I’m writing this post for the June Carnival of Aces, which has a theme of “pleasure.”
Asexuality is something commonly perceived as antithetical to a variety of relational experiences: polyamory, romance, intimacy, desire, sensuality, and pleasure. 99% of the human population is sexual, and thus we live in a world where most people accept the popular association of these different experiences with sex. According to the sexual majority, not having sex means not experiencing pleasure, romance, intimacy, desire, or sensuality. (Personally, I find this sad because of what it implies about sexual people: that they’re not experiencing any of those things apart from sex.)
The sexual world narrowly defines pleasure as sexual/genital/orgasmic. Like the other commonly sexualized and romanticized words, “pleasure” has a silent “sexual” attached to it that everyone is supposed to hear and be aware of. This belief and way of speaking are problematic for several reasons.
1. It implies that all sex is pleasurable.
Not all pleasure is sexual, and not all sex is pleasurable. That’s the bottom line. When you make “pleasure” a definitively and exclusively sexual thing, you’re implying that all sex is pleasurable, which immediately invalidates and threatens sex-repulsed asexuals, sex-indifferent asexuals, sex-repulsed allosexuals, survivors of sexual abuse and rape, people who have medical conditions that make sex painful or uncomfortable, etc. Defining sex as inherently pleasurable places an expectation on people: that every sexual experience they have should feel good to them physically, emotionally, and psychologically, and if sex doesn’t feel good to them, there is something wrong with them rather than the sex.
This is not simply an issue of consent. Consent has nothing to do with pleasure. Consensual sex can be painful, traumatic, abusive, uncomfortable, and unethical. We cannot place the dividing line at consent and claim that all consensual sex is pleasurable, and any sex that isn’t pleasurable is rape (and therefore, according to mainstream sex-positive followers and most feminists, not even really sex). Doing so erases sex-repulsed asexuals, sex-indifferent asexuals, and sexual people who do not feel good when they have sex, for physical, emotional, or psychological reasons.
Nor should people who experience sex as pleasurable feel the need or the right to urge people who don’t into seeking a “cure.” Demanding that all human beings not only have sex but experience sex as pleasure is an oppressive form of policing other people’s bodies and sexuality. There is no natural law recorded anywhere, written by some higher power with cosmic authority, that says sex should be pleasurable for everyone all the time. Believing that there is, is the only possible reason that anyone could think sex-repulsion or an inability to feel pleasure through sex needs to be “cured.” And it is a totally irrational reason.
2. It fails to understand asexual (and celibate) experiences.
The sexual world imagines asexuality and celibacy as ascetic existence. Not having sex, to them, requires self-deprivation or repression. I’ve written before about how asexual celibacy is fundamentally different from a sexual person’s celibacy, and that difference doesn’t occur to most sexual people when they’re imagining how terrible it must be to live life without having sex. They project onto asexuals what their own experience of celibacy would be, assuming that we would miss out on pleasure in the same ways they would. But celibacy is not deprivation to us. It’s our natural default. It’s the most comfortable way of being for us.
No matter what your orientation, pleasure can be experienced in an infinite number of ways. There’s physical pleasure, emotional pleasure, intellectual pleasure, spiritual pleasure, creative pleasure. There is the pleasure of eating delicious food, of having an excellent conversation, of completing a great piece of art, of making a new friend, of feeling good about your own appearance, etc. None of this pleasure is inaccessible to asexuals.
Pleasure is an important part of human existence, no matter how you want it, and asexuals who do not have sex deserve to experience pleasure on their own terms. Asexuality is not a pleasure desert, even when it is paired with sex-repulsion and celibacy. To equate pleasure with sex is to assume that asexuals neither experience nor desire pleasure, when nothing can be further from the truth. Asexuals desire and experience pleasure physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.
For the record, some asexuals have a libido and masturbate. A small portion of the asexual community enjoys partnered sex, too. So it is even inaccurate to believe that asexuality completely excludes genital or sexual pleasure.
