Staring At A Wall
I am asexual, and I don’t find much reason to bring it up. The work of spreading awareness of this little-discussed sexuality is important, for sure. I’m glad to see articles flaring up across numerous news sources, to see the black, grey, white, and purple flag flying alongside its more familiar compatriots (despite the A’s contested spot in the LGBTQ acronym). I’m also happy to see the term appearing in mainstream media, such as in the Netflix animated show BoJack Horseman. But in most interpersonal contexts and for most asexuals, our sexuality isn’t pertinent; it’s generally reserved as salient for a conversation with a partner.
Asexual people are not sexually attracted to others, have some level of avoidance or disinterest in sexual acts, and, for many, have a reduced inclination toward romance. Asexuality is a definition reliant on nots, feelings that are not present—negations, absences, lacks for which the rationale in announcing seem unnecessary, to me at least, because telling people isn’t freeing or honest or subversive. So long as awareness of asexuality continues to spread, I am content with my sexuality relegated to a rare and quiet mention.
Yet, I have to admit there is, simultaneously, an ill-defined relief and satisfaction in asserting this asexual absence. It is one of the many unexpected pros that outweigh the few cons. The first time I told anyone was nearly a decade ago. I was seventeen, and two days after a stray Google search coughed up the eponymous website, asexuality.org, I was sitting at my desk, the bright light of my laptop disturbing the rustic darkness in my bedroom. I was playing games online with two friends. We were on Skype, like we often were over the summer, chatting and playing games until fatigue dropped us at around one or two in the morning. The game of choice at that time was the then year-old StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty.
“I’m asexual,” I told them as our 3v3 match started, our six workers apiece setting to work mining resources.
My disclosure came thirty minutes or so after we all logged on, that time spent playing other matches and working up activation energy to say what I was going to say. Why work up to this at all, though? There wasn’t a fear of rejection—I trusted them. Maybe I waited so long because I didn’t know why I felt the need to say anything in the first place. My friends both laughed, assuming I was making an incongruous joke.
“I’m serious,” I said, careful to speak loud enough to be picked up by my laptop’s built-in microphone but concentrated so that it wouldn’t travel down my house’s antiquated hallways and resonate in my parents’ ears like a creaky, misshapen board. I didn’t want them to overhear my late-night ramblings. My parents would not have been judgmental or overbearing, but at seventeen, the gnarled web of millennial terminology, the distinctions between sexual attraction, romantic attraction, and libido, would have been exhausting to explain. The last thing I wanted was for my dad to turn down the music during a future card ride to fencing practice and kindly instruct me to not be afraid of intimacy.
“I’m asexual. I’m not joking,” I told my friends.
The resources we had our workers mine were used to build more workers. Then, they would build other bases, in which we would extract more resources. Then, we would construct and upgrade combat units to defeat our opposing team. I explained to my friends what asexuality meant over a bilge of keystrokes, laid down definitional work over embarrassed whispers. I was a spider that burritoed itself in its web. We would produce more units to replace fallen ones, and the fighting would continue until one team’s economy and production were reduced to nil.
When the match ended—I cannot remember if we had won or lost—my friends’ genuine questions and personal Googling had shaken loose a restless bundle of nerves. Still, what possessed me to say anything at all, to build up that anxiety and faux uncertainty, just for it to predictably collapse?
* * *
The letter A contains a subtle excellence. Though my legal name is Michael, since the moment I was born I’ve always gone by Andy because my parents and I prefer its swift and simple-to-produce lilt to Mike’s. A is soft, understated, and demands little. As the opener to the alphabet and as the prefix A-, the letter stands for nothing. A’s intrusion upon the root word sexual may contradict some long-held assumptions about in-born sexuality, but, in my opinion, does not challenge any of societies long-held hierarchies. I don’t see that first sharing to my friends as a coming out.
Gay and trans people are marked. Cis and straight people try to interpret the lowness or highness of someone’s voice, the style of their hair, the tenor of their clothing, to determine to what level they conform within the fabric of “normal” society. And as straight people try to crack the codes of difference, there is also a long history of LGBTQ people finding ways to connect with others in the community, to create spaces of their own.
