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I'm asexual, but my partner wants to have sex: should I just compromise and do it?

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Nehremi asks:

I'm Asexual and currently engaged in a romantic relationship with a woman. She really wants to have sex, I'm not really into it. We've done other things I really like, like making out and heaving petting. How do I tell her that I don't want to sleep with her without making her feel inferior, undesirable and bad about herself? I'm scared to hurt her. Should I just compromise and sleep with her?

Heather Corinna replies:

Based on everything I know and have learned working in sex and relationships for many years, people don't tend to have or sustain healthy relationships when they do big things for or with partners they don't also want to do and feel good about themselves.

Taking out the garbage, doing the dishes, giving someone a ride or watching a certain movie when you don't want to or would rather be doing something else is one thing. Creating babies, converting to a given religion, making legal agreements, moving in together or having sex when you don't want to do those things are all something else entirely.

My very best advice for anyone, when it comes to any kind of sex, is to only engage in what you truly want to, for yourself, not just for someone else because it's what they want from you. That doesn't have to mean that your motivations for sex have to be the identical: since we're all different people with a wide array of sexualities, they often won't be. That also doesn't have to mean you and she have the same experience with any kind of sex together: since you're not the same people, it isn't even possible to have the exact same experience. Nor do any people choosing to engage in sex together have to be seeking the exact same things from it: what's vital is that whatever those things are, they're in enough alignment that whatever sex you do both agree to feels right for each of you, and on the table enough that when anyone is consenting to sex, they know what it is they're consenting to.

You're expressing that you enjoy making out and heavy petting. It sounds like those are sexual things you want to do and feel good about doing, and not just because she wants to do them or enjoys them. Who knows if what you enjoy about those things is the same as what she enjoys about them, or if you're both seeking the same things with those activities. It usually doesn't really matter so long as you both want to do them when you choose to do them, for yourselves, not just for the other, and you're both down with what the other is seeking and asking of you.

I'm not sure what kinds of sex don't feel like things you want to engage in now, or period (or what you or she mean when you say she wants to have sex, especially since "heavy petting" historically has tended to anything or everything besides genital intercourse), but whatever those kinds are, I'd suggest holding those lines for yourself.

You sound like a pretty caring person, so I'm willing to bet that you'd want her to hold her own lines, respect and honor her own limits and boundaries, with the kinds of sex she doesn't or wouldn't want to engage in, right? No kind of sex, or any sex at all, is ever required of people: none of us are ever obligated to have sex with someone else just because it's what they want or because they'd feel stung or bummed if we said no or not now. That's as true for you as it is for her or anyone else.

You know, ideally, someone who has what it takes to really be someone's partner, romantically, sexually or otherwise, is able to understand that however close and connected they may feel, they're still separate people. That certainly includes each person's sexuality. Partnerships usually aren't made of identical people: we're almost always going to have some differences, including sexual differences.

Any of us who are going to enter into any kind of sexual relationship or interaction needs to be able to accept and understand that if and when someone doesn't feel the desire to do any given sexual thing or things, that even if that is in part about us -- after all, sometimes people won't want to do those things with us very specifically and it is personal -- it's really mostly about the other person. Someone else's sexuality is always their own, and mostly about them, and that includes the sexual things, interactions and relationships they do and don't desire; do or don't want to enact or be part of.

If we're earnestly ready to handle and conduct healthy sexual relationships with other people, we also have to be ready to and expect to deal with -- or dole out -- sexual rejection sometimes: after all, even in partnerships where both people generally do like and want the same things sexually, they don't often always want the same things at the same time, and over time, people's wants and needs often tend to change, as well. We need to have a resilience, and a strong enough sense of self that we can deal with that without it being some giant thing, both for ourselves, but also so our partners don't find themselves in the spot where they don't feel able to say no, not now, or maybe later to us at any time without feeling like they will gut us utterly. We also need to be able to have a strong enough sense of self to say no when we feel no, even if we think our partners won't like it.

It's very difficult to be in a healthy sexual or romantic relationship with someone and maintain healthy limits and boundaries if we feel that we have to say yes to what they want in order for them to not feel "inferior, undesirable or bad about [themselves]."

When it comes to real readiness to be in any kind of healthy sexual or otherwise intimate partnership or interaction, something else all of us -- and any partners we may have -- need is to not have our own self-worth too wrapped up in what a partner does or doesn't want from us sexually or affectionately; will or won't do, does or doesn't feel. Sometimes people have a hard time finding that balance between a healthy level of sexual validation from people and a level that isn't sound, and doesn't tend to benefit them, other people or their relationships. This can often be one of the pieces of our sexual and interpersonal development as people, especially for anyone or any group of people who have been taught or told that their sexual value has a lot to do with their value as people. But ultimately, if we're going to get sexually involved with others, we need to be okay enough that when someone doesn't want what we do, we can mostly just figure we're different from each other, not that we must completely suck and be worthless. If and when we feel like we really can't deal with that, the onus is on us not to pursue sexual relationships, not on people we're in them with to try and walk on eggshells through.

