“Never pass up a chance to have sex or appear on television.”
The Gore Vidal quote captures how Adam says he used to feel: pressured to desire anyone interested in him.
“I’m not really into sex a whole lot,” said the 44-year-old, who asked BuzzFeed News to identify him by only his first name. When he was in his early thirties, Adam wasn’t seeking out sex, exactly, but he thought he’d better take opportunities for affirmation as they came, regardless of who they were with. “My phone is not exactly ringing off the hook with potential suitors,” he said. That’s why, when a man who seemed high hit on him outside a friend’s party, Adam accompanied the man back to his place. And that’s where Adam says he was anally penetrated without his consent.
Adam now identifies as homoromantic graysexual, which means he feels romantically, but only occasionally sexually, attracted to men. When he was assaulted, he didn’t think about it in those terms, though he knew he wasn’t comfortable with what happened.
“When the #MeToo stuff came out, I think, Oh yes, something like this happened to me too, even though I’m a guy,” Adam said.
Since the New York Times exposed Harvey Weinstein’s serial harassment and assault last fall, the #MeToo conversation has swelled with survivors, from A-list celebrities to ordinary people, speaking out about their experiences. But outside ace social circles — “ace” is an umbrella term for asexual people — harrowing stories from people with those identities have gone largely unheard.
“I think it’s empowering to see ace people talk about these experiences, especially as someone who has endured harassment and assault in my life,” said Michael Paramo, 25, an aromantic, asexual, two-spirit person who founded the Asexual journal. “I began to perceive my body as hideous, unlovable, not worthy of being seen, not worthy of even existing, and it opened a hole deep inside me. … I think there should be more discussion on how ace people may be vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault that addresses the nuances ace survivors may have to endure and navigate.”
Asexuality awareness has gained traction in recent years, thanks to increased activism, research, and media representation, but many outside the community still aren’t familiar with the range of identities the term can encompass. Some asexual people have sex, whether out of sexual attraction, a desire to please their partners, or both; some are sex-averse. Many asexual people do pursue romantic relationships, while others identify as aromantic and seek out romantic relationships only occasionally or not at all. Like anyone else, aces’ romantic attraction varies, from hetero- and homoromantic to bi and pan.
Because public discourse often overlooks and even outright dismisses asexuality itself, it follows that ace stories of harassment and assault aren’t widely heard, let alone accepted or understood, among those who don’t identify as ace. But that doesn’t mean they don’t happen: In the 2015 asexual community census, a volunteer-run project, 43.5% of nearly 8,000 aces surveyed reported having experienced some form of sexual violence (including rape, assault, and coercion).
Adam has felt unwelcome in ace spaces because of his age (he said the community skews younger) but also in gay spaces as a graysexual man. “Especially among gay men, I don’t think it’s a totally controversial statement to say that it’s a very, very hypersexualized culture,” he said.
Conversely, ace women’s experiences can blend into those of other women’s generally. “Obviously, I can’t separate being a woman from being an asexual person, because I’ll always be both,” said Julie Sondra Decker, 40, the author of the 2014 seminal ace book The Invisible Orientation. “I do find that a lot of what has happened to me has happened because I’m asexual or partially because I’m asexual. ‘Oh, that just happened to you because you’re a woman,’ or ‘That just happened because of sexism.’ … I see a lot of downplay of how much being asexual factors into that.”
When Decker was 19, she says she was assaulted by someone she had developed a rapport with on AOL Instant Messenger. They met in person at a Denny’s near her place. She mentioned that she was “nonsexual,” which was how she identified before she knew about asexuality. (She now identifies as asexual and aromantic.) He seemed accepting, and they continued hanging out as friends, going back to her place to play video games. When he left, he asked for a goodnight kiss. She declined, but eventually acquiesced to a kiss on the cheek when he wouldn’t back down.
“We’re in a car, so he leaned over and licked my face, really fast and really aggressively, just drags his tongue up the side of my face,” said Decker. He yelled “I just want to help you” when she walked away, and harassed her on AIM for months afterward. “‘Do you want to come over? I’m watching porn.’ He told me that he had taken psychology in high school and he could tell that I was in denial,” she said. Assaults in situations like Decker’s are known as “corrective,” in which the attacker seeks to “correct” someone’s asexuality by assaulting or raping them out of an abusive belief that they’ll magically turn into people who crave sexual contact.
