Eliot is a 31-year-old graduate student working in media studies, and we talked just as she was finishing up an article on lesbian pornographic comics and the nature of female fantasy.
Jia: Hey Eliot! I'm so intrigued by this article you’re writing.
Eliot: Hi! Thanks. Yeah, it’s certainly sort of weird to spend all of your time studying people who perform and write acts that you, for the majority of your life, have had zero interest in. But I think that in academia, we always end up focusing on things that compel us in ways that we don’t fully understand. Part of the reason I so frequently use the lens of desire and sexuality in my work is simply that I grew up feeling like an alien when it came to sex.
Can you explain this feeling?
Well, just imagine you were born on a planet where everybody emerges from the womb knowing how to play baseball. Everyone loves baseball and all the movies are about baseball and everyone plays it all the time. And you're looking in at them from the fence wondering: why, why, why are these people doing this?
Do you still have that alien-like feeling? Even now that you write and think about sex so frequently in regard to your work?
Less often nowadays than I used to, but I still feel certain disconnects. For example, I was talking to one of my straight male colleagues and he said, “You know, sometimes I’m walking down the street and I see a girl and I physically can’t not watch her, can’t not think certain things. And I don’t understand how you don’t ever feel that way.”
I told him, “I don’t understand how you do!” I mean, how are you just attracted to people all the time?
Oh, that is interesting. But already I’ve jumped too far ahead. Can we talk about your life pre-adulthood?
Yes, yes, let’s get to the formative journey of how I became a nearly 32-year-old virgin. (Laughs.)
So, I’m an academic. I used to try to diagnose myself, to use various discourses to identify a problem and then a framework to solve that problem. After a lot of effort, I’ve stopped trying to do that. But, still, there are models I’ve sort of tried on in order to figure out why I am the way I am. First, I could use cultural discourse: in this story, I’m someone who grew up in a really small town in Utah, and although my family wasn’t Mormon, it was like being Jewish in Jerusalem. Religion is in the air, in the water. And that could be one reason I am the way I am.
Alternately, I could use psychological discourse: I could talk about my family, how I was an unplanned baby, how my parents were 18 when they had me and they got divorced early. I was raised mostly by my maternal grandmother, who was vocal about her intention that I was not going to make the same mistakes her daughter made.
Growing up, my grandfathers and my father were not really in my life. My mother and stepfather were active alcoholics, and he was abusive, although not to me. So the relationships I saw were either sexless, without romance — in the case of my grandparents — or violent and dysfunctional. I distinctly remember feeling, at a young age, that the only way to be a woman was to be my mom. And I couldn’t be like her, because I wasn’t beautiful; men weren’t falling in love with me at every turn. And I didn’t want to be like her, anyway. So in terms of psychology, maybe I just shut it down and turned it off. Whatever I identified as intimacy just didn’t seem safe.
What about when you saw intimacy, sex, and romance in pop culture? Did those models seem totally unreal?
Those stories just didn’t apply to me. Everyone else was doing this thing, playing this game — having crushes, going on dates, watching movies — and I loved those experiences, but only vicariously. I bought trashy romance novels and consumed everything that I could about love, but it was all separate from me. I was smart, I liked school, I liked books, and that was all I was.
You could also throw in one more discourse, the medical one. Low desire, the problem of the female orgasm. For awhile in college, I was pretty afraid that there was something seriously wrong with me chemically, medically. People always talk about desire as something that is uncontrollable, but for me, I just had none.
Were you open about this? Did you identify as asexual in college?
I played pretend in undergrad. I dated people, never seriously, but I really tried to convince myself that I was in that cute movie where it’s like, “I want you, I listen to this song and I think about you, I need to be with you all the time.” I liked the idea of being wanted, but pretty quickly, I realized that I didn’t actually like the experience of being wanted. I’d date people for two months and then break up with them because I’d wake up one morning and just not feel anything.
When I was 26, I was walking around with my best friend, and I just stopped and said, for the first time, “You know what? I’m asexual.” Then I proceeded to come out to everyone as asexual. My grandmother was like, “Okay, sure, yeah, I don’t know what that is, but okay.”
