What if we treated sex like a root canal? Preliminary thoughts on sex aversion, consent, and agency

Content note: This post focuses on my situation as a sex-averse asexual woman. The discussion of sexual consent and agency has serious implications for survivors of sexual violence and others for whom sex has become a site of trauma. However, I do not discuss this here, in order to remain grounded in my own lived experience.

Recently, Spade suggested an analogy for sex repulsion. Imagine if “sex” involved directly rubbing your eyeballs against those of another person. That might squick you out and seem like a pointless activity whose appeal to others you just don’t get all on a fundamental level. While this analogy doesn’t fully capture my own sex repulsion, it makes a good start on it.

Analogies have their limits, but sometimes they can allow us to look at an issue from a different angle, one we might not have thought of on our own.

What if “sex” as a term referred to an activity that at best you don’t get anything out of and at worst is unpleasant, or even kind of scary?

How would you approach the decision whether or not to engage in this activity? Would you use a cost/benefit analysis, thinking about what outcomes would make it worth putting yourself through the unpleasantness? What happens when positive outcomes or benefits can only be external to the sexual activity and the sexual activity itself always appears on the “cost” side of the ledger, as something that must be balanced out?

Does it change how we think and talk about sexual consent if we don’t start from an assumption that sex is an intrinsically good or positive experience that all people should or do want to engage in if only the right criteria are met?

Some sexual consent models, particularly enthusiastic consent, fail badly when it comes to sex-averse and sex-indifferent asexuals, implying that we are unable to give “real” or “true” consent (due to lack of enthusiasm) and thus depicting us as lacking in agency. One has to ask why agency is apparently only exercised through saying yes, or why the whole way the consent process is framed seems to assume that the aim is more to remove all obstacles to a yes than to allow both parties to exercise their agency, whatever their decision is.

In a recent post, aceadmiral puzzled over the question of asexuals and sexual agency. My initial reaction was simply to reject any framing that leads to an idea that I do not have agency because of my always no. However, I recently took up puzzling over it myself.

As aceadmiral noted in their post, several ace spectrum bloggers have proposed alternative models or adapted existing models. These include adventures-in-asexuality‘s model of reasoned consent, Elizabeth’s adaptation of the willing consent model developed by sex educator Emily Nagoski, and slightlymetaphysical’s proposed typology of sexual acts based on interest in and motivation for (or lack thereof) engaging in them. Beyond asexual discourse, Lisa Millbank has a useful discussion of agency, power, and consent from a sex-negative perspective.

aceadmiral feels that these models still don’t quite work either. What if your sex aversion is such that you feel that engaging in sexual activity would be a betrayal of self, or could only come about if you were not yourself or not in your right mind? Is the idea of consent even meaningful when discussing a site of likely psychological trauma?

I am not interested in trying to come up with hypothetical examples of how I might somehow get to a position of consent. However, I have spent quite a lot of time exploring how the Islamic jurisprudence of marriage, and its sex-normative and patriarchal assumptions, could impact me if I had chosen to marry. I am also fully aware that being able to lead a celibate life is a reflection of my relatively privileged socioeconomic status and of the historical period in which I live. For many women throughout history, marriage has been a matter of economic necessity. So I’ve definitely thought about what my life might have been like in different historical circumstances.

Approaching it this way, I can think about what would make a “least bad” experience (the fact that even this approach only gets me as far as harm reduction is why my “no” to sex is permanent). Here are a few preliminary thoughts from this thought exercise:

  • Especially in a historical context, having children is an outcome that one may only be able to achieve through sexual intercourse. A situation where sex was only for the purpose of procreation and only as often as needed for conception would take a huge burden off me. (Given the reproductive technologies available today, it would seem that sex would no longer be needed, which collapses the whole scenario. Also note that I do not actually want children at all, but assume that in the historical circumstances I am imagining, I would be expected to have them.)
  • My partner does not have unrealistic expectations that I will enjoy sex or seek it out or that I will be in love with him. The more business-like the arrangement is, the better.
  • My partner understands that sexual activity would be a deeply unpleasant experience for me, and takes active steps to mitigate the unpleasantness as much as possible while achieving the aim for which we have agreed to do this (in this example, procreation).

Honestly, if there’s a consent model this seems like, it would be informed consent before a difficult or potentially dangerous medical procedure.

Maybe the best analogy for my sex repulsion is that sex is like a root canal! There are some circumstances where it might be necessary, but you want the dentist to reduce your pain as much as much as possible and get it over as quickly as they can. That’s pretty much what I’ve described above.

