I hope that telling my story here — a story that is not straightforward, full of strange twists and turns and shame and pride alike — will speak to you today. When I put out a poll recently on twitter asking if I should write my journey of discovering my orientation for International Asexuality Day, I thought I had told it enough times, or that it wasn’t interesting enough, to get a majority rule of “yes”. The social media page for the day itself said they were interested, so, here I am — restarting these thoughts at 8pm eastern time for the tenth time today, wringing my hands and wondering if these words will fall onto open minds or if they will be dismissed in the cacophony of personal stories the internet has to offer. The only story I can offer from my own perspective, truly, is my own; I hope that it is enough.
I am demisexual. I also use the word graysexual. I am panromantic. I am agender. I exist within the asexuality spectrum — somewhere in the gray between allosexual and asexual, somewhere that isn’t supposed to exist and that many still don’t believe is real. But I am here; I am, against all odds, real, as is my sexual orientation.
And this is my story.
This post will include discussion of sexual abuse, eating disorders, trauma, purity culture, and self injury. Reader discretion is advised. Thank you.
I remember my first kiss.
I was about four years old. My sister and my neighbor’s sister dared us to kiss and touch tongues. Naturally we proceeded with a small peck, and then stuck our tongues out and touched them gently together, and looked at our older sisters for approval. They howled with laughter and told us “No, that’s not how you do that.” I didn’t understand.
I didn’t know what my classmates meant, either, when they started talking about boys in second grade. I liked boys — but it felt different. Like I was doing it wrong, or too excitable, or maybe not excitable enough — like something was dulled, and I didn’t know how to sharpen it properly without hurting myself and others. I liked girls, too. I liked looking at them and talking to them, and the boys I liked, if I did, I didn’t feel any physical stirrings for beyond curiosity.
In middle school, I fell in love. We were learning about history and Mesopotamia and he was on the cross country team and I wanted so much to be wanted by him. I listened to the ways that boys around me talked about me and other girls, ears burning if they called us “gross” while comparing us to girls who were out of our class, or to the Olympic athlete who spent most of her time in training and was, of course, extremely fit. (That’s true; she competed in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Unfortunately due to a shoulder injury, she is no longer an athlete at that level.) I spent a lot of time jumping on and off the scale that year and wishing I weighed enough to ride in the front seat of the car while also wishing my breasts would come in so that boys would look at me that particular, animalistic way, the way they did with other girls. They looked at those girls like they wanted them — and being wanted was a way of acceptance my scrawny, nerdy body didn’t earn me.
It seemed that the most important thing I could be was wanted, physically, even though I did not want anyone myself in that way. I didn’t think about boys when I explored my own body, or when I was in sexual education classes, beyond the practical sense of “this goes here, then that happens”; but I wanted so badly, so much, to be wanted. At the time, it needed to come from one individual to mean what I needed it to. It never did, and he and I both grew up and went our separate ways. Sometimes I see him on my social media feed and think of that formative year in so many of our lives and wonder if those we were friends with in our little “reject” group as we dubbed ourselves remembered the once in a life time intensity that came with it.
Puberty gave me hips and breasts and scars from self injury from the emotional turmoil I didn’t know how to handle. Self harm was pretty trendy at the time, and none of our parents knew what to do with us. I straddled social groups and dynamics easily, finding that I was often best friends with people who hated each other, but it wasn’t enough; the need to be wanted physically was fulfilling an emotional need in me to be ‘enough’ that I didn’t have the words in me to articulate. Some young women obsessed with their desirability look up make up tutorials; some develop eating disorders. I had sex with the first boy who wanted to have sex with me.
I was fifteen at the time and had just gotten back from a week of intense church camp, where I had once again given my life to my lord and saviour. I had at that point been to camps like this for at least a week every summer for years. I participated in my church’s bible quizzing tournaments and won several trophies for my ability to memorize strange biblical facts. Many times I had had solos in our church’s Christmas pageant, even when I had begged not to be given a solo because it felt embarassing. This year, we were at a different church, and we went to a different Bible camp, but the fear mongering and guilt tripping added up to the same result — give your life to Christ, lest you burn in hell for eternity. I dutifully went to the alter, thinking to myself I would be sincere this time and stop sinning so much, that this time, the broken thing inside me would change.
And then next week I was having sex for the first time on a young man’s mattress on his floor, ignoring all the red flags going off in my head about the relationship, thinking “this is how I can show him I love him, and that he’s worth being loved.” And, more importantly to me at the time, “this means he loves me, too.”
