So lately I’ve been thinking about sex; or rather, thinking about why I don’t think about sex.
I started watching “Criminal Minds” for the plot, but stayed through all 15 seasons for actor Matthew Gray Gubler. By all accounts, he is my celebrity crush and current phone lockscreen, yet I don’t think he’s “sexy.” In fact, I’ve never thought about anyone as being “sexy.”
It wasn’t until recently that I gave much thought about the distinction between being “very attractive” and “sexy.” Perhaps that is just how I am, frank and slightly unbothered. Over the past year it has become one of my personal projects, trying to put a finger on why my experiences with sexuality have been so different from many girls my age. Because it has come to my attention that there could be an actual, biological reason.
This all started in my junior year of high school during a shift at Hungry Howies Pizza. My co-worker Abby, older by just a few years, was standing on the pizza line with me, prompting the first conversation about sexual orientation that I ever had.
“Dani, who are you attracted to?” The orders were slow, so conversation was plenty.
“Like, at work?” I began to get anxious about potential embarrassment. The answer was definitely ‘nobody.’
“No, I mean girls or boys,” Abby said, half chuckling as she leaned over to grab some pepperoni. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want, but I decided to start asking people ever since I found out Nick was gay. Like, if he didn’t tell me, I wouldn’t have known.”
Nick delivered the pizzas. I also didn’t know he was gay.
It wasn’t the first time I pondered this question and, eyebrows furrowed, I always gave it serious consideration. I thought about women. I thought about Zendaya. I thought about men. I thought about Matthew Gray Gubler.
“I’m pretty sure I just like guys, but I haven’t ever kissed anyone, and how do you really know until you’re in that situation?” I felt happy with that answer, but then the conversation ended with something I will never forget: “You know Dani, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were asexual.”
To this day I still have no idea what prompted her to say that, but I can’t get it out of my head. What I do understand now is that people tend to know before they know.Biology wise, prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms, the single celled and multicelled, have been reproducing asexually since before I was born, which is an understatement. Mitosis is likely the most basic form of asexual replicating. A cell makes copy after copy after copy after copy after copy of the personal information in the nucleus, and it then pinches apart in order to clone itself. Look, I even made this educational diagram to demonstrate:
Cells don’t need to worry about a sexual orientation before “doing the deed” because no partner is required. Also because cells don’t think about things. This makes sense for cells, which are constantly trying to make as many of themselves as possible in the quickest amount of time while expending the least amount of energy. This splitting mechanism is meant for survival for the species in the case of prokaryotes like bacteria.
The first time I looked up the definition of ‘asexual,’ I put my phone in private browsing mode –– if that’s any indication of how I felt about acting on my own reasonable curiosity. Youtube videos popped up along with blogs, unofficial LGBTQIA+ education sites and a wealth of personal testimonies. I spent a lot of nights scrolling through the comments under asexual content, a space where real people relayed their experiences in mini slices of life. It would be 1:13 a.m. for me in my small town summer, fireflies weaving in slow motion through the leafy branches outside my window, and I’d glow in apprehensive pulses along with them while reading every new anecdote –– real people’s real words.
(The word “real” deserves a pause to grant the full weight that the word carries with it. Realness is tangibility, grazing the receptors that allow the body feeling, leaving a tickling trail down one’s arm. What you see on a piece of paper, r-e-a-l, is so much more than what the occipital lobe receives. The urgency of the meaning it contains is the heaviness of the physicality of any existing person, place, thing or idea. To be really, really real is to be pulled out of the brain and shocked into the middle of a freeway during a midnight storm, clothes instantly sopping down to the socks, horns and engines demonstrating the doppler effect 100 times over in quick succession, cars crashing past on polar opposite paths with enough force to whip your head in around in perfect 180º motion, momentum spinning the rest of your body in suit. And anyway, I think the word itself has been used so much that people tend to lose the feeling of what it really means. Hang on. I might be part of the problem.)
I want to feel real in this way, to feel real with somebody in this way.
