Jealousy has always been a curious thing for me, since I experience it so extremely rarely that my relation to it is most often as a spectator tilting her head to the side at this weird thing that humans apparently feel with such strength of emotion that it makes the stomach roil and the head fill up with so many images which each introduce a fresh wave of agony. Even in situations in which I suppose I should have been expected to feel it (I was well aware that M was carrying on liaisons with many other women besides me), if I experienced it at all, it was as a thought rather than an emotion, which in any case I only entertained for a little while.
Yet I am put in the odd position of often being expected to feel envy rooted in yet another emotion I don’t know what it’s like to feel, and told I don’t know what I’m missing for not feeling it. I suppose that’s true enough in one sense—not reacting that way myself, I may never know exactly what it’s like to react in that particular way to that particular stimulus (or rather, in the expected ways, to that particular set of stimuli). But what I recoil from is the idea that I can’t know what I’m missing, that not having that reaction myself, I can’t possibly understand the reaction of others. I’ve touched on this idea before, when I mentioned the oft-cited analogy that sexual people tend to come up with for why they can’t explain themselves to an asexual person, of trying to explain red to a colorblind person—why red, I wonder? So many people independently come up with the color red, yet all my friends and relatives with color deficiencies tell me they actually can distinguish that color. I’m being glib; I know red is culturally and psychologically associated with sex, but my point is, you can see from the choice of colors that even if we were literally talking about explaining red to a colorblind person, it would still be more about the speaker’s (mis)understanding than the listener’s. Perhaps it is a better figure of speech than I first pegged it to be, but if so it’s only unintentionally good, because it’s presented to demonstrate what’s taken as truth about its subject, but it actually better demonstrates the attitude of the person who is not its subject. My criticism of that attitude still stands, but now I want to expand on it.
Like I said before, I view this attitude as a cop-out, a “you statement” that seeks to put the blame for the lack of communication on the asexual, rather than acknowledging that the speaker simply doesn’t want to try. It makes assumptions, and dismisses the possibility of an open, honest dialogue. But it’s not just sexuals who espouse this view; aces do it too. Many of us believe we can never understand sexuality because it is just too far removed from our own experience. I disagree. It’s true that we will never have the same kind of understanding that comes from living with it, because we miss out on the ability to come to an understanding through introspective reflection on our own experience (as we can with asexuality). However, I don’t believe it’s futile to attempt to come to an understanding of sexuality through observation of other peoples’ attitudes (though given the intuitive nature of those attitudes, it may be difficult to get them to clearly communicate them to us).
I want to draw a distinction here between two different kinds of understanding which are often confused: intellectual understanding, and emotional relating. Both are important, and I believe that most of us (to variable extents based on individual aptitude) have the potential to understand sexuality from either perspective. However, it is more well-accepted that asexuals can understand sexuality on an intellectual level (at least to whatever extent humans have progressed in our understanding of ourselves), and in fact it seems to be a common attitude that our (often, but not always) dispassionate approach might make us better able to study the subject scientifically. But while we may come to an understanding of how sexuality works from an intellectual perspective, emotional understanding is seen as highly elusive, if not downright mythical. If we don’t know what it’s like to feel the way they feel, how can we relate to them on that level?
Well, how can we relate to anyone who’s feeling something that we aren’t? We extrapolate from our own experiences, and create a correlation between what they’re feeling now, and what we have felt in the past. It happens all the time. One person will express an emotion, and then the other one will (in an attempt to console) say, “I know just how you feel!” This is probably not literally true, since people react to and handle emotions differently from one another, and their different life circumstances tend to bring out more than one emotion, such that the exact mix of whatever is going on inside one person’s head is extremely unlikely to ever be perfectly matched by another. Still, it is a close enough correlation that one person can validate another’s feelings, and the two people can feel as if they have a general understanding of one another, and begin to feel a little bit (or in some cases, a lot) closer. At least, that happens when the listener does understand what the speaker is trying to express, although it can be a point of contention when they connect the speaker’s words to something that is too different from what they’re experiencing.
But what happens when the listener has never felt what the speaker is expressing? From my point of view, there are two different kinds of emotions: basic ones, like fear; and more complex ones that are made up of other emotions, like jealousy. If it’s something basic and unique, like the monomaniacal facets of limerence (or being in love), then if the listener hasn’t experienced it, a lot of understanding can be lost. If it’s a complex emotion, then the listener can draw on the emotions that make up the foundation of that particular emotion in order to better understand. Jealousy is rooted in insecurity/fear, which is something I get. So, even though I have never experienced any overpowering fear that someone is going to choose another person over me when they do something with that person instead of me, I can relate it to other fears and insecurities that I have experienced. Same basic emotion (minus resentment of the person/thing who triggered it, perhaps, but I’ve had my fair share of that for other reasons), different trigger. Likewise, sexual desire is a complex emotion, too; it’s a certain kind of desire for a very specific type of interaction (and the interactive element is important, as masturbation will not suffice), though it’s a little bit different from jealousy due to its root in physical arousal and touch. Since (as I mentioned in an earlier post), I experience a drive for physical touch, I can relate that frustration I feel when that drive goes unsatisfied to what sexuals must feel when they don’t get enough sex—especially since what I desire is fairly aggressive, passionate, and might be considered borderline sexual. Aces who don’t experience any of that, though, may have a harder time relating.
