Internalizing Sexual Scripts and Asexuality
So on tumblr at some point recently I came across a post called “Advice to Allosexual Partners of Asexuals“, and it was fantastic. Navigating the bedroom as a queer ace that has a lot of kinks and fetishes (and one huge paraphilia, pun intended) has given me lots and lots to unpack over the past few years. But a small excerpt from the post really caught my attention more than the rest of it:
Sexual scripts make as much sense as dragons. We know what to expect when a dragon appears in a story. We assume sexual tropes in fiction serve the same narrative purpose as fire-breathing dragons, not that they actually exist.
And it really did a good job of helping me home in on some stuff that was just that much harder to decipher before. That stuff being… how in the hell do I deal with sexual scripts as an ace, and maybe more importantly, how do they deal with me?
I don’t know at what age I started internalizing these narratives, and it’s probably a silly question to ask anyways: from cartoons to, well, porn, it seems to permeate a large number of interpersonal interactions we see in media. The boy trying to win over the girl who’s oblivious to his advances, what kissing on the first date means, how to let your shoulder skin show just so as you turn your body away from him and nurse your cocktail to signal that you’re interested. To me, that’s all graduate-level stuff. I can’t even grok “so, what are you doing friday?”.
And the caveat here is that yes, I’m actually married. I am the first person out of anyone I’ve gone to school with or been friends with to be married. And I’m ace. And gray-ro. And I didn’t even have a first kiss until I was several months into this first committed relationship.
But first things first: what are sexual scripts? (There’s a wikipedia article about it.) It’s basically a language, like math, that no one is a native, or even particularly fluent, speaker of, that was expressly developed to help people navigate sexual and flirtatious encounters. Except, it’s not really a language either. Unlike actual narratives, which are mostly a different thing, scripts don’t seem to reference things that actually happen to real people in real situations; they reference themselves, and are invoked, however clumsily, like some arcane magic designed to summon the dukes, princes, and marquis of hell. Flip open an issue of Cosmo and you’ll see little difference between it’s tips on how to ace that first date and the convoluted instructions found in the Ars Goetia.
So I internalized lots of narratives and stereotypes. (It all turned me into an angsty woman-hating machine, rebelling against a gender that I had no idea I was allowed to walk away from altogether.) I was exposed to my first pornographic material at 12, but I would be old enough to smoke before I thought to ever touch myself. I was fascinated by the idea of sex and all the other nameless, unknown stuff that accompanied it (like D/s), but I was never aware that I had my own set of reproductive organs. I never had that innate understanding of being female, and having a vagina, and that’s where the penis went when a boy and a girl loved each other. Aside from the fact that not understanding myself to be female is now easily explained by not being cis, the rest interests me.
I experienced arousal– quite acutely, painfully, even. I still do sometimes, though not as often because I’m on a pretty libido-deadening medication. But I was actually fine like that. I enjoyed the feeling of being aroused for its own sake without being distracted by the pressure to turn it into something more “legitimate”, like stimulation or climax. Of course, I started masturbating for a few years before deciding that it’s not so much my thing, as I’ve talked about lots before. Historically, when I got aroused, I was motivated not to touch myself, but to write and draw. So I guess it’s no wonder that when I started doing what everyone else was doing, and what I was “supposed” to be doing all along, it felt a little lacking.
I still don’t really know how, exactly, this all plays out in the context of being alone and unpartnered for my whole life. Physically, I’m still alone–we’re a long-distance couple–and nobody seems to be able to fathom how this is not the most difficult thing in the world for me. And then they go on to marvel at my supposed will, virtue, integrity, whatever. Truth be told, the physical isolation is the least trying part of not being together, and I just sort of shrug and think to myself at how awkward it would be if I said “hey it’s not actually killing me to not be able to have cuddles-on-demand”. And don’t get me wrong, I like cuddling and kissing and physical intimacy as much as anyone else, it’s just not even remotely a dealbreaker. It’s not a major point of contention, it’s not an active daily struggle for me. No, I couldn’t do this forever, just in the same way that I couldn’t conduct this relationship entirely over snail mail, but I can do it for a while.
Where all of that becomes relevant to the topic at hand, I guess, is how it tells the story of our courtship period, and what a courtship period is without the aid of sexual scripts.
So we were, and still are, long-distance. We’d known each other for 7 months, and been an exclusive item for 4 by the time we first met and got to mingle with our physical selves. We didn’t have to use and interpret any coded language to gauge the others’ interest. There was no traditional “first date”, “second date”, “third date”. We went out for pizza and hung out at Universal Citywalk for the evening, not knowing if that counted as a first date or not, and not caring.
Actually, that’s a lie. I did care. I cared quite a fucking bit, actually, hence the point of this post. That first weekend together was one of the worst I’d ever had (I wasn’t eating or sleeping because of the anxiety, and I looked like death). I was fretting over the meaning behind our first stolen kiss. What it meant when I wound up sitting in the aisle seats during our bus and train excursions. And so on and so forth. When you’re raised in a culture that warns you to keep on the lookout for sexual scripts in every minute gesture, it’s easy to get carried away. It’s a bit like being in a house you’ve been told is extremely haunted, and suddenly you start to hear every creak and take note of every shadow. And what are folks that can’t recognize them? They’re unlovable, clumsy losers that are missing out on an essential human experience.
If that’s a person that can’t recognize sexual scripts, then what’s an asexual who doesn’t even care to recognize them?
Sexual scripts and narratives caused me a lot of grief in the first year or two of my relationship. I tried reading his mind and saying all the right, indirect, things because that’s what I was told I should be able to do. It was my first sexual relationship, so I chalked it up to inexperience. But as time went on, and I still didn’t feel like I was getting into the swing of things, the advice I was used to hearing, “cure your sex problems with more sex”, wasn’t working. I realized, shit, I actually had to talk about my sexuality and what my expectations were. What his were. We actually had to cut the crap and lay things out. And growing up, reading Cosmo, I had gathered that talking to your partner was the scariest things eve and a last-resort to save a sinking ship. I know this isn’t unique to asexual relationships in the least, but I feel like as a demographic, we are less likely to understand or pick up on the nuances of flirtation and sexual scripts and so have to rely more heavily on other things like “honest communication”. It’s why I couldn’t understand how dating worked, it’s why I never knew how to say “yes” to a guy asking me out (not that I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to, now that I think about it).
I’m just not wired for that kind of interaction. I didn’t even have a true desire to be– I was told that it was one of the only ways that I could safely gauge my standing with someone of “the opposite sex”. So it was almost a matter of safety, to me. I’m glad, actually, that I got to realize my sexuality with someone whom I was already in a dedicated relationship with, and that neither of us felt the need to rely on dramatics to engage the other. Someone could have easily picked me off before he did, recognizing my sexuality-blindness and leveraging it to their advantage. It gives me the creeps to think about how easy it would have been to take advantage of me in my public school days. Thankfully, it was that very same struggle to see those scripts that bored a few of the shadier boys to tears and made them leave me alone. So that’s what the scripts have to say about me: that I’m boring, inexperienced, or disenfranchised. At worst, it signals that I’m easy prey.
And the only reason I didn’t end up boring my now-husband? He says he was pretty bored of the scripts himself by the time he found me anyways.