Naturally, reading through the experiences of others inspired me to reexamine some of my own. I used to make up fake crushes in elementary school, giving me something to giggle about with my friends at sleepovers. I never felt like I needed to shave my legs for any reason, and I wore whatever the hell I wanted without thinking about how it would make other people (boys) see me. I have a tendency to be initially oblivious to the connotations of “Netflix and chill,” calling a teacher a “silver fox,” or saying things like “I like sucking on nuts” (I was eating a bag of almonds, ok?). Perhaps most notably, all through middle and high school I repeated the same motto: “I just don’t see the point in dating anyone. No one actually knows what love is at our age anyway, and it won’t likely make it past senior year, so why even bother?”
The evidence began piling up, and the slightly bewildering part was how neatly pieces were fitting together.
Youtube videos and comment sections also lead me to research the different types of attraction, which may seem like an obvious concept, but you’d be surprised what you can discover about yourself when these feelings are all defined and separated out. I loved reading about types of attraction in the same way I love taking Buzzfeed quizzes about which kind of soup I am, which is to say this framework is a good facilitator of self reflection and self understanding. Not every source has the same categories, but there are six that show up often: intellectual attraction, emotional attraction, aesthetic attraction, sensual attraction, romantic attraction, and finally, sexual attraction. If someone falls on the spectrum of asexuality, they would experience sexual attraction least of all. As far as I can tell, I experience all of them except for sexual attraction.
* * *
Intellectual attraction is a magnetic draw toward the mind of someone else — a desire to hold a microscope to the way they think by engaging in discussion. Every person contains an entire ecosystem of thoughts that almost no one sees, therefore appreciating the complexity of each and every one of a person’s musings is an imperative. This want goes both ways, for if there’s an infinity in one there’s an infinity in the other, and this endeavor is more important than the body. Dodge, parry, contemplate. Two dance together in a fencing match of cerebral pursuit.
“I love you and your mind.”
To return back to biology for a moment, I’d like to zoom out from mitosis and consider more of what eukaryotic organisms can do. Through fragmentation, a starfish can break off one of its legs and eventually it will develop into a completely new starfish clone. Worms can do this, too, with just one segment of their body. Plants like succulents accomplish a similar feat through propagation. One part of a plant can be separated from the main body, and if nurtured in soil and well cared for, it can take root all on its own, like the little green sprig that could. Again, the organism that grows from this is a perfect genetic clone.
I can see how this is beneficial for the eukaryote, especially plants. Sure, mixing up DNA a little creates genetic diversity and is ultimately the reason why organisms can evolve through natural selection, but sometimes plants don’t have the time or mobility to find a partner to do this with. The reason exact genetic copies aren’t smart, however, is the possibility for masses of organisms to be wiped out at once due to disease or the extinction of a food source. And so, sex ensues in the animal kingdom.
* * *
Emotional attraction is a pull toward someone’s personality and the desire to truly get to know them –– something that exists in most positive interpersonal relationships. Friendships, daughterships, sisterships, relationships, platonic or otherwise, have a synergy between the emotions of at least two people. To laugh with one another, to cry because the other cries, to share what makes one want to yell so the other can provide a welcome space to do so. Hot cocoa and smiles with easy eye contact and warmth of belonging rising up in the chest. On a hill overlooking a million wildflowers, two sit together at peace.
“I love you for you.”
Junior year I went on a date with a guy by accident. Dylan, a grade below me but still taller, asked me to coffee, and we talked for a solid hour and a half. Being a firm believer in platonic opposite sex friendships, I didn’t automatically assume anything. In fact, talking for long periods of time is one of my definitions of friendship. It wasn’t until Dylan asked me out again, spelling the word “date” best he could with notes on one measure of staff paper, that I had to reevaluate. The first guy ever is showing romantic interest in me? Ok, why not.
* * *
Aesthetic attraction is an appreciation of the outer beauty of an individual and the draw of the expression of their appearance. One painting stands before another, beginning as a still life but evolving before each other’s eyes into a sunset western and a watercolor indie film, respectively. One has irises of tiger eye stones, the other possesses eyes of jade. Together they make symphonic sense, a soprano voice in complement with an alto. Two sing together, a melody they hear whenever they steal a glance.
“I love the art of you.”
After I got home from technically-second-date sushi with Dylan, my Dad asked me if I felt anything. I gave serious consideration, turned my mental attention to the place where I thought the feelings were stored, and imagined the sensation that’s supposed to pour into me that some people call love. Empty. I didn’t see Dylan any differently from the theater kid goofball who took his music skills a little too seriously. I told Dad ‘no,’ and I friendzoned Dylan the next day.
