Asexual Awareness Week

Happy Ace Awareness Week! It’s four weeks into our ten-week quarter, and between my Machine learning class, working on the last edits for my paper, my job, and my board position, I have been making time to attend a weekly virtual space hosted by the LGBTQ center at my university: the Ace/Aro space. Today, in honor of Ace week, we had an Ace Awareness Social, which was incredibly empowering and affirming. I’m still processing my gratitude for this space, and I thought I would take some time to reflect on it a little.

This is a part of my identity that I haven’t discussed with most of my friends in-depth, but since it is global Ace Week, and this quarter is the first time in my life that I have actively sought out Ace-centered social spaces in my university, I thought I would dive in and try to unpack some of my experience. Keep in mind that this post is only one person’s experience, and I still have a lot to learn about myself and others who identify on the spectrum with different experiences. If you want to learn more, there are a myriad of more comprehensive resources. With that, I will get started on discussing the basic theory and my experiences.

From what I understand, the basic pillar behind Asexual Spectrum theory is the split attraction model. The main idea behind this is that romantic and sexual attraction are separate from one another. The Ace community exists on a spectrum; there are some asexual people who are romantic, who date and have romantic feelings and deep emotional connections and commitment with little or no sexual desire. There are also people who are aromantic, who have platonic relationships, no relationships, or purely sexual relationships. And there are people who lie somewhere in the middle, people who experience sexual and/or romantic attraction very rarely, and people who are demisexual or demiromatic, forming sexual or romantic attraction, respectively, only after forming a close emotional bond.

Typically, in mainstream culture, we tend to view romance and sex as closely intertwined, or at the very least, romance always seems to have some sort of sexual undertones. For me, these things have always been separate, and low sexual attraction has always been a point of isolation for me even in the queer community. With the hypersexual and sex-positive, colorful environment, even though I love it and cherish and respect it, I often feel there is something missing for me. It has been extremely affirming for me to find spaces this quarter to discuss these things and hear like-minded experiences.

Growing up, as many young women are, I was taught that if a boy or a man asked for my number or asked me on a date, to say “I’m flattered, but no, thank you.” I memorized these lines and recited them, without giving thought to what I wanted. I felt confused when girls my age started showing interest in boys, and during sleepovers, I would dread the inevitable question: “who do you like?” When boys showed interest in me, it flew completely over my head, and I only became aware of it when my friends pointed it out to me. I tell people that my first love was Chemistry, because once I discovered my passion for science, I didn’t have eyes for anything else. In my senior year of high school, the running joke amongst me and my friends was that I was asexual, because I was the only one in the group who had absolutely no interest in dating.

In college, things became a little more complicated. In my first year, for the first time, lived in a dorm with fifteen other girls. I was in a triple with two other girls, and the three of us were close with one of our floormates and adopted her as our “honorary roommate”. The four of us did almost everything together, from late-night study parties and microwave cooking to exploring gelato shops, restaurants, and beaches in San Diego. After almost a year of being friends, I started to develop a stronger emotional attachment to one of my roommates. At the time, I wasn’t aware that it was romantic, because I didn’t feel any sexual attraction towards her. She was a close friend, and we had edited each other’s essays for our college humanities courses and confided in each other about our vulnerabilities. She was the only person I had trusted with my high school trauma, and she seemed to be the only one who could understand the depth of my emotional experience. It was confusing because it didn’t feel to me like more than a friendship, except for the fact that things were suddenly awkward. I started to become shy around her. When we were hanging out in a group, I became self-conscious. I noticed her from the corner of my eye, and I talked to everyone else in the group but her. “Why are you being weird around me randomly?” she’d asked playfully. At some point, we talked about it. I didn’t understand my feelings at the time, but I explained that I felt more emotionally attached to her than my other friends. She told me that she would always be my friend, but that she preferred to set boundaries in friendships. It was confusing and painful at the time, but eventually, our relationship repaired itself and I grew from it.

I was still not willing to admit that my feelings were romantic, but a few months later, I questioned my sexuality. I downloaded dating apps and tried talking to women. I matched with a lesbian woman who was around my age, who was beautiful by all conventional standards, and who had similar interests and hobbies, including pets. On paper, it seemed perfect. We made plans to meet up with our dogs at a nearby dog park. I enjoyed talking to her and I enjoyed her company, but I didn’t feel any spark. We became friends and kept in touch, but it never became anything more than that. I concluded that it was just a phase, and I didn’t actually like women that way.

A couple of years later, I tried dating men, and was met with the same disappointing results. I liked them as people and understood they were attractive by society’s standards, but I didn’t feel any sparks. I remember telling my friend that I was confused because the guy I was seeing kept texting me between dates. I was going to see him in less than a week. Why was he so clingy? My friend burst out laughing and told me that was normal for guys you’re dating.

