The theme for this month’s Carnival of Aces is on asexuality and mental health. Now, ordinarily, I don’t have much to say about the topic of mental health. I’ve never been to a therapist. And that whole undiagnosed lethargic fog of depression or anxiety or whatever it is that’s going on, well, I never have much to say about that, primarily because it won’t let me say anything about it other than recurring vague posts about how I should do things that I never end up doing. But this month, one of the subprompts was to talk about eating disorders and asexuality. Now that is something I can talk about.
But before I begin, a bit of housekeeping…
Because I’m going to be talking about a topic outside of my regular subject matter, I expect this post will get some readers who are not all that familiar with asexuality. So, what is asexuality? It’s a sexual orientation characterized by a persistent lack of sexual attraction to any gender. Essentially, it’s the “none of the above” option on the sexual orientation form. You can learn more about it on this site, or over at WhatIsAsexuality.com.
And second, I am not implying that asexuality is related to any eating disorders, nor am I implying that any eating disorders are related to asexuality. I’m going to be talking about both here, and how they impact my life and how that impact is similar in some ways, but I don’t want to give the impression that I think they’re connected to each other. I also want to make clear that I’m speaking for myself here.
Also, this post is a bit… venting and angry… disordered and unfocused… That’s by design. This isn’t meant to be an in-depth exploration of what asexuality and ARFID are, or a detailed survey of the way people experience them. This is about me. And I’m angry and unfocused about this topic.
And now, the main event…
As you’re probably aware, I’m not really part of the sex fandom, as some have put it. But you may not know that I’m also not really part of the food fandom, either. I have something called “ARFID”, which stands for Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. This used to be called “SED”, or Selective Eating Disorder, but I think they changed the name because it’s less about selecting food and more about avoiding it. ARFID isn’t like one of the eating disorders you’re probably thinking of, like anorexia or bulimia, where weight or body image is at its core. Instead, it’s more of a fear of most foods, or a sense that most foods are disgusting. It’s not a matter of “I don’t really like tacos”, it’s more a matter of “Tacos are not food and that substance is not going anywhere near my mouth so don’t even try it.”
People with ARFID typically have a very limited range of foods they’ll eat. And it’s not “These are my favorite things so I eat them all the time”, either. It’s “These are the only things I am able to eat.” Things like grilled cheese sandwiches, plain pasta, macaroni and cheese, or pizza with limited or no toppings are some common (though not universal) safe foods. Sometimes it can even be very specific brands or restaurants, even though the foods are fundamentally similar between them. Like, I can’t explain why, but I love Arby’s roast beef sandwiches, but a roast beef sandwich anywhere else is not gonna happen. And it’s not always about taste. It can be about texture or presentation or some inexplicable aura of loathing. For instance, I can eat orange flavored candy and drink orange juice (no pulp), but if I try to eat an actual orange slice, my body will physically shut down in response. Rationally, I know that it tastes like orange, and I can tolerate the taste of orange (not my favorite, but it’s doable), but when I get in that situation, OH HELL NO AIN’T GONNA HAPPEN. And then I have no problem eating apples.
So, what does this have to do with asexuality? Well… Nothing. And everything.
Sex and food are two pillars that society constantly swirls around. They form the basis for the enjoyment of life for many people. Often the two are intermingled in some way (see: Hooters). And both of them are things that I am not into and that I cannot understand other people’s obsession with. But that means that I can see similarities between them, how society looks at them, and how other people treat aces and people with ARFID. That’s what this post is going to explore.
“Just try it! Maybe you’ll like it!”
This phrase is the bane of aces and … um … ARFIDers? When I talk about this in regards to asexuality, I usually make some comment about Green Eggs and Ham. In fact, my copy of Green Eggs and Ham is in with the asexuality books on my bookshelf for this very reason. But in the context of ARFID, that literally is what the plot of that book is about. Some guy does not want to eat something disgusting and gets harassed by a stranger for over 50 pages about it.
The worst part about the book is that at the end, he tries the green eggs and ham and he likes them and starts eating it on boats with goats. And so everyone thinks that’s how it works. You just try something strange and alien and you discover how fabulous it really is, and then you go around holding up signs and riding vaguely dog-like creatures and shouting at people just trying to read the newspaper about how wonderful this thing you tried is. And you shove it in their face to convince them how great it is. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how it ever works.
When I tried sex, I found it mostly boring and dull. It wasn’t some earth-rattling, life-changing transformative experience. It was repetitive, I had an orgasm, and what’s the big deal? Trying it didn’t make me like it, and certainly didn’t make me want to ride around on a dog-thing and shout at people about how great it is. But when it comes to food, it is a totally different story. New food is a nightmare. Always. It never works out. The process is something like this:
- Inexplicably decide that Food Item X is something I might actually be able to eat, despite all past experiences to the contrary.
- Food Item X sits in my freezer for weeks while I work up the courage to give it a go. 50% of new items stay at this stage until there’s an annual freezer cleaning and they get thrown out without being opened.
- I tentatively prepare Food Item X, according to its instructions.
- Food Item almost always looks or smells repulsive in some way and I wonder what in the hell I’m doing.
- I get the appropriate utensil and use it to acquire a small portion of Food Item X.
- I stare at the small portion of Food Item X on the utensil. I am paralyzed, unable to move. I typically remain in this state for ten minutes. 50% of the items which have made it this far are discarded at this point.
- I eventually work up the nerve and overcome the paralysis just enough to try tasting Food Item X.
- Food Item X is as terrible as expected. 100% of the items which reach this phase are discarded.
- I feel terrible for wasting that food.
- I feel terrible for wasting the time and energy to prepare that food.
- I feel terrible for having to waste more time and energy to prepare something else that I can eat.
- I feel terrible for generally being a failure of a carbon-based biological engine.
- And, in some cases, I feel physically terrible because Food Item X made me physically ill in some way. Sometimes for hours.
That is what happens when I “just try it”. EVERY. DAMN. TIME. So fuck you, Sam I Am. Take your signs and your weird dog thing and leave me the hell alone.
“You’re missing out!”
No. No, I’m not.
You might think that sushi is the best thing since sex or that sex is the best thing since sushi, and that there’s no way my life can be complete unless I enjoy those things equally as much as you do. But I assure you, I am not missing out on either sex or sushi. I’m not interested in those things.
