Writing From Factor X

October 28, 2010

Won’t Someone Please Think of the Adolescents?

Let’s talk about age and identity policing.

See, there’s this very common thing I see when a teenager, particularly anyone under 18, enters an asexuality space to say “I think I’m asexual.” And you’ll see people just lining up to tell them that they can’t be sure of themselves, that they might be mistaken. That they might simply be late bloomers. That they ought not to hold onto the identity too tightly until they’re older, and they can be sure it’s not a phase.

I see this within the asexual community. You’d assume that a group founded on trying to acquire acceptance for everyone who identifies as asexual wouldn’t be so invested in essentially invalidating someone’s identity, but that’s what I’m seeing.

This is particularly interesting given that the average age of sexual attraction is ten years old. And this holds true for all sexualities except, for obvious reasons, asexuality. The standard deviation appears to be about three years. For the curious, that means that of the people who eventually go on to experience sexual attraction, 84% of them will have done so by age 13, and 97.6% of them will have done so by age 16. Those are some absurdly high numbers. What, given that, makes people think that teenagers are unlikely to be aware of what their sexual orientation is? If you’re not experiencing sexual attraction and 97% of your peers have done so, don’t you think that you’d notice that something was perhaps a little off?

And now let’s talk about me. It’s my blog, I’m allowed to be a touch narcissistic. I am twenty years old, folks. What’s more than that, I’ve been past teenagerdom for slightly over a month. I am very young for this sort of thing. It seems that according to some, I’ve finally hit the magic age where I can be certain. And according to others, I’m still in phase territory–I’ve heard some people, all in their forties of course, set the bar as high as twenty-five. Awesome. I can’t tell you how pleased that makes me to hear when I come across it.

I found out about asexuality when I was fourteen years old. I joined AVEN when I was fifteen. At the time it was essentially the only place besides the Livejournal community to discuss asexuality at all, and I didn’t know enough about LJ to navigate it at all. And you know, I don’t remember it being nearly this ageist then. I remember a focus on using identities as tools, yes, and on discarding them if they no longer became useful. But I don’t remember being told within the community that teenagers couldn’t know for sure if they were asexual yet.

That was then, and this is now. I think we’re worse off for it. Now it’s hard to see the acceptance for the identity policing. For the admonitions that you oughtn’t come out, or let the label ‘asexual’ mean much to you, because you just might be a late bloomer. Never mind the relative likelihoods of actually being a late bloomer or just being a baby ace. Just the chance means that you can’t embrace the label too tightly, lest it be wrong.

Folks, I knew that that label of asexuality was me when I first saw it at fourteen. And I knew what I was before even that. I found AVEN in the first place because I was beginning to get the idea that maybe everyone wasn’t like me, and I was trying to figure out what sexual orientation I was. It’s been five years, now, and I’ve never encountered any significant thing to make me need to re-evaluate that identity. And even if I had, just having the identity, just knowing that asexuality was even an option, and that it could be me… well. That was knowledge I cherished, growing up, because it meant that I wasn’t a freak. It meant there was nothing wrong with me. And that gave me all the courage to be myself I needed.

Even if the late bloomer model were common–and I am unconvinced that it is–impressing on every single teenager who wonders whether they might be entitled to call themselves asexual that they shouldn’t do so because they might develop another sexual orientation does a hell of a lot of harm to those of us who aren’t late bloomers. It sends a message to younger people that this community isn’t for them. That this label isn’t for using, and neither is the support that comes with it.

And given that a fuckload of visibility and community work is done by those of us who are in our teens and twenties, I think that alienating those of us who are younger members of the asexual community is likely to shoot the community as a whole in the foot. If you’ve found out asexuality exists when you’re young but you got heavily reminded that it might not be for you by the very people you’re reaching out to for support, it’s hardly likely you’ll be involved enough in its work to do any kind of activism.

If people identifying as asexual realize that they’ve changed, or that they were mistaken about their feelings for others, by all means drop the label. If an identity stops working or worse, becomes restrictive, than by all means drop it in favor of one which does work. There’s nothing wrong with broadening your understanding of yourself, or finding that you have changed over time.

