Asexuality and sexual expectations

We live in a society where being sexual is the norm, which can make it difficult for people who don’t desire a typical sexual relationship. (x)

Editor’s Note: This post was submitted by Pegasus for the May 2014 Carnival of Aces. Originally published at Beyond the Rainbow.

We live in a society where being sexual is the norm. The vast majority of people take it for granted that when people are in a relationship they will be having sex. Even from the most socially conservative perspective, it is expected that married couples will have sex.

The possibility that a healthy person could just simply not desire sex is rarely considered in discussions of sexuality. And models of happy, successful, sexless relationships are largely missing in the media and sex education. If spoken about at all in mainstream culture, a lack of sexual desire is invariably associated with psychological problems, abuse, hormonal imbalances, or a need for Viagra.

This is the environment in which asexuals have to come to understand their asexuality, figure out what they want when it comes to intimacy, and navigate their first relationships. We may have progressed as a society for the phrase “no means no” to be familiar to most people (even if not always taken seriously), and the more positive “yes means yes” idea of enthusiastic consent is gaining ground. But in all this, the option of saying “never” to sex with a partner is rarely given serious attention.

For that matter, even the idea of sitting down with a partner or potential partner and discussing everyone’s desires, needs, and boundaries when it comes to sex and intimacy, is only practiced by a minority. Most of us still fall back on the idea that talking about sex is awkward, embarrassing, and just plain unsexy. Sex and intimacy is meant to just take care of itself, and actual negotiating it is usually left to telepathy or something.

This too often leaves asexuals, feeling an expectation to behave sexually in a relationship, with no easy way to say what they do or don’t actually want. To be clear, I’m not talking about pressure to be sexual coming from a partner (or potential partner)—that is a whole separate issue. But the pressure that comes from the media, and our culture, to conform to a particular sexual style of having relationships. It could manifest in a person being afraid of not being able to find a partner if they aren’t willing to have sex. Or internalizing the idea that there is something wrong with themselves if they don’t wish to have sex. Or believing that partners are entitled to have sex, and feeling guilty when it comes to saying “no” (or “never”) to sex.

Even if an asexual understands their feelings about sex and is self-assured enough to state what they want and will not do sexually, they still have to contend with others making the default assumption that they are sexual. If somebody shows an interest in intimacy or forming a relationship with an asexual—or God forbid, an ace flirts with somebody—then the onus is always on the asexual to come out and explain their position on sex. Otherwise they are liable to be accused of leading somebody on, or worse. Allosexuals don’t usually face this expectation to be transparent about what they want or expect sexually—the unsaid default societal expectations are enough to fill in the gaps.

This double standard places a pressure on asexuals to come out to people pursuing them, whether they wish to come out or not, as well as the stress of working out when/how to do so. It places the entire burden of discussing sexual compatibility, or rejecting the advances, on the asexual person. Whilst an allosexual is able to largely leave their sexual desires and expectations unsaid—just go with the flow (following the unspoken standard societal script for sexual encounters)—and leave explicit negotiation as an optional extra.

Likewise there is a pressure for asexuals to avoid flirting or otherwise giving any signal that might be misinterpreted as sexual. The standard societal practice of not being open about what we want or expect sexually means that flirting, kissing, dancing, buying a drink, or even simply talking can be read (in particular contexts) as being an unspoken code for wanting sex. Asexuals (and anybody) else who want to kiss, flirt, or dance without it meaning anything other than that they want to kiss, flirt, or dance, don’t have many options. They are forced to choose between ignoring those desires, or risk having their behaviors misinterpreted and “leading somebody on”.

Awareness about asexuality is slowly increasing, which will no doubt make life easier for aces and anybody unsure of their sexuality. But ultimately, until we as a society are able to actually routinely discuss sex and sexual desire openly—without relying on unspoken sexual norms to communicate about sex—anybody who doesn’t desire the “typical” sexual relationship styles will be disadvantaged by the default societal assumptions around sex, relationships, and sexual expectations.

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