Tuesday 24 May 2011

Erasure and Identity

JenniPosted by Jenni

This post began life as a discussion of the ‘I’m-more-oppressed-than-you’ game. There’s been a spate of posts on various sites recently discussing whether asexuals have a ‘claim’ to the queer community, and one argument is that we aren’t oppressed in the same way. Rather than argue this out, I’d much rather share with you my experiences of one particular kind of oppression, one I’m sure many of you are familiar with – erasure.

Erasure isn’t just an issue asexuals deal with – a bisexual woman dating a man may be assumed to be straight, a neutrois individual may be assumed to be a particular sex - but I’m going to talk about what I know, and why I think one of the most important things we can do is to educate others about the different orientations there are.

To start, let me tell you all about how I came to identify as asexual, and the issues I had whilst doing so.

Up to the age of 16, I never thought about sex. I mean, I knew what it was, and I knew what it did, and I could probably have told you about it in a lot of detail – but I didn’t think of it. I’d had a couple of ‘high-school’ boyfriends, but nothing serious enough to force me to confront it. Looking back, I can see how truly oblivious I was, but at the time, sex was not an issue in my life.

And then I went to college. I started getting questioned – I had short hair, so was I a lesbian? I didn’t have a boyfriend – was I a lesbian? And I didn’t see the big deal; I could just…not like someone, right? I started to think maybe there was a problem – maybe I was different. But I wasn’t a lesbian, I knew that. And I knew I wasn’t bisexual, either. Maybe it was to do with my gender, not my orientation? But genderqueer didn’t fit, and neither did anything else.

Then I started dating someone. And soon, the issue of sex came up. He thought it would bring us together, and I couldn’t for the life of me work out why. I told him to wait a year, so I would be sure because I wanted to stall for time, because I was so thoroughly convinced there was something wrong with me. And then my friends started to question my sex life, and ask if I didn’t care about him if I hadn’t slept with him, and I couldn’t work out why – why was sex so important? What did they mean when they talked about ‘that urge to jump him’? We started trying things out, and it made things worse – I didn’t ‘get’ it, and on one particular occasion, I had a panic attack over something and I couldn’t explain why.

If I had known then what I know now, I could have explained. I could have said look, I don’t feel sexual attraction. And this is weird for me. But I’m willing to try things, you need to be patient.

But I had never heard of asexuality, and I spent the time we were dating convinced I was broken, and in general, going along with things I didn’t really ‘get’, or have any desire to try.

There’s a happy ending to this story, luckily. We broke up, and via a queer website I had been on in my confusing college days, I found the word asexual. Suddenly, the world made sense! There was a word, and there were other people, and I wasn’t broken! And I went on to have a lovely time dating a guy who knew, accepted and understood what it meant for me to be asexual, and there were no more feelings of dread whenever I was kissed, no more panic attacks over the littlest things.

But here’s the thing – I’m lucky. I found out the term when I was 18, and I found a group of people who accepted it as a real orientation. Sometimes, that doesn’t happen. Asexuality is so little-known that people will go on thinking they’re broken. And the erasure doesn’t end there.

Secure as I am in my (a)sexuality, I am confronted with people telling me ‘it’s just a phase’, that I’m ‘a late bloomer’, or that I haven’t met ‘the one’ yet. Sometimes I’m told I’m a closet lesbian, other times that I must have been abused. Because I can’t be asexual, because asexuality isn’t real, because everyone is sexually attracted to somebody, because I’m making it up, or I’m broken, or maybe I should just have sex to fix myself.

My identity is continually erased, and not just by people, but by the media, by books and films and music, by the way sex sells, and the way having a healthy relationship means having lots of sex. By the way love is linked to sex, and the way having sex is a sign of being in a ‘real’ relationship – that I’m only ‘friends’ with them if we don’t sleep together. Even a better representation of queer identities doesn’t help me – they’re still sexually attracted to someone at the end of the day.

And the thing is, dealing with the erasure of an asexual identity won’t just help all the kids out there like me, who are lost and confused and not at all sure why they don’t feel the way everyone else feels, but it will help things in general. Being able to disassociate sex from romance and to allow people to define relationships on their own terms can only be a good thing. To force our society to look at its attitude to sex by dealing with people like me, people who don’t experience sexual attraction, can only bring a healthier view of sex. It shouldn’t be dirty or forbidden, but neither should it be required. It should just be one of the many things that some of us happen to do.