But don’t tell someone that they can’t pick up that identity, which might be so important to them, for so paltry a quality as age.


  1. I do think it’s interesting that when 11-year-olds identify as gay, I don’t think people in the gay community give them the same response. If anything, I think young kids who come out as gay are thought of as very self-aware. So it makes me wonder, what makes the asexual community different? To me, that’s the question. Maybe one answer is that people internalize things that have been said to them again and again. For asexuals, it seems like you get told “you may be a late bloomer” through your 20’s, until it becomes “you haven’t met the right person yet”. I think asexuals might also have a skewed perception of how early non-asexuals experience sexual attraction. I was in college before I started to realize that everyone around me was experiencing something I wasn’t. I think some asexuals are still unsure about the ultimate validity of asexuality. And it’s hard for me to blame them, when we get so many messages saying that we can’t possibly be asexual.

    Comment by Ily — October 29, 2010 @ 12:17 am | Reply

    • The division I see is that all of us were once in a pre-sexual state, so sexual attraction is something which is assumed to develop – and if it doesn’t, then obviously you haven’t waited long enough. Gay kids don’t lack something that’s just assumed to be a normal part of growing up, they just have it in a different way.

      Comment by Charles — October 29, 2010 @ 1:13 am | Reply

    • I think it’s also interesting in that you definitely get this a lot from outside your community if you’re a teenager who identifies as queer at all–that is, teenagers are in general discouraged from identifying as queer in case they’re “too young” by heterosexual/cis adults, in my experience, while heterosexual/cis teenagers are never, ever discouraged from identifying as heterosexual or cis, even if they turn out to be wrong. So I tend to conceptualize the asexual community repeating this as being closer to internalized heteronormativity. Charles does have a point, though.

      And I actually got “you haven’t met the right person yet!” starting when I was about eleven or twelve and declaring I was uninterested in ever marrying or dating anyone, way before I even discovered asexuality existed, let alone took it on as a definite identity for myself. So I’m not sure that there isn’t a lot of overlap between the “late bloomer” and “right person” attempts to explain asexuality away.

      I can definitely get the “skewed perception” thing, which is why I enjoy posting that study. I mean, I was definitely getting the idea that I wasn’t exactly normal fairly early, but I’m not sure I would have come to the conclusion of asexuality if I hadn’t been lucky enough to stumble over it. Even if it’s not entirely without issues–see Siggy’s and my discussion below–the fact that the average is so low is I think rather shocking to a lot of asexual people. I was certainly fairly astonished when I came across that particular figure a few months ago.

      I do think that this change–at least, I perceive it as a change–is coming more from visibility/PR motives than internalized invalidity ones. I’ve seen a lot of justifications for it that boil down to “well, what if zie’s wrong? That’ll make people invested in the idea that asexuality is a phase!” Which… I am getting very angry at communities which place having unassailable PR above the actual acceptance of their members, so I’m going to leave it at that for now.

      Comment by Sciatrix — October 29, 2010 @ 9:39 am | Reply

  2. “For the curious, that means that of the people who eventually go on to experience sexual attraction, 84% of them will have done so by age 13, and 97.6% of them will have done so by age 16.”

    On a purely mathematical note, the numbers you cite here are not as encouraging as you suggest. If asexuals are 1% of the population as the literature suggests, then that means that of all the people who have not experienced sexual attraction by 16, only 38% are asexual. And that’s assuming a normal distribution. I think the distribution is supposed to be upwardly skewed.

    Also, critical thinking compels me to say that this is one situation where personal experience is especially bad evidence. There’s a huge selective bias going on. People who thought they were asexual at 15 but later changed their mind are no longer here to speak about their experiences. Not to say that this is a large group of people, but rather to say that I have no idea whether it is a large group of people.

    On the other hand, I think that when teenagers identify as asexual, they’re not just basing it on lack of sexual attraction. I think there’s a lot of intangible evidence involved, a lot of self-searching, and that the posterior probability is significantly higher than 38% at age 16. In other words, 16-year old self-identified asexuals have a pretty good chance of being “correct” (ignoring for the moment the fact that the borders of the asexual definition are arbitrary).

