The Limits of Sex Positivity

American culture still treats disinterest in sex as something that needs to be fixed. What if any amount of desire—including none—was okay?

Getty; The Atlantic

For more than half a century, the modern industry of sex therapists, educators, and experts has been eager to tell us whether we’re having enough sex, or the right kind of sex. But this industry is, like any other, shaped by the broader culture—it took for granted that the goal was to “get everybody to the point where they have a type of desire and quality of desire that fits within the cultural norms and values,” the sex therapist and researcher Michael Berry says. Decades ago that meant: straight, monogamous, within marriage, private, nothing too kinky.

As American culture has become more expansive in its understanding of sexuality, so has sex therapy. But this kind of sex positivity often doesn’t leave room for those who don’t want sex at all. The prevailing idea remains that, as Berry puts it, “if people are coming to see a sex therapist, the intent would be to get them to have sex.”

Even in the midst of a “sex recession,” the idea that healthy adults naturally are and should be sexual remains embedded in everything from dating “rules” to medical dramas. Disinterest in having sex is considered a problem that needs to be solved—and this idea can harm everyone who is told they don’t want enough.

When some of sex educator Ev’Yan Whitney’s clients told her during their first sessions that they might be asexual, Whitney was skeptical. She knew the definition of asexual—a person who does not experience sexual attraction—but didn’t think that it fit most clients. She would never dispute anyone’s identity, but she thought other factors were likely to be at play.

Whitney grew up in a religious environment, where the only discussion of sex was an explanation of anatomy and she was expected to remain a virgin until marriage. Then, as a sex educator, she often heard from her peers that “liberated” people wanted a lot of sex—which made her ashamed because, well, she didn’t want a lot. For years, Whitney tried to “fix” her low desire by reading sex-advice books, which told her to be confident, wear lingerie, and keep saying yes to sex she didn’t want in order to activate the lusty goddess within. Her own experience with cultural hang-ups made Whitney sensitive to how they might affect clients, and led her to believe that if a client had, like her, absorbed a rigid view of sexuality, they might mistakenly think they were asexual, or “ace.”

Today, this attitude “is something I feel some guilt over,” Whitney says. “Looking back, many clients seemed pretty damn ace.” Whitney can recognize that now because she has realized something else: that she herself is on the ace spectrum.

Whitney reached out to me after reading my book and recognizing her experience in my descriptions of my own asexuality. That personal reckoning was accompanied by a professional one. It made her question whether being asexual was compatible with being a sex educator.

The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), a certifying body, includes asexuality in its curriculum as part of a broad “core knowledge area” covering sexual orientation and gender identity, but trainees are not required to study asexuality aside from that overview. Several sex therapists and therapists-in-training interviewed for this article (both AASECT-certified and not) said they did not receive detailed information about asexuality in their training. “One of the reasons we don’t get super specific about exactly what people need to know is that the minute we pin that down, more research will enter the field and our definition will be outdated,” said Joli Hamilton, who helps AASECT determine its educational curriculum. “And, as you know, the wheels of systems grind slowly.”

Whitney, who educated herself in part by finding resources online, told me that most of the information she found about asexuality was clinical and confusing. It did not explain that asexuality exists on a spectrum, that some ace people want and enjoy sex for reasons unrelated to sexual attraction to any given person, and that asexuality and low desire overlap but are not the same.

Plus, plenty of people have low desire, and not all of them are asexual. In many relationships with a libido mismatch, the lower-desire partner believes that they are solely to blame. And feelings of being broken and “wrong” can be present even for those who don’t have a partner. When notions of health and normality require the desire to have sex, it can be hard to untangle cultural pressure from what is right for you.

Ruth, a civil servant in Ireland, was 28 when she decided to see a sex therapist. As she approached 30, she felt strong pressure from her family to marry and have children, but had never had a serious boyfriend. (Ruth requested that I use her first name only so she could speak candidly about sex therapy.)

Ruth had, in fact, fallen in love with a woman but felt no sexual attraction toward her, so she continued forcing herself to date men. “The reason I had pushed myself into situations with men, including one that was really unsafe, was because I was trying so desperately to flick the switch of straightness,” Ruth told me.

Her experience didn’t make sense, to others or to herself. Her sister joked that she had “Prince Charming syndrome” and was waiting for somebody perfect. Everyone around her knew what she should want, and Ruth tried to want that too. “I hoped that I could be fixed,” Ruth said. “I hoped that I’d somehow be able to feel the way you’re ‘supposed’ to feel. I was waiting for those feelings to come, for this magical experience when suddenly everything would fit into place.”

Her sex therapist asked Ruth whether she was attracted to, say, Brad Pitt, and Ruth said yes because she thought he was handsome. This kind of aesthetic attraction is different from sexual attraction, but Ruth hadn’t yet figured that out (and her therapist may not have known the difference). Ruth remembers that the therapist seemed very sure what she needed: to keep going on dates, putting herself out there, and to not be so shy. So Ruth took the advice and signed up for dating apps.

