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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