If you've landed here because of the word "sex", I'm sorry to disappoint that this is not a blog post meant to titillate you. But hey, the title got your attention, right? And that's exactly the point. Sex is something that is so heavily ingrained in our society, penetrating both the conscious and unconscious bits of our brains. In fact, that is the point of this long blog post: it is a huge part of everybody's lives.
Well, almost everybody's. Believe it or not, there are exceptions to the rule.
Only in the past ten years (or less, perhaps) has society begun to accept the notion of life being on a spectrum. There's the autism spectrum, of course, which this blog was created to address. Even more recently-- I think in 2007 specifically-- did we begin to learn that gender exists on a spectrum, well beyond the binary that humankind has believed it to be (in most cultures) for thousands of years. I identify as a tomboy, somewhere in the middle of that gender spectrum. And finally, sex is found to exist on a spectrum, and I don't mean the gay-straight spectrum (though that is another spectrum that is becoming more accepted). It's a spectrum that includes being very sexually inclined at one end to being asexual at the other end.
The funny thing is that many of the same liberal, open-minded people who accept the autism spectrum, the sexual orientation spectrum, and even the gender spectrum-- one of the most difficult ideas for people to accept-- have an enormously difficult time accepting the sexual/asexual spectrum. Some people-- including professionals-- don't accept that it's a spectrum, believing that it's unthinkable that anybody could not have an interest in sex or at least a reduced interest in sex unless they have been abused in some way or unless there is something psychologically wrong with them. Sometime in the past decade, many people have been coming out as asexual. Yes, that's right. These are people who have no interest in sex. Some of them are interested in romantic relationships without sex, but some are not even interested in romantic relationships.
Then there are the demisexuals, who are in the middle of the spectrum. They're not sexual in the conventional sense, nor are they asexual (however, some people consider demisexuality to be a subset of asexuality). What is demisexuality? Well, before I define it, let's look at how most people experience romantic infatuation. First, a woman (or a gay man) might see a man and find him attractive. "Hey, that guy is cute. I'm going to go over and say hello". They say hello. The man might be interested in the woman (or the other man) because he finds her (or him) attractive. They know nothing about each other, but they continue to talk, trying to get to know each other as lust intensifies and tension builds. Depending on their inclinations and personal beliefs, they might have sex that very night. Or they might date first and have sex a few days, weeks, or months later. If infatuation usually didn't work out that way, many of us would not have been born.
Demisexuals experience infatuation in the exact opposite way, the way that I experience it: I am a demisexual. First I meet a guy and start talking to him as a friend. Nothing else is on my mind except that we're just talking, getting to know each other as friends. After I start to get to know the guy, I might find something attractive in his personality and then develop a crush. Only after I become infatuated with the guy as a person do thoughts of, "Wow, he's really cute!" enter my mind. And only sometime after that do the lustful thoughts finally surface. For this reason, online dating would never work for me.
For years I had chalked up my experiences to part of having Asperger's Syndrome, but only a few months ago did I learn that there was a term for my sexual orientation: demisexual. I have only experienced eight crushes (the last was in 2008), and only one reciprocated, back when I was 18. We did not "officially" date, let alone have sex: he was from Germany and only in the U.S. temporarily. We were friends with (limited) benefits, meaning we "fooled around" a little and that was it. I wasn't ready for sex at the time, and he didn't push me. If we had met more recently (I'm 33), I might have felt differently.
Last week I was at a Boston-area Meetup for people who identify as asexual and demisexual. Some of these people have had sex, some haven't yet, and some never will. One guy there had Asperger's Syndrome (many people with AS are asexual or demisexual), and another was a transgender man. The group was a nice blend of people, some representing more than one spectrum. We all found it cathartic to talk about our experiences: we all grew up wondering why everybody was always obsessed with getting dates and getting laid and why our parents-- sorry, our mothers-- were so worried about us.
All of us had eerily similar stories about invasive questions our mothers had asked us. For example, when I was fourteen, my favorite actor was Alan Arkin and I was obsessed with some of his movies. Oh, so of course I must have had a crush on the then-sixty-year-old man. At least in my mother's perception. One night we rented Catch-22. My mother said, "We're going to watch Catch-22 with Alan Arkin-- sexy Alan Arkin." Then my mother suddenly asked, "Julie, what traits do you find attractive in boys?" Years later, when I told Dad this story, he told me, "You should have said 'Mom, you have the subtlety of a hand grenade.'" Other awkward, hand grenade-subtlety questions and comments from Mom included, "Look at [insert male celebrity's name here]. He's so cute. Don't you think?"; "Have you ever had a crush? Are you sure you haven't?" which later became "Have you ever had a crush? Are you sure you have?"; and "Are you sure you're not gay?". These questions made me feel worse, like there was something wrong with me. Others in the group felt the same way.
All of us in the group had one very specific experience in common: Growing up we were very uncomfortable with the topic of sex. It has been my experience that kids on the autism spectrum (and, according to psychologist Tony Attwood), girls especially are very uncomfortable with the topic of sex. These asexual/demisexual people, on the autism spectrum or not, had also been very uncomfortable (we eventually got over it). None of us could articulate why. But I have two ideas:
1) Parents of kids with Asperger's sometimes get very uncomfortable with the things their children are obsessed with. My mother was very uncomfortable with my obsession with The Addams Family movie when I was 11-12. This was because she didn't understand why. Isn't it natural that people for whom sex is not on their radar, if at all, feel uncomfortable that the whole world seems to be obsessed with sex?
When our mothers had tried to figure us out, they only made things worse. Universally, our mothers told us what a beautiful thing sex is between two people who loved each other. All of us had had the same reaction: "I don't feel the same way, but I'm expected to. And Mom is practically demanding I feel this way. There must be something wrong with me. And I must be narrow-minded for not feeling this way!"
2) For girls specifically, I think the pervasive objectification of women in movies does not help. In movies, sex is often depicted as a service that women give to men. And often women in movies are love/sexual interests first, characters second. I don't believe in censorship, but I think this aspect of movies is an important issue to discuss (perhaps in another blog post) and how it affects girls with Asperger's in particular. I think as a kid I must have thought on some level that I was supposed to eventually be like these women. It's harder as a kid with Asperger's to sort out these messages.
At the Meetup, all of us recounted dealing with misunderstandings about asexuality/demisexuality in our adult lives. The women, myself included, were tired of going to their OB/GYNs and having to explain, "No, I'm not repressed; no, I wasn't abused; no I'm not religious; it just hasn't happened yet and I'm not losing any sleep over it." Likewise, we women also expressed frustration at the inevitable, patronizing response to this comment: "Oh, that's wonderful! You're waiting for the right person," as if our not-having-yet-been-laid status is due to discipline rather than a different set of inclinations. It's like praising a skinny person for being disciplined when the reality is that she may just not be as interested in food, not because she is a hardcore athlete.
And no, we're not afraid of sex, nor are we narrow-minded about it. Narrow-minded is an educator at the LGBTQ center in Manhattan telling me that I must have some "issue" because I can count on my fingers the number of crushes I've had.
Oh, and another misunderstanding is that we have some moral agenda. No, we are just differently inclined. We respect the inclinations of others as long as consenting adults are involved. We are sex-positive people who are just not as into sex as most others.