You don’t need to be a mirror

There comes a point in every standard explanation of asexuality, where you mention that some small number of asexuals may have sex.

“But why would they ever want to?”

What’s that, you ask?  Why would asexuals ever want to have sex?  Well, some people like pleasing their partners.

“Oh, okay.”  The end.

But for more inquisitive minds, what does it mean to like pleasing your partner?  More importantly, what does it mean to not like pleasing your partner?  The idea of pleasing one’s partner is so sensible, so superb, so slickly satisfactory, that it’s unimaginable that any decent person would not feel that way.

Allow me to propose a definition.  If you like pleasing your partner, that doesn’t just mean that you want your partner to be happy, it means you get pleasure out of knowing that your partner is experiencing pleasure.  So even if you like pleasing your partner, you may not like pleasing your partner.  What I’m trying to say is you may like pleasing your…

Wait, this is all getting mixed up.  It would help if I replace “like pleasing your partner” with another phrase entirely.

Some asexuals like sex because they mirror their partner’s pleasure.  It’s not merely that you prefer your partner be happy rather than unhappy.  It’s that you have some actual emotion which mirrors your partner’s state.

It is totally fine if you don’t mirror your partner’s pleasure.  It’s actually kind of hard sometimes, when your partner is experiencing pleasure related to something that you yourself don’t enjoy.  For instance, do I derive some pleasure from knowing that my boyfriend is enjoying his coffee in the morning?  Well, coffee’s kind of gross, so, no, not really.  Do I derive pleasure from knowing that my boyfriend is reading an second-rate epic fantasy?  I don’t think so–mostly I just enjoy speculating how terrible it must be.

I had to think about those two examples, because frankly it doesn’t matter if I mirror my boyfriend’s pleasure from coffee and epic fantasy.  Mutual empathy may be an important part of the romantic relationship script, but that doesn’t mean I have to mirror every single thing my partner feels.  If anything, that sounds like it could be unhealthy.  I’m imagining the kind of couple where each person constantly looks to the other for validation of their feelings.

Sex, of course, is different.  You are expected to mirror your partner’s enjoyment of sex.  But given that aces are a thing, these expectations may be worth reconsideration.

Here I make a final suggestion, that the most morally fraught situations are those where a person neither enjoys the sex for themselves, nor mirrors their partner’s enjoyment.  While there are other justifications for sex, we also begin to wonder if people are just doing it because they feel like they are supposed to like what their partner likes.


This was a response to a post on Ace Theist.  You may guess that I wrote this because “wanting to please my partner” does not play that strong a role for me, and you’d guess correctly.  But enough about my sex life!

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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9 Responses to You don’t need to be a mirror

  1. queenieofaces says:

    This is actually something I can relate to–not with sex, but certainly with other kinds of touch. For example, my girlfriend really likes having her hair pet. I don’t get much out of it, but she really likes it, so I like doing it. I’ve been tentatively calling it “empathetic pleasure” (getting pleasure from knowing that your partner likes it?), but mirroring works too. I think, though, for me, mirroring would only work with something I’m more on the positive end of neutral about; I wouldn’t mirror, I don’t know, my roommate’s pleasure about playing Munchkin, ’cause I don’t like Munchkin and don’t want to play it, no matter how happy it would make him. (SORRY, DUDE.) And I wouldn’t mirror, say, my roommate’s pleasure about playing Ascension, because I really like Ascension and will play it at pretty much any opportunity, so if I’m mirroring, it’s like four layers down in “YEAH, GONNA DO THIS” emotions. (All my examples are board games ’cause that seems less fraught than touch and also because I will play Ascension at pretty much every opportunity.)

    • Siggy says:

      Competitive games are actually a pretty good example of why absolute empathy would be boring. Why would I ever try to win a game if it just means that you lose?

      Incidentally, when growing up I often felt bad whenever I had a winning streak against my brothers in games. This made some kinds of games less enjoyable, and I’m still not a fan of bluffing games.

  2. cinderace says:

    A few thoughts: I don’t think it’s quite the same to compare enjoyment that you (meaning a general you) are causing your partner, through sex or through something else, to enjoyment your partner has independently of you (like through reading a book or drinking coffee). I feel like it’s an entirely different feeling to see your partner doing something they like and be glad they’re happy (whether it actually causes you to feel happy or not, but I’m not sure in most cases that type of situation does—which is perhaps your point), than it is when you are the source of your partner’s happiness—when your partner wouldn’t be having that enjoyment without you. It’s like, your partner gets a novel from the library and reads it (and say it’s a novel you would actually enjoy yourself) vs. you giving that novel to your partner as a gift—won’t you enjoy the second one more, because you’ve enabled your partner’s happiness? Won’t it be a different feeling?