If she were to feel inferior because she wants something sexually you don't, or because, to her, you having sex with her is the way she feels she can be sure she's desirable and of value, the problem there wouldn't be you not wanting what she does, and nixing what you don't want, it would be her being in a seriously suboptimal space for a healthy sexual relationship even if the person she was having one with did want what she did sometimes. In other words, if this was truly the way that played out, it would be clear she had some of her own work to do, work she'd need to do to have healthy sexual interactions and relationships she felt good about no matter what.

I don't think having sex with someone we don't want but they do protects them from hurt. Not only will emotionally healthy people not want anyone to have sex with them when they don't want to, if someone will be hurt because you don't want to have sex with them, I think "want" is the key word to keep in mind. Even if you do it, that want still isn't there if it isn't there. And while, certainly, some people are amazing actors who can fool a partner into thinking sex they don't want or enjoy is sex they do want and enjoy, I think we can probably agree it's a given that that's a pretty sad scenario that ultimately benefits no one in any real way. And on top of all that, someone still probably would get hurt here, even if you fooled her: you.

I can't know if these worries about what will happen if you say no to the sex she wants are about your own fears, from your own head or previous experiences, or about your sense of how she will react coming from her, directly, so far. If it's just about your worries, and she's not said or done anything to give you the message she will react that way, and you two have an awesome relationship so far, I'd give her the benefit of the doubt instead of projecting these fears onto her. If these are things you've picked up on from her, then I think they need to be addressed rather than avoided, and I'd say that even if you felt you might want to have the sex she wants sometime, but just not yet. Either way, I'd be honest about what you're thinking and feeling, rather than trying to avoid conflict or upset by having sex you don't want to have and creating a barrier to very real intimacy, and a relationship of quality, by keeping your real feelings and wants a secret.

It sounds like you haven't yet talked with this person about being asexual, however you define that for yourself. It sounds like it's well past time to do that. I think explaining that to her, having some real, candid talks about it -- and it'll probably be more than one, especially if asexuality isn't on her radar, or how you experience it doesn't fit her understanding of it -- is the best thing to do at this point. I think that avoiding those conversations and that honesty and instead pretending to have an interest in sex you don't really want is something that is more likely to make her, and you, feel crummy in both the short and the long-term than being honest. Honesty, even when it's hard, demonstrates more respect for someone, I think, than just trying to appease them. And it certainly does a better job at building relationships of quality.

Now, it may turn out that this person really wants sexual things you don't in a romantic relationship, and doesn't want a romantic relationship without them. Both with people who are asexual and people who aren't, that will happen: not every partnership winds up being compatible sexually or otherwise. Often enough, we'll connect with people in one area but not another. Often enough, we might be a great romantic fit with someone, but find we're not a sexual fit. Trying to fake a fit, or pretend we fit isn't a sound answer in those situations. Trying to instead seek out the relationships where we DO fit better and figuring out what kind of relationship we can have with someone that is a for-real good fit for everyone involved is the way to go. can it be a bummer when that happens? It sure can. But again, if we're in the kind of emotional space to even have the capacity to have healthy intimate relationships, it should not be the end of the world.

Like I said at the top of the page here, some compromises are sound, and others really aren't. If a compromise feels like we're stretching ourselves a bit in a way we think we'll benefit from stretching, that's one thing. If a compromise asks very little of us, relatively-speaking, and also still allows us to be who we are, compromising can be okay, and some compromise is always essential in ongoing relationships. But if and when a compromise feels like we're not being true to ourselves or others, or like we're compromising who we are in very core ways, that's the kind we can know isn't a good idea. That kind of compromise is the kind that doesn't foster healthy, happy relationships in the long term, feeling good about and with ourselves.

I can't tell you which kind this kind of compromise would be for you, because only you can know that. "Not really into" for some people might mean that they're not there yet or that they need certain things first, or that with some changes, they could be into it. For others, "not really into" means "absolutely do not want." But from the sounds of things, right now, I'd advise against it. I think no matter where you're at with this, there's an elephant in the room you both need to know and talk about regardless, and I think you need to get that out there so that you both can have the information you need to each make your best choices here, let alone to not continue or further a sexual relationship where she's likely making some assumptions that aren't sound because you haven't given her the information to understand why. Plus, it seems to me that someone you really want to connect with and who really wants to connect with you wants to get to know who you actually are, not just have you be who they think you might be. I think taking the chance that someone we like will accept us as we are offers us and them a lot more than pretending to be who we aren't.

