CW: brief discussion of sexual assault (under the text break)
One of the commonest questions I get around asexuality is, But what does it feel like?
What does it feel like to be asexual? What does it feel like to not experience sexual attraction to anyone at all?
Imagine living in a world where almost everyone hallucinates tapirs. Most of the time, this mass delusion doesn’t cause any problems – people know the tapirs aren’t really there and can usually just enjoy or ignore their visions without it causing problems, apart from the odd embarrassing mishap. So to an outside observer, everyone’s walking around day-to-day just as if they weren’t seeing phantom ungulates around them – only everyone knows that everyone else sees them too, right?
Now imagine you’re one of the 1% of people in that world who doesn’t see tapirs. In fact, you don’t even know what a tapir looks like.
You know there’s something other people experience that you don’t, but you have no real idea of what it is. The best you can do is make guesses based on the way people around you talk and act around the subject of tapirs – and tapirs just aren’t talked about all that much.
In fact, the subject of tapirs comes up so rarely that it’s easy to forget everyone else is seeing something you aren’t.
Most of the time, it just doesn’t occur to me that people around me are experiencing the world through a lens – sexual attraction – that is completely meaningless to me.
It’s one thing to know, intellectually, that my own experiences aren’t a universal constant, but knowing isn’t the same as understanding. Every now and then I’m reminded that I live in a world full of tapirs I can’t see, and it never gets any less weird.
There are cultural aspects surrounding sex and sexual attraction that I don’t think I will ever understand.* For instance:
Does sex really sell?
Seriously, are you actually more likely to buy a car or a hot dog because you saw a picture of a scantily clad man or woman alongside it? Would you actually be more attracted to stands at a technology or video game convention because there were half-naked ladies you’d never met before hanging out there being weirdly happy to see you?
Because personally, I would find that kind of awkward. Like, I don’t know you, please just leave me alone to browse the games now?
Really, enough said.
And then suddenly they’re doing it
The leading man and leading lady in an action film are alone together. Maybe it’s a brief lull in the middle of the danger; maybe he’s just thrown her out of the way of a speeding car; maybe they’re even in the middle of an argument.
And next minute they’re up against a wall and kissing, and it quite possibly isn’t going to stop there.
For the longest time, I assumed that was just another Hollywood conceit, like the idea of love at first sight or that following a girl around after she’s said she’s not interested is somehow romantic rather than creepy as hell.
Even now, I honestly have no idea how closely this trope is based on reality.
Seriously, allosexuals: would you actually want to engage in sexytimes with someone you barely know on the basis of some kind of purely physical prompting? Is that actually a thing that happens?
I know one night stands are things that exist, which implies that, for at least some percentage of the population,the answer is yes. And apparently it might even be true that life-or-death situations make allosexual folk more inclined rather than, I don’t know, distracted by figuring out how not to die.
But it still completely boggles my mind. I can’t conceive of what it would be like to desire someone else in a purely physical way.
There’s a darker side to this particular mystery, of course. I’m not going to get into a discussion here of the messed up social norms that contribute to rape culture, although there are plenty of excellent discussions around (like this one) – but so much of it is predicated on the idea that allosexual men have little control over their actions when in the grip of physical desire.
There’s plenty of evidence that that, at least, is a load of bullshit. But it’s a difficult and uncomfortable topic for me to talk about, knowing my opinions are based entirely upon second-hand evidence. I just have zero first-hand experience of what it means to desire someone like that.
Sex changes everything I guess?
And then there’s the way having sex with someone – and we’re back to consensual sex here, OK? – is somehow completely different from any of the other things you could do with them.
There’s sex as the coming-of-age (“I’ll always remember my first time”), sex as the relationship milestone (“have you gotten serious yet?”), and of course sex as the relationship changer (“oh shit, we slept together – what does that mean for us?”).
And then there’s cheating.
Don’t get me wrong – I recognise that cheating on someone you’re in a relationship with is 100% awful. Any situation that involves someone lying to their partner and going behind their back to do things they know their partner doesn’t want them to do is just full of relationship red flags.
But… why is “having sex with someone else” such a big deal in the first place?
I’m in a long-term relationship. Ben and I both have friends of various genders, and sometimes we like to do things with them that don’t involve each other. Why should me going horse-riding or him playing computer games with someone else be fine, but one of us having sex with someone else be a huge massive issue?
(Yes, I know, risk of STIs, risk of pregnancy – but there are plenty of equally life-changing risks inherent in, say, going rock-climbing with someone)
And yet, for some reason, it is a huge massive issue. Even in the poly community, which celebrates healthy, open relationships, I’ve seen how people can struggle with jealousy over their partners sleeping with other people.
Poly spaces are full of discussions around how to manage jealousy – how to practice being OK with someone you love having sex with someone else. I’ve never seen anyone discuss practising being OK with someone they love going surfing with someone else.
So sex is different to surfing. I recognise that. I just don’t, in any way, understand it.
Oh, sorry, were you expecting an answer?
I don’t know if that helps answer the question of what it feels like to be asexual. Honestly, it mostly just feels like being me, and I’m absolutely fine with that.
*Obligatory but important disclaimer: I am, of course, only talking about my own experience of asexuality here. There may well be ace folk who enjoy pornography or feel drawn to naked bodies. You do you. Return to post.