    However, I’m skeptical of my own beliefs. I think it’s best to have a compromise between two possible worlds: one where I’m right, and one where I’m wrong. We should adopt a strategy that gives positive experiences to people in both of these possible worlds.

    Clearly, telling asexual teens that they must wait a few years is not that strategy. The strategy is to tell people that their experiences are valid, and that if they have different experiences in the future, those are valid too. You can identify as asexual if you want to, because even if you weren’t, we trust that you’re responsible enough to not let it ruin your life. Another component of the strategy is sex-positivity. If someone starts to suspect that they’re really sexual, we sure don’t want them to be afraid of that possibility. We want them to rationally consider it, with the community’s full support.

    When I market asexual-positivity to queers, one of the things I tell them is that the asexual community is pretty good at dealing with fluid and questioning people. I hope I’m not wrong about that.

    Comment by Siggy — October 29, 2010 @ 1:59 am | Reply

    • Well, yes, and the numbers are also flawed in that they’re coming from a study with no acknowledgement that asexuality (the failure to ever experience sexual attraction) exists. I mean, how would you plot asexual samples on such a bell curve? It also has a very small sample size for women. But I think that pointing out that data is fairly useful for demonstrating just how young kids start to develop sexual attraction in the first place. I’m actually not convinced it was meant to be a skewed distribution, however, or I think that would have been mentioned in the data analysis. Mind you, since the linked paper seems to be a meta-analysis, it’s possible they didn’t have access to the original data.

      I agree with you totally that we ought to be supporting people who suspect that they’re really nonasexual, and trying to make such people not afraid to re-evaluate their identities. I wasn’t trying to advocate ignoring the fact of people changing identities. In fact, my ideal response to asexual teens is pretty much the same as yours: encourage people to use the identity as long as it makes sense and fits, and if it turns out to not fit long-term, support that change in identity and make it clear the community still welcomes them.

      I’m mostly irritated by the way the community invariably heaps the warnings about fluidity and “you might really change!” on teenagers and teenagers alone. It wouldn’t be an issue at all if, for instance, the typical response to someone attempting to seek validation from the asexual community was being met with a discussion of identities as tools which should be dropped if they no longer function. Or if that discussion got brought up with everyone who wasn’t sure, or only if someone wrote about questioning their existing identity. But as it is, I only really see it when teenagers attempt to enter the asexual community, and I think that has some unfortunate implications.

      I think the community discusses identities as tools a lot less than I felt like it did when I was new to asexuality. I hope I’m wrong about that, because it was always one of my favorite things about the asexual community. And I’m afraid that it will be lost by the people who are so concerned with visibility that they’d have us hide half our members lest they reflect “badly” on mainstream perceptions of us. And I’m terrified that the acceptance of re-evaluated identities might be lost as well with that, because I agree with you: I always thought we were pretty good with helping fluid and questioning people. I’m not feeling that right now.

      Comment by Sciatrix — October 29, 2010 @ 9:16 am | Reply

      • Oh yeah, for the record, I wasn’t trying to disagree with you. More like, finding agreement from a slightly different perspective.

        I should also say that I have a slightly more optimistic view of the asexual community. Maybe I haven’t been around for long enough to see the downward trend!

        Comment by Siggy — October 29, 2010 @ 4:16 pm | Reply

        • And to be fair, I’m currently really pissed off at/upset by AVEN, which is the part of the asexual community I’m really thinking of throughout most of this post, to the point that I’m taking a break from the site and considering whether or not to leave permanently. So I may be rather more pessimistic right now than I usually am.

          Comment by Sciatrix — October 29, 2010 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

      • I think the community discusses identities as tools a lot less than I felt like it did when I was new to asexuality. Personally, I haven’t seen this. What places are you looking at? The only places I’ve seen people say “I might be asexual” are the LJ community and Meetup Mart in AVEN. And I feel like to questioning people, there is always at least one person saying “labels are tools that you can use as you like” or some version of that. And sometimes young people themselves bring up the idea of their being “too young”. I think you might be seeing more “you’re too young to know” stuff because the membership of AVEN might be getting increasingly more younger people. I don’t remember there being many 13, 14, 15-year-olds on AVEN when I joined. Basically, I don’t think people’s ideas about identity have necessarily changed.