Was there anything specific that happened to make you want to identify as asexual?
I was just sick of thinking that this was a problem I had to fix. People would tell me things like “You just have to experience sex for the first time, and then your body will wake up.” I thought, hmm, probably not! Probably having one penis in my vagina will not make me want to have lots of penises in my vagina. I didn’t even masturbate with any regularity until I was 25; I had tried many times before, and it just wasn’t doing anything for me.
But in terms of asexuality as an identity, it’s a hard thing for me to get a hold on personally. It’s hard to talk about an absence or a lack, when our culture defines sexuality in terms of positive desire. If you have desire for X, then we’ll call you a certain thing; if you have desire for X and Y and Z all together, we’ll call you another thing. But it’s harder to define yourself when there’s no there there.
Do you still identify as asexual?
I’m not sure. The period between 26 and now encompasses a few years when I became a full-blown alcoholic and then got sober.
Wow. Can you talk about this more?
Well, I’d never had a drink before I was 26, just because I’d seen so much alcoholism growing up. I even did a book report in eleventh grade about the odds of a child of alcoholics becoming an alcoholic, and you know, the odds are not good. But I just also got tired of feeling like a monster of alcoholism was just waiting dormant inside of me, and I was sick of worrying about it, and a friend came to visit and I was just like, “Screw it, let’s get margaritas.”
Actually, the last time I was remotely physically intimate with anyone was in the deepest part of my alcoholism. It was traumatic for me, even though no one took advantage of me or anything. I’m one of those lucky, rare women who has never experienced assault or molestation or sexual aggression in any form. But still, it was terrible to see that I was using myself – pushing myself to participate in acts I didn’t want because I was tired of being inexperienced and just wanted to feel normal. I’d never made anybody come before, and because of all the Jack Daniels or whatever, I thought, “I’m just going to try it and see what happens. Maybe I won’t want it until afterwards.” And I did it, and it felt like shit. I felt like I’d been scrubbed inside my skin with something and it hurt. I never wanted to do something like that again. I was afraid, back then, all the time.
But when you get sober, you become willing to change everything, you open up to the possibility of letting old ideas go. And I had three years sober in November. Go me!
Thanks! And so, over the last year and half, I’ve been sort of trying to re-approach the idea of connection. In my early twenties, I was very militant about normativity. I identified as queer before I identified as asexual. I didn’t want to pair-bond, I didn’t like the idea of obligating one person to always pick me up at the airport, I was anti-consumer, leftist, radical.
And I still believe in a lot of that. But now I can see that I believed it before mostly because I didn’t want to believe there was something wrong with me, something that made me not want that typical life.
What does it feel like to move away from asexuality, or from hard-line ideals?
Well, for example — an over-share of an example! — I used to read a lot of fan fiction. Slash fiction. For me it was a way to desire as another woman (by this, I mean the writer) would imagine that a man does. So, it’s a woman’s idea via a man’s body. In my work I come across a lot of icky analyses about what's wrong with women who write slash fiction, what went wrong to make them write stuff like this. And in truth I do identify some internalized misogyny in slash fiction, but I always liked reading it because my body never entered into the issue. I could only imagine desire through others.
But in the past year, I’ve been able to fantasize about my own body and scenarios involving me. I don’t want to say that I’ve grown up and settled into the rightful, inevitable heterosexual norm. While asexual doesn’t fully work as an identity for me, straight doesn’t either. I guess I still identify as queer in a way, if just for its implications of flexibility and possibility.
Back to what your friend was saying about seeing people on the street and basically wanting to jump on them; do you ever have those experiences, and if you do, what are they like?
I do, but they’re so infrequent. In the past year there have been two people, both men, that I saw and was just like, “WOW. PRETTYYYY.” I told myself: Okay, stop looking at his arms. stop looking at his hair. Calm down.
Well, when you’re in a seminar you shouldn’t just stare at people! But I did realize that I don’t feel comfortable looking at someone as an object because I’m afraid I’ll get caught. You could write a whole thing on that, the way women are socialized.
