Saturday, 23 January 2010

Q+A with Joy Davidson, part 3

Copy-paste from last time:

All the disclaimers from last time apply, the article is found in its entirety here, and I don’t own any copyrights, etc, and am quoting from it for the purpose of analysis.

Part 3:
Karen in Cincinnati Writes:
I had sex numerous times in my 20s and 30s (I am currently 43), but I only did it because the males in my life wanted it. Sex has always been extremely uncomfortable for me. I guess I could say that it hurts. However, I have performed it because the men in my life wanted it.
My husband, though, is not asexual, but has an EXTREMELY low sexual libido, and has chosen to be abstinent concerning sex with me. So, we had sex a very few times when we dated, but we haven't had sex one time since we have been married because he knows that sex is painful for me.
Even though sex is painful for me, I can become aroused with the "right" movie, etc. I can also get "hot" with kissing, etc. However, I can only remember getting aroused one time in the five years we have been married and it was when I was watching a movie.
So, should I go to a doctor again to see if there is a way for me to have pain-free sex, or should I just be content with my asexual lifestyle or can you recommend another solution for me?

It has occurred to me pretty much every time I read a help column, and occurs even stronger now, but I’d hate to be an advice writer. My answer to pretty much every question is ‘that depends’, anyway, and when you get someone who gives you a little information and expects you to know not just what their problem is, but how to solve it, I know I’d have difficulty giving equal weights to all options. There are so many questions here. Is this woman asexual? If not, does she find her husband attractive? Would she enjoy sex if she was aroused? Can she get aroused on her own? Would she enjoy sex if it was done more to fit her individual needs? Does she fantasise about sex? Does she, or would she consider, doing anything other than ‘sex’? Does she have some medical condition that makes sex painful for her? If that was cured, would she enjoy sex?
I’ve thought it over, and my answer would be to give her a list of those questions and tell her that these are things it would be good to know, but not urgently. Her partner seems completely unfazed, and, heck, there’s a lot of stuff you can do in bed that doesn’t involve any form of pain (a lot of asexuals do other things, rather than coital sex), and negotiation on that front could keep the two of them both incredibly happy with their sex life. It’s worth exploring whether she can turn her arousal into that of what we think of as a ‘fully-functioning’ sexual woman, but it’s not necessary to know that, and she’d be better accepting herself fully as who she is at the moment (and a little boost of self-assurance is often just what you need to get the latent arousal flowing). I’ve got a feeling Joy’ll disagree with me on this one.

Davidson Responds:
We live in a culture that is saturated with sexual images, yet it is pitifully devoid of real sexual education for young people, which translates into a poor foundation for adult relationships. Uninformed teens grow into adults who may spend years, even decades, basing relationships on the minimal or incorrect information they accumulated as youngsters. Today's emphasis on abstinence-only education leaves many couples without basic knowledge about how their bodies work or what to expect in a relationship. Much of your own suffering -- as well as your husband's -- might have been prevented had you acquired comprehensive information about sexual health and pleasure. Nevertheless, I'm so glad you wrote now! You've described a complex situation, but there are two points that stand out: First, no one should ever have sex that is painful or even uncomfortable. Pain is a symptom that something is amiss and needs attention. And having sex because someone else insists is a surefire way to feel disempowered, which can erase whatever authentic desire you might otherwise have felt. If you were having sex you didn't want, then you were certainly insufficiently aroused and lubricated, which could have caused sexual intercourse to be painful. In addition, certain medical conditions also make intercourse -- and sometimes even gentle sexual touch -- painful. Given your background, the precise cause of your pain can only be determined by a thorough sexual history and physical exam.
I would urge you to see a doctor, but, this time, be sure to see someone who is well-trained in the practice of sexual medicine and comfortable discussing the extent of her expertise working with patients who have sexual pain conditions. Anyone who is reluctant to have this conversation with you or doesn't supply satisfactory answers is not the right doctor.
The second key point is this: Many people think that sexual desire is supposed to hit like a bolt from the blue; that a woman should merely look across the room at her partner and feel overcome with sexual urgency. If she doesn't feel that way, she may imagine that there is something wrong with her or with her relationship. The reality is quite different. Many people -- especially women in long-term relationships -- feel desire only after they have experienced sexual pleasure and arousal. So, a long, lovely kissing session, or the right kind of caresses, or the mental stimulation of an erotic movie or conversation, could initiate the arousal that leads to a desire for more. However, building up arousal to the point where you are ready for intercourse -- physically and emotionally -- can be a slow process. Many women simmer "on low" for a long time before their heat begins to rise. Along the way, any disruption can turn the flame down and leave her cold. A partner who rushes, the experience of pain, even a major mental distraction can snuff out the fire. Anybody who has had only a few poor sexual experiences may conclude she is just not very sexual, when, in fact, it is pretty healthy not to feel sexual under circumstances that are uninspiring, counter-erotic or unpleasant!
I hope you'll see a doctor about your pain, as well as learn more about your sexuality by taking advantage of the many resources -- books, films and Web sites -- that provide exceptional adult sexuality education. I have a list of some of the very best sources on my Web site, www., and invite you to have a look. You'll also find answers to nearly every sexual question at And the Web site has referral information to sex therapists and a list of excellent sex education books written by its members.

