When Someone Learns a Word, But It Will Take a Lot for Them to Grasp the Concept It Describes

This was my first submission for the August 2016 Carnival of Aces, which was themed around “Naming It”.

Sometimes you have this nebulous concept in your life, and yet you don’t have any word or phrase to describe it. Learning at age 17 that my mom likely had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and reading a list of the symptoms online was certainly like that for me. I had always kind of known my mom frustratingly saw no gray areas, but seeing it spelled out with concepts like “Splitting”/”black and white thinking”/”idealization and devaluation”/”perfect or horrible, with nothing in between” felt amazing & validating, realizing experts at studying ways human people could behave (psychologists) actually knew this kind of person might exist. And that’s just one symptom of the personality disorder – just one example of the many ways BPD described the way the person I was living with 6 days a week for 7 years (and every day prior to that) behaved. One way that validated that what I was both witnessing and experiencing really was unusual.

To be fair, the reason it felt so nice to learn there was a word for “it” was because I’d been living with “it” for my entire freaking life. Because I definitely had the concept and had experiences which had been crying out desperately to be framed with a “name”.

People often describe finding out about asexuality in a similar way. Most readers of this blog or readers of Carnival of Aces entries probably already know the stories.

“I never wanted to date anyone yet I never knew why and then, after years of wondering, I found out that people could be asexual & aromantic!”

or: “I tried dating a few people/getting married/I was in love… but sex never felt right and I wondered what was wrong with me”.

Getting a name for your experience meant you weren’t the only person to ever experience it. It means you know what to do next – in the case of realizing your experience can actually be considered a sexual orientation, it can mean you can stop trying to fix yourself, as long as you already accept that non-heterosexual orientations are innate parts of people not to be fixed. Often realizing this kind of thing is very powerful. You can feel a lot of relief, feel the satisfaction of finding an answer, feel the comfort of finding where you belong in the categories set out for human beings and also where you belong in terms of a new community of other people.

Sometimes, especially if you’re currently in a marriage, or in a romantic relationship of some kind, when you find out about asexuality, you experience mixed feelings and not only the happy, positive ones of relief and validation. Sometimes it’s sad to learn you can’t just “become straight” if you do the right things, if you recover from your mental illness(es), etc – sad to realize this is a permanent state of your being. Sad to come to accept that you’ll never enjoy this thing you were hoping to enjoy someday. Losing what you expected for your future can actually be experienced like grief for a lot of people. Sometimes it means your romantic relationship is going to end, which is (of course) painful for so many of the reasons that break-ups usually are.

Figuring out you don’t fit into the typical heteronormative, amatonormative script for life leads to a combination of relief and grief for a ton of folks.

The problem isn’t that you found a word for what you already knew – the problem is that you only knew some of the truth – for instance, you only knew that “so far” you had never really desired sex, for example, or that you desired sex without finding people attractive in the conventional ways…

The problem, in actuality, is that you didn’t have the concept that a person – that you – could potentially be asexual. You didn’t realize that sometimes people just don’t ever find people sexy, or that sometimes people never want sex. You didn’t realize there would be no way you’d ever be the person your significant other wants/wanted you to be when it came to sex. You didn’t realize that society had been gaslighting you in its own way, convincing you everyone who is an adult wants sex, the compulsory sexuality so strong that you convinced yourself you’re repressed or that aesthetic attraction must be sexual.

And you see… That’s what happened to me.

On an even more extreme scale, when I first learned about asexuality, I felt zero recognition that this was me, even though I could not be more asexual as a sex-averse, non-libidioist, probably aromantic or at least aromantic spectrum asexual person. I’ve always been sex-averse and always had no libido, and never once experienced anything closer to sexual attraction than a general thinking a friendship with “the opposite gender” might be just as nice as it’d be for a friendship with people who are the same gender as me (having no concept for nonbinary genders at the time), and maybe also at times not really being attracted to but being able to appreciate certain people’s appearances, appreciate certain conventionally attractive people especially as “pretty” in my opinion…

And I certainly, therefore, felt no relief to find a name for what I’d been experiencing my whole life. No, I started to learn about asexuality out of curiosity, but it did not click that I needed to use the word to apply to myself until years after first coming across it.

Without a fully formed concept in my mind of what it really would mean to be asexual, to be non-straight in this kind of way, I had nothing to name.  Asexuality, when I first learned about it, didn’t describe a thing I already knew deep down existed. Not at all. I thought everyone would want sex at one point. I thought inexperienced young women (like me) in their very early twenties, people who had never been kissed and never dated, just didn’t want sex because they weren’t in love. I didn’t need asexuality to describe myself yet at that point in my life, and I also didn’t need it to describe anyone else I knew.

