Meaning. The very idea haunts me.
I studied philosophy for a significant portion of my life. And while philosophers don’t actually talk about the meaning of life, they do talk about what words mean, like whether we’re giving approval when we say something is “good.” They talk about how shared knowledge must be communicated through meaningful expressions.
But sometimes meaning is personal, a feeling, and not communicative at all.
Even if you can’t name it, sometimes you can see it. When someone lights up while talking about someone or something important to them. When you spend time with family members you don’t see often and feel that inexplicable closeness of kinship. When you have a collective experience like standing outside along the shore of Lake Michigan with a group of strangers to watch a solar eclipse.
Those moments are important, meaningful. But in getting older, I have realized that sometimes it’s important to recognize when something doesn’t have meaning. Not everything has to be important, not every holiday has to be perfect, not every night out has to be epic. It’s okay to not seize every day, to stay home, to hide. Life is full of tedious mundane actions that aren’t particularly meaningful and that you’d rather not do.
For me, sex is one of those meaningless things.
In a world where who you have sex with seems to matter a lot, where regular sex is considered part of a healthy life, but where sex can be used as a manipulative tool or a weapon – here, sex has many meanings that go beyond its basic biological function of procreation.
People today use the term “sexual identity” to describe an orientation, but the way you identify boils down not to something about you exactly, but about the types of people you want to have sex with. And if you’re like me and don’t particularly want to have sex with anyone, there’s a word for you, too.
The trouble with getting people to understand this is that “asexual” has a lot of meanings.
I know what it means for me, but I cannot speak for anyone else who identifies with the word. To me, it means I am a person without a sexuality. I’m simply not a sexual person. I can find other people attractive, and I do, but I don’t associate attractiveness with sex. I don’t look at people – celebrities, beautiful strangers, people I know and like – and desire to have sex with them. I get uncomfortable when I think about real people I encounter in my life actually having sex.
But I’m not sex repulsed, as asexual people sometimes are. I don’t mind sex scenes in movies. I don’t even mind some pornography. Sex that’s fake and contrived doesn’t bother me, sometimes it even arouses me.
Because I do have a sex drive. I’ve heard other asexual people describe it this way, too. For me it’s like an itch that needs scratching or a sore muscle that needs stretching. It’s a need for the physical release of orgasm and nothing else. It doesn’t have anything to do with other people. It’s not a social need. It’s a biological function that I can satisfy by myself.
The confusing thing about my asexuality is that I can’t totally rule out sex. I’m not opposed to having sex with other people of any gender identity. In an odd way, purely with regard to the act, I could be considered pansexual. I just never act on it anymore, because I don’t need to and because other people imbue the act of sex with meaning.
Sex doesn’t make me feel closer to another person in an emotional way. It doesn’t feel like an act of intimacy. There’s nothing special about it for me. If we can be honest about sex for a moment – it’s a messy physical act involving some kind of friction and maybe penetration. If done right, it can feel good for all parties involved. I’m just not sure where the meaning hides.
Somewhere along the way, the idea that sex is meaningful got tied up with the idea that sex is a way to express the worth you find in another person. And that’s why non-consensual sex is so dehumanizing. That’s why it breaks my heart when people think their only value as a person is the sex they can perform. That’s why it enrages me when people think sex is owed to them in exchange for a conversation or a date. That’s why it’s sad when people think their value as a person can be reduced to their sexual desirability from a partner or to the amount of sex they have.
These messages are reiterated so much in our culture that it’s hard not to internalize the idea that sex has meaning – even when it doesn’t feel meaningful to you.
It’s hard to avoid sex when sex is everywhere. I’m made aware of it in innuendo on local news broadcasts, in advertisements that use bodies and sexual norms to sell products, in news stories about politicians and company executives abusing their social status to get sex, in health research reported by mainstream media, on the covers of “women’s magazines” giving sex tips, in literature, in music, in nature.
It’s especially hard to avoid sex when the message is that your life is incomplete, missing meaning, without it.
For me, having sex never completes me. On the contrary, it usually makes me feel worthless, even when I’ve had sex consensually. When someone is having a meaningful, intimate experience and you’re not, then you become an object that someone is having sex with. Maybe sex could work if it’s mutually agreed upon that you’re just using each other to get off with. Or if you need something specific out of sex like, say, within predefined rules like BDSM scenes. But when your sex partner doesn’t realize that you’re not on the same page, when they just don’t understand that it’s not the same for you as it is for them, then it makes you feel worse for not feeling what you’re “supposed” to.
I’m sure it’s true that sex has health benefits; researchers have found it boosts immunity and helps heart health. I’m sure some relationships benefit from regular sex. I’m sure sex can be fun if everyone involved is having fun. But I don’t have enough interest in sex to seek it out or to have it anonymously. It’s not worth it enough to me to find that ideal situation where I don’t feel like a body that someone else sexualized, where I don’t feel like an object at all, where I still feel like a person, but without the other person seeking meaning or falsely equating desirability with worth. My lingering interest in sex is probably curiosity – sex is so important to people and I’d like to understand why. But the only real purpose for it I see is a quick physical release, and I am proficient at doing that on my own.
The truth is I associate sex with regret.
It’s hard to have sex when the other person tells you they love you before, during, or after, but you don’t feel any love in the act.
Because love has many meanings, too.
Romantic love is something I’ve come to realize I don’t feel. But it’s the one that everyone seems to want – eros, the erotic love, the love that is supposedly expressed through sex. The scene in the movie where the two leads finally confess their feelings for each other and can barely make it through the front door before they have their hands all over each other.
Dating apps, heteronormative romantic gestures, being identified by the word “girlfriend,” being evaluated and judged by another person for the way you live in a test of compatibility – it all makes me wildly uncomfortable.
But there are other types of love. The ancient Greeks had four words for it. C. S. Lewis even wrote a book about the “four loves.”
I think there are more than four. For all I know, there may be as many loves as there are human beings. Or maybe Spinoza was right and it’s all different modes of one love. But platonic love, familial love, the love for a community, the love of a piece of music that makes you feel like you aren’t alone in the world – these are the forms of love I can feel. But socially, these are somehow less valuable, less meaningful than the kind of romantic, sexual love I don’t feel. You’re supposed to be paired off, to want companionship, to crave intimacy. Marriage is the basic social unit of most contemporary societies, and marriage has come to be associated with love.
But it doesn’t work that way for me. What I really love is being alone.
I’ve tried to compromise. I’ve tried to convince myself that I feel more than I do. I’ve tried to appease other people at the expense of myself. Sometimes I think it might be nice to have someone who knows that if I’m listening to Wiretap ScarsI’m probably sad, or to have someone to bounce ideas off of when I’m trying to make a mundane decision. But when it comes down to it, I really just want basic validation. It doesn’t seem to be “normal” to feel this way, to be this indifferent to romantic love and sex – things that carry so much importance to other people across the spectrum of orientations and identities.
This is simply who I am.
But because I don’t feel that love, because I don’t see sex as an expression of meaning, somehow, in this world, who I am is less meaningful, too.
Heidi Samuelson is a writer based in Chicago and a former academic philosopher, earning her PhD in 2012. She wishes she knew what asexuality and aromanticism were when she was in her teens and early 20s. Her writing has appeared in the Open Court popular culture and philosophy series and can be found on Medium: https://medium.com/@heidisamiam/latest and Twitter: @heidisamiam.