The Asexual-Bisexual Mirror

Ace and Bi people are marginalized in many of the same ways.

A person staring at their reflection in a puddle. The puddle is tinted purple, the color shared by the Asexual and Bisexual pride flags. Image by Marc Olivier Jodoin, courtesy of Unsplash. Edited by author.

TW: Sexual assault, sexual coercion

From 2004 to about 2008, I identified as asexual. I was out to friends and people I dated, and in many cases I was the first asexual person they had ever met. I experienced a lot of erasure, hostility, and ignorance when I wore that identity, yet most of it was un-nameable and therefore impossible to do much about. Since I didn’t know any other ace people, I didn’t realize how common my experiences were, and could not see them as part of a larger tapestry of aphobia.

Sometime around 2010, my identity changed. I experienced physical, sexual attraction to people of a variety of genders. I started wearing the label “bisexual”. In the years that followed, I experienced so much erasure, hostility, and ignorance that I frequently chose to take that label off. I only began to recognize my experiences as biphobia a few years ago, when I befriended other bisexual people and learned about their very similar experiences of being marginalized, doubted, and ignored.

When I take a step back, and look at my accumulated experiences of being marginalized, I can see that aphobia and biphobia are mirror images of one another. The biases I faced as an asexual person, and then a bisexual person, were uncannily similar, even though one group is stereotyped as being frigid and sexless, and the other is seen as wantonly slutty and undeserving of trust.

Asexual people and bisexual people are both binary-breakers. Their identities flout heteronormative expectations, and they often approach their relationships in ways that break existing social scripts. Understanding and respecting asexual and bisexual people requires that you be thoughtful, and that you question your existing assumptions about how desire and relationships are supposed to work. When people express intolerance towards ace or bi people, something in that process has broken down.

And if a person doesn’t want to put forth effort into understanding, they end up viewing both ace and bi people as inauthentic attention-seekers who really are just straight.

Aphobia and biphobia are parallel prejudices, rooted in the exact same heteronormativity and hatred of ambiguity. And as someone who’s identified as both asexual and bisexual, I’m uniquely positioned to illustrate just how similar these identities are. Here are some forms of marginalization I’ve encountered as both an asexual and a bisexual person:

Erasure

When I was asexual-identified, people called me “straight” all the time, and implied I was involved in queer activism only as an “ally”. Even people who knew about my identity called me straight all the time, and presumed I didn’t know what it felt like to be pressured to fix a heteronormative box.

Straight partners devalued my identity and pretended it didn’t exist. Straight friends and peers thought I was just an attention-seeking weirdo, and assured me that one day I would change my mind about my identity. They presumed I just needed to find the right man. There was lots of talk about how I felt asexual “right now”, but that “someday” I’d want something else.

It wasn’t just straight people who erased my identity in this way. Gay, bisexual, and queer-identified people would say flavors of the same thing. They’d talk about my identity being temporary, or mention that sexuality is fluid. They’d refer to me as “straight”, or imply that I was gay but hadn’t come to accept it yet. I’ve written about the experience of horizontal aggression before, and how it can feel like far more of a betrayal than when straight people express ignorance.

All of these things also happened to me once I came out as bisexual. Partners didn’t see my attraction to multiple genders as legitimate; friends and peers viewed me as straight, called me straight, and assumed I had never been oppressed for my orientation. I felt uncomfortable navigating queer spaces, never certain that I would be seen as welcome and valid. I had to vocally fight against the constant default assumption that my desires and my life fit a heteronormative mold.

Worst of all, both identities were spoken about — by straight and queer people — as if everyone knew they didn’t really, legitimately exist.

Demanding “Proof” of Identity

When people learned that I was asexual, they would ask me to “prove” it in all kinds of ignorant ways. One friend spent multiple drunken hours asking me to recount every piece of pornography I had ever viewed, and whether any of them had aroused any sexual feelings in me. Others asked me how I could know that I was asexual, if I hadn’t given sex with other people a shot. Guys who were interested in me asked if there was something wrong with me.

All of these experiences felt deeply violating and invasive. People refused to trust my own mind and body. They believed they knew me better than I knew myself, and they wanted to show me that I was wrong.

When I came out as bisexual, people doubted me, too. A friend interrogated me about all my past sexual experiences, keeping count of the number of men and women I’d been involved with. When it became clear I’d been with more men than women, he rolled his eyes and asked me if I was really bi. Then he started asking specific, persistent questions about what types of women I found attractive. Those answers didn’t satisfy him for some reason, so he declared I was making them up.

Two different boyfriends told me that if I was really bisexual, I’d want to have a threesome with them and a woman. When I seemed uncomfortable at the prospect, they pressured me and implied my identity was on the line.