We do not all have to have the same preferences. I really enjoy playing Rayman 2 for the Nintendo 64, but at the same time, I can accept that you might be living a happy and fulfilled life even if you haven’t played it. If you express an interest in video games, I might suggest that you play it. But if you tell me that you’re not interested in video games or that 3D games make you sick, I’m not going to insist that you are missing out on a fundamental piece of the human experience if you don’t play it.
So you keep your sex and your sushi and I’ll keep my Rayman 2, deal?
“It’s Just A Phase”
One of the more common dismissals of both asexuality and ARFID is that “it’s just a phase”. “You’ll grow out of it.” The idea being that pretty much everyone isn’t interested in sex or is a picky eater when they’re a kid, and that everyone will grow into a fully-developed, sex-loving, haggis-eating adult in time.
I’m pretty sure I’m old enough to know that I’m not going to start craving sexy times or Thai curry any time soon. And you should probably believe me about that.
The insidious corollary to this is that it makes people like me out to be immature and childish and objects of worthy of ridicule.
“Well, I Don’t Like XYZ Sometimes, Either”
People use this line about both sex and eating. Sometimes it’s a matter of dismissal, a way of saying “Oh, everyone’s like that, you don’t need a word for it”. Those people can just go stand on an anthill. I’m not going to waste time talking about what’s wrong with that kind of thinking. But sometimes it’s a matter of attempted sympathy, like they’re saying “well, I understand where you’re coming from, because I’m like that, too.”
Except… No, you don’t understand me.
You think sex with your husband is boring once in a while. Great. That doesn’t mean you understand what it’s like to be constantly bombarded with messages about how great sex is and how everyone loves it and should do it all the time and end up feeling broken because you can’t relate to that at all.
You don’t like lasagna. Great. That doesn’t mean you understand what it’s like to be hungry because you’re on vacation and there is literally nothing you are capable of eating at any of the restaurants in the town you’re in.
Pretty much everyone has food that they find disgusting and refuse to eat. (In fact, most people have a very limited diet, compared to what’s available in the world.) Pretty much everyone has some sexual act that they’re not into. (In fact, the majority of people automatically rule out about half of the sexual activities they could take part in, right off the bat.) But that’s not what ARFID is. That’s not what asexuality is. It’s not a “some of the time” thing, it’s an “all of the time” thing.
Unless you’re asexual or unless you have ARFID, no, you don’t understand me. So spare me the “I’m like that, too” nonsense.
“You Can’t Be, Because…”
You can’t be asexual because you masturbate! You can’t have ARFID because you eat Doritos! You can’t be asexual because you’ve had sex! You can’t have ARFID because you’ve had poutine!
Gotcha gatekeeping bullshit isn’t limited to just talking about sex or just talking about eating. I get it from both sides! People who don’t understand what something is have a way of deciding that they’re experts on a subject and feel that they need to tell me that my existence is wrong because they Know Better™.
Both ARFID and asexuality impact my life when it comes to social situations.
Is she flirting with me? How do I explain how I am?
Are they going to suggest dinner? How do I explain how I am?
The conversation has turned to sex. Do I have to come out and explain how I am?
The server has come by and I didn’t order anything. Do I have to come out and explain how I am?
It’s hanging out there. Everyone can see it. I’m withdrawn. I’m hiding that I’m broken. Is it safe to tell them?
Because sex is largely a taboo subject, it doesn’t come up nearly as often as food does, and that means that I’m not subjected to the same relentless taunting that I get about my eating habits. People seem to take my pulling back from conversations about sex as some sort of personal or religious objection to the topic, and they leave it alone. But when it comes to eating, it’s open season. “We’ll go somewhere they have grilled cheese for you.” “Oh look, they have cheese pizza here.” “Should we ask for the kids menu?” For some people, this is the only conversation they ever have with me. Let’s all point and laugh at the eating disorder! Fuck you, dude.
If your boss mocks you for a lack of interest in sex, you can file a complaint with HR and hopefully have that taken care of. But if your boss mocks you for an insufficiently varied diet by their standards, all you can do is laugh along through the pain.
My eating habits were also a source of extensive friction with my ex-girlfriend. I remember once she told me that she was sad that if she married me that she’d never have Vietnamese food again. So not only was I depriving her of sex, I was also depriving her of pho. Way to make me feel doubly worthless.
All this can tie back into the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (basically the psychiatrist’s bible). One of the diagnostic criteria for ARFID is “Marked Interference With Psychosocial Functioning“. One of the diagnostic criteria for MHSDD is “Clinically Significant Distress“. You could say that ARFID has caused “marked interference with psychosocial functioning”, sure. And you could say that in the past, asexuality has caused “clinically significant distress”. But you know what? Most of that interference and distress has had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the fact that people around me are assholes about it once they find out.
(And yeah, MHSDD is not asexuality, but that’s a different story…)
Asexuality and ARFID share a sense of loneliness, of isolation, of brokenness, of being the only person like that in the world. No one understands you, there’s no way to explain it, you just don’t fit in anywhere, and trying to fit into the world at large is awkward. I’ve only met one other asexual in the wild, outside of ace-specific gatherings. And I’ve never met someone else with ARFID. I’m constantly on the lookout for others like me in the world, to know I’m not alone. I cling tightly to stories like Tim Gunn’s three decades of celibacy or Anderson Cooper’s encounters with pretty much any kind of food, desperately hoping that they are like me, that they understand, that I’m not the only one.
Much has been written about pointless, gratuitous sex scenes appear in practically every movie or TV show. Well, food does the same thing sometimes. Don’t believe me? Watch pretty much any travel show. Do they focus on the beautiful scenery and quaint villages and all the landmarks and vista points that I should be sure to see? No. It’s smug assholes like Anthony Bourdain telling me that I’m practically inhuman if I don’t want to wander the planet eating Scorpion on a Stick or drinking Peruvian Spit Beer. (And you know what? There are places in the world that I would love to go see, but I’m afraid to go because there is a very real chance that I will actually starve to death if I try.)
And don’t get me started on “food porn”…
[Content Warning: Discussion of masturbation and sex and stuff.]
