Partnership, Desire, Desirability, and the Sex-as-Worth Principle

CN: relationship problems, body-image issues, social pressure, sex as a site of conflict, and related issues (ex. sexual abuse comes up for about a paragraph).  All the sex talk here will be non-graphic, but this post is about interpersonal conflict between partners where one doesn’t want a sexual relationship and the other one does, so brace yourselves for that if you keep reading.  Whenever I see this discussion happen, people seem very eager to consider that the partner who wants a sexual relationship might be well-meaning and non-abusive and genuinely hurt by their partner’s disinterest, so for sake of argument, that’s the narrow hypothetical I’m going to be focusing on for now…

…because even if we want to focus on their side of the story, the reassurance I see always seems to fall short of what I suspect is at the heart of the issue.

If you agree that sex is not a vitamin but also want to acknowledge potential-or-actual damage to self-esteem as a “result” of someone not being sexually desired, this post is for you.

The week that the news of the flibanserin approval was circulating, I remember part of the backlash to ace criticism including one non-ace woman’s complaint that low sexual desire can make some women very unhappy, it can be a huge blow to self-esteem, it’s a big deal actually, and you aces just don’t understand how that hurts.

And I remember thinking, uh… yeah, actually, we kinda do.  That’s a super common narrative in the ace community — the insecurity and feelings of wrongness and the “I don’t want to be this way.”  Not just in the abstract, but for the same/similar set of feelings and experiences: not wanting sex, not feeling “right” about sex, not being able to make ourselves like sex, see things sexually, or relate to sex the way we’re “supposed” to, with the overarching anxiety that no one will love us.

It’s the same type of baggage.

Aside from the cultural knitting together of sexuality and personhood & sex and goodness, there’s this ‘common sense’ principal which seems to haunt anyone who wants romance or primary partnership and not sex, which is: “love means sex, and if you really cared about them, you’d have sex with them.”  Don’t want to?  Not good enough.  That proves you don’t really love them.  Too repulsed?  Can’t for other reasons?  If you really cared about them, you’d get over that and do it anyway, to please your partner (tw: abuse at the link), or else that proves your love is lesser than it would be otherwise.

Thing is, when I see people criticize that idea, I can’t recall seeing it addressed alongside the flipped version.  And I think, in the long run, that hurts people who don’t want sex, too.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.

What I do see is aces expressing sympathy for dismayed non-ace partners, in some ways, but not by naming the connection.

What I see is non-aces attributing body issues to their partner’s lack of reciprocal desire (this is just the latest example I’ve come across — I don’t feel like digging up that “sexless marriage” wordpress blog where I posted a couple of critical comments that promptly got deleted).  I see aces acknowledging that there are “legitimate reasons to want sex in a relationship” in response but not challenging the roots of that insecurity in any way, not reassuring them that their partner’s preferences aren’t a reflection on them, not contradicting the idea that they deserve to have body-image issues over not being sexually desired.  I see aces asserting that “for many people, sex is intricately (and irrevocably) tangled up in… confirmation of self-worth” but rejecting the idea that anyone should argue against that and assure those people that, hey, you know what?  Your worth as a person isn’t determined by who does or doesn’t want to have sex with you.  You can let go of that idea.  You don’t deserve to let it keep hurting you.

And I don’t think we need to treat this issue as all that different or separate from the pressure to use sex as an expression of love.  The principle that guilts people who don’t have/don’t want to have sex with their partners is the same principle that can hurt the people who do: “love means sex, and if you were really worth caring about, they’d want sex with you.”

I’m making this post because I haven’t seen this connection explicitly drawn before.

I’m also making this post because statements like “you don’t need to feel bad about not wanting sex with your partner!  you don’t need sex to show love!” seem (nominally) supported within the ace community, but when we’re confronted with the subject of non-ace partners who develop insecurities over not being sexually desired… it’s like that set of beliefs goes out the window and all of the sudden respecting someone’s pain involves not providing them with any validation at all.

