Trigger warning for mentions of sex acts, including non-consensual ones. Also, spoilers ahoy!
I have a few movies and TV series I want rewatch to write posts for this series. Something in them taught me more about attraction and love. Today’s subject is not on that list. I was happily surprised by it when I rewatched an episode recently.
Torchwood was a nice change of pace from Doctor Who, its parent series. Cardiff a nice change from London, in characters’ accents and setting. The intergalactic conman and his team a nice change from the madman in the box and his single companion. It didn’t leave much of an impression then, but I have to say I’m liking it better now.
The series was hailed as an important step forward for queer representation in mainstream media, mostly because of the character Captain Jack Harkness and its actor, John Barrowman. Its fans were stoked to have a canon slash pairing. The series was meant to go into all the adult themes impossible in Doctor Who and its other spin-off, the Sarah Jane Adventures.
The first episode introduces the team of secret agents that clean up after an space-time rift running through Cardiff, which spits out intergalactic junk. Gwen, newbie with empathy. Owen, cranky doctor. Toshiko, tech whiz. Ianto, sassy butler.
The second episode, Day One, dives right into the first adult theme, sex. I’d written it off as a mediocre attempt at an overdone cliché: a femme fatale alien to shock the prudes in the audience and titillate the rest. And yes, there’s some of that, but it offered a surprisingly nuanced view of how attraction and sexuality works. I wanted to pick out and examine those newly-discovered good bits.
In it, a rock falls to Earth, Gwen throws a chisel and on accident releases a cloud of gas from it while the team examines it. The cloud possesses Carys, a twenty-something leaving a tear-filled voicemail to a married boyfriend. Carys becomes a succubus who roofies people with sex chemicals and dusts guys the moment they climax. The team needs to catch her before she kills again.
“Yeah, that’s what it can feel like,” I thought. A club scene that’s a platform for casual hooking up, complete with voyeuristic manager. A walk through streets with posters full of sexual objectification. A guy cheating on his wife with a younger girl. All of it presented as both normal and alien and on the edge of disturbing. That’s so totally how freaky sex’s presence can be, if it does not excite you at all. Society’s mostly harmless, but sometimes it can exhibit sex the way a haunted house exhibit ghosts.
To this world travelled an alien, basically as a sex tourist. Except that the humans dying in orgasm are more like a hit from a powerful drug, the way she describes it. Each time it’s less powerful, so she escalates, as a serial killer or an addict would. The alien breaks down Carys’s body slowly, the way an unending high or hormonal imbalance would.
In sharp contrast stand Gwen and Jack. Gwen with her domestic boyfriend she’s on a date with at the start of the episode, and whose phone call quite literally helps her get over the alien’s thrall. She symbolises the majority’s experience of a good sex and love life. She’s challenged in this episode. Jack, on the other hand, represents a much broader view of sexuality, in dismissing his colleagues as “you people and your quaint little categories” and flirting with everyone for fun or profit.
Objectification and consensuality
Gwen’s questioning of Carys turns into a Katy Perry moment, when she enters the cell to help and is kissed instead. The alien stops when she realises Gwen’s the wrong gender for the succubus’ deadly sex drug hit. This overriding of people’s sexuality continues in a later scene, when a guy proclaims he’s gay before being consumed by the alien anyway. The alien’ roofie power works, regardless of gender and orientation.
Another interesting twist is that it’s not a guy who’s committing sexual violence, but a woman. A woman who is herself a victim of the alien possessing her. It’s made clear it’s not okay, for example by the delivery guy she pulls into her house who’s not into it, and later the guys at the fertility clinic when she first approaches them.
Also present is the dismissal of the non-consensual aspect by the presence of the male gaze, first in the questioning of the night club owner who viewed Carys and her first victim. Owen even comments “he’d love to go like that”. Later by Owen and Jack drooling over Carys french-kissing Gwen before Toshiko points out they should really rescue her. They’d have been too late.
And this is where it gets good. When Owen teases Gwen she slams him into the wall, grabs him by the throat and demands he stop it. She makes it clear that the kiss disturbed her not because it was with a girl, but because it was a non-consensual act, just like it was for the possessed Carys.
So this one episode manages to address several aspects of sexual violence. That going against a person’s orientation’s not the most important reason to be angry it happens nor a protection against sexual violence. That it happens to men, which is as bad as when it happens to women but generally dismissed. That the male gaze, when in play, glosses over whether consent happened and can do much harm, even when, in Owen’s view, he’s just poking a little fun. And most importantly, that the victim is often treated as object, rather than a person, the way Carys is during this investigation.
