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An (A)sexual Awakening

Modern Art

I had my sexual awakening in college. Or rather, the realisation that I would never have a ‘sexual awakening’ hit me in college. See, that’s when I realised I was asexual. No, not that biology lesson about asexual reproduction in plants. Just go ahead, take a moment to Google it. I’ll wait.

Now, of course, as women and girls, we often know from a very young age that our bodies are considered sexual. Perhaps your mother told you to cover up more. Maybe your school teacher chastised you for wearing a skirt that was too short. Or was it the men around you, sizing you up, leering at you, whistling as you walked by? Eventually, it was your own sense of shame, trailing you like a shadow wherever you went. I wonder, does it ever go away?

Let me take you back a decade. I had a typical middle-class Indian childhood. I was kind of a nerdy kid, with plaits and glasses and all that. I’m sure you know the type. I did very well in school, I was liked by all the teachers, I had good friends – everything was great! Then –disaster struck. In the form of puberty. Gradually, the classroom topics started to revolve around sex, dating, boys. Who was the hottest celebrity? Who was the sexiest actor? Why did that couple break up? Naturally, I had to join in on the conversation. How could I not have an opinion on who the hottest Bollywood star was? So I nodded along during every gossip session. I oohed and aahed at all the right moments. No one would ever have been able to tell that I was asexual. How could they, when I didn’t know it myself?

Fast forward a few years. I went to college in the United States. My childhood dream was to be an astronaut, so I took up engineering, and later, physics. I ended up regretting my subject choices but that’s an entirely different story. For me, going to college thousands of miles away from home was truly the experience of a lifetime. I suddenly had all the freedom in the world. I didn’t quite know what to do with it, to be honest. I had never been in a relationship. Just thinking about kissing or having sex freaked me out. But isn’t that the point of a relationship? To be intimate? Since I couldn’t do that, I convinced myself that my standards were too high. Of course I’m not dating, I told myself, there just aren’t any guys I’m attracted to! I need to be patient and wait until I find the right man. It will happen.

It didn’t happen. It’s hard to find love when you don’t really know who you are. Purely in terms of aesthetics, I liked many people! Yet I couldn’t get myself to think about sex without being repulsed. So what’s a girl to do? Naturally, I hit the books Google! In the span of a week (or perhaps less) I had browsed through several discussion threads on The Asexuality Visibility & Education Network, watched two porn videos to figure out if I had sexual urges (I don’t recommend this method), talked to my close friends, and consumed every single book or video about asexuality that I could find. People have whirlwind romances. I had a whirlwind sexual discovery. Finally, I had found people who were feeling the same things I did, experiencing the world the same way.

However, I now faced new problems. From what I could tell, asexuals were a tiny percentage of the population. The sexuality itself has only recently been a subject of conversation and academic research. Where would I go to for resources? How could I talk to and meet asexual people outside of online communities?

At my university in the U.S., I co-chaired the student-run LGBTQA department. We did a lot of outreach and peer education programmes. One of these was called the ‘Out2Lunch’ series, where we invited people from all over campus to come and have roundtable discussions on various topics. Free lunch provided, of course. One time I was able to lead a discussion on asexuality. Frankly, I didn’t think many people would show up. I was pleasantly surprised. Several folks came to the discussion and were willing to share their stories, their opinions, even their doubts. I felt comforted, knowing that I had some semblance of a community to engage with. The discussion assuaged many of my fears about being asexual and having a long-term relationship.

In her book Communion: The Female Search for Love, bell hooks says, “Love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.” You don’t need sex to have a loving relationship with someone. We all intuitively know this, because we have healthy relationships with our parents or friends or siblings. Yet when it comes to romance, we can’t seem to think of love without sex. I firmly believe that this is rooted in misogyny. Men are supposed to have sex with women to reproduce and keep the human race going. Women are expected to submit to men and have sex in order to bear children. They don’t have the liberty to own their sexuality and cannot demand sex on their own terms, or they will be branded ‘sluts’ and ‘bitches’. Women who don’t want to have sex are called ‘prudes’. We can’t win either way. Our worth as human beings is inextricably tied to how we have sex and who we have sex with.

As a kid, even when I didn’t understand sex, I still ‘knew’ that it was a ‘normal’ part of relationships. Thankfully, now I know better. I’ve realised that only a select group of people get to define what normal is. These people will probably laugh at the idea of a romantic relationship with no sex, even after marriage. They will think of you as a problem and they will offer solutions. Perhaps it’s just a phase? Can it be cured with therapy? In this kind of environment, it can take a long time to accept yourself, and even longer to express yourself to others.

I don’t think of my sexuality as a distinct part of my identity. I am not a different person because I am asexual. It just shapes who I am, as much as my political opinions or religious convictions shape my worldview. After all, my sex life (or lack thereof) is no one’s business but my own. If love is about caring, I am more than capable. If love is about commitment and respect and trust, I am capable of that as well. Ultimately, I think we all want partners who will understand us and treat us as equals in the relationship – I just want that without the sex. Shouldn’t be too hard, right?

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Image: Vancouver Film Festival