Wanting It (Indifferently)

There’s a new article out that addresses hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) and the DSM-V: Women Who Want to Want.

There have been comments already about the article’s odd non-mention of asexuality and the strange mantra that Lori Brotto tells her patients to repeat (“my body is alive and sexual”) whether they believe it or not. There’s concern about the possibility of pushing people too strongly to be sexual, and I share those concerns.

Somewhat related, I was also amused at the article’s mention of something that (via my close associations with transitioning people and the trans community) is already well-known to me: the placebo effect of taking hormones. You start taking hormones, and suddenly every zit is a sign that it’s working. You get comments like, “My skin feels softer already!” and “I think my hair is growing slower!” from people who started taking hormones only a few days ago. Which is of course nonsense. Those things do happen, sure, but not THAT fast! Of course people are going to think T is giving them zits when they’re not even on it!

Brotto’s mantra seems to me to be working with that same effect. And maybe for some people it can be useful… but for others, it might seem like something that is working for a while, but then end in disappointment when they realize that there is not really all that much of a difference, and their problem is still there. And is it really a good idea to continue to conflate the concept of life with sexuality? Because even if we use the broadest possible definition of “sexual,” there are plenty of living things which are not sexual in any sense of the word. It’s stupid, of course, to say “my body is alive” if the state of aliveness is actually what is being referred to, because that’s bleeding obvious! So of course I think she should change that word. But it’s also possible to be vigorous and effervescent, if that’s what’s meant by “alive,” without being sexual at all. I realize it is aimed at helping patients harness a certain “sexual energy” or whatever, but I still think it’s an ill-conceived and inappropriate metaphor all around. Do we really need any more of a push in the direction of “nonsexual = dead”?

Really, though, I wasn’t all that bothered by or interested in that part of it. I was too distracted by the ideas presented by Basson to pay much attention to Brotto:

A different manifestation of desire — not initial hunger—– appears about two-thirds of the way around Basson’s circle. There, in the diagrams she began publishing in obstetrics and sexuality journals 10 years ago, come the words “responsive/triggered desire.” For Basson, this is necessary to satisfaction. But it comes after arousal starts. So a typical successful experience might proceed something like this: first a decision, rather than a drive, to have sex; next, as Basson puts it, a “willingness to be receptive”; then, say, the sensations of a partner’s touch; next, the awareness of being aroused; then the “responsive desire” along with increasingly intense arousal; and at last the range of physical and emotional payoffs that sex can provide and that offer positive reinforcement leading back to the top of the diagram, to the reasons for setting off on the circle to begin with.

I have sometimes wondered if I might consider myself sexual if I had been presented with a different model of sexuality than the one that society adopts. And under this model, I might be considered so.

This describes pretty much exactly the way that I myself navigate sexual activity. It was never about desire to begin with; it has always been a conscious decision to go ahead with it, for me. Of course, it isn’t true that I decide I’m going to have sex before I find myself in the middle of foreplay every time. But it is true that I made the decision to have sex with my partner, and gave her my implicit consent to initiate if she wants to, told her that it is generally okay for her to touch me in ways meant to arouse me, and I’ll stop her if I don’t want her to do it right then. Almost always, I end up aroused and able to enthusiastically consent. Of course, it helps that C is good at reading my signals (which are subtle and probably difficult for most people to read), and that she knows what I will respond to. She doesn’t push beyond my limits, is careful to stop whenever I say it’s getting painful, and also checks in with me whenever my facial expression is so ambivalent that she is not sure how I am doing. Over time, we’ve built up a safety net that allows me to be receptive to her as a general rule. And because that safety net is in place, I’m able to relax and follow my body’s cues to experience this sort of arousal-desire that Basson is talking about.

And so I think she is onto something, here. Society’s model of sexuality really is very attraction-focused, but the truth of it is that attraction often has very little if anything to do with enjoyable sex. Lots of people, probably women more so than men, find it pretty easy to have sex with people they are not attracted to. Of course there are people who say that they can’t imagine having a sexual relationship with someone they don’t find sexually attractive, but a lot of them settle anyway. Sometimes it takes a bottle of alcohol and a sense of desperation to get them to do so, but other times? I know a guy who met a girl a while back that he kept saying he wasn’t attracted to because according to him she is a “hambeast,” and now they’ve been together for six months or so, and live together as well. And I wonder how many married couples there are who don’t find each other sexually attractive anymore, but are still perfectly able to enjoy having sex with one another? Maybe some of them stop having sex for that very reason, but I suspect a lot of them keep on going at it–a little less like bunny rabbits, maybe, but still!

However, as much value as I see in Basson’s approach as described here, I don’t think it covers everything. There’s still the idea of lust–a concept I feel greatly removed from. I don’t really get it. At all. I never find guys hot in a “check the oil” sort of way. Or girls, for that matter. The attraction part of it is just missing for me, and even if it is an overblown cultural ideal more often than it is a reality, I still feel pretty alienated when I’m the only one in the room who doesn’t get it, which happens pretty frequently.

So I call myself asexual. And although my moniker hints at me being in the gray area between sexual and asexual, and I guess since I find sex enjoyable then according to some people I would be considered sexual, I’m really not feeling particularly “gray” lately. I don’t think that having sexual desire pretty much only when it is sparked by physical arousal is very strong evidence of being sexually attracted to people, and that missing attraction is (for me) what asexuality is all about. That’s the only definition that makes sense to me, and during the years that I have identified as asexual, despite my frequent reevaluations and openness to new experiences, my own asexuality has only become increasingly clear to me.

