Sexuality, like the rest of life, is a complicated thing and attempts to simplify it by reducing people’s experiences and identities to static labels are often not only futile, but damaging. I’ve found that labels are a lot like boots – if you get the wrong ones you can expect a lot of chafing and tripping over yourself, but if eventually you find a pair that fit, as long as you look after them they’ll serve you well. They might wear out eventually, and you’ll need new ones, but that’s just life, isn’t it?
Like most people, the beginning of my sexual and romantic life was characterised by the assumption that I was heterosexual. I was constantly pressured into seeking relationships with the opposite sex, and bullied because I never found any. Friendship circles became sexually segregated early in puberty, and didn’t desegregate for a few years afterwards. Male friends who were successful in their search for sexual conquest lorded over the rest of us like some dickhead aristocracy, and homophobic slurs were levelled at any bloke who didn’t score goals with chicks, or who didn’t play the game. All in all it was pretty grim.
At about 16 I met somebody who I connected with, and a romantic entanglement developed. I carried into it a tempered version of the sexist expectations I had absorbed from my surroundings – while I did not think that sex was the ultimate point of our relationship, I certainly saw it as very important. Male peers were constantly inquiring as to our sexual progress – I generally lied to them to avoid the violent accusations of gayness that would have followed if I had been honest. We did eventually end up having sex together after about a year, but a cacophony of anxieties always echoed in my head during these experiences – was I enjoying this, was she enjoying it, were we doing the right things, did I even really want this – and in the end these anxieties led to misunderstandings that played a part in our relationship’s undoing.
I was never really honest with my first partner about my feelings towards sex, and I also felt compelled to keep other things from her. From shortly after we started seeing each other, my battle with my romantic and sexual feelings towards male friends began. Ironically, our homophobic boys club was also filled for me with sexual tension – all the sweaty, shirtless sportiness was often too much to bear. Despite my liberal-bourgeois upbringing and the nominal tolerance of my school and my supposedly diverse neighbourhood of Newtown, I understood these feelings as unwelcome and wrong. As i experimented quietly with moving discussion about queer desires among our friends from crude insults towards something more serious and honest, I discovered that many of my male friends found such desires threatening. I internalised their feelings, which quickly developed into a powerful self-hatred. Problems with depression and alcohol developed which have stayed with me for the 5 years since. I want to make clear that there was nothing irrational about this – although it might be difficult for some people to understand, these feelings were my way of responding to a hostile environment. My suspicions that my feelings would be unwelcome were confirmed by the responses of my peers to them, and the reasonable thing to do became to deny such feelings as far as possible.
The thing that made all of this very difficult was that I always seemed to develop sexual feelings for my best friends. With girls this was always awkward, with boys it was catastrophic. My ultimate desire in all cases was for a heightened emotional intimacy, a more fulfilling connection – my desire for sex, if present, was a desire to satisfy people who I felt had given so much to me. The thought of losing our existing relationships if they recoiled from me after my expression of these desires generally kept me from expressing them to anybody apart from the cat, and instead i cultivated internal tensions, using alcohol as an emotional anaesthetic whenever things were becoming too hard to bear.
For about three years after this I actively and openly hated sex, condemning it as a fundamentally painful and evil thing. Whenever desires developed I repressed them, and if unable to do this I punished myself. I began to be exposed to feminist discourses about sexuality, learned about the male gaze and the sexual objectification of womn, and as a response developed a new understanding of myself as a patriarchal oppressor and my desires towards women as destructive and inexusable. This mirrored the existing, similar understanding I had about my same-sex desires and also became deeply entrenched in my personality. My inability to destroy what I saw as evil impulses led me to conclude that it was really fundamentally me which was evil, and this train of thought led me further and deeper into the bottle, and sometimes towards a desire for death.
At some point in my first year or so at university I first encountered the concept of asexuality, and felt I had discovered something revalatory. No way of identifying myself previously had ever been satisfying – straight, gay or bi were all at best uncomfortable, and more often very chafing fits. I was straight because everybody else was, I was gay because I was not like them, I was bi because I didn’t know who I was. Ace discourse seemed to offer something different – I could describe myself as something more like what I was. In my search for a label I tried to think of what my romantic and sexual experiences had in common. I initially decided that the underlying theme in all of it was the fact that I didn’t want sex, or if I did want it I wished I didn’t. It seemed like some ace people simply had no interest in sex at all, and this was clearly not me, but it seemed there were others who perhaps had desires but did not feel comfortable expressing them in the usual formats. The boots had some holes in them – I learned quickly that my enthusiasm for a new way of describing myself was matched by an equal enthusiasm held by many for denying it, or asserting its illegitimacy. This was sometimes malicious but more often a product of ignorance, and so I kept this pair of boots, deciding they were better than nothing.
Over time i learned new words, new terminologies, new discourses and slowly found a path towards accepting myself and my feelings. I learned about pansexuality, and found it resonant – the genders of the people I am attracted to have been not merely diverse, but actually irrelevant to my desire to connect with them. I am not attracted to genders, but to people. Another useful term was demisexual – I am not totally without sexual desire, but require a well-developed emotional connection in order to experience it. The boots suddenly fit better because I felt I had made them myself. They are still not perfect, but i am polishing them and learning how to walk in them. For once I am optimistic to see where they take me.
A little way along this new path I have met another wanderer, who has come from different places but found herself in similar shoes. It’s proving most fulfilling to find our way together, helping each other across ditches, one of us creating footprints for the other if the ground is muddy or uneven. Sex fits into this wonderfully – a pleasure, not an obligation, an opportunity to continue conversations after we’ve run out of words. It is respectful, supportive, communicative and patient, because we are. We’re wearing in our boots together, and they’re feeling better every day.