A reflection by Sarah
Last week, I wrote a post on some problems I see with defining LGBTQ terminology rigidly and attempting to qualify who is or is not LGBTQ. I’m thankful for all the stimulating discussions that post initiated with friends and readers, including some folks who were encountering our blog for the first time. One of my favorite aspects of blogging is witnessing how quickly a 1,500 word reflection can spark multiple conversations that take off on trajectories I never would have anticipated. In my post from last week, I had stated the following:
I am a lesbian. I experience attraction to women. Occasionally that attraction does include sexual thoughts. However, I experience sexual desire rather infrequently. I can’t even remember the last time I had a desire for sex. I am committed to sharing life with a partner whom I love, but to whom I am not sexually attracted, and who has trouble picking out which letters of the alphabet soup are the best fit.
I was surprised to see that a fair number of the resulting conversations, including one on that post’s comments section, involved suggestions that I must be asexual. Perhaps part of it was because in some of these conversations (particularly on Facebook and Twitter), I was using the example of an asexual lesbian to demonstrate that LGBTQ sexual identity doesn’t necessarily have to involve the desire for sex. But in most cases, even after I explained that I am not asexual, the assertions continued. Over the past week, I’ve been wondering what exactly has led so many readers to assume that I’m asexual, why I’m so quick to claim that I’m not, and whether the answers to these questions are even relevant to the conversations Lindsey and I are trying to initiate. After several days of reflection, I’ve come to see how important the topic of asexuality is to explorations of celibacy, so I’ve chosen to address it for the first time today.
Most of the time, I resist writing posts that delve deeply into topics that are only vaguely related to my own experience of life. I’m quick to call out straight Christians who make ignorant statements about gay/lesbian topics despite their lack of firsthand knowledge. I don’t want to do the same thing to asexuals, so let me make clear: everything I say in this post is from my own experience, and it should not be taken as a critique of the asexual community, or as evidence that all people currently embracing the term “asexual” will eventually realize that they are wrong.
My first reaction to seeing the aforementioned conversations about my blog post was, “Whoa…blast from the past!” Very early in my coming out process, I did experiment with the term “asexual” as a possible identity descriptor. There was a time, back in the earlier years of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) message boards, when I interacted regularly with the asexual community and thought I might be one of them. While most of my now-closest friends were beginning their affiliations with the Gay Christian Network (GCN), I was spending much of my spare time chatting it up with the folks at AVEN. I met some great people during my time on the AVEN boards and got back in touch with a couple of them once Facebook became a more popular way of keeping up with friends, but in time I saw that the term “asexual” was not a good fit for me and it has been years since I’ve even thought much about asexuality.
AVEN currently defines the term “asexual” as, “Someone who does not experience sexual attraction.” There aren’t many other definitions available because asexuality is not widely recognized as a sexual orientation as of 2014. AVEN’s definitions page offers other terms as well such as “demisexual” (someone who can only experience sexual attraction after an emotional bond has been formed) and “gray asexual” or “gray-sexual” (someone who identifies with the area between asexuality and sexuality). As many readers have pointed out, my description of my own level of sexual desire could easily fit somewhere within the broad spectrum of asexual self-identification. One reader referred to me as gray-sexual and insisted that this was an appropriate label for me whether I like it or not. Generally, I believe it is a sign of respect to honor other people’s identities as they understand them. I can’t think of too many things that make me feel more disenfranchised than another person claiming to know better than I do what I am or am not, or what I believe or don’t believe. Could someone with the exact same level of sexual desire as I have rightly claim a term like “asexual” or “gray-sexual”? Sure. If a person sees nonexistent or limited sexual desire as a key component of his or her identity, who am I to say that is unimportant? But it doesn’t change the fact that I don’t identify with these terms.
So does my preferred terminology (lesbian) have any relevance if I’ve chosen a way of life that doesn’t include sexual activity? If Lindsey and I are intentionally celibate, why does it matter what I call myself? Yes, I think it does matter, and two reasons come to mind immediately.