Given the luxury and privilege I have today (it does have its costs) of seeking out a potential relationship only when I think it would be emotionally fulfilling for me, I just don’t see any reason for it to involve sex at all, and therefore it should be structured as unambiguously non-sexual. In other words, all of this thinking about consent just leads me back to exercise my agency by once again saying no.

About Laura (ace-muslim)

Laura is an aromantic asexual, queer-identified, and a Muslim. She lives in the U.S., works in online tech support, and volunteers for a Muslim anti-racism organization. She blogs about asexuality, queer Muslim issues, and other topics at http://ace-muslim.tumblr.com and has written on asexuality for a number of Muslim sites.
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9 Responses to What if we treated sex like a root canal? Preliminary thoughts on sex aversion, consent, and agency

  1. Aqua says:

    I mainly look at it through a cost-benefits perspective. This is just one of the ways sex-repulsion and/or aversion may be conceptualized, but if someone is repulsed, then it may take a lot of energy and effort to temporarily push those feelings aside to have sex, and for what in return? If there is any benefit, then it’s strongly outweighed by the time and energy costs intrinsic to sex, plus the costs that come with having to push one’s feelings of repulsion aside, plus the feelings of disgust that may still happen during or after sex.

    Someone could choose to do something that for them, has costs that strongly outweigh the benefits, but who would want to do that? Could someone freely make a choice like that, and why?

    Someone who knows that they never want sex, and always says no has agency, because they’re asserting their boundaries, and themselves. I also relate to the perspective of feeling like consent is impossible for oneself, and feel like I made the deliberate choice to not have sex.

    • I still prefer to think of it that I choose not to consent rather than that consent is impossible for me, but as I noted in the original post, it’s difficult for me to imagine a situation in my actual life where I would consent. Even in constructing a hypothetical historical example I had to manipulate it to create an external benefit to outweigh what I perceive as the huge costs. Where there is no such benefit and the costs are always much greater, then I do believe it would require some type of coercion to make me do it.

      In general, I think that talking about agency rather than focusing on consent may be more useful for many sex-averse aces.

      • queenieofaces says:

        I also prefer to think of it as choosing not to consent rather than consent being impossible, despite the fact that I can’t imagine a situation in which I would consent. I’m generally really uncomfortable around “consent is impossible” talk, because it tends to erase what happens when you DON’T consent. If consent is impossible, that makes someone violating your clear nonconsent less egregious (it’s not like you could have consented anyway). Obviously, this is all very strongly colored by trauma in my case, but my agency to say no indefinitely (rather than my being UNABLE to say yes) is something that I’ll fight for pretty strongly.

        (Also, I have a post on consent in the works! So all your linkspamming is really helpful, and I appreciate the additional perspective to link to.)

        • Aqua says:

          That was a bad choice of wording on my part, and I’m sorry for that. That kind of wording came to mind first, because of my own experiences and how I conceptualized them. I felt like I had no agency, and still have some unlearning to do. You’re right that “choosing to never consent” gives a lot more agency to the repulsed/averse person.

        • I’m looking forward to reading your post! The more people who are writing on this issue, the better. I’m still very much feeling my way through the issue so getting different perspectives really helps me.

  2. Siggy says:

    One difference between sex and a root canal is that if you need a root canal, it’s usually because of an infection. If circumstances are such that the cost-benefit analysis favors sex, despite being sex-averse, then it’s usually because of people. We can’t hold infections morally responsible, but we can hold people morally responsible.

    So, if you were put in a situation where you’d prefer sex to alternatives, that sex is consensual. But I might be angry at the people who put you in that situation (depending on what it is).

    I think there’s also something to be said about the way that we try to shoehorn all of sexual ethics into consent, even proposing alternative models of consent when informed consent doesn’t seem to work. Isn’t it possible for attitudes and actions regarding sex to be problematic without them being out and out rape?

    • Yeah, the analogy to a root canal definitely falls apart when you try to examine it too much, for the reasons you mentioned. In general, any analogy is going to fall apart at some point and is mostly useful for prompting people to take a different perspective on the issue than they would otherwise have done.

      I also agree with you completely that a narrow focus on consent is an inadequate way of looking at sexual ethics. In fact, I think this is exactly the reason why most consent models fail when it comes to sex-averse aces.

      As for the term rape, I personally feel that if there was a sexual encounter where I felt violated (and for me, this would be pretty much any sexual encounter I can imagine), that was rape, regardless of whether consent was technically given. I think that narrowly defining rape specifically as non-consensual sex also leaves out a large part of the question of sexual ethics.There are other ways that sex can be a violation that aren’t related to the consent status.

  3. Pingback: Mapping the grey area of sexual experience: consent, compulsory sexuality, and sex normativity | The Asexual Agenda

  4. Pingback: a rhetorical invoice | The Ace Theist

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