This last message gets a ham-handed treatment. Gwen lectures the team about losing their humanity and attempting to profile Carys as if she’s in a Criminal Minds episode. As a result, that message is the most clear and the least palatable. I like the way the rest is handled better.
Sexuality and sexual freedom
Rather than attempting to say sex is right or wrong, the episode attempts to point out the right and wrong ways to have it. One’s represented by the alien representing Carys, in all its deadly sexual violence. The other’s represented by Rhys and Gwen, as a regular couple in an established relationship that makes a good counterbalance for this new, demanding job she’s taking on. It’s also represented by Jack, who likes to kick 21st century hang-ups about sexuality in the teeth with flirting and racy comments, all the while respecting people’s actual limits and being quite the gentleman at times.
The first episode sets up a mutual romantic crush between Jack and Gwen. He’s the romantic, mysterious hero for her. She’s the symbol of humanity and empathy for him. For Gwen it coexists uncomfortably with her relationship with Rhys because monogamy. For Jack it coexists comfortably with his later relationship with Ianto but goes unfulfilled. I’m somewhat unclear as to whether they are sexually attracted to one another. I’d say yes on Gwen’s end, on Jack’s end I’m not sure… I’d say it’s a platonic crush which actually makes him a little uncomfortable, seeing as how he’s mostly sexually attracted to people and rarely on an emotional level, and the last time it ended badly and he got a case of eternal life out of the deal, after which he’s had to watch people he loved die without him. Guy’s got some issues.
One scene, a team lunch, neatly captures the reactions people can have to a non-standard sexuality like Jack’s, which is either omnisexuality or pansexuality. Gwen, as the newbie, is shocked to be talking about it. Owen speculates he’s gay, because he’s not straight and dresses in period military clothes. It’s a rather binary and stereotypical view. Ianto appears dismissive. Tosh comes closest, declaring he’s shag anything gorgeous enough. The conversation’s short and treated as exchanging gossip between colleagues which is where the topic’d come up.
Sex is not special
In short, sex is treated as a power for good and for harm, that occupies people’s attention and really, that they obsess over too much and have too many hang-ups over, when you really don’t have to. If Carys is taken as a representative of all that’s bad in sex, it’s to say that consent and respecting a person are important. Gwen’s the representative of sex as part of a relationship and a healthy work-life balance most people attempt to have. Jack’s a walking challenge to current sexual morality. So far, so good, but also pretty typical.
One line that seemed bleak last time now struck me as powerful, even hopeful.
“Travel halfway across the universe for the greatest sex, you still end up dying alone.”
In other words, it’s not special, not worth all the grief. It’s underlined by Gwen giving Jack a chaste kiss as a thank-you, not sexual but meaningful. For Gwen, it’s a momentary break from her traditional monogamy. For Jack, it’s connecting physically and emotionally to a person in a way he rarely does.
It’s a small little moment that tied all the themes in the episode into a neat bow for me. That sex isn’t meaningful, but the connecting of two people is and yes, sex might be one of the means to that end. As a person on the asexual spectrum, that’s what made me love the episode, not just enjoy it.
It’s a view of sex that helps if you aren’t having it or don’t desire to have it at all. After all, if there’s one way to connect people, there’s plenty of others to choose from as well. It’s also a view of sex that helps if you are having it, but don’t necessarily feel any attraction. It’s still, meaningful, as long as it helps you connect to the other person.
Every night you sit down at my feet. Your hands stroke my toes, as you talk to me about your day.
I cannot stroke the curls that rest against my knees. My hands are caught by my side, where you sculpted them, roughly, compared to the time and fine tools you used for my face and torso.
Love, you call it, the tenderness you bestow upon my stone body and the words you wind around my still mind.
I woke like this, to warm words and warm hands, sinking into flesh with prayers and wishful thinking. I began to feel like this, to see. Even stone can grown soft as flesh after many such moments.
One day, I move, a toe twitching, hand finding your hair. You help me make a step, find me clothes. We celebrate with wine and little kisses.
The summer air melting like butter upon every inch of my skin intoxicates. The breeze brushing tiny hairs on my arms and face invigorates. The springy grass beneath my feet as I walk out, even the unshifting stones, inspires a dance and a clap.
But you cut me off, clasping my arm, whispering, “I dreamed of this,” kissing again, and stroking all over, and I glory in each sensation.
Until you lift my skirt and dip down between my legs. It itches. It hurts. I retrieve your hand and put it on my head, where stroking feels good. You put it between my legs again and I use force to push my body away.
