Anyway, that reminded me that I'd never posted it here, and I'd meant to because ... I wanted to. It's very honest about what I thought and felt, so warning for -- IIRC -- ableist and sexist thinking, references to past suicidal ideation, religion, and maybe other things.
The X Factor
I don’t know when I first realised I was different. Middle school, I suppose, when everyone else started speaking in some strange new dialect I could scarcely parse, let alone understand. At first, it felt like I was the only sane person left in the world, but after a year passed and nothing changed, then three, five, ten, twelve, the truth finally sunk in. They were normal, sane. I was the mad one.
I suppose I should start at the beginning, for my sake as well as anyone else’s, and apologise for occasionally descending into irrelevancy. I can’t talk about this without bringing my own experience into it, and for me gender and feminism and sexuality all ended up bound together in this massive knotted tapestry.
I think I was a normal child, insofar as a girl can be normal. I had blonde hair and wide eyes. I played with dolls and sailboats. I stole my mother's logic puzzles, which was a little odd, but I liked dragons and sorceresses as well as spaceships and stars, so that was all right, especially since I invented universes full of them for the other children to play in. (No matter where I go, I always seemed to end up the designated storyteller.)
Perhaps I didn't very much think of myself as a little girl. My friends were little boys, but I was simply myself. Still, I more or less acted like one, so that was all right, too.
I was about nine when I discovered that I had something like a libido. I felt guilty, of course – I grew up in a very religious, very conservative environment where any hint of sexuality was to be firmly repressed until marriage – but not too much. My own parents were open about such things, and it was fairly obvious that most of the other children my age were going through something similar. It wasn't exactly the same: their feelings seemed to be caught up in an odd sort of feedback-loop with other people (where mine were free-floating), but the difference was far too insignificant to raise any alarms.
That all changed with puberty. For me, it began at ten and I had my first period by eleven. I’d been warned, of course, that adolescence was a hellish concoction of drama, rebellion, and, of course, raging hormones. As far as I was concerned, adolescence was all about acne, excruciating menstrual cramps, and turning into a blob of fat. That was certainly awkward and inconvenient, but it didn't seem important. It was just there.
I didn't become angry or rebellious, as the television had assured me I would, and I didn't become interested in boys, as the women in my family had assured me I would. I liked the boys who were my friends, and I didn't care about those who weren't.
I wondered, for awhile, if liking the-boys-who-were-my-friends better than the-girls-who-were-my-friends meant I had a crush on them. But I'd always got on with boys better, because with girls there was always a consciousness of our mutual girlhood, and with that an uncomfortable sense that I wasn't very good at being a girl.
I wasn't masculine, exactly; I'd never been much of a tomboy, and as my asthma got worse I became quieter and less active. I was very good at spelling and very bad at math. I had a horror of raising my voice, or interrupting conversations, or breaking rules. Yet I didn't make much of a girl.
In my world, girls were friendly and supportive, boys were aloof and argumentative. Since I had all the nurturing warmth of a plastic houseplant and got into involved debates about whether Kirk or Picard was the best captain of the Enterprise (Picard forever!), I'd somehow defaulted to boy. I didn't feel like one, exactly, but I didn’t feel much like a girl either, and this made it possible to be ‘Elizabeth’ rather than ‘the girl’ for a little while.
To be a girl is to be aware of your girlhood every single moment of every day of your life, for your identity to be absorbed and subsumed in it. To be a boy is to be a person, who is of course male, but doesn’t need to spend much time thinking about it. So being an honorary boy among the boys gave me my first glimpse of that – being who I was before what I was. I was obviously different, but somehow I’d slipped into this niche where I was comfortable, where I was primarily Elizabeth-who-is-a-girl and not ‘the girl – Elizabeth,’ where I wasn’t forced to confront my increasingly obvious failure to become a woman.
I didn’t understand all this at the time – or much beyond a quiet uneasiness that I managed to evade. However, I did observe those who unquestionably did have crushes, whether on fellow students or boy bands, list their common symptoms, and compare them to my easy camaraderie with the boy-friends-who-were-not-boyfriends. I concluded that I didn’t have a crush on any of them and never had.
