My sexuality has changed. (Or maybe it’s still changing, who knows. Actually, it’s probably still changing – nothing in life is static.) I’ve been both fascinated by and skeptical about the whole thing.
Growing up, I read the ubiquitous puberty books and brochures, some coming-of-age literature, and some Christian literature on dating in the broadest sense of the word. Puberty books sometimes talked about (or even just hinted at) new feelings awakening, coming-of-age literature sometimes recounted formative moments or experiences of sexual awakening, and Christian literature (as well as the occasional youth group leader or pastor) warned urgently of the dangers of temptation and praised abstinence and purity.
I was usually somewhat puzzled by the whole drama. Tales of sexual awakening just seemed weird, and I couldn’t figure out what on Earth should be so hard about just not having sex. Many common narratives bewildered me: people cheating on partners they loved, people being inexorably drawn to assholes by pure sexual tension, relationships only held together by sexual desire, relationships breaking apart because of sexual incompatibility,…
Regarding fiction, I harbored the lingering suspicion that there had to be some society-wide conspiracy to accept such narratives as realistic even though they were complete and utter drivel, but I knew of some of these things happening in actual real life as well and didn’t know what to make of that. Were the people there faking, emulating things they’d read about (as I often did), or was there really something that big that I was just missing?
Maybe it’s because I haven’t had sex yet, I told myself throughout high school. Maybe I just didn’t understand how great sex was, and as soon as I did, everything would make sense. (Sexual comments made by some of my equally virginal peers were easy to explain away: people say things they don’t mean for complicated social reasons all the time.) This hypothesis seemed at least possible, if not horribly likely – as far as I was aware, the best thing about sex were orgasms, which I gave myself rather regularly and which, while pleasant, were not exactly great enough to cheat spouses for. (Especially since other people could also just have them on their own. It was utterly puzzling.)
Alas, when I started having sex, enlightenment still eluded me. Sure, there were nice parts, but nothing that would have explained the confusing cultural phenomena around it.
Over time, my lack of desire for sex resulted in relationship trouble. While I was entirely willing to indulge my partner’s wishes, that was all it was – I didn’t get more personal enjoyment out of it than out of, say, watching a movie together that my partner was enthusiastic about and that I found mildly entertaining at best.
My partner worried that I didn’t find him sexually attractive. I assured him that I did – I just didn’t find anything about sex attractive or desirable.
He tried to find something – some activity, some position, anything – I would like. I was mildly embarrassed by all the attention and sorry for my lack of the desired response.
I scoured the internet for sex advice. Most of the suggested activities I straight-up disliked (“have him go down on you” and worst of all “allow yourself to feel like a woman”), and some were doable but unhelpful (“relax”).
I repeatedly assured him that I didn’t mind if he got his sexual fix elsewhere, and was relieved when he did, but ultimately, the problem wasn’t just that he wanted mutually desired and extremely pleasurable sex, it was that he wanted such sex with me. I couldn’t make that happen. The best I could do was to indulge him as often as possible, increasingly desperate because I knew it wasn’t enough to make him truly happy (and because, strangely enough, having much more sex than I wanted while feeling inadequate throughout it and frequently berating myself for not being able to induce sexual desire in myself turned the originally mildly pleasant sex into an inescapable, miserable chore).
Somewhere along the way of my internet travels, I learned the word asexual. I bit my lip, quietly put it into a corner of my brain with the rest of the things I wanted to ignore until they went away, and kept searching. Accepting that I might just never want sex could have meant the end of my otherwise very good relationship, and I wasn’t ready to face that yet.
Ultimately, it was my gender dysphoria I pulled back out of that corner first, and my relationship ended in the wake of my decision to do so. The immense relief I felt at the prospect of never having to have sex again took me by surprise: trying and failing to produce sexual desire had been a constant, invisible burden. Finally acknowledging that I was for all intents and purposes asexual felt easy and comfortable in comparison.
I never really got into a community about it, or came out to anyone – I saw no need to, since it had become a non-issue again with the breakup. I did take care that any partners would know and accept that I might never want to have sex, and when the therapist I had to see in order to transition asked about my sexual orientation (since I had used both male and female pronouns when talking about former and current partners), I told him truthfully that I currently identified as asexual, that I wasn’t sure if my lack of desire for sex was due to my dysphoria or not, and that I didn’t really worry about it.
I did wonder about it occasionally, though. Was asexual the best way to label myself?
In everyday usage, sexual orientation refers to patterns of attraction to people of various genders. Resources on asexuality typically use a split model of attraction, recognizing sexual attraction (wanting to have sex with someone), aesthetic attraction (desire to keep looking at someone for pleasure), sensual attraction (desire to touch/feel someone for pleasure), romantic attraction (desire to have a romantic relationship with someone), and possibly more.
For most people, all these different kinds of attraction seem highly correlated. Childhood crushes typically do not involve sexual attraction, but often aesthetic, sensual, and perhaps romantic attraction, and they are often predictive of later sexual orientation. Expressing any of these kinds of attraction to someone is often taken to mean that one experiences sexual attraction to them as well, with some differences depending on the attracted person’s gender (hence men’s common habit to add “no homo” to aesthetic compliments towards other men).
