Asexual, atypical: living outside the norms of sex and relationships

Haleigh McGill

“Sex is just ingrained, it’s in everything,” said Katie Cleary, a 21-year-old microbiology student at Colorado State University, in regards to why asexuality can be hard for many people to accept and understand.

In a society such as ours, where in addition to other factors, the current figureheads of the entertainment industry — which has a heavy impact on our nature and flow — rely so heavily on sex appeal, asexuality is absurd and abnormal to a lot of people. After all, the very definition of an asexual goes against something so normalized as sex, and reads “a person without sexual feelings or desires.”

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Katie Cleary and friend Sara Chaudhary outside of Moby Arena. (Photo courtesy of Katie Cleary)
Katie Cleary and friend Sara Chaudhary outside of Moby Arena. (Photo courtesy of Katie Cleary.)

Katie didn’t always recognize that she was asexual, though, and the first time she came across the information, she needed to make that connection. She cast it aside and wasn’t completely open to learning more.

Tumblr was the reason I knew that [asexuality] existed,” Katie explained. “I was 19. It was Asexual Awareness Week.”

Around the same time, Katie experienced what she referred to as a “breakdown” that was triggered by the stress from her classes. She was in the Morgan Library on the CSU campus, and began to lose sight of herself as the thought of a major project gone wrong led her to think that there was nothing good left about her if she messed that up. Katie was under the impression that the only thing worthwhile about herself was her academic success.

“That was the only thing I could think of that was good about me, and so when I was starting to lose that, that was when I just crashed,” she said.

This particular night of tears and seemingly insurmountable stress confirmed for her that she had been depressed for quite some time — since she was 13 years old. After speaking with her mother about this and receiving medication from a doctor, she began to feel better and more open to the idea of asexuality upon seeing it again on Tumblr following the breakdown.

“I decided, as soon as I saw the word again, that I deserve to explore this,” Katie said. “I didn’t think that I deserved to explore it before.”

Katie explained that as an asexual, it is possible to be attracted to someone romantically but not sexually. While she was growing up, though, she didn’t understand asexuality, and it was difficult in elementary and middle school when her friends were developing crushes and she just wasn’t.

“I’d say ‘I don’t have one,’ and they’d be like ‘you’re lying,’ so then I figured you just have to pick somebody,” she said. “I did that for the longest time and thought that was how it worked.”

In high school, Katie described herself as “super shy,” and therefore she clung to her passion for theatre and spent her time involved with that. When it came to dances, she just wouldn’t go, but she was thankful that the friends she hung out with then were also invested in theatre and weren’t preoccupied with current boyfriends or finding boyfriends.

“I was really lucky to not have had to deal with that a younger age because I don’t know if I would’ve handled it very well,” she said.

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Once Katie got to college, however, she realized that some reevaluating needed to be done, and avoiding situations that didn’t quite align with asexuality may no longer be an option.

Prior to connecting her dots with asexuality, which occurred after she started college, her friends at CSU would describe a guy as “hot” or sexually attractive and Katie didn’t understand. She thought it was possible that she was a later bloomer than what is typical, but eventually found her sexual identity when she read others’ stories online that helped her to make sense of it all, especially when she learned more about the romantic orientations versus the sexual.

“I realized that, yeah, this is me,” she said. “There’s even more than just sexual and romantic attractions … another is aesthetic attraction. That’s more what I would experience … there is nothing else on top of that attraction.”

Navigating the party culture and the bar scene that come with the college experience isn’t always easy for Katie. When she goes out, guys will try to buy her drinks and she tries to evade it.

“I try to avoid it and look like I’m not interested,” she said. “But it’s new to me and I don’t handle it all that well.”

A couple of weeks ago, at a bar in old town, a guy kept trying to buy Katie a drink and she finally agreed to make the situation less uncomfortable. They were talking, and he made it clear he wanted a more physical connection, and she simply “just didn’t.”

Her two best friends, Kate and Alysse, know Katie is asexual, and if a guy tries to hit on her and she isn’t dealing well, they will try to help explain the situation. According to Katie, they explain that it has nothing to do with the individual, just that she doesn’t like boys and she doesn’t like girls. Most of the guys, Katie says, just say “okay” and that’s that. But sometimes, it’s not so easy.

“This guy was like ‘that’s so stupid — that’s not real,'” she recalled. “It’s happened a few times in college, and that’s the worst.”

It doesn’t bother Katie that her friends explain it for her sometimes, because she still gets shy and doesn’t want confrontation. It doesn’t help that sex education classes teach students that at some point, they are going to start to feel sexual urges and desires, but don’t tend to mention that sometimes people just don’t. Omitting this information can cause those people to feel as if something is wrong with them.

