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 Everyone Needs to Know About Painful Sex

Sex shouldn’t hurt. Too many people believe that having some pain with vaginal penetration is normal and to be expected. That’s simply not true. NO ONE should be having painful sex–unless it’s the kind of pain that is desired and negotiated in advance. Pain with sex is not something you just have to put up with. And, almost always, it can be resolved with a little help.

If you ignore sex pain and keep engaging in the painful action, it will almost certainly lead to worse issues down the road. And besides the physical damage, nothing will tank your libido like engaging in sex with unwanted pain. Every time you grit your teeth and keep doing the thing that hurts, you’re forging a link in your brain between that activity and pain. Over time, as sex and pain become more closely linked in your mind, your desire for sex will wane.

This is important to recognize, as one big reason that people continue to engage in painful sex is to avoid hurting their partner’s feelings or because they feel obligated to provide sex as part of their relationship. Even if simply grinning and bearing it will keep your partner from feeling rejected or uncomfortable in this moment, continuing to engage in painful sex will do your sex life more harm than good in the long term. And I suspect your partner would actually want to know. Hopefully, they want to do whatever is needed to help you have enjoyable sex.

The first step is to have that awkward conversation now. Let your partner know what you are experiencing, and that you’d like to see what can be done to help improve your experience of sex by decreasing pain. Be sure to let your partner know this is almost always something that can be resolved.

The second step is to stop participating in the activity that hurts. This is a temporary measure to make sure your body’s natural protective response doesn’t make the issue worse.

The next step is unravelling what’s going on with your body, with the help of a medical practitioner, a sex therapist, or both. There are countless potential causes for sex pain. You can start by using a high quality lubricant, and also consulting with your primary care physician. But be aware (your doctor may not be!) that resolving many issues requires the help of specialized professionals, like a pelvic floor physical therapist or a vulvar pain specialist. If your doctor doesn’t suggest one of these specialists, and your sex pain doesn’t resolve, ask your doctor for a referral to a pelvic floor PT and let them advise you on how to proceed.

If you are feeling frustrated and things aren’t improving, consider consulting with a sex therapist, who can help sort out the issues and refer you to the right resources. With the help of skilled professionals and a little bit of patience, regardless of whether painful sex is new for you or something you’ve been living with for a long time, you are very likely to uncover the cause, resolve it, and start having pain-free, enjoyable sex.

It is also important to recognize that while you are working to resolve painful sex,  your sex life doesn’t need to grind to a halt. You can’t engage in the activity that produces pain–but there are plenty of other ways for you and your partner to create pleasure and experience closeness, which is (at least as I see it) what sex is really about. There is no reason your relationship has to suffer just because one activity isn’t possible for the moment. Situations like this one are the reason I often say that flexibility is the key to a happy, healthy sex life. This is an opportunity to work on that flexibility, and perhaps even discover new ways of connecting intimately that can become favorite additions to your sexual repertoire.