Last week, I drove from Québec to Connecticut. It is something I do fairly often, and one of the joys of that five-to-six-hour-journey is that I have to stop and explain why to a federal agent with a gun.
“What is the purpose of your trip?”
“I am visiting two friends.”
“When are you coming back?”
“You’re driving all that way just to be with these friends for an afternoon? Is one of them a girlfriend?”
“They are both women, but no.”
“But you must be hoping for something to happen there to drive so long…” Customs agent creepily winks…
Our culture so desperately undervalues friendship and overvalues sex that my ability to freely and quickly cross the American-Canadian border depends on my playing along. Act like getting laid is my number one motivation in life, and there’s nothing suspicious. Explain, “No, actually, I just enjoy long drives and profoundly value talking with and being with people with whom I share common interests,” and get delayed. Our border guards recommend travellers to secondary inspections for being suspiciously chaste: that is the sexually-charged culture we live in. Young men who aren’t horny must be hiding something. Search the car.
That was just the latest in a lifetime of little experiences that have taught me there is something odd, off, or strange about how I think about sex. Or rather, how I don’t think about sex.
Humans, and men especially, are just hopeless sexually impulsive creatures who can do nothing to stop it. That seems to be the culturally dominant narrative. That idea is in our comedy and movie plot lines endlessly, like Louis CK’s rant on men’s perpetual perverted thoughts or the Harry Met Sally assumption that men cannot think of friendship with women without longing for sex.
Some have tried to break down this gender-stereotyping by arguing that women are the same. Let’s be sex-positive and encourage everyone to feel free to be sex-obsessed! It is oddly the one point of sexual ethical agreement that I found in my religiously conservative upbringing, which tried to control it and direct it and channel it; the frat boy world which hedonistically would exploit it; the feminist activist friends who would try to disconnect it from gender stereotypes and emphasise mutual consent about it. I have my own strong feelings about which approach is best in human sexuality, but all these diverse people seemed to share an underlying assumption: we all very badly want sex.
I never really have.
As a child, I remember being bullied for being “queer.” Picture the taunt in a thick Boston accent, no R and double-syllabled, more like a rhyme for square—”you’re so wicked quay-ah!” My elementary school peers probably did not, at least in the younger years, think in terms of my sexuality. They just knew I was not living up their ideals of what it meant to be a boy. I was odd, off, queer. I hated sports, had no interest in video games, and would always prefer to do “girl” things and talk to girls at recess. I had a severe case of what Focus on the Family founder and disgraceful imitation-of-a-psychologist James Dobson called “pre-homosexuality.” I had not done anything gay per se, but my very being was already an un-Christian sexual perversion.
These kids often recognize very early in life that they are “different” from other boys. They may cry easily, be less athletic, have an artistic temperament and dislike the roughhousing that their friends enjoy. Some of them prefer the company of girls, and they may walk, talk, dress and even “think” effeminately. This, of course, brings rejection and ridicule from the “real boys,” who tease them unmercifully and call them “queer,” “fag,” and “gay.” Even when parents are aware of the situation, they typically have no idea how to help. By the time the adolescent hormones kick in during early adolescence, a full-blown gender-identity crisis threatens to overwhelm the teenager… And it illustrates why even boys with normal heterosexual tendencies are often terrified that they will somehow “turn gay.” … [This is] a condition we might call “pre-homosexuality,” and unless [a boy] and his entire family are guided by someone who knows how to assist, the probabilities are very great that he will go on to experience a homosexual lifestyle.
– James Dobson [link to read more]
As I grew old enough to understand what homosexuality was, I too was confused. My middle school self was sufficiently aware of the stereotypes to know any boy who loved poetry and musicals as much as I did, and was so profoundly confused by why anybody would possibly want to watch football, must be gay, because the obvious way to be “wicked queer” was to be gay, to be sexually attracted to men the way most men seemed be to women.
But confusingly—to everyone it seemed—I wasn’t.
