While some asexual folk are in relationships with other aces, there aren’t that many of us around (~1 in 100 people, statistically speaking). That means, for most of the ace folk I know who are in relationships, their partners are allosexual – they feel sexual attraction.
In my first post in this series, I promised to talk some more about the specifics of how Ben and I have made our own ace-allo relationship work. Last week I went off on a bit of a side-track about the nature of love and attraction, but for part three of this exploration I want to delve a bit further into our story.
My deeply anticlimactic coming-out
I was at university when I figured out – through a NewScientist article – that asexuality was a thing and that I was that thing. I had already had a boyfriend or two (my memory of the exact timing is hazy), but we hadn’t gone anywhere physically.
At the time, Ben and I were already friends – we’d met at uni and although we didn’t see a lot of each other in person, we were chatting a great deal online. So I told him about my asexual revelation when it happened, well before we were an item. According to Ben, when he realised he had feelings for me, he remembers thinking about my asexuality: “OK, that’s a good thing for me to already know that up front” – he never thought of it as a problem, just something we would have to navigate together.
So that’s the deeply anticlimactic story of my “coming out” to Ben! And I know to some ace readers his lack of concern might make him sound like a magical unicorn, but I was in relationships with a total of four other men before Ben, all of them allosexual, and none of them saw my not wanting to have sex as a deal-breaker, or tried to coerce me into having sex anyway.
I know not everyone is so sexually enlightened – as I got older and encountered stories from other ace folk who had had a rougher time with relationships, I realised how lucky I’ve been – but I want to stress that the world contains people who will love you and want to be with you even knowing it won’t lead to sex.
Foreign bodies – navigating different desires
That isn’t to say that navigating an ace-allo relationship has always been straightforward for us. Even though Ben has always made it very clear that he doesn’t prioritise sex as highly as the things he does get out of our relationship, that doesn’t change the fact that he is sexually attracted to me. He has wants that I just don’t.
I can tell when he’s feeling turned on by me, and it’s strange to think of his body reacting to mine in what is, to me, a really alien manner. All else being equal, I would be perfectly happy with our physical contact ending at snuggling – I’ve never felt the desire for anything more. But I know that Ben does feel that desire, and I want him to be happy too.
In the early years of our relationship, we experimented a lot in bed. Which is a whole lot less kinky than it sounds, since in our case we were literally figuring out what we could do that I was OK with and what we couldn’t (a process I had already begun with my previous boyfriend).
The answer is: not a lot. Not all asexuals are actively repulsed by sex, but I get grossed out by basically anything involving bodily fluids, which is pretty limiting. I’ve learned that I enjoy having orgasms just as much as Ben enjoys giving them to me, but even then it’s not like I’d miss them if I never had another one. Plus it’s incredibly rare (maybe once or twice a month) for me to get turned on enough to want to try things – without at least some arousal on my part, I can’t get into it enough to ignore the general ickiness of the situation.
Letting him down?
I struggled a lot with guilt for – I won’t lie – the first decade of our relationship.
In the early years, when Ben would try things to get me aroused, I felt bad that my body wasn’t responding the way he wanted it to. As the years passed and we settled into a routine, I felt bad that I was limiting Ben’s sexual pleasure. It felt like felt like my asexuality created a power imbalance between us: our bodies wanted different things, but his desire to have sex had to take a back seat to my desire not to.
Intellectually I know that when it comes to bodily autonomy, a woman’s – or man’s! – right to say “no” should always, always take precedence over someone else’s desires. But because we were in a committed relationship, and because I was saying “no” to all sex, not just a once-off, it just didn’t feel fair to him.
No matter how often Ben reassured me that he didn’t mind, and he loved me the way I was, in those moments in bed – when he touched me in particular ways and I knew he was trying to get my body to respond, or when he tried something new and I didn’t like it – I often felt like I was denying him something he had every right to want. My self-esteem would plummet, and our attempt at a pleasant morning in bed would turn into him having to comfort and reassure me yet again. Which, of course, only made me feel even worse about the whole thing.
Listening to Ben, not to the brain weasels
My asexuality is the one thing my anxiety has never been able to touch – ever since I learned about asexuality, I’ve known without a doubt that’s what I am. But that certainly hasn’t stopped anxiety from telling me that my being ace meant I was letting Ben down.
Ironically, in the long run my anxiety over not having sex has been far harder on our relationship than the actual not having sex. It’s that anxiety that has come between us in moments of intimacy – not sexual, but physical and emotional intimacy – turning me in on myself and forcing Ben into the role of comforter and carer, when we could have been sharing a moment together.
It’s really only been in the last couple of years – as I’ve been working hard on overcoming my anxieties in general – that I’ve developed the self-esteem and confidence to fully trust Ben when he says he’s happy, and to accept that I’m not a bad person for not wanting to give sex to the man I love. Learning to release that nagging guilt has been hugely good, not just for me but for us. These days we can spend a morning in bed, just snuggling and talking and sharing love, and I can appreciate our time together for what it is rather than being distracted by what it isn’t.
And yes, I do recognise the irony that it’s the asexual one of us who’s had to learn not to obsess over not having sex. Thank you so much, brain weasels.
Healthy relationship, healthy compromises
Like I said in part one, every relationship is built on compromise; if one of the compromises Ben is comfortable making for this relationship is not having sex with me, then that’s not something for me to feel bad about, any more than he should feel bad for not wanting to be social as often as I do.
Every healthy relationship involves navigating each other’s differences, regardless of what those differences are.