Of course, desire is only one part of sexuality. It may be a defining feature, but it’s not the only thing that goes into it. Attraction, identity, power dynamics, gender expression, and many other things all play a role. The difference between jealousy and sexuality is that sexuality is usually considered to be so intuitive that it must be felt to be understood, because any description will fail to achieve its purpose. I don’t believe this is true, even if we take a purely emotional approach. Although there may be parts of it that are particularly hard to understand (for me, I have a difficult time with the desire for dominance, because I’m generally a pretty submissive person), breaking things down makes it easier to relate to people individually, if maybe not so much to the concept as a whole (since sexuality is so broad and varied, I’d venture to argue that there are so many different models for it out there that it would be easier to try to relate on an individual level, otherwise it gets confusing—and isn’t better relating to others the ultimate goal of trying to understand anyway?). I may prefer to stay out of the forest, but I can see that a lot of the trees look like the ones in my own backyard. So when people tell me I don’t know what I’m missing, I wonder if they’re seeing me as a creature so totally removed from humanity that she’s never seen any “trees” before.
Do I know what I’m missing? In a way. I know that for sexuals, there’s a great emotional reward for engaging in sexual activity (how great varies by individual, and I suspect is often way over-exaggerated due to cultural pressure to do so), but for me, not so much. It’s not that I don’t ever get any payoff (emotional or physical) for having sex, just that usually it’s not enough to justify all the work that goes into it. And how much work exactly does go into maintaining a sexual identity and sexually active lifestyle to fulfill it? Let’s see:
- First, you have to feel sexual attraction, and recognize it for what it is. This means having a general concept of what sex is.
- Next, you have to figure out how frequently you are attracted to which genders (i.e. orientation), which can be tricky in itself. A lot of people are initially wrong about this and later have to go back and think about it some more.
- Then, you have to formulate a sexual identity based on that orientation.
- After that (or simultaneously), you have to find sexually attractive people to try to form a relationship with (whether that’s purely sexual or also romantic). That means you have to know where to look.
- Then, you have to make sure you’re attractive to those people. This includes dressing nicely, worrying about gender presentation, deciding what scents to wear, and a whole host of other things as well.
- You also have to know how to interact with people in order to achieve the goal of eventually getting into whatever type of sexual relationship is desirable. It’s no good to look attractive if your behavior betrays you. A lot of times this means you have to know how to play “the game,” the rules of which elude a good chunk of the population. And you have to know which “game” you’re playing, since there are several different ones depending on what the ultimate goal is. It seems to me that the rules also vary depending on who is playing (for example, on dates, some girls like guys to pay for their meals, others prefer to split the bill).
- Once you’ve found someone with whom there is mutual interest, then you have to know how to proceed with that. You now have to think about the logistics of sex, like how to protect yourself, how to keep both people comfortable and (at least mostly) pain-free (unless you’re into that kind of thing), and this includes not only physical worries like STDs and pregnancy, but also the less-often-acknowledged emotional hazards. There is a lot to think about, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re likely to get yourself into a pretty gritty situation.
- And then once you’ve got all that down, you can finally move on to more advanced sexuality, like figuring out what positions/techniques work best, and how to achieve orgasms faster, how to use sex toys, etc. You have to figure out what you like, what is and isn’t right for you. There is so much out there to learn about sexuality that a lot of sexual people really do devote their lives to it (although that’s not to say that it consumes their whole life).
For simplicity’s sake, I’ve omitted a great deal of more complicated issues; there’s also a whole lot more involved, including body image, power play, fetishes and BDSM, impact on gender identity, issues with non-heteronormative orientations and acceptance, issues with the availability of sex ed and contraception, issues with sex as an industry (porn, advertisements, prostitution), and so on and so forth. I understand that I’m “missing out” on a thing that most sexual people devote a very large chunk of their time to on a day-to-day basis—even if they don’t have sex that often, they’re usually thinking about it. It’s a life-long process. And while I’m good with the first three, I find steps four through eight quite difficult, since I don’t relate to people in ways that would allow me to understand “the game.” I can still sort of learn it, but the rules aren’t intuitive to me and so I have difficulty processing them. I suppose you could say I’m missing out, but really, it’s more like I’m opting out, because the object of the game is not desirable enough for me to try to win. From my perspective, it’s like the prize for winning is being thrown in jail—why would I want to play then? Especially when it requires so much investment of time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere. Instead, I choose to make up my own game (and to take the analogy further, join up with a group of people who are working on designing such a game and getting it out there for other people to play, if they want to).
So in that sense, I’m actually not missing out. I have a sexual orientation, I have an identity. I have gone through this same process of figuring myself out, and continue to go through the process of learning how to relate to others in an intimate (but not necessarily sexual) setting. I have found out that I don’t need sexual interaction to be fulfilled; even if I have it, and even if I enjoy it, sex in itself isn’t fulfilling or necessary to me. However, I have found other things that make me just as happy as a sexual person is (from what I gather) from having sex. In my case, that includes a broad range of non-sexual physical intimacy, so I can relate to sexuality on that level, when I am trying to understand how a sexual person feels about sex. The problem is getting the sexual person to understand that I can relate, that although it may be challenging to talk to me in ways they aren’t used to being challenged, it’s not useless to try. I agree it would be useless for me to try to understand the same way that they do, but I can still understand the individual people involved and their motivations by breaking them down into more basic emotions.
Ultimately, I think the problem comes from the idea that sexual fulfillment is somehow a totally unique emotion, so basic that it can’t be broken down in this way. If I have never experienced it, then it stands to reason that since it’s a unique experience, I must not have ever experienced any kind of intensely fulfilling emotional high (and possibly they may be under the illusion that I can’t experience the physical highs either), and therefore, I must be missing out on something great. My premise, by contrast, is that such intense emotional highs can be induced by situations that don’t involve sex (maybe from music or art, for example), and that each person gets fulfillment from a number of different sources. It’s not that my own emotional needs are going unfulfilled—it’s that their idea of basic human emotional needs is going unfulfilled. They keep on telling me I should be envious, because that’s what fits their own perspective, but in doing so, they refuse to hear mine. I’m not about to start saying the grass is greener over here, but from where I’m standing, the grass is pretty green.