Asexuality and Labels, Part Two

Last week, I shared the first part of my response to a colleague’s question about young people identifying as asexual. You can read the first part here, where I talked about the benefits and potential pitfalls of labels, and how we can embrace fluidity while still communicating important aspects of our identity to one another. This week, I’m tackling the second part of the question, and talking about youth and sexual identity. 

Youth and Identity

Young people have so much to figure out about themselves. I often wonder if my own coming out process would have been different had I known a fuller range of possibilities when I was very young. I was born in the early 1960’s, and I definitely did not know anything about being gay or bisexual, let alone pan or asexual. 

But I do remember how I fought with my mother when she wanted me to study subjects that would lead to me having a good job, and I wanted to study art. I got very stubborn. And I remember her vociferously discouraging me from marrying when I was 18. I often wonder if I would have been able to find the courage to call off the wedding if it hadn’t meant I’d have to swallow my pride and admit to my mother that I had been wrong. 

In both cases, I fought so hard for my right to know myself better than she did that I was not able to change my mind easily. I wasn’t willing to have that conversation with my mom. I didn’t want to hear “I told you so” on top of everything else I was going through at the time.

So how the heck do you teach young people how to navigate fluidity, without telling them you think they will probably change their minds and identities multiple times in their lives? Young people are often in a process of differentiating from their parents, and also from their culture. That might involve trying on new labels or identities, and it may involve engaging with important aspects of themselves–such as sexual identity–that may be surprising to you or run counter to your expectations. 

Maybe that identity will evolve over time, and maybe it won’t. In either case, you can help them stay open to whatever may emerge by welcoming their disclosures with warmth and curiosity: “Thank you so much for trusting me with this information. Tell me more about what this means to you. How can I best support you?” 

Teaching Resilience and Flexibility

I think it is so important that we help children and young people build resilience, flexibility, and differentiation. But I don’t think these are skills that can be taught directly, by explaining the concepts. It’s likely that would just feel too didactic, or judgmental to someone who is just beginning to explore what it is to disagree with authority figures. I think these are things that are better taught by example, and indirectly. 

You might be able to help a young person learn to bounce back from disappointment by doing so yourself, and by celebrating when they are able to do so in any area of life. Similarly, teaching young people how to challenge themselves, evaluate and re-evaluate situations, and make course-corrections and pivots in other spheres will give them the skills they need to navigate fluidity in intimate and relational contexts. Supporting differentiation in young people means giving them positive feedback for sharing difficult material with you: 

  • “Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me.” 
  • “I’m so glad to know this about you.”  
  • “Would you like to tell me more? I’m so interested in how you came to understand this about yourself.” 
  • “How can I best support you?”

With support like that, I’m confident the young people in your life will be able to make any course-correction they need to, and will feel they can come to you with anything they want to share. They will meet with plenty of doubt and marginalization. Having a safe place where they don’t have to feel defensive about their self-exploration is the best gift you can possibly give.

Asexuality and Labels, Part One

After my most recent blog post about asexuality, a colleague wrote to me to ask a question about the topic. She was interested in my thoughts about young people who identify as asexual–whether it’s possible to know that you’re asexual from a young age, without having had much relationship experience, and whether it can be unhelpful to lock yourself into an identity early on. 

I thought that her question was quite valuable and interesting, as well as being a fairly common one, and I wanted to take the opportunity to share my response here, for all of you who may be wondering something along the same lines.

There are three overlapping issues in this question: 

  1. What is the utility of labels?
  2. What about fluidity over the lifespan? Do we lock ourselves in or limit our options by identifying in a particular way?
  3. What about youth and identity? What can young people know about, in particular, orientations such as gay, lesbian, bi, pan, or asexuality? 

As you can see, my colleague’s question got me thinking about some interesting, meaty, complicated topics–too much for a single blog post, so I decided to split my response into two. I’ll tackle the first two questions in this post, and next week I’ll share my thoughts about the third–as well as a few stories from my own youth that might help illuminate my perspective. 