    And then, it also feels like you’re saying that the reason people do things their partners enjoy (that they wouldn’t do if it weren’t for their partner) is that they want that mirrored pleasure, like it’s a selfish thing, done for their own sake and not for their partner’s. And maybe that’s kind of true of people’s motivations, and whether people can actually be selfless or not could be its own big discussion, but I feel like the people who say, “I have sex with my partner because I like making them happy” don’t (always) mean, “I like the mirrored pleasure that I get when my partner is happy”; I think they mean, “I choose to do this thing that I wouldn’t normally do because my partner wants to do it, and I know they’ll enjoy it.” Maybe it isn’t a purely selfless motivation, but I think that’s probably more how people see it, and I think it ends up being a bit different from the mirrored concept—tying into what I said in the first paragraph, it’s not “You’re happy so I’m happy” (like it could be in a situation where your partner is enjoying something independently of you); it’s, “I’m glad to be able to make you happy in this way.” In that case, any good feeling you’re getting is not necessarily coming from your partner’s happiness, or at least not just coming from that, but from the fact that you are the cause of your partner’s happiness. Maybe that actually makes it more selfish in a way…? But I don’t think that that enjoyment of making their partner happy is people’s main motivation; that’s more of a side benefit. And I think you could have a situation where you want to make your partner happy but don’t experience the mirrored pleasure or the enjoyment of knowing you were the cause of your partner’s happiness—but you still wanted to do it (and I guess that’s similar to what you mentioned in the last paragraph).

    Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is, I see the mirrored pleasure idea as encompassing two different concepts/motivations that perhaps should be looked at separately. Also, this is definitely NOT an argument that anyone should have sex with their partner.

    • Siggy says:

      I agree that my rephrasing as “mirroring your partner’s pleasure” does not capture every person’s intended meaning when they talk about “liking to please one’s partner”. I am intentionally taking a subset of those experiences, in hopes that this subset will be less fraught with complications. Especially in a 101 context, I want there to be an accessible narrative for aces who care for their non-ace partners but who don’t have sex.

      But yes, it is true that some aces may have sex not for the empathetic emotions but for more altruistic reasons. I’m slightly worried about the positive valence of “altruistic” and negative valence of “selfish”, which I think don’t really apply to sex.

  3. oj27 says:

    I love this rephrasing, although I think there’s another important element which is that while we all like making our partners happy, we don’t all like doing so in the same ways and not all of us are willing to do the same things to do so. One person might make their partner happy by baking for them regularly where someone else hates baking or has an eating disorder and finds it triggering. Another person might make their partner happy by writing them songs, but no one expects that EVERYONE should write their partner songs.

    I think a lot of people have a tendency to assume when it comes to sex things that if one person likes doing a thing or it makes one person happy then everyone should do it that way. It doesn’t take into account the variety of reasons someone might NOT want to do that thing (the various costs) or the strength with which their partner might desire it.

    So I like this phrasing a lot, but I also think we should challenge the idea that “I like to make my partner happy this way” means “everyone should make their partner happy the same way I do.”

  4. epochryphal says:

    Obligatory toss-in of stone-ness and paper-ness, which I think are very related here!

    Some folks do indeed experience pleasure, sometimes sexual pleasure or some other kind of mirrored/empathetic pleasure, from giving touch (and often this is about sexual touch specifically). We know this, because apparently many allosexual folk expect/experience it, and also stone people are a thing (altho they do meet with disbelief, that they wouldn’t like to receive touch–sound familiar?).

    But also, there are people who do Not like to give touch (usually about sexual touch but not always). Who do Not mirror, as this post is about! These folks can like to receive touch (and might id as paper), or not like to (and might id as touch-averse). They might see or experience giving/receiving as related or separate.

    The decoupling of giving/receiving as bound together is so so important, so we can better recognize folks who experience mirroring or aversion or otherwise complicated relationships to touch.

    You don’t have to like receiving OR giving touch, nor do you have to like BOTH to validate liking ONE.

  5. Pingback: How to Not to Do 101 on Asexuality, Sex-Repulsion, and Sexual Activity | The Ace Theist

  6. Estrid says:

    In advance, I’d like to apologise for this late and not entirely thought-through comment.

    I think the idea of selfishness in what you decide (not) to do to please your partner points to at least one discrepancy in terms of what is expected of asexual and of non-asexuals: Why is it necessary to point to the selfishness that might be in the asexual wanting to mirror a non-asexual partner’s pleasure during sex? If you are non-asexual, I’d assume you have sex both to experience pleasure yourself and to please your partner, but would anyone ever term your wish to experience pleasure selfish in that case (or your wish to mirror your partner’s pleasure, for that matter)? And further, in the case of a relationship between someone who is asexual and someone who is non-asexual, what selfishness might be read in the non-asexual’s desire to have sex with the asexual partner even though that partner might not desire sex?

    I wonder if it is possible to consider a non-asexual partner mirroring the asexual person’s “pleasure” in not being expected to have sex as selfish. I can’t escape the thought that within compulsory sexuality, that couldn’t be read as anything but altruistic. (If so, that might be another reason to rethink altruism = good and selfishness = bad, I suppose.)

    I don’t have any answer to these questions. They just sort of arose while reading this (for about the 5th time, I guess, because I find the post really interesting).

  7. Pingback: I was not a mirror – From Fandom to Family: Sharing my many thoughts

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