I was “queer” because I did not act the part of the boy they expected me to be. When pre-teens were sneaking views of pornography at sleep overs, I would just go to sleep. My nurse mother had already showed me a very medically straightforward and explicit explanation of human reproduction, so my intellectual curiosity was satiated. When I moved to a new town in grade seven, the neighbour boys asked if I wanted to go skateboarding with them and look at a Playboy they had stolen, and I said no, and thus was “queer” again in a whole new school. When not looking at naked women, they reasoned, surely I was looking at naked men. I wasn’t. I did enjoy memorising national capitals and flags, though, late into the night. In their homophobia, they acknowledged the reality of homosexuality. But sexual disinterest was even more unfathomable.
There was a time when I thought perhaps the best label for me was “bisexual.” It seemed like a good fit for my out-of-place “queerness” is any circles of hyper-heterosexuality. If you showed me a picture of a conventionally attractive woman, I could tell you that I, intellectually, could assent that she was “attractive.” I could do that for men too. But I would not be attracted to them.
A friend who tried understand me and I recently had a conversation:
“If I showed you a picture of a super model in a bikini, would you find her ‘hot’?”
“Maybe if I knew her hopes and dreams and sense of humour…”
“Okay, she is perfect for you, then would you find her ‘hot’?”
“Of course, but then I’d find her just as hot if she weren’t a supermodel and if she were in an Amish dress!”
I think one way to frame what I mean by not being attracted is for most hetero- or homosexual people, if you picture someone of the gender to which you are not attracted who you intellectually know to “attractive.” Feeling that ambivalence? That, “Sure, they’re good looking, but I wouldn’t even want to do anything about it”? Now picture that feeling about everyone you see. I had thought “bi” was the best word for me because I did feel the same about men as I felt about women. With more time and maturity, I think I realise the more honest truth is that I see attractive men with the same ambivalence or disinterest.
I spent childhood attending an Assemblies of God Pentecostal church and then I found an imperfect home in the conservatism of Mormonism as a teenager and young adult. These cultures obsessed with abstinence and purity, and initially this seemed like the perfect fit. In my childhood, the Christian contemporary band dc Talk even released an epic—and painfully ’90s CCM—ode to abstinence called “I Don’t Want Your Sex for Now.”
Not wanting sex until “we take the vow” made sense to me. Why do something like that with anybody who has not promised their lifelong devotion? How would that even be appealing?
My first kiss was when I was twenty-three years old and engaged, and I waited until my wedding day for sex. It was not a moral victory, though. While the countless exhortations from the “prophetic” elderly men in Utah I heard in church treated abstinence like a war, I never found it to be a challenge. Certain “sexual sins,” as I then believed them to be, would never had occurred to me if not first named to me by a church bent on preserving the moral purity of its young adults.
I was “queer” for both for being so unusually un-interested in sex with women, and for not interested enough in men instead to be “gay.” I was genetically predisposed to being a paragon of Mormon virtue, and yet somehow still couldn’t will myself to be quite the masculine figure I felt I was being asked to be. Virtue was to want sex badly and nobly resist it. I somehow felt fraudulent about my purity, oddly. Yet the answer was not I didn’t want sex ever. I have two children, so obviously I am known to have some experience in these matters. Sex as an act of love for another person and as pleasurable experience in the context of a loving relationship makes sense to me. Sex as a motivating force, as a driving desire, however, makes no sense to me. Its appeal is entirely encapsulated in relationship. I assumed this was the moral ideal, and thus did not think it had a name, yet I knew it was odd, too.
But it does have a name: demisexuality.
Demisexuality is a sexual orientation in which someone feels sexual attraction only to people with whom they have an emotional bond. Most demisexuals feel sexual attraction rarely compared to the general population, and some have little to no interest in sexual activity… However, forming an emotional bond doesn’t guarantee that sexual attraction will happen. It is just a prerequisite for it to occur at all… There’s a difference between feeling sexually attracted to someone and wanting to have sex with them. Sexual attraction isn’t something you can control—either you have sexual feelings for someone or not. You can’t force it to happen and you can’t force it to go away, so you don’t have a choice in the matter. Sexual behavior, on the other hand, is something you can choose to participate in, or not. Most people on the non-asexual side of the spectrum feel sexual attraction regardless of whether or not they have a close emotional bond with someone. They may have sexual feelings for attractive people on the street, classmates or coworkers they’ve barely spoken to, or celebrities. However, they may choose to wait to have sex for a variety of reasons: it might not be feasible or appropriate, they want to make sure the person is respectful and kind, it’s against their religious beliefs, they only want to have sex in a romantic relationship, etc. The difference is that demisexuals don’t start out with these sexual feelings at all.
