Trigger warnings: sex, sexual assault, slurs
She’s beauty, she’s grace—as in “gray ace.” Gray asexual, like me. In the asexual community, a common talking point is how we made the discovery—what made us figure out that we aren’t quite like most people. Most aces I’ve met thought they were just as allosexual as everyone else at first, but I had a slightly different experience. I spent a very long time thinking that everyone (or at least, all girls) were as ace as I am. My parents are pretty sexually conservative—I was always encouraged to remain abstinent until marriage, and we almost never discussed sexual, well, anything as a family. Yet through jokes, and what little conversation we had, my parents and the media managed to convince me that women don’t actually like or want to have sex, and only engage in it to appease the man in their life or have children. I was thoroughly convinced that sex didn’t feel good for women, and was meant for the man’s pleasure alone. (How I factored queer allosexual women into my worldview at that time is beyond me.) This is when I still thought I was straight, mind you.
As I grew older and entered high school, I slowly became aware of girls around me who did want to have sex, and who even talked about it feeling good. Naturally, this confused me, so I rationalized it by writing them off as sluts. Good girls like me don’t want sex, I thought, just as my parents taught me. Especially not at my age. We’re way too young for all of this!
And then came the boyfriend. He was nerdy, funny as hell, outspoken, flamboyant, perverted, very sweet when he tried to be, mean to most people, damaged, and two grades ahead of me. We started dating when I was 15 and he was 16, and within the first two weeks of our relationship he expressed the desire to kiss me. I was shocked and appalled. Kissing? Already?! I was not nearly ready for that kind of step. A knot of pure, abject terror formed in the pit of my stomach. I cried myself to sleep for nights on end, desperately wishing that kissing had never been invented, that I could miraculously avoid this indecision and stress and fear. But he was my boyfriend, and boyfriends and girlfriends are supposed to kiss each other—it’s a natural step in a relationship, I thought. An inevitable obligation that I could only put off for so long. So eventually, when I managed to choke down my fear as much as I ever would, we kissed. And I loved it; it was incredible, and I had no regrets.
Then, a month later, he asked to try making out with me. Three months later, he wanted to touch my boobs. I won’t subject you to all the gory details of our sexual progress, but I will tell you that the anxiety, the dread and terror grew worse and worse before each new step we took. We fell into a consistent pattern: he would ask me to do something new, the next logical step in a heterosexual relationship. I would panic. The pit of dread in my stomach would eat away at me, the stress would weigh on my mind constantly as I frantically tried to prepare myself for it. It usually took me months to prepare. Months of horrific fear consuming me. All the while, he would prod me about this next step, asking if I was ready yet each time we were alone together—which made being alone together an incredibly stressful prospect. I would have to say no again, because I wasn’t ready, and he would say “okay” with a disappointed sigh, and the anxious tension and guilt would gnaw even more voraciously at me as he sulked. Very often we would argue about it—not usually with anger, but more often with sadness. He felt impatiently sad at me for not giving in yet, and I felt guiltily sad that I just couldn’t. There was a long period of time when I would become extremely nauseous, physically ill with worry every single time we were to hang out, as if I was allergic to him. But after a few months, I would finally give in, do what he wanted or let him do what he wanted to me. And a lot of the time, I wound up really enjoying the thing that had been causing me so much worry, like I did kissing. Other times, not so much. But either way, at last! Bliss, where we could sexually be together without a massive knot in my stomach, anticipating his question, anticipating letting him down again. Bliss, comfort at last… at least, for about a month, until he asked to take the next step. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This process continued, ad nauseam, for about two years. It didn’t take me long to realize that the never-ending cycle, and my horrible anxiety about any sexual advances, were not normal heterosexual experiences. But I figured that I was just sexually immature, or maybe had a hormone deficiency. With age, I hoped, the sexual desire for him would appear, replacing all that dread and terror with something like the lust that he felt for me. The immaturity theory was even easier to believe since he was older than me. But I really thought that it was normal for a boyfriend to ask these things of his girlfriend, that he deserved access to my body and my sexuality, and I only felt guilty that I couldn’t just give in without a fuss, like a “normal” girl would. I thought I was slowing the natural progression of love and relationship and I felt terrible about it. Indeed, I’ll never forget the one time I did seriously consider breaking up with him. It was after a particularly dark argument, during which I told him I was sorry he’d fallen in love with such a prude. He agreed that he was sorry, too. That was quite the punch to the chest. Briefly, then, I considered ending it—but for his own good, so he could find a girl who’d be willing to move at the sexual pace I thought he deserved. In the end, I couldn’t do it; as attached to him as I was, I couldn’t bear the thought of letting him go.
Because that’s the thing—despite all of this mess, all of this near-constant tension between us and the anger and sadness and anxiety he caused me, we were in love. We were deeply, madly in love. We were emotionally intertwined, depended on each other, trusted each other, honest with each other, made each other laugh, had more fun with each other than anyone else—in everything but the sex department, we were the perfect pair.