A person in the dark, turning their face away from the camera and covering their shoulder in a protective way. Photo by Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash

Sexual Coercion

When I was asexual, people often implied I had some kind problem that needed fixing. People would speculate about there being some underlying medical or trauma-based issue that I needed to address, so I could become sexually available. Others posited that I had not emotionally and sexually matured enough to be ready for a relationship.

Everyone from close friends to adult mentors and teachers told me things like that. It all made me feel a constant, low-intensity dread. The world was telling me that my body needed to be a sexual outlet for other people. And it seemed inevitable that eventually I’d be used in that way, whether I liked it or not.

In college, my boyfriend put tons of pressure on me to go to a doctor and a psychiatrist, to try and “fix” my lack of physical attraction to him. He saw my asexuality as a threat, and an emergency. During the three years that we were together, the pressure continued to mount, until eventually I spent every single night warding off his advances, coercion, and pressure. I felt completely unsafe in my own home. I couldn’t spend any time alone with him without being touched, cajoled, harassed, whispered at, and begged for sex. Often I would give in to his demands, just to make the pressure stop.

As a bisexual, terrifyingly similar things happened. A friend invited me over to his house and tried to convince me to spend the night; it quickly became clear he and his girlfriend expected me to have sex with them. I had to slip away from colleagues and rebuff internet friends who felt similarly entitled.

In graduate school, a man I was dating took photos of me and put them on Craigslist without my consent. He advertised us as a couple seeking a female partner for a threesome. The photos ended up on pic-collector sites and Ok Cupid as well. He’d email me the replies of interested parties, asking me to evaluate attractiveness of the women, pressuring me to assent to sex with them. In bars and at parties, he’d push me toward women, often unrelentingly, until I’d break down crying and have to run home.

Mistrust

Asexual people are often presumed to be liars. When I was asexual, people would sometimes imply I was a straight person attempting to insert myself into queer spaces for attention or resources. People would write online about asexuals being attention-seekers who had taken on a meaningless identity in order to feel “special”. Unfortunately, this problem has only gotten worse in recent years.

Within relationships, asexual people are often seen as deceitful. Many writers, including sex advice columnist Dan Savage, have suggested that asexuals should refrain from dating non-asexual people, because they are destined to leave those partners feeling disappointed and deceived. If an asexual person doesn’t immediately share their ace identity with someone they are dating, they are accused of being misleading.

Bisexuals end up on the receiving end of similar mistrust. People often think that bi-identified folks are using the identity in order to seem unique and interesting, or to invade LGBTQ spaces. The trope of the “girl who says she’s bisexual in order to titillate men” plagues our culture. Some queer people still believe that bisexuals don’t experience oppression except when they are dating same-sex partners.

Within relationships, bisexuals are stereotyped as promiscuous, impossible to satisfy, and destined to cheat. Straight people often berate their bisexual partners for having non-straight desires, and will slut-shame them and attempt to police their feelings. Some gay and lesbian people view their bisexual partners with suspicion or slut-shaming.

Within both communities, talk of refusing to date bisexual people will sometimes come up. Straight women are particularly unwilling to date bisexual men, for example. And while the vast majority of the LGBTQ community now affirms bisexual people, there are still some gay men and lesbians who see bisexual identity as a deal-breaker in a partner.

The Asexual Pride flag, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I wish people would believe me when I say I experienced marginalization as an asexual person. People often find it hard to understand. They assume that a life without sexual attraction is a “neutral”, unsullied life, somehow, as if we are not all pressured to be heterosexual and interested in sex and relationships. Many have a hard time envisioning the onslaught of harassment, sexual coercion, and shame that I faced.

When I started IDing as bisexual, I didn’t stop facing those things. The public doubt, the pressure to be sexually available, the suspicion that my identity was not real, the sense that I was a special snowflake faker — it all remained. And while the world has come a long way, in terms of bisexual acceptance and representation, few seem to notice that the vitriol lobbed at one group strongly resembles the hatred lobbed at the other.

Asexual and bisexual people are natural allies to one another. Their feelings and experiences run parallel much of the time. My hope is that more bisexual-identified people get to realizing this, and speaking about it, because bisexuality has started to be repaired in the public’s eyes. It’s time that both groups receive full-throated acceptance as legitimate, oppressed queer identities.

Aphobia and biphobia may not completely resemble the equally reprehensible prejudices of homophobia and lesbophobia. And it needs to be acknowledged that asexual and bisexual people are capable of homophobia themselves. But they are queer people, and they suffer under heteronormativity just as all queer people do.

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