* * *
Sensual attraction is the non-sexual desire for tactile interaction with a person, similar to the love language of touch. Hands are holding, because why would they not be? Big spoon and little spoon make sense by design, one tucked into the other. Fluffy blankets and slippers to guard against shivers on a winter evening. A “boop” on the nose with no hesitation. Two are so near that the other’s body warmth is a fact of existing for the time being.
“I love you, and this is your reminder.”
There was one more date I went on in high school –– senior year, the one cut short by sealed shut doors and stagnated learning. A boy named Charlie turned his attention to me, and I returned the favor for one quick afternoon. It was nice, and he was kind. Because he was inquisitive and a good noticer, I revealed more about myself than I typically do to a given person. After ice cream and company, I went home and pondered. He’s a gentle, playful, and earnest presence with a clear passion for the things he devoted his attention to. We were similar in many ways. I wanted to compare philosophies, trade inspirations, see how he’d respond to conclusions I had come to or what he thought about movies we’d both seen.
* * *
Romantic attraction is the desire for a romantic relationship with someone. One will buy favorite flowers to surprise, then the other will leave dark chocolate sea salt caramel sweets on a desk to return the favor. To spend time reading in tandem at coffee shops, attending each other’s showcases of talent, getting to know family, staying up late to point out constellations, running through rain for one more kiss, baking cookies, writing songs or poems. All of this is a deep desire to receive and reciprocate. Two hold roses in their mouths and tango using steps they learned at dance class together.
“I love you, and I want to give you the world.”
I gave Charlie serious consideration. The place where love should be stored must have been cowering somewhere I couldn’t reach. Maybe it needed to be coaxed out with time, convinced of becoming real. R-e-a-l. Or maybe it would never come. I had a love for him in a different place than I infer he was attempting to have love for me. It was for this reason that the next time he texted me, a deep sorrow welled up, up and up until it spilled out under my bed sheets. And as I wiped my eyes and pressed my palms to my temples, I wondered if I would ever be enough for anybody.
* * *
Sexual attraction is the desire for sexual contact. Heat, I think. Fiery passion and an instinct for something primal. To explore someone’s body, the definition of their biceps, their abdomen, the birthmark on their thigh, is imperative. Both are living maps just waiting to be charted, with certain territories inherently more exciting than others. Two lay together. I can’t picture it. I can’t picture what I’d do, who I’d be.
* * *
A-sexuality. Non-sexual. Absence-of-sexual-ness. I’m still trying the word on and off like an expensive coat I’m unsure about purchasing. Leave it behind, and I don’t have to change the way I view myself and the world as drastically, and all possibilities are still open. Claim it, and I fear it would cost an idea of love I’m not willing to let go.
* * *
Loneliness is heavy, and it clouds vision. It lives in a long exhale. It lives in my body and around it and through it. It lives, constantly. Loneliness is a ball of gluey, sticky, green, toxic, coagulating rot that slinks away when faced with Clorox and a power washer. It lives and I can’t make it leave.
* * *
Ultimately, sexual reproduction is scientifically better for the biodiversity of the ecosystems of the earth. Mammals don’t asexually reproduce at all. At this point, it doesn’t biologically make sense for them to. If one bear doesn’t have the urge to have sex with another bear, then their genetic line dies. Therefore, the selective pressure to evolve toward asexuality in mammals simply doesn’t exist, even less so for human beings.
So why would asexuality exist in me?
Although, propagation is beautiful to see unfold. All it takes is a teeny little sprig, and with time, patience, and care, it becomes its own entirely self-sustaining being.
* * *
Identity is so difficult to unearth because the mind is such an uncertain place. While excavating the past, examining the waking moment, and predicting what a new sense of self will mean for moments to come, there will always be a voice constantly asking:
“What if it isn’t true?”
I do claim the title, tentatively. Doing so is all at once a relief and a heaviness in the back of my mind, a dark fog wrapped around the unidentifiable ghost of a future potential partner. But I can look at the spores of a succulent on my windowsill, propagating like so many plants before, and smile.
Statement Correspondent Dani Canan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.