I wrote this short story for Ace Day 2015 and published it on my personal Tumblr. It’s about representation and labels, finding and accepting your own identity.
Content warnings: aphobia, uninformed comments
The Girl Who Didn’t Exist
– a story about representation and labels
Once upon a time there was a girl who didn’t exist. She was visible to everyone and her name was on all kinds of official lists, but her actual presence was impossible.
First of all, some people doubted that she could be a girl. Because a real girl would wear make-up and wouldn’t be interested in action movies or TV programmes about cars. However, after some consideration, that particular part of her existence was usually accepted.
But if she was a girl, people argued, then of course she must be looking for a nice boy. After all, you can’t grow old on your own! Every Disney film she had seen as a child confirmed it. There was only one option. Her goal in life could only be to marry a prince and continue her bloodline. She was rebuked for finding that a rather primitive thought, as by doing so she insulted more or less everyone. How arrogant she was, to think she was above something that so many arranged their whole lives around!
Maybe she didn’t want to get attached to some boy just yet, the adults conceded, but she’d grow into it. Or did she perhaps fall for girls, instead? Anything’s possible these days! No one listened to her when she said that homosexuality went back to prehistoric times, because her words did not exist to them.
She’d never felt attracted to girls either. In fact she didn’t quite understand how any of that whole attraction thing worked. That was when the strange looks started. These people had shown themselves to be so open-minded; they’d acknowledged that not everyone chose someone of “the other” gender, and now she was asking even more of them? Instead of speaking those honest words—perhaps because they felt that she would then proceed to explain that gender is not a binary concept, and what were they supposed to do with that?—they opted for raised eyebrows and a whole range of comments: there was no need for her to be so shy, those feelings were quite normal and everyone had them, so why didn’t she just admit them? Those few who did believe her, repeated that she’d change as she grew older, and that they too had been late bloomers.
She learned not to give honest answers, because their reactions made her uncertain of herself. Even so, lying made her uncomfortable. And some people kept questioning her anyway. Why? Why was it so important to them that she say something they could relate to? Hadn’t they heard enough stories about other girls who did do the proper thing and fell in love with boys?
When she finally told them the truth, they were always disappointed, and made her believe she must be the only one who did not feel things that way. What could be more important than relationships and sex? Could she even interact with other people? Maybe it was time she made an appointment with a therapist…
It was impossible for them to believe that the girl felt perfectly happy. That her only reasons for confusion were those conversations, which sometimes made her doubt if perhaps there was something wrong with her. But she didn’t feel ill in any way, so how could she explain to her parents that she wanted to see a doctor?
If all those people were right, she’d notice soon enough. She couldn’t imagine she’d ever make the same remarks as her friends when they were talking about their crushes, but at least she had learned when to laugh and nod. The media and everyone around her knew what the word “sexy” meant, so why would she bother them with the fact that it was a highly theoretical term to her? They’d only think she was dumb.
Finally she was able to leave high school and discover new horizons, or rather a school with more students. It all sounded more adventurous than it really was. On the first day, a pretty girl sat down next to her. Aesthetically pleasing, in an unusual way, but she could appreciate a personal style.
Her fellow student introduced herself as Dana, and the third sentence she said contained an implication that she was a lesbian. The non-existent girl didn’t react, as she still didn’t know how people found out those kinds of things about themselves.
The rest of the day, Dana dragged her along to meet new friends. Dana was a spontaneous, extroverted whirlwind, who almost made the girl forget her caution. As long as people didn’t start their endless questions, they’d assume she had the right to exist. They’d never know how much her impossibility would disturb them.
But one evening Dana told her a story that lasted several drinks, about how she had kissed her crush at a party after a very confusing situation that involved three other girls. Then she asked the non-existent girl if there was someone she liked. If she had ever been in love.
At first she didn’t want to answer Dana’s questions. She’d finally made a real friend. She didn’t want Dana to think something was wrong with her. But Dana assured her it was all fine and that she didn’t mind whether she liked boys, girls, all genders or none. The girl was so surprised that someone accepted that she could exist without having to prove herself, that she told Dana the truth.
Putting her laptop on the table, Dana showed her a few websites where other people, existing people, talked about their lack of romantic or sexual attraction. There were a lot of them. After all those years of only meeting people who wouldn’t believe her, the girl learned that being asexual and aromantic was not something she had made up because she wanted to be different.
