At fourteen, I came across the word “asexuality” the same way most people do: online. I read the words prominently displayed on asexuality.org, the website of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN): “An asexual person is a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” Asexuality, I learned, is a sexual orientation, just like homosexuality and pansexuality and heterosexuality are sexual orientations. A person who is homosexual is sexually attracted to the same gender; a person who is asexual is sexually attracted to no one.
All of this made sense. Growing up in Silicon Valley had helped me develop a healthy appreciation for alternative lifestyles and I was pleased that my latest Wikipedia rabbit hole had taught me something new about the world and about other people. I had no trouble believing that asexuality was normal, healthy, and valid, and that these asexual people, or aces, were entitled to long and happy lives without the rest of us pointing and laughing. But learning the term did not change how I viewed myself. I misinterpreted “a person who does not experience sexual attraction” to mean “a person who hates sex” — and so I, personally, could not be asexual.
That notion seemed laughable. I spent middle school and high school gossiping about crushes; the idea of sex held great promise. Even through college, there was little reason to suspect I might be ace, only that I might be neurotic, shy, and arrogant. I found Adrien Brody attractive and Channing Tatum less so and had a vulgar sense of humor, full of sex jokes and sly insinuations that made my more proper friends blush. I spoke of longing and listened intently to stories of sexual adventures and never did it occur to me that my friends and I might be using the language of desire differently.
For them, a word like “hot” could indicate a physical pull. For me, “hot” conveyed an admiration of excellent bone structure, no different from admiring a particularly striking painting. Their sexual encounters were often motivated by libido. I didn’t even know that I lacked a libido. I was a little curious about sex because everything — books, television, friends — told me it felt fantastic. But I was very curious about what it would be like to be desired and to be loved. That was the real root of my longing.
Then, Henry. Henry and I met when we were twenty-one. After our first conversation, I wrote “BE STILL MY FUCKING HEART” in my journal, just like that, in all caps. That conversation took place over the internet, he in Texas and I in California. We fell in love anyway, over emails and chats and hours of talking.
I wouldn’t meet Henry in person for nearly a year. A few months after that would be the last time I saw him, but the aftershocks of our relationship would stretch into the future far beyond the amount of time we had actually spent together. Henry will always be one of the ways that I mark “before” and “after” in my life—not just for learning about asexuality, though our relationship provided the impetus for me to do so, but also for understanding romantic love and the obsessive pain of loss.
First love always feels like a miracle. That I fell in love with someone far away, someone I had met believing nothing could happen other than friendship; that we needed to coordinate our lives to be together; that what we felt inside really did change outer reality—all of that made this moment in time, this person, feel even more extraordinary.
First love always feels like a miracle.
Our investments marked the relationship as special, and the seriousness of our plan became evidence of the seriousness of our feelings, testaments that our tie went beyond vanity and was more than infatuation. In this, I remain sure, we were not wrong. Nothing then or since has shaken my belief that no matter how excruciatingly immature we might have been, at their core the feelings were both rare and very real.
Texas and California are far away, but it was senior year of college and everyone’s lives were about to split open anyway. The deal was that we would both move to New York City after graduation. I would take a journalism job and he would go to graduate school. But when Henry was not accepted into any universities in the area, he chose to attend a school in the South and pushed for a five-year long-distance open relationship.
I was not equipped to handle this proposed arrangement — I, so untrusting and wary of vulnerability that I had written this to myself in my journal: Another thing you need to remember, and something that, for some reason, has never really occurred to you before: You can ask things of others too. You can ask them to compromise. It is not always you who have to.
I should have said no, but I was afraid of losing him. So I made a mistake and said yes.
Before Henry headed to the South for graduate school, he arranged to be in New York for the summer, ostensibly to take language classes but in reality to be with me. Without having yet met in person, we agreed to find a place together. The months we would spend together already seemed painfully short compared to what we had expected; there was nothing else we wanted so much, so why waste time on commutes?
That summer was painful and there are many reasons we did not work out. Sex was not one of those reasons — not exactly. Our strange courtship might have created problems in many other areas, but we found each other beautiful and I enjoyed having sex with Henry. It felt intimate, like I was special to him and privy to an experience that others were not. It gave me the feeling I had always wanted: not sexual pleasure, but the thrill of specialness.
