Written and illustrated by Cleo Malone.
I once explained to a friend that I probably wouldn’t have ever come out as asexual if it weren’t for my college boyfriend.
“You mean, he turned you ace?” he asked, half-jokingly.
“Oh, no, I’ve always been technically ace,” I clarified. “But I never needed a word for it until he told me something was wrong with me. Before that, it hadn’t ever mattered.”
Technically asexual. I now use those words to think of several people in my life. After discussing what sexual attraction is, we’ve found they don’t feel it either. Some folks are shocked to discover that people can be turned on by a person they’ve never spoken to before. They didn’t know that’s what asexual means. They hear “a–,” meaning “not,” combined with “–sexual,” to mean someone who is not sexual. Unfortunately, the implication in the incorrect definition is of someone who is lacking or somehow lesser than.
Identity is more than who you are intrinsically (or technically). It’s being seen, understood, and treated as who you are. Our identities are all strongly affected by how others treat us (and how we treat ourselves).
So despite being technically asexual, none of these people identity that way for a few reasons, it seems. First, they don’t see their thoughts or feelings about sex as abnormal, whether they’re having a lot of sex or none at all. Second, they experience other forms of attraction (romantic, aesthetic, intellectual, etc.), which they use to determine their labels (straight, bi, pan, gay). Third, they don’t want to invite all the negative assumptions and stereotypes that come with asexuality. Who wants to be seen as lacking?
Identity is more than who you are intrinsically (or technically). It’s being seen, understood, and treated as who you are. Our identities are all strongly affected by how others treat us (and how we treat ourselves). Evidence can be found in studies with rats who performed better when their handlers believed them to be intelligent (research study here, NPR article). It’s also seen in mindfulness meditation practices where you separate your thoughts from your awareness of your thoughts. It even shows up in quantum physics.
The famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment describes the inability to know whether a cat, placed in a box with a bottle of acid and has a 50/50 chance of breaking and killing the cat, is either alive or dead until you open the box to check. It asks the question, at what point does the reality of the cat’s state, either dead or alive, considered “real?” Does it exist in both states simultaneously until it is observed as one or the other? If so, observed by whom? Can the cat observe itself? Einstein’s response to Schrödinger says it all, “reality [is] something independent of what is experimentally established.”
In other words, we cannot 100% know what is real. We can only use the words, concepts, and experiments we have to describe reality as best we can. The cat could only be observed as alive or dead because that’s all we could comprehend it to be. It wasn’t until Schrödinger coined the term “entanglement” that we had a way to think of the cat as anything other than living or dead. Now people had a word to wonder if the cat could be both (or neither, or something else entirely).
Suddenly, no one was peeking into my box to check whether I was a girl or a boy, and because of that, I found I wasn’t either. It felt more heart-breaking than I often want to admit. Here was another place of lack. Something essential was missing from me, and I didn’t know why.
Are the only parts of us considered “real” the parts that can be observed and labeled? Or is it the other way around? Can we observe ourselves? If I was never observed as having or not having sexual attraction, would my asexual label be necessary? As I pointed out to my friend, I didn’t think so.
Then, the pandemic hit.
Three years after coming out as asexual, left alone in a tiny apartment in downtown Oakland for longer than I could bear, I realized I was agender. Suddenly, no one was peeking into my box to check whether I was a girl or a boy, and because of that, I found I wasn’t either. It felt more heart-breaking than I often want to admit. Here was another place of lack. Something essential was missing from me, and I didn’t know why. I left behind compulsory heterosexuality and my assigned gender, and I still didn’t seem to have any powerfully gay feelings to embrace in their place. The labels asexual and agender provided me with nothing more than a lonely legitimacy in “not” being something else.
In accepting my lack of sexual attraction, I discovered the beautifully complex and subtle differences in all other forms of attraction, feelings I hadn’t had the words for before.
This was my mindset when I started learning about ego dissolution. In psychedelic circles, it’s called “ego death,” Carl Jung calls it “psychic death,” and others call it “enlightenment,” or “spiritual awakening.” It’s all the same experience: losing your sense of personal identity while your consciousness remains intact. Ego dissolution is an extreme shift in consciousness that emerges through deep meditation after years of training (or, sometimes, a particularly strong acid trip). People who have experienced it report feeling more free, loving, connected, and compassionate to others and the universe as a whole. Something may die, but it certainly doesn’t seem like a loss. It seems that by letting go of one thing, they could discover a whole lot more.
Learning about ego dissolution shifted my perspective. Coming out as asexual and agender were each small ego deaths. In both instances, I was letting go of arbitrary choices; the only two states presented to me: men or women. Man or woman? I found that rejecting a choice between two options meant accepting an infinite number of other possibilities. In accepting my lack of sexual attraction, I discovered the beautifully complex and subtle differences in all other forms of attraction, feelings I hadn’t had the words for before. In accepting my lack of gender, my own face has become more beautiful to me. I’m no longer comparing myself to others of the same gender as me or worrying about how anyone else will see me at all. I am beautiful in my own right. I’ve come to realize that each time I say no to one thing, I’m also saying yes to so much else.
About The Author
Cleo Malone is an artist living in Portland, Oregon. They normally teach yarn craft classes but are currently enjoying the freedom and anti-capitalism of pandemic unemployment. They live with their two rats, Pepper and Zero.
Follow on IG: @cleomalone