I think about that young fifteen year old now, so curious to have sex, so ready to be a part of this part of life that would make her desirable and sexy, wanting so much to be older and more desirable than her years, and I wonder what the fuck she was thinking. Deep down, I know; I struggle with it now to an extent. To be needed, to be accepted, deeply, was something that I wanted so much I was willing to sacrifice my body, and later my own safety, to have it. I have to wonder why, and even now — even knowing logically that the things that happened in that relationship as it got worse and worse, as I spent more nights crying myself to sleep and more time with him hiding in his bathroom with toilet paper under my eyes to keep mascara from running — even now I wonder if there was something fundamentally wrong with me that put that message in my head. I wanted acceptance, fully, and I was convinced that the best way to get it was to offer my body up as sacrifice, and as he consumed me, I wondered more and more if I was being punished for offering myself as I did. It felt like a cruel cosmic joke to have him tell me he still wanted to marry me after he did things like scream at me in public, or treated me like a warm body in front of his friends, and I went home and cried myself to sleep and prayed forgiveness more times than I can count.
After two years full of incidents I won’t venture to mention here, I broke up with him over text. I didn’t want to think of the many times he had reveled in my tears, or worse placated me and drawn me into false security; I wanted to be uninterrupted and more importantly, safe. I sent him messages during our Variety Show rehearsal. A few of my bandmates noticed I was crying and trying to keep quiet about it, but the rehearsal went on. A week later he dropped everything I’d ever given or made for him in a box on my porch, torn to shreds. When he finally stopped harassing me, I felt like I could try breathing again.
I remember the first time I had sex with someone and felt truly, completely safe.
I was still young, and we were home alone, something my mother would not have tolerated but that his mother didn’t mind. She said she trusted us, but to be honest I think she expected us to be physical with each other and just trusted us not to be stupid about it. We were in love that year, doing everything we could to stretch every moment as far as we could, honeymooning and laughing at all the little things. I remember the night I was fully safe with him so well; I remember thinking, “I’m not just doing this because I want to be wanted; I want this.” A feeling I hadn’t known could be felt before.
Afterwards, as we watched a cheesy movie and ordered a pizza with the money his mom had left us, I wondered why nights like this had to end. I hadn’t felt that before — the longing to be intertwined with another human like that, to have them know me completely, to make love. It was not the first time we had had sex, but it was the first time I wasn’t simply doing what I thought I was supposed to, or what my body was aroused by in the moment. It was a new feeling, and it was a nice feeling; I liked it immensely.
The relationship lasted a year and a half. It was mostly good, save a few incidents. We reached different transitional phases in our lives at different times, and when he broke up with me when I was in my freshman year of college, it was devestating. It felt like confirmation of all the things my abusive ex had told me when he was in a bad mood, or comparing me to the pornography he exposed me to, or the underlying fear beneath why we had had sex in the first place — that I wasn’t desirable enough, and if I wasn’t that, I was nothing.
My next relationship felt like confirmation of this as well, and as a result the relationship that came after, while it lasted longer, was tainted with my fear that I had nothing besides my body to offer him. I developed a serious eating disorder (of which I am now recovered) during my sophomore year of college, due to a mixture of trauma and my own uncontrolled ADHD. He was a kind person and he tried his best to understand, and to get me help. I reached out for help many times but found that I couldn’t talk about things regarding sex and sexuality with the college counselors at an Evangelical college. I went to a new therapist, and her advice towards my eating disorder was only that it would kill me, and that other patients who came in were “actually” sick. I went to a new physiciatrist and was prescribed mood stabilizers and told I wasn’t depressed. All the while, the intensity of new love was wearing into resentment and anger. My college boyfriend and I began to have a harder and harder time together, but neither of us were anxious to leave the other. Against all wisdom, we kept trying, until he left me after I’d left the college. I responded by adopting a cat and spending the first night alone with two of my best friends, sobbing and wondering what I could do to get him back.
There was a lull in between life events at this time. I worked at Best Buy and dated around a bit; after a while, it seemed like the logical thing to do. I went to a new psychiatrist and was given more mood stabilizers, which did not help my situation, and often I didn’t take them because they made life more difficult. I fell in love with a close friend who was in love with someone else, and looking back now I’m glad we didn’t try to get together — we weren’t suited in that way. Often on dates, the pressure for sex came up, and I said yes because it was there, whether or not I really wanted it or was enjoying myself. The experiences were largely neutral, with a few exceptions, dependent on circumstances and arousal. I both feared not being enough, and also being too much; I was determined to not be too much, but it seemed I couldn’t help it.
I first heard the word “gray ace” from someone I had met on OkCupid, hanging out with him and his roommate. The other roommate, who was rarely home, was my coworker. I said at the time I was bisexual, and the roommate said he was gay. They told me that their other roommate, the absent one, was “gray ace”, but I didn’t know what that meant. The next time I saw her, I picked her brain a bit about it. She told me in general what it meant for her, and even recommended some resources — in particular the documentary (a)sexual.
The relationship with the individual I’d met on OkCupid eventually fell out. It was a combination of factors from both of us and we decided it was best to go our separate ways, as much as it may have hurt. As I entered my next relationship — eventually getting engaged and then the engagement ending and me entering a new chapter of my life — I put questions about my sexuality in the back of my mind. I wasn’t ready to think about the implications of realizing that most of the time if I liked sex, I just liked that it was happening, or the implications that most of the sex I’d had just because I thought I was expected to. I had eventually started to think about if I was bi or pansexual, and landed on pansexual, but more than that the point in between my engagement and my next relationship was a period that I used for intentional self reflection.
