[This post was written for the September 2015 Carnival of Aces topic of “Living Asexuality”.]
When I’m not working on an asexuality related website or gazing at my collection of vintage stereoview cards, I have what’s known as a “job”. The specific nature of the job would either bore you to tears or make no sense at all (probably both), so I’ll just say that it’s in tech and the workplace is male-dominated. When I go to work, I don’t stop being asexual. Sometimes that makes me feel like I’m leading a weird double life:
- Nights and weekends: Totally open asexual activist, spreading the word about asexuality to anyone who’ll listen and a bunch of people who won’t.
- Weekdays: Half closeted engineer, quiet in my cubicle.
As I’ve talked about before, sometimes I feel like an invisible visibility activist. It’s not so much that I’m hiding that I’m asexual, I just don’t talk about it because it seems so irrelevant under the circumstances. But then, when I really think about it, pretty much everyone else is broadcasting their sexuality in a number of ways. So why should I keep mine hidden?
Now, I don’t deny what I am. I’ll sometimes wear the ring, and when Asexual Awareness Week rolls around, I’m decked out in the ace colors. But no one knows what any of that means. I’ve gradually built a passive ace pride display in my cubicle, but as far as I know, no one’s actually noticed it. It started with a black ring, then I added a small flag, and finally, I added a WhatIsAsexuality.com/Asexuality Archive promotional magnet.
Anyway, what I’m really here to talk about is all the ways that being asexual is relevant to my day at the office and interacting with co-workers.
The Waitress At Lunch
“Would you look at that?”
“I bet you left a nice tip!”
“Let’s go to Joey’s for lunch. There are one or two reasons I like that place!”
“You left your credit card there on purpose, just so you could go back and see that waitress again, didn’t you?”
As I mentioned, I work in a male-dominated industry. As a result, I hear things like this regularly. Those are all actual comments I have heard coworkers say to each other, discussing the “hot” waitresses at local dining establishments.
It’s not always a waitress, sometimes it’s a coworker, sometimes it’s a random woman on the street, sometimes it’s an athlete or celebrity, but whoever it is, the remarks are similar, and the effect they have on me is the same. While conversations like these can be roundly condemned as sexist, boorish, and inappropriate, that’s not why I’m bringing them up.
I mention them because they make me acutely aware that I’m asexual. That I’m different. They’re said around me because “I’m one of the guys”, but in this area, I’m not. Not at all. I can’t relate to what they’re talking about, even though they think they’re making a universally recognizable statement. While everyone else actively enjoys going to Joey’s (which is basically an upscale, swanky Hooters), that restaurant makes me distinctly uncomfortable. (And the food is pretentious and overpriced, and the sodas are 3/4ths ice, so it’s not even a good restaurant…)
Whenever a conversation like this gets started, I pull back and shut down, because I can’t be a part of it. And I don’t just mean I go quiet, I mean that I’m fairly certain that I physically pull away from the group. I don’t know what I do exactly, but I know that the change in body language is striking enough to be noticed by other people. One person even began to try and change the subject (Despite starting the conversation himself, usually…) by saying something like “Some people might get offended by this kind of talk”. It was always clear who “some people” was.
But I’m not offended by it. That’s not why I close down. It’s more of a “Please don’t call on me” reaction. I feel like I’m going to be “found out” if I don’t make some kind of crude comment or nod along with the crude comments others at the table make. I’m expected to react approvingly in some way, but I can’t. I have nothing to say on the topic. If I move away and try to make myself as small as possible, maybe I won’t be directly asked to make a comment myself. Maybe I won’t have to explain what’s going on.
Which brings me to…
The coming out.
I’ve never actually come out at work. I’m not entirely sure that I’ve even said the word “asexual” in person to a coworker.
(Now, that’s not to say no one at work knows. Anyone who is friends with me on Facebook will fairly quickly discover that I’m asexual.)
