“Well I won’t know for sure unless…” is a phrase I’ve used before. Now, this may well be a very strong case of Too Much Information, but that’s pretty much the primary reason I ended my virginity. I won’t say ‘lost’; I know exactly when and where and why it happened – in the bedroom of the house I was renting as a post-student, to a lady who’d been dropping strong hints for the previous 8 months. I was 20 and a half years old, and it was something I’d always been avoiding, because I didn’t think it was going to be something I’d enjoy, or be any good at, but I figured I ought to try to just in case I was wrong.
Readers: I was not wrong.
When I was 17 I kept a diary, as most teenagers did. And, still conforming, I wrote down details of all the crushes I had on people I liked. Despite going to an all-boys school, most of my friends at the time were girls – I had quite a lot of penpals and I enjoyed the connection I had with them, that feeling of being close, yet also at a safe distance. They often used me to ask questions of ‘why are boys?’, assuming that I’d be able to answer, yet even then I knew I wasn’t quite the same as the ones they were snogging. Though some of them I did develop little weird crushes on, when I wrote about them in my diary, it’s clear in hindsight that I tended towards the asexual spectrum. “I wish I was holding her hand”, “I want to hug her”, but also “I don’t ever imagine having sex though”.
I guess I should have realised then. But back in the 90s the word didn’t really exist, or at least it wasn’t common knowledge, and in any case because it wasn’t something that really bothered me, I never really thought about it; it just wasn’t important.
But it was always something lurking in the background of my relationships, and meant that none of them ever really developed much beyond the ‘honeymoon’ stage. Note that I have been engaged three times, though the latter two were more hope beyond expectation than anything truly life-affirming; note also that both of them I’m still friends with. Indeed I’m friends with most of my exes, and maybe for this reason; my dismissal of sex as being ‘relatively unimportant’ means that there ends up being very little difference between friends and relationships, so most of the latter come from and quickly return to the former.
In my chest of drawers, I have a sweatshirt to that end – it has a banner or flag, which I’ll come onto later, with the caption of “I’d rather eat cake”. It’s a very stereotypical quote, but, assuming that it’s chocolate, happens to be true in my case (if it were, say, a Bakewell pudding on offer, then I’d probably always choose a third option. Not sure what the third option would be; travel, probably. Travel is always a good option).
The Asexual Pride sweatshirt.
The word you are looking for is ‘asexual’. That is, someone who generally doesn’t find sexual attraction in people, regardless of who they are. In a strange way, you could think of it as the exact opposite of Bisexual or Pansexual, who have the potential to find anyone sexually attractive. That doesn’t mean we don’t have sex (though I haven’t since December 2015) or indeed any kind of sexual activity (which was a little more recent), just that I tend not to get easily aroused, nor do I personally ever feel the desire to have sex. I do like the feeling of hugging, of holding hands, but I’m comfortable doing this with friends where we both know it won’t ever go any further. There are related concepts here such as ‘Aromanticism’ and ‘Queer Platonic Relationships’, but I’ll talk about those in a different post.
My friend Amy (I used to date her, actually; we broke up “at some point between 2016 and 2018”) assumes I’m gay, and this feels like quite a common issue amongst asexuals; while I may have dabbled in that arena (yum yum sausage), I find naked men even less appealing than naked women. Its interesting watching programmes like ‘Naked Attraction’ – she objects to the concept of finding people to date based purely on what they look like, even if you know you’ll be naked with each other later, while I just don’t find nakedness attractive in and of itself. One of my other friends recently pointed out something I do when faced with nudity. I forgot I did this, but it’s so on brand.
If someone’s getting undressed or something in front of me, and end up showing off a bit more bare flesh than they ought, I’ve been told I have a habit of removing my glasses, and passively clean them while looking down. My friend pointed out this serves two purposes:
1) that I’m not looking at them, but actively looking in other directions, distracting myself, but
2) my eyesight is so bad that the sheer act of removing my glasses means I’d probably not be able to make anything out anyway.
I don’t think about this, but when she said it, I kind of realised that yes, I do exactly that. It’s almost like an innate and automatic reaction, Nakedness makes me feel awkward; instinctively (as I was brought up both heterosexual and polite) I know I shouldn’t be looking at (parts of) naked bodies anyway, but I suspect it’s my asexuality that makes me actively avoid them.
