Last night I was mentioned in the following tweet:
@AceSexologist A friend recently came out to me as #asexual. I’m trying to be as supportive as possible but it’s for me hard to understand what she’s going through because I’m not asexual, it’s an unfamiliar perspective that I can’t relate to. Do you have any advice? Perhaps some common feelings/thoughts asexuals experience when they first embrace their orientation I should be aware of?
I can only talk about my experiences and my perceptions but I know a lot of other Aces will have valuable feedback to offer as well, so please comment below to add your voice!
FYI: Since I’m super wordy I put a cheat sheet at the bottom of this page, but I suggest at least skimming the body of the text.
First of all you sound like a great friend for recognizing that you don’t understand what your friend is feeling but trying to learn more rather than telling your friend that what she’s feeling isn’t valid because you don’t understand it (and that happens… a lot), so you’re off to a good start.
In case your friend came out to you without telling you what asexuality is, here’s my definition: “Asexual” is an orientation label (just like hetero/homo/bi/pan/omni-sexual) which describes who a person is sexually attracted to. In this case the “a-” prefix means that the user is not sexually attracted to anyone. You will have to ask your friend what she means when she uses the label.
I think it’s important to point out that like people of any other orientation: A person who is asexual may or may not want to be in a relationship (some are hetero/homo/bi/pan/omni-romantic and some are aromantic) or have sex (there are many reasons people have sex). Asexuals may be kinky or totally not kinky, they may be sex positive or sex negative, they may associate their orientation with their religious convictions. They may be confident about their orientation, they may be unsure. They may be proud of their orientation, they may feel broken and distressed. All of these factors are independent of each other and will change from person to person and may change over time.
Your friend may be looking for PERMISSION to be herself and it’s really important that you tell her that as far as you are concerned she has the right to be herself and to identify in the way that she feels most comfortable.
As far as feelings/experiences when Aces first embrace the label of asexual I see that as being multi-phase, or at least it was for me. I remember being in a room of people, hearing the founder of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (http://asexuality.org) talking and thinking “OMG, that’s me!” It was a total lightbulb moment and just having a word to use when I thought about or described myself that didn’t make me feel like I was lying was really, really nice. …Of course it was 3 more years before I started using the word out loud because I was afraid of how people would react and even then I only used it with strangers or relative strangers (people I would probably never see again, or people with whom I had no mutual friends so it wouldn’t get around, people whose opinion I simply didn’t care about)- this may in part be because I don’t remember any close friend ever asking me about my orientation, and I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up- it probably also had to do with feeling unsure and not-so-confident at the time. So the fact that your friend came out to you, to me, sounds like a BIG DEAL. They must really trust you and are probably really hoping that you’ll support them, and it sounds like that is what you’re trying to do.
Here’s how some of my coming out experiences went and how they made me feel:
Best experience: About a year ago I came out to an ex who is also one of my best friends. I actually came out to him by asking him if he would critique a presentation I was going to give about asexuality to my colleagues and sort of threw in at the end that I was also Ace and that was why it was so important to me. He didn’t have many follow up questions other than asking about things I had told him in the passed which I had to tell him were lies or half-truths to try and sound like I was much more interested in having sex than I really was. I explained that I wanted to come out to him so that I wouldn’t have to lie to him anymore and he seemed to really appreciate that I didn’t want to continue having half-truths between us. If your friend came out to you she may have been having similar experiences, of wanting to be herself around you but feeling like she had to “keep up appearances” either because you wouldn’t accept her if she was just herself or because she’d been pretending for so long that she’d dug a hole for herself and didn’t know how to tell you the truth any other way than to “come out” and say it. What my friend did right: Told me that he liked me as a person and wanted to know the real me, not who I thought he wanted me to be. Let me ramble when I needed to without cutting me off and engaged in active listening (ie when I would finish rambling he would say back to me the things that I had said that seemed important and made sure he understood what I was trying to say). Asked clarifying questions that were not judgmental (ie “I remember that you’d told me X before, but what you just said seems to conflict with that, can you elaborate?” – and sometimes the case was that X was a lie or half-truth and sometimes X didn’t really conflict with being asexual at all, he just wasn’t sure if the two were related and it was nice to be able to clarify rather than have him assume that it had been a lie).
Here’s a short “Best Of” of my worst experiences:
1. “I have a friend who’s asexual, not by choice though, he just hasn’t gotten laid in a long time.” Try not to confuse orientation and behavior. Whether or not you have had, or are currently, or plan in the future to have sex doesn’t change your orientation. A lack of sex doesn’t change a heterosexual person to an asexual person and having sex doesn’t change an asexual person to a hetero/homo/bi/pan/omni-sexual person. Remember that a person may change how they identify over time but that doesn’t necessarily mean the way they feel actually changed, they might just be using a new vocabulary to explain feelings they already had.