But assault doesn’t always have a connection to someone’s ace identity. Devin, 27, was assaulted before she even identified as biromantic aceflux (her sexual attraction varies on different days, but most of the time, she feels little to none). When Devin, who asked BuzzFeed News to use only her first name, was 13, she and her next-door neighbor’s visiting cousin, who was 15, were sitting in the back of her parents’ car when he asked her if she’d like to play “the nervous game,” in which he would touch her leg and move his hand up in small increments until she said she was nervous. She misheard him and agreed to play, and then he asked if she was nervous.
“I was, but I felt like I needed to say no, and instead of moving his hand up an inch, he moved it all the way up to my crotch,” Devin said. “It scared me to death. I felt really frozen. I think my dad came outside a couple minutes later and called me in for dinner, and that was my escape.” The next year, while he was visiting again, he grabbed her breast in front of her brother. “I still struggle with the idea that I could have told him no in the first place — that if I had told him no, he never would have touched me,” Devin said.
Coming out to strangers as asexual — or even friends, family, and partners — is no small thing. People wrongly take it as an invitation to suggest you just haven’t found the right person yet, ask invasive questions about whether you’ve orgasmed, and assert that they’re the one who can fix you, if only you’d wisen up and let them try. One question in particular comes up often, especially for those who have survived sexual violence: Are you asexual because you were assaulted?
“I told them that yes, I’ve had incidences, but it’s not the case. It’s not why,” Devin said. “The more that people have asked me, I think I get more visibly annoyed, because I have heard it so much.” Still, she sometimes ponders the possible connection. “Because it happened so young, is that one of the reasons I identify the way I do some days?”
Dia Tucker, a 27-year-old writer in Tallahassee, Florida, describes the flawed reasoning around trauma that leads some to write off asexuality entirely: the idea that “you have to work through that event to become a sexual person or become a healed person.”
Many ace people are also wary of coming out because they fear that they may face interrogation from people who don’t believe them. Adam doesn’t feel comfortable mentioning his ace identity on mainstream dating sites for this reason. “On something like OkCupid, I’m afraid that it would be an object of ridicule,” he said. “Like, what, ‘You don’t take it up the arse?’ or ‘You don’t like to suck?’ or whatever. ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
Aces often talk about the idea of the “unassailable asexual,” which is someone whose asexuality is begrudgingly accepted by the mainstream because there’s no other plausible reason for their disinterest in sex: someone who’s white, cis, neurotypical, not “too old” or “too young,” and with no disabilities and no history of sexual trauma. If someone who could seemingly have their pick of sexual partners abstains from sex, then they must not have “chosen” this identity after all. Aces from more marginalized backgrounds often have more difficulty finding acceptance, let alone becoming public faces for the community.
Aces also fight the misconception that they can’t be assaulted because they’re never in sexual scenarios to begin with. “If you’re not sexually attracted to people, you’re not in those situations to be sexually assaulted. So you know, are there even asexual victims?” Devin said, parroting a generalization she’s heard. “Which, obviously there are, you don’t need to be in a sexual situation to be a victim or a survivor.” Plus, many aces do sometimes pursue romance and sex.
“I feel that because asexuality is perceived as an entirely ‘nonsexual’ identity by many outside the ace community that it’s unfortunately easy for ace survivors of sexual harassment and assault to be left out or excluded from the conversation,” Paramo said.
If aces are keeping their experiences to close-knit corners of Tumblr, rather than updating their Facebook statuses, it’s because asexuality awareness still has room to grow. Increased media representation is slowly helping educate people on what asexuality is all about. “When it starts being written into mainstream fiction, that explodes the awareness even more because someone can be like, ‘Oh, you mean like so-and-so on such-and-such show?’” Decker said.
It’s progress — BoJack Horseman’s ace plotline was a pivotal moment for ace representation — but those stories don’t translate to real-life acceptance immediately. And as the #MeToo conversation marches forward, aces are hoping to make room for their stories. “I want to see people taking the time to think about who else is affected and being willing to listen to those stories and remembering that there isn’t just one type of person affected by this,” Devin said. “This is a cultural phenomenon that affects so many different kinds of people.” ●