Thanks for the Invalidation
Thanks for the Invalidation
An Essay by Frenci Nguyen
I’m 12 when I have my first legitimate crush.
The fine arts department has taken over the cafeteria to gift the school with merry music before winter break—“The Nutcracker,” “Carol of the Bells,” a song about Mary and Jesus, and some medley compiled by the band and orchestra directors. I’m sitting near the edge of the risers onstage with the other altos, watching the percussionists from band whack at their huge drums in what looks like synchronization to others but sounds like half a beat’s discrepancy to me.
My eyes linger on one of the percussionists—his hair is dark and he’s wearing a Santa hat, jeans, and the school’s gray spirit shirt. I can’t see him well from the stage, but the way he swings his arms against the drums makes him look like he’s leading his own concert. His Santa hat bounces against his head and into the air as he compensates for the lack of energy from his fellow bandmates, trying to affect the Christmas spirit into the audience. The sunlight from the window behind him illuminates the whitest smile I’ve ever seen in my life, and I understand why the people near him are louder with their cheers than before.
I am entranced by his charm, his skill.
On the rickety bus ride home, I tell a friend about my newfound crush. We squeal so loudly together that the other students around us stare at us with skeptical eyes. She ignores them, turns to me, and immediately questions my motives with a smirk: “Are you interested in his personality or do you want his d—?”
(What does sex have to do with anything at 12 years old?)
“I just...thought he was cool,” I mumble back to her.
Being on the asexual spectrum means either lacking sexual attraction to another person, rarely experiencing sexual attraction at all, or feeling sexual attraction to someone only under certain conditions. I use spectrum because these general types have varying degrees to which an individual may identify as asexual. These varying degrees each have different names, with asexual as an umbrella term. (1)
I’ll say this now: Sex talk unsettles me.
My body takes on an unnecessarily visceral rejection of the concept—my muscles tense and my face contorts into a grimace and I cringe into myself. These reactions may not be visually obvious to those around me, as I’ve learned to redirect the conversation elsewhere or stay silent while others continue discussing sex.
It’s summer break before my junior year of college. My aunt is currently out with my little cousins for a pamper day. My uncle is in the kitchen bottling the beer that he recently brewed—he’s a self-proclaimed beer connoisseur and home-brewer, and his belly is just as round as his head—and the house reeks of hops. We’re talking about my new jobs that I’ll start in the fall.
“I think it’s funny how my professors are also gonna be my bosses,” I tell my uncle. He laughs then curses because some of the beer splashed onto his white shirt.
“So you’re a junior now, right?” he asks. I nod. He places the bottle he’s holding down on the island, looks me directly in the eye, and points a finger in my direction for emphasis. “And you’re telling me you’ve gone all this time without partying or drinking? Not even any hookups or one-night stands?”
(How did we even go from talking about jobs to sex?)
“Does it matter?” I roll my eyes and shake my head at him. “It’s really not that hard.”
“It was for me,” he jokes. I sigh and whack him on the arm with one of his empty beer bottles.
“Doesn’t mean that applies to everyone,” I say. He shrugs his shoulders.
My identity comes with a condition: I have the potential to feel sexual attraction towards
someone, but I must first have a strong, close, emotional bond with that person(2). The prerequisite length of closeness can range anywhere from several months to several years. The bond doesn’t always guarantee the attraction, though.
People tend to associate some sort of past trauma with asexuality—bad sex, rape, assault, harassment, coercion. It’s not enough to just be asexual without some sort of underlying cause. This assumption is the easiest way for others in a society oversaturated with sex to understand why someone lacks an interest in it. The common remedy they all think of is meeting the right person who will relieve the trauma. As if this identity can’t possibly exist without it, or the individual with this identity is br o ke n.
It’s an afternoon during my senior year of high school—I accidentally missed my bus and have to wait for my aunt and uncle to finish their errands before they can come get me. I’m passing time in the school library with a best friend of almost a year who has become the first girl I like.
They’re(3) sitting across from me on the opposite tan couch. The library runs a little warmer than the rest of the school, so they pull off their oversized gray hoodie, under which they’re wearing a low-cut, white camisole. They hunch over to doodle sharks and original characters in a notebook, and my eyes linger on their chest: its small curves, the shape. My cheeks flush with heat; my heart slams itself against my ribcage. I shake myself out of the daze and hide my face in my arms. They ask me if I’m okay. I lie to them, beforemyvoicecatchesinmy throat, that I’m just tired and a bit sleepy.
They reach their hand over to ruffle my hair, run their tiny fingers all over my head to soothe me to sleep. The coolness of the touch relaxes me. I want to pull my friend into my arms and hog their touch for the rest of my life. I realize that I’m open to any form of closeness with them since our bond is strong and I’ve known them for so long.
Intimacy is a difficult term for me to navigate.
I do desire touch: hugging, hand-holding, kissing, cuddling. That kind of tender affection gives me tranquility, puts me at ease, because the proximity, the intimacy soothes me. I want to lie in bed together for hours just cuddling, falling asleep to hair strokes and while listening to each other’s heartbeats. I want to lock eyes and hands and lips. I want soft caresses and forehead touches and nose kisses.