I found a group of friends online and found that people liked my scary stories, and I found that fanfiction can be quite delightful and well written. I found that my fanfiction was some of the more unusual out there in that it never involved romance or sex. Those things didn’t call to me as a writer, or often as a reader, though I would read them on occassion. While my friends were writing about people realizing that they were soulmates, I was writing about people finding themselves in cults, or on haunted camp grounds, or turned into taxidermied animals. While I was glad my friends accepted me, I felt a bit out of place, like there was something about this fanfiction thing I was missing.
When I started dating again — a relationship with two people who were with each other, consensually — one individual in the relationship was asexual. They asked me one day what it was like to be pansexual as we were cooking dinner together, as we had all been talking about our orientations and such.
I paused and thought a moment as I stood over the sink. “It’s like… I don’t really think about sex, I guess. I more fantasize about having a nice conversation, like, dinner and a movie. And then maybe later, I think about sex with that person — but it’s generally not really a part of the picture.”
There was a pause.
“It sounds like you’re demisexual.”
I immediately felt a lump rise in my throat. If you’re demisexual then the allosexual in this relationship won’t know if you’ll ever want sex, and then won’t want to date you, because that’s all you have. “No, no… I’m pansexual.”
That back and forth happened a few times, and a few months later the allosexual present and I did have relations — but I had taken my time working up to it, seeing if I truly wanted it or was just going along with what I believed was wanted of me. It was like being safe again, all those years ago — it was equally my decision, not just something I thought was expected of me in the circumstances.
Even so, the idea that I was demisexual itched at me. I talked to my online friends, and they agreed it sounded like I was demisexual. Still, it felt like something forbidden, something I had to bite my tongue and ignore the blood on when asked. I thought about it often in the same way I felt an itch under my skin when someone called me a woman — no, that’s not quite right, but I can’t say that, can I? I can’t say anything about that. I would nod along and even go out of my way to get invested in pansexual culture and memes. Once the question was there, as it had been for a few years now, it lingered, and I couldn’t wash it off my skin. It was like there was something around my person that was just a plastic shell and it was wearing away, day by day, and inside me the thoughts of my sexuality were louder and louder. I’d lay awake, thinking about it, wondering when was the time to say something, if it should be said at all.
“But I like sex. Sometimes. In some circumstances.” I said to myself.
Don’t mean you can’t be demisexual, the voice inside me fired back.
“But I’ve had lots of sex.” I whispered, hands tracing my body. “Like a lot.”
And how many of those people were you sexually attracted to? How many times did you just do it because you thought it was expected of you?
“But I have trauma.” I whispered, looking at my hands, pressing my index fingers over the bones in my opposite palm.
People of every sexuality can have trauma. Doesn’t meant they’re lying.
“What if I’m stealing a label from people who it really belongs to? What if I’m not really demisexual?”
No one will ever know if you are except you.
And then I’d stare into space for a while before finally falling asleep, mind still buzzing, wondering what I was to do — or if I ought to do anything at all.
And then, finally, I shakily came out to my partner. I expected them fully to leave me, but instead they said that it was okay. I then came out on instagram. “I think I’m somewhere on the asexuality spectrum,” I wrote. And it got a positive response.
Finally, for the first time in my life, I was treating myself like more than a body. With those little words, I was saying out loud — I am worth more than the pleasure I can give to another person. I was owning that there was something about me I had never considered and denied and hidden because I was terrified of what would be said to me and about me — and still am, if I’m honest — but I was saying it.
Over time, I also adopted the term graysexual; sexual attraction that is rare would fall into this category, and I felt that I fit into both. I still feel that both of these words are right for me.
It feels… odd, even now, to talk about it. My story doesn’t read like the stories of other ace people who I read about, or who I interview, or who I talk to, for the most part. I wish that it did. In most areas of my life, I have enjoyed being seen as a bit — or sometimes more than a bit — odd — but this is an area of my life where I wish that my narrative read like all the others I read about. Even today, on International Asexuality Day, as I’m about to post this and hope that it connects to someone outside of myself, I feel out of place. I know my sexuality, and I know some of that feeling is generated within myself and my own to deal with. Some of it comes from the many hateful comments I’ve seen towards myself and other demisexuals today, and that’s a painful thing to see from other people, especially other queer people.
Finding my orientation wasn’t easy. My narrative isn’t like the ones I read. It took a lot of painful introspection and thought, and I am still finding my way. I have found words to describe myself, and that’s something no one can take from me. Especially today. I am demisexual, graysexual, and panromantic, and I’m so happy I’ve found those words for these feelings. I hope this story helps you find your words, too.