Not too long ago, over on Asexual Activities, there was a discussion about aces having trouble masturbating in one way or another. So I started writing about the problems I encountered learning how to do it. Along the way, I realized that there was something else getting in the way that I’d never really thought about too much. It’s always been there and the strength of it comes and goes, but it touches pretty much every interaction I have with sexuality.
I don’t feel like I have permission to have sexuality. It doesn’t feel like it’s mine. It’s like I stole it from someone else and I’m going to get in trouble if someone finds out that I have it. And I’ve never read the instructions, so I have no idea how to use the thing anyway.
I know that sort of sounds like guilt or shame, but it doesn’t really feel like that’s what it is. Guilt or shame implies that I think I’m doing something shameful or that I’m guilty of doing something wrong. I know it’s not anything that’s wrong and I know it’s not anything that’s shameful. It’s like one day I discovered that there was a mysterious $1000 deposit in my bank account. It’s not mine, I don’t know where it came from. I should tell the bank that they made a mistake, but everyone else says that they got the same mysterious deposit, and they’re going around spending it, with the bank’s blessing. But I don’t know what to spend it on and it doesn’t really belong to me, so I keep it in the account. I check on it once in a while, and it’s always still there.
Let’s start by getting some terminology out of the way. I’m not using “sexuality” as a synonym for sexual orientation. I am asexual, and that’s not in doubt. It’s likely even a large contributor to why I feel this way. I’m using “sexuality” to refer to my feelings, thoughts, interactions, reactions related to sex and other stuff in that general neighborhood.
Now, some statements of fact which feel relevant to what I’m going to talk about: I own a penis. I experience physical arousal. There are external factors which sometimes cause physical arousal. I masturbate. I enjoy it. I have sex toys. I look at porn. I have had sex twice. Fifteen years ago. I live alone. I am asexual.
When I hit puberty and first learned how to masturbate, it was something beyond top secret and fraught with peril. Messages from all over were telling me how terrible it was. You’ll go blind! You’ll grow hair on your hands! You’ll go sterile! It’s a sin! It was something only losers did. My ultra-Christian neighbor from an American Taliban household even gave me a mixtape that had a Christian Punk song about how “Masturbation is artificial sex” that probably detailed the eternal fiery horrors that awaited those who went downtown. (Fun fact: The pervy neighbor kid mentioned in the other post? Same guy.) Of course, none of those messages were coming from my parents. They never talked to me about it, but I suspect their thoughts would have been “Lock the door and clean up after”. But those messages were so pervasive from other places that they absolutely tainted how I felt, even though I didn’t believe most of them.
And it tainted what I did. No one could ever find out. I would take precautions worthy of an undercover agent. Only in the shower, where the evidence will be washed away and if someone walks in, I can say I’m just cleaning it, nothing else going on. Eventually, that expanded to being willing to do it while sitting on the toilet, but in that case, I had to use toilet paper to wrap myself and catch every drop. (Not sure how I was going to explain that if someone walked in…)
Either way, securely locked in the bathroom was the only place I was willing to do it for years. On extremely rare occasions, I would grab a bit of hand lotion from the front room, but that felt like a mission behind enemy lines. The house had to be vacant and expected to remain that way for hours if not days, all the doors were locked and checked, all the rooms were cleared, and then I’d make my move, grabbing a bit of lotion and running to the safety of the locked bathroom. I was terrified that every milliliter of lotion was being tracked and that I’d be discovered, so I did not do this often.
Eventually, I worked up the courage to try it in my bedroom. I think my parents were going to be gone for the weekend, and I was home alone. I triple checked the house to make sure it was empty, closed all the curtains in the house, checked the garage to make sure their car was gone, locked all the doors, then went into my bedroom and locked that door, too. I didn’t strip naked and get comfortable on my bed in order to have the most relaxed and pleasant experience possible. Instead, I was kneeling in front of my bedroom window, watching the driveway through a crack in the blinds, just in case. I kept my clothes on and did the deed through my fly. Not only was it all wrapped up in toilet paper, I added a layer of paper towel, to be extra special sure that everything would be contained. That happened maybe twice, total. Too risky.
Masturbation was something I did, but not something I felt I was allowed to do. It felt good, but it really wasn’t something I was able to enjoy, because I constantly had to be on guard or taking steps to hide the evidence.
I mention all of this, not to tell funny/embarrassing stories of my youth, but to detail how secret and forbidden I felt the whole thing was, and the lengths I felt I had to go to to conceal it. And certainly, I’m sure that other teenagers went through the same sorts of cloak-and-dagger routine to hide what they were doing. But some of that never left me.
Fast forward, years later. I have my own place. I knew by then that masturbation was common and that it didn’t cause random hair growth, etc. It had, by then, largely turned into something I was able to enjoy. But there were still limits. It was still done in the shower most of the time. I was able to occasionally work up the nerve to do it naked and relaxed in bed, but that was rare. I lived alone. No one would catch me, no one would know, but still, it somehow felt like the locked bathroom was the only truly private, safe place I had.
I had moved beyond using toilet paper and had discovered that various lubricants worked much better. But those had to be purchased. At a store. Where I had to get them off a shelf. Where I had to walk around the store with the item in my cart. Where a checkout clerk had to scan them. They are going to know. They are going to know why I’m buying hand lotion. They are going to know and they are going to report me.
Buying sex toys was a multi-faceted operation. First, finding the toy involved a lot of false starts and cleared search history. When I finally found something, it was probably a couple of weeks before I actually made the purchase. I used a second browser and completely cleared out the history when I was done. No one else ever used my computer, but you could never be too careful. (Not to mention the fear that the computer would somehow glitch out and start forwarding the order receipt to everyone I knew, or that it would set a picture of the item as my wallpaper and not let me change it.) Then, when the item arrived, it was dropped off at the leasing office, so I had to go in to pick it up. They have x-ray eyes or the box broke open so they know somehow. They know. They’re all going to laugh at me and I’m going to get evicted now. I even remember thinking that my new job would find out about it somehow and fire me.
Who did I think was going to find out my dark secret? Why did I think it was a dark secret? I knew there was nothing wrong with it, but why did it feel wrong?