I bring this up not because I’m particularly invested protecting the non-ace partners of aces as a class (I’m not) but because the absence, in these contexts, of “you don’t need to feel bad about your partner not wanting sex with you! it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you!”undermines the logic of reassuring aces and sex-averse folk that their love is good enough and that they’re not mistreating their partner by not consenting to sex.

Granted, it’s not as easy as that little exclamation there if you don’t want to sound like you’re trivializing their anxiety.  You can’t expect people to stop feeling bad about it at the drop of a hat, and there’s probably not one little positivity-snippet that can cover all bases, which is why I’m reminded of this post:

body positivity has competing access needs like almost nothing else. Some people need to hear “you’re sexy” and some people absolutely loathe being told that and feel intense discomfort at the level of ambient “you are sexy!” messages. Some people need to hear “you’re beautiful” and some people need to hear “you are creative and brilliant and witty and kind, how pretty you are is as relevant to your character as how long your toenails are” and some people need to hear “fuck beauty, existing in public while ugly is an act of courage”.

Those needs all sprout from an emphasis on looks and beauty and sexual desirability being a key index of worth — but that bundle of cultural messages leads to different people taking comfort in different forms of reassurance.  So the fact that some people find it a relief to hear “you’re beautiful” and feel better about themselves upon hearing that doesn’t mean that beauty really does need to be held up as an index of what someone is worth.

Likewise, losing self-esteem over not being seen as sexually desirable, while understandable as a feeling, is also, I believe, a product of an incorrect internalized belief set.  Sexual desire for someone is not the same as valuing someone as a person.

It’s not a moral failing to be sensitive to these things, and I agree that it indicates what may be a fundamental incompatibility with someone who struggles with the opposite — but when someone’s holding on to this principle, I don’t want to simply leave it in their hands, especially when it can foster resentment against the partner who doesn’t want sex.  The sex-as-worth principle, which damages some people’s self-esteem when they believe they’re sexually undesirable, is wrong.

And given how the same principle targets many of us too, I don’t think we do aces any favors by refusing to touch that.

Related reading: Ten Steps to Positive Body Image

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24 responses to “Partnership, Desire, Desirability, and the Sex-as-Worth Principle

  • Hezekiah the (meta)pianycist

    This is vitally important for anyone giving asexual advice to understand. Thank you for putting this into words.

  • Libris

    I think at least some of the time, people feel like reassuring and challenging the non-ace partner’s beliefs would legitimise their distress and thus give leverage for the ace in question to be pressured into sex.

    And that can be true, if you go about it wrongly, if you just assert that ‘yes this is a problem you are having’ and leave the implied answer as ‘so your partner should have sex with you’. But the kneejerk reaction of denying or not addressing that this is a real insecurity that people have leaves both people in the relationship without a solution, and addressing and deconstructing it, as you have explained, has the potential to help both people.

  • Hezekiah the (meta)pianycist

    Reblogged this on Critique of Popular Reason and commented:
    This is vitally important for anyone giving asexual advice to understand. Coyote put it into words beautifully.

  • Linkspam: November 13th, 2015 | The Asexual Agenda

    […] Coyote wrote about desirability, partnership, and the sex-as-worth principle. […]

  • Acety

    Thank you for posting this. I think it’s definitely something to be thought over. I think my favorite thing about it is that applies to both aces and non-aces. It surprises me a little bit that this hasn’t been said before; your writing makes it seem like an obvious conclusion. I look forward to seeing what discussions it sparks!

  • Sara K.

    I danced around this in my recent set of posts about people who have sex without reciprocating attraction/desire/etc. but I did not address this specifically because a) I was aiming for a different point and b) I also thought it was … kind of obvious? But considering how many people don’t get it, it’s clearly not that obvious.

    I am seriously considering making an edit to that post to link this.

  • TreePeony

    Sexual desire for someone is not the same as valuing someone as a person.

    While your entire post is excellent, this particular line is slogan-worthy. Why most people don’t understand something this basic is beyond me. Thanks for putting it into words so eloquently!

    • Coyote

      I was actually thinking of a nayyirah waheed poem as I wrote that.

