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Growing Up A Pop Culture Kid And The Absence Of The Asexual Experience

If I didn’t want sex then I supposed I was broken, and in a very unique way. 

March 10, 2021

Jessie Atkin
follow the yellow brick road?
// Courtesy of Warner Brothers

’ve been a pop culture fanatic from a very young age. I memorized the names of the main cast of The Wizard of Oz when I was four. Since then, my obsessions have occupied similarly canonical tales ranging from Star Wars and Harry Potter to Game of Thrones. 

In the end, I may have done better just to stick with Dorothy. The Wizard of Oz was a hit at my house for a number of reasons, the greatest of which was that the film had four main characters and I grew up as one of four siblings. I claimed the Scarecrow, my twin sister the Tinman, our younger sister always played Dorothy, and our baby brother — even when he was literally just a baby — was the Cowardly Lion. 

I directed my siblings to act out the entirety of the film, which I knew by heart, although the littler ones were never the most cooperative of cast members. Still, I would sing through “If I Only Had a Brain” and my twin sister did an excellent impression of being rusted together while the rest of us poked at her face as if we were saving her with the oil can. 

Why did I love this film? It had music, and witches, enough characters to go around, and was one of only a handful of films we were allowed to park ourselves in front of for TV time.

Looking back on it, it also appealed to me because the greater part of the story focuses on the friendship the foursome develops. 

When acting out the storyline, none of my siblings or I had to pretend to get married or become “involved” with one another. What did Dorothy want? To go home, and she succeeded. And scarecrow, tinman, and lion? A brain, heart, and courage respectively. They all receive what they desire, learn about themselves in the process, and the end-all and be-all has nothing to do with true love's kiss.  

My siblings and I were children of the Disney renaissance of the 1990s. And while Aladdin has remained my favorite Disney film to this day it is very much part of the problem. Aladdin, unlike Dorothy (but like so. many. pop culture protagonists), will only be fulfilled and deemed successful by getting together with Princess Jasmine. This paradigm is presented on screen as a kiss and a marriage, but that’s not all that is implied. It’s obvious that in many (dare I say most) films, TV shows, and books, protagonists are not fully actualized until they’re able to take the person they love in their arms and consummate the relationship. 

Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley grow up and have biological children; so too do Han Solo and Princess Leia. 

My pop culture obsessions early on were sending me messages I would destructively take to heart. Sex was something that was supposed to happen. It was the only thing that could happen to render a relationship complete, perfect, or meaningful.

Sex is the expectation at the end of a fairy tale, at the end of a date, at the end of a wedding.

On-screen or on the page, other options are hardly ever-present. While relationships between gay, lesbian, and bi protagonists remain underrepresented across media, they are finally being recognized, named, and seen in some of the stories being told. Asexual stories are not. 

I did, and do, want to be held, and listened to, and everything else that Disney animation is allowed to show on screen, but I never made the jump to wanting anything more than that — the sex. That “something” everyone wanted on page or screen, no matter their sexuality, was never something I felt any desire for. 

I had sex in college — to "try" it — because that’s what I was encouraged to do. My closest friends, the men I got involved with, the stories I loved promised me a magic pull below my navel — something physical, some kind of carnal alchemy — all I had to do was try it. But they were wrong. The strong desire for intercourse?

It simply wasn’t there. There was no feeling of arousal despite what literature and film and TV depicted as inevitable. 

All this made me feel like I was not developing in sync with the world around me. I felt lost, because, as seen on TV, everyone wants it eventually. Sexual expression guided most characters' choices in a story, and much of a character's happiness. 

If I didn’t want sex then I supposed I was broken, and in a very unique way. 

There was no one like me. That’s why, finally, at twenty-five, I was relieved to learn the term asexual. It came up in a creative writing class I was taking as a graduate student. The definition was not explained well during class, but it was enough to send me down a Google rabbit hole as soon as the session came to a close. Once the word was revealed it was not hard to find information. I wasn’t the only person in the world who didn’t follow the plotline of almost every movie I'd ever seen or book I'd ever read. But simply learning the term didn’t offer me a different plot, a path to a meaningful relationship without “consummating the marriage.” 