2. “Of course you aren’t interested in sex, no women like sex! It’s just something you do to keep your husband happy.” Despite seeming to be reaffirming, the problems with this response are numerous. Problem 1: There’s an implication that I shouldn’t identify as “asexual” because “heterosexual” already covers it because no women are interested in sex, so why would I have a special label for that? Problem 2: Many women *are* interested and enthusiastic participants in sex so there was a factual problem as well. Problem 3: The idea that sex is something I should have to do to keep my husband happy is super heterocentric- what if I don’t want a husband? What if I do want a husband, but I want a relationship where I’m not required to have sex just to keep him happy? The implication is that I will never be able to find a relationship where I am not required to have sex (if that is what I wanted). Your friend may or may not want a relationship and she may or may not want that relationship to be sexless (there’s a huge variety of takes on that subject) but please try to avoid comments that imply that she’ll never be able to find the type of relationship she may want (even if you think that may be the case).
….I wrote out more problematic examples but they all boil down to being heterosexist (assuming that I must want a relationship with a man), kind of misogynistic (implying that as a woman if I want to be in a relationship with a man it is my responsibility to have sex with him as often as he wants), or implying that I’m just going through a phase (would you ever imply that to someone who came out as any other orientation?).
So here’s my cheat sheet based on my experiences:
The feeling I experienced when I learned about asexuality: Relief
The feeling I experienced when I thought about coming out to other people the first dozen times: Anxiety
Possible feelings after coming out to someone, depending on their response: Relief. More anxiety. Accepted. Rejected. Broken. Whole. Affirmed. Condemned. Criticized. Judged. – so just about any feeling possible. It depends entirely on the way the other person reacts (no pressure).
Advice: Often times straight people don’t understand how gay people feel and vice versa, but both groups (for the most part) accept that even though they don’t understand how the other group can be attracted to who they are attracted to (and not attracted to who they aren’t attracted to), it’s still valid for them to feel that way. Your friend has a different orientation than you do but they’re still the same friend. You don’t have to understand why she isn’t sexually attracted to people any more than she has to understand why you *are* sexually attracted to people (I assume) to be friends and to support each other.
*DO Be an active listener– listen when she’s talking without thinking about how you’re going to respond, instead, when she’s done talking rephrase back to her what you just heard to make sure that what she said and what you heard are the same things.
*DO Appreciate that she wants to be honest with you and take the opportunity to ask for clarification, tell her you appreciate her honesty.
*DO Be honest with her that you don’t understand how she feels but still affirm her right to feel that way.
*DON’T ask or tell her to EXPLAIN herself, ask her to “elaborate” on the specific topics that have you most confused and be prepared to clearly state what it is that makes you most confused/uncomfortable so that she can tell you’ve thought about it.
*DON’T make assumptions about the kind of relationship(s) she may want to have with people based on her asexuality. (Some are romantic and like relationships, some are aromantic and don’t like being in relationships at all. Some have casual sex, some have sex within relationships, some don’t have sex at all. Some are monogamous, some are poly etc. Aces may be homo, hetero, bi, pan or omni romantic even if they aren’t sexually attracted to anyone. The orientation of asexual shouldn’t make you jump to any conclusions about relationships any more than any other orientation label would- in fact, it should probably make you jump to fewer conclusions).
*Don’t discredit her right to use any label she wants to use to describe herself. If you think a label is confusing ask her what it means to her and elaborate about why you find it confusing so that you can both work out any differences in understandings.
Other suggested readings: Swank Ivy’s Asexuality Top Ten which covers the responses she gets most frequently and her responses. NOTE: My responses to some of the questions covered on Swank Ivy’s list would be different than the responses I would give and many of the responses your friend would give would probably be different too, but it’s not a bad place to start to get another perspective. (In fact, reading Swank Ivy’s list and then bringing it to the table to discuss it with your friend might be a good conversation starter as a way to get some misconceptions out of the way and see where her perspective differs. TO BE CLEAR: I am not saying that the answers that Ivy gives to those questions or the answers that I would give to those questions are in some way universally correct, your friend’s answers are equally valid and she shouldn’t feel like she’s competing to prove she’s “asexual enough” by seeing if she gives the right answers to a quiz.)
I hope other aces will post comments about their experiences and if the original poster of the question or anyone else in a similar situation has more questions I hope you will post them as well.