Cis and straight people try to interpret the lowness or highness of someone’s voice, the style of their hair, the tenor of their clothing, to determine to what level they conform within the fabric of “normal” society.
Asexual people are not marked. That is something we are fortunate for. Our sexuality lacks any meaningful associations. Though it can be a variable that affects peoples’ experiences in terms of their race, sex, gender identity, or romantic orientation, asexuality in and of itself does not carry with it the level of stigma, oppression, and systemic discrimination that many LGBTQ people live through.
There are articles and internet comments aplenty lamenting the state of asexual people in a “hypersexual society.” There is truth to that, given the role of sexuality in movies, TV, and magazine covers. However, the figures most ingrained into the fabric of society are those without sexualized markings—Jesus, Mary, Sir Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant. Abstinence-first education, anyone? And just because there have been several waves of sexual revolution, let’s not forget the long history, in the West at least, of suppressing female sexuality, as Germaine Greer laments in The Female Eunuch. Though there are insensitive and ignorant remarks aplenty, there isn’t much scrutiny on asexuality. Whether I want to or not, I fit reasonably well within the heteronormative and within conservative, sexless ethics.
A- is plucky, crafting words like apolitical (without political leanings), amorphous (lacking form), atypical (not expected), and of course, asexual, a sexual orientation or a lack thereof; a distinction without a difference. I am fortunate to have access to this term. Identifying with it is useful and has made my life better. I can share it without concern for my safety; the worst I can expect is misunderstanding or a frustration with modern-day labels. And I am fortunate that my environment has not made my life any less fulfilling for my lack of sexuality, and that I never grew to see it as a blank space where an occupant is expected.
* * *
Those who know me may have found puzzling how I never make any mention regarding those whom I find attractive or anecdotes about exes. Or they were impressed by just how unstoppable I am at Never Have I Ever, each of my ten fingers still raised as other participants rattled off various sexual acts until someone unleashed the bougie traveling Have I Evers. People from afar have mixed up my female friendships as being romantic, and I have pinged a decent array of gaydars. Perhaps, the ambiguity regarding my sexuality and lack of dating prompts subconscious questions. I speculate because it has happened many times. At a restaurant, at a friend’s house, jogging around a track, a friend pauses for a moment before their voice winnows into a cautious whisper:
“Are you straight?”
“Do you date?”
“How do you identify?”
These questions are always interesting, respectful glances behind a curtain. I pause for a moment, debating whether I should use the word, or say something to the effect of, “I’m not looking for anything right now.” And then with an equally quiet whisper, I say the words: “I’m asexual,” revealing that there is nothing behind the curtain to peek at, again an undulating twinge of satisfaction.
Could this be the impetus to share my asexuality? That it all comes down to this game: an audience expecting one from a subset of answers, and I can deliver an unexpected punchline that is distinctly me, a sly negation in the tradition of the affix, A. The percentage of asexual people is heuristically pegged at 1%. Perhaps within this minute cluster I can stake ownership. Mine.
* * *
I think back to high school, before I encountered the term asexual and told my friends over Skype. I was walking through one building’s foyer, a rounded, echoey room with doors to offices on either side. Another student, whom I had been in school with for a few years, had called out to me. He had slick dark hair and glasses. He walked through the halls with a casual gait and an ironically serious expression: professionally sardonic. In middle school, he would wear girl’s jeans every Thursday, but by senior year of high school, he shaved his head and wore tank tops. He oscillated between being easy to talk to and being a total jerk. As if exasperated, he questioned me as I headed outside:
“What do you even like, Andy? Vagina?”
I barely registered him in my peripherals. He was loitering with at least one other person, but I didn’t turn to look. I focused on the door.
“Nope,” I said. My bluntness surprises me now, knowing how even the most minor of confrontations used to generate in my chest an enthused anxiety. I miraculously shrugged him off.
“Penis?” he asked as if going down a checklist.
