Where are the elder asexuals?
Is asexuality just a youth invention? Or is something else going on?
Omg I’ve never seen an ace person your age before!
I get some variation of that comment all the time online, most often on TikTok. But it happens across the communities I inhabit online. It happens on Instagram. It happens on YouTube. Ans Twitter has provided my absolute favorite of these responses from young ace folks:
The community of asexual content creators is small, but mighty. And I — a silver-haired, tattooed, bearded guy in his forties that looks like a mall Santa going through a tough time — am not the typical face of asexual content creation.
My fellow creators are a lot younger than I am. Most of them are in their teens and early twenties. Those that are in their thirties are typically in their early thirties. And the community of folks that consume and interact with our content overwhelmingly fits that profile.
While I get that content creators aren’t the only ace folks in the world, the people who are and the people who openly identify as ace in digital spaces are representative of the community at large.
So it begs the question: where are the elder aces?
Queerness Goes Online
It’s useful to start with the importance of digital spaces to queer communities.
Queerness in the real world is an invitation to danger. The real world tells us that all the time. Queer folks lose their jobs when their queerness becomes known. We’re kicked out of our homes. We’re disowned from our families. We’re subjected to debunked therapies or the iron fist of religion. We’re the victims of violence. We become death statistics.
To be any kind of queer in the world is an act of defiance, and that defiance carved out space for us to exist — think queer bars, activist groups, private social circles: places for queer folks to socialize and connect. We still faced danger in those spaces, but they were something. Still risky, but with reward.
Finding queer community, then, became a calculation of risk. Not everyone played along. The closet housed everyone who couldn’t make the risk work, and the closet inflicted a violence of its own.
The Internet changed that. It created a third place, an alternative to real world queer space and the closet, for queer people to occupy and form community. It minimized the dangers of occupying real world space and it made queer community infinitely more accessible. Geography or social status didn’t matter. You just needed a connection to make a connection.
That shift from the real world to the digital is important in understanding how queer community works today. It’s not only possible for us to live in a global queer community now, it’s possible to encounter queerness in the world where you otherwise wouldn’t. Deeply conservative communities, oppressive parenting, and living far from any real world queer spaces no longer renders queer experience invisible. Queerness is a thing you can see in the world.
And if you see it, you can be it.
Ace? I Don’t See It.
“Seeing it” has always been an issue for asexuals.
Our history is relatively short. Outside of a few mentions in German medical writings in the 1890s and a mention by Kinsey in the 1960s, (in both cases, we weren’t even “asexuals,” and the definitions didn’t encompass asexuality as a spectrum), the ace experience wasn’t acknowledged until the 1970s. And even then, it was variably understood as a political stance, another word for celibacy, or an extension of feminist thought.
Real world queer spaces, in vibrant life by the 1970s, also remained spaces where ace folks were invisible. Not only were we uncounted in these spaces, we were othered because sex figured so prominently here. For those queer folks who experienced marginalization due to their sexual expression, having sex and celebrating sex was a price of admission. Having sex (and in some cases, having lots of it) was part of the defiance. It was part of building community. Being asexual would be seen as a repression, a rejection of community, siding with the enemy.
Heteroromantic ace folks and aromantic aces didn’t fare any better. Even without the pressure of navigating queer space, heteronormative pressures made asexuality invisible. There were marriages to make. Children to have and raise. Families to construct. Deviating from this by rejecting sex would essentially be rejecting a future.
This is the world that those of who are now “ace elders” were figuring ourselves out in. This pre-digital world offered something worse than danger. It offered nothing. No spaces designed to validate us. No images of our experience to connect to ourselves. No language to help us define ourselves.
The mirror of this world reflected to us a distortion. It didn’t reflect a legitimate identity and experience. It reflected a broken, damaged version of something else.
Ace elders exist. They just don’t know they’re ace. They’re working under the assumption that they’re bad at sex, possess deformed or broken sexualities, are frigid, are prudes, are socially or sexually inept. They’re what happens when a community has no image of itself in the world. They can’t see it, so they aren’t.
Listen to the stories of older ace folks, and you’ll encounter a motif: “I read this / I saw this online / I watched this video, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh god, that’s me. I spent all these years thinking there was something wrong with me. I didn’t even know this existed. But once I did, my whole life made sense.”
The elder aces we have, we have by accident. We have them because they stumbled upon the digital world of ace folks.
The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) was created by David Jay in 2001, and it was the first online home for information and community-building for asexual folks.
The digital history of the ace community is just two decades old, and while it accounts for the explosive growth of self-identifying ace folks, it also deepens some of the challenges the community has in cultivating its elders.
This community, the digital community of asexuals, is led by young people. This makes sense for a community not old enough to buy beer on its own and grown almost exclusively in a rapidly evolving geography of digital platforms. Young people are the early adopters, so as the ace community expanded onto platforms like Tumblr, Vine, and Tik Tok, it was young people setting up shop and defining the conversations. For those of us who formed our digital connections earlier (with AOL, AIM, MySpace and Facebook), adoption of new platforms was slower. We weren’t excluded from these spaces. We just weren’t showing up as quickly or as often. We were in the wrong digital places at the right time for ace visibility.
And even when we did stumble into these spaces, it was easy to think they weren’t “for us” as older folks. It’s easy to look at online spaces and see asexuality as a youth experience. Even if the ace shoe fit, it would be easy to think, as someone twenty or thirty years older than everyone in the room, that you were still experiencing something other than asexuality.
The dominance of younger voices in digital ace spaces can be seen as a feature of asexuality, when its really a consequence of how the online world functions.
So… what do we do?
Well, fellow olds: this one’s on us.
For those of us who’ve had the good fortune to discover ourselves, it’s important for us to turn that discovery outwards and be visible.
Our experiences as ace folks, regardless of how long we’ve worn the identity label as our own, has something instructive to teach younger ace folks. Us together, in our wide spectrum of experiences and life outcomes, represent a vision for the future for young ace folks.
We are proof that asexuality doesn’t short circuit your life. That asexuality doesn’t cut off your possibility at the knees.
We’re also the missing pieces of the puzzle when it comes to painting a comprehensive picture of the asexual community. Our visibility in these digital spaces corrects the skewed perception of asexuality as a “youth invention” or “something the kids are doing to get attention.” Our videos on Tik Tok, our tweets on Twitter, our identifiers in our Instagram bio, our words and engagement in the digital space — even when we feel like the Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids” meme — demonstrates the wholeness of asexuality.
And the more we are visible, the more we make space for new asexuals at any age — the kid just starting out, the adult in transition, the elder coming to themselves later in life. A space that didn’t exist for us when we were seeking elders we didn’t even know we needed.