But no, not wrong. Not bad. Not in itself. It wasn’t about someone discovering that I masturbate, it was about someone discovering that I was in possession of something that didn’t belong to me. That act, those feelings, that glimmer of sexuality, I wasn’t supposed to have that. I could pretend that it was mine, I had learned how enough of it worked to get by, but in the end, it wasn’t mine. And any time I tried to embrace a part of it or expand on what I knew, that put me at risk of the whole thing falling apart. Changing routine is what gets you caught.
I’ve been talking about masturbation a lot, because that’s my primary interaction with the world of sexuality, it’s not just that I feel like this about. Anything remotely sexual seems to set off the same alert buzzers in my head. I remember agonizing for a month about whether or not I should stop by the Student Health Center at college to pick up a free condom, because it seemed like a good idea to know how they worked. Even when I went to the health center a couple of times for something unrelated, I couldn’t bring myself to grab a few, because someone might see me. For years, any sort of undressing had to be done within the protection of the locked bathroom. I couldn’t change at the closet where all the clothes were. If I didn’t have a towel after a shower, I would have to dart to the hall closet to get one, after carefully peeking my head out the door to make sure no one was around. Sleeping in the nude was right out. Hell, sleeping in anything less than full clothes on even the hottest nights wasn’t something I felt I could do. (And this is all when I lived alone in my own apartment and there was no reasonable expectation that anyone would be there.) Whenever coworkers or friends talk about sex, I tend to shut off and pull back into my shell. Certain types of sex scenes in movies make me uncomfortable to watch. Beaches in Hawaii were unpleasant because of the amount of skin present.
While things have changed and gotten better over the years, this still comes up even today. I rarely go downstairs in my house unless I’m fully dressed. I still think that the mail carrier and neighbors will know what’s in certain packages I get, or that some package thief will grab one and blackmail me over what’s inside. Any book that’s remotely sex related (Even a general anatomy reference guide) doesn’t get put on the bookshelf, it gets hidden. So does any movie with “too much sex” in it. I’ll clear my clipboard if I ever copy/paste something remotely sexual. I’ll hide the hand lotion whenever someone comes over. Sex toys are removed from the closed cabinet in the headboard (that no visitor would ever open) and hidden in the closet. I even feel weird about having a box of tissues near my bed, because of the potential association it might have, even though I really do only use them to blow my nose. And I’ll censor what I talk about or feel weird about posting on Asexual Activities, even though that was deliberately designed to be an uncensored place to talk about those sorts of things.
And it’s not a general “Sex is bad, run away” reaction, either. When I’m in a scenario where I have permission, where sexuality is expected, it’s fine. When I had a girlfriend, we did sexual things. I was awkward and I had no idea what I was doing really, but I didn’t feel like I shouldn’t be doing any of it. At work, I had to test the adult filter settings on a service we ran, which basically meant searching for porn all day and making sure that the nudie pics showed up in the results or were blocked, depending on the settings. That was just doing my job. And I can dive in and research all sorts of random things for people who have questions on Asexual Activities, without any issues at all. But if I want to know about those things personally, I get a bit nervous.
So, what’s going on? Why do I feel this way? Why do I have so many blocks and caution signs put up around so many expressions of sexuality, even when they’re completely private? Well, the two broad areas that I think are coming into play here are society’s views on masturbation (specifically male masturbation) and the fact that I’m asexual, and the way those two things interact.
Society basically requires men to masturbate. If you don’t, you’ll be a two pump chump, your balls will fill up and explode, you’ll become a slobbering ball of horniness, and you’ll get cancer. But masturbation is only permitted in very specific scenarios. It must only be done when there isn’t a suitable partner available, and when it is done, it must be done while fantasizing about an acceptable person. And regardless, you’ll be mocked and ridiculed for doing it. You’re a pervy loser who can’t get laid.
Masturbation is seen as a replacement for “real” sex. You’re not supposed to do it if real sex is available. If you are forced to do it, due to a lack of real sex, you must be imagining having real sex with someone while you do it. It is not to be done within the context of a relationship, unless it somehow involves your partner, because the involvement of your partner allows you to claim that you’re doing it for them. It’s never permitted to be pursued in its own right, it must always be a substitute, never the main event, and any pleasure you take from it must be surrogate pleasure that’s being provided on behalf of your fantasy.
You can use porn to help, but not too much of it or the wrong kind of it. Oh, and by the way, any amount is too much and any kind is the wrong kind. Possession of nudity in all forms makes you a pervy loser worthy of mocking and ridicule. (Unless it’s an oil painting, a sculpture, or soft-focus photograph, then that’s art and therefore perfectly acceptable. But you’re not permitted to be aroused by that in any way.)
Sex toys are an absolute no when you’re alone. If you’re a pervy loser for masturbating, you’re an especially pervy loser if you use a toy. If you’re using a toy, you’ve given up hope of ever getting “real sex”, so you’re trying to find a second-rate simulation with a sleazy blow up doll. You’re so perverted that you’d rather fuck a rubber pussy than use your hand. And if the toy gets you off, you must have the hots for an inanimate object. It doesn’t help that sex toys for men have a stigma of being creepy and weird (likely because so many of them actually are creepy and weird).
And finally, look at how it’s portrayed and discussed. If it’s ever brought up in a movie or a TV show, it’s a punchline. When it’s mentioned in the news, it’s universally negative. It’s a peeper at a window, a creeper in the bushes at the park, or a movie executive abusing his position. It’s never a positive sexual health piece about how it’s normal and safe and fun and here’s these awesome toys to try. There are dozens of examples of where masturbation for women is held up as an empowering act, an important skill to learn. Hell, there’s one movie where it literally brings color to a dull black and white town, with so much energy that it sets a tree on fire. But when it’s a man involved, he’s invariably a dirty, pervy overly horny creep who can’t control himself.
That sort of constant stream of negative messages will really mess you up.
Being asexual adds a number of complicating layers on top of an already complicated situation.
I mentioned earlier that I felt like I didn’t have permission to have sexuality. Well, a huge part of that is that it feels like my own body never gave me permission. It physically responds when prompted, yes, but that’s all mechanical. It seems like other people will start to become interested in sexual things, and think “Am I allowed to do this? Do I have permission?”, and their body will respond with a resounding, hormone charged “YES”. Yes, you have permission to think you’d like to have sex with that person, in fact, why don’t you think about that when you touch yourself and it’ll make the whole thing better. My body doesn’t do that. My body’s all “What are you on about? I don’t understand what’s going on here. Do you need something?”