A few sessions later, Ruth ended the counseling relationship. Afterward, she kept to herself for about a year, both obsessing over the experience and trying to avoid thinking about it—until she happened to see an article about an asexual couple. The way they spoke about themselves resonated with her, and she wondered if she might be asexual as well. To test her theory, Ruth went on a date to observe what she felt. The date confirmed what she suspected. A couple of weeks later, she told a friend she was ace.

Discovering asexuality and the ace community came with feelings of relief and permission, and also sadness that the option had not been presented before. Ruth had only ever been told that she should find a way to want the “right thing.” What she was never told was this: Having sex is not inherently better than not having sex if someone doesn’t want it.

A question hangs in the background of these stories. It’s one that Martha Kauppi, a sex therapist and the founder of the Institute for Relational Intimacy, is frequently asked: How can I tell whether a client is asexual or whether something else—something that can be solved—is causing the disinterest?

Aces ask ourselves this, too, because of course a wide variety of factors can affect how sexual attraction and sexual desire are experienced. It can take a long time and a lot of self-knowledge to realize that the answer is often not cut-and-dried—that you can be anxious and also be asexual, that you can have OCD and also be asexual. That, as in Whitney’s case, you can have sexual shame from a conservative upbringing, work through that, and still be asexual. That experimenting and trying to raise your desire level are okay if you want to, but that you don’t have to keep trying just because others say you must. That experts can be wrong and you can be right.

It seems that many well-meaning therapists who learn about asexuality adopt a two-part framework: If someone is ace, leave them alone; if someone is not, encourage them to have more sex. In the end, this framework misses the forest for the trees. Whether disinterest in sex is because of asexuality or not actually doesn’t matter, because it’s not wrong. You can have a good life without sex. More important than categorizing clients is starting from a place where everyone is okay.

Kauppi’s approach is not to focus on cause, or to diagnose or label, or to tease out the asexuality/low-desire distinction. She instead works with the client to envision the many possibilities of a happy life, including a happy life without sexual desire or sexual attraction or sex at all. “I’m not going to just assume that you’d be a happier person if you wanted sex. That’s ridiculous,” Kauppi told me. The key is to figure out what clients truly want versus what they think they should want, and then keep digging. “Sometimes, people will say, ‘I wish sex were on my list but it’s not,’” Kauppi said, “and I would say, ‘Well, it’s interesting that you wish it were. I’m curious to know what that’s about.’”

Some people decide that they’re fine the way they are. Others decide that they do want to cultivate desire—the difference is that it no longer feels like something they must do in order to be “normal.” And accepting all levels of desire doesn’t mean ignoring the stresses that a desire discrepancy can cause in relationships. For couples, the purpose of sex therapy that doesn’t pathologize low desire isn’t to hide the conflict or to blame the higher-desire partner instead. It’s to acknowledge that two people will always have different wants but no one is at fault, and to see what compromise is possible from there.

Such an approach has made a big difference for Lisa, a library associate in Washington, D.C., (who uses she/they pronouns and requested that I use their first name only). Lisa says their sex therapist never tries to dispute their asexuality but does help them work on the challenges that can come with being ace: how to bring up asexuality with people they’re dating, how to become more comfortable with different kinds of touch that they do want, how to talk about consent in a helpful and intuitive way.

Although awareness has increased around asexuality as an orientation, discussions often lack depth or nuance. Furthermore, sexuality experts are still only beginning to challenge the broader idea that not wanting sex is a problem. “If I’m completely honest,” Ev’Yan Whitney told me, “in my work, I’ve never explicitly said or felt safe to claim that, actually, I experience sex in a different way. I do have low desire.” Playing into others’ perceptions felt necessary in order to be respected as a sex educator, even though Whitney felt frustrated by the tone of many sexuality events, which she describes as: “To masturbate, do this; to have a better orgasm, use this yoni egg, try this warming lube.”

Over time, Whitney developed a framework that prioritizes sensuality for its own sake (and not as a means to penetrative sex) and that focuses on the desire someone actually has, not what they are supposed to have. Though she feels guilty about not presenting asexuality as an option to past clients, she hopes she still helped them by moving them away from sex tips that were goal-oriented without questioning the value of the goal.

Now that Whitney knows herself better, she wants to be an example of a sex educator who advocates for a more expansive understanding of desire and connection. She’s excited to talk with other educators and with clients about being an ace person who does have sex, about having low desire and still feeling good in her body, and about not caring what “caused” her to be this way. “I kind of want to make people confused a little bit,” she says.

Sexuality is complicated, multifaceted, and often shifting. Activists and educators have shaped culture so that options beyond straight, monogamous, vanilla sex feel more acceptable. But true sexual freedom must both celebrate consensual sex for those who want it and avoid pathologizing those who are not interested. This means allowing people to experiment without making sexual attraction or desire a requirement for health or happiness or a good life. For sexuality experts, understanding and accepting lack of desire should be as worthwhile a project as cultivating desire. Nobody is frigid; nobody is broken.