I flew under the radar until I was about thirteen. I didn’t feel any more or less of a girl than before, but I couldn’t hide among the boys any more. It’s a bit much to ask a group of thirteen-year-old males to overlook the fact that ‘one of the boys’ is wearing a B cup. And while I continued to pass as straight for many more years, even to myself – with frankly astonishing success – that’s when people started noticing. They didn’t know exactly what they were noticing, but they could tell I was different.
I could too, but this was during those halcyon days when I believed that I was normal and everybody else had gone insane. Puberty had hit them harder, or – something, but it couldn’t last forever. Eventually, they’d go back to normal, and I wouldn’t be stuck in the middle of something that I had no part in and couldn’t understand.
Aside of that, the first eagle-eyed observations came from the adults at church. In Blaine – the little town where we lived – church meetings were part doctrinal instruction and part hormonal frenzy. I largely ignored the other teenagers and argued with the teachers instead (but sir, if God is too loving to let His children go through the suffering of being born gay, why’d he let the Holocaust happen?). I suppose I must have stuck out like a sore thumb.
To my face, they praised me for my dedication to God, my generally sweet nature, and the purity of my spirit. They talked to my parents of my obviously great moral fortitude. I never flirted, I never said anything remotely inappropriate, I always wore the right kind of clothes and never watched the wrong kind of television or listened to the wrong kind of music.
I was flattered, but at the same time somewhat confused. I was argumentative, often over trivial matters, self-absorbed even for a teenager, and since I’d never internalized social cues the way other children did, I often stumbled into unintentional rudeness. My mind was harshly critical, my manners stiff and awkward, my personality abrasive yet forgettable. I have it on good information that I often seemed proud, cold, and inconsiderate.
I might have thought the other girls had gone completely had gone completely off the deep end, but I knew it was only for now. They were actually far nicer than I was, and eventually they would be normal again. I would always be a bitch.
The rest of the compliments made little more sense. I didn’t flirt because I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t have known how even if I had wanted to, but something in me cringed away from even the thought of it. Swearing and slang were anathema to my deeply formal soul – and again, I couldn’t have used them anyway. I didn’t pick them up naturally, even though language always came easily to me; eventually, I made lists of slang terms and their translations, and they served as a sort of phrasebook for high school.
I was deeply self-conscious of my adult body. I’d reached my full height of five foot four, stunted – my doctors always told me – by the high doses of corticosteroids I took from the age of eight. I had larger breasts and hips than many adult women, I’d been housebound for four months after an incident of status asthmaticus and was considerably overweight. Of course I wore long, loose clothes. I’d largely stopped watching television about the time that I grew out of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the stations grew out of taste, except when I caught reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Bewitched. My tastes in music ran to Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin – who might have been controversial in their own times, but were hardly earth-shattering in 1999.
So I didn’t see why I should be praised and seen as so very special and pure and sweet for doing things I liked and not doing things that were naturally difficult and unpleasant for me. Apparently, God was protecting me from evil for some ineffable reason of His own, Satan couldn’t touch me, blah blah, it was a pity that other people’s children weren’t more like me.
In retrospect, the human race would be in some trouble if other people’s children were like me. Maybe that’s why we’ve never been more than a small percentage of the population.
The summer after eighth grade, my best friend and I talked about the various woes and tragedies inspired by her latest infatuation. I didn’t know what to say and couldn’t begin to understand what she felt, but I knew enough that it seemed appropriate to sit next to her in the grass, the summer sunshine heating our scalps, and offer inarticulate sympathy. We talked about for a little while, and lambasted the boy in question, and for a moment I was one of the girls.
“Sometimes,” she said suddenly, staring at the muddy blue-green river, “I wish I were – like you.”
It was the year 2000 and I was fourteen. She was only thirteen. Even if there had been a word for what I was, two Mormon girls from Whatcom County certainly wouldn’t have heard it. But I understood her perfectly. By then, like you carried with it a wealth of meaning, gesturing at things we couldn’t talk about and didn’t understand.