I think I remember, reading this through for the first time and thinking “maybe I should make a blog series on this”, that this answer was about when I started to actually like Joy. Until then, I could grudgingly admit that she maybe had a point in her problems about the asexual community, and I knew she was probably very good at being a therapist, but, based on hasty first impressions, there seemed something a little too conservative in the (few) views I’d seen her share. It was at this point that I finally realised she was on the same page as me with a lot of the important issues- too little real sex education, abstinence-only that doesn’t work, a sexual model that doesn’t support women’s arousal patterns and physiology, we agree on pretty much everything except, maybe, the importance of sex in a healthy relationship (which is an incredibly fraught and complicated issue anyway, and I’m not too sure where I stand on it myself).
Also, isn’t it sad that we have the need, in our society, to give advice like “sex that doesn’t attempt to stimulate you mentally or physically isn’t the best sex to arouse you” to a woman who has the intellectual capacity and maturity to write and send a letter?

(Aside: Joy’s comments about the ill-preparedness of young people reminded me of this speech, which I read very recently, and which implores me to propagate it. Worth a read, I think)

Joy, as I suspected, focuses much more on how the woman can enquire about her sexuality, learning new things. This is partly because she has a greater range of useful knowledge than me on where you go to find out all that stuff, but I notice that Joy’s position in this article urges a far less ‘adapt to what you’ve got’ approach than the majority of asexual-written advice. Sure, this means that an awful lot of people will find out ways in which they can live closer to the sexual standard, but I would argue that this doesn’t always make you happy. It can often be best just to have the confidence to say “I like who I am. I like what I want and don’t want, and I’m going to work around every issue,” which is what you’d have to say eventually.
It’d be particularly easy in the case of this woman, who doesn’t have to force herself to change, all she has to do is learn to be happy with what she is, and deal with whatever comes of it. It’s a more important skill, that’ll probably make you a lot happier, and end up a lot truer to yourself, in the end.

On a different matter entirely, I wanted to look at the asexual connotations for a moment of this idea; “Many people think that sexual desire is supposed to hit like a bolt from the blue; that a woman should merely look across the room at her partner and feel overcome with sexual urgency. If she doesn't feel that way, she may imagine that there is something wrong with her or with her relationship. The reality is quite different. Many people -- especially women in long-term relationships -- feel desire only after they have experienced sexual pleasure and arousal.”

It has a couple of very different meanings taken in an asexual context. Firstly, this is an incredibly good use of Pretzelboy’s rarely seen ‘Argument from Below’ * - basically, how do you know you’re asexual when you have no way of quantifying your level of desire compared to everyone else’s? Maybe you’re perfectly normal, or normal enough to not really be asexual, but you have this weird idea of how sexuality works, that it involves this sudden pheromone change like mating season on the discovery channel, when, for most people, it’s a whole ragbag of intimacy and romance and physical attraction and the physical desire for sex all mixed up together.
It was something I struggled with, from the opposite angle, before realising myself to be demisexual, trying to quantify all my feelings as “Well, that’s not sexual, because...” and then thinking “But there’s probably loads of people out there who have exactly the same emotions, who define themselves as straight or gay or bi, when the only differences between them and you are their ability to be satisfied by romantic relationships and not to wildly over-analyse everything”. I think it’s an argument worth looking at.

The other interesting thing about this idea is its relationship with the conventional asexual idea of demisexuality, which is often described as only being able to experience sexual attraction once you’re in a romantic relationship. I don’t know how this fits with my ‘ragbag’ theory of sexuality, presumably only in the presence of intimacy and trust can sexual attraction and desire develop. What’s interesting here is that Joy would define this as part of the normal range of sexual responses of straight women, while a lot of demisexuals prefer to label themselves as asexuals, because they feel it’s more representative of their normal state of being. It’s this whole idea of the Line between asexuality and sexuality, and that asexuals might actually draw the Line higher than sexuals would. People like me and the conventional demisexual mess it up completely by saying ‘Well, we feel sexual attraction, but the label of asexuality is still more useful for us to identify by’, and that gets confusing, because asexuality is based on not feeling sexual attraction. (more thoughts on the Line to follow at some point in the future, once I’ve thought them)

NOTE: If the only function of this series were to spark a conversation between myself and Joy, I would probably have written that last part very differently. It discusses things right in the deep end of asexual thought, things we haven’t really discussed ourselves yet, but it flowed so naturally on from the letter that I thought I might as well bring it up, in case there are still other asexuals reading this series.

*part of being asexual appears to be in having a birdwatcher-style ticklist of things people say when you come out to them, and I feel like I’ve just spotted a red kite.


