This post was written for the October 2023 Carnival of Aces, where the theme is “Asexuality, Sex, Erotic Contact, and Physical Intimacy.”
Content warning: This post discusses sex and kink, though not in graphic detail.
When I first came out as ace, I had this specific idea in my mind of what sex is, and I knew it wasn’t for me. It still isn’t. So I labeled myself asexual. Later on, I began to realize there are some forms of sexual play that I do enjoy, and I joined my local kink community as a way to explore them. I’ve come to appreciate the kink community for providing a space where explicit negotiation about expectations and desires and limits is the norm (and, indeed, mandatory), which makes negotiating play much easier as an asexual person. There’s a strong culture of working together to plan a scene that everyone will enjoy, without judgement. Nobody looks at me strange for having limits around certain kinds of sexual contact, and I have in fact met many asexual people in the community.
Most folks think of sex as this concrete, definable thing, just like I did when I first came out as ace. But kink challenges that notion. The more experiences I’ve had in this community, the more I’ve come to realize that the distinction between “sex” and “not sex” is entirely arbitrary. It doesn’t exist. You can probably imagine at least one activity that is definitely sex, and at least one that is definitely not sex, but there’s an infinite field of gray space in between. A fun thought experiment you can practice is to list decreasingly lewd acts to try and tease out exactly when sex becomes not-sex. I’ll spare my audience this exercise in the interest of not squicking anyone out, but you quickly realize how silly it is trying to draw these arbitrary lines.
I eventually came to realize that what makes something “sexual” has a lot more to do with how you’re feeling than what you’re doing. It’s about the energy and connection; you can have sexual energy in your dynamic with someone without ever touching them. I like how Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton explain it in their book The Ethical Slut:
We think the question of when you’re having sex is actually sort of meaningless. Sexual energy pervades everything all the time; we inhale it into our lungs and exude it from our pores. While it’s easy to determine whether or not you’re engaging in a particular sexual activity at any given time—neither you nor we are probably having intercourse at this moment—the idea of sex as something set aside, a discrete definable activity like driving a car, just doesn’t hold up very well.
Recontextualizing sexuality through this lens, it’s perhaps no longer appropriate to say I’m completely sex-averse, because I do have that sexual energy in many of the relationship in my life. There are still boundaries to the kinds of sexual play I’m comfortable with—these relationships might not always resemble what most people imagine a sexual relationship to look like—but everyone, kinky or not, has their limits.
This raises the question of what exactly it means for me to be asexual. Because for a long time, when I’ve called myself asexual, being sex-averse is what I was referring to. If we expand our definition of sex to include things I’m not particularly averse to—as kink as done for me—am I still asexual?
Is having boundaries around certain kinds of sexual contact what makes me asexual? I hesitate to describe these limits as asexuality because they’re also tied up in my transness and my biochemistry. Should I attribute to asexuality what could be better explained by gender dysphoria or HRT or meds? Any ace who’s been told their asexuality is the result of a “hormone imbalance” will be quick to point out that these things are not the same as being asexual.
I find comfort and familiarity in calling myself ace, but I’m left without a clear definition of what it means to me. Common definitions of asexuality are predicated on the existence of a cohesive concept of sex and sexuality: asexuality is not experiencing sexual attraction, or it’s not having sexual desire, or it’s not being interested in sex. But if we accept that there’s no good definition of “sex,” then how do we define asexuality? If I don’t consider there to be a meaningful distinction between “sexual” and “nonsexual” play, how can I differentiate between allosexuality and asexuality?
The reason I continue calling myself ace despite all this doubt is the inescapable feeling that there’s something different about my relationship with sex compared to most allo people I’ve met. Sex is supposed to be this intense, intimate experience that connects you with someone on a deep level. For me, it’s more of an activity. Getting tied up and having the shit beat out of me is a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon with a friend. It’s a very casual thing; my favorite scenes are the ones where we’re cracking jokes and laughing the whole time. I don’t see sex as the foundation of an intimate relationship so much as a hobby I share with my friends. In fact, I don’t really associate sexuality with emotional partnership at all; my relationship with my nesting partner is completely nonsexual, whereas I do have a sexual dynamic with many of my friends. I don’t attach any special emotional weight to physical affection or who I share it with; affection is something I share freely because it brings me closer to the people in my life.
The kink community has really expanded my perspective on sex and eroticism. Kink has helped me explore my sexuality by giving me the tools to work within my boundaries and negotiate for play that I find enjoyable. Because for me, kink isn’t just about sex or bondage or dominance or pain; it’s a framework for negotiation and consent. It’s a core part of my experience of physical intimacy. My relationship with kink even extends beyond the scope of a particular scene or encounter: It’s the affectionate playfulness between me and my friends. It’s the unapologetic sex-positivity. It’s the sense of community.
I don’t know what exactly it is that makes me asexual. I don’t know how to disentangle my sexuality from my transness. I don’t know what “sexual attraction” is or if I experience it. And that’s okay, because “sex” is an arbitrary distinction anyways. Sex doesn’t exist.