This is a long-overdue post in response to those who’ve asked me to write something about asexuality and theology. I wasn’t sure where to begin, so I figured I’d share some observations from my own experience.
Obviously, my experiences won’t be shared by everyone on the ace spectrum, but I’m hoping they’ll provide some conversation starters.
I am not over the sheer irrelevance of much of what the church told me about sexual attraction
In my teenage years and early twenties, I attended evangelical churches in the UK. Note, that wasn’t the same as US white right-wing evangelicalism or fundamentalism (as discussed in Jesus and John Wayne), but we still had talks about what to do with sexual urges and lustful thoughts.
In fairness to them, there wasn’t much shaming of women’s bodies. But the message still came over that sexual attraction was dangerous territory. Because it was So Easy to be tempted and would cause Great Damage if we didn’t wait until marriage.
Masturbation was, well… if you could do it without thinking lustful thoughts, then fine. But the implication was that this wasn’t possible. At the same time, I was told not to ever ask a guy if he’d masturbated. Because they all had. And the good Christian ones didn’t want to be forced to admit it.
Now, I assumed that these all teachings were relevant to me. And I suppose they were in a tangential way. But I didn’t masturbate and I wasn’t ever sexually attracted to anyone.
More to the point, I wasn’t aware that it was possible to not be sexually attracted to anyone.
That meant that I interpreted any feelings of romantic desire as sexual attraction. Not only that, I guessed that pretty much any strong emotional connection was sexual attraction.
This meant several things.
Firstly, I was in a romantic relationship on and off for several years with a boy who I found unattractive. Whilst I never spoke negatively about his appearance, I never spoke positively about it either. He didn’t appreciate that.
Secondly, for a time I thought I might be gay. And then, for a time, I thought I was ex-gay.
I am not over how much of a miracle my marriage is
Remember, I don’t experience sexual attraction. I often appreciate people’s attractiveness from an aesthetic point of view, but I don’t then think about how it’d be nice to have sex with them. It just doesn’t happen.
So… I walked down the aisle for a man I hadn’t actually experienced sexual attraction for. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t unattracted to him; I liked how he looked. But I saw marriage as plunging into something unknown; I made my vows trusting that active attraction would follow.
Now you might say this was an absurdly foolish thing to do. You might be right. But I was willing to do it because I knew my bridegroom was an honest and humble man, someone who was always willing to listen and learn. I figured if we had that, we’d be able to work out everything else as we went along.
And we did.
But I still tremble to think about how ignorant and naïve I was about my own bodily functions. I still shudder to think of the misery I would have let myself endure, if I hadn’t married a man who was passionate about my wellbeing and myenjoyment of sex.
That said—and this is important, so don’t skip over it—I don’t think it’s possible to give truly ‘informed consent’ to marriage. To exchange promises is to undertake risk; you don’t do it because you’re ‘sure’ but because you trust enough that your future shared journey of discovery will enrich you both.
For this reason, I’m wary of this idea that you have to be fully assured of sexual compatibility before you make a commitment. Instead, I think it can be OK if you don’t have your sexuality fully mapped out. ‘Taking the plunge’ can be OK.
However, even with that, I would strongly recommend being more self-aware and much more educated than I was when we were on our honeymoon.
I’m still not sure about the line between orientation and dysfunction
I should mention that this gets a bit explicit.
Those familiar with my blog will know that my husband and I went for sex therapy after a few years of marriage. (More here: To the evangelical couple considering sex therapy.)
At that time, I rarely had a sexual thought. I didn’t know how to experience any physical arousal without going down sordid avenues of thought—and I refused to do that. I was either averse or indifferent to my husband’s touch. Also, I experienced physical pain after sex, mainly because we attempted penetrative intercourse when my vagina was in no way lubricated enough.
But I also thought I should be able to address all this through self-help. For the first few therapy sessions I was plagued with guilt that I was wasting the therapist’s time. After all, my husband and I had both figured out that we still loved each other even if I didn’t want to have sex with him. (I didn’t want sex, but I wanted to want sex.)
Anyway, we had several sessions of therapy and made some progress. And then the day came when… well… I allowed myself to think a particular sexual thought, that was on my own terms. And suddenly my whole libido woke up.
I kid you not, my vagina was lubricating itself for a whole week.
(This did not mean that I desired sex with anyone apart from my husband!)
A few months later I was comfortable enough to allow my husband to stimulate my clitoris. Not long after that I experienced my first orgasm. By that time, we’d been married for four and half years.
The thing is, having been married for 12 years, I still haven’t figured out how to have penis-in-vagina sex that’s enjoyable for me. Oh, I have figured out how to do it in a way that’s not unenjoyable. And I know my husband will stop and come out if I ask him to. Because he has. But… PIV sex is still a bit hit and miss.
Part of me thinks I should have figured it out by now. I still wonder whether I should be making more of an effort for this particular form of sex. Or put another way, I honestly don’t know where the line is here between orientation and dysfunction (or lack of technique).
That said, do I need to know? There are many ways to have sex that don’t involve PIV intercourse. And my husband is happy. His most frequent complaint is that I don’t have enough orgasms.
So, all in all, I’m not worried, but the line between asexual orientation and sexual dysfunction is an open question for me.
I’ve never been as aroused as I was for that week when I was constantly turned on. I still don’t experience sexual attraction very often. And I still can’t ‘turn myself on’ very easily.
But I do enjoy my husband’s touch; it always means something to me now, whether I’m aroused or not. So there is that.