  1. You know, we are mostly on the same page here. (Though I had to grimace at the idea that you'd thought I was conservative! I must have really screwed up if I left *that* impression! Cautious, sometimes, I guess. But not conservative. )

    I should add that in writing an answer to a question such as this, my other primary purpose is to provide information to everyone else who is reading and thinking similar thoughts as the writer-- and probably hungry for information about how desire *really* functions, vs. storybook or typically male perspectives. If I had only asked the kind of questions you posed -- which are all great questions, too --I wouldn't be taking advantage of the chance to offer much-needed information to a larger readership.

    As for the matter of working around the sexual pain - well the problem there is that pain is always a symptom of something else going on. It might be something as basic as not being turned on before intercourse, being dry, and feeling pain -- or it might be something like vaginismus (which is treatable), or another condition entirely that I can't assess via this letter. Whatever it is, it's best for her to find out, rather than make any assumptions. (I hope that's not being conservative!)

    At the same time, my answers are always in part a reflection of my general outlook on life, which by and large is "embrace change; learn, expand; try things a new way... take risks... and see what happens." (I know *that's* not conservative!) So when someone takes the time to write a letter like this, you can pretty much bet they aren't satisfied with the way things are, so I urge them to learn, dig deeper, and then see where they stand. Usually, when someone is open to sexuality at all, happy, pleasurable sex needs to be learned like any other skill or art. Great sex -even with a compatible and/or loving partner- is not always easy, nor does it usually come naturally. Being sexual in a truly positive and empowering way seems to require a great deal of information, awareness, and self-understanding. People who do come by it "naturally" are the lucky exceptions, I think, not the rule.

    Speaking of exceptions...

    Your comments about being demi-sexual are well worth more exploration. You know, if this were 1950, nobody would even blink at the idea that someone only feels sexual in a romantic relationship. Today that's considered a;) But is it asexual? Generally, of course not-as you noted. But I think it depends on your starting point. I know women who are married to men who call themselves lesbian because that's how they identify, even though they are in a committed relationship that qualifies as an exception. In that light, maybe the asexual/demi-sexual concept is similar. One is baseline orientation, the other expresses the exceptional case. What's important is that you get to define who/what you are.

    I wrote this in a little bit of a rush, so if I was not clear about something, let me know.

  2. Hi Joy,

    Sorry, I can tell I offended you with the idea of conservativeness. I must stress that this was very much a first impression, based on the parts of 20/20 and Montel that I saw, and the general reflections on that within the asexual community. It was a simple case of the format being squeezed into a specialisation of "For sexual freedom" vs. "For caution", when we both know it wasn't really based on this argument at all. I thought that, if I once had that opinion, maybe I should point out where it changed and when I got a fairer view of your ideals to anyone else reading. I humbly apologise, and I've edited the post slightly to reflect this.

    You're right, your answer was much, much better than mine at adressing the needs of various readers.

    You point out, quite rightly, that good sex is difficult to achieve. Lots of people for whom sex is a massive and positive part of their lives would have missed out on so much had they quit after disappointment, rather than putting the effort in to make it better.
    It's difficult, because these two ideas, "A sexless life is no worse than one which includes sex. If that's where you are, go for it." and "Sex needs work. Don't give up, keep trying." are in direct competition, and it's largely impossible to know who would be best with which advice.

    The answer to this, as far as I can see, doesn't lie with asexuals or sex therapists, but is part of the larger issue that we need to have better information about sex out there. If it's easier to have good sex, it's much easier (but still not very easy) to seperate those who aren't interested in good sex with those who just aren't doing it right.

    I like your idea of the exceptional case. It's certainly true for some demisexuals that they feel no sexual attraction until one person breaks that rule, and understandable that they don't throw off the idea of asexuality and think of themselves as 100% non-asexual.
    I also think the idea of changing values through time is interesting. Asexuality is a social category, and maybe it sets itself against socially defined, rather than real, ideas of sexual attraction (I don't know if this is still making any sense). So there's an idea now that people who don't get that 'hubba hubba' moment aren't properly sexual, and asexuality offers a way for these people to understand themselves in relation to quite a conformative sexual society. Maybe if there was more freedom to have a slow, steady increase of sexual attraction at your own pace, a lot of them wouldn't identify as asexual.

  3. I truly wasn't offended. Just horrified! And mostly, I was teasing in the prior email. Well, poking just a little, too ;) Truly, no need to apologize.

    We are totally and completely on the same page vis a vis your comments above. We desperately need more open channels about sex, and greater access to them in our society. It's pathetic to think that we are all brainwashed by Hollywood and/or porn, both of which pander to the tastes of the masses--a "masses" who might have different tastes if they had different choices--and the self-perpetuating cycle goes on and on and on. We can also thank the Xian-right and other radically conservative enterprises for the limitations in what can be taught, broadcast, etc.. I am only thankful for the internet and its freedoms.