I guess I don’t really know how to come out at work. Other people can work it into a conversation or put a picture on their desk or show their partner around the office one day. I can’t do any of that. (Although, I do have a web browser “missing image” icon in a frame on my desk, but that’s as much of a nerdy joke as it is a reflection of my life.) I can’t think of a way to casually work it into a conversation.
“So, what did you do this weekend?”
“I worked on my website about asexuality and went to an ace meetup.”
The response to that would probably be a blank stare and a muttered “…what?”
It would either kill the conversation outright or I’d have to recite the entire Encyclopedia Asexualica for them to understand. It couldn’t be a quick, casual, matter of fact thing. By then, all the effort would make it feel like I’m recruiting or proselytizing or something, instead of simply stating basic facts about who I am.
Beyond that, there’s the question of whether I’d even want people knowing…
None of Your Business
When you come out to friends or family, it’s often because you want them to know. You want them to understand you, you want them to share in your life. And if they react negatively, although it may be painful and difficult, it’s generally possible to cut them out of your life if necessary.
Work is different. For eight hours a day, you’re stuck in a confined environment with people you didn’t choose to be around. Some of them are your friends. Some of them you don’t really know. Some of them are your enemies.
I live in a very liberal city and work in an industry that’s full of liberals or libertarians. Even the small handful of “I voted for Bush twice and I’d still be voting for Reagan if it were legal and he weren’t dead” Republicans at the office are generally totally down with the whole rainbow. I do not feel like I have to hide who I am in any way, whether it’s for my safety or to keep my job or any of that.
That said, there are people I don’t want to know about me:
The President? The CTO? Senior Director of Marketing? Those people simply do not need to know. Why should they know? They know nothing at all about me other than maybe my name. I don’t need the one piece of personal information they have about me to be this. I’d much rather they know that I like going on vacation and taking pictures. I don’t feel I need to keep it from them or anything, I just don’t see the point in them knowing.
But there is one person I want to keep it from: That Guy™. You know That Guy™. Narcissistic, arrogant prick who’s all talk and no substance, has a Masters Degree in Brownnosing and no real talent to speak of. His career arc at the company is not driven by how good a job he’s doing, but how well he talks up the half-assed job he’s doing to managers who aren’t really paying attention. He’s the sort of person you avoid interacting with as much as possible until he quits or gets fired.
That Guy™ is transparently manipulative. You know that every conversation you have with him is just a way for him to find something he can exploit and use against you.
You are forced into silence out of fear. Telling That Guy™ that you’re asexual is like dousing yourself in honey and rolling around on an ant hill.
He will scoff. He will mock you. He will gaslight you. He will spread rumors about you. He will deny it exists. He will ask invasive questions. He will call you broken. He is the living embodiment of the comments section of an article about asexuality. He will do all of these things just carefully enough that you can’t file a complaint with HR.
And you have to sit next to him for eight hours a day.
The Flirting Coworker
Occasionally, a coworker will develop an interest that goes beyond the professional. They’ll begin probing and testing, trying to figure out if you’re interested, too.
My initial reaction to flirting is to ignore it. This isn’t a conscious strategy to shut it down before it goes too far. I’m actually terrible at detecting it, so I ignore it because I don’t even know it’s happening.
If it persists, I’ll eventually catch on that I’m being treated differently somehow. Maybe they stand a different way. Maybe they go out of their way to stop by my cubicle to talk to me about things that aren’t work-related. There was even one woman who seemed to make it a point to lean over her desk whenever I was around. (And it took me several weeks to even notice that.)
When it gets to this stage, I start to panic. If the flirting is overt enough that I’ve started to see it for what it is, then the situation is serious. I start to try to figure out how to say “Well, you’re nice and all, but I just can’t like you in that way…” Do I say I’m not interested? Do I say I don’t work like that? Do I say that it’s not my area? Do I just say nothing and run away? What do I do?