Sexuality in our culture is supposed to be directed at someone. You can only wear “sexy” clothes when you’re trying to attract someone, not because you like how they look or because they’re comfortable on a hot day. You can only masturbate if you’re fantasizing about someone and you’re treating it as practice for the “real sex” you’d rather have, not because you just want to get off. You can only have sex because you find someone attractive and want to share a moment with them, not because you just like the way orgasms feel when they’re provided by someone else. Your sexuality is never really yours. Even when it’s entirely in your imagination and private, there’s a part of it that’s directed outward, and it’s that part that makes it acceptable. But I can never do that. I can’t include anyone else. My sexuality isn’t directed at anyone, my asexuality won’t let that happen. My sexuality can never be acceptable.
And when an expression of sexuality isn’t directed outward, it’s treated as if there’s something being hidden. Touching yourself while imagining being with your partner, that’s fine. Jacking off to nudie pics, that’s fine. Pleasuring yourself to a fantasy about the person that was in front of you at the coffee shop that morning, that’s fine. Using a toy supposedly modeled on a porn star, that’s fine. But masturbating to nothing? Well, come on now, you just can’t do that. What are you thinking about? If you can’t say, then just what kind of dark, depraved secrets are you hiding?
I can’t even look at porn right. Porn is supposed to be fantasy fuel. I’m supposed to want to be there, I’m supposed to put myself in the scene, I’m supposed to imagine what I’d do with the person featured. Everything is supposed to be a stand-in for my penis. The cock on that guy is supposed to be mine. That toy is supposed to be my disembodied penis. Those fingers, are they supposed to be my fingers or my penis? I can never tell. And if there isn’t a surrogate penis in the scene, then I’m supposed to mentally introduce my own into the picture. Every shot, every angle, every position, they’re all designed to indicate that the surrogate cock or imaginary penis is being worked on. That seems to be how everyone looks at porn. That’s why that sort of porn is so prevalent, that’s how everyone describes their reaction to it, that’s even how people frame their objections to pornography, that it encourages lustful thoughts, because you’re imagining committing adultery and/or fornication.
But that’s not what it does for me. I never picture myself in the scene. I never teleport my penis onto another body or into the plastic shell of a toy. That doesn’t work for me. That sort of emphasis is dull and boring and leaves me confused, wondering whether people really like that sort of thing. This is supposed to be a turn on? That’s supposed to be hot? Doesn’t that chafe? Isn’t that tiring? I’m pretty sure I can’t bend that way. For most people, porn is a way for them to explore their sexuality, to let their fantasies wander. But for me, it’s a big wall. My body and my mind are just standing there saying “Nope, you don’t belong here.” I don’t have permission.
(And honestly, even when it’s a video I’ve taken of myself, I can’t put myself in the scene…)
That’s not to say porn never works at all. It does. Sometimes. Rarely. It’s best when the performers seem to genuinely be having a good time, doing things they actually want to be doing, instead of trudging through a script for the camera. My response feels more empathetic than sexual. They seem to be having a good time, doing things that feel good, so I can have a good time, doing things that feel good. But a lot of pictures and videos have to be clicked past to get to that sort of thing, and all that clicking and clicking feels like a chore, especially when I know that almost all of what I’m clicking past is going to be more than adequate for other people.
And I seem to be repulsed by the stereotypical “porn star” look. I don’t know if it’s the glossy fakeness of it all, or the overt, deliberate sexuality of it all, but something about it is a quick ticket to the land of “nope”. It’s not appealing and I don’t even remotely understand what is supposed to be appealing about it.
There are some people who I find pleasant to look at, but pretty much none of them would be considered “sexy” by a jury of my peers. And while it’s pleasant to look at them, it’s not a sexual pleasantness. Sex isn’t in the picture. If I try to fantasize about doing things with them, it all falls apart. In the rare event that there’s someone in porn that I find pleasant to look at, that certainly helps things, but I don’t understand why. I don’t think it’s anything about the pleasantness that’s subconsciously sexually enticing to me, because if that were the case, I’d be able to get the same enhancement by thinking about someone I find pleasant to look at that’s not in a pornographic context, but that doesn’t work at all. Maybe it’s that because it’s pleasant to look at them, I’m able to look at the images for a longer period of time without getting bored? Maybe I feel more comfortable? I don’t know, but the whole thing feels like there’s some sort of neuron in my brain that would normally be responsible for sexual attraction, but it’s confused and not wired up correctly, so it just spends its time taunting me. It’s arousing, but why?
The world of sex toys was not made for asexuals in mind. So much of it is driven by fantasy and an attempt to convince someone that it’s fine to use sex toys. It’s not a rubber tube that’s getting you off, it’s an anthropomorphized rubber replica of some porn star’s anatomy of choice, and so therefore, it’s really her that’s getting you off. Here are some direct quotes from the marketing of a few sex toys:
“Ever wondered what it would be like to bone me? Now you can screw me in the nastiest ways!”
“Let her love tunnel’s ribbed Cyberskin grip you so good as you slide home.”
“Flip this cheerbabe over and dive under her skirt for some steamy anal play!”
“Stop dreaming about your hot neighbor… and start doing everything you’ve fantasized about with her!”
To be clear, these were talking about 4-6 inch long rubber tubes. It wasn’t hard to find marketing copy like this. Pretty much every toy has something like it. That sort of thing does not enhance the experience for me at all. It just feels creepy and sleazy and misogynistic and makes me less interested in the product. Does that sort of thing even work for non-ace people, or are they just as skeeved out by it?
Most toys have some sort of anatomical features. Most common are labia, to resemble a vulva. But there’s also mouths and butts and breasts and feet. There’s even some that have mouth-breasts and foot-vulvas. Some toys claim to have a G-Spot or a cervix, neither of which ever resembles those actual structures. (Anatomy lesson for sex-toy makers: The cervix does not get penetrated during sex and it would likely be excruciatingly painful if that happened.) And for the more adventurous, there’s double-clitted aliens, zombie mouths, dragon cocks and mare vulvas. But whatever features they have, they all have a few things in common: They can’t be seen when the toy is in use, they have little to no effect on the sensations of the toy, and they usually drive up the price of the toy for no reason.
