[Trigger Warning: trauma, mental health, rape culture]
So I know this has been discussed a lot in the ace community (see, for example, last month’s carnival of aces, and this post in particular), but after having a friend tell me he doesn’t think I’m asexual and that I “just had a bad experience in high school”, I felt it needs repeating.
There’s a brutal and subtle logic used against asexuals that fuels rape culture, and I think it shows a problem with how society thinks people are “supposed to” recover from trauma*.
See, when I was younger I believed that the fact I was asexual** was a sign that I must have been traumatized. After all, everyone and all of the cultural narratives suggested that was the case. And so I blamed my asexuality on having been bullied and having chronic pain problems, and believed that the “real” me, as in the me that wasn’t traumatized, must be a straight guy who should act just like every other straight guy. So I was convinced- through a combination of friends and cultural norms- that if I wanted to recover, I needed to end up like that- straight. And I, being rather foolish, went about trying to do exactly that.
This lead down a bad path, with me eventually having sex I didn’t want, and believing I just needed to keep trying until I learned to enjoy it. That in turn gave me my fair share of nightmares, and ended with me never trying sex for about 5 or more years. My whole memory of the situation is a bit fuzzy, but you get the idea: that was something everyone will point to and say “hey, you were clearly traumatized!”***.
The irony of this, is that now people I know point to that experience to say- you guessed it- I’m too traumatized to know my sexual orientation, and I must be straight. The “real” me, the untraumatized me, must be straight! It’s the exact same logic that lead to the trauma they are pointing to in the first place.
And so I want to point out the pattern here. We take individuals who have suffered some kind of trauma- especially people who have had their sense of self stripped away from them- and tell them “that means you can’t define your self, and should instead follow the cultural norms about how you should be”. Yet this is often the exact same process that lead to the trauma in the first place- even with the bullying and chronic pain stuff, the narrative there was that I must be faking the pain, or too “crazy” to know if I’m in pain, so I should take other people’s word for how much pain I’m in.
By holding on to this idea that there is some idealized, “fixed”, platonic, real self- and that it’s possible for someone to not be in touch with that other self- we are almost guaranteeing that someone who suffers trauma that erases their sense of self will be suffer that same situation over and over again. And then we use the fact they can’t recover to do it some more!
If anything, the response we have to people who lack a strong sense of self shouldn’t be to doubt their judgment- it should be to support them even more. Let them define themselves, and don’t try and guess at who they “really” are. And if someone ends up bouncing around a lot, trying on lots of different faces, and never settling down- good for them. That’s still just as real. There is no eternal and unchanging “self” that we have to be in touch with at all times; there is no reason people need to be consistent all the time. And because of that, there is no way that someone “doesn’t know” their real self and needs to be told who they really are.
*The moral here isn’t to replace how society thinks we should recover from trauma with another model, it’s to stop saying there is one true way to recover.
**I didn’t have the term at the time, so I would have said “heartless”, or “a freak”, because that’s what people called it.
***That experience doesn’t bother me anywhere near as much as the bullying and coping with chronic pain, but my reaction to those doesn’t fit our stereotypical model of what “counts” as trauma, so everybody just relies on the less traumatizing event instead when they need to try and tell me to doubt myself.