So far, it’s only gone to the next stage once, where interest is explicitly stated and a request is made to change the relationship status from “Friendly Coworker” to “Potential Romantic Partner, Pending Outcome Of Probationary Period”. (I think everyone else senses I’m a lost cause and gave up well before it got to that point.) I had been practicing how to explain asexuality to this person for a week or so when it happened, but as it turned out, that was not necessary, because they came out to me as ace themselves!
That, of course, turned the rest of my script on its head… I was expecting my asexuality to be the deal breaker, but when that turned out to be a known and desired quality, I had absolutely no idea what to do. In the end, we talked for hours in a hallway and didn’t get much work done that day. I went home and thought about it, and realized that it just wouldn’t work out, because I could not be who they wanted me to be. We had a few awkward days in the office after that, but after those settled, we remained good friends.
The “Family” Conversation
People at work like discussing families.
“Do you have kids?”
“Are you married?”
“Are you seeing anyone?”
By the time the conversation gets to this point, it’s not going to end up anywhere good. They usually stop there, but I know it continues in their head. “Well, why not? I wonder if there’s something wrong. Did he just come off a bad relationship? Is he secretly gay? Maybe I can fix him up with someone. But who…?” I can see that I’m a conundrum to them.
The conversation isn’t always about my status. Sometimes they’ll vent about their wives as if I can relate. As if I care.
I’ve taken to saying things like “I have a room full of video games and no one to tell me ‘no’.” as a way to lightheartedly deflect the conversation from the questions I know they really want to ask. Sometimes I’ll even show pictures of the room full of video games.
I know that I’m looked at as odd for not having a family and for not looking to acquire one, but I know I’d be looked at as even more odd if I tried to explain why.
Before I started writing this, I barely gave any thought to just how much being asexual comes up in my work life. I figured it was rare, that there were only a handful of times where it was an issue. Now I realize that it has an impact, sometimes small and subtle, sometimes big and notable, but it has an impact pretty much every day. And so many of these things are only an issue because I can’t just say “I’m asexual” and have people understand and accept what that means.
Now maybe I need to start thinking more seriously about the impact singlism has on my life at work…
Thank you for writing this.
“It would either kill the conversation outright or Id have to recite the entire Encyclopedia Asexualica for them to understand. It couldnt be a quick, casual, matter of fact thing. By then, all the effort would make it feel like Im recruiting or proselytizing or something, instead of simply stating basic facts about who I am.”
This is pretty much why I never come out IRL…
I don’t work now, but when I did, I always felt myself pulling away too, when people would be talking about dating, relationships, and I had nothing to contribute. One thing that truly puzzles me about so many people who say they are asexual. What does it matter with all these different labels of Ace? Grey A, or gay, or whatever? If you are uninterested in any sexual relationship, then why label yourself anything other? I don’t know, I am just confused about that part. But thanks for your input. Many of us relate.
Grey A is a type of asexuality where you can sometimes feel sexual attraction, but you don’t always/consistently/etc. Asexuality in itself is turning into an umbrella term, and the subdivisions make it easier for different people to connect within the umbrella. It’s probably not a grand idea to have a bunch of really intricate labels to dump on someone who’s never heard of anything like asexuality before, but they’re just additional ways of figuring out who you are and meeting others who have shared experiences. The closest I can compare it to is something religious – say you’re a Christian, but you have subdivisions – Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, etc. – to find where you feel right at home and can meet other people like yourself.
Yeah, one of the things that makes things awkward for me at work as an ace woman is that some of the main subjects of casual conversation (especially among other women) seem to be 1. Children and 2. Husbands/boyfriends. I can coo over other people’s cute kids, but other than that it’s really hard for me to engage with those kinds of conversations, so I just end up becoming “that person in the office who never talks to anyone” – which is ok for me now when I’m working temp positions where I’ll be leaving soon anyway, but it’s not good for chances at career progression in the long term.