3. It erases physical and sensual pleasure in nonsexual relationships.
Pleasure and physical, sensual intimacy defined as sexual and orgasmic excludes a vast range of touch. The idea that a nonsexual relationship (romantic or nonromantic) is an essentially nonphysical relationship is so ridiculous, it’s almost laughable. Sexual people, even in their own romantic-sexual relationships, fail to acknowledge and experience nonsexual sensual touch as valuable, possible, and pleasurable. If they’re not having sex or getting ready to have sex, they’re not touching. To them, the only point of intimate or sensual touch, the only appropriate context for it, is sex. That’s the attitude behind those stupid stock photos of angry-looking couples sitting on a bed and facing away from each other that have accompanied articles published about asexuals in the past. You don’t have sex with each other? Well, that must mean you never touch.
In reality, a lot of asexuals desire and enjoy physical touch. A lot of us can be very sensual in a physical way when we feel safe and free and comfortable in a relationship. That goes for aromantic-spectrum people in nonromantic relationships too. Touch is a huge desire and need for me, one of the most important components of a happy friendship. It is emotionally and physically pleasurable. Few things are more pleasurable to me, in fact, than loving physical intimacy.
Ironically, if asexuals miss out on physical pleasure they actually want, it’s usually because sexual people deny us nonsexual touch, affection, and intimacy unless they think sex is in the cards. We say “no” to sex, which is only one kind of physical pleasure, and then sexual people go, “Well, there’s nothing else on the menu, so starve.” To which asexuals respond: “Wait a minute, there’s plenty of other stuff on the menu. Look at all this. Why can’t I have any of this, just because I don’t want that one thing?”
What kind of touch is left, when you take genitals off the table?
Holding hands, hugs, cuddling with clothes on or off, kissing on the mouth, kissing the body, caressing the body, massages, leaning against each other, dancing together, running your fingers through the other person’s hair, biting, squeezing, trailing your fingertips over bare skin, sleeping in the same bed, bathing together, tickling, wrestling, etc.
I figure most romantic-sexual people view most or all of those touches as innately sexual and romantic and would never do them outside of a romantic/sexual relationship or unless the touches were leading up to sex. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the actual abstract nature of the touching or asexuals’ ability to use those touches in nonsexual and/or nonromantic relationships. It’s a mistake in logic that sexual people make: believing that because they can’t imagine being physically intimate or sensual in a nonsexual relationship, that it is simply impossible to do.
In an interesting twist, the nonsexual spectrum of sensual touch may actually be something that (sex-repulsed/celibate) asexuals have access to BECAUSE we don’t have sex. Instead of ignoring nonsexual touch and sensuality in favor of skipping right to genital sex, as many sexual people do, we explore and use those different touches and forms of physical intimacy because it’s all we have. We can take nonsexual physical pleasure in our relationships to heights that the average sexual person will never experience.
Imagine this: I’m in bed with an asexual friend of mine for a few hours. We’re stripped down to our underwear. We cuddle, we kiss each other’s body, we run our hands all over each other’s bare skin, we’re looking into each other’s eyes and smelling each other’s scent and feeling each other breathe. We are emotionally connected to each other on a level that we can’t talk about and don’t need to talk about. We feel as close and intimate with each other as we can possibly be with anyone.
Now, that isn’t sex. There’s no genital stimulation. There’s no sexual orgasm. There’s no lust. But it’s sure as hell pleasure.
4. Pleasure is removed from friendship.
There’s often an intersection of sex-related bullshit with romance-related bullshit, and this is one of those times.
So, some friendships are sexual. Some romantic relationships are nonsexual. Romantic friendship is a thing, different from romantic couple relationships, even the nonsexual kind. All of these “alternative” relationships make it clear that the phrase “platonic love” is shitty and problematic.
Nevertheless, equating sex with pleasure often means limiting pleasure to romantic relationships because according to the majority of people:
a) romantic relationships are supposed to be sexual
b) sexual relationships are supposed to be romantic
c) there’s already an attitude that even nongenital touch is sexual and romantic in nature, so don’t do it unless you want to fuck the person you’re touching and/or be in a romantic relationship with them
d) intimacy, passion, sensuality, and desire are all sexualized too and they are connected to pleasure
This means that “pleasure”–if you’re sexual society using that concept as a euphemism for sex–has no place in nonromantic/nonsexual friendship. If you can’t include pleasure, physical or otherwise, in a relationship without also making it sexual and/or romantic, then you are effectively rendering an entire category of relationship less pleasurable than the category that does include sex and romance.