Regarding Labels

No label can perfectly express the complexity of a whole human being, or even come close. But labels can be useful nevertheless. They can serve a purpose in helping us communicate with each other. Labelling yourself “bisexual,” for instance, is unlikely to capture the nuances of how you experience attraction, what kind of person you happen to be drawn to, what intimacy means to you, or who you are currently intimate with–how could it? But it can serve as a little signpost, guiding the person you’re speaking to a little closer to understanding an important aspect of you. 

Because labels are both useful and imperfect, everyone has to make their own decisions about how to navigate the relationship between the fullness of the experiences and the somewhat limited information captured by the label. 

So when someone tells you that they’re asexual, we know it probably won’t capture the full nuance and fluidity of their inner world, just as with any label. But it does point you in the right direction, towards an important aspect of themselves that they want to express to you. 

Seen like this, an identity label is a shorthand form of communication. One way to respond would be to get curious, and let them know you are interested enough to invite them to go beyond shorthand–not because you want to argue with them or because you doubt them, but because you care about them and want to know them. You can simply say, “Tell me more about that, and what it means to you.” Your goal is to better understand what they are trying to communicate about themselves.

Regarding Fluidity

It is certainly true that identities can be fluid, and that people’s perceptions of themselves can shift a whole lot over the course of a lifespan. Things change. But does having an identity and using a label limit the range a person might experience? 

My thoughts about this are informed by my own development. I was attracted to boys when I was a teen, and definitely identified as straight. But when I moved to Seattle in my early 20s, I came out as a lesbian. There were a couple of years in between, when I knew that shift was coming, but I had no idea what was ahead for me when I was in middle school and high school. 

Nobody considers telling a straight-identified youth they shouldn’t limit their options by identifying as straight. But I’m imagining right now what it would have been like for me if someone had. I don’t think it would have been helpful. In fact, anyone voicing any opinion at all about my identity would probably have made me dig in more, and show some resistance to change, out of sheer rebellion. In my case, I think it would have complicated my coming out process. That’s because, in addition to a lot of other things I was already grappling with, I would have had to figure out how I felt about capitulating to whomever had voiced the opinion that I might change in the future.

If you’re concerned about the possibility of someone locking themselves into a label, then, consider the possibility that, if you put them on the defensive, you might increase the likelihood of that happening. Sexual identity and experience are so individual and unique that, to an extent, we all have to walk our path and figure things out on our own. At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is show up with a warm heart and a curious mind. 

Next week I’ll tackle the second half of this question, youth and identity, so stay tuned!

What Do You Need To Know About Asexuality?

I believe that every therapist, and certainly all sex therapists, should be prepared to work with asexual, or “ace” people. Some might assume that sex therapists don’t have anything to offer asexual clients. I can understand the misconception: what could a therapist who specializes in sex issues have to offer someone who has little or no interest in sex? However, NOT wanting sex is just as valid as WANTING sex, and both can create relational stress in certain circumstances—which you might be called upon to work with in therapy. 

Asexuality is one of the topics therapists ask me about frequently, so I’m going to provide a very brief primer on asexuality here, focusing specifically on challenges therapists have asked me about. There is much more to know; check out these online resources about asexuality:

The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network

Trevor Support Center: Asexual

50 Shades of Attraction: Understanding the Asexual Spectrum

If you’re going to work with asexual clients, there are a few basic things you must know. Asexual people and everyone in that ballpark (ace, demi-sexual, aromantic, grey-a, etc.) are marginalized populations. That means they get discriminated against as a result of people either having misconceptions and misinformation about them, no information about them, or believing they are in some way inherently bad, wrong, or broken. When you work with marginalized populations in therapy, it is extra important that you know enough about their identity (in this case, asexuality) to avoid causing harm. 

Happily, my blog post, a little online browse, and an open mind should be sufficient to get started. There is one important caveat: if you do a little reading, and find that you still believe asexual people are in some way flawed, you are not yet qualified to be their therapist. In that case, if you are still interested in working with the ace population, you will need extra training, consultation with an expert, and/or to refer those clients to someone who knows more about asexuality. 