-from the Demisexual Resource Center. Emphases added.
Keep in mind the difference between behaviour and attraction! Non-demisexuals are capable of not acting on sexual impulses until emotional bonds or formal commitments are made. Demisexuals, too, are capable of sexual activity that they feel is societally expected of them, whether to please others or force ourselves to emulate what we are taught is normalcy (Revealing that I am demisexual, like revealing any other sexual identity, is revealing to you nothing about my past or present behaviour.)
Demisexuality is held in some subcultures as the ideal, and even more so for women. So if it is just a title for those whose desires are conveniently in-line with conservative ideals, who cares? Because even those who hold up demisexuality as the ideal do not presume it to be the default. It is treated as a premise we must convince people of. We have to persuade them to “want” sex only within the confines of marriage or monogamy or true love, but we assume they already want it beyond those constraints. In the LGBTQ community there has been a lot of, important and necessary I believe, talk about “bi-erasure,” the tendency to believe bisexuals do not exist either by considering their orientation a phase or considering it a lie until they have the courage to “fully come out.” I think there is a profound erasure, too, in the wider culture, of the asexuality spectrum. We’re not repressed or inexperienced or exercising holy will-power, we are just sincerely less interested than most other people! To be demisexual in our society is to be made to feel out of place and abnormal, and in my experience leads to constantly being misunderstood and to my misunderstanding others.
On the “liberal” end of my social life, it has led to an assumption that I must be “repressed.” I am not repressed, I am just not that interested. In high school, older girls in drama club would often speak of the goal of “corrupting” me as if their come-ons would liberate me. When I was a Mormon missionary to San Diego, it was a surprisingly frequent experience that Southern Californian women would seek to scandalise or shock us repressed Mormon boys by flashing us while we walked or even answering the door bell naked. My fellow elders seemed invariably shocked and felt guilty; I tended to feel indifferent. Apart from knowing the hopes and dreams of the attached woman, breasts simply aren’t exciting. If the only personality trait I know about her is that she is the type of woman who would flash Mormon missionaries for her own entertainment, well, that was not exactly an attractive trait to me.
A friend, in a moment of joking-with-truth, said to me, “You have the libido of the tiny woodland creatures that help Snow White get dressed in the morning.” I think it was an awkward, humorous, and eloquent description. Another friend, who himself identifies as an Aspie (someone with Asperger’s syndrome) said, “I think you’re sexually Aspie.” It may not be a clinically valid description, but I recognised the truth he was trying to name. I have had a long obliviousness to “come ons,” both those directed at me and those, innocent to my mind, actions I could do that could be perceived as such. I have become more aware of such things, but this awareness has been carefully studied and sometimes explicitly taught. None of it is intuitive to me.
Living as a demisexual in an overly sexualised world is confusing. And the religious conservative circles who promote purity and abstinence are just as sex-obsessed, if not more so, than anyone else. Teenage me thought Mormonism would be a refuge. I was not a freak for wanting to wait until marriage. But the assumption that I, as a young male, was sexually provoked by anything and everything pervaded everything in church life. Youth group was usually gender segregated. The youth camp program in which I later worked had absurd dress codes based on the premise that the sight of a young woman’s midriff, lower back, shoulders, upper legs, or heaven forbid cleavage, no matter what outdoor or summer activity she was participating in, would lead young men into a downward spiral of impure thoughts. Most devastating to me personally was that the fact I tend to emotionally connect more easily with women than my fellow men, but male-female relationships could be so circumscribed. For the time of missionary service, flirting was strictly forbidden and in my experience any humour or sincere friendship was labelled as flirtation. When I was single returned-missionary, friendship and “hanging out” were officially condemned in a sermon by one of the Mormon leaders. A wide circle of many female friends was not allowed. I was supposed to focus on finding only one. When I was a stay-at-home dad, I was left out of the world of playgroups because a married man with a bunch of married women was a threat to everyone’s marital vows somehow.
