experience out there.  So I’ll do it.  But I'll intersperse it with a lot of explanation, because I don't want to mislead.

1. What you don’t know

Some people think it’s all about sex, sex drive, and libido.  They think I identified as asexual because I had a low sex drive.  They get the impression that I identified as gray-A because I tried sex with my first boyfriend and liked it.  What a narrative!  What an ill-informed narrative!

In fact, asexuality has nothing to do with sex drive.  A fairly significant fraction of the asexual community has a sex drive.  That doesn't mean they want to have sex with people they don't find sexually attractive (ie everyone).  A lone man on a deserted island would still have a sex drive; that doesn't mean he is attracted to anyone.

Nor does asexuality have to do with disliking sex.  There are many reasons people like sex, including sexual attraction, sex drive, wanting to please one’s partner, and so forth.  Though many straight people find same-sex sex to be unappealing, I think it’s perfectly possible that some of them can and have enjoyed it.  Likewise, some asexuals can enjoy sex. And non-asexuals can have negative experiences with sex.

By identifying as asexual and gray-A, I haven’t divulged any information about whether I have a sex drive, whether I tried sex, and whether I liked it.  I’d rather keep it that way.  I will say, however, that I knew all along that I had a sex drive.  And I knew that this didn’t have anything to do with whether I was asexual or not.  Therefore, the whole narrative is preposterous from the start.

2. Why my story is misleading

For me, it’s not about the sex at all.  It’s more about the romance.

But before I go on, I must explain that asexuality is not about romance.  Asexuality is about sexual attraction.  Many asexuals experience some sort of romantic attraction to people which is decidedly nonsexual.  They could be romantically attracted to one or more genders, or none at all.  We call this romantic orientation, and it parallels sexual orientation.

Therefore, if I were to explain my experience with romance, you might get the impression that a romantic experience amounts to disproving asexuality.  It doesn’t.

What’s going on here is that attraction is really complicated.  Attraction is a single name for many things.  Many people experience different kinds of attraction all at once, and so there is no point in distinguishing them.  And when you tell someone else about your experience of attraction, it’s like trying to explain how something smells or taste.  Our language just isn’t sufficient.  So it’s really hard to tell whether you’re experiencing the same thing as everyone else or not.  So we sort of lump all these experiences together under a single label, “attraction”.

In the asexual community, people spend a lot of time trying to tease apart different kinds of attraction.  Romantic attraction and sexual attraction are just the most widely used labels.  There’s also sensual attraction, aesthetic attraction, platonic attraction, primary and secondary attraction, and so on.  I treat these categories like I treat the descriptions on the back of wine bottles.  They’re rather subjective.  And as far as my personal experience goes, some of the distinctions are meaningless.

In particular, the romantic/sexual distinction is meaningless.  Sure, here’s romance, and there’s sex, and I can tell the difference.  I just don’t see why I would want to have one without the other.  I considered myself asexual because I didn’t experience romantic attraction, which as far as I’m concerned, is a prerequisite for sexual attraction.  So when I experienced a little romantic attraction, it made more sense for me to shift to gray-A rather than merely gray-romantic asexual.

In general, it would be inappropriate to generalize my experience to anyone else. But you knew that already, right?

3. What it’s like to be me

I can’t scope out a room.  I can’t go to a bar and say, hey, that guy looks cute.  He’s just some guy.  Maybe he’s well-dressed.  Maybe his face reminds me of an old friend.  Maybe he looks like he’s enjoying himself.  But it doesn’t occur to me to think of people as attractive based on looks.  You point out an attractive person to me, I’ll say, “Who? What?”  And then I’ll think, “Oh, right, most people can tell if someone is attractive just by looking at them.”  I’m still not entirely sure how that works.

And yet, I did spend many months looking at people passing by, to see if I had any feelings about how people look.  At first I tried with women, with no success.  Then I tried with men.  So I found that seeing certain guys gives me a slight rush.  Finally, I’ve figured out what people have been talking about my whole life, and it’s… it’s so weak and useless!  It doesn’t actually make me like the guy or want to be with him or anything. It doesn't last any appreciable length of time either.