Although I’d had admiration crushes on my female teachers in the past, a lot of it had more to do with wanting to be like them and seeking their approval. The summer before my last year of college was the first time I had a crush on another woman, which made me realize that I definitely liked women. Suddenly, I became a clingy texter, much like the guy I had been seeing. I wanted to talk to her all the time, but I convinced myself that it was just because I admired her and really wanted to be her friend. There was so much shame and unpacking my own trauma that came with that experience that I denied it for several months. But finally, during the spring break before my last quarter of college, I watched the movie “Love, Simon,” a coming of age story about a teenage boy and his process of coming out to his friends and family. I was inspired by this movie, and I joined a support group in the LGBT center in my university, which helped me process my attraction to women.

About a month before graduating, I finally came out to one of my friends. She’d always teased me about men, and it never even occurred to her that I might like women, which made the experience scarier. But she was incredibly supportive, and she told me that she wanted to take me to a gay bar, which remains one of the only girl bars in California. When we reached the bar, she looked around at all the women and asked me “So, any prospects?” Although I was extremely moved by her support, the idea that one could be attracted to someone they’d never even spoken to baffled me.

When I came to grad school, I became a lot more involved in the LGBTQ+ community on campus. I made a lot of new queer girl friends, and I felt a sense of belonging from being in spaces where attraction to women felt so normal. But even in those spaces, I found myself suppressing parts of my identity in order to fit in. I realized that most people form attraction upon first glance, that they can immediately tell from looking at someone whether or not they would date them. This is something I’ve never been able to relate to. Even during the times when I’d experienced attraction to women, I never really had the thought that I wanted to date them or become physically intimate – it was more that I had affection for them and wanted to get to know them better – but on a different level than with friends. Although a lot of my attraction was based on feeling emotionally connected, I recently learned that in asexuality theory, there are, more complex forms of attraction, such as aesthetic attraction. You can be drawn to someone because of how they look, without the underlying desire to be physically intimate.

I’ve realized that part of the reason dating apps never seem to work for me is because the intimacy feels forced. In order to have genuine intimacy and a connection that doesn’t feel like a chore, I need to get to know someone on an emotional level, in a setting that doesn’t feel like there is pressure to date or escalate things physically. However, to avoid complicating my friendships by developing feelings, I have started keeping more emotional boundaries with all of my friends. Sometimes, I wonder if I will always be lonely. But today, something a woman in the Ace Awareness Social said really resonated with me, about demiromanticism, and wondering if romantic feelings arose simply because society puts pressure on us to “find someone.”

I’ve thought about that often, whether I really want to “find love” or I just romanticize the idea of falling in love because I’ve never experienced that deep, powerful feeling that they show in the movies, where you love someone with all their heart and they love you back in exactly the same way and you lean on each other and support each other through all your endeavors. I’ve spent so much of my life taking care of myself and focusing on school that I often feel that having someone else there would make me feel stifled. But then looking around and seeing everyone else in love makes me feel pressure to find “the one.” I know that at some point, most of my friends are going to find “the one” for them, and since society tends to place romantic relationships high on a pedestal over friendships, I sometimes fear that I’m going to be left behind.

When I first started grad school, I considered attending the weekly Ace Space, but it was at 11 am on Friday, and I always had a class or some meeting or the other during that time. This is the first quarter where I don’t have a full course load, and the online setting makes my schedule even more flexible. I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to find the time to squeeze it in. Attending the weekly space and this Ace Awareness Social has been extremely powerful, because I’ve realized that there are other students in my university who share my experiences, whose lives aren’t centered around physical intimacy and they’re okay with it. I’ve started to grow fond of this space where students get into passionate discussions about tea and animals and aesthetics and ice-cream flavors, as well as deeper discussions about self-discovery and finding our place in the world. With the pandemic, the election, uncertainty about the future, and navigating this perpetual feeling of being an outsider in society, it’s easy to feel lost. But during this month, the Ace community has been an anchor that has been keeping my hope and motivation alive, and for that, I am extremely thankful.

October 2020: 3rd Year PhD Begins

This was the first full week of the new quarter and the 2020-2021 academic year, the beginning of my third year as a PhD student. I have about an hour right now before my virtual therapy appointment, which is not enough time to get research work done, but probably just enough time to reflect a little on the start of this new year. With the global pandemic, remote learning, and the upcoming election that could have enormous implications for my rights as a woman and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, this is no doubt going to be a strange and difficult year. I hope that by focusing on self-care as much as possible, I can mitigate the negative impacts on my mental and physical health.