And what could I say to it?
No, you don’t. Not really.
How could anybody want this?
I shut these thoughts down (I should be grateful that God was protecting me, not – ) and smiled at her. “I don’t think it would suit you. And you know, I’d – I’d like to know how it feels. To fall in love and things. Not with anybody in particular, but to be – like you.”
“It kind of sucks,” she said.
High school ground the God explanation to almost nothing. God the Almighty, who did not bestir himself for massacres and genocides and who knew what else, was putting forth the effort to protect one obscure girl from the evils of sex? Really?
Mostly, I think, my doubts came from the uncomfortable realisation that this best friend and I had very few beliefs in common. Hers were proper, middle-of-the-road unquestioning faith; mine somehow fell much closer to those of the third member of our best-friend-trio. He was a boy and an atheist and a cheerful accomplice in skepticism, and over the years our personal philosophies slid closer and closer together until we agreed that there might very well be a God, and there might not, but there was no way to tell and it didn’t matter very much.
So – maybe it wasn’t God. Maybe it happened because I was either disinterested and apathetic or so highly-strung that I could scarcely function. I didn’t have any energy left for a sexuality. We could only guess, until my doctor mentioned in passing that my asthma medications could suppress the libido. I admitted that I didn’t really have one, and he said that was probably why.
I was being more honest than truthful. I’d had a libido, of sorts, ever since I was a child. But it didn’t bother me for months at a time, so I tended to forget about it. I could feel arousal, but it was so muted and uninteresting that I rarely had the urge to do anything about it – certainly not with anyone else.
So this new explanation fit well enough. It was my medicines, of course! They’d squashed my libido into something too weak to point at anything in particular, so much so that I was scarcely aware of its existence. And naturally romance, and falling-in-love, and all of that were caught up in sex and libido too. It made sense, and it provided an even easier escape hatch than God had. This – whatever it was – it wasn’t me. It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t – that I just couldn’t. It was the medicine.
This explanation also held out an odd sort of hope. Asthmatics often get better. Even I’d gone from ‘severe asthmatic’ to ‘moderate to severe asthmatic.’ While we all knew that I’d never be like the aunts and second cousins and friend of a roommate who outgrew theirs, I might very well improve enough that I wouldn’t need all the libido-silencing things I was taking then.
I was only fifteen. Things could change. My medicines were screwing with me, I was a late bloomer who’d inexplicably hit puberty five years earlier, but someday things would be different. I’d be a real girl with a swish of the cosmic wand, and I’d fell in love and have sex and get married to a returned missionary and have children and all of it.
And puberty couldn’t last forever, either. Eventually the rest of the world would stop being so freakishly obsessed with sex, too.
I got older. The rest of the world didn’t get “better” – and it struck me that perhaps it was the other way around. I wasn’t getting better.
Lord, that’s it. I’m the freak. What’s wrong with me? Am I lesbian? I’ve never wanted – anything – with girls either, so I don’t think so, but what am I going to do? I’m halfway through high school and I’ve never dated but people hit on me and it’s confusing. I don’t want – I don’t want anything. I just like to look at people. They really are pretty, like waterfalls, kind of, and chrome dishwashers. I love to go to the stores and look at them, and the cherry wood bureaus and things, and it’s pretty much the same thing and –
And I just compared people to furniture. Oh God, what’s wrong with me?
So I dated for the first time – my male best friend, with whom I got on so well and had so many things in common. It was an unmitigated disaster. I felt guilty because the church insisted we shouldn’t date until sixteen, and I was only fifteen and a half. I felt much guiltier because I had to keep myself from cringing when he held my hand, and felt positively nauseated when he declared his undying love.
I had never cared for any boy the way I did for him, but I didn’t find him attractive. The best I could say was that his acne was a lot better and it was nice that he’d taken up deodorant, but it was awkward that there was never anything physical about my feelings for him. I enjoyed beyond around him, but I didn’t want anything more.