I think that’s also one of the reasons I tend to prefer mixed company and mostly have friends of the opposite gender – most [heterosexual] men don’t expect me to share their interest in women, and would rather not hear me talk about men. So instead we can talk more about the interests we actually share. Whereas when I’m with other female peers, there’s an expectation that we should bond by talking about dating and men and all that stuff that I just can’t contribute to. And then that’s seen as being unfriendly or selfish or secretive, and makes it harder to make any kind of social connection at all.
Yeah, and I have enough of a problem trying to make social connections as it is. Blocking off some of the “universal bonding” topics really doesn’t help. (And I also don’t follow sports and know nothing about cars, so I have nothing to offer in the way of male small talk…)
For what it’s worth, I’ve found that food still works as one of the few “universal bonding topics” that still remains at least a little bit universal – when I’m stuck for small talk I usually just start asking people for local restaurant recommendations (and I sometimes get some good ones, so it’s doubly effective!).
I’m not a terribly big fan of food in general (Probably have ARFID, actually…), so that one doesn’t work for me. In fact, food is often worse than sex when it comes to conversation topics, because people will back off when talking about sex if they sense discomfort. When it comes to food, they double down and go on the attack. “So what DO you eat?” “I’m sure they have CHEESE PIZZA there.” (And I have NEVER ordered a cheese pizza. I have no idea where they’re getting that from.) “You’re like my seven year old.”
Team lunches are a nightmare for me, because inevitably it will be brought up. Even if I order the EXACT SAME THING as half the table, it will be brought up. So there’s not only the inherent social anxiety, there’s that, too.
I’m the same way. I have trouble keeping a conversation going because I often Don’t have anything to add to the topic. I’ve been told that I’m shy, but I don’t think that’s what it is.
I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of “bonding topics”, but that really does seem to explain why so many of my friends are opposite-sex. Thanks for the insight!
Thank you for writing this. I had a terrible time, as I knew I had no interest, but there was no “identity” available until I was in my late 50s. So I floundered a lot, and encountered a lot of people who were desperate to “pin me down” but would not have been able to wrap their brains around the reality that is me. LOL!
It’s all wonderful now.
Hey so this is unrelated to this post specifically, but I have the answer to a topic you were unsure about in previous posts and I couldn’t find the post that this is relevant to so I thought I’d comment here.
You mentioned that some asexuals get something out of watching porn or imagining other people have sex–while not feeling connected to it themselves, and not feeling sexual attraction–and you weren’t sure why. Well the answer is autochorissexualism.
Autochorissexualism describes a disconnection between one’s self and a sexual target or object of arousal. This may mean having fantasies, being exposed to erotica or pornography while lacking a desire to be involved in the scenarios presented, or to be in a sexual encounter with any of the people involved. This is most commonly seen in asexual people.
It’s speculated to be the result of instinct. The body’s natural response to seeing sexual encounters is to become ready for one. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we are experiencing sexual attraction, which explains why there is no desire to participate.
I am so glad there is a word for that and that it is a thing that happens to other people too. Thanks for sharing.
THANK YOU!!!! I work at a university and we are finding a lot of our students identify as ace. I do to but have been uncomfortable being out because I seem to fit a number of the myths and stereotypes. This being one of them. I have fully come out as the students have made it clear how important it is to them to be able to see themselves reflected in the adults around them. Having this information really helps me as I tell my story and facilitate open discussions about asexuality.
Thanks! I work at a zoo. I love animals, even more than people at times. I’ve had a couple awkward moments at work: a coworker found a screw on the ground. He picked it up and held it out to me.
“hey, you wanna screw?”
I took him literally. Someone else had to tell me that he was just joking. Then it took me a minute to actually think about what the joke meant.
I’ve also had two guys at work who were interested in dating me. I hadn’t known then that I was asexual. Had I known, I’d probably would have been honest. But I just told them I wasn’t interested. One guy was determined, but I did like being friends.
One day he finally told me, “you know, I really don’t think you’re ever gonna want to date.”
I was stunned & excited. “yes, than you! Thank you!”
He looked at me confused.
He believed me! He really, finally believed me!