The theme for this month’s Carnival of Aces is on asexuality and mental health. Now, ordinarily, I don’t have much to say about the topic of mental health. I’ve never been to a therapist. And that whole undiagnosed lethargic fog of depression or anxiety or whatever it is that’s going on, well, I never have much to say about that, primarily because it won’t let me say anything about it other than recurring vague posts about how I should do things that I never end up doing. But this month, one of the subprompts was to talk about eating disorders and asexuality. Now that is something I can talk about.
But before I begin, a bit of housekeeping…
Because I’m going to be talking about a topic outside of my regular subject matter, I expect this post will get some readers who are not all that familiar with asexuality. So, what is asexuality? It’s a sexual orientation characterized by a persistent lack of sexual attraction to any gender. Essentially, it’s the “none of the above” option on the sexual orientation form. You can learn more about it on this site, or over at WhatIsAsexuality.com.
And second, I am not implying that asexuality is related to any eating disorders, nor am I implying that any eating disorders are related to asexuality. I’m going to be talking about both here, and how they impact my life and how that impact is similar in some ways, but I don’t want to give the impression that I think they’re connected to each other. I also want to make clear that I’m speaking for myself here.
Also, this post is a bit… venting and angry… disordered and unfocused… That’s by design. This isn’t meant to be an in-depth exploration of what asexuality and ARFID are, or a detailed survey of the way people experience them. This is about me. And I’m angry and unfocused about this topic.
And now, the main event…
As you’re probably aware, I’m not really part of the sex fandom, as some have put it. But you may not know that I’m also not really part of the food fandom, either. I have something called “ARFID”, which stands for Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. This used to be called “SED”, or Selective Eating Disorder, but I think they changed the name because it’s less about selecting food and more about avoiding it. ARFID isn’t like one of the eating disorders you’re probably thinking of, like anorexia or bulimia, where weight or body image is at its core. Instead, it’s more of a fear of most foods, or a sense that most foods are disgusting. It’s not a matter of “I don’t really like tacos”, it’s more a matter of “Tacos are not food and that substance is not going anywhere near my mouth so don’t even try it.”
People with ARFID typically have a very limited range of foods they’ll eat. And it’s not “These are my favorite things so I eat them all the time”, either. It’s “These are the only things I am able to eat.” Things like grilled cheese sandwiches, plain pasta, macaroni and cheese, or pizza with limited or no toppings are some common (though not universal) safe foods. Sometimes it can even be very specific brands or restaurants, even though the foods are fundamentally similar between them. Like, I can’t explain why, but I love Arby’s roast beef sandwiches, but a roast beef sandwich anywhere else is not gonna happen. And it’s not always about taste. It can be about texture or presentation or some inexplicable aura of loathing. For instance, I can eat orange flavored candy and drink orange juice (no pulp), but if I try to eat an actual orange slice, my body will physically shut down in response. Rationally, I know that it tastes like orange, and I can tolerate the taste of orange (not my favorite, but it’s doable), but when I get in that situation, OH HELL NO AIN’T GONNA HAPPEN. And then I have no problem eating apples.
So, what does this have to do with asexuality? Well… Nothing. And everything.
Sex and food are two pillars that society constantly swirls around. They form the basis for the enjoyment of life for many people. Often the two are intermingled in some way (see: Hooters). And both of them are things that I am not into and that I cannot understand other people’s obsession with. But that means that I can see similarities between them, how society looks at them, and how other people treat aces and people with ARFID. That’s what this post is going to explore.
“Just try it! Maybe you’ll like it!”
This phrase is the bane of aces and … um … ARFIDers? When I talk about this in regards to asexuality, I usually make some comment about Green Eggs and Ham. In fact, my copy of Green Eggs and Ham is in with the asexuality books on my bookshelf for this very reason. But in the context of ARFID, that literally is what the plot of that book is about. Some guy does not want to eat something disgusting and gets harassed by a stranger for over 50 pages about it.
The worst part about the book is that at the end, he tries the green eggs and ham and he likes them and starts eating it on boats with goats. And so everyone thinks that’s how it works. You just try something strange and alien and you discover how fabulous it really is, and then you go around holding up signs and riding vaguely dog-like creatures and shouting at people just trying to read the newspaper about how wonderful this thing you tried is. And you shove it in their face to convince them how great it is. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how it ever works.
