[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.