The cycle ended, finally, when we ran out of sexual steps to take before Actually Doing It. And having real sex was not something he wanted to pressure me into, he insisted, so he didn’t ask and we just didn’t talk about it. Why was it okay for you to pressure me into everything else, then? I wondered. So a long time passed without us adding anything new to our sexual repertoire. We grew into the things we were already doing; I stopped being afraid of them after a while. At the same time, we grew as people. We both created accounts on Tumblr. I figured out, finally, that I’m gray ace. We both became ardent feminists.
We’ve been dating for four years now, and it’s been about two since the awful cycle of sexual anxiety and pressure ground to a halt. My entire worldview has changed since then, as has his, and examining our past with a new perspective has proven distressing enough for me to write this article. Now I know that allosexual women can want sex (as can aces), and being attracted to men doesn’t make you a slut. Now I know that I am asexual, not immature or deficient, and that my feelings about sex are valid. Now I know that consent to any kind of sexual action must be given affirmatively, enthusiastically, repeatedly, and willingly. And now I know that for the first two years of our relationship, I was pressured and coerced into everything we did. I did those things because I thought I had to; because I thought it was my duty, and I would have to give in eventually. Now I know that’s simply not true. Now I know that in all of that time, I never truly consented to any of it. Sure, he never once told me I had to do anything, but he asked and poked and prodded and begged until I felt I had no choice. I was pressured into sexual acts I was not ready for, and I did not consent.
What do I do with this information now, two years later? We are still together, and we are still madly in love. I like to think that we have long since moved past that awful part of our relationship, past the pressure and coercion, past my ridiculous ideas about my obligations as a girl and a girlfriend. We both know much more about consent, and work harder to ensure it at all points of a sexual encounter. He understands (mostly) that I am gray ace, and we have different feelings and ideas about sex. Still, I know in reality that it’s not as far behind us as I’d like to believe. I still feel guilty rejecting his desire for me, or attempts to sext when I’m stressed or feeling extra ace. I am still afraid of hurting his feelings or making him angry or upset. I still feel a twist of fear in my stomach each time we walk into an empty room and he closes the door behind us. Just last year, we were getting ready to go out one night when he trapped me under him; I kissed him back (I still don’t know how to not kiss him back) but tried my best to silently plead not now, please not right now with my eyes, with my halfhearted responses, with “I thought we were going to dinner.” It took him a painful few minutes for my message to get through, before he apologized and got up and we left. I was shaken by this. I am still shaken by this. I will not call it assault, but it was the closest thing to it that I’ve ever felt (and hope to ever feel).
As far as we’ve come, we still have a long way to go. I wish I was not afraid of rejecting his advances, afraid of saying no, afraid of upsetting him, afraid of telling him the truth about how things feel. I wish I did not feel obligated to give him an orgasm during every sexual encounter, or at all. I wish he wouldn’t reaffirm my feelings of obligation. I wish I didn’t do things with him that I don’t want to do. But I do, and I deal with it, because it’s not scary anymore, though it is a burden I carry. As I write this I realize we may be less okay than I thought we were.
But even more, I want to go back and examine how we got to this place, what combination of ingredients left us in this position, how all of this could have been avoided. If I could go back in time, I’d start by telling my parents to talk to their damn children about sex without shaming it. I’d make them stop telling their daughters to stay away from boys because boys only want one thing, as if we are not supposed to want that one thing either, as if it is wrong to want that one thing. I would tell them to teach us that girls want sex as much as boys do, sometimes, and that is okay and normal and healthy—just as okay and normal and healthy as not wanting sex at all. They always did warn me about how boys would try to pressure us into doing things we didn’t want to do, and I hate that they were right, and I hate that I let it happen to me. That I still let it happen to me. I would tell them that even boys who are sweet and loving and otherwise perfect boyfriends can still pressure you, and they can pressure you into less than “real” sex, and just because you’re in love doesn’t make it okay.
I wish I could go back and right all the wrongs in my own thinking. I wish I could tell younger me that sex is supposed to be fun, and feel good, and girls are supposed to like it too. I wish I knew it was okay to wait until I was truly ready. I wish I could tell little me that I am not immature or hormonally deficient, but ace, and that my needs will always be different than his, and that’s okay. I wish I could tell me that his being a boy with a penis and raging hormones and wild lust does NOT mean YOU have to conform and give in to his desires, nor does it excuse his behavior and treatment of you. I wish I could tell little me and boyfriend that if you put your sexual pleasure above your partner’s comfort and safety, you are an asshole. I wish I had the strength to tell him, back then, that he can wait just as long as he wants until I say I am really ready, no matter long that may take, and if he doesn’t like that then he can fuck right off and find a new girlfriend. Young Me, consent can only be given freely and willingly, and if you are saying yes simply to appease him, fear and doubt knotted around your heart, you are not truly willing, and thus not consenting.
I’m not sure where to go from here. Though it’s been years since the worst part of our history, I still bear the scars, hidden though they may be. It may be time for the two of us to bring them out into the open and talk about it. The road to healing may be longer and harder than I thought, but I believe I’ll get there.
From April 2016 Issue