Mid-January I saw a video of the 23-year-old Irish-American actress Saoirse Ronan on The Ellen Show where she played ‘Who’d You Rather?’ with the host. The game is simple – one has to choose between two people at a time till an ultimate choice is made about who you’d prefer to choose over everyone else. It’s like any championship game, but this one is about romance. It’s supposed to be fun and light-hearted but Ronan did something which seemed awfully relatable to me.
Instead of doing what other guests had done, which was referring to their superficial preference between two celebrities, Ronan kept meandering with her answers. “Even as a platonic relationship, I think we can have a good companionship.” She kept getting stuck when she had to choose between people she didn’t know, which should have made it easier for her to judge them on physical appearance. A few lesbians on my social media shared the video with the caption, “Yup, she’s gay”, while a smaller portion of people from the asexual community pointed out that they had gone through something similar. I found myself internally screaming ‘That’s me!!’ to both sides. Despite being a lesbian herself, Ellen DeGeneres had been short-sighted and heteronormative by giving Ronan only men to pick from.
The second reason I related to Ronan in that moment was the dissatisfaction with pure physical attraction because for people like me (and perhaps Ronan), there is no physical attraction to begin with.
Asexual Lesbian. It’s not an easy term to bring out in the open. My coming out was not a moment as much as it was, still is, a yearly spring cleaning session. Every once in a while, I have to remind my mother that I am, in fact, attracted to women and do not want to be with men. Depending on her mood, sometimes she accepts it and other times she finds time to sit down and let me know that I cannot let such polarising thoughts “get in the way” of a fulfilling future. It baffles me how she assumes that I cannot be happy with women. But the truth is, I don’t want to be with anyone. Period. And I know that that would scare her more.
Three years ago, during a session with a wonderful therapist, I found myself delving into a topic I had never talked about before – my sexuality. My weekly visits began because of agoraphobia (very often my parents would drag me out of the house, kicking and screaming, terrified for no reason at all). I broached the subject of my sexuality carefully, like someone introducing a new dish to a child, and my therapist welcomed this display of initiative with open arms. For the first time, I was talking unfettered, without depending on her for perspective. After a detailed timeline of how things have panned out with my crush, a shit storm of confessing my feelings but also running away from any possibility of dating, my therapist said something which changed my life. “Have you ever considered,” she started, “that your social anxiety might be stemming from an anxiety about your sexuality?”
It was the beginning of a series of introspections, something along the lines of ‘what came first, the chicken or the egg’. In retrospect, I had always been asexual, but I had also always been a ball of anxiety. Like most lesbian friends of mine, I had a tough time scrubbing off the influence of compulsory heterosexuality. Society’s tendency to put men on a pedestal, and seeing them as the end-game for any economic and romantic ideal, makes it difficult to realize we don’t want to be involved with them.
The term ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ has controversial roots. It was first used by Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, centred on the topic of lesbian visibility. She writes about society’s imposition of heterosexuality and the many ways in which it is used as a tool to disempower women and to teach women to ‘need’ men. The idea is that heterosexuality is not just a sexual orientation, but a political tool intrinsically tied with a patriarchal society, which wants to keep women in a subordinate position. She uses examples, like women who are called ‘sexless’ and ‘lesbian’ when they reject sexual advances. For Rich, the ‘lesbian continuum’ is the alternative, a way of living which focuses on the women-centric experience and intra-women relationships as empowering ways to resist patriarchy. She suggests that all women have a lesbian experience at least once, so that they can question heterosexuality and basically question if they really want men in their life.
In my own experience however, compulsory heterosexuality goes hand-in-hand with amatonormativity – the universal assumption that a romantic and sexual relationship should be prioritized over other relationships. It was not enough that I took a while understanding that I don’t even like men in a sexual and/or romantic way. My second obstacle was to cope with my definition of relationships – family, friends, co-workers. I was happy enough with this. The more I got to know myself, the very idea of having a partner became alien to me.
With most of the world campaigning for LGBT+ rights with slogans like “love is love”, I find myself settle more into solitude than before. The general prospect of a relationship, including dating and flirting and the many other so-called stages of love, terrifies me. I have dated men, often with an attempt to hide the truth of my identity, but even flirtations with women have led to feeling claustrophobic as soon as there’s a possibility of becoming “more”.
A simpler way of describing this conundrum would be calling me “commitment phobic” but this is where the line between my sexuality and my anxiety get blurred. I find myself going into online forums about lesbians who suffer from anxiety and also have successful relationships, and I cannot relate. Most online asexual communities assure readers that asexual people can certainly have relationships. I Google commitment phobia but am led to pages and pages of how it is a “life” problem rather than a “relationship” problem. I am quite good with commitment in other aspects of life, pretty stubborn with my choices, in fact. But when I try to conjure an ideal future, I imagine myself with a glass of wine, with my dogs at my feet, watching a movie or television show. The idea of “Netflix and chill” seems like the best thing to come back to after a night, but I want to do that all by myself.
Long before I came out to her, my mother used to tell me that the concept of “love” was made to distract women, and that if I really wanted my own house, with unlimited Wi-Fi and good food, I had to push the idea of relationships with boys far from my mind to focus on my studies and professional goals. I dated behind her back but found myself regretting it, not because I felt guilty for lying but because nothing satisfied me. I didn’t understand late night talks full of ‘sweet nothings’ instead of actual topics, like movies or books. I didn’t understand preferring make out sessions over conversation or even comfortable silence. I didn’t understand any of the things my best friend used to tell me were “normal” for relationships (though later I found out that my abusive ex-boyfriend was not normal after all). When treatment for my anxiety began I assumed my ideal of the absence of romance and sex had to do with my mental illness. But as I got better at leaving the house and managing panic attacks, my principle on relationships remained the same. Or is that the last front, the one battle that’s trying to stick it to me?
Thinking about this often leads to a down spiral of depression, especially when solitude has so often been equated to loneliness in our society. It takes a lot of work for me to get that out of my head, and I have to remind myself that some of my happiest moments involved my love for cinema, reading, and sharing those things with my friends. Never did I wish I had a romantic partner by my side during those moments, and so I use that thought as a temporary reprieve.
Until I hear of a friend getting married. Or someone who has been as single as I have, now in a relationship. And it begins again, the chicken or the egg?