I'm not really interested in sex and never have been

Does my indifference make me a freak?

Published February 1, 2006 11:13AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

After your recent letter to the 24-year-old virgin who wanted to have sex, I'm emboldened to write about my issue, which is that ... I want to want to have sex, I guess.

I've never been interested in sex. Flat-out never -- not when I was 14 and some of my friends started dating, not when I was 16 and had my first boyfriend, not when I was in college and met people who had sex all the time, not now that I am in a stable and loving and long-term relationship. If I went out with someone who wanted to have sex, I broke up with him, the same way I did when I went out with someone who wanted to get married (to anyone) soon.

But then I met this guy, and then we started going out, and then we told each other we loved each other, and then we met each other's families, and now it has been almost a year. This guy (like me 22, like me a graduate student in philosophy and like me a virgin) is the absolute tops, and I'm as madly attracted to him as I am in love with him. But he and I talk about getting married (and having children, and the "two-body problem" of finding jobs in the same city) more often than we talk about when we think we'll be ready for sex. That's fine, except that I think he is getting readier (not that he is putting pressure on me), while I'm still not sure I will ever be ready.

I should mention two complicating factors. First, I come from a religious background. After 13 years of Jewish day school, maybe the best I can expect is to be a little screwed up, right? But that isn't it; it's not some Alex Portnoy situation where I want, want, want but feel guilty about it; I just don't get turned on very often -- in fact, never, before this guy.

Second, my boyfriend and I aren't at the same school (and live on opposite coasts, and have no friends in common except the one through whom we met). Our undergrad schools weren't so far away from each other and we saw each other a lot, but my grad school isn't easily accessible, so we haven't seen as much of each other this term. More important, we won't be in a position to live in the same place until we finish our coursework -- which is to say, at the beginning of the 2007-2008 school year. He said several months ago that he didn't want to have sex before we were in the same place, and I agreed. He also said that he wasn't sure whether he wanted to wait until marriage or not, which is how I feel, too. We've also acknowledged that realistically, when we each take a year off and are in the same place, we both expect that we'll live together -- if not immediately then pretty soon.

My boyfriend has asked if I'm interested in talking to a shrink, but it doesn't seem to be primarily a psychological issue: Though they haven't for the most part been good, my past experiences with men haven't been particularly unusual, and any hang-ups I might have are (I think) nothing beyond what's normal.

This is so easy for other people. It just comes naturally to them. Why isn't it like that with me? What's wrong with me? Talk about the naturalness and universality of the sex drive is ubiquitous -- so what, am I less than fully human? I visited the AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network) site a few years ago, but didn't go back, because I don't see why low or no sex drive should define me as a person any more than any other fact about my sexuality should define me. I'm not interested in talking about it at length and I don't feel any special kinship with other people who share that aspect of me. Sex, or lack thereof, just isn't vital to me in the way that other things -- Judaism, ancient philosophy, art, being a woman, being a Northeasterner, et cetera -- are.

So what should I do, Cary? Should I try to stop worrying about it? Should I read books about it? Go to a shrink? To a gynecologist? Or is this something that you just do and only thereafter become comfortable with it? Am I abnormal and incorrigible, or just shy, and this will solve itself? And is it a big deal or not after all?


A Freak, or Just a Geek?

Dear Freak or Geek,

I appreciate how hard it was for you to write this letter. I also note that it was the act of reading someone else's letter that gave you the courage to write your own letter, which is interesting in itself, isn't it -- how courage replicates itself, how one courageous act of self-disclosure begets another?

I must also say that I am greatly moved by what seems to be a breakdown of logic in your description of the problem and your response to it. At first I did not know what to make of it. I thought, gee, this letter writer is a graduate student in philosophy, she will probably make a stone-cold, airtight case full of subtle reasoning. And instead beneath the syntax was the sound of someone struggling, frightened, confused and hurt. It is endearing that you seem to be as much at sea with this issue as anyone else would be. Perhaps that is because it is a more devastating problem than you would like to let on -- so troubling that it crushes or deranges your ability to think about it logically. But perhaps also I am wrong to expect you to treat your body like a text.

I noticed this breakdown in logic most vividly when you talked about visiting the Asexual Visibility and Education Network site. You say you visited once but did not go back because "I don't see why low or no sex drive should define me as a person any more than any other fact about my sexuality should define me."

Rhetorically speaking, I couldn't agree more. And yet there was a disturbing void in my understanding. In what way had the site attempted to define you as a person?

I had to think about that for a minute. The vehemence of your reaction surprised me. You went to the Web site presumably to gather helpful information -- what are the possible causes of a low sex drive, what are its implications for marriage and child rearing, how common or uncommon is it, is it on the rise or decline, how has it been handled throughout history in various religions and cultures, etc.?

And yet you turned away from the site rather heatedly, objecting that you do not wish to be defined by your sex drive. Maybe there was something objectionable about the site that you did not mention. I do share your distaste for those who engage in what I would call "identity synecdoche" -- naming themselves for one small part of their being, and banding together as though they were all the same because they all share that one characteristic. Maybe you felt the Web site was calling you to get in lockstep, and you instinctively rejected that call.

But maybe also you felt a genuine shock of recognition. Perhaps you saw something of yourself there. It would not be unexpected for one to at first recoil from the face in the mirror.

Maybe I have gone on too long about a minor issue when other questions loom large. Shouldn't we ask if there are some identifiable causes for your lack of interest in sex? What was it about your schooling that left you "a little screwed up"? And might it not be wise, at this point, to at least try to be intimate with your boyfriend and see what happens? After all, thinking about sex can only take one so far. It is a kind of knowledge that is uniquely synonymous with experience.

At any rate, your letter has caused me to try to get more knowledge about the issue of low sex drive and lack of interest in sex. In addition to the AVEN site, I have found the Wikipedia site on asexuality to be level-headed and informative. Let me quote one paragraph:

"Those asexuals who do want romantic relationships are in a difficult position, as the majority of people are not asexual. Asexuals able to tolerate sex can pair up with non-asexuals, but even then their lack of attraction can be psychologically distressing to their partner, making a long-term romance difficult. Asexuals who cannot tolerate sex must either compromise with their partners and have a certain amount anyway, give their partners permission to seek sex elsewhere, have sexless relationships with those few who are willing, only date other asexuals, or stay single."

Now, I may have leapt ahead a little here. It may seem that I've already decided your case. I don't want to paste a label on you.

But it's all quite innocent, really. I just went searching for descriptive information.

We can leave it at that. You don't have to define yourself, and you certainly don't have to let anyone else define you.

You do have some choices to make, however. You say you would like to get married and have children. If you do that, how will you and your husband live? That's for you to decide, not anyone else. You don't have to paste a label on yourself or join a movement. You just have to make some choices.

OK, so what would I do if I were in your shoes? I would continue to learn as much as I could about how the level of one's sex drive affects one's relationships. I would use all the means at my disposal: medical research, behavioral research, philosophical treatises, history and individual counseling. That is, after all, the modern way.

And I would make those choices.

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