To illustrate: I have always gone daaaaaang at Jason Momoa (because daaaaaang) in a mixture of aesthetic and sensual attraction that often included physical arousal (motoric unrest, a faster heartbeat, sweaty hands, and dilated pupils). While this has never gone with a desire to fuck him, I’m fairly certain that any observant onlooker would have assumed I was sexually attracted to him nonetheless, and very few listeners would have interpreted “I want to put my hands all over his body” differently than “I want to bang him like a screen door in a hurricane”. I would be assumed to be gay (or, somewhat less likely, bisexual) and treated as such. Pointing out that I did not want to bang him, just to touch him everywhere, would probably not help my case.
Plenty of asexual people are annoyed by this tendency of allosexual people to interpret any expression of aesthetic, sensual, or romantic attraction as sexual. So are allosexual men who would like to be able compliment their friends without anybody getting the wrong impression. (Whereas some lesbians lament the opposite problem in which their covert expressions of sexual attraction are mistaken for non-sexual compliments. As with most social norms, there is no pleasing everybody.) In any case, it means that unless asexual people hide all their attractions or come out to everyone they meet, they might very well be subject to many of the same social adversities faced by others of their romantic, sensual or aesthetic orientation, regardless of their lack of sexual attraction. (After all, if two women kiss in public, people will hardly stop to ask whether they actually want to have sex before glaring daggers at them for their “sin”.)
In hindsight, I know my going daaaaaang wasn’t sexual, but back then I wondered. This seemed so clearly like what allosexual people did regarding people they were attracted to – maybe there was something I was missing. Maybe I was sexually attracted to people after all. (It doesn’t seem unlikely that many people experiencing only non-sexual kinds of attraction might not notice their absence of sexual attraction, especially if they find sex pleasant enough nonetheless. If my ex-boyfriend had been content to have a willing passive partner, and perhaps had a somewhat lower libido, I probably wouldn’t have.)
What exactly did it even mean to want sex with someone? After all, there are layers to wanting. For example, someone might want to have sex with a certain person, but might want to be faithful to their current monogamous partner even more – in this case, their desire to have sex with a person would count as being sexually attracted to them, even though they do not want to do so at the level necessary to consent to sex (much less to actually initiate it).
It’s also possible that someone could want sex as a means to an end: to get to the post-coital cuddling, to make up after a fight, to make their partner feel loved and wanted, to feel loved and wanted themselves, to get paid for it, to finally lose their virginity and know what it’s like (a doomed endeavor considering the immense variety of possible sexual experiences, like trying a specific flavor of ice cream to know what ice cream tastes like), to allay other people’s suspicions regarding their sexual orientation (i.e., to “prove” they’re straight), to avoid their partner being disappointed, or – in extreme cases – to avoid their attacker stabbing them. Presumably, none of these would count as sexual attraction.
A more accurate definition of sexual attraction, then, was: a desire to have sex with another person as an end of itself, not just as a means to an end, independent of whether one actually intends to follow it.
Back when I first thought this through, it seemed to make things much more difficult and complicated. What if it’s a little of both?, I wondered. What if I can’t tell if I want it or am just not opposed to it?
But right now, these questions seem profoundly silly, and I can’t even quite remember what my confusion was. I can remember quite a bunch of situations where I absolutely desired sex as an end of itself, and it was impossible to mistake it for a desire for anything else. It wasn’t just a “hmm, maybe, why not”, it was a very loud and clear “YES PLEASE”. If someone had offered me just sex – completely consequence-free, context-free sex – with the object of my desire, I would have jumped at the opportunity.
Somehow, over the past few months or maybe even the past year, I have sneakily but undeniably become allosexual.
To clarify before going any further: this does not mean everybody can become allosexual, let alone that becoming allosexual is an inevitable development with enough maturation or the right partner or any other circumstance. It also doesn’t mean that my asexuality was something broken or sick that is now fixed or cured – there was nothing unhealthy about it, and from my current point of view, being allo is not much of an improvement if it is any improvement at all.
Right now, I am mostly baffled by how it happened. Starting testosterone therapy raised my libido (meaning I jerked off a lot more), but did nothing to change my sexual orientation (meaning my fantasies, if I had any, still did not involve myself in any way – the specific term for this is autochorissexual).
Maybe a very belated effect of testosterone? A side-effect of possibly lowered estrogen due to my (comparatively recent) oophorectomy? Some invisible threshold of how comfortable and happy with my body I needed to be to be able to fully live in it and experience it during sexual activities? Being able to experiment and explore with a partner I am extraordinarily comfortable with? Some combination of those factors, or something else entirely?
In any case, it is strange and sometimes overwhelming. It allows me to understand other people better, which is neat, and it makes sex much more enjoyable. But it is also yet another need to be fulfilled that causes some amount of misery if it is not met, and worst of all, it is one that depends on my ability to find enthusiastic partners.
Given that I have (a) social anxiety and (b) a customized body in a culture hostile to any body deviating too far from the ideal factory standard, this sucks.