Something I’ve become really aware of, as an asexual person in Western culture, is the weird way that sex is both hyper-visible and constantly hidden away.
I’m hardly the first to comment on this unhealthy dichotomy in our society. But it takes on a different (though equally damaging) significance from the point of view of someone who’s completely uninterested in sexytimes.
Sex is everywhere
I live in a society that surrounds me with sexualised imagery, a constant reminder that it’s meant to mean something to me.
Sex sells. So sex is used to sell everything: underwear (of course), soft drinks, car servicing, and even sandwiches. From billboards and bus stops, the images scream out at me: look at these bodies! Don’t they make you excited? We know you’re thinking about sex – everyone’s thinking about sex, right?
I don’t even have to leave the house for the messages to pervade. Though I mostly avoid watching commercial TV, all I have to do is go online to find myself bombarded by lingerie-clad digital ladies advertising – apparently – online MMOs.
And so many of my otherwise favourite movies and television shows contain lashings of sexualised nudity and anything from heavy petting all the way up to complete (though modestly-shot) sex scenes. Sense8, Game of Thrones, I’m looking at you – and then I’m getting weirded out and looking away until you change scenes.
Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a hand-wringing complaint about the state of society. I know I live in a world where most people experience sexual attraction, and objectively-speaking I have absolutely no problem with the media around us reflecting and celebrating that attraction (leaving aside for now the complex questions of exploitation and objectification).
But as someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction, the message is constant and inescapable: these images are supposed to stir something inside you – why don’t they? What’s wrong with you?
Sex is nowhere
And yet, surrounded as we are by the sexualised imagery of others, we still obey this strange taboo of never discussing our own sex lives.
Next time you go into work and someone asks, How was your weekend?, tell them how the sex was with your partner or that attractive person you just met. Go on – I dare you.
The taboo against talking about our sex lives is so strong that patients struggle to talk to their doctors about their sexual health – and to make it worse, doctors feel just as uncomfortable talking to their patients.
With the rise of #metoo, sexual harassment and abuse has become increasingly openly discussed, and that’s a beautiful thing. But the revolution is moving much slower when it comes to openly discussing people’s healthy, non-abusive sexual encounters.
Are these two phenomena – the pervasiveness of sexuality in media and the unwillingness to discuss our own sexuality – connected? Does part of the urge to keep quiet about our own sexual experiences stem from a fear of not living up to the hype?
It wouldn’t surprise me if it does; after all, school sex ed is notoriously bad at preparing us for the real thing. Meanwhile, the media surrounds us with images of people who seem to know exactly what they’re doing (and I haven’t even mentioned porn, because that at least I’ve been able to avoid).
And because no one talks about it, the sexual activities of the people around us remain shrouded in mystery, leaving us free to experience impostor syndrome at its best. Sex therapist Matty Silver writes, “Many of my clients tell me that they think that they are the only ones who find it difficult – they believe most of their friends are having great sex lives.”
So where does that leave asexual folk?
In a world where no one talks about sex while the media reinforces the notion that everyone wants it, how are people who experience no sexual attraction supposed to realise they’re not alone?
Because I’m in a long-term relationship, people assume I’m allosexual. And because sex isn’t a topic that just comes up in conversation, there’s no way for me to disabuse them of that notion that doesn’t come out like an awkward non sequitur (although I do seek other ways to bring it into discussions).
I have no doubt that our inability to talk realistically about sex has contributed a great deal to the relative invisibility, even today, of asexuality. Statistically, asexuals are (at least) one in every hundred people – if talking about sex was no weirder than talking about sport, how much more common would the oh hey – you’re like me! moments be?
Sadly, Western society’s increasing lack of inhibition around portraying sex in advertising and film and television has not been matched by a stripping away of social inhibitions around discussing our own sex lives.
As long as that remains the case, asexual folk will continue to find ourselves surrounded by messages idealising humans as innately sexual beings, yet lucky is we stumble upon any discussion of the true range of possibilities for human sexuality and asexuality.
Image source: Wikipedia (image has been cropped)