When I tried sex, I found it mostly boring and dull. It wasn’t some earth-rattling, life-changing transformative experience. It was repetitive, I had an orgasm, and what’s the big deal? Trying it didn’t make me like it, and certainly didn’t make me want to ride around on a dog-thing and shout at people about how great it is. But when it comes to food, it is a totally different story. New food is a nightmare. Always. It never works out. The process is something like this:
- Inexplicably decide that Food Item X is something I might actually be able to eat, despite all past experiences to the contrary.
- Food Item X sits in my freezer for weeks while I work up the courage to give it a go. 50% of new items stay at this stage until there’s an annual freezer cleaning and they get thrown out without being opened.
- I tentatively prepare Food Item X, according to its instructions.
- Food Item almost always looks or smells repulsive in some way and I wonder what in the hell I’m doing.
- I get the appropriate utensil and use it to acquire a small portion of Food Item X.
- I stare at the small portion of Food Item X on the utensil. I am paralyzed, unable to move. I typically remain in this state for ten minutes. 50% of the items which have made it this far are discarded at this point.
- I eventually work up the nerve and overcome the paralysis just enough to try tasting Food Item X.
- Food Item X is as terrible as expected. 100% of the items which reach this phase are discarded.
- I feel terrible for wasting that food.
- I feel terrible for wasting the time and energy to prepare that food.
- I feel terrible for having to waste more time and energy to prepare something else that I can eat.
- I feel terrible for generally being a failure of a carbon-based biological engine.
- And, in some cases, I feel physically terrible because Food Item X made me physically ill in some way. Sometimes for hours.
That is what happens when I “just try it”. EVERY. DAMN. TIME. So fuck you, Sam I Am. Take your signs and your weird dog thing and leave me the hell alone.
“You’re missing out!”
No. No, I’m not.
You might think that sushi is the best thing since sex or that sex is the best thing since sushi, and that there’s no way my life can be complete unless I enjoy those things equally as much as you do. But I assure you, I am not missing out on either sex or sushi. I’m not interested in those things.
We do not all have to have the same preferences. I really enjoy playing Rayman 2 for the Nintendo 64, but at the same time, I can accept that you might be living a happy and fulfilled life even if you haven’t played it. If you express an interest in video games, I might suggest that you play it. But if you tell me that you’re not interested in video games or that 3D games make you sick, I’m not going to insist that you are missing out on a fundamental piece of the human experience if you don’t play it.
So you keep your sex and your sushi and I’ll keep my Rayman 2, deal?
“It’s Just A Phase”
One of the more common dismissals of both asexuality and ARFID is that “it’s just a phase”. “You’ll grow out of it.” The idea being that pretty much everyone isn’t interested in sex or is a picky eater when they’re a kid, and that everyone will grow into a fully-developed, sex-loving, haggis-eating adult in time.
I’m pretty sure I’m old enough to know that I’m not going to start craving sexy times or Thai curry any time soon. And you should probably believe me about that.
The insidious corollary to this is that it makes people like me out to be immature and childish and objects of worthy of ridicule.
“Well, I Don’t Like XYZ Sometimes, Either”
People use this line about both sex and eating. Sometimes it’s a matter of dismissal, a way of saying “Oh, everyone’s like that, you don’t need a word for it”. Those people can just go stand on an anthill. I’m not going to waste time talking about what’s wrong with that kind of thinking. But sometimes it’s a matter of attempted sympathy, like they’re saying “well, I understand where you’re coming from, because I’m like that, too.”
Except… No, you don’t understand me.
You think sex with your husband is boring once in a while. Great. That doesn’t mean you understand what it’s like to be constantly bombarded with messages about how great sex is and how everyone loves it and should do it all the time and end up feeling broken because you can’t relate to that at all.
You don’t like lasagna. Great. That doesn’t mean you understand what it’s like to be hungry because you’re on vacation and there is literally nothing you are capable of eating at any of the restaurants in the town you’re in.
