Identity, spectrums, and labels

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Even after I discovered the asexual spectrum in 2014, it took me over a year and a half to call myself asexual. I changed my identifiers at least three times in that period, and each change was one notch further from the point where the asexual and allosexual spectrums meet.

I have incredibly mixed feelings about labels. As an author and a lover of books, I believe words have power, and I believe finding a word to describe you—or simply some small aspect of you—can be a life-changing moment.

Labels can help us clarify our own thoughts, they can validate our feelings and/or experiences, and they help us find others like us. However, labels tend to be seen as rigid, fixed, either/or definitions of a person. According to the wider consensus, you’re this or that, but rarely both. Labels come with sets of expectations, stigmas, and qualifications, and it’s these plus the seeming rigidity of it all, that makes accepting a label—even an accurate one—a struggle sometimes.

Which is exactly what happened to me.

As I’ve mentioned several other places, I was married. It ended for a lot of reasons, but a major factor was our sexualities. I didn’t have the language I needed to have this conversation with him at the time, but I’m almost certain my ex-husband was about as far on the libido and sexuality spectrums as he could be from me. Bi-hypersexual if I had to guess. Being found sexually attractive and desirable by his partner (i.e. me) was crucial to his happiness. I loved him, but I didn’t want him. Or anyone. Not naked and in bed.

Despite knowing I’d never even been sexually attracted to the man I married—and did love; for a while, at least—when I placed myself on the ace spectrum several years later, I still chose heteromantic and demisexual as my identifiers. They felt safer. More “normal.” It was as though all I needed was to meet “the right person” and then I’d be able have a “normal” relationship one day. I wasn’t admitting it to myself, but there was a strong fear of deviating too far from social expectations, and so I picked the identity closest to what everyone else seemed to experience and told myself it was right.

But it wasn’t.

Like a healing wound or a loose tooth, I couldn’t stop poking at the label. Slowly, I accepted the difference between romantic and sexual attraction, and I admitted the truth of my feelings for my ex to myself: I’d loved him once, but I’d wanted to jump his bones never. The times I did initiate sexual intimacy were about an emotional pull—or the emotional blackmail he was fond of using.

Graysexual, then. Maybe I was heteromantic graysexual. It still left the door open for “normal” one day, even if I couldn’t begin to guess what random set of circumstances would have to occur for me to finally and suddenly feel sexual desire for the first time.

Still, I couldn’t stop poking. I thought back on my life and honestly looked at my history with crushes and attraction and romance.

In elementary school, everyone carried around Teen Beat to pour over. They crushed hard on Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Devon Sawa. I barely knew who these people were and stared in utter confusion as another girl in my class repeatedly kissed a picture of JTT. Why? What was the point?

Through elementary and the end of middle school, I knew people had crushes, so I said I did too, but mine never felt the way they talked about theirs. Watching people kiss in movies made me uncomfortable to the point of squirmy. Sex scenes? I closed my eyes until they ended. There were no posters of bands or celebrities on my walls. I didn’t fantasize about kissing the boy I liked during recess, I just wanted someone to like me best. When someone did make it clear they liked me, though, I had no idea how to react or what to do. I became awkward and panicky until they went away.

I started dating in high school, but every relationship I had was because of someone else’s persistence. Especially the one with my future ex-husband. I discovered cuddling with someone I liked was phenomenal. Kissing was pretty great. Beyond that? Everything was only okay. I didn’t mind it, but I never wanted it. Never.

Finally, more than a year and a half after first discovering the term, I claimed asexual.

It’s not an easy label to claim in a society with such harsh double standards for sex. Especially for women. We’re not supposed to be sexually independent or promiscuous, but when a person expresses interest in us sexually, we’re expected to respond. Enthusiastically. To not want sex (of any type) at all? It’s seen as more deviant and unnatural than almost any kink or fetish I have ever heard of. Asexuality is dismissed as a nonexistent orientation. It’s seen as a smokescreen for past trauma and lingering fear. It’s laughed off as religious fundamentalism. It’s treated with cloying concern and proof of some kind medical or psychological problem that can be fixed. And needs to be fixed.

I knew all of this, which is why it took me so long to espouse the label most suited for my identity. I knew claiming asexual would come with all of these judgments and social expectations, and it took me a long time to be ready for that. Because we view labels (and not solely ones for orientation) as fixed, defining points of focus, they’re often the first thing to fall back on when describing someone, so claiming a label often means accepting the culture and ideology surrounding it. Or accepting the constant battle against them.

