This week on the podcast we addressed a listener’s question about how we might go about knowing whether we are on the asexuality spectrum or whether our lack of sexual attraction is due to trauma in our life which perhaps we should address.
In the podcast we unpack a lot of what is meant by both asexuality and trauma, as well as considering the overlaps, and how all of us might address elements of trauma as they surface in our sexual lives.
It’s Fine to be Ace
We started with a few caveats. First there are lots of different ways of being asexual, all of which are absolutely legitimate and valid. Some ace people are neutral about sex, some are averse to it. Some sometimes have forms of solo or partnered sex, many don’t. Some experience romantic attraction, some don’t (aromantic people). Some experience a little attraction (gray-A) or in certain relationships (demisexual). Just as it shouldn’t matter why an allosexual person is allosexual, it shouldn’t really matter whether these diverse asexualities are the result of being ‘born that way’, or choosing asexuality as a response to problematic cultures of sexuality, or life experiences meaning you are asexual. For most of us it’s probably a complex combination of bio, psycho, and social aspects.
Historically asexual people have been treated as if their low – or no – sexual attraction must be a problem, often with the assumption that it’s the result of trauma. The first thing to say is that – as with most marginalised sexual communities – there is no evidence that asexual people are any more likely to have been abused, or to suffer from mental health problems, that anybody else. That’s why asexuality is now clearly stated not to be any kind of ‘psychiatric disorder’ in the psychiatric manuals.
Trauma is so common
Secondly, we could argue that all of our sexualities – or asexualities – have something to do with trauma because (1) sadly high numbers of us experience sexual forms of abuse, assault, and bullying as children and/or adults and (2) the restrictive messages we receive about sexuality are a form of intergenerational trauma. Over the generations sex ed, sex advice, parents, porn, Hollywood movies, magazines, etc. all pass on limited ideas about what counts as sex, and how we should have sex, which leave many people having sex which is painful, unwanted, mediocre, even non-consensual. Many people who are sexual in pretty normative ways are quite dissociated when they have sex and many could be seen as traumatised and retraumatising themselves.
So it’s not a matter of here’s the ‘normal’ thing – being sexual – which is unrelated to trauma, and here’s the ‘abnormal’ thing – being asexual – which is probably related to trauma. It’s certainly a shame if ace folks feel they have to wonder about trauma in a way that allosexual people don’t, because of all the stigma about being asexual or struggling sexually in any way – even in sex positive spaces.
Also we’d say that ace communities have some of the most vital things to teach everyone about sex because they make it clear that nobody (ever) has to have sex. We can’t really be in consent unless we know that it’s really okay to never do the thing (in this case sex).
Reflecting on trauma
All those caveats aside, of course it can still be important for those of us who are asexual (whether for a period or for the longer term) and have also been through traumatic experience to reflect on whether these things are related. It is possible that they are somewhat related, completely related, or not related at all (you might just happen to be ace, and happen to be traumatised). Again, all of those options are equally valid.
A lot of people’s sexualities are shaped by traumatic things that happen to them. It seems that one major survival strategy in response to trauma is to process things sexually. For some that might mean developing kinks in response to trauma, or using sex as a way to self-soothe, for others it might mean retreating from sexual experience either in some contexts or completely. So a person who is sexually bullied at school might become averse to sex, or identify as asexual, they might develop very gently erotic relationships which feel very different to the bullying, they might eroticise being sexually dominated in a more safe BDSM context, or they might eroticise becoming the dominant – or even bullying – person. All of these responses – and no response – are valid and legit, so long as only acted upon consensually.
Signs of trauma
Here are some signs that trauma might be involved in your a/sexuality. Do you see/hear/experience something sexual and find that you get dissociated (not present, out of your body, unable to remember things)? Do you get reactive – feeling heightened emotions like fear or anger and going into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses? Do you have trauma body responses like twitches or shakes? Do you have flashbacks or intrusive memories? Do you end up feeling very overwhelmed? Do you find yourself shutting down or melting down?
If these things happen then it might be useful to get professional help from a trauma-informed therapist using somatic experiencing, EMDR, or other techniques, as well as learning more about trauma and how it works. Trauma-informed sexological body workers may also be particularly helpful in this area.
You don’t have to fix anything
However being traumatised in a certain area of live does not mean that you have to ‘fix’ the trauma and go towards that thing (e.g. trying to have a certain kind of sex or relationships if you become triggered by them). It’s also perfectly legitimate just to decide that that thing isn’t for you. It’s also fine to be in a place of not being ready to address that trauma yet. A vital part of trauma therapy is building a sense of safety and learning when it is good to go towards the trauma – or the feelings accompanying it – and when better to move away from it.
So TLDR: it’s fine to be ace, it’s fine to be traumatised, it’s fine for those things to be linked or not, and it’s useful for all of us to explore our sexuality, and trauma, and how those things may or may not be linked.
What isn’t okay is shame around asexuality and shame around sexual trauma. What also isn’t okay is any form of conversion therapy which tries to make people sexual. If you do seek out a therapist please make sure that no part of their agenda is the assumption that it’d be better if you were sexual: that’s acephobia right there and no major therapeutic body supports it. Remember, it can’t be consensual if it’s not okay not to have sex.
© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2020