“Naming it”, the theme of this carnival, only really works if you have an “it” to name. And for a lot of people, that’s why when they first hear the word asexual, they don’t accept it as really making sense.

I just came out to an extended family member this past weekend. The woman is 42 years old, a second-cousin-once-removed. I’m currently 26-years-old and still living with my father and 24-year-old brother only fifteen minutes from where this family member lives, so over the past few years, since the end of 2013 when I was 23 and figured out I was asexual, we’ve been seeing this cousin fairly frequently. I never had a particularly close relationship with her, but I do like her as a person and feel like maybe we’ve gotten a bit closer recently. But it never felt like the right time to bring up my sexual orientation until now, partially because it’s awkward to bring it up in a group conversation, and I kind of wanted to wait till I was at least sort of just talking to her and no one else.

Anyway, the opportunity arose, because this cousin was wondering if I was still dating Robert. And I saw my chance to explain how it’s… a little more complicated than she realized, because for me, dating Robert wasn’t exactly a typical experience… and because we’re still friends and actually had a great time a couple of days ago. Our relationship has actually barely changed from what it was despite actually us having broken up since the last time she saw me, a time when she also met Robert.

But I flailed my way through coming out as asexual in person to this cousin, because I kind of assumed maybe she already knew what asexuality was. I have started taking this approach most of time when coming out. Instead of asking “Do you know what asexuality is?” I will just tell someone “Oh I’m asexual” casually and then… like keep talking awkwardly, usually. At one point when I stop talking, they will ask me “wait what is this term?”. And that is what happened this time, and as I was trying, sitting across from her at a restaurant, sitting next to my dad at the end of a table of 8 members of my family…  And I could see the confusion all over her face, even after I clarified as best I could that it was another sexual orientation. I saw how perplexed she was as she asked me, “Never?” about experiencing those kinds of feelings. I replied, “I know it’s weird” in a way to try to reassure her, kind of laughing a tiny bit at how hard my life is for people to understand, and I wasn’t hurt by her reaction, which was actually quite accepting of whatever I said. She was amazing, considering that she was overwhelmed by a new concept that she hadn’t fully wrapped her mind around yet. She didn’t do any of the invalidating things people typically might do when an ace comes out. She just nodded and tried her best to take it all in.

I named “it”, I told her I was asexual, but what my cousin really needed was an ideological shift that was able to encompass the “it” that I was naming. Being told asexuality exists when your current framework for how humanity is doesn’t include the potential for a “attracted to no one” and “never wanting sex” to exist means you’re going to need some time for this to sink in, and I think honestly I went through that whole experience back in 2013 of needing to really read a lot and think about it a lot before it would sink in at all for me.

Sometimes a name isn’t all that’s lacking in someone’s worldview, and sometimes names aren’t all that is necessary to make a concept real. For both ace spectrum people (like myself) and for allosexual aka non-ace people (like my cousin), often first the concept of what asexuality is and entails and what an asexual person’s experiences tend to be has to be pretty solidly understood before the name really finds its place in a person’s vocabulary.

12 thoughts on “When Someone Learns a Word, But It Will Take a Lot for Them to Grasp the Concept It Describes

  1. This is me, too! I think I knew the word “asexual” long before I really grasped what it meant. I also am probably more gray ace, and I’m not usually bothered by fictional sex, so I kind of assumed that things would eventually “feel right.” I had to do a lot more reading and introspection to understand that asexuality might describe my experiences.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. An amazing, well thought out, and affirming piece! I also knew about asexuality for YEARS before I ever identified that way. Never did I once consider that it could fit me until I started freaking out about the fact that I had never even wanted to date or have sex with anyone. Even though I knew the definition, the concept came first for me, and after that the only trick was finding a name for what I was.


  3. You just described my experience of figuring out I’m autistic. I felt like something must be wrong with me, because other late-diagnosed autistics described a ‘lightbulb moment’ when they first learned about autism, and I never had that. It was very much a gradual process.
    Asexuality actually came with more of a lightbulb moment for me, but it wasn’t when I first heard about asexuals. It was when I talked to my Mom about how I was afraid of being a paedophile (mistaking maternal feelings for sexual) and she told me exactly what sexual arousal felt like, and I realized I’d never felt anything remotely close to that. I immediately started calling myself autistic.

    Liked by 1 person

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