“Nope,” I said again as I pushed one of the front doors open, heading to the sunny center of campus. At this time, all I knew was that I knew little about sex and I didn’t care to learn more beyond what health class had taught me.
I’m not sure why I was so unruffled about this encounter, that it was such a non-issue that I had forgotten about it for years. But why did my always-anxious self-consciousness not concern itself with issues of non-sexuality? Where did this bizarre territory of self-assuredness develop?
* * *
Probably the most notable asexual character in media is Todd Chavez, one of the main characters in BoJack Horseman. Todd has no job and has spent the past half-decade sleeping on his celebrity friend’s couch, typically dressed in casual clothes and his iconic yellow beanie. Arguably, there have been a fair number of asexual characters in media. But, starting in its fourth season, BoJack Horseman (as well as the short-lived Sirens) is one of the few that actually uses the word.
A few months after it came out, I was rewatching the third season with a friend who was only just then catching up. BoJack Horseman is one of my favorite shows; its mélange of carefully crafted hilarity and strangling emotional depth still fascinates me. The main character, BoJack, struggles to secure a lasting legacy while drinking away his past and troubled relationships. Todd is overly carefree, gliding from task to task, unanchored by responsibility.
In this third season, Todd reconnects with an old friend, Emily. Emily is freckled with red hair, confident, and open. She is comparatively normal in a show such as this, avoiding BoJack’s extremes of self-deprecation, obsession, and narcissism, and Todd’s lay about lifestyle, though she shares Todd’s quirky ingenuity for bizarre business ideas.
In the season three finale, Todd and Emily sold one of these successful businesses and are celebrating with ice cream sundaes at a diner, discussing what they will do with their newly found fortunes when the conversation shifts.
“Todd, can I ask you something… What’s your deal? Are you gay?” Emily asks, trying to resolve the mixed signals from Todd throughout the season.
“I’m not gay,” Todd answers, bringing his arms together defensively around his bowl. “I mean, I don’t think I am… I don’t know what I am. I think I might be nothing.”
Todd is nothing. In a show wracked with colorful visual gags and absurdist humor, this moment felt like a deserving and tender moment. He evades description and conjectures about a place that exists outside the bounds of accepted or marked identity. This show allows for relief while still resting Todd on an uncertain axis.
But to get to this point, there first had to be just plain uncertainty. On my first watch of season three, I had guessed that Todd was asexual but couldn’t have been sure until the end. As I rewatched the season with my friend, we hit the episode in which Todd and Emily first reencountered one another. Their arc of the episode had the two of them heading into Todd’s hotel room, though Todd tries to distract away from the coming moment.
“I want to go in the hotel room and fool around, do you?” Emily asks. Todd makes multiple excuses. That she’s drunk, that he’s drunk, that he’s feeling sick, and he nabs the key from her hand and goes in alone, closing the door behind him and leaving Emily confused. As the episode closes, there is a brief montage of concluding moments to the various strands and characters contained within the episode, and Todd’s is him lying on his hotel bed, drawing circles in the blanket with his finger. This moment on rewatch is still saddening: the stumbling awkwardness, the mutual disappointment.
“That’s so me in that situation,” my friend said after the episode ended. “I completely relate.”
My brain erupted with protest.
“No, that isn’t you,” I thought. I didn’t want to spoil the season and the finale’s intricate set of reveals, and I didn’t want to invalidate my friend’s own awkward experiences. Still, internally, I couldn’t help prosecuting a backlash.
“It’s me! This is my experience, not yours!” My identity tag, no matter how trivial, was mine, and the emptiness of a fictional character on a hotel bed should have been demarcated for me alone.
* * *
I became good friends with my freshman roommate in college. He kept his head ROTC-shaved, articulated an outgoing personality, and had a full, jaw-dislocating smile. I was still playing games online with the same group of friends regularly at this point. He preferred turning on Comedy Central and laying back in his rolling office chair. He went out to drink with our hallmates. I wouldn’t drink for another year. But under the imposing, sterile dormitory walls and the rickety lofted beds, we eked out a respectable friendship that persisted beyond our first year.