I don’t even like to hold hands, I thought. I suppose we’ll kiss and then I’ll get the bells and violins and – wow. I never knew kissing was so incredibly boring. Victoria Holt, why did you lie to me? I only wanted to love you!
He was very understanding. He knew that we wouldn’t be having sex, for reasons that carried no weight with him, and he never brought the matter up. He knew I wasn’t romantic. He did everything he could to be the perfect boyfriend. He was the answer to every male who’s ever said ‘I’m a man, I can’t help it’ – fifteen years old, with four times the usual amount of testosterone racing through his veins. He could help it, and he did, and I couldn’t give him anything. I desperately wanted him to break up with me, and tried not to look too relieved when he did.
Later, he said that he loved me for years after that, into our twenties. But after a few months he realized that I was never going to be any different. He didn’t want to lose his best friend in a frozen, miserable girlfriend. In retrospect, I wish I could have seen it as clearly as he did. It took me years more to come to the same conclusion.
I went back to the meds. They were doing this to me. It wasn’t me, wasn’t me, wasn’t me. With everything I took, it was no wonder I had the libido of a castrated lab rat – and so on and so forth. As before, the litany seemed to grow progressively less reassuring.
At seventeen, I enrolled in Running Start and escaped high school. People did seem less obsessed, somewhat, but they were still different. No, I was different. It wasn’t God and I’d cut down on almost all the medications. It was me.
I was a freak of nature. Something got wired wrong in my brain, so until I met the-special-someone, I wasn’t going to be interested in anyone that way. I started actively attempting to pass for straight; I made up imaginary infatuations with imaginary boys, I nodded at appropriate moments and did my best to cut ‘I don’t understand’ out of my vocabulary. Across the margins and backs of my homework, I scribbled notes to myself like “ ‘he has an excellent bone structure, I guess’ is not an appropriate response to OH MY GOD HAWT!!”
At eighteen, I decided that maybe it had something to do with my father. He abandoned my mother and I when I was two years old, and I’d always had a lingering distrust of men. That was probably it. Maybe it was complicated by the fact that my father was so much like me. Daddy issues could screw with anybody’s brain, and mine was unquestionably very screwed up. (I’m not interested in sex. Is it possible to be more screwed up than that?)
I turned nineteen. I wished – I didn’t know what I wished. I was tired, depressed. Mostly I just wanted to sleep, but people kept waking me up and I dragged myself to classes, and – I didn’t know. I was just tired of it all. I was tired of feeling like a freak of nature, of knowing that my closest friends and family considered me one.
(The current explanation for me was ‘it’s just Elizabeth being Elizabeth,’ as if I were the embarrassing bachelor uncle.)
I was tired of hiding it, too, of passing even as ineptly as I did. I knew I was still young – very young – and it wasn’t time for my soulmate or whomever to come along, but – the people I grew up with were in serious relationships. I’d only had a few months trying out romance with my best friend, and it was honestly the romance as much as the sex that I recoiled from.
Was I just that self-absorbed? Was I some kind of raging narcissist? I was never going to be the good Mormon wife-mother-matriarch, was I? Hell, I was never even going to be a good human being. I’d never have the normal pair-bonding nuclear family thing that every voice in my world said was the entire point to existence -- everyone's existence.
Then what was the point to my life? It was like I functionally didn't exist, and moreover, that it wouldn't matter if I didn't. Without romantic love, the thing that makes the world goes round, conquers all, provides meaning et cetera and so forth, what is the point to life at all? Why even bother?
I was twenty, and I’d never been attracted to another human being in my life. This wasn’t late blooming. This wasn’t anything I’d ever heard of, except as a psychological disorder. I was a good little psychology major, and loath to diagnose myself, but the thought kept coming back to me.
Hypoactive sexual desire disorder. Wasn’t that exactly what I’d been going through? Persistent deficient (or absent) sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity. I was even distressed. Somewhat beyond distressed, if I were being honest with myself.
Yet, even then, I couldn’t bring myself to go there. I was unhappy and confused. I felt alienated, almost inhuman. I wished I could be normal. I also wished I could be good at math, and proactive, and maybe blonde. I didn’t really want anyone to effect these things. I didn’t want to do it myself.