I look into your eyes. This is not love, but desire.
My first word as a person is “No.”
You argue I am but a statue, an animate body.
I have no words to tell you I heard you speak before I felt your hands, I had a soul before my body unfroze. I received your every word and I wished to reciprocrate.
Except you do not listen as I have. You do not stand still while I move.
So my second word is “stop” and my third word is “I” and my fourth word is drowned out by your yelling.
You made me, you say. You loved me, you say. You wished for me to move, you say, to live. My body enchanted you.
But… I live and I feel and perhaps I could even love… but…
You wish for me, you conclude, to be your lover. To serve you, to feel you, to sate you.
I can’t, because though my body has been softened and ensouled, it is not like your flesh.
I can love you. I cannot desire you.
When you advance, I set the toes and heels you stroked into soft earth and feel it bounce, and again. It supports me and pulls at me and I turn on it, the breeze not just tickling me, but teaching me of leaf and flower. My mouth waters. I wish to know more.
The a world awaits and I feel its pull.
Your fingers brush my shoulders, reach to catch me and keep me still, as I have been, so I duck from beneath them and let the summer breeze carry me away, my hands free from my sides and my feet jumping, stomping, going.
In my G-rated fantasies
You are he, sometimes she
Whose ear I trace down to your neck
Clasp the bump that crowns your spine
The collarbone on the other side
We do not kiss: I smile, you back
And I, lost in the glint in your eye
Wish to drink in all thoughts in your mind
Wish to share all the times in your life
The future in deeds, the past in the night
Told when we lie in bed, sleep drunk
Not post coital at 2 am
But brushing together, the warmth
The best gift of your body, and your soul
In gentle words and gentle hands
Ever touching, never straying
Towards parts that blood won’t swell
When this scene cuts off – we will sleep
Not groaning, creaking
But snoring, dreaming
Are there any common assumptions made about a particular mental health issue that do not apply to you because of asexuality? Or have extra complications when you add in asexuality?
Let’s see where this list takes us…
- Teenage lust was a non-issue. I didn’t feel any.
- Promiscuity and STDs and condoms were only theoretical things.
- Presence or absence of sex do not count as faithful symptoms, in my case, of good or bad mental health.
A deeper, cultural issue, to consider during therapy: I think for demisexual and asexual women especially, sexual freedom is important. Because it leaves you free not to have sex, or have it in your own time. It is with a profound relief that I can say that I’ve never experienced sexual assault, and only rarely heard of it second hand.
A general openness towards different sexualities (to the LGBTQ community), translates into a more welcome place in which to be ace or demi, I feel. Both because you’re encouraged to explore your own sexuality during your teenage years and because it’s less hard to get people around you to accept there’s variations in levels of sexuality, the way there is variety in who that sexuality is aimed at.
In an openly sexual country (aka the western world) I think you’ll have to deal with the pressure to have sex, in and out of a relationship. It’s probably the biggest point of inner conflict for me. In a more traditional culture, you’ll have to deal with the pressure to marry and have children. For women, that translates in having to have sex with your husband, whether you want it or not. I think that is a deeper horror when you don’t want sex at all.
In general, the drive to just have sex is like a foreign language. It’s harder to understand. Entire genres of commercials and music clips don’t make sense. You can go along in jokes and behaviour, the way you learn to buy a certain type of shoe or shirt. But you wouldn’t do it on your own.
Consider this: a girl walks down the street in a short skirt and is accosted. The assaulters claim she wanted it, and general audiences do, at least, agree she ‘dressed slutty’. This is a travesty. How much more so, if that girl didn’t just not want to have sex at that point in time, but never in her life has, or will, and doesn’t even really understand why other people do. And, because of a lack of information, can’t even articulate her confusion.
6. What advice do you have for aces who are trying to find either a mental health care provider, or some kind of support group/system?
- You’re in charge. You remain in charge. You are the one who lives in your head, who observes the problem, the process of healing.
- Do not let people take away your independence. You will lose it, to some degree, but it’s yours to give to someone you trust, not theirs to take.
- Should people infringe, whether parents or friends or colleagues or therapist or partner, stay away from them while you heal. You’re vulnerable and anything you do in this time will affect the rest of your life. The wisdom you garner will benefit you for the rest of your life. The hurt caused during this time lingers in deep scars.
5. Are there any particular types of therapy that work better or worse for you? Or, are there any alternatives to therapy (like peer support groups) that you’ve used? Are there any other things that act as barriers to treatment for you?
