Going through puberty as an asexual person often felt like I was playing a board game and everyone had the instructions but me.
The Original Sea-Monkeys Handbook
God, please make me normal. Please make me grow up.
God, this right here, this is what I want for meinsideGod, make me normal; God, make me like them; God, please don’t punish me for praying so selfishly; God, please help me understand. How they changed. How I can change like they did. God, please make me change.
In her groundbreaking 2020 book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, Angela Chen discusses the cultural idea of “the ubiquity of sexual desire.”Chen uses the term “compulsory sexuality,” which adopts and adapts an idea from Adrienne Rich’s essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” In that essay, Rich denies the idea that heterosexuality is “the natural emotional and sensual inclination for women,” the default human instinct from which other sexualities “are seen as deviant, as pathological, or as emotionally and sensually deprived.”Instead, Rich argues that heterosexual “preference” is a political institution that has been imposed on women to disempower them—and, in Chen’s words, “is taught and conditioned and reinforced.”
So too, Chen argues, is sexuality itself. “Compulsory sexuality,” Chen writes, “is a set of assumptions and behaviors that support the idea that every normal person is sexual, that not wanting (socially approved) sex is unnatural and wrong, and that people who don’t care about sexuality are missing out on an utterly necessary experience.”This experience is seen as so necessary that it is our cultural marker of maturity.Compulsory sexuality means that if a person doesn’t develop sexual desire, they don’t develop into mature adults, no matter how many responsibilities or mortgages or difficult decisions they may undertake.
I had my first “mature” relationship when I was twenty-four, though in truth it was, for me, closer to relationships people had in their teens, that first crush who eventually found their way through all the bases. My boyfriend was kind and gentle and, for the most part, accepting of my inexperience. For about a year and a half. It lasted that long because, for most of the relationship, we lived hours away from each other. I never cheated on him, but I have no idea if he ever cheated on me. Back then, I would’ve been broken by it. Now, I think I would understand it—or, at least, would understand what I couldn’t have understood about his situation, because he was a person who experienced sexual attraction and I did not.
When we did live in the same city, we also attended the same graduate program, which meant that we kept our relationship secret; he’d dated too many of our classmates for us to be public comfortably. This became a hallmark of my relationships. I always seemed to find someone I had to date in secret. Even then I wondered: Am I looking for someone to date or for someone I have to date secretly? I was confused by my behavior, largely because it felt so comfortable—it’s when relationships became public that they made me uncomfortable. A constant itch.
Being public opens one up to opinion and comparison. You go on dates with other couples, go to parties with other couples, inevitably ending up in a position where you and your partner are in different rooms and you are expected to divulge and discuss aspects of your relationship. Those conversations turned my itch into a burn. I didn’t know how to say I didn’t feel lust for my partner, that sex seemed weird and uncomfortable and nothing like a release, that I preferred relationships before they were “actual” relationships, when they were just talking and laughing and, occasionally, kissing and holding hands. So I said nothing or, more often, I lied.
I used to be a bad liar. By “bad” I refer both to the frequency and the quality of the lies. Most stretched the truth of who I was into who I might have been: I said I was in plays when I was actually in rehearsed and staged readings for classes. I said I was in a band when some friends and I had talked about it endlessly but to no end. I said I’d heard of something, read something, felt something when it was actually the first time I’d encountered it. I hated myself for it and still do, though now the hate is tinged with understanding. Every lie was a way for me to confront the fact that I never felt like I was normal, like I was enough, and I needed an excuse for that, one strong enough to allow me some way to wedge myself into friend groups without them perceiving me as I perceived myself: a freak. For a long time I couldn’t name what I was—I didn’t have the language for it—and so I could only see what I was not. I could only see myself in terms of others, in their language, which told me again and again what I should want and be.
Sometimes I find myself framed in the strangeness of how another person sees me, like when a friend said she was jealous of my asexuality because it meant I was happy being lonely. I didn’t have to be social, she said, because that instinct wasn’t in me. I tried to explain. That lust and love are different things. That friendship and companionship are also social activities, and they have nothing to do with lust. But I knew from the way she looked at me that she would never understand, the way that I never understood her. I was back at a middle school dance, unable to explain that I didn’t necessarily want to be standing against the wall. I’d just never learned the steps.