Sex itself did not cause problems, but my fear of a specific aspect of sexuality did.
Though we were functionally monogamous during those months, the prospect of five years of an open relationship terrified me, and the fact that Henry wanted to have sex with others was hard to take. Convinced that Henry would fall in love with someone else after sleeping with them, any mention of sexual attraction — his or anyone else’s — prompted tortured projections of abandonment.
Sex itself did not cause problems, but my fear of a specific aspect of sexuality did.
Soon, dread of an uncertain future overshadowed the safety I had in the present. I wanted to be strong and wanted to run away in equal measure, and that produced the toxic cocktail that ruined the time we did have together. Over and over, I could feel my emotions spinning out of control as I acted in ways I knew were wrong but felt powerless to stop. My panic manifested in constantly trying to break up, so afraid was I of being left. During the nonstop fights, I waved my hand and gave as reasons any number of issues that never directly included the words “fear” or “insecurity.” I could neither say that I was afraid nor admit how much I cared.
One day, on the way home from work, I passed a flower shop and on a whim bought red carnations for Henry. When I arrived home and he asked me where I’d gotten the flowers, I became overwhelmed by the prospect of admitting to a kind, spontaneous gesture. I said that I had taken the flowers from someone at work and thought they’d look nice on the dining room table.
Henry eventually had enough and broke up with me, rightly, in the fall.
He was gone, but my mind continued to wrap itself around the endless conversations we’d had about why an open relationship was necessary: Henry saying that men would always want to stray because it was natural, that clinging to monogamy was old-fashioned and that I could defeat that desire if I really tried, just a little bit harder.
Henry’s statements created a new, gut-deep fear of anything related to flirting or sex or romance. When my roommate started watching old seasons of Scandal, a glance at the protagonists kissing in some dark hallway sent me to my room with the door shut. If anyone tried to hold my hand on a date, I drew back immediately. I had never liked being touched by strangers, but, clammy and cynical, I now actively feared it. I missed Henry terribly and now believed that every relationship would end either in betrayal or with the other person feeling trapped.
One evening, nearly two years after I had last seen Henry, I found myself telling my friend Thomas about how badly everything had ended. By this point, I was well-practiced at reciting the events. I was obsessed with them, convinced that people couldn’t understand me without knowing about Henry and convinced that I couldn’t understand myself unless I could answer the question of why we failed—which to me was the same as the question of why I behaved the way I did when I knew better. So many people had heard this story, but Thomas couldn’t understand why I had been so worried that Henry might be attracted to someone else and leave me.
For me, desire for love and desire for sex had always been one and the same, an unbreakable link.
“I get being jealous,” Thomas said, “but not your worry that he couldn’t control himself at all. Being sexually attracted to other people happens to all of us.”
“I know, and that’s what terrifies me,” I said. “It’ll happen to everyone and then someone will always be fighting this desire and wanting to cheat, even if they don’t cheat. That seems miserable.”
“I mean, yes,” he said. “Sort of. But also, not really. I’m sure you’ve been sexually attracted to someone that you’re not dating, but it’s often just attraction. Physical. That happens all the time and you manage it. For most people, it’s not some horrible thing you can’t deal with, though I guess it can be. Almost all the time it’s no big deal. We all learn to deal, you know?”
I didn’t know. Nothing he said sounded familiar.
I had never experienced “just attraction,” a physical impulse—only emotional desire for closeness that manifested physically. I wanted sex with someone only when I was already prepared to change my life for them, so I did not believe Henry when he claimed that wanting sex with others did not have to threaten me.
When he talked about how everyone was sexually attracted to others all the time, I could not understand attraction as anything but how I experienced it: emotional yearning—love, really—overpowering and overwhelming, a disaster for our relationship if targeted toward anyone but myself. It sounds illogical now, and like incredible naivete, but for me, desire for love and desire for sex had always been one and the same, an unbreakable link. I had been curious about sex but had never wanted to have sex with any person before Henry.
Talking to Thomas prompted me to question why statements he took for granted were revelations to me. I wondered what else I did not know that I did not know about sexual desire. ●
Excerpted from Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex. Copyright 2020. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.
Angela Chen (@chengela) is a journalist in New York.