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4 thoughts on “Wanting It (Indifferently)

  1. Grey Lady,

    I so appreciated hearing your ideas on lack of lust and how it figures into your life! This post really resonated with me, and this is the first time I’ve ever been able to say that about a description of desire and attraction. Thanks for writing.

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  2. Grey Lady,

    Thank you for keeping this blog. I am just starting to read it. I have not read this article but I would like to talk about what made you declare yourself asexual. I see in the article you do have physical relationships even if there are defined borders.

    I am 26 years old and pretty virginal. I have always been socially awkward and have difficulty finding people I am attracted to, or can relate to comfortably. I don’t really have sexual fantasies, I found kissing and most petting uncomfortable. I do feel stimulation in my genitals but when I have tried masturbation it tends to be counterproductive. Should I just give up on this and declare or accept myself as asexual?

    I guess I am just looking for advice and a shared experience.

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    • Hi! Your experiences do sound similar to some of my own experiences when I was younger, and similar to the experiences of a lot of other asexuals as well. I think it is definitely possible that you could be asexual, but of course I wouldn’t just say “Yes, you are!” since the experiences of sexual attraction are pretty much internal, and I can’t really know what you’re experiencing for certain.

      Sexual people are fond of bringing this up, to the eternal annoyance of asexuals who have already considered it many, many times: It’s possible that you might not have met “the right person” yet who sparks sexual attraction, or (what I think the more reasonable ones might actually be going for) that (because of social awkwardness, insecurity, or just plain old bad timing/scarceness of attractive people) you might not have been in a situation in which you are comfortable enough to feel any kind of sexual desire. That you might be a “late bloomer” (at 26, though, I think it’s well beyond the point that it’s reasonable to assume that there will be any of that going on). Or, that you might be someone who is what we tend to refer to in the asexual community as “demisexual”–a person whose sexual attraction to other people is entirely contingent on being in love with people. In other words, as love grows, the loved one becomes more and more sexually attractive… but otherwise, there isn’t any sexual attraction. There’s also what we call “hyposexuality” which is experiencing sexual attraction at a very low level (but more so than the insignificant, barely-there attraction that people who identify as asexual might experience).

      Those are just possibilities to consider. Personally, I’m not sure they’re relevant because these are things that would only come up in the future, and they are by no means a sure thing. Some people take a “don’t knock it until you try it” attitude, but I don’t think you need to have sex to know whether or not you are asexual. Gay people don’t need to have ever experienced gay sex to know whether or not they are interested in it. And besides, forcing yourself to try sex just to confirm whether or not you would like it without actually wanting to do it is likely to lead you to have an uncomfortable, bad, or even traumatizing experience anyway. And I think because of the nature of sex, you’d have to be pretty dedicated to get to the point where you could really say you gave it a good shot, and it still didn’t change your lack of attraction, interest, or desire. What I’m referring to here is this: sex often takes a lot of practice before you can get to the point where it’s comfortable and feels good. Virgin sex is usually awful, and for women in particular it can be very painful. So when an asexual person says “I tried it and concluded that sex is overrated,” sexual people tend to respond with something like, “Well, you probably were with someone who is terrible at it/weren’t with the right person,” or something to that effect. The problem with that is that they don’t actually know what happened (sex could be a positive experience and still be overrated), and they tend to believe so strongly that sex is wonderful and everyone can and should keep at it until they experience that. And if they don’t, they’re missing out. But there is no guarantee that people will find that, or be interested in looking. Sex can be positive, sure, but it can cause lots and lots of pain, too. And if you find kissing and petting uncomfortable, that’s an indication, to me, that you very well might just not like sex. My take on it is, why subject yourself to that unless it is truly something you want to explore?

      I personally would never have done any kind of sexual exploration if I hadn’t realized I am asexual. Knowing that allowed me to drop the celibacy, because I stopped assuming that I would find this magical “right person” who would turn on this “sexual attraction” thing and finally make me mature and complete, at which point (I assumed) I would engage in a normal sexual relationship. I was able to accept that I just lack this “lust” thing, and even when I’m able to have some pretty enjoyable sex I still don’t find my partner sexually attractive (even though she is by most people’s standards). I was able in the end to find a way to understand myself, to explain myself, and to find a way to work out an approach to sex that works for me and my partner. I also became a lot less socially awkward because of having confidence in myself and less fear that social or romantic situations would lead to sex. Lots of my discomfort with social interaction was because of that fear that somehow other people would want sex to be involved, and the sense of alienation that I had because I didn’t understand why they wanted it so badly, and I didn’t.

      So, it could help to think about the reasons why you find kissing, petting, and relating to most people uncomfortable, as a possible starting point.

      I would say take your time, don’t feel pressured to decide what your sexual orientation might be right away. Take whatever time you need to think about it, look around and see what asexuals have to say. You’re welcome to join the community no matter what you end up figuring out about yourself–I’m sure you’ll find people offering plenty of virtual cake anyway. And if you think you’re asexual for a while and then with more experience end up finding out that maybe you’re not? Well… you can’t know the future! You can really only go on what evidence you have available to you RIGHT NOW, right? If something new surfaces later, so be it! That doesn’t make it any less reasonable to consider yourself asexual–or whatever else–right now.

      But really, there are a lot of very subtle differences to consider, and it’s ultimately up to you to decide what makes the most sense to you, in how you want to cognitively frame your experience and express it in words. It can be confusing… Hope my input has helped you think about it in ways that help you to understand & relate! :D

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