First, identifying as “asexual” rather than “sexual” would change the meaning of my commitment to celibacy. I understand my celibacy within the context of vocation. All vocations involve giving of oneself and making sacrifices for the sake of the Kingdom. Lindsey and I believe that God has given both of us the gift of celibacy, which makes certain aspects of our daily living different from that of other LGBT people who have chosen celibacy purely out of obedience. But this doesn’t mean our celibacy comes without consequence. Sometimes, a way of life that one feels called to comes naturally and is easy, but at other times it is challenging and even feels painful. There are occasions when I begin to think that the grass might be greener on the other side of the fence. As I’ve mentioned before, I felt drawn to celibacy for several years before actually committing to it. I spent a few years second-guessing myself, shifting back and forth between liberal and conservative approaches to sexual ethics, and trying to determine if being obedient to my Christian tradition would necessitate squelching my attractions to other women. As I was dealing with all of this, I didn’t even question whether possibly spending the rest of my life without sexual activity would be a sacrifice — I knew it would be. I knew that in making the decision to live celibacy I would be giving up one very important way of connecting with others, and that would be hard. Especially since pursuing celibacy with Lindsey, I’ve only seen confirmation of this. I still experience sexual attraction to other women, even though it’s rare and even though I’m not sexually attracted to Lindsey. I’ve been in sexually active relationships before, and there’s no denying that these kinds of relationships are vastly different from what Lindsey and I share. Once in a blue moon, I’ll think back on those and miss that kind of connection. Thus, the idea of identifying with asexuality just doesn’t sit well with me.
Second, I have radically different emotional associations for the terms “lesbian” and “asexual,” and I see this as at least partially related to my experience as a survivor of sexual violence. It’s erroneous to suggest that a person who is LGBTQ (or a person who is asexual, for that matter) would necessarily have been heterosexual (or sexual at all) had it not been for a sexual trauma. It’s also incorrect to say that spending time in therapy to heal from sexual trauma will make a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person straight, a transgender person identify with his/her biological sex, or an asexual person sexual. I believe that my lesbian sexual orientation is completely unrelated to my sexual abuse, but I also believe that some people form their entire concept of sexual orientation around those kinds of experiences. If I’m totally honest with myself, I have to admit that’s exactly what I was doing in experimenting with the asexual label for a season of life. During that time, I knew deep down that I had a sexual orientation; I just didn’t want one. I was fearful of what it would mean to accept myself as a sexual person, and I knew that the rare sexual attractions I experienced were toward women. In my mind, adopting the term “asexual” was the easy way out of acknowledging my PTSD and having to struggle with questions of faith and sexuality. It would also save me from total rejection, I thought. I knew that sooner or later, I would have to tell people I wasn’t straight. All the assumptions and questions about why I didn’t have a boyfriend were weighing on me heavily. I was aware that whether I came out as lesbian or asexual, everyone who knew of my being a survivor would blame my abuse and tell me that I should seek counseling to become “normal.” But I thought, “At least if I tell people I’m asexual, they can’t say I’m doing anything wrong.” At the time, the asexual label seemed like the amoral option. I stopped identifying with “asexual” after realizing that use of the term was causing me a great deal of sexual frustration. Oddly enough, I’ve never experienced stronger and more frequent sexual desire than I did during my season of identifying as “asexual.” I consider that more than enough evidence that this label is not the most fitting for me. It’s interesting how coming to identify freely as “lesbian” was part of what opened the gift of celibacy up to me.
The problem with claiming to know another person’s sexual identity better than he or she does is that no two journeys through life are exactly the same. Two people who experience almost identical levels of sexual, emotional, and romantic attraction can have profoundly different senses of identity due to their histories and worldviews. Assigning a sexual identity label to a person other than oneself privileges one’s own self-understanding to an extent. It’s overly simplistic to assume that a one-sentence definition can convey accurately how every person who uses a particular term would describe its meaning. Regardless of whose definition for “asexual,” “gray-sexual,” or any other term a person might fit, his or her own internal sense of self should be honored and respected.
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