        Comment by Ily — October 29, 2010 @ 4:48 pm | Reply

    • Hmmm, why do you need a normal distribution here? Given the assumptions that 1% of the population is asexual and that 97.6% of sexuals experience sexual attraction by 16 (and also adding a reasonable assumption that no asexuals experience sexual attraction by 16) then it’s a straightforward application of Bayes’ theorem that only about 29.6% of 16 year olds who’ve never experienced sexual attraction are life-long asexuals – without needing any assumptions about the distribution.

      Which actually just re-enforces your original point further.

      More to the point though, someone is quite entitled to self-identify as asexual even if they do in fact go on to experience sexual attraction. As long as people are currently not experiencing sexual attraction they should be free to identify as asexual.

      Comment by flergalwit — October 30, 2010 @ 11:14 pm | Reply

      • k I see now. I took the 97.6% thing as read whereas you were commenting on how this figure comes about. And whether it’s really 29.6% or 38% (or somewhere in between) depends on whether asexuals were really systematically excluded from the study giving the average age and standard deviation of sexual attraction (and if not, how they were dealt with).

        Comment by flergalwit — October 30, 2010 @ 11:38 pm | Reply

        • I’m assuming asexuals were excluded based on the fact that asexuals aren’t well known and would have been unlikely to have been specifically recruited for a paper on the genesis of sexual attraction. Particularly not for papers which were published in time to be included in a 1996 meta-analysis, given that we really didn’t have any kind of community at all before 2000 (including pre-AVEN sites), and given that research on asexuality gets even sparser than it already is prior to about 2004, when the Bogaert study was done. I suspect that the population sampled probably just didn’t include any asexuals who volunteered, given the nature of the proceedings and the extreme unlikelihood that any asexual-identified people saw the report. In addition, the sample sizes are pretty small, especially for women, and there’s a lot of anecdotal data suggesting that women are more likely than men to identify as asexual. (I’m actually kind of curious to understand why there’s almost three times as many men sampled as women. I suspect it might just be that only one study bothered to include women in their dataset at all.)

          So I don’t think they deliberately excluded asexuals, but neither do I think asexual data was included in this study. I’d really be interested in a broader repeat of something like this, maybe with a larger sample size and an effort made to include data from people near the ends of the bell curve (e.g. those people who experienced something like sexual attraction very young?).

          I should mention that I am not a math person on anything like the levels of you or Siggy, so if you can illustrate errors in my analysis of the bell curve, that’s awesome. (I can talk about sampling and experimental set-up in something like this until the cows come home! Mathematical models stemming from the data, maybe not so much.) The extent of my mathematical training ends at calculus and basic statistics. And yes, I’m definitely commenting on the figure as it comes out, assuming a normal bell curve distribution and accurate standard deviations plus an accurate mean.

          Comment by Sciatrix — October 31, 2010 @ 12:02 am | Reply

  3. (To clarify, I joined AVEN 5 years ago.)

    Comment by Ily — October 29, 2010 @ 4:51 pm | Reply

    • I might be, and it might simply be a function of where I’m looking, since I sort of intermittently read and post to the Welcome board on AVEN. I assume you meant that instead of the Meetup Mart? Or the fact that I’ve gotten older in the interim and more sensitive to this kind of thing as I’ve gained more confidence in my identity, or even a bias to looking back to the Days of Yore with rose-tinted glasses. Mind you, I think I was newly 15 when I joined the first time, and my memories of AVEN suggest I wasn’t the only one.

      I’ve also actually seen this attitude brought up when a teenage ace is looking for help on coming out or support in bringing up asexuality to hir parents, which in hindsight I should have mentioned in my original post since it adds a new dimension to the whole problem. (That is, you get kids who are already pretty sure in their identity but scared about sharing it with others and being actively discouraged from doing so.)

      (I just realized that the comments don’t nest enough for longer conversations like this one–sorry, I’ve gone and fixed that. It should work a lot better in the future.)

