CONTENT WARNING: This post contains generalised discussion of sexual violence and rape, as well as detailed experiences of an emotionally abusive incident and its aftermath (I guess that’s probably the best way to describe it).
Although it’s a few days late, this post is for the August Carnival of Aces, on the theme of ‘the unassailable asexual.’ The carnival has prompted a few different posts on the theme of assault, abuse and otherwise negative experiences of sexuality, love or relationships.
As many people have now pointed out, there is a pervasive idea in some ace circles that if you have been assaulted or abused or have these sorts of experiences, your asexuality is up for questioning. There are two parts to this idea. First, that we only think we’re asexual because we’ve had these negative experiences. And second, that we are therefore not really asexual, but just repressed or damaged or broken.
Queenie’s last post on this topic, with all its rawness and power, really resonated with me. And it made me think about whether perhaps now is also the time to share an experience of my own that affected me deeply, five years ago. It is not something that I’ve ever talked about to more than one or two people in real life, and the idea of blogging about it is still somewhat terrifying, for many reasons. One is that I am scared the other person involved in this story will find it and try to contact me. Another is that I wonder whether my experience even counts as anything, given that I was not physically harassed or assaulted or raped. (As the comments on Queenie’s post show, I am not the only person to have these sorts of doubts.) Another reason is that someone will turn up in my comments and tell me what I no longer know to be true: that everything was really my fault. Another reason still is that someone from inside my own community will say I am just messed up, and try to invalidate my ace identity.
So why am I writing this post, when it is obviously still not an easy thing to do? Because that last idea was on my mind a lot when I first started identifying as asexual, almost three years ago now. Amidst the exhilarating joy of finding a word that finally fit, it was what made me doubt my new-found identity the most. I thought: what if all this ace stuff is just me still freaking out about what happened at the end of high school? What if I really am just broken, and using asexuality to hide?
I want to share this story to help contribute to the conversation about (un)assailability. I want other aces, especially new ones, to know that it is ok to have negative experiences, be they emotional or physical or both, and still be ace. I want to help make a space where aces don’t have to be perfectly well-adapted, sex-positive, beyond all doubt. Perhaps, on a more personal level, I still want someone to tell me that it’s ok and that it wasn’t my fault.
So. As Queenie aptly put it, here goes everything.
When I was in high school, I was involved in a student rights group. The group’s facilitator was a member of staff at the school – not a teacher per se, but a type of liaison between the school and the parents. We got along very well, and ended up spending quite a lot of time around each other. In my last years of school, I went on overnight trips to student rights events in Sydney, and he would often be my chaperone. He taught a pottery class one semester, and I ended up continuing to work on pieces in my free periods and after school with him. Our school was in a regional town and quite close-knit, so my parents knew him and on occasion invited him for coffee at their houses.
In my final term, I went on a camping trip with my Dad. The HSC (big, stressful exams) were looming, and I wanted to escape to the bush for a few days. The day I got back I had to work. I was minding the temporary sale bookshop all by myself that day, and because it was quiet and there was nothing to do, I decided to catch up on the emails I hadn’t checked in a week. Among the usual rubbish, there was one from him, followed by some confused ones from my friends.
I still, to this day, have no idea what actually happened while I was away camping. But the email from him was written as if someone at my school was accusing him and me of having some sort of sordid affair, and was hell-bent on taking him down. It was frantic, defensive. I realised that it wasn’t even addressed to me directly – I had been copied in on what was actually an email to my parents. It said that he was deeply in love with me. It said that nothing had happened physically between us, but that he would have put aside his years of celibacy for me. He said that he had never thought he would love someone so strongly again after he and his ex-wife split. (My skin still crawls, recalling what he said.) Throughout the whole email, he made it sound like there was no doubt I felt the same way about him.
I was seventeen that year (and also openly gay). He was the same age as my father.
I panicked. I had no idea how to deal with this. The email implied that people at my school knew about this imaginary relationship. I thought I had turned into the school slut (please pardon the word choice) overnight, and was desperately glad I had no more classes to attend. I thought my parents believed the whole story and were the ones doing the accusing, at him, but also at me. I somehow pulled myself together enough to send a reply saying that I needed space and that he shouldn’t contact me for a while. I don’t know how to describe what I was feeling accurately. A mixture of shock, horror, revulsion, confusion, fear, and complete betrayal.
After reading that email, I saw that he had also sent defensive emails to some of my friends. They were as weirded out as I was. When I finally saw one of the teachers I trusted at a pre-exam seminar and quietly asked what was going on at school, he had no idea. There were no rumours, no accusations. Likewise, I found out that my parents hadn’t done or said anything to prompt the whole situation, and were just as confused as everyone else. The whole thing seemed as if he’d somehow convinced himself that everyone was out to get him (or us, in his mind). As if it were all in his head and he’d dragged me along for the ride.
I don’t know why that incident had such a horrible impact on me, but the next few weeks were some of the worst in my life. I was terrified of running into him in town (a fear that I didn’t shake for years afterwards). I had nightmares about being chased and trapped and assaulted. I felt physically sick for two weeks, with horrible, anxiety-induced stomach cramps from morning until night. I lopped my waist-length hair off to my ears. And I felt guilty. I constantly told myself that I was just being stupid, that I was overreacting and needed to get over it. After all, nothing had happened, right? So I didn’t really have an excuse to feel this horrible.
I felt desperately alone. I didn’t talk to anyone about the whole incident, even though my friends and family knew what was going on. In fact, I couldn’t talk about it for three years afterwards. I blamed myself. I felt like everything was my fault, that I had sent out the wrong signals, that I had somehow led him on. I wish someone had told me that it wasn’t my fault. It took years for me to fully realise that myself.
I left for overseas the day after my exams finished. The distance helped. Stupidly, I felt so guilty that I allowed him to get in touch again, but I stopped replying quickly when a few emails became one every second day. When I finally came back to Australia, I spotted him when I was at the markets with my friends. He saw me and waved, though we didn’t speak. All the panic came rushing back, and I made my friends drive me home that instant.
After that, he began emailing me again, insisting that he needed to see me and talk to me. I agonised over what to do for days, but when he didn’t let up I finally wrote back saying that I never wanted to hear from him or see him again. He wanted it in my own handwriting, as if someone had forced me two write that last message. I deleted every last email off my computer. I was ready to go to the police if he contacted me again.
Writing that last message was freeing, but the fear and anxiety took a long time to go away completely. For two years I was scared of running into him, even though I’d moved to the city. It took me three years to tell anyone this story. I’m still scared of inadvertently giving someone the wrong impression and of people being interested in me. I’m worried that he’ll somehow find this post and track me down. Or that he’s actually been reading this blog from the beginning.
But I am sick of that nagging fear that all this has messed me up and ‘turned me asexual.’ Because it isn’t the reason I’m ace. It may be a part of why it makes me uncomfortable when people are interested in me. But that doesn’t change the fact that I am not interested in other people sexually or romantically. I’m not secretly interested, but too scared to act on it. I reckon I was ace even before this incident, and that my aceness was probably part of the reason why this incident caused me trauma (there’s a word that took a while to write) even though nothing physical happened to me.
So I am writing this post to tell others the same thing. Whatever negative experiences you have doesn’t have to have anything to do with your sexual orientation. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not asexual because you’ve been assaulted or harassed or abused (and don’t tell others they’re not properly asexual, either). Let’s make the ace community a space that is safe for everyone, assailable or not. Because really, when the majority of us probably are assailable, the concept doesn’t make much sense.
You may link to this post, but I ask that you please do not share large chunks of it on tumblr or other social networking sites.