I once knew a guy who started every one of our few and far between conversations with this line:
“So, are you still asexual?”
The third or fourth time he asked me that question, I got irritated and asked him to stop saying it every time we spoke. Want to guess his reaction?
A. He apologized and agreed to stop?
B. He said it’d been a joke and agreed to be more considerate in the future?
C. He defended his right to keep asking every time we spoke because it’s a completely fair question, and added a nice side dish of “you’re too sensitive”?
Yes, friends, the answer is of course C.
Because no matter what I said about my orientation being as likely to change as his, he maintained that he can in fact be positive he’s heterosexual while I cannot be sure of being asexual, because asexuality is not really an orientation. It is nothing. It is a blank space. A blank space waiting to be filled with something. An undecided state. A negative waiting to turn into a positive. A “not yet.” So why shouldn’t he keep prodding me to find out if I’ve grown out of that silly indecision yet? It’s only a matter of time, right? One of these days the answer will be different, right?
(Spoiler: Actually, asexual IS a sexual orientation.)
Many of us who are not straight are more familiar than we’d like to be with being regarded by friends and loved ones as simply “going through a phase.” Until we have settled down into a stable, universally acceptable relationship like those of our heteronormative pals, we are still on a road, which is code for being on our way TO something. They don’t accept the gay, bi, poly, pan, and ace exits as being actual destinations. And furthermore, to them, the highway itself isn’t an orientation either, even though some travel on it constantly without “settling” anywhere.
Asexual people get very tired of being told we’ll change one day (“when we meet the right person” or “when we get over our issues” or “when we mature more”). But what about the people who do?
Sexual fluidity is a thing. Most asexual people–like most straight, gay, bi, poly, and pan people–are not sexually fluid. But some are, and when we talk about asexuality specifically and sexual orientation broadly, we need to make sure to acknowledge sexual fluidity. People who discover they’re sexually fluid after identifying as asexual (or any other orientation) may experience shame and may fear coming out or pursuing their desires, simply because they don’t want to fulfill the “I told you so” taunt and make asexuality look bad for all of us.
So what can we do–both inside the asexual community and within the larger bubble of sexual diversity education–to retain the flexibility that will make our communities friendly to sexually fluid people?
1. Stress labels as descriptions, not decisions. We use labels as ways to communicate what we want, not what we’re allowed to want. If what we want changes, we expand or change how we describe it, the same as we change what restaurant we go to when our appetite changes.
2. Promote inclusivity, not exclusivity. Sexual identity should never be approached as “you can’t identify as X if you Z.” For instance, a bisexual person who has never dated a same-sex partner does not have to do so to “qualify.” Educate people to acknowledge the identity and label a person chooses instead of looking for reasons they shouldn’t be choosing them. They will not “ruin” the word or distort its meaning if they’re using it differently than you; most people use labels to communicate, and if they find the word they’re choosing is communicating the wrong message consistently, they will probably stop using it for their own reasons.
3. Include an understanding of broader terms, not narrower terms. Encourage people to grow their labels to include more attraction experiences. A man who is attracted to many genders would be best described as polysexual or pansexual instead of as “switching between straight and gay” (suggesting whichever gender he is attracted to at the time is what defines him). Unless he prefers switching his term depending on who he’s dating, the term that describes his entire experience of attraction is usually the best fit.
4. Separate orientation and behavior. In other words, your identity should be described as what you want, not as what you have done or have been willing to do. Having sex with genders you aren’t attracted to doesn’t mean you must shift your label to match your experiences, and having attraction to genders you haven’t “tried” on the dating field or in your bed doesn’t mean you aren’t really deserving of the broader term.
5. Acknowledge destinations and highways equally. I drove for a while and got off at the asexual exit, and nothing has compelled me to get back on and look for something I like better. Most people get off at one of the plentiful and popular heterosexual exits. That doesn’t mean everybody else who found happiness at a different exit just needs to travel more until they find their real destination. But traveling itself? That can be a “destination” too. Some people are always driving, trying various stops, and getting back on. They’re not confused–at least, not by definition. They may just enjoy driving and feel most comfortable on the road instead of parked.
My straight “friend” up there treated me like I haven’t found my exit yet because it wasn’t his exit. He perceived me as still driving even though I told him I wasn’t, and that was his mistake. But being a perpetual driver is not shameful, regardless of whether you’re questioning, undecided, or fluid. Freedom to wander is vital, but pressure to keep driving until you find a different exit is not supportive–especially if someone else decides your exit doesn’t count as a “real” stop. In a world populated by all kinds of drivers, we need to learn the rules of the road.
As a diverse community, we must establish a culture that doesn’t punish people for exploring and learning new ways to describe their experiences. We also must avoid shaming people who haven’t experimented as much as someone else might have needed to in order to find their true orientation. Fostering education about both asexuality and sexual fluidity will help reduce invalidation of both . . . and it may help previously asexual-identified people shamelessly adjust their chosen label if they find themselves getting back on the road.
October 20 through 26, 2013 is Asexual Awareness Week. You can learn more about asexuality at the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), at any of the links recommended by Asexual Awareness Week, or check us out in the asexual tags on Tumblr.