Content Warning: A couple of paragraphs talk in an abstract way about pedophilia, child molestation, and how they’re not the same thing.
Being demisexual means you pretty much get it from both sides. On the one hand, you live in a society where everyone supposedly wants sex, spends much of their time pursuing it, and can’t be happy without it. On the other hand, we’re a society that still attaches a lot of shame to sexual desire. Sexual desire is acceptable if it’s reciprocated, and if it leads to “good” sex between “consenting adults”. But sexual desire in other circumstances makes us uneasy.
As a demisexual, I fall foul of both these ideologies. As I wrote in “Asexual, Allosexual, and Other Labels That Don’t Quite Fit”, I don’t care enough about sex to spend much time pursuing it. The fact that I have to get to know someone before finding them sexually attractive means that I’m more interested in building friendships than conventional dating. It means I don’t bother making myself attractive to strangers. It means I’m never going to have sex with anyone who hasn’t first gotten to know me. And if that means I’m never going to have sex? Well, I’m okay with that!
At the same time, the sexual attraction I do experience – which, as far as I know, has been exclusively for guys – is something I’ve never been able to act on. Because I experience attraction so selectively, the chances of it being reciprocated are pretty low. If it’s for a friend, he tends to have different expectations of the relationship. And I know that in not making myself physically appealing to the seven billion people I don’t want, I’ve also decreased my chances of being found attractive by the occasional person I do. And so my crushes typically go unrequited and lead to nothing but sexual frustration.
For a long time, I was ashamed of both of these things: of not being sexual enough in general circumstances, and of being too sexual in particular circumstances. Of not pursuing sex the way I was supposed to, but of still wanting it in situations when I wasn’t supposed to.
What brings these two, seemingly contradictory things together is that, as a woman, my sexuality is not supposed to be my own. Female sexuality is understood, implicitly or explicitly, as something that exists to benefit men. It is the job of women to be a) sexually available to the men who want them, and b) sexually desirable so men will want them. A woman’s sex drive is a good thing insomuch as it encourages her to make herself available and desirable. But I fail on both counts, and that makes my sex drive distasteful.
How do I know? Consider the way we discuss women’s appearance. We frequently say that a woman who dresses provocatively is “expressing her sexuality”. But what do dress choices really tell us about a woman’s sexual desires? A woman could be gay, straight, bi, or ace, and still dress the same way. Conversely, a woman who dresses in frumpy or conservative clothing isn’t necessarily expressing a lack of sexuality. What we really mean is that some ways of dressing appeal to male sexual desires, while others don’t.
Unfortunately, women’s sexual desires are really subordinate to men’s. As a result, a woman who is sexually attractive is assumed to want men as much as they want her. And the woman who isn’t attractive? She’s not allowed to have sexual desires. If she does, if she has the gall to experience desire without being desirable herself, then she’s treated with pity, contempt, and even disgust.
This is not the only way I learned that desire was disgusting. Consider the way we talk about pedophilia. No, I don’t mean child molestation – although the two are commonly conflated, and that’s part of the problem! Child molestation is an act, a sexual violation of another human being. Pedophilia is a desire, sexual attraction to prepubescent children. This distinction should pose no problem for asexuals; it’s the same as the distinction between asexuality and celibacy: one is an orientation, the other is a behaviour.
The behaviour is condemned – and rightly so! But the orientation comes in for just as much condemnation. “Pedophile” is one of the worst words in the English language, even though many pedophiles keep their impulses in check and never hurt anyone. Why? Apparently, because wanting to do something sexual is considered just as bad as actually doing it! And if that’s true, then the sexual desire I’ve felt for my male acquaintances is also bad. A child cannot consent to sex, and none of the guys I’ve fancied has consented to have sex with me. If being a pedophile can automatically make someone a child molester, then my sexual desires automatically make me a rapist!
Coming from a religious background didn’t help with my feelings of shame. When I was a child, sex wasn’t talked about much. Insofar as it was talked about, it was understood as something I wouldn’t have to worry about till marriage. Marriage, in turn, was based on True Love, and True Love was earned by being kind, clever, and virtuous. Meanwhile, sexual desire was natural and normal and nothing to be ashamed of. It wasn’t always something you should act on – in fact, outside of heterosexual marriage, it was never something you should act on! But that just meant we were all in the same boat! We all had desires, we all had to keep them in check, and God loved us all the same!