      Comment by Sciatrix — October 29, 2010 @ 9:20 pm | Reply

  4. I wonder how much of it is wishful thinking. If you accept that living life as a sexual is easier and has many benefits, it makes some sense to try and encourage people not to embrace asexuality unless they have to/are 100% sure. How much of the late-bloomer myth is real and how much just fantasy on the part of some ace’s I don’t know. I know I waited 2-3 years before identifying as an asexual, to make sure I wasn’t going to change my mind somehow (what a laugh 🙂 and hurt asexuals’ cred because people spread the late-bloomer myth to me. I can’t say it would have been better if I felt encouraged to come out as a teen-my mother probably would’ve given me all sorts of shit and possibly made me doubt myself. Still, it’s everyone’s own decision to make, and shaking people’s confidence in their identity/orientation is not a helpful thing.

    Comment by Lasciel — October 30, 2010 @ 8:40 pm | Reply

    • I suspect a lot of it when applied from adults outside X queer community is definitely wishful thinking, either on behalf of the teenager involved (parents wishing their kid wasn’t going to be stuck being marginalized) or as a hopeful way to avoid the discussion. Or else as a sort of attempt to provide a ray of hope onto the situation, in the mistaken belief that having a queer identity is a terrible thing and that telling kids it’s not necessarily true is a way of showing support. (It’s not.) I have no idea how much of it coming from older aces is wishful thinking.

      Yeah, I definitely remember feeling absolutely certain I was not going to come out as a teenager, mostly because I was too terrified to do so and face my parents. Who were convinced I was a lesbian anyway, so it probably wouldn’t have done much. I ended up trying to send little subtle messages about it–well, subtle for me, like stating I found no one attractive and saying that I was totally uninterested in marriage. By the end of it I suspect I was so “subtle” that if I’d been a gay teenager I’d have been making out with a girl on the kitchen table, but of course asexuality being so under the radar it didn’t take then, and I sort of accidentally came out in the middle of an argument some months ago. But… yes, I waited months before I even got an account at AVEN, and then waited years until I ever outed myself as asexual on the Internet, and then years again until I first came out to someone in meatspace. I’m not saying I was one of those confident teens!

      But I’ve seen some teenagers who did trust their parents enough to come out, and I think that for the ones who feel brave enough to do it some support is really necessary. I mean, coming out is a terrifying process. Well, it was for me, anyway, and I hear it is for a lot of other people. And sometimes it ends badly–the girl who started Hot Pieces of Ace had to withdraw from the project when her parents found out and basically permanently removed her internet access in a bid to make her recant her identity–but sometimes it doesn’t. And I suspect any teenager thinking about coming out knows that bad reactions happen. So… support them in their decisions, I suppose is what I’m trying to say, because teenagers are generally old enough to know whether or not they feel outing themselves is safe.

      Comment by Sciatrix — October 31, 2010 @ 12:20 am | Reply

  5. The 97.6% thing is really quite shocking if true – not because of how high it is, but because of how low it is. To put the point in simple English, it means that being asexual is significantly more of a statistical aberration than being a post-16 late-bloomer sexual. I was pretty certain at 16 and even before that I’d never experience sexual attraction; if I’d known this figure at the time (as well as the 1% statistic), I’d have been a lot more doubtful about the whole thing.

    I’m guessing that if you replaced 16 with 18 then the percentage is a lot closer to 100%?

    Comment by flergalwit — October 30, 2010 @ 11:25 pm | Reply

    • Don’t forget that it’s possible that they’re assuming EVERYONE will experience sexual attraction- so they’re just assuming anyone who hasn’t yet is an absurd outlier. And that not all asexuals are aware of being asexual, so an aromantic asexual might put the age of their first squish or an aromantic asexual the age of their first crush thinking that’s close enough.

      Comment by Dreki — December 3, 2010 @ 12:05 am | Reply

  6. […] be asexual forever” disclaimer can operate as a form of identity policing.  Sciatrix wrote a pretty comprehensive post on this problem three years ago, and yet this is still a major issue in ace communities.  By […]

    Pingback by Teen aces and the “you might not be asexual forever” disclaimer | The Asexual Agenda — August 28, 2013 @ 11:03 am | Reply

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