I can't possibly predict how this will go. It's possible that you'll have a few talks about this, and even if they have their sticky spots, it'll go well and you two will figure out a way to work with your differences that you both feel good about and where no one is making compromises that ask much too much. It's also possible that won't happen, and one or both of you will come to the conclusion that you just want different things and aren't going to be a good fit for what you both really want (and don't). I don't think one of those outcomes is automatically better or worse than the other. I think that what kind of relationship we discover is the kind that's a best fit between us and anyone else isn't better or worse, or more or less important based on what kind it is -- platonic or sexual, romantic or not, what have you -- but based on if it, whatever kind it is, feels a good fit for everyone involved. And often enough in life, we will find that relationships we started off sexual were better off not in the long-term, or were good monogamous once were better open later, or that once-friendships made for great romances later.

If it does turn out that what she wants and you don't means you part ways, as you move forward seeking out other relationships, I'd suggest you put your asexuality on the table sooner rather than later, probably before there's more sexual or affectionate kinds of contact than say, kissing or hugging, particularly since a lot of people tend to assume, even though it isn't always sound to, that if and when someone is engaging in something like heavy petting, they can expect things to eventually progress, with the desire to on both parts, to activities like oral sex or intercourse. That expectation probably seems unreasonable to you, and it does to me too, since wanting one kind of sex never means anyone wants others, but it is common enough that it's something you should generally expect many others will be thinking.

You also probably already know this, but it will likely be helpful for you to connect with asexual communities about issues like these as well as speaking to someone like me. If you don't know where to do that online already, you can start with AVEN and, since it sounds like you do feel desire for and enjoy some kinds of partnered sex, maybe with a space for Gray-A's, like this tumblr feed.

There are opinions among asexual people (and other people, too) about "compromise sex" that differ from mine: you might want to check those out. Seeing a range of thought on something can often help us best identify what feels most true for us. I think it might be especially helpful if you can find someone to talk to who also identifies as a sexual and has experienced, ideally in long-term relationships, both "compromising" like this and having romantic or sexual relationships where they didn't do that.

(I don't put compromising in quotes to be a jerk, for the record. I do because from the framework of consent I work with as a sex educator currently and have for a long time, having sex we don't want to only because someone else does flirts with non-consent -- and on both sides when we're not honest that we don't want to -- and the word compromise obscures consent issues for me in a way I find problematic. This might be an area where sex educators need to make some adjustments, as we often do with things as frameworks change or have identities or behaviours added to them, or it might not be: as of right now, I'm still figuring out where I land with this and how I can best address it.)

But I think you also really do need to put all of this on the table and include this person in your process, and that doing that now, not later, is important, for a whole lot of reasons, including because what she wants might also change a lot once she knows how you're really feeling. She very well might not want to have sex with someone who is only considering having it with her as a compromise, and I think that on top of how being honest is important for you and a sound relationship, her knowing the real deal is also important for her. You express concern nixing sex might make her feel bad about herself, but I think finding out she's been engaging in sex with someone who didn't really want it is way more likely to result in bad feelings.

Above and beyond all else, though, this is one of those things, as any personal sexual choice is, where you're going to have to take advice and information from someone like me and anywhere else you seek it, but then let your own gut feelings about what's right for you have the biggest vote and weight. I think the only right choice here is the choice that feels right to you and that anyone else involved is also okay with.

Lastly, just a reminder: I feel confident saying that we are always asking more of someone else or ourselves when we ask them to do something then when we are asked to accept they won't or don't want to. Someone not getting something they want sexually from someone else -- and sex is a want when it comes to sex with someone else, not a need -- is way less of a big deal than someone doing or opting into something they don't want to do. I also want to make sure that you know that your sexuality isn't something that takes hers away, or makes hers unavailable to her. In other words, it's not like you're withholding partnered sex from this person if you say no: you'd simply be saying no to her engaging in it with you. It's always okay not to share the same desires as someone else, so I hope you don't feel guilty about your sexuality in this respect because it doesn't square with hers, or think you have to try and be someone you really aren't because she wants you to be that person right now.

I'm going to leave you with some links that might help, including to a few places where you can see conversations I've had addressing people who want sex their partners don't. The way I talked with them might give you some cues for having these conversations with your partner.

written 28 Feb 2012 . updated 29 Feb 2012

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