      “Just because someone desires you, it does not mean that they value you.

      Read it over.
      Again.
      Let those words resonate in your mind.”

      • anonymous ace

        “sexual desire”=love or valuing someone benefits het men in the most heteronormative and misogynist way. By this logic, asexual women and lesbians who are not sexually attracted to men* are terrible people who hate men. (Why do I suspect this has something to do with straight feminists wanting nothing to do with us, and using coded language to distance themselves from “hairy-legged man haters” and “sex-hating prudes”?) We can’t love or respect men if we don’t have sex with them. Gay and asexual men who are not sexually attracted to women are considered the most vile and inhuman of misogynists, because they don’t want sex with women, which is after all, normal.

        Het men can say that they “love women” because they are sexually attracted to them, and thus get a pass on their own misogyny and het privilege and the many ways they can degrade and harm women while still wanting sex with us.

        *I realize there are variant definitions

  • Re: Asexual Advice’s Official Response — Filbert | The Ace Theist

    […] Also, I added this to the post late, but did you see this? […]

  • Carmilla DeWinter

    Reblogged this on Der Torheit Herberge and commented:
    Notiz an Selbst und andere: Wichtig. Sehr wichtig.

  • 5 Tips for Identifying & Handling Abuse as an Advice Blog Mod | The Ace Theist

    […] Look for signs of incorrect beliefs, such as a the sex-love equivalency, the sex-as-worth principle, or the idea that sex is a need.  In your answer, it will be your responsibility to correct these […]

  • An Exploration of Not Wanting to Be Sexy, and of Never Feeling Sexy | From Fandom to Family: Sharing my many thoughts

    […] it’s also complicated for me if someone finds me attractive because, as Coyote has blogged about recently, there is a “Sex-as-Worth” principle in society, so I think I instinctively felt that I “should”, according to society’s […]

  • Jo

    Thank you, I needed to read this!

  • L M Dee

    “Sexual desire for someone is not the same as valuing someone as a person.” Thank you for this. I was rec’d this and another post by you after I wrote about asexuality myself and I’m grateful to have been signposted here. Well said, all of this.

  • Anonymous

    god I’m mentally impair… I did not got the point. and it looks like important

  • Dazhbog

    Why do you assume that sex is necessarily unrelated to love? What if it is, in the feelings that someone might have for a particular other? It seems to me that you are demonizing non-ace people. Many non-ace aren’t seeking to define the ‘self-worth’ of themselves or their partners in sexual relationships. What if they are simply experiencing a desire for intimacy and connection? Much of your language is incredibly puritanical and Victorian. Do you really believe that sexual desire is necessarily a will to humiliate and dominate? I, for one, don’t see how a romantic relationship between an ace and a non-ace can possibly end well, or be psychologically healthy. In the realm of intimate relations, no one should do anything that they don’t want to do.

    • Coyote

      “Why do you assume that sex is necessarily unrelated to love?”

      Are you using “unrelated” to mean “can function separately” or are you using “unrelated” to mean “can never be intertwined”? Because it’d be pretty silly to see the former and insist it’s the latter, hypothetically, if that’s what you were doing.

      “It seems to me that you are demonizing non-ace people.”

      I hear that a lot from people who demonize ace people.

      “Many non-ace aren’t seeking to define the ‘self-worth’ of themselves or their partners in sexual relationships. ”

      Cool. This post is about people who aren’t them.

      “What if they are simply experiencing a desire for intimacy and connection?”

      Then they’re experiencing a desire for intimacy and connection. Where are you trying to go with this?

      “Much of your language is incredibly puritanical and Victorian.”

      Those refer to completely different historical eras and societies so I’m really interested in hearing that case actually.

      “Do you really believe that sexual desire is necessarily a will to humiliate and dominate?”

      Did you…. I think you maybe read a different post and hit comment on this one by mistake.

      “I, for one, don’t see how a romantic relationship between an ace and a non-ace can possibly end well, or be psychologically healthy.”