And yet, finding the labels did not feel like an epiphany. She felt more confused than ever. By now she had resigned herself to the idea that she was simply weird. How was she supposed to believe that nothing was wrong with her after all? How could she not be angry that she’d had to discover this at her age, when everyone else had figured out their identity long ago? Why had all those meddling people made her feel like this?
And even as she read more about the spectrums and about the experiences of others, her mood did not improve. It turned out that the label that applied to her caused people to ask if she was a slug; did she think she could reproduce all on her own? And surely, those same individuals wrote, you must hate people if you don’t want to be in a romantic relationship!
As if hatred and non-attraction were the same thing!
In the morning, after spending the whole night reading, she told Dana how uncomfortable it all made her. Rather than scolding her for her lack of gratitude for the answers Dana had provided, her friend told her that not identifying with a label was fine, too. If she was simply herself, that should be enough for anyone who asked. There was no obligation at all to put herself in any kind of box.
Despite her discomfort, the girl caught herself returning to the websites about asexuality to learn more, and following several blogs because she liked the style in which their posts were written. If she had to put a name on things, at least she knew the words, but she might as well just explain as she had always done. The most important thing was that she now knew that she was not alone and had every right to exist.
It happened that the girl’s group of friends, ever growing thanks to Dana’s spontaneity, was in the pub on the same night as Richard. Everyone in their year knew about Richard: a popular guy who was in one relationship after another, never longer than a couple of weeks with the same person. Some thought that he was a bit of an arrogant dick, but as they all drank and talked together he seemed nice enough. At one point all the others went to the dance floor, but the girl stayed at the table to watch their glasses and purses, and Richard volunteered to keep her company, saying that he wasn’t much of a dancer anyway.
Looking for something to talk about, the girl told him that she had heard he had broken up with his latest girlfriend and asked him what had happened.
“The same as ever,” he answered, a little sadly.
The girl, who had never been in a relationship herself, didn’t quite know what to say to that. Of course she’d heard other people’s stories, when they’d split up after one of them had cheated or simply because they had grown apart. But Richard made it sound as though there was some kind of general reason why breakups happened.
He explained how he’d fall in love time after time, enjoying the moments he spent with his partners, the closeness and companionship. Sleeping with someone in his arms. But they were never content to keep to that. Knowing his reputation, they thought that his attempts to avoid having sex meant that they weren’t good enough, that he already had his eye on the next lover, that he thought he could have better than them. It was never like that, but they wouldn’t listen. After all, who didn’t want to have sex? They all accused him of being a liar and a prick, and they left.
The girl told him what she knew about asexuality. She told him that she’d never felt any sexual or romantic attraction towards anyone. She told him about the spectrum and the different labels that fit into it.
Richard stared at her as though she had three heads, all the while hanging onto her every word. When she was done talking and had written down a few links on a napkin, his relief was so clear that she realised the importance of what she had done. This wasn’t just a question of him figuring out his orientation. This involved all those lovers he had disappointed by not living up to their expectations and who had hurt him in turn. How could he have explained to them how he felt, if in all his life he had never once heard that his romantic attraction could be valid without a wish for sexual intimacy? How could he have expressed something for which he had never learned the words?
And that was the moment when the girl started to appreciate the labels that applied to her. It didn’t matter if she didn’t like the words. She’d make a point of showing people that she existed, that she wasn’t the only one, and that it was normal. She wouldn’t let anyone else feel alone and broken if she could help it.
A bit of education, for those who are interested
On Ace Day, November 26 (which is also International Cake Day) we celebrate asexual visibility. It is estimated that 1% of the population is asexual, which means we don’t experience sexual attraction, or only under specific circumstances.
Aromantic, on the other hand, means not experiencing romantic attraction, or only under specific circumstances. This, too, is a spectrum with many variations.
But even though so many people are ace and/or aro, there is barely any representation of asexual and aromantic people in mainstream media. This is something I’m trying to help cure through my stories, because recognising yourself in fictional characters can be a great help to figure out your orientation.
Not everyone who is asexual is aromantic, and vice versa. The main character in The Girl Who Didn’t Exist happens to be both. Richard would probably identify as bi- or panromantic and asexual. People whose romantic and sexual orientation do not align often make use of the split attraction model.
Click here to find more information about the asexual spectrum.
(I have written more characters whom I would say are asexual as well, but these are the ones where it’s clearest on-page.)