I might be asexual, but my body can still surprise me
As you’ve probably gathered by now, I don’t find it very easy to get turned on. And I really hate the thought of being required to get aroused quickly. We don’t go there.
You might think then that it’s all pretty meek and mild on those times when I do get aroused. Actually… no.
(Well… I dunno. I don’t talk to many people about their experiences of orgasms. So maybe what I’m about to describe is pretty normal and I’ve just not heard anyone mention it!)
I have been known to wake up in the middle of night and just the mere thought of my husband in this half-awake state has brought me to orgasm. I’ll admit, this hasn’t happened frequently. But it has happened. More than once. (And it was really nice! Unexpected, but nice!)
Orgasm without physical stimulation is not something I would have intuitively associated with the word ‘asexual.’ But this is my experience. Which, I guess, points to the fact that, even under the asexual umbrella, people have a variety of experiences.
Oh, and as an aside, I can still experience non-concordance. That’s the name for when a person experiences genital response even though they’re not aroused. The brain classifies something as ‘sexually relevant’ so the genitals respond, regardless of whether the rest of you actually likes the stimulus or what it represents. In her fabulous book, Come As You Are, Emily Nagoski likens non-concordance to walking past a brawl in a restaurant and thinking ‘Ooh, food!’ But just because you thought of food, that doesn’t mean you want to go inside the restaurant (page 197–199).
So, non-concordance is a thing. And yes, I’m asexual and I experience it too.
I’m asexual, but the sex that we have still matters to me. A lot.
There was a time when I thought I might be single and celibate for life. And I was fine with that. Even now, the thought of never having sex again doesn’t particularly bother me. I don’t want that, but the thought doesn’t fill me with dread.
All that said, I felt an acute sense of shame in the early days of our marriage when we weren’t having sex. I counted the days between attempts and felt awful. I’m not saying this was healthy. My point is that, even though I was asexual, I still felt the social pressure and expectation that we should have been having sex.
Now, I like to think I won’t feel that shame if, at some point in the future, my husband and I have a period when we don’t have sex. After all, sex should be for our benefit, not to ‘fit in’ with society’s expectations.
But I also know that this is a complicated area—and if we do have a period without sex, it will necessarily be for a reason we would not voluntarily choose. Maybe ill health. Maybe recovery from an unexpected trauma. It could be any number of reasons. If that happens, I will still feel the absence of sex and that will matter to me.
My point here is that even though sex is not the number one thing that I enjoy doing with my husband, that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Sex means something to me and will mean something to me for at least as long as it means something to him.
Being asexual doesn’t change that.
I realise I haven’t spoken much about the theology side. So let’s talk a little to that.
At the end of the day, I believe our bodily sensations and functions are intended as a gift. God wants us to enjoy our bodies—whether in exercise, eating, drinking, having a bath, or having sex.
Where I think we go wrong is not so much in the enjoyment of our bodies, but in attributing status to certain types of bodies or certain bodily functions.
I was taught growing up that ‘sex sells.’ But I’ve come to realise sex doesn’t sell. Rather, status sells. It’s just that people attribute status to sex. That’s the problem.
And I think this presents a challenge for how the church orients its discussions on sex and marriage.
When the church does sit down and think about this issue in a healthy way (which isn’t always the case!), the focus is often on how couples can find ways to enjoy sex together. And I don’t have an issue with this in principle. It’s a much-needed corrective given how very sex-negative and body-negative the church has been historically.
But I’m wary of any underhand agenda to persuade asexual people (or people with less active libidos) to be more sexually active.
For sure, finding a good rhythm between spouses with different libidos is a very complex issue—and not one I particularly want to get into. I’m not a therapist and, as I said, I’m still not sure where the line is between orientation and dysfunction.
But when a relationship has friction because of an apparent mismatch of libidos, I think challenge needs to be put to the more sexually active spouse about what exactly they have sex for. Is it intimacy or is it status? Is sex about enjoyment or entitlement? About celebration or anxiety management? (See, for example: Why Love & Respect’s CHAIRS acronym isn’t about genuine respect)
Lastly, we also need to recognise that in the Old Testament, when women got to exercise sexual agency, they typically did that to have sex and, by extension, have children. This was rooted in beliefs about the importance of having a family line and being remembered by successive generations—and this was kinda the closest thing they had to a concept of an afterlife. Christians simply don’t share those beliefs today.
This means that the women of the Bible aren’t always good comparisons for modern women. After all, a large part of women exercising sexual agency today is about them not having sex.
As an asexual wife, I don’t want to weaponise my agency or orientation. I don’t want to hide behind a label as an excuse to withhold sex or stop exploring it with my spouse. Sex is a good gift and I feel very privileged to be able to enjoy it in the ways that I do.
But, even with that, I also believe that one of the great gifts that God has given me, as someone living in this day and age, is release from the pressures that previous generations bore.
I have the freedom to not have sex. And for this, I’m grateful.
If you liked this post, you might also appreciate Sex and Consent: How does that work in a long-term relationship? or other posts on the Sex worth celebrating page.
I also wrote a (rather long) essay about masturbation that talks to helpful and unhelpful definitions of lust: Masturbation: Can you separate lust from pleasure? And there’s another one breaking down the meaning of ‘flesh’ in the New Testament: Flesh: what Paul meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)
I was also a winner in CBE International’s 2018 writing competition with my post: What I Wish the Church Had Told My Husband and Me About Sex and Consent