Educating people about asexuality isn’t just to help out asexuals, but it’s a chance to make people reconfigure their world view. Maybe that’s why some people want to erase my identity. Maybe it’s easier to presume that I am a late bloomer than to face up to the idea that a confident, sociable girl just doesn’t want sex. That I don’t have issues you can blame, but that for some people, sex isn’t the big deal others think it is. But just because it’s easier, doesn’t mean its right. Taking away my identity just to keep your worldview functioning is not something anyone has a right to do.

At the end of the day, we need to face up to the fact that different people work differently, and that erasing anyone’s identity, no matter how confusing or strange it seems to you, isn’t the solution. And if that erasure comes in the form of ignoring my problems because they’re not important enough, then I’ll kick up a fuss. If it comes in assuming I can be fixed, then I’ll kick up a fuss. And most importantly – if it comes in the form of someone else telling me what I can and can’t identity as, then I’ll do my best to find out why, and see about changing their mind.

I would just like to note here, since I know elements of this topic have been exploding all over tumblr and LJ recently, that this is a safe space. If you have anything to say that you think may violate that, feel free to direct it to my personal blog, at www.quirkysaur.tumblr.com . And if you're on there, remember you can find Lashings at www.lashingsofgb.tumblr.com!


  1. Thank you for this beautifully written post. Writing about your experiences like this is a really powerful way to combat erasure and I hope other people will feel inspired to do the same.

    "Being able to disassociate sex from romance and to allow people to define relationships on their own terms can only be a good thing."

    I couldn't agree more. As someone who is bisexual, monogamously male-partnered, and vanilla, I am enormously grateful when people choose to share their experiences of different kinds of relationships, whether those relationships are same-sex, romantic and non-sexual, poly, kinky, or otherwise different from heteronormative conventions. The experience of carving out your own rules based on what you and your partner(s) want from a relationship, rather than unthinkingly following the standard script, is something everyone can learn from. Even if I don't necessarily want to have the same kinds of relationships as other people, my view of the kinds of relationships which are possible is expanded by hearing their experiences, and this helps me to think about what I do want. I find asexual experiences particularly interesting because although I am not asexual, I have quite a low sex drive most of the time and that means sex is in some ways less central to my experience than it is for many people. (I realise having a low sex drive is not the same thing as being asexual, but I think there are similarities in terms living in a culture where sex is generally regarded as apparently being more important to most people than it is to you. This applies not only to mainstream culture but particularly to the queer community, which can sometimes be very sex-focused)

    I also find the idea of separating romantic attraction from sexual attraction and friendship really helpful. Sometimes I might have friends who I care about very much as friends, and I also feel sexually attracted to them, but I don't feel romantically attracted to them. That combination doesn't make any sense unless you can consider romantic attraction as a separate thing.

    So, basically, I agree that understanding the experiences of people like yourself is really important, not just for other asexual people, or even just for other queer people, but for everyone.

  2. Brilliant post, thank you. This is my first encounter with the concept of "erasure", and by naming it it's already easier to deal with.

  3. Thank you!

    I am 30 years old. I only encountered the term 'asexual' about a year ago, and I dealt with this: the idea that I was just a late bloomer, hadn't met the right person yet, etc. And then one day, somebody said 'Oh, we'll have to introduce you to some nice boys,' and it made me furious - I just couldn't articulate why. About a month later, I found out about asexuality. And yes, that's exactly what it is: for all this time, people have been acting like there is something wrong with me because I don't pursue or take part in sexual relationships, but there isn't.

    I don't, as some people assume, have any kind of sexual dysfunction. My hormones work fine. They just don't respond to other people. I am constantly surrounded by sexual messages and behaviour - I even write it. I still don't have any desire to experience it for myself. I can honestly say I considered just going out and doing it, at one point, just to see what it was like and what the big deal was - but I gave it up as it seemed cheap, and doing it because I wanted to see what it was like rather than due to any actual sexual attraction to the othe party didn't seem likely to make for a very enjoyable experience. But I was approaching 30, and 30-year-old virgins are a bit of a joke in this day and age, right? Now I'm glad I talked myself back out of it again.

    I have yet to encounter anyone face-to-face who tells me I don't exist, but it's hard to miss the debates online. Most people just aren't aware of what asexual means until I tell them.