Sex is a complex matter. It is hard to define – for some people, only genital penetration counts; for others, anything involving someone’s genitals is sex. It also has several meanings: an expression of romantic love, a fun activity, a way to experience pleasure, a way to prove one’s worth… and many more. Some use it as a means of pressure (withholding sex in punishment or offering sex as a reward in order to obtain something), while others plan strategies to obtain it.
One of the reasons why it can be so difficult sometimes to come out as asexual is that most people cannot imagine that some people might not want sex. It is assumed to be a universal truth that “everyone wants sex”. Yes, there are a few exceptions – deeply religious people, artists and scientists so committed to their life’s work that they are aware of nothing else, victims of sexual abuse – but those only prove that the rule holds: Everyone, except people who have very good reasons not to, wants sex.
But does it mean that they all want the same kind of sex? I doubt it. Many people have strong ideas on what is “right sex” and what is “wrong sex”, based on religious, moral, legal, and health reasons, or simply the idea that it should be done with the “right person” and when it “feels right”. But what if, in some cases, the “right sex” is no sex? Well, it appears that, for some people, even the “wrong” kind of sex is more acceptable than no sex. A bi-asexual woman told me that she first came out to her mother as bi, and later as asexual. Her mother’s reaction at the first coming out was negative, but she reacted to the second one by saying “I liked it better the time you told me you liked girls”.
I am not sure I understand why people (supposedly) want sex so much. Besides biological reasons like having a sex drive, I assume it is partly because it feels great, but mostly I think it is because of the many meanings that people associate with it. This is why I wanted sex before I discovered I was asexual. I wanted the wonderful, perfect love-making that romance novels describe; I did not want actual sex, but only an idealized representation of it. I wanted the full experience of love and shared pleasure, but there was no-one I had ever actually wanted it with. I never wondered about it, because I thought those kinds of desires only happened with the “right person”, and as whatever feelings I might have had in the past had never been returned, I was not surprised I had never experienced such desires. And yet, the actual sex acts disgusted me. Whenever I read about them, in biology class (I never had a sex ed class, only biology classes dealing with puberty, human reproduction, birth control, and STDs) or the rare times curiosity made me look for sex ed information online (I was over 19 the first time that happened), I felt uncomfortable and sick. The only reason why I still wanted the perfect lovemaking from romance novels was that, in my mind, they were two totally different things. The day I finally forced myself to accept that they were basically the same thing, only described in two very different ways, my romantic ideal of lovemaking collapsed and I never desired it again.
Maybe other people desire sex, not for the sake of getting body parts in contact, but for the sake of what sex means to them. It can be a way to express love or share something special with a romantic partner. It can be a way to feel good or have fun. It can be a way to raise their self-esteem. Sex has none of those meanings for me, though. I am aromantic and dislike physical touch in general, so I cannot relate to the idea of expressing love that way (although it would certainly be something really special and quite a gift to the other person to be able to want that kind of touch from them), and I can think of several other ways that would be more meaningful to me. There are many activities I enjoy that make me feel good; from what I heard, sex is even better, but as I do not know what exactly I am missing, I cannot really miss it, can I? As to self-esteem, I do not base it on my attractiveness to others, so getting laid would do nothing for it.
But wanting sex is not enough – people who do want sex do not want it with every person of their prefered gender(s) that they meet. There has to be some sexual attraction too – and that is the other thing that makes people want to have sex. I have never experienced sexual attraction, but I know what it is to want something very much, so I can try to imagine wanting someone in a sexual way being like wanting a gorgeous high-end laptop (yes, I know, the comparison is weird). It is not something I can really control – most of them do not catch my attention, while looking at some others or reading their technical specifications make me immediately think I want that one and start imagining how it would be to have it (how it would look on my desk, how well The Sims 3 would run on it, and so on). That makes me wonder, though, if someone who could experience sexual attraction but did not relate to any of the other reasons to want sex would actually have sex in the end or not (admitting that the other person involved was interested in having sex with them). After all, I still see some laptops that I want, but my current laptop does everything I need and more, so I do not actually want to get one of them; the attraction is there, but I do not wish to act on it.
Becoming aware I was asexual required to work out where I stood on both aspects (wanting sex and experiencing sexual attraction – the answer was no to both). But I do not think that not wanting sex is a natural consequence of not experiencing sexual attraction. I have talked to asexual people involved in romantic relationships with non-asexual people and who had sex with their partners, not as a sacrifice or a chore, but as something enjoyable they did want to do, although not for the reasons most other people have sex (usually, their reason was that they knew it was important to their partner). Asexual people may also want to have sex for the purpose of experimenting – to see what all the fuss is about, what it is really like. But at the time, even though I had read the official definition of asexuality, I was convinced that one could not actually want sex and be asexual (so, when I once wondered if I might not want sex after all, in some specific circumstances, I first had to get over the fear of not being asexual anymore in order to really explore the matter).
It seems to me that many non-asexual people just take their own desire to have sex for granted, and do not think about it much. Maybe it is easier for people who lack one of the two kinds of incentives to have sex (sexual attraction) to think about the other one (the meaning one can attribute to having sex, and which is, for me, the main reason why people actually have sex). From what I have heard, some strategies that asexual people in romantic relationships with non-asexuals use to deal with the whole “you don’t desire me so you don’t love me” issue is to discuss the fact that sex does not have the same meaning for them. And, if stories I’ve heard of people having sex with someone and thinking it meant they were a couple while for the other person it simply meant having fun are any indication, maybe non-asexual people would have an easier time dealing with each other over sex if they tried to figure out what their motivations for having sex are, and discuss them (preferably before having sex).
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