What I’m describing here is what’s known as aesthetic attraction, liking the way someone looks.  I’m keenly aware that it is not necessarily related to sexual attraction. And though it does not constitute asexuality, it’s one of the most notable aspects of my own experience.

Some people say that they’re attracted to personality rather than looks, but that’s not the case for me either.  There are certain personalities I like.  I like serious, nerdy, honest, and eccentric people.  And if I had a partner, it’s probably important that they have a personality I like.  But just because someone has a likeable personality doesn’t mean I’m attracted to them in any sort of romantic or sexual way.  It means I like them as a person, or as a friend.

In summary, I am never attracted to anyone under any ordinary social circumstances.  Not when I look at them, not when I find that they have a great personality, not when I find that they are great people to be with.  How is it that I’m ever attracted to anyone at all?  I'm not entirely sure. I think reciprocation and physical touch are fairly important, but I might give a different answer tomorrow.

How did I ever end up dating anyone?  I may like the idea of a long term relationship, but this is a rather emotionally distant motivator to dating. It doesn't actually carry any weight in ordinary social situations when I see a bunch of people, none of whom are attractive. Both times I've started dating, the other guy asked me out.  Unfortunately, I can’t think of a better way to do it.

But once I started dating, I found that things proceeded almost normally.  I’ve liked kissing, cuddling.  I’ve wanted to hold their hands in public (despite the oppressive social conventions against it).  I’ve wanted to just be with the person, to share moments with them.  To lose track of time with them.

I’ve also had bouts of doubt.  When, sometimes, my instinct is to treat them just as a friend.  When, after a date, I sense that something was artificial.  The worst is when I think that I have something to offer, but it just isn’t enough.  See, it’s not the romantic/aromantic distinction that matters.  What really matters is the distinction between being capable and incapable of functioning in a relationship.

But I’m cautiously optimistic about it.  I’m careful about calling it "optimism" though, because I want to accept all possibilities.  If it works out eventually with someone, that’s cool.  If it just never works out, that’s cool too.  They're very different options, but they both have their upsides.

4. What people say, but shouldn’t

Some people say my experiences just sound like they’re in the normal range.  Well, yeah!  Asexual and gray-A are as much part of the “normal range” as being gay.

I think what they mean, though is that they think there are a lot of gay people out there with the same experiences and who do not identify as gray-A or have to talk about it ever.  If that’s true, then good for them!  It doesn’t really bother me that two people can have similar experiences yet identify as half an orientation apart.

Other people say I should be open to new sexual and romantic experiences.  For some reason, they never suggest being open to new asexual or aromantic experiences.  In any case, of course I’m open to both!  It’s practically a requirement of identifying as gray-A.  I already have some experiences that I share with asexuals, and some I share with sexuals, and I accept both.

I also understand that, being in the gray zone, it doesn't take much to nudge me into one category or the other.  I could be just a little wrong.  Or my experiences could shift over time.  Or I could just slightly shift the definition of asexual.  I identify as gray-A because I don't like having to play this game of jumping back and forth over an invisible line.


SlightlyMetaphysical said...

Wow. There's such a lot I want to say in response to this. Sorry if I ramble on a bit, but I have some pretty strong reactions to what you've said.

For a start, when I've been worrying about how stupidly complicated my orientation is to explain, seeing someone else explaining theirs in this length is reassuring.

Ok, so the "Give us the 101/your experiences!" thing. So annoying! It's the idea that they're necessarily the same thing that makes it so difficult to come out as a non-typical asexual. You're spinning two stories at once, and the stories are contradictory but one of them relies on the other, and the people you're explaining to might not even realise that there are two stories.
And that's not counting, as you mention, that you want people to know about you, but you don't want to confuse them by going past 101 too fast.

And I don't like using grey-a outside of the asexual community either. That's why I've widened demisexual (in my head) to mean what grey-a used to, because it feels stupid to out yourself as grey-a.