Here are some basics:

  • An asexual person doesn’t need to have sex in order to be healthy and happy. 
  • It is possible to have a wonderful relationship without having sex. 
  • Asexuality isn’t a problem; it’s a perfectly normal way of being. 
  • Asexuality is an identity, meaning it is part of the way some people are, or how they see themselves. 
  • Asexuality is not the same as sexual aversion, or low desire, and is not a sexual dysfunction.
  • Asexuality is not caused by fear of intimacy, or attachment wounds. It is not connected to any psychopathology, any more than any other sexual orientation or identity is. That said, of course some people in any group may have attachment wounds or psychopathology. It is the lack of causation that is the important part. 
  • Asexuality is not the same as abstinence; some aces are abstinent, and some are not. Some experience self-pleasure, arousal, orgasm, and/or partner sex, and others do not.
  • Some aces enjoy romantic connections, some do not.
  • There is a huge range of self-expression in this, as in any other population. If you can imagine it, it exists.

You can put your asexual client at ease by making it clear that you understand and respect their identity, and that you’re not going to try to “fix” their asexuality. It’s ok to tell them you don’t have much experience in this area. For most people, the most important part is that your mind is open, your heart’s in the right place, and you’re willing to learn (and not just from your client). But if you happen to have a client who really wants a therapist with a lot of experience with asexuality, it would be doing them a disservice, and would also be unethical, to misrepresent yourself in this matter.

There are a number of sex- and relationship-specific challenges that might bring an asexual person to therapy, in addition to the vast array of challenges people experience that are not related to sex, sexuality, or asexuality.

For one thing, it can be very challenging as an asexual person to find an intimate partnership where they can be themselves comfortably, not feel pressured for sex, and experience intimacy in ways that they enjoy. As a therapist, your role might be to help your client navigate that challenge. You could support them through the emotional pitfalls of seeking and nurturing a relationship, and help them hold steady and speak their truth to potential partners. As always, you can do a great deal of good simply by normalizing asexuality and affirming your client’s identity. Sometimes there is also an opportunity to provide support, information, and resources to partners.

You might also see a client who needs help navigating an already existing relationship. Sometimes asexuality has always been part of the picture, and other times it emerges somewhere down the line. It is also not uncommon for a couple to come to therapy for a desire discrepancy, and in the course of therapy it begins to become clear that one partner is actually asexual. This may have always been the case for them, and they may or may not have been aware of it. Or their asexuality may have emerged more recently. Sometimes the client, and/or their partner, knows what asexuality is, and other times they are learning about asexuality from me in therapy. 

Here are some concepts that may help you as you begin to work with asexual clients:

  • Some asexual people experience willingness to have sex, even though they don’t experience desire. Being willing is sufficient for having a consensual and positive sexual experience. Identifying and accessing willingness to have sex, in the absence of sexual desire, can be a very successful solution for some couples. Of course you must ensure that the asexual partner’s choice to have sex is freely chosen and authentic, without any external or internal coercion or pressure. Otherwise, it doesn’t really check the box for “willingness”.
  • Sometimes consensual non-monogamy is a workable solution, because it makes it possible for the couple to preserve their relationship while also allowing the non-asexual partner to express and explore their sexuality. 
  • Lots of asexual people experience romantic love, so this can offer a point of intimate connection that works for all involved.
  • More people are somewhat ambivalent about sex than you might think, without being asexual. It is certainly possible for a sexual person to be in a relationship with an asexual person, and to make the decision that sex isn’t as important to them as other ways of connecting, experiencing intimacy, and being close. 
  • All relational therapy is about strengthening connection, so place your focus there. Some people connect through sex, some through outdoor activities, some by raising children together, some by playing video games, some by cooking together; the sky is the limit. Sex is far from the only way to experience closeness, intimacy, and vulnerability.