“Asexual?” he said, questioning the verbiage of an article pulled up on my laptop. I don’t know how it came up, but we were reading an article that had been making the rounds across social media about a chef who amputated his penis to cook and serve as an expensive meal. The author asserted that the man was asexual. Without referencing myself, I explained the definition of this unfamiliar term to him. His expression was one of disbelief.
“What would you do all day? Stare at the wall?”
I had no answer for him. The question came out of left field. What did my roommate mean, what did he do all day? In retrospect, it’s possible my old high school classmate thought something similar after I left the foyer:
“If what Andy said is true, what does he do all day? What does Andy even think about?”
“What does everyone else do all day?” I considered as I closed the article, more puzzled than offended. I tried to imagine what my thoughts seem like to other people. Are they spacious and clear, scrubbed clean of nude portraitures and left unimpeded to pursue any number of interests? Or is it blank and uniform as a university dorm room, assortments of contrasting posters and wall clocks, a pair of unmotivated twin beds?
My roommate rolled away back to his side of the dorm room, perhaps to do engineering homework or to text an ROTC buddy. I don’t know what I resumed doing. I likely just fiddled away at the pixelated figments of my laptop.
* * *
Asexuality’s current definition is fairly recent: “a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” At a mere eight words, it is both effective to transmit and full of misunderstood complications—such as when my friend, one of whom I first told about my asexuality, later calculated that my lack of sexual desire must be the upshot of early onset erectile dysfunction, a variation of the frustrating refrain mistaking asexuality as a hormone imbalance. Or, when STEM people vent about the incorrect usage of a strictly biological term, as if their jargon are precious jewels, immune from the soft blemishes of neologisms. Or the term colloquially describes anything that does not fit within the bounds of male and female, gay and straight. Sometimes, asexuality is a miasma of confusion, requiring you to take a deep breath and a headlong dive to parse it out.
A few months after my twenty-first birthday, I studied Mandarin abroad in Beijing for a semester. The international dormitory at Beijing Language and Culture University is a blocky double-digit story gigant with two squat towers on either end. This dormitory houses students from every corner of the globe. A week or so after a Korean girl in my class revealed, to my utter surprise, her feelings for me, we headed to my dorm room. It was a Tuesday afternoon while my roommate was at soccer practice.
Learning that I was asexual came at an opportune time. Being asexual demands a different set of negotiations, a counter-weight to a prevailing norm. Yet, being aware of this counter-weight loses usefulness when you don’t know what a typical relationship would look like. The definition, for example, does not precisely detail the relationship between sexual and romantic interests. They aren’t dichotomous feelings, gazing at one another over a horizon, and they aren’t one in the same, invariable paths to a shared destination. They’re a loose configuration, and my theory is that most asexuals, even those with a keener interest in physical intimacy, are one step removed from the typical expectations for affection.
She was good looking. Long dark hair, a wardrobe of colorful yet professional attire. I wasn’t used to the attention, someone wanting to sit close to me, reaching for my hand. Her desire for physical affection was a little overmuch for what I was used, but I wanted her to be happy.
We finally kissed in the middle of the room, between the built-in wooden desks, the pair of twin beds separated by a wooden divider down the center, the curtains drawn. This was my first kiss, and kissing her—and all of my kisses since then—went as I predicted. Long and drawn out, the awkward Tetris-like configuration of teeth, the slithering misappropriation of tongue.
Asexuality has existed long before the prefix A- was summoned to represent it. Conversations on non-sexualities were virtually non-existent prior to the twenty-first century, though not totally. Karl-Maria Kertbeny, who coined the terms homosexual and heterosexual in 1869, described “monosexuals,” or people who only masturbate.
Kertbeny’s early observations on permanent behavioral isolation do not fit me. Sitting on my bed and kissing my sort-of girlfriend, I tried to make her happy without really knowing what I should feel or even what I was trying to imitate. I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to be with someone. I didn’t know if there was a such a thing as an in-between.