How do you talk to someone about this? Asexuality doesn’t define who you’re attracted to romantically, whose stare you’d love to possess, who you’d like to date. So how is a person supposed to have that “coming out” discussion with anyone? 

There is no script to follow in discussing this with family, friends, or (perhaps most urgently) significant others.

Sexual attraction is the standard that only benefits people who feel sexual attraction. 

I want to want someone as much as Ser Jorah wanted Daenerys. I want someone to care about me, what I want, and who I am that much. But Game of Thrones, like all my obsessions before, did not offer me a different model of happiness or a roadmap that might lead me to that outcome. The friend zone, describing Daenerys and Jorah, in the Game of Thrones fandom was slung as an insult despite the significance of the relationship, being recognized in the show’s final season. Because they never slept together Jorah didn’t die as the honorable knight and most important person in Daenerys’s life to many fans, he was just a member of #HouseFriendzone, a victim of unrequited desires.

Friendship is not a mature relationship. A relationship without sex is often seen as “only” friendship. Different types of attraction have already been named and recognized, so why not different happily ever afters too? 

At twenty-seven I met a nice man, who was close with his family, like I was, and also keenly interested in Harry Potter, Star Wars — pop culture in general, and we started dating. 

We went to movies, out to eat, held hands, and slept over. Every night we spent together, my palms would sweat and my heart would race as I waited in something close to panic for him to ask or initiate what all the movies had taught me comes next, knowing with certainty I would never be the one to initiate anything. I went to a therapist hoping she might be able to prepare me for the physical aspect of the relationship I was waiting in trepidation to begin. She did not believe my lack of sexual attraction was a permanent state and wanted to know what medications I was on.

After dating almost a year my boyfriend and I moved in together, because that is often how the traditional timeline works, and a month after moving in together we went on a trip, where he proposed. Perhaps, going by the very fast, filmic timelines of great romances, this wasn’t fast, but for me, it felt supersonic. 

After accepting and returning home to our apartment I took to crying in the shower for reasons I couldn’t explain. I spoke with my sister about it on the phone. She lived in a different city, so she called my mother who lived nearby. My mother insisted I come to see her. On the family couch, I cried even more. I was supposed to want all of this. What was wrong with me? I admitted all I really wanted to do was die, and had been contemplating doing just that because I thought it would be easier than admitting I didn’t want to be married and then telling my boyfriend so. 

Why didn’t I want to get married to this man? At first, it was because I was confused and angry. Proposals can be a surprise, but they should never be a cold call. I had no idea he was even thinking about marriage when we went away. The first I heard about it was when he got down on one knee. He and I together had skipped a few essential steps. We’d never spoken of marriage, or family, or my history with depression, or my feelings on sex. 

We never discussed any labels I was learning to identify with, we never discussed a lot of things, and that alone was enough to help me understand that we were not meant to be together. While I was just beginning to understand there were some things I would never feel for someone else, I did know that it was essential for me to be comfortable with trust and honesty, to be able to say who I was and what I wanted out loud to someone if I was going to spend the rest of my life with them. 

I am living proof there are other experiences in the world.

I am proof there are other needs and desires that popular culture doesn’t highlight in the stories it tells. But it took me a quarter of a century to even know there was a word for who I am and how I feel, and that, in no small part, put me in a dangerous place. I did not read a story with an asexual protagonist until I was twenty-eight and went deliberately looking for one, having just turned down a marriage proposal. 

I can only hope there will be a time when asexual and what it means are as common in our vocabulary as “true love’s kiss” and “there’s no place like home”. Right now I am afraid I will be alone for the rest of my life. But that solitude is not what I’m used to, it’s still new to me, and I’m very worried it’s permanent. At least that’s how the world makes me feel. 

Today, two of my siblings are happily married. Today I live by myself. And everything the movies promised is based on a structure of behaviors I don’t participate in. It may be brave to write your own story, but it’s confusing without role models or other stories to follow. 

A handful of cartoon characters are not the representation that is needed. Acknowledgment in health classes along with new human stories is a step in the right direction. Feeling different never made me want to die, it was loneliness that did that. 

In a world that's only just starting to recognize its diverse communities, it's time that those communities stopped being the exception to a rule and started breaking the rules that were constructed in the first place.

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