My friend Nathan and I were walking to a picnic when we passed a woman named Xenia. I stopped to say hello, and she kissed me on the cheek so intimately that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. She had asked to hook up before, and as the sun set and Nathan and I packed up our hammocks, I texted her accepting the offer.
I was lonely. I was cold. I wanted to kiss someone before I turned 20.
I told Nathan I was going to Xenia’s room, and I could tell from the way he looked at me that he knew why I was going. When he didn’t try to stop me, something in my chest caved in. I wished that, instead, he had offered to kiss me.
Here is the problem: I rarely experience sexual attraction. I wanted to kiss a few boys in high school, but by the time I wanted to kiss them we were close friends, which, for me, seems to be a prerequisite for feeling sexual attraction. Unfortunately, on their end, the close friendship deemed me unkissable.
I’m demisexual, an orientation I didn’t even know existed until I discovered the term on the internet after realizing I seem to spend extraordinarily less time thinking about sex than my peers do. Demisexuality is on the asexual spectrum. It means that I don’t experience sexual attraction until I first develop a deep emotional intimacy with someone.
Sure, many people don’t have sex until they establish an emotional connection. But I don’t experience sexual attraction at all until then. I don’t see someone in the coffee shop and think: I might want to kiss her. I don’t go to parties and wonder what it would feel like to sleep with the guy in the corner.
The first time Nathan and I stayed up late talking was after watching “The Dead Poet’s Society” in my dorm room. When it finished, we lay on the bed and talked until 2 a.m. Even as we got too tired to speak, I didn’t want him to leave.
Nights like these became a habit. But after a few weeks of feeling like this was heading toward more than friendship, I needed to address something. Sitting together by a nearby pond, I said, “You have a girlfriend.”
He looked surprised. “Yeah. Why?”
“Well, I feel like some of the stuff we’ve been doing, like reading to each other in the middle of the night, is more intimate than something friends do.”
“I suppose it does seem that way,” he said. “Maybe we should put up clearer boundaries.”
This wasn’t the answer I had hoped for, but I said, “Yeah, O.K.” Then I added: “But I want to be clear that I might have a hard time with that, so a lot of it will have to be on you. Is that O.K.?”
He smiled. “Of course.”
Two nights later, Nathan lay in my bed and whispered, “Shut the lights.”
When I crawled back under the covers, he wrapped his arms around me and I felt close to someone in a way I never had before. I wanted desperately to stay like this, but along with the glow in my chest, guilt twinged.
“Should we be doing this?” I asked.
“Shh,” Nathan whispered. “Go to sleep.”
That night, as we lay in each other’s arms, I hardly slept — having another human in my bed was distracting — but I didn’t mind one bit.
This moment may have been the turning point, the moment when, had I known asexuality existed, I would have realized I didn’t quite fit into that category. Because in this moment, I finally understood why someone might want to have sex.
With Xenia, I knew just seconds into kissing that it wasn’t for me. It felt strange, wet and cold. I felt no attraction because we had never been emotionally vulnerable with each other. I didn’t tell her I wasn’t enjoying myself; that would have been unkind. She was good at asking what I wanted and didn’t, so it wasn’t unbearable. But those aren’t words you want to use to describe your first kiss.
After our night together in my bed, Nathan told me how guilty he felt. I mostly listened, but I was thinking about our earlier conversations about sex — how I told him I never felt the desire for it. But that night was the first time I fully understood how important it is to him and many other people.
I don’t know how I missed it for so long; I guess I just thought sex was something that crossed people’s minds from time to time. I was afraid about what this meant for me, afraid it was the reason I had never been in a relationship, afraid that my lack of interest in sex meant I would never find love.
While Nathan debated if he should break up with his girlfriend, I asked, “Are you afraid I wouldn’t have sex with you?” I didn’t add: Because I would.
He thought for a moment. “No, I don’t think that makes a difference.”
But I didn’t believe him.
Nathan didn’t break up with his girlfriend right away, though he did eventually. He stayed single for a while, then started dating another girl.
The night I was with Xenia I left her room with more questions than I had started with. Was I asexual after all? Was I just not attracted to women? Why couldn’t I make myself feel anything?
Surely, I was broken in some way. This was before I discovered the term “demisexual,” and having a name for it helps. But it only goes so far in a culture that includes sex at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
More than a year after we met, Nathan and I walked to an art exhibition on the edge of campus. It was spring, and plants were beginning to bloom. On the way, I stopped to take a picture because it looked as if someone had hung dryer lint on the trees.
When I turned around, Nathan asked, “Do you love me as a friend, or something more?”
I’m a terrible liar. I said: “You can’t ask that! That’s not fair — you can’t ask that.” But of course he could, and of course, my response was answer enough.
Nathan asked if there was anything he could do to make this easier for me.
I told him, “It’s more the stuff we can’t do that hurts.”
We were the only people at the exhibition when we arrived. One installation made repetitive thumping noises: three balls bounced in repeating patterns on the floor. The bouncing was the only noise, and as it kept repeating and repeating, I got the surreal feeling that this was the only room left in the world.
I stood for an inapt length of time watching soap bubble from a hole in the wall while Nathan stood yards away looking at a broom propped up by a kitchen knife. The questions that had floated through my mind for months all surfaced: What is wrong with me? Why do I hardly feel attracted to anyone? And how will I ever find anybody if I’m only attracted to one person every four years?
A year after Nathan slept in my bed, I went to a concert by the band Daughter with my friend Greta. More recently, Greta filmed a dance rehearsal for me, and as I changed back into my street clothes, I looked at myself in my bra in the mirror and wondered what would have happened if I had changed in front of her. If she would have looked up from what she was doing, maybe come over and run her hands along my back. But the concert was months before, when Greta and I were just two people who lived on the same hall and had lunch together now and then.
Right before Daughter came back onstage for an encore, I asked Greta if she wanted to leave and beat the rush. She said she didn’t mind, and we pushed our way halfway to the door before I stopped and said: “Wait. There’s one song I wanted to hear that they didn’t play. Let’s wait and see if it’s the one they’re playing.”
Daughter didn’t play that song, but the first lines of the song they did play caught my attention: “What if I’m made of stone? … I should be feeling more, draped over your bones.”
Greta and I stood listening to the song I now know is called “Made of Stone,” facing the stage with its soft purple lights reflecting on our faces. We dissolved into the ambient noise, watching Daughter’s lead singer hide shyly behind her bangs while singing soulfully to strangers. The air around us was dark; we, too, could hide.
Daughter finished their song, said one last thank you. And as we walked with the crowd into the damp night, the last echo of “Made of Stone” reverberated through my mind: “You’ll find love, kid. It exists.”