And in both of these times I felt attraction, there was no real opportunity to act; the logistics were wrong. I guess I’m just waiting for an opportunity without any idea about what it will feel like or what it should be.
Outside of your experiences while you were drinking, what’s the closest you’ve come to having sex in your life so far?
After college, I met this guy in New York City, and we had this amazing verbal courtship over the phone, playful and teasing. We had a first date that was mind-blowing; it accidentally lasted for 26 hours. If I hadn't locked myself out of my apartment, I probably would have slept with him, but we had to sleep in his car outside, and I wasn’t about to lose my virginity like that. But then, again, after two months of seeing this guy, I woke up and just did not want to see him again, which was terrifying.
Actually, I feel weirder about not having relationship experience than being a virgin. I really don’t know how people sleep in the same bed. How people have fights. How you decide to mingle certain aspects of yourself and keep others separate.
Do you find yourself wanting those things now, even though you didn’t before? You’ve clearly resisted a lot of cultural narratives, but have you gone through periods where they’ve swayed you?
Well, I know I don’t want to have kids. I don't feel the need to buy the house and buy the car and all of that. But I’m still untangling things for myself. I spent most of my life not wanting to be a grown-up and not knowing how I’d go about that, anyway; for a long time I didn’t know how to be responsible or reliable. AA has helped a great deal with that. I don't want the great dramas and highs and lows and passions anymore.
Sometimes I think that what I want is to skip the initial two years of, "Does he like me, and is he going to call me, and what does this mean?” I just want to get to a place where my life feels balanced. But I don't know how to get there without going through the part where you’re overwhelmed with passion, and part of me is afraid that I'm just not capable of feeling that overwhelming passion for people. And why would anyone want to be with someone like that?
So, most of what I envision, relationship-wise, is non-permanent. To be with someone for a little while. To have a connection, and then to have it be okay when it ends.
Are you comfortable with this level of uncertainty?
Yes. It’s important to me to understand that I don't have the answer. I don't feel like there's an absence in my life where a relationship should be, but I don't want to close myself off in my head or anywhere else from new possibilities. I’m not the same person I was before I got sober.
Have your changing views of your own sexuality affected the way you think about sex and pornography in your academic work?
Well, I have found myself pushing against the Enlightenment-era idea that we are blank slates, this old idea that still enters into a lot of the public dialogue on violence and sex. There’s a feminist thesis that pornography is the theory and rape is the practice; a lot of our discussions are organized around the idea that if we take something in visually it will physiologically change us, warp our neurons a certain way.
But I think that the world of fantasy is expansive. Fantasy can be productive and generative and positive. Would I have started masturbating if I hadn't discovered the written-down slash-fiction fantasies of all these anonymous women on the Internet? I don’t think so. And slowly, through this mediation, I’ve come to be in my skin a little bit more. I’m understanding that I have a body, I live in this body, and it doesn’t have to be fixed.
Let me ask you one last question. What would you tell someone who is dealing with the same issues that you dealt with as a teenager and twentysomething?
That’s a hard question. On the one hand, I really think I had to go through everything I went through in order to get to where I am.
But I can look back and see that I lived so much of my life growing up through other stories of living. I lived through books and movies, and I didn't want to be in real life. Maybe one of the things I would want to have conveyed to myself early on is this: the fantasies that get turned into books and movies — that heightened fantastical version of what it means to be a woman and be in love — that stuff is not wholly real for anyone. I wasn't an alien because I didn’t feel what I saw in the movies. Almost no one feels that way.
I also wish I’d known that it’s totally okay to feel passion and desire and pleasure in ways that don't appear sexual. To feed other parts of yourself. The first time I read Judith Butler I felt like I was having a purely mental orgasm. There are lots of ways to imagine yourself desiring; your mom isn’t the only model.
And with everything I believed, and even with what I’m saying to you here, I do wish I’d just put an asterisk next to all of it that clarified: "This is just for now." I wish I’d been able to tell myself, “All this shit is going to change, and you're not going to feel the same way tomorrow or a year from now. You don't need to figure out everything. Just go read a book. Do what makes you happy.”
Jia Tolentino is a writer in Michigan.