I've been thinking recently about how asexuals define orientation compared to the rest of the world. I think the main difference is actually that we DO. Our definition tends to be about attraction, and about compartmentalising the different attractions.

"See, it’s not the romantic/aromantic distinction that matters. What really matters is the distinction between being capable and incapable of functioning in a relationship."

Wow. You've developed some kind of device to pluck thoughts out of people's brains before they've had them and translate them into words. Are you going to use this power for good or evil?

And finally (finally!) I find it quite a weird experience to think that other people with essentially exactly the same sexuality as me are identifying completely differently.

Great post.

Larry, a.k.a. The Barefoot Bum said...

I make no pretenses to "normality"; I am who I am, no more, no less. But I have such different reactions.

I see a certain type of woman (always women), and my lizard brain literally explodes with lust. (My monkey brain, happily, is usually able to (introspectively) observe my lizard brain going nuts without much affecting my overt behavior.) It's an utterly unmistakable feeling.

Sometimes I'll see a certain type of woman; on the visual stimulus alone, my lizard brain says, "Meh." Then she'll open her mouth, say some thing smart, or just complimentary, and the lizard brain is in hyperdrive again. Again, just women: the smartest guy in the world can say the smartest thing in the world, and my lizard brain yawns.

It's very difficult for me to imagine someone not having his or her lizard brain flood the monkey brain with visceral unreasoning lust pretty much every half hour as long as I'm awake and in public.

Happily, my monkey brain is able to grasp intellectually, at least to some extent, that which I can't grasp viscerally. Or at least I do my best to make allowances for my limited and entirely parochial perspective.

miller said...


I don't use "demisexual" with outside audiences for the same reason I don't use "gray-A". I find that people often say, "Whoa, there's a word for that? Is that actually a thing?" And I have to say, yes, but I don't have time to get into it.


I've also had trouble imagining people with such different experiences from my own. I spent years projecting myself onto other people, thinking they must not really be as much into sex as it seems.

DeralterChemiker said...

You have dissected your feelings in so many ways, but most of them could be covered by what most people would simply call friendship. You mention friends; what is friendship to you? Can you describe what friendship means to you? Do you have friends of both sexes?

miller said...

You're asking for me to share more. I'm not obligated to share any of this.

Honestly, that is kind of a disingenuous question to ask. It's like when a Christian first meets an atheist, and the first question they can think to ask is, "Did you have a poor relationship with your father?" Even though it's a completely valid question to ask in some contexts (many atheists don't get along with their religious families), this particular context does not inspire confidence. It's playing into a myth that atheists just have bad relationships with their fathers. The Christian needs to build more trust before they can ask such a question.

You want to know what asexuals think of friendship vs romance, you do the research. Research broadly, since opinions and attitudes vary widely on this subject.

Charles said...

Count me a skeptic to what you described. There seems to be a lot of confusion: sexual vs. romantic attraction, same-sex or opposite-sex attraction, etc. That may be why it is difficult to talk about. One thing which is clear is that humanity is created with males and females for the purpose of companionship, marriage, and procreation. A violation of this creative intent is the cause of confusion and pain.

miller said...


That may be true. ... Or, none of it is true, and you're full of shit. If only you had actually advanced an argument, then we could decide between these two possibilities.

Larry, a.k.a. The Barefoot Bum said...

One thing which is clear...

I do not think that word means what you think it means.

Charles said...

“It is clear” in the sense that anyone can observe the obvious: there are males and females in the world. Otherwise, why wouldn’t only males occupy the earth? Or why not only females? Sometimes, human beings ignore the obvious intentionally to pursue self-centered gratification. And, confusion ensues.

Larry, a.k.a. The Barefoot Bum said...

It is of course clear that there are indeed males and females. That's not anywhere close to your original assertion. You asserted that the purpose of having males and females is clear. Are you a liar or just stupid?

Sometimes, human beings ignore the obvious intentionally to pursue self-centered gratification.

Are you saying that I have ignored the fact that there are males and females? If that's not what you're saying, then this statement is utterly irrelevant and inappropriate. Are you insulting me or are you prone to psychotic fugues?