And even non-anatomical toys aren’t very ace friendly. One toy mentions that it’s great for use with a partner, another that its open ended design allows “added oral thrills” with a partner, another has product photos where it’s placed on a naked woman. And pretty much any toy that doesn’t look like a vulva is sold as a “blow job simulator”. When you try to buy a toy, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see some sort of genital depiction somewhere in the storefront. If you look up lists of the best sex toys of men or look at male sex toy review sites, it’s pretty much guaranteed that cock rings and vibrators will be on the list, and it’s always about how “you’ll drive her wild” when you use them. All of that is useless to me. There’s never anything about the softness or stretchiness of the toy. Dimensions are rarely mentioned. There’s never anything about how a ring changes sensations or how to effectively use a Magic Wand style vibrator on a penis. (I’m still trying to figure that last one out… Nothing I’ve tried is reliable.)
I masturbate because I like the way it feels. I use sex toys because I like the way they feel. It’s all about the physical feelings. It’s not about cleaning the pipes or about practicing for the Real Thing™. It feels good. Almost everyone else does it because it feels good, too, but no one’s allowed to admit it. So they pile up a wall of excuses and rationalizations made up of desires and fantasies and imaginary health concerns to justify it and protect themselves from having to admit that they do it because it feels good, because that would be wrong. And I don’t have any of those desires and fantasies, I don’t have anything besides the way it feels, so I’m all I’m left with is the feeling that it’s wrong.
And because I’m ace, I feel like I can’t talk about these things. In a non-ace context, everything about sexuality is foreign to me. I don’t understand the feelings, motivations, or goals that are in play. If I try to read about masturbation techniques or look at sex toy reviews, it usually ends up with someone talking about how they just thought about “the girl from the bar I fucked last week” or that the toy “feels just like a blow job”, neither of which is remotely useful for me. Every once in a while there’s something I understand, but it’s buried under an overwhelming mountain of stuff that just fundamentally does not make sense to me. And in an ace context, these things just don’t get discussed. All of these things are “sexual”, therefore they can’t be associated with an asexual person. Some aces are reluctant to talk about it because they think it makes them “less asexual” to do it. Some aces are reluctant to talk about it because they’re not comfortable talking in a semi-public arena about such things. Some aces are reluctant to talk about it because they don’t want to offend or alienate other aces. When I talk about it, and there’s little response, I can’t tell if no one’s paying attention, no one understands what I’m saying, no one feels comfortable talking about it themselves, or if what I’m talking about or the way I’m talking about it is dirty, pervy, and creepy, so it drives people away. So I feel like I’m not allowed to talk about any of it, even in the place that I created to talk about it.
There’s no place where the way I feel is allowed to exist.
What if I’m not averse to sex, but averse to sexuality? And not because it’s gross or disgusting, but because I can’t understand it. Maybe I feel like I don’t have permission because none of it makes sense, so it’s obviously not something I’m supposed to be a part of. It’s like I snuck into the field trip for the wrong class and we’re all at the planetarium of naked people, but asstronomy was never covered in my class. And it’s frustrating that I don’t understand it, because everyone else knows what’s going on. And so I play along because maybe there’s something out there which will unlock my sexuality, that somehow I’ll find my permission slip.
On deeper reflection, it feels like a large part of it is that my sexuality is not typically desire-linked, yet the general cultural conception of sexuality is. So all these desire-linked concepts are being layered on my experiences by external forces, and I’m not comfortable with that. I’m supposed to be feeling sexual desire for someone, I’m supposed to be able to connect that desire to my actions, I’m supposed to be able to kindle that desire through surrogate objects. But that’s not what’s going on, don’t assume that’s what’s going on, don’t make me feel like I have to correct the record, don’t make me feel like I have to play along.
This outside overlay of desire-linked sexuality on top of what I’m feeling is alien, unwanted, invasive. I don’t really see masturbation as sexual in the way other people mean it. And so there’s a fundamental disconnect there which I keep trying to reconcile. It’s just something I do that feels good, but other people/society/whatever keeps trying to layer meaning on it, interject their own analysis and inferences and innuendo or whatever.
It’s not so much that I don’t have permission, it’s that in a fundamental way I don’t recognize the concept of sexuality as it exists for most other people. They’re using a different file format for sexuality, and I’m incompatible with it. I don’t know what to do with the data being passed to me and just end up throwing a bunch of internal exceptions.
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Some people think that a mental disorder of some sort might be at the root of their asexuality. After all, something like Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder sounds very much like asexuality when you read about it.
Before we dive into that, let me first say that even in the case where there is something that makes you feel asexual, that doesn’t prohibit you from using the word. If this is who you are, if this word accurately describes you and you find value in using the word, then you are allowed to use it, regardless of whether or not there’s some underlying reason.
Now, it is true that there are a number of conditions described in the DSM have criteria which sound like they’re talking about asexual people. Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder lists “persistently deficient sexual/erotic thoughts or fantasies and desire for sexual activity”. Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder lists “Absent/reduced interest in sexual activity. Absent/reduced sexual/erotic thoughts or fantasies.” (FSA/ID is actually the combination of two diagnoses listed separately in an earlier edition of the DSM. For some reason, they combined a lack of sexual interest, which is a mental thing, and a lack of sexual arousal, which is a physical thing. That seems like an odd pair of things to combine.) Schizoid Personality Disorder lists “Has little, if any, interest in having sexual experiences with another person.” And those aren’t the only conditions with similar descriptions, and the DSM isn’t the only diagnostic guide, these are just a sample of what’s out there.
So, there are things that psychiatric manuals describe in words that make them sound similar to asexuality. What does that mean?
Maybe not as much as you think. There are two important things to keep in mind.
- All of these guides and diagnostic manuals are descriptions based on observations. They are based on the idea of a mythical “normal” person, and any deviation from that is noted. If they start seeing a pattern of these deviations, it can get labeled a “disorder”. This is called “pathologization”.
- These guides are not infallible. There have been five major revisions of the DSM so far. Some “disorders” are dropped, some are added, and some are refined to take into account new discoveries or new understandings. There are things that are in the DSM-5 today that are flat out wrong and which will be removed in the next edition.
With that in mind, let’s look at how asexuality fits into this model.