“It makes me happy when people try to educate others about it, because part of the problem with growing up and having to make up crushes and starting to wonder, ‘Am I the only who feels this way?’ is you start to feel – a lot of people use the word ‘broken’ – like there’s something wrong because I’m not developing these feelings.”

Katie is not sexually attracted to men or women. However, finding a life partner is still possible for an asexual, and desirable for her. She hopes to find someone she can fall in love with romantically, marry and start a life with.

“I haven’t quite figured out if I’m romantically attracted to anybody,” she said. “I think a life partner would be what I want.”

She has worries about the future in terms of finding a partner, especially in an environment where so many people her age are starting to get engaged and figure out their relationships. In advice blogs that Katie follows online that focus on an asexual lifestyle, it is suggested that those who identify as asexual try not to worry because there are compatible people out there, and just because an asexual is unlike the majority doesn’t mean that there isn’t someone for them.

“I try to keep that in mind, but it is really hard,” she said. “As far as a relationship goes … I’m working on getting optimistic about it. But I’m not all that optimistic.”

When it comes to finding a partner, many of those who identify as asexual will reach compromises different from those in typical relationships, where they can make the other person happy without feeling uncomfortable themselves. Others prefer to find a partner who doesn’t have an interest in sex. Some are sex-repulsed, whereas others are fine with sex itself but have no sexual attraction to a person. Katie relates more to the latter, and explained that the physical aspect of sex is separate from the psychological.

“I’d probably be more willing to have some sort of compromise,” she said. “Sex can definitely feel good for anyone who is asexual — you can still enjoy it.”

Katie’s family still does not know that she is asexual, and even her mother, the person that Katie believes would understand the most, is unaware.

“I feel like my family is so perfect and I don’t want to make something wrong with it,” she said. “I know (my mom) would accept me but it’s still so hard to make the words come out of my mouth.”

In addition, only a select group of her friends are familiar with her asexuality. Katie confided in the charter member class of Kappa Alpha Theta via a shared blog post with the group during the 2014-2015 school year, and received a very positive reaction overall.

As far as Katie’s character goes, people tend to see her in a positive and endearing light. Another close friend to Katie, Megan Burnett, a junior studying microbiology, wasn’t swayed by the information that was shared about Katie identifying as an asexual and holds her in high regard. Lauren Buckley, a junior health and exercise science major, is one of Katie’s closer friends at CSU and a fellow charter member of Theta.

Katie Cleary, top left, and friends on Halloween. (Photo courtesy of Katie Cleary)
Katie Cleary, top left, and friends on Halloween. (Photo courtesy of Katie Cleary.)

“She is probably the most genuine person I’ve ever met,” Lauren said. “When I found out she was asexual, I was actually pretty intrigued … I also had so much respect for her telling us all and putting her heart out there on the line.” 

With her friends on her side and a newfound strength in owning her truth by adopting the label of asexual, the hardest part for Katie is knowing that there are other people who don’t know they are asexual, and are still wondering if there is something wrong with them and might be crying themselves to sleep as she did herself a few times.

Seth Noel, a student intern at CSU’s GLBTQQA resource center, revealed that the resource center will soon be changing their name to cater to groups such as those who identify as asexual who have narrow representation.

“Our limited acronym doesn’t necessarily include everyone,” he said. “I definitely think that awareness levels of the folks on the asexual or aromantic spectrum could be heightened on this campus.”

“That’s why I want it to be more visible — so it’s not just ‘you’re either gay, straight or bi, and if you don’t like boys or girls, then what are you?'” Katie explained. “I felt so much relief after years of wanting to change, and thinking there was something wrong and I should figure it out or at least pretend that I’m the same as everyone else.”

Sometimes people will say that they wish they were asexual like Katie, because it would be easier than dealing with their relationship problems. However, she urges people to understand that it is not an excuse to get out of hooking up and it is not something that should be devalued, because for some, it’s a very real struggle.

“When people say stuff like that, it erases all my problems … it’s really invalidating,” she said.

In terms of self-confidence and moving forward, Katie is embracing her identity overall, though sometimes believes that it would be easier if she were different. Despite her struggles and occasional insecurities about being asexual, she maintains a promising outlook and openly discusses the progress that has yet to be made with the normalization of this trait, and, most importantly, knows now that there is nothing wrong with herself.

“For the most part, I’d say I’m happy with who I am,” she said. “I’m not broken. There are more of us than you think.”

Collegian Opinion Editor Haleigh McGill can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @HaleighMcGill.