But others attach a more physical expectation to that closeness, a sensuality that goes beyond just tender touches. Intimacy for them involves bare bodies. They view that physicality as another way of showing affection and care.
But I can’t offer such a thing.
I’m only 14 when I have my first sexual encounter.
My same-age boyfriend sneaks me into his room without his mother’s knowledge. I tumble onto his bed as I climb through the window, him following after me in the same clumsy manner. His room is cluttered with fantasy swords and jewelry he buys from Ren Fest. We talk for a bit about the next Ren Fest and then start kissing, his body pressed on top of mine. His light and tender kisses make me giddy; the way he holds me and slides his fingers through my hair gives me a sense of contentedness.
I am happy with this closeness.
But then he starts feeling my body, his fingers traveling down my chest and up my shirt into my bra. He then guides one of my hands down his own body, lower and lower. I can’t enjoy the kiss anymore because I’m disgusted by the sticky mess now coating my palm and fingers. He breaks our kiss to catch his breath. I can now see the thing he’s making me touch: pale, unsightly, small, veiny. He looks down at it, too, and whispers in my ear how well I’m doing. Hearing his low voice so close sends an unsettling chill down my spine. The mess coating my hands keeps getting thicker and stickier and more viscous.
(I want to go home.)
I have just graduated high school and am packing all my belongings into boxes for dorm move-in: clothes, shoes, books, bedspread, stationery, stuffed animals. My uncle walks into my room and stands by the door, holding a self-brewed IPA in his right hand, his navy Phillips 66 t-shirt inside-out without his knowledge. I stifle a laugh, which brings his attention to his shirt. He dashes to the bathroom across the hall that I share with my cousins before he comes back to give me unsolicited general college advice.
“Remember that it’s fine to have fun, but don’t get pregnant,” he says.
(Why is sex the first thing that comes to mind?)
“Don’t worry, I don’t understand the point anyway,” I assure him.
“I don’t know how to describe it, but when you’re with the right person, you’ll want to do things. It’ll change your mind. I was like that, too,” he explains.
Right, because my identity is definitely a choice.
My best friend and I currently have an unspoken agreement: We disagree on what the root is for my dislike of sex and related topics. He can’t grasp why I’m on the ace spectrum because he’s the type who shows his affection and romantic involvement through sexual intimacy, which reinforces whatever he’s feeling for his partner. He longs for the physicality, the closeness of naked bodies connected in a consummation of mutual desires that, according to him, is the natural next step after becoming emotionally close. It’s how he shows he cares.
I have actual sex for the first time at 15 with my 17-year-old boyfriend.
After putting on protection, he comes into my room wrapped up in a blanket. My bare body is also hidden under a blanket because of nerves, but he laughs his away and pulls me into a hug. I try to focus on the sturdiness of his embrace that always calms me, but I can feel the heat from his lower part against mine. Instead of excited for our intimacy, I’m apprehensive.
He pushes me down gently on the bed, positioning himself on top of me, one hand on my chest and the other fiddling with my hair and ear. His kisses become sloppier as he shoves his tongue into my mouth. I tell myself that I owe it to him to endure until the end since we’re already this far along, but the extra saliva invading my mouth makes me want to gag.
He pulls the lower part of me closer to him and tells me that he’ll stop if I can’t handle the pain. Each time he moves, the pain becomes sharper and lasts longer, but he can’t stop now since he barely got the tip in. He stays in me until he can no longer bear me keeping my arms over my eyes and staying silent.
We try again for the next two days straight because he’s determined to please me, either with his fingers or lower half. He also craves the closeness of our connected bodies. I actually don’t reciprocate that desire, but I’ve grown up seeing and learning that this level of intimacy is only natural when liking someone, so I indulge him anyway. He’s my boyfriend and I still care about him.
I don’t want to break up or hurt his feelings or cause a rift between us.
My best friend links the cause to past trauma. He doesn’t say it, but I know he sees me as someone to pity. I just don’t know yet what good sex feels like. I’m missing out on an intimacy that words can’t ever describe well enough because passion just takes over both people. His solution is basically the same as my uncle’s: Overwrite the bad experiences with a magical one. I’ll understand once I know how it’s supposed to be done.
(Thanks for the invalidation.)
I don’t know where I belong or if I even want to belong in a society where sex sells: such crassness confining people to the consensus that I am broken or made a misplaced judgment and can be fixed by that one special person who can relieve all trauma with just their body alone. Where my identity as an asexual is seen as a choice hastily made, as if I only need a little persuasion, as if I just one day decided to stop being sexually attracted to others.
But here’s the thing: I can’t stop something that has been nonexistent from the start.
1. A list of the different asexual identities and their definitions can be found here: https://www.wattpad.com/291174041-lgbt%2B-guide-asexual-spectrum-identities-part-1
2. Specifically, this is called being demisexual. (See https://www.wattpad.com/291174041-lgbt%2B-guide-asexual-spectrum-identities-part-1)
3. The friend has requested for me to use neutral pronouns. During a conversation one day four years ago, this very friend helped me learn about the ace spectrum when they said that I might be on it.