There is a paradox in social conservatism that it is as sex-obsessed in its thinking as any frat house, and thus ultimately as uncomfortable for a demisexual. I am no longer Mormon. I remain a devout Christian, but in much more sex-positive and less controlling traditions. More recently, finding myself single and in my early thirties and ex-Mormon in Montréal when all I really ever knew of dating was Utah-centric conservative Mormon 20-somethings has been jarring to say the least, and for now I have decided on an indefinite moratorium on “dating”. Yet many well-intentioned people in my life simply do not understand intentional singleness. Moreover, some friends who do understand intentional singleness have suggested that I seek the “fun” of casual sex. The reality is—this is not a moral judgment, but an acknowledgment of my demisexuality—there would be nothing fun about casual sex.
Yet, whether I am in a conservative space that frowns upon sexual advances or a liberal space that allows for them with respect and consent, either way, I do not tend to recognise them nor recognise when I am “sending signals.”
If I ask someone out for coffee, I want some caffeine and conversation. If I ask someone to go to dinner with me, I want some food. If I invite a friend to stay the night at my place, I am assuming they need a bed nearby and I have one. I know I have inadvertently hurt feelings by my obliviousness to other people’s interest and I have accidentally scandalised people by being perceived as far more forward than I meant.
Women in whom I have been, in fact, quite interested have assumed that I must not really like them because I had not gotten physical in any way on the timeline they had learned to expect an “interested” man would. Women in whom I have not been interested have been convinced I am coming on because the social interest or kindness I was trying to show, in their lives, had usually been a sign of a man “coming on” to them. Obviously, these relationship miscommunications are not uniquely demisexual problems, but they seem to be the sort of misunderstandings to which I am particularly prone. Culturally, clear and blunt communication is often considered non-romantic, but without it, I find myself floundering in a world of expectations I don’t understand.
I do not speak, nor could I, for all demisexuals, but I don’t think I am totally unique on this: I long for friendship. I long for companionship. I love company. But if I just met someone, I am not trying to sleep with then. If I am having coffee with them, I am not trying to sleep with them. I may even have a huge crush on them. And that means I want to spend time with them, getting to know them, and letting them get to know me. And if we started dating, I still wouldn’t be trying to sleep with them. Friendship is not a ploy for sexual action. Yet on the other hand, it is a prerequisite for attraction. I am only attracted to friends, but I am not attracted to all friends. I have many friends. In my single years of life, I have probably only had a crush a year, or less. Of my crushes, very few actually led to enough dating for me to say I was physically attracted. At least for me, the most single attractive quality someone can have is letting me know, extremely bluntly and specifically, and only within an established romantic relationship, that they are attracted to me. In a dating culture that expect things to move fast or for the man to initiate, it is odd to be a man who wants everything to be slow.
But demisexual is not asexual, completely lacking sexual desire. And it is not aromantic, or lacking romantic desire.
I strive to be at peace with singleness, yet, it is honestly not what I want. I can have emotional passion and soul-crushing unrequited crushes with the best of them! I have so much I love in life, and a profound desire to share it with someone, someone who shares my passions, and someone who loves me despite and even occasionally for all my quirks, and whose quirks I can find just loveable.
And more bluntly, I would love to have sex again some day. But first I want a deep and abiding friendship. And then I want explore new places together. And then I want know all her hopes and dreams. I want her to know mine. I want to talk about how those can be merged, how they can be distinct but symbiotic, how they can grow intertwined in time. I want to laugh at her jokes and hear her laughing at mine. I want hold hands for a while. I want love with my heart first and be loved first. I want her to feel safe with me and I want to feel safe with her. I want commitment. And when all of that has happened, I want to express all that love the most intimate way humans can. I want sex, absolutely, but it is very last thing I want.