During Septemeber, I feel that I was able to pull my paper draft into pretty good shape – I feel proud of the overall piece I have, although there are still a lot of changes I still need to make. I am hoping that I will have a new draft ready for my advisor to review by the end of this weekend, but that will require me to really focus during this weekend. I have been struggling a little bit with chronic back pain issues, which have been flaring up because of stress during the pandemic. This month was especially hard, but I had a zoom appointment with a doctor who prescribed some muscle relaxing medications. As I try to mitigate some of the mental stress I have, I hope that the pain will be reduced. I think part of the stress I’ve had comes from feeling like I’m not in control of my schedule and the structure of my day. Now that my schedule for the quarter, between research meetings, classes, my part-time writing consultant position, and students org meetings has been more or less decided upon, I want to try to keep a structured schedule and act like things are normal as much as possible – for my own sanity.

About halfway through the month of September, I completed a training for my “side hustle” position at the Graduate Writing Center. It was five days of zoom lectures and activities from 9 am – 4 pm. It was pretty exhausting to be on zoom for such a long period, but I enjoyed meeting with the other consultants and getting to know them a little through our discussion-based activities. Before the training, we had about 8 hours worth of readings to complete about writing pedagogy. There was a lot of interesting material presented there, from scientific writing, which I’d never really thought about formally before, and assisting ESL students with writing English. It brought up a lot of interesting discussions during the training about wealth inequality and language barries, and how English language and grammar is often used as a way to gatekeep elite academic opportunities from low income and international students. Thus, as a writing consultant, I see it as my duty to give students directed support with their writing that they might not otherwise receive, and in a way, help with wealth distribution. I’ve been thinking a lot about how even though I worked very hard to get the NSF fellowship, there were so many elements of luck involved, including being born in this country in a family of academics, going to a high school that emphasized writing skills, having access to research opportunities in undergrad, and having my advisor be willing to read over my research proposal and give me directed feedback. I know that not all students at my university are lucky enough to have those privileges, even though they are just as qualified in terms of skills and abilities. Thus, I see this position as an opportunity to pass on what I’ve learned and hopefully help other students win the fellowship. Students who have not had the privileges that I have had earlier in their careers will gain access to more opportunities and career advancement through this fellowship, and the least I can do with the privileges I do have is pay it forward and increase access.

After the training, we were assigned our shifts for the quarter. Mine are 9 am – 11 am on Thursday and Friday, and I just finished the four sessions for the week. I had a lot of anxiety about waking up on time and time management during the sessions (they are only 50 minutes each!), but I was surprised at how smoothly they went. I feel I got a range of experiences even just in the first week, from fellowship personal statements to journal and conference papers. While research often feels never-ending, discouraging, and insurmountable, it was uplifting and rewarding to feel like I had helped these students in such a short amount of time. I am looking forward to continuing these sessions throughout this quarter.

At the beginning of the month, I volunteered to be the representative for my org, QTSTEM (Queer & Trans in STEM) for the LGBTQ Center event for incoming students, called Queerantine Connections. I spent a lot of time on this project, hand-drawing infographics for an Instagram post, updating information for our org on the university website, participating in a zoom panel, and hosting a zoom “table” where incoming students could come learn about our organization and find information on how to sign up. It was very draining but worth it, and I feel I did my best to contribute to the community. I also think it is a good practice for my social anxiety to challenge myself to speak in these kinds of events. This year, I will be serving on the board of QTSTEM as Treasurer, and I will be attending the weekly meetings as well as board meetings.

I started off the quarter taking two classes, even though I only have one more class to complete for the department requirements. I decided I want to drop the other course and focus on the one course, the Machine Learning for Bioinformatics course. There is a final project for the course, and I have an idea I’ve been sitting on about applying machine learning to my research. Thus, I am hoping to hit both with this course and project and maybe try to get a second paper out of it? It seems ambitious, and I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, but I will keep it in mind as a possibility.

My department pub nights have started up again, and while I haven’t kept in touch with many of my department mates over the summer, it was nice to be able to chat with them for a little. One thing that was validating was that there was one student, a man in my department, who had bothered me with some of his comments last year, which seemed somewhat demeaning. But then when he learned (through other sources) about things I had accomplished, he suddenly had more respect for me. When we were discussing a male professor in my department who had been biased towards me, this student said, “Well, because you don’t really talk that much about your accomplishments, people might get the assumption that you’re not as competent. But clearly, that’s not true.” I am past the point where I need approval from men in order to feel competent, but it did make me feel validated to hear him say that (although ideally, women and minority students should be treated with basic level of respect without needing to earn it or assert their value – I’m hoping our achievements will challenge the implicit biases a lot of people have and make it easier for people in the future). Then, I had long discussions with my department mates, including some of the senior students in my lab, about the messed up nature of elitism in academia and the publishing industry. I’ve been feeling a lot of publishing stress given my current paper draft I’m working on, so it was helpful to hear the perspectives of students who had more experience with it.

I haven’t been able to keep up as much with working out and healthy eating, but I think I might have to be kind and lenient with myself until I have this paper business sorted out. Overall, I hope that once I have more structure in my schedule and less pressure once the paper is submitted, I will be able to reintroduce those things in my life with more regularity.

That’s it for this post. Until next time!