For me, identifying as asexual meant stepping up to protest the dismissal and misperception of the orientation. I use the stories I create and the characters I populate them with. I use the essays I write. I use the panels I have the chance to speak on. I educate and spread awareness of the truth—or, rather, of the idea that there is no “truth.” All there can be is experience in its infinite variety, and all we share are moments of overlap where we can look at someone else with wide eyes and say “You too?”

There’s no one way someone is as an asexual, and there’s no one path to embracing the label. Mine was long and had a lot of stops and wrong turns. Others might be able to jump in and immediately attach to the term closest to their heart. The point is how important it is for the community at large to allow for this exploration.

As we become more educated and aware of how different our experiences and perceptions of the world can be, giving each other safe spaces to work through their identities and figure out their brains is crucial. What I hope initiatives like Ace Awareness Week will do is give people the language they need to have this conversation—either with themselves or their family and community—and allow them the space they need to set aside the expectations of the label and look at its core. That’s where the comfort lies, and that’s where the rest of us who’ve already made this journey are waiting to welcome them.

 


In honor of Ace Awareness Week, I’m hosting a giveaway!

Entries are simple, and you can enter daily. To win the grand prize, you must live in the US, however, both second and third prize are open internationally. The caveat for international winners is these books won’t be signed; I’ll be ordering them through Book Depository or sending you an ebook through Amazon.

Another note? This is the FIRST time I’ve ever given away one of my incredibly limited paper ARCs of Island of Exiles! Very few of these printed copies exist, so enter to win a signed, limited edition copy of my upcoming fantasy novel.

To enter, check out the form below! One of the entries is to leave a comment on this post answering a question: When and how did you first hear learn about asexuality?

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42 thoughts on “Identity, spectrums, and labels

  1. Leah Karge

    When I found the word bisexuality to describe my interest in multiple genders, I jumped on that bad boy so fast. It has taken me about 2-3 years even since then to find demi and feel like it fits. I first heard about asexuality on tumblr about 3 years ago, but I was confident it didn’t describe me at all. I’m so so glad I found and tried on demi, because once I started applying that term to myself this past summer, it felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders.

    Reply
    1. Erica Cameron Post author

      So true. Just knowing there were enough people with similar experiences for someone to have coined a word made me feel so much better about…everything. We have to be careful about needing validation from others, but sometimes a little bit is nice.

      Reply
  2. A.

    I had to learn. The person I love is asexual, and I can’t change her nor would I want to. The only way was to learn and understand.

    Reply
  3. Heather Johnson

    I first heard it on the news way back early to mid 20’s – don’t remember if it was local news or ABC World News Tonight (I think it was the latter) that made me seriously pause. But I was deeply in denial at that point still that I was anything other than cisher.

    Flashforward many years to my early 30’s, and Tumblr. I was already stopping my internal denials, and Tumblr opened a whole world. At first I called myself Bi, but it didn’t quite fit. The longer I was on Tumblr the more words I had and the more I realized the difference between sexual and romantic attraction. The former I’m not certain I’ve ever felt (I think so, maybe once or twice, but since it’s a hard to define thing I can’t definitively say for certain one way or the other), but definitely the latter. I’m a hopeless romantic of the worst sort.

    I still struggle with the right asexual term for me, but I use ace and grey-ace pretty interchangeably (I feel like I fall all over the spectrum). But I agree re labels – the more words I learn that describe myself, the more I feel like I fit in my own skin finally, the less need I feel for labels. I am a proud ace and will never not claim it (or take off my pride ring, unless it’s to replace it with a new one) but I tend to use queer or queer ace for myself more than anything these days. I’m still on this pathway of discovery and I feel like that “new” terminology frees me up to learn more about me.

    Reply
    1. Erica Cameron Post author

      Tumblr seems to be the connecting piece in a lot of people’s journey! I first saw the word there, but my “A-ha!” moment came from reading the descriptions on asexualityarchive.com. And I’m glad you’re always finding new terms! I think that’s important. Identity is a shifting thing, and we should be able to shift our labels with it. Rigidly sticking to the first one you landed on definitely doesn’t help anyone!

      Reply
  4. Mike W

    I first heard the term “asexual” about three years ago, somewhere online. I wish I remembered the details better, now that the word means so much to me! I know that I had to run into the term a few times before I really let myself consider how it might relate to me. But pretty soon, I was elated that I had a term that felt, and feels, like it fits me perfectly. It relieved so many pressures I was putting on myself up until that point.