Note that there’s a huge difference between asexuality and celibacy; the latter being the ‘choice’ of refraining from sex, regardless of sexual attraction, while the former is someone having little or no sexual attraction in the first place. It’s often confused in the mainstream, but (invoking another stereotype) if members of religious orders were asexual as well as celibate, well, the Catholic church’s PR department would be a lot less busy …
The thing is, I’m very sex-positive. I love talking about sex, I like sexual-themed comedy (I’m British; we had an entire film industry dedicated to the innuendo), and I’ve even written erotic literature at times, although most of it has a kink-focus rather than a sex-focus. I also am a strong believer in sexual openness, that people should talk about sex more, that it shouldn’t be a taboo subject hidden behind walls of metaphor, only to be discussed at 11pm on Channel 4. This includes all sexualities and genders as well as their lacking (fun fact – the last person I kissed was an agender lesbian – we were so not each other’s target market!). But the act itself, the physical and emotional concept, is one I find really hard to even think about, never mind actually do. Sex-positive, but quite personally sex-averse.
In a highly-sexualised world, asexuality confuses people. It sometimes feels the whole concept of ‘not having sexual attraction’ doesn’t make sense to the average person in the street. Think of the books you read, the TV shows and movies you watch, the celebrities you follow, the brands you buy into. They all seem to promote the idea of two people being together, with the underlying subtext of sex. Heteronormativity is assumed – the commonly-held belief that a man and a woman can never be ‘just friends’ for instance – but regardless of orientation, the world always feels like it’s geared to the idea of ‘coupling’, and that anyone who doesn’t want to ‘pair off’, well, there’s something wrong with them, or they’re trying to hide something. Unlike many asexuals, my sex-positivity means my major irk with this is its lack of consistency and its over-reliance on sexual stereotypes rather than on the existence of such a sexualised society in itself, but it still irks me.
Most of the time, reactions tend to be not so much offensive as dismissive. Acephobia, in that sense, is rarely geared to people genuinely fearing of us, but more along the lines of ‘pity’, almost. One of the most common phrases people say is “Ah, you just haven’t found the right person yet” when I point out that I’m not that interested in having a committed relationship. The belief is that everyone has ‘the one’, a ‘soulmate’, and if I keep myself open and looking, I’ll eventually find them. Keen-eyed readers will remember that I’ve been engaged thrice; you’d have thought that *at the time*, I truly believed I had found them. I’ve also heard the same comment when people hear I’m not fond of sex; “It’s easier with the right person, you’ll see”. Without heading into more TMI territory, even with the one person I can say I loved above all others, it … wasn’t.
Younger asexuals than me hear “oh it’s still a phase, you’ll get over it”, which is quite invalidating; doubly so when you see just how much heteronormative marketing people are exposed to from an early age. Apparently 12 is ‘too young’ to know you’re trans, gay, or asexual, but not too young to have a gender-appropriate partner lined up for you by your parents every time you mention their name as a friend.
To be neutral, my mother still does this. While I think she’s finally given up expecting me to produce grandchildren, she still wonders if she “needs to buy a hat” (for an upcoming wedding) every time I mention a female name. That most of my friends are female is something that I think confuses her anyway.
Sometimes people (and I still mean my mother) will phrase the same thing in what seems a more neutral way – “When are you going to settle down?” (often, due to my travel fetish, in conjunction with “Are you just getting it out of your system?”). It’s still the same question, implying that my sexuality is a phase, an invalid selection, and one day I’ll come to my senses and return to the standard that society has set.
Yet at other times, it takes on a weirdly positive view. I mentioned earlier most of my friends are women. In part this is because I get on better with women than men, for reasons partly related to toxic masculinity, but mainly because, I don’t explain why, but I just seem to ‘connect’ better with women. And because of my asexuality, whether they’re aware of it, accept it, or not, it’s certainly true they don’t see me as any kind of threat – to an extent I’m their stereotype ‘gay best friend’, without actually being gay. Indeed one of my long-term friends said “if anyone ever asks me if there’s a man I’m not dating I’d feel comfortable in a changing room with, or if my head was on their lap, it’s Ian”.
The one constant is the assumption amongst people that sexual relations are ‘normal’ or even ‘expected’, and also they’re often considered enjoyable. Part of me wonders if this is just a lie perpetuated by society, culture, and the media, and that people say they like it because that’s what’s expected of them – they’re ‘supposed’ to so they do. I wonder how many nominally sexual people genuinely enjoy it, and how many merely tolerate it out of expectation and duty. “Not tonight, I’ve got a headache”, and how couples who have been married for over a decade seem to lose the urges. If even sexual people go through times of lacking desire and sexual attraction, why is it so difficult to consider that for some people, that’s the default original state.
Being asexual is just who I am; it doesn’t define me and nor is it the sum total of my personality, but equally it is an important part of how I live my life. I guess now just feels like the right time to be fully open and talking about it.
For a broader summary, take a listen to Episode 32 of my podcast.