Pretty much everyone has food that they find disgusting and refuse to eat. (In fact, most people have a very limited diet, compared to what’s available in the world.) Pretty much everyone has some sexual act that they’re not into. (In fact, the majority of people automatically rule out about half of the sexual activities they could take part in, right off the bat.) But that’s not what ARFID is. That’s not what asexuality is. It’s not a “some of the time” thing, it’s an “all of the time” thing.
Unless you’re asexual or unless you have ARFID, no, you don’t understand me. So spare me the “I’m like that, too” nonsense.
“You Can’t Be, Because…”
You can’t be asexual because you masturbate! You can’t have ARFID because you eat Doritos! You can’t be asexual because you’ve had sex! You can’t have ARFID because you’ve had poutine!
Gotcha gatekeeping bullshit isn’t limited to just talking about sex or just talking about eating. I get it from both sides! People who don’t understand what something is have a way of deciding that they’re experts on a subject and feel that they need to tell me that my existence is wrong because they Know Better™.
Both ARFID and asexuality impact my life when it comes to social situations.
Is she flirting with me? How do I explain how I am?
Are they going to suggest dinner? How do I explain how I am?
The conversation has turned to sex. Do I have to come out and explain how I am?
The server has come by and I didn’t order anything. Do I have to come out and explain how I am?
It’s hanging out there. Everyone can see it. I’m withdrawn. I’m hiding that I’m broken. Is it safe to tell them?
Because sex is largely a taboo subject, it doesn’t come up nearly as often as food does, and that means that I’m not subjected to the same relentless taunting that I get about my eating habits. People seem to take my pulling back from conversations about sex as some sort of personal or religious objection to the topic, and they leave it alone. But when it comes to eating, it’s open season. “We’ll go somewhere they have grilled cheese for you.” “Oh look, they have cheese pizza here.” “Should we ask for the kids menu?” For some people, this is the only conversation they ever have with me. Let’s all point and laugh at the eating disorder! Fuck you, dude.
If your boss mocks you for a lack of interest in sex, you can file a complaint with HR and hopefully have that taken care of. But if your boss mocks you for an insufficiently varied diet by their standards, all you can do is laugh along through the pain.
My eating habits were also a source of extensive friction with my ex-girlfriend. I remember once she told me that she was sad that if she married me that she’d never have Vietnamese food again. So not only was I depriving her of sex, I was also depriving her of pho. Way to make me feel doubly worthless.
All this can tie back into the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (basically the psychiatrist’s bible). One of the diagnostic criteria for ARFID is “Marked Interference With Psychosocial Functioning“. One of the diagnostic criteria for MHSDD is “Clinically Significant Distress“. You could say that ARFID has caused “marked interference with psychosocial functioning”, sure. And you could say that in the past, asexuality has caused “clinically significant distress”. But you know what? Most of that interference and distress has had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the fact that people around me are assholes about it once they find out.
(And yeah, MHSDD is not asexuality, but that’s a different story…)
Asexuality and ARFID share a sense of loneliness, of isolation, of brokenness, of being the only person like that in the world. No one understands you, there’s no way to explain it, you just don’t fit in anywhere, and trying to fit into the world at large is awkward. I’ve only met one other asexual in the wild, outside of ace-specific gatherings. And I’ve never met someone else with ARFID. I’m constantly on the lookout for others like me in the world, to know I’m not alone. I cling tightly to stories like Tim Gunn’s three decades of celibacy or Anderson Cooper’s encounters with pretty much any kind of food, desperately hoping that they are like me, that they understand, that I’m not the only one.
Much has been written about pointless, gratuitous sex scenes appear in practically every movie or TV show. Well, food does the same thing sometimes. Don’t believe me? Watch pretty much any travel show. Do they focus on the beautiful scenery and quaint villages and all the landmarks and vista points that I should be sure to see? No. It’s smug assholes like Anthony Bourdain telling me that I’m practically inhuman if I don’t want to wander the planet eating Scorpion on a Stick or drinking Peruvian Spit Beer. (And you know what? There are places in the world that I would love to go see, but I’m afraid to go because there is a very real chance that I will actually starve to death if I try.)
And don’t get me started on “food porn”…