I was what I was. I wanted what I was to be acceptable. I wanted to be me, with my books and my cat and the piano, without being the embarrassing bachelor uncle – or, more appropriately, the eccentric spinster aunt. My “condition” – if that’s what it was – didn’t distress me in and of itself. Feeling my experience of life constantly erased, dictated to me by people who didn’t share it, feeling myself an aberration of nature – those distressed me.
(And this is why the added qualification to the diagnosis of HSDD, it is only regarded as a disorder when this lack of libido causes distress or interpersonal difficulty, is hardly reassuring. In our culture, how could it not be distressing – or cause interpersonal difficulty? As far as I’m concerned, my sexuality is still firmly ensconced in the DSM.)
Another year came and went. I could drink, if I wanted to. I didn’t. And I started to see people like me in the media.
Well – not exactly. In actuality, I saw vague references to certain people not being interested in sex – or rather, in having sex with other people. The only problem was that I was human, and they were all aliens or sociopaths: coded as inhuman. Their sexlessness – I didn’t know what else to call it – was a sign of how inhuman they were.
Oh God, am I a sociopath?
I was cold and distant and somewhat selfish. I was often a bitch, and I’d never felt a sexual connection to anyone even in the act itself. Thankfully, I constantly reassured myself that, for one, sociopaths weren’t sociopaths anymore, and for another, I must not diagnose myself. It didn’t quite dismiss this new and delightful terror, but it held it at bay.
Then, while surfing the Web, I absently clicked on a link to the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network: AVEN, for short. I glanced at the home page, which seemed cluttered but mildly interesting, and read:
Unlike celibacy, which is a choice, asexuality is a sexual orientation. Asexual people have the same emotional needs as everybody else and are just as capable of forming intimate relationships. To find more about asexuality, click here.
An asexual is someone who does not experience sexual attraction.
To these day, I’m not sure it’s possible for a straight man or woman to begin to comprehend that moment. I wasn’t the only one. There were others, thousands of them. I found reference to a 2004 survey of eighteen thousand British residents. Asexuals constituted 1.05% of the participants, even though almost thirty percent of those contacted refused to participate, and non-heterosexuals were undoubtedly underrepresented – gays, lesbians, and bisexuals combined only amounted to 1.11%.
From there, I discovered that this was by far the first time sexuality studies had caught asexuality slipping under the radar. When Kinsey placed sexuality on the well-known 0-6 scale, he also added a separate category – X, those who effectively lacked a sexuality of which to speak. 1.5% of adult men fell into that category, while women varied from 1-3% to 14-19%.
One percent. At first glance, it’s not much to speak of. What’s one out of a hundred?
Sixty-eight million people.
Sixty-eight million people, and I’d spent over a decade thinking I was a lone freak of nature.
I don’t think I’ve ever done so much research in a term as I did that day. I even found a study close to Portland, where a minority of rams studied showed no sexual attraction. These weren’t amoeba. Rams! Rams, presumably, without psychological disorders.
I started crying about halfway through. There were people like me, with health problems and brain problems and repressive religions, and there were people like David Jay, the founder of AVEN. He’s a white, able-bodied, attractive, neurotypical twenty-something heteroromantic male. There are others like him, for whom the usual responses – it’s religion or narcissism or drugs or you just can’t get any or you’re repressed or your hormones need checked or or or – don’t even apply.
There’s a reason he’s the poster-boy for visibility. He goes on talk shows, on the View or Jay Leno, and people look at him and scratch their heads and say But why would you choose this?
I’m not the perfect asexual that David Jay is. I’m part of the aromantic minority, for one, and for another I have poor health and I’m overweight and miss social signals and so on and so forth. I’m one of the ones required to prove my asexuality, within the community and out of it. A number of us are. Yet somehow, when he replies to his blindly privileged interlocutors, he manages to say what I've always wished I could.
I didn’t choose this. Nobody would choose this. It’s just what I am.