My family was crucial. My parents loved me without reserve and this was the time I felt it. They gave me the space I required to express negative emotions. They supported me when I wasn’t able to do groceries or get out of bed on time. They gave me the space and time to recover.
They did not accept bullshit, however. They clearly communicated what they could and couldn’t do, not expecting me to ‘just know’. For all of us, it was uncharted territory.
And familial love was a powerful foundation to start rebuilding my life and activities once I had figured out the issues that were plaguing me.
A friend or partner could fill this role, as well, but it deepens the relationship to a degree of intimacy rarely present in a relationship where both people are healthy throughout. It’s good to keep that in mind, and discuss in advance if you’d want that, and if they consent.
The coming two weeks, I’ll be posting short, daily posts about how demisexuality and mental health were related in my case. The occasion is the Carnival of Aces, an writing initiative for asexual visibility that changes hosts and topics every month. This month’s topic is Asexuality and Mental Health, and its host Prismatic Entanglements will be collecting the contributions for asexualsurvivors.org. A worthy cause.
The call for submissions had an excellent list of prompt questions, which is what turned a single blog post I wanted to contribute into a series. I feel it’s be more readable that way. Watch for titles starting with “Demisexuality and Mental Health” and the tag “demi & mental health”, created along with this post.
The best part of growing up now, especially as a woman? It is alright to have whatever life you want, as long as it does more good than harm, and we grow up with parents who live like that too. Our dads read bedtime stories. Brothers and sisters share equally in household chores. All that can, can go to college, have a career. We can explore what sex we want to have and have what we want.
The sexual revolution…
…didn’t give women the freedom to have sex. It gave women the freedom of consent. I spoke to a lady who regularly travels to Africa, and the miracle she brings to girls there, when she gives sex ed, isn’t that white women have sex outside of marriage. It’s the idea that women say no to men unless they reciprocrate the sexual desire. That to have gone through puberty isn’t an open invitation for any and all to take advantage. That nothing is owed. That their body is theirs. Before and after marriage.
…takes on another meaning when you are asexual, demisexual or not sexually active for other reasons. It is socially accepted to have sex. I’m also happy I live in a country where it is socially accepted that one can have sex with either gender, since part of not really having a sex drive during adolescence was that it was rather open-ended what sexuality I’d turn out to have if I ever did start wanting to have sex. It took away some of the angst. If you are not sexually active, though, you are invisible. I’ve rarely talked about the not-having with friends. I don’t even really know why. I’m lucky I can talk to my family. That I have, at the very least, the fundamental right to determine that I have sex, is important, in the face of that.
…was something I took for granted until I travelled outside the western world. I wasn’t in love, so I was not in a relationship. I was not in lust, so I did not have sex. It was that simple to me and to my family. It is that simple to most of my friends, I am happy to say. I hope it’s that simple for you too. Not so in other countries. There, women my age (twenty, at the time), felt the same pressure for marriage, and thus sex, that I only experienced when I thought about getting a job. Growing up, earning a living, being independent was enough pressure. I shuddered to feel the same pressure to find a partner. But then, returning to the western world with open eyes, it seems like there is that same social pressure, not to marry, but to have sex, definitely. And it startled me how hard it was for women to refuse without being ridiculed, once I started paying more attention.
…seems alien. I cycle past a giant bill-board of larger-than-life six-pack abs and all I think is, “geesh, photoshopped, much?” I look at Thor, and agree he has dreamy biceps, but not until the third time I’ve rewatched the movie, and I thorougly approve of his character. I can’t tell at all if I am attractive to people. I’m guessing not, because I’m rarely cat-called and I do not reflect the aesthetic ideal one bit. I was stared at, when I travelled, but I’m still not sure whether that was because I was white or because I was a woman. Since I’m not able to objectify anybody sexually until I know them well personally I never really understood how anybody else could. I know it’s possible, but I’m able to understand four-dimensional reality better than sexual objectification.
…is as much an issue for me as it is for the general population. Sorry guys, the pressure to be thin and diet and hatred of yourself and seeing yourself through the eyes of a virtual onlooker… nothing really sexual about that. Just pop-culture brainwashing. That’s why eight-year-olds get as insecure about their bodies as adults do. How do I know? Been there, done that, with zero sexual drive. Been there, done that, with the sexual drive online. Been able to accept my body, without changing it a whit, with the sexual drive online too. Exactly because I started exploring myself and owning my sexual identity. Because I’ve felt the difference between leafing through a magazine and walking around an exhibit of half-naked women painted in the seventeenth century. The first was depressing. The latter was empowering.
…are so important