Going through puberty as an asexual person often felt like that, like I was playing a board game and everyone had the instructions but me. And going through adulthood as an asexual person—especially as an unmarried, childless woman in the Deep South—made me realize that my peers and I were actually playing entirely different games. “Oh, if you don’t have kids, it’s over,” a colleague with several children once said. “Where are you going to meet people? And once you meet them, how are you going to hang out with them, if you aren’t part of a couple?” It was as though I finally got a glimpse into that playbook. I thought it cruel, yes, but I was also grateful. Someone had finally said it out loud.
I was close to marriage perhaps only once, and with a man I absolutely should not have married. I say we were close to marriage because we had actually talked about it. He wanted a trial period before anything definitive, before engagement—before promises, even. “I want to make sure,” he said, “that you’re worth it.” I accepted this absolutely and without question. Of course that was the central question. Of course he wasn’t sure if I was worth it, worth anything. Of course I was the one with everything to prove.
I didn’t know how to say I didn’t feel lust for my partner, that sex seemed weird and uncomfortable and nothing like a release.
My favorite illustration in the Sea-Monkey handbook features a grinning Sea-Monkey, a bow tied around her three antennae, reading a book titled Having a Baby. Next to her is another Sea-Monkey scratching his head. There are a series of jagged lines on his chest perhaps meant, confusingly, to represent chest hair. He is looking at a sign in front of her that reads, “No Help Needed.” “Incredible as it may seem,” the handbook tells us, “some female Sea-Monkeys” reproduce via “parthenogenesis or self-conception!” In other words, for Sea-Monkeys, sex is not necessary for the survival of the species. The handbook doesn’t see this as deviance but as a miracle that exists thanks to “a most extraordinary tenacity for life.” “If just a single female Sea-Monkey survived a cataclysmic catastrophe that wiped all other animals including Sea-Monkeys off the face of the earth,” the handbook says, “it is possible that this Sea-Monkey ‘Eve’ could recreate her species without an ‘Adam’ and the race of Sea-Monkeys would live again!”
It took years for me to revise my idea of normal. To resee it in my mind as a term that has meaning only when set inside of a frame. Normal is always in context. For Sea-Monkeys, it’s perfectly normal to be born from your mother and mother only. For the Jennifers and Laurens and Ambers, it’s perfectly normal to move into the world of desire when your body moves into adulthood. For me, I needed a different frame.
The first time I heard someone use the term asexual in regard to human sexuality, I was in my early thirties. The someone was a student, which feels right: If I learned one thing from my years as a teacher, it’s that I had much more to learn that my students did. The student identified themself as asexual, asking if I knew what that meant. “Yes,” I answered automatically, and I don’t remember much of what I said during the rest of the conference. I hope it wasn’t clear that my mind was halfway somewhere else, chasing a sunrise that spread from synapse to synapse, brightening up how I thought about my experience, myself, my body.
I will not say that now I always feel normal and comfortable, snug within my frame.
It is sometimes impossible for me to see myself in the right frame because there are so many contexts in which I do not belong, and in which my identity makes others uncomfortable. Sometimes it feels hopeless: How do I explain it to anyone, this thing I can hardly describe to myself? But then I remember how, as soon as that student said that word, I was able to see myself as a whole, happy person who wasn’t missing anything, who was exactly what she needed to be. Maybe, if I keep learning how to put my experience into words, I might just be lucky enough to pass that gift on to someone else.
Emma Bolden is the author of a memoir, The Tiger and the Cage (Soft Skull), and the poetry collections House Is an Enigma, medi(t)ations, and Maleficae. Her work has appeared in such journals as the Mississippi Review, The Rumpus, StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, New Madrid, TriQuarterly, Shenandoah, and the Greensboro Review. The recipient of an NEA Fellowship, she is Associate Editor-in-Chief for Tupelo Quarterly and an Editor of Screen Door Review.