As far as I’m concerned, this is one critical reason why society views friendship as less valuable and desirable than romantic-sexual relationships. Keeping pleasure out of friendship is a tool of the Romantic/Sex-Based Relationship Hierarchy that places romantic-sexual relationships at the top of the hierarchical pyramid. This is getting into the philosophy of human relationships that dates back to Ancient Greece: if the two major measures of a relationship’s value is utility and pleasure, then it logically follows that the more a relationship pleases us or the more we can use a relationship for our personal gain, the more we will value that relationship. I’ve already explained that there is a vast array of pleasure that falls outside the physical and sexual kinds, but human beings place a big emphasis on physical pleasure because it is the most viscerally experienced type. Prohibiting physical pleasure from friendship severely limits its greatest potential value, not to mention its emotional intimacy. Even on a subconscious, mental level, treating “pleasure” as exclusively sexual causes people to think of friendship as less pleasurable or even anti-pleasure, without realizing that they’re thinking that way and why.
We want pleasure. It doesn’t matter if that pleasure is physical, sexual, or emotional. It doesn’t matter if it comes in the form of intense cuddling or deep love or emotional vulnerability shared with another person. Pleasure is one of our priorities, and when it comes to relationships, we will spend the most amount of time and energy pursuing the kind of relationship that will yield us the greatest amount of pleasure. We rank our relationships based on how pleasurable they are, among other things. Creating a set-up where only romantic-sexual relationships provide us the opportunity to experience the physical and emotional pleasure we crave inevitably means that as a society, we view romantic-sexual relationships as superior to all other relationships because nonsexual/nonromantic relationships simply don’t please us as much or as intensely. The bullshit message that romantic-sexual culture blasts into the collective social consciousness all day every day is:
“Friendship can never be as good or as important as romantic-sexual couplehood, because friendship can never be as pleasurable as romantic-sexual couplehood. Why? Because you can’t get sex (or intimacy or sensuality or passion or love) from friendship. You can only get it from romantic-sexual couple relationships. Romantic-sexual couplehood is better than friendship.”
Well. Fuck that with a grizzly bear’s claws.
Not only can get you get pleasure–physical pleasure, emotional pleasure, intellectual pleasure, spiritual pleasure–from nonsexual relationships. You can also get that pleasure from nonromantic relationships. Aromantics, regardless of sexual orientation, can and do experience and create pleasure in their nonromantic friendships, whether the pleasure is sexual or nonsexual. I would like to see more asexuals break free from romantic-sexual society’s false rules limiting pleasure to romantic relationships and start to explore pleasure in nonromantic friendships that already don’t place the burden of sexual expectation onto us. We do not have to do friendship the way romantic-sexual society does it. We do not have to create a bind for ourselves, where the pleasure we want can only be found in romantic relationships that we either can’t find or can’t enjoy because we don’t want to fuck, so we’re left with nothing that we want.
As far as I’m concerned, friendship is the most pleasurable experience in life, and there is no limit to the amount of pleasure that I can experience in friendships, including and especially physical pleasure.
The importance of asexuality (and celibate/nonsexual lifestyles) in the understanding of pleasure cannot be underestimated. Asexuality redefines pleasure as an experience that reaches far beyond genital, orgasmic sex.
The ability to self-determine our own pleasure is a critical part of asexual empowerment and well-being. Instead of submitting to sexual people’s ideas of pleasure, instead of being passive participants, we can and should assert ourselves as people who create and appreciate different kinds of pleasure. Expanding the definition and practice of pleasure, especially physical and interpersonal pleasure, to support sex-repulsed/sex-averse asexuals and other celibate individuals is an expression of asexual agency, asexual power, and asexual ownership of our own bodies.