This upbringing left me ill-equipped to navigate a secular world that simultaneously glorified sex and vilified some forms of desire. Having been taught that sex was no big deal, I didn’t know how to make it central to my life. Having been raised to believe that someone would fall in love with me for my personality, I didn’t know how to market my body. Having grown up thinking that everyone experienced “bad” sexual urges at some point or another, I could not wrap my head around the us-versus-them mentality that damns or exonerates people based on who they’re attracted to.
But my sense that my own sexuality was shameful didn’t just come from indirect factors, like how we discuss women in general, pedophilia in general, or sex in general. It also came from first-hand experiences.
For example, when I was in grade twelve, a girl I knew decided that I was jealous of her relationship with her boyfriend and wanted to break them up. The basis of this belief? The fact that, back in grade ten, I had “dated” her boyfriend for a week. To be clear, our “dating” consisted of saying we were a couple and holding hands – once; it was before he started going out with her; and I broke up with him. I had no interest in him romantically, I never had, and I was, in fact, quite pleased that these two people (both of whom I considered friends) had been able to find happiness together. But none of my explaining made any difference to her. As far as she was concerned, the fact that I’d once dated her boyfriend forever made me a threat to her romantic happiness. More than a decade before I first heard the term, I learned what it was to be slut-shamed.
Another example: some years later, a friend told me that the amount of time we’d been spending together and affection we’d been showing each other weren’t “appropriate”. Why? Because he was concerned that I was falling in love with him. Again, to be clear, he wasn’t worried that he was going to fall in love with me. I asked him specifically, and he insisted that he didn’t have any of those sorts of feelings for me. I tried to reassure him that I had no romantic designs on him, but, again, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t be trusted to know my own feelings. I couldn’t be trusted to act responsibly. Apparently, my libido was this big, scary, out-of-control thing, and if he didn’t take measures to contain it, it was going to jump out and eat him!
Note that both of these situations happened with guys I didn’t fancy. I didn’t just get shamed and told that I was dangerous because of my sexual urges. I got shamed and told I was dangerous because of sexual urges I didn’t even have! If my imaginary sexual feelings could cause me such problems, how do you think I felt about my real sexual feelings?! Ashamed, of course, and determined never to speak them, never to act on them, and never to let them be known. I lived for almost thirty years with that shame, feeling simultaneously broken for my lack of sexuality and guilty over the sexual desires I did experience.
So, what changed? Simple: I told a guy I fancied him, and he was okay with it.
Seriously, that was it! I don’t mean that he returned my feelings – because he didn’t – or that we had sex – because we didn’t. He made it quite clear that he wasn’t interested in me that way. But he didn’t freak out, or push me away, or stop being my friend, either. He heard that I had a crush on him, he accepted it, and he went right on being my friend!
I felt the change in myself as soon as it happened, but it took another two years for me to understand the exact significance of that event. In one simple act, he had changed the way I felt about my own sexuality. Far from condemning me for sexual feelings I didn’t even have, he had accepted me, messy sexual feelings and all! He had turned my desire from something scary and dangerous into something ordinary and benign. He was okay with my sexuality, and, in so doing, he gave me permission to be okay with it, too!
This shouldn’t have been a life-changing revelation, but it was. It shouldn’t have taken three decades, but it did. I shouldn’t have needed anyone else to validate my sexuality for me. The fact that I did shows just how pervasive shame is in our society, and how truly messed-up our attitude towards sex is. We live in a world where our bodies are judged, where our sex lives are critiqued, and where even desire itself is subject to condemnation. In a society like this, sexual shame is something I had to struggle to overcome. And, in the end, I needed a little extra help to get me there.
My sexual desires are my sexual desires. They affect no one but me. I’m not obligated to act on them, but I’m not ashamed of them either. They may sometimes cause me pleasure, and, more often, cause me pain. That’s my business, no one else’s. Nobody owes me anything, and I apologise to nobody. I am a sexual being: this is what I’ve finally come to accept about myself. And, ironically, accepting myself as sexual has also helped me accept myself as ace.