There was also Magnus Hirschfeld, who, in a pamphlet titled Sappho und Sokrates, amidst his early sexological research on gay and trans people, concluded that, “There are individuals who are without any sexual desire.” His and Kertbeny’s early definitions contain recognizable glints of asexuality’s contemporary definition, though conflating desire and orientation. These definitions depict someone truly on their own—an island.
A few years later, I was asked out by a co-worker. I was twenty-four and hadn’t been on anything resembling a date in years, and had only recently moved to Oklahoma. I said yes. Due to scheduling conflicts though, we wouldn’t be able to go out for a week and a half, and a sense of unease emerged in the intervening time. I knew I liked women. I knew I didn’t like men. But in the following three years since my first kiss, I hadn’t learned much more about myself, hadn’t isolated my precise romantic coordinates.
Alfred Kinsey, in his pair of reports titled Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female utilizes the Kinsey scale for study participants to describe their sexual orientation at a given time. The scale goes from zero to six. Zero means exclusively heterosexual and six means exclusively homosexual, anything in between describing the gradations between those two poles. In these Kinsey Reports, researchers also included an eighth rating: X, meaning, “No socio-sexual contacts or reactions.” X is subtle. It doesn’t have a voice, cloaks itself via imitation of other letters.
At what point do you bring up X? When you’re originally asked out? Sometime in the week-and-a-half beforehand? Do you turn off your jokiness, lay your fork down next to your plate of red Thai curry, and whisper it? Would that be presumptive, though? It was only a first date, after all.
What about on the way back to their place because you don’t know what else to say, because you weren’t flirty or sternly romantic; you told jokes, treated this like any other dinner?
And even if you do reveal that you’re X, how do you explain that you do like them, but that you aren’t sure of the romantic implications of X, that you don’t know how you feel, and you don’t know how you feel about not knowing how you feel?
I’ve never gone out with someone who was pushy, or rude, or uncompassionate. Most people have had awkward dating experiences; I am not unique. But in situations like this, within my own brand of awkwardness and date-night embarrassment, how would I explain X in a way that doesn’t cause further confusion? As a series of unobserved behaviors, such as how Kertbeny, Hirschfeld, and Kinsey did? And where does the modern definition fall short, leaving a vast array of implications undefined?
* * *
Ela Przybylo, in her book Asexual Erotics, one of the few academic books on the topic I am aware of, writes that, “[so-called] prudery can be used to mark a subject as backwards, repressed, insufficiently eroticized, and lacking.” Maybe I take some silly joy in answering questions about asexuality because the truth does not linger among any of these misconceptions and by honestly answering, I am violating expectations, overcoming ostensibly steep odds. As an asexual, I wish to be permanently insulated from concerns of STDs, relationship drama, the co-dependent magnetism of couples. By having a lack, but to not be lacking, there is this slim divergence that I can condescendingly speak from.
If someone were to ask—“What do you do all day?”—I shouldn’t need an answer. But rather than being a self-contained circuit, invariably, asexuality is wired to something: the absence needing to be filled. I like Todd in BoJack Horseman, and not just because he is asexual. His character is a self-aware meditation on the wacky misadventures and shenanigans of cartoon characters, though simultaneously a hyperbolic representation of it, and within this contrast exists character relationships that are inviting and complicated. He lives within an intersection of incongruity and wisdom.
However, I wish that he wasn’t the only asexual character in mainstream media. I don’t believe that the creators did a disservice by rendering Todd in such a way, but when you have a character who starts a business that only sells Halloween costumes in January, gets lost for days in a New York hotel, and accidentally provides a waitress with an eight-million-dollar tip, his sexuality and quirkiness become associated in a media ecosystem of weird-characters-presumed-asexual.
Take Holmes in the Sherlock Holmes BBC series or Sheldon Cooper in Big Bang Theory. Lanky white men, towering in their fields, whose emotional distances are slowly closed as they fold into their social groups. These characters are not asexual, both confirmed within the shows themselves but also confirmed by the creators. They’re intelligent at the expense of missing social cues, so absorbed in themselves and their work that they do not require sex. They’re off-beat. They’re weirdos.