      Okay, so this is the thing you meant to be saying all along, I see. You’re not going to like… make a case, or explain yourself, or ask earnest questions, or anything, you’re just going to barge in and declare “hi I don’t get it.” That’s fine, you’re allowed to make yourself look silly if you want to.

      • Dazhbog

        “I hear that a lot from people who demonize ace people.”

        And therefore, according to you, I am one of those people. Am I supposed to thank you for this insult, or are you simply engaging in a form of deflective whataboutism?

        “Then they’re experiencing a desire for intimacy and connection. Where are you trying to go with this?”

        That sex could be a part of this desire, for non-ace people. What is there not to understand about this?

        “Those refer to completely different historical eras and societies so I’m really interested in hearing that case actually.”

        This is a bit pedantic. There’s plenty of evidence that Victorians and their counterparts in the USA were fascinated by both the Puritan legacy, both in American and English history. The work of the American Transcendentalists is chock-full of positive references to the 16th and 17th-century Puritan movements. In the US right now, it’s hard to keep track of the conservative evangelicals who routinely use turns of phrase from the sermons of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. Even the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, in support of his view that sexual relations were a complete abomination, cited the American Shakers as an example of intimacy as best expressed along the lines of sister and brother, rather than lover to lover. The various languages of sexophobia and prudery are not as unconnected as one might think.

        “Okay, so this is the thing you meant to be saying all along, I see. You’re not going to like… make a case, or explain yourself, or ask earnest questions, or anything, you’re just going to barge in and declare “hi I don’t get it.” That’s fine, you’re allowed to make yourself look silly if you want to.”

        Contrary to what you assume, I do get it. I do understand that romantic relations between ace and non-ace can happen in a way that is mutually respectful, and perhaps even loving. Like many things in life, this depends on the particular people involved, their respectful treatment of others and themselves as consenting adults, and on the spectrums of their desires. I don’t think that an non-ace has a right to demand sex from anyone; I also am frankly horrified at the thought that an ace would agree to physical intimacy, as a way of reaching a compromise with a non-ace. In one ace/non-ace marriage of friends, one person had a nervous breakdown and the other plunged into depression; in another, the mutual resentment grew to the point where the union fell apart. I respectfully disagree with your generalization about sex as a validation of love among non-aces. While such toxic people certainly exist, I’m not sure how constructive it is to make it into a distinctive marker of sexually active people, whether they be cis-gender or LGBTIQ.

      • Dazhbog

        I would also like to quickly revise my initial statement, that “I, for one, don’t see how a romantic relationship between an ace and a non-ace can possibly end well, or be psychologically healthy.” In my rush to write I overstated the thought, which was not as categorical as I intended. I will say that based on my experience of observing friends in such relations, that the challenges can be real, although not necessarily insurmountable.

        • Coyote

          And therefore, according to you, I am one of those people.”

          You seem to be volunteering yourself, so, sure, if you want.

          “Am I supposed to thank you for this insult, or are you simply engaging in a form of deflective whataboutism?”

          As far as supposing… I honestly don’t know what to suppose about you, since people who leave these sorts of comments routinely manage to surprise me, but, ideally you’d then know that I’m jaded enough to be expecting hostility, so, this might be your cue to approach this accordingly, whatever that may mean for you.

          “That sex could be a part of this desire, for non-ace people.”

          Established.

          “This is a bit pedantic.”

          Yes.

          “sexophobia”

          lol

          “I also am frankly horrified at the thought that an ace would agree to physical intimacy,”

          That’s… condescending, honestly.

          “I respectfully disagree with your generalization about sex as a validation of love among non-aces.”

          Okay can you quote what specific sentence this is in response to?

          “whether they be cis-gender or LGBTIQ.”

          Uhhh not really looking to get into a vocab lesson here, but I just want to stick a little flag in this and say I’m not sure you understand what cisgender means, since there are LGB and Q people who are cisgender.

          “I would also like to quickly revise my initial statement, that ‘I, for one, don’t see how a romantic relationship between an ace and a non-ace can possibly end well, or be psychologically healthy.'”

          Good, because that was definitely a jerk move.

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