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Try a little tenderness

I first allowed myself to consider the fact that I was asexual in the winter of 2020, with the assistance of a friend. They asked about my sexuality — I told them I identified as queer, but I hadn’t fully defined what queer was for me. We then proceeded to discard one sexuality after another until we landed on asexuality. The following definition of asexuality, which I resonate with most, was published in “The Asexual Manifesto” by Lisa Orlando in 1972

“‘Asexual’ as we use it, does not mean ‘without sex’ but ‘relating sexually to no one.’ This does not of course exclude masturbation, but implies that if one has sexual feelings, they do not require another person for their expression. Asexuality is, simply, self-contained sexuality,” Orlando stated.

However, the asexuality element of my queerness bothered me, as its most recognized definition is simply being “without sex” or unable to feel arousal.  After years of jokes and off-handed comments from friends, family and strangers that I “didn’t feel anything,” I had amassed insecurities over my ability to be expressive as a person and affectionate in my relationships. I felt that this newly discovered aspect of my sexuality affirmed my inability to connect with others on a broad spectrum. Especially given that I had developed a notable aversion to physical intimacy growing up. 

Physical intimacy — touch — had never been an asset in my life. I struggled to conceive it as a connector between myself and others. I found it to be an invasion of my senses, an obligatory form of greeting among familiars — a form of counsel. I would befriend people who felt the same and often had adverse responses to physical intimacy. The only downside to this was that when I was finally ready to open myself up to physical intimacy, there was no one there to embrace. 

While I couldn’t change my sexuality, I could change the way I interacted with people. In fall 2021, I embarked on a journey of cultivating intimacy in new and existing relationships. During this journey, I faced challenges with setting physical boundaries in my new relationships. For my existing relationships, I simply had to ask who was comfortable incorporating physical touch into our communication style. For example, I would offer or ask for hugs, and my friends would politely decline. They showed me what it was like to set physical boundaries.  In my new relationships, I gravitated toward people who embraced me as a greeting. At the same time, I worked on managing the anxiety that came with engaging in physical touch. I was making progress. Physical intimacy began to feel less scary.

Yet, I struggled to manage the extent to which I allowed others into my physical space. This usually meant that I wasn’t imitating physical contact, just accepting it.  In one instance, cuddles turned into fondling, which turned into kisses, which turned into ‘I’m not used to physical touch, ’ ‘can you slow down?’  ‘This is an overwhelming amount of physical interaction for me.’ For this relationship, I would eventually dismiss my limited physical needs and redirect my energy towards regulating my nervous system every time it was disrupted — all while remaining in a position that met my new companion’s needs. 

Instead of progressing into action, my language transformed back into silence. I would exert my physical and sexual boundaries until doing so exhausted me. I would fail to remove myself from traumatic sexual situations with the thought that “I couldn’t feel anything anyway,” which made doing so unnecessary. As the autonomy I held over my body was denounced by others, my agency dwindled. My mind and body returned to the feeling that physical engagement was obligatory, with the newly developed thought that sex was compulsory. Compulsory sexuality “is a belief system that eschews consent and preaches instant gratification for people who want sex, but cares not for the safety, comfort, health, or autonomy, of people who do not. It doesn’t just ask us to comply. It makes way for others to demand, manipulate, coerce, and force us into situations in which we are expected to disregard our own well-being for the sake of ‘normality,’” according to Sherronda J. Brown in her book “Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture.”

I had initially opened myself up to physical intimacy for the sake of normality. However, I learned that my opposition came from never having developed the voice to assert my physical boundaries, regardless of the person or physical space in concern. I had already lacked the agency needed to protect my space — my peace — before I set out on a conquest to feel something. To embrace feeling with others. On this journey, I experienced a gradual expansion of physical intimacy in pre-existing relationships. I underwent sexual trauma. I began to practice setting physical boundaries and felt what it was like to have these boundaries challenged. In the future, I hope to remain open to physical intimacy with others and to further explore my self-contained physical intimacy. As it turns out, I was the first person I needed to embrace.

You can contact Kylie Henry at khenry01@saintmarys.edu.

The views expressed in this inside column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.