What does an asexual person do all day if not possessed by sex? In an interview, Steven Moffat, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, said that “If [Holmes] was asexual, there would be no tension in that, no fun in that.” In his mind, the character is resisting a possession, a conflict between a sexuality that is there but isn’t acted upon, rather than something that isn’t there and isn’t acted upon. The fact that these two are assumed to be asexual at all, that this was a question needing fielding, is telling. Cooper, Holmes, and Chavez’s lack of sexual engagement binds their behaviors to the quirky habits of the virginal. What does an asexual person do all day? Whatever it takes to fill in for a deficiency, leaving producers and writers’ rooms to render something in place of that scolding lack.
I’m no more equipped to deal with awkwardness than anyone else. At no point in talking to a friend or a partner or a date and saying, “Yeah, but I’m asexual,” did it elucidate the situation, dazzle a disappointed partner, or fill in for a perceived lack.
So, something deep inside waits for those questions, “Are you straight? Are you gay? Wouldn’t it be easier not to be nothing?” where I can impress someone with an unexpected answer. “Yeah, but I’m asexual,” I can say, coolly, distantly, like this little plot of nothing I tend to never even crosses my mind.
It obviously crosses my mind, more than I am willing to admit.
And I think that resistance to the notion of that lack is myself; that in a subversive, infectious variant of self-confidence, I see the unmarked difference of asexuality as something better: the surprise, the pizazz, the tangy mismatch of syllables, all of which elevate something indiscernible.
I want to say that it is okay for asexuality to be left out of conversations, leaving us to wallow as an open-and-shut explanation. That the resonate asexual lack is nothing: not emblematic, not a vacuum. It never crosses my mind at all! Not oppressive or sanctifying. Both an orientation and not an orientation, both special and not special. Interesting, boring. Asexuality just is. I’m not proud or ashamed of it.
“Yeah, but I’m asexual.”
* * *
I think back to a car ride with my dad when I was about eighteen. It was late. The confines of his truck were elastic. Back then, he would drive me to fencing practice and competitions, and we once drove the fourteen-or-so hours to the Midwest to look at colleges. We filled in the gaps of tired conversation with eighties music and Green Day.
My dad always had a big stomach and strong arms. He is easily conversational, though his disposition when trying to reach out about girls and relationships faltered. “The talk” was a tangle of half-formed thoughts. I routinely dismissed these conversation beats out of hand. I was eighteen after all, and I was pretty sure I knew what life would look like.
I had calculated it out. By forty, I would be alone. Not in a good way, or a bad way, but alone. By then, my friends would be long married with children and spread across the globe. They’d have no time for me, but I’d have unlimited time and space. I also figured that around the time I went to college, my parents would divorce, their marriage draining like a face gone cold.
I still have plenty of time before forty, but even from this vantage point I can see that this was a miscalculation, that I simplified the variables of life in the service of a worst-case scenario. My parents didn’t divorce when I went to college, or when I graduated, or when I taught abroad, or when I moved to Oklahoma.
I can’t remember what disagreement Dad and I we were having on one of our drives, but it was punctuated with the following exchange:
“So, you’re just not going to have sex ever then?” he asked.
“I guess not,” I said. He snorted. For him, apparently, like many others, a life without sex is an impossibility. Without sex, there is no partnership and vice versa.
I don’t think my dad was trying to be dismissive. The geometry of society is reliant on pairing, with sexuality as an organizing logic that brings clarity to an unpredictable world. I suppose my asexuality can do the same for me.
Recently, the show BoJack Horseman has ended, and those friends and classmates and dates and roommates are different people now. People will lose interest in my little plot of nothing, in favor of the glowing ornaments in their own lives. This is a necessary progression. At the same time, allowing for an ounce of pride on something so small is healthy, like decorating a plain wall, cleaning out the crevices between furniture, and kicking up dust that flusters into dizzying clouds.
Though, at the time, in the dark car, I turned away, put in my earbuds to listen to my own music. I ignored my dad and didn’t care much for his thought process. I leaned my head against the car window and stared out as if it was a moving wallpaper, appreciating the momentum of street lamps, staring at the astigmatic lights as they skidded by.