First, between DSM-IV and DSM-5, the HSDD and FSI/AD descriptions were drastically changed and restructured. One of the primary additions was and explicit exception that says that someone should not be diagnosed with either one, if they self-identify as asexual. So that’s a direct recognition that asexuality is not HSDD or FSI/AD. And one of the main things that was removed was the part of the diagnostic criteria that considered a partner’s distress. Under the DSM-IV, someone could be diagnosed if their partner were distressed by the person’s lack of sexual interest, even if the person themselves were perfectly fine with it. So, the DSM-5 has fixed some of the more egregious problems in the DSM-IV and that’s good, but that’s not enough. Someone still has to know about asexuality in order to be able to “self-identify” as asexual. If they’re ace, but have never heard the word before, they’ll get marked as having “Lifelong Generalized” HSDD or FSI/AD. Why should a diagnosis depend on your vocabulary?
Let’s take a step back. In point #1, I noted that things get into these guides because people notice patterns and put a name and some diagnostic criteria to them, and call them a “disorder”. But in the case of HSDD and the “Interest” part of FSI/AD, maybe the pattern they’re describing actually is asexuality, and the only reason it’s listed at all is that no one really had the words to talk about it, so no one really understood it. It became pathologized and called a disorder, instead of being recognized as a perfectly normal thing that a lot of people are. And now that we have the words, we’re able to talk about it, we’re able to find others who feel the same way, and we’re able to say, “Hey, that sounds an awful lot like us, and there’s nothing wrong with us, so stop saying we have a problem.”
“What about distress?”, you say? What if someone is distressed about their “Absent/reduced interest in sexual activity” or whatever? Look at the source of that distress. Very often, the source is the pathologization itself. You are repeatedly told that everyone wants sex and everyone likes sex and that everyone will have sex and that everyone will find someone that they want sex with. You are expected to provide a partner with an adequate and regular supply of mutually desirable sex. TV, books, movies, music, friends, coworkers, all of it drills this message into your head. So, if you realize that you don’t fit these expectations, that none of that is really part of your world, and you don’t know why and no one tells you that it’s okay, then of course you’re going to feel distressed. Even when someone tells you that it’s okay, because the rest of the world still tells you that it’s not.
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What’s love got to do with it?
Sexual orientation and romantic orientations are different things. For many people, their sexual and romantic orientations coincide, and can even reinforce each other. But they can be different. Some people experience romantic attraction, but don’t experience sexual attraction, or vice versa. (And falling in love doesn’t even necessarily require romantic attraction, just like having sex doesn’t require sexual attraction.)
Did your love come with an accompanying aspect of sexual attraction or desire? Something more, something different than “They want it, so I’ll go along” or “I kinda like how it feels, so sure” or “As long as I can keep reading my book, you can do whatever”? If it did, was it there to begin with, or did it come later, and have you ever felt similar toward anyone else?
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To tackle this one, you should first try to get a sense of exactly what “like this” means to you. Write down some of your feelings, things that interest or disinterest you, take some silly online “What’s your sexual spirit animal” type quizzes, come up with your personal list of “sexiest celebrities”, keep track of all the times you think or talk about sex or make some sort of suggestive statement for a week or so. Try to build up some data about how you really feel.
Then, once you have that information, try to get some friends or other people to do the same and see if they’ll share the results with you. If they won’t do it, or you’re uncomfortable asking them to, think about how they probably would have answered.
Now compare the datasets you’ve acquired. Do the results seem similar, or are they wildly different? Did you get “panda bear” on the spirit animal quiz, and all your friends got “rabbit” or “bonobo”, or are you all somewhere in the neighborhood of “blue jay”? Do you have roughly matching sets of celebrities on your lists, or is your page blank and theirs needed five sheets of college rule paper, double-sided? To go back to your original question, is everyone like this?
Let’s also take a moment to look closer at where “Everyone is like that” comes from. In many cases, when someone says “Oh, everyone is like that”, it comes from a misunderstanding of what asexuality is. People saying that often believe that asexuality is similar to celibacy or abstinence or prudishness, that is, they think being asexual means that you’re not willing to act on your sexual desires, not that you may not really have any to speak of. They’re saying, “I won’t sleep with just anybody”, not understanding that you might be saying “I just won’t sleep with anybody.” It’s also fairly common for people who are asexual but aren’t yet aware of asexuality to believe that everyone is, in fact, like this. So maybe the person saying this is asexual themselves and just doesn’t know yet.
When I look around at “everyone”, I see that they are not “like this” from my perspective. I see them talk about who they find hot. I see them discuss sexual things they have done or are interested in doing. I see them notice things I am completely blind to. I see TV shows and movies and books with obligatory sex scenes and hear music about various anatomical interactions described in ways that won’t upset the FCC. I see them seek out sexual encounters. I see them act in ways and talk about feelings that are wholly alien to my personal world.
For everyone to truly be “like this” from my perspective, everyone would have to be constantly spinning fairy tales about things they’re not remotely interested in and then lying in response to the fairy tales that other people are telling. It would have to be a massive global conspiracy where almost everyone but me was complicit in selling the Great Lie About Sex, and that humanity has been repeating this lie for thousands of years. The pottery turners of Moche sold this lie, the carvers of the Khajuraho temples sold this lie, the tilers of the brothels of Pompeii sold this lie, the author of the Song of Solomon sold this lie. A legendary knight wrote these immortal words in his famous poem: “I like big butts and I cannot lie. You other brothers can’t deny that when a girl walks in with an itty-bitty waist and a round thing in your face, you get sprung.” Are you calling Sir Mix-A-Lot, knight of the Emerald City, known for his valiant deeds he and his squires performed on the Broad Way, are you calling him a liar? Occam’s Razor and common sense dictates that this cannot be happening, that there is no ancient conspiracy to preserve the Great Lie Of Sex, which means that all of these people are truly experiencing something that I have never experienced.
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Quite a few people don’t want to call themselves asexual, because they don’t feel they can know for sure until after they try having sex and see how it goes. There are several ways to address this doubt.