    Reply
  5. Jess

    I heard about asexuality when I was 17 (Circa 2001, before AVEN even existed!), because a classmate was explaining to me what he was. I went, “Huh, okay. That’s interesting,” and went on with my life. I later realized, at 24, that I was asexual myself. I had a lot of people go, “Oh, you don’t know you are. You just haven’t found the right person yet…” I’ve found the right person, and I’m pretty sure I’m still asexual. And he IS the right person because, despite being allosexual, he accepts it, and it doesn’t bother him terribly.

    Reply
  6. Lucia

    I learned about it when I saw an announcement for “The Invisible Orientation” a few years ago, but I only between identifying as ace this year. Before that, I’d identified as bi/pan/questioning because I didn’t want to be ace. I can’t put to my friends and family on my 20th birthday in July 🙂

    Reply
    1. Erica Cameron Post author

      I completely understand the reluctance. Even under the overwhelming relief of “it’s not just me,” there was also a tiny spark of “this isn’t ever going to change.” It can be hard to break free of the life goals and expectations we’ve been taught to want. I hope your friends and family are supportive in July!

      Reply
  7. A.

    I knew about it objectively and what the concept entailed, but it didn’t really affect me until I fell in love with someone who is asexual. I have no wish to change her, she is perfect to me as is. Now I guess I’m an ace ally? All I know is, I’m happy and it’ll be eight years this June.

    Reply
      1. A.

        Did ya notice my first one finally posted?! I am always agog at how technology’s only aim is seemingly to befuddle us.

        Reply
  8. A Tomecko

    Fanfiction — I was reading a Sherlock one where the topic came up. A few months of research later and there I was. Happy.

    Reply
  9. Burkleigh

    In college, a friend and I were talking about Pride Week and she mentioned she had a friend who was asexual. I thought it sounded weird at the time, but fast forward a year or so and I learned more about asexuality from the internet and eventually realized I was ace!

    Reply
  10. C

    I first heard about asexuality in a women’s studies class in college. It made sense to me. If there are people who love sex, then there would be people who don’t. At the time, though, I never would have applied the word to myself. But in the past couple of months, I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching, and reminiscing about my childhood. In elementary school, I never understood crushes or celebrity heartthrobs. My one and only boyfriend wanted more than I ever wanted to give.

    I don’t know if I am asexual, or just somewhere close to it on the spectrum. It’s not something to take lightly, and I don’t want to label myself and then feel confined by the label.

    Reply
    1. Erica Cameron Post author

      It’s the strange dichotomy of labels–both freeing and restricting at the same time. Take your time! Now that you know it’s there, you can feel out the options and find one that fits. <3

      Reply
  11. lisa44837

    Thanks for sharing your story. I can’t remember how I first learned about asexuality but it came about from being part of Goodreads M/M romance group. Because I read a lot of LGBTQ+ fiction, I’ve learned new things I didn’t know before I joined the group.

    Reply
  12. KaelenRhy

    I was 39 when I first heard the term Demi-sexual. I researched the term Asexuality then. (I’m 40 now) it’s been a revelation to learn that I’m not, and have never been, broken.

    Reply
  13. ren

    I first read about asexuality on Tumblr, maybe four years ago or so. At first I didn’t even considered the idea that I could be ace because I didn’t even realize that what was different about me was that I didn’t feel sexual attraction (or felt it rarely). So I only claimed the label in 2014.

    Reply
  14. Ceillie Simkiss

    I learned about asexuality in college. Someone said in a class that the A in LGBTQIA was for ally, and someone else replied “no it stands for Asexual, dumbass.” I had never heard of it before, so I googled and found out what it was and realized that it made total sense. I’m super romantic on the spectrum, but sex isn’t a need for me at all. It’s nice on occasion, but it was never a big deal to me. I identify as demisexual and it feels so good to know there’s others like me.

    Reply
    1. Erica Cameron Post author

      Gotta say that I kind of adore whoever was in your class and called out the A is not for Ally thing! 😀 High-five to them!

      Also, yes. Isn’t it a fantastic feeling to know you’re not the only one?

      Reply
  15. Erin

    I always kind of knew it existed in a vague, does-it-*really*-exist way, but I didn’t actually put stock into the thought that I could be Ace until early 2015 when I read a fanfic where one of the characters was written Ace (and in way that resembled my own experience), and it just hit me. Like, ‘YES this is what I am. I’m not broken, I’m asexual.’

    Reply

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