Dear Dr Ren:
I’m a 32-year-old man with an unusual problem. I’m gay, but I’m not interested in having sex with anyone and never have been.
I got through high school as a late bloomer and university as a serious student, but after that people began to pressure me. I’m successful at work and have a small circle of good friends, but invariably when I get close to someone, they want to have sex.
I sometimes go through the motions, but I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. This issue always strains my new friendships.
I had a good family and wasn’t abused. I like my life now too, except for this. Would therapy make me sexual like everyone else? Are there others like me?
Odd Man Out
Dear Odd Man Out,
You define aptly what we call “asexuals,” those who do not feel sexual attraction for others.
For many like you, this is a life-long condition. It is especially confusing during adolescence and early adulthood when sex plays such a big part in the developmental task of pairing. You have all the tools but no interest in that part of the game. You mention in your letter how you coped during those periods.
Lacking sexual attraction does not mean you escape romantic feelings, as shown by your knowledge of being gay. You probably experience crushes and then get accused of sending mixed messages when your romantic behaviour is mistaken for sexual advances.
Identifying as asexual is not committing yourself to abstinence. You can have relationships that are sexual if you choose. The problem is more likely establishing relationships that are comfortably non-sexual.
You may get frustrated with people you love pressuring you for sex. You may wonder why they cannot separate love from sex as you can. Remember that sexual people don’t have the power to take the sexual part away from their feelings of love any more than you can manufacture sexual urges to please a romantic partner. They are equally mystified with your inability to share their sexual enthusiasm.
Some asexuals experience regular arousal that is not linked to a desire for partnering. They may masturbate for personal pleasure or stress relief, but generally find fantasies are vague and rarely related to another person. They rarely view lack of sexual arousal as problematic, focusing instead on other avenues of arousal and pleasure. Asexuality is a problem for them only in relation to the sexual world.
Most of us agree that sex is a glorious part of life, but so is art and not everyone appreciates galleries.
The blind sometimes develop extraordinary senses of touch or hearing not otherwise possible. A great deal of time and energy can be spent gratifying sexual hunger. Asexuals devote those same resources to other pursuits.
We do not choose our sexualities and we cannot change them. We do well to accept and make the best of them.
Given that emotional and romantic attraction is still active in asexuals, many relationship possibilities exist. This is an ideal garden in which to grow friendships with women, who will not expect a sexual relationship from a gay man. Camaraderie with straight men may come easily to you as well. Indeed, you mention that you have “a small circle of good friends.”
However, you should expect confusion when you fall for a sexual gay guy. Sex generally follows close on the heels of romantic attraction, forcing you to disclose your asexual status quickly.
Will you be viewed as freaky? In many cases, yes. Most of us have some closet we have to kick open somewhere. This is yours.
As you gain confidence and pride in yourself, it will become smoother and easier to express your needs clearly.
Some who are interested only in a quick physical fix will reject you. Others will be attracted on a deeper level, but make no mistake, yours is a difficult road in a sexual world.
Of course, relationships with other asexuals are not complicated by sexual tension. Happily, you are not alone. Our own Canadian sex researcher Tony Bogaert found in his 1994 studies that about one percent of the population reports experiencing no sexual attraction for other people.
Given Vancouver’s population of 2 million, we should be home to about 20,000 asexuals. If half of them are male, and 10 percent of those are gay, they number 1,000.
How do you find them? Asexuals have formed a support and information group through AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. The internet even boasts Asexuality Meetup Groups organized by city and interests. Their numbers continue to grow.
Sex is a language we use to acknowledge attraction, promote intimacy, and maintain long-standing relationships. Asexuals do not speak this language. It forces you to be creative in your emotional expression and to be patient and understanding when those of us who are sexual do not understand your sexual silence.
You are not wrong — only different. I would hope you can find tolerance for diversity in our gay community. Perhaps writing this letter is a good first step.