First, you can go through with it. That would provide a definite answer one way or another. If you decide to take this route, I would strongly suggest taking steps to ensure that the experience is the best it can be. You will want to be able to view it as a positive learning experience, even if it turns out that sex wasn’t for you after all. Don’t rush into a situation you know you’ll regret later, just because it’s available. If there’s anything about a situation that feels off or makes you feel uncomfortable, then don’t do it. If you’re not into it (or at least consentingly neutral for the sake of experimentation), then you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a terrible experience, and there’s almost certainly nothing magical that’s going to make it all perfect and shiny. Also, don’t let yourself get caught in the trap of “Maybe next time it’ll be different.”
However, before going that direction, take a step back and think about why you think it might make a difference to try it out. Many other aces have had sex, and found that it didn’t change anything. And remember that being asexual doesn’t mean you have to dislike sex. Asexuality is a sexual orientation, not an opinion on sex. (Although many people do find that asexuality strongly influences their opinion on sex.)
If you feel you have to try it because other people have told you that it’s some sort of test of whether or not you’re truly asexual, well, those other people are wrong. You don’t have try something to know it’s not your thing. You don’t have to go skydiving to know you’re not interested, you don’t have to hug a cactus to know it wouldn’t be something you’d find pleasant, you don’t have to get a pet snake to know that reptiles aren’t your deal. To bring it back to sexual orientations, a person can know for sure that they’re straight without needing to have had gay sex to prove it’s not something they’re into. Hell, a person can know for sure that they’re straight without even needing to have had straight sex to prove it. You don’t have to have sex just to prove that it’s not something you’re into.
If you feel you have to try it because you think an orgasm or the physical sensations might change your mind, consider the following: Having sex is no guarantee of orgasm, and masturbation is an effective and reliable means of obtaining one without needing to involve someone else. If you’ve never had an orgasm through masturbation, give that a shot first. Knowing how your body responds and what works will go a long way towards making the experience better if you ever decide to have sex with someone else. And if you have had an orgasm, do you think it’s going to make that much difference to have someone else involved? The physical sensations will be about the same, so what do you think the emotional difference will mean to you? Do you think that will be a clarifying and determinative factor for you? Do you need to perform a physical act to get that emotional clarity?
If you think that sex is scary or disgusting or there’s some other emotional stoplight in the way, and you feel that having sex might get you past that point to a clear road ahead, stop and take a look at why you look at sex that way. If you could eliminate whatever it is that’s there, if sex didn’t have that characteristic, would that change the way you feel? Would you become more interested or would you still probably be ambivalent? And keep in mind that you don’t have to be asexual just because you’re repulsed or averse towards sex, and you don’t have to be repulsed or averse towards sex just because you’re asexual. Many people assume that those go hand in hand. Indeed, for many aces, those feelings are strongly linked. But you can be one or the other and not need to be both. It’s possible for a person to be sexually attracted to people, yet also feel that sex is a repulsive, unpleasant act they want nothing to do with. It’s also possible to be asexual, yet also feel that sex is the best thing since color TV.
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This is a very common thought amongst aces. If asexuality is described as a lack of sexual attraction, and you don’t know what sexual attraction is, how can you be sure you’re not feeling it? Maybe you’re feeling it right now, you just don’t know that’s what it is. (Or is that just heartburn…?)
Most people who’ve felt it describe it as being a distinct feeling, and that you’ll know it when you feel it. This includes some gray-aces and demis, who’ve sat on both sides of the table. However, “You’ll know it when you feel it” isn’t a great description, and probably doesn’t help much.
Here are some of the ways people who’ve felt it have described sexual attraction:
- A strong desire to have sex with them.
- A strong sense that you want them.
- A electric spark or a lightning bolt.
- A strong desire to be physically close.
- A strong desire to do things involving genitals with them.
- A need to touch them.
- Everything they do makes you think of sex.
- A strong pull towards them.
- Arousal at the thought/sight of them.
- A feeling that your rational mind is being overridden by downstairs.
- A funny/good/warm sensation in the stomach.
- Like there’s actually a magnet attracting you to them.
- You want them inside you or want to be inside them.
- Feeling hungry for them.
- Can’t look away and don’t want to be away.
- They become the only thing that matters.
- Various “roar”, “wow”, “phwoar”, “aah-oooh-gah” noises happening in their heads and/or crotch.
Certainly, some of these can describe something else, like love or a strong friendship. But in many cases, people describe it as something strong, distinct, and sexual in nature, and that combination might be helpful in distinguishing it from more run-of-the-mill feelings.. For instance, a cute puppy might make you want to touch them and create a warm/good feeling of happiness in your stomach, but you probably don’t want to have sex with the cute puppy.
It’s also noteworthy that many of these descriptions get a lot of “me too”s from people who had initially described sexual attraction differently. That indicates that there is some sort of recognition of a common underlying force at work. In other words, sexual attraction doesn’t feel like one of these, it sort of feels like all of these swirled together, in a way that’s impossible to accurately put into words.
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Arousal on its own is a physical process that says nothing about whether or not a person is asexual. There have been lab tests that show that ace people have similar arousability levels as non-aces. Trying to say that someone must have experienced sexual attraction because they’ve gotten aroused is like trying to say that someone must love the outdoors because they’ve gotten sunburned.
Sometimes arousal just happens. This is particularly prevalent during puberty, but can happen throughout life. It’s usually more noticeable when it happens to a penis than a clitoris or vagina, because a penis is typically larger and more exposed, but the same thing can happen to a clitoris or vagina. A common manifestation of spontaneous arousal is “morning wood”, that is, waking up with an erection. This can happen regardless of downstairs equipment, and is just your body performing a self test. It’s not a sign of a forgotten sex dream or secret sexual desires.
Sometimes arousal is the result of pressure or contact with the genitals. The genitals are designed to react to stimulation. This contact can be unintentional, for instance, if you’re wearing tight clothes or sitting a certain way. This contact can also be intentional, for instance, if you touch or rub them or press them against something. Either way, your genitals may interpret this as a sign that you’re preparing to use them, so they’ll get ready by becoming aroused. This is strictly physical, and doesn’t require any kind of sexual thoughts.
Sometimes arousal is a response to sexual thoughts. As with physical contact, your genitals may interpret these thoughts as an indication that you’d like to use them for something. As we’ll get to in another post, having sexual thoughts doesn’t disqualify you from being asexual, so your body’s physical response to those thoughts doesn’t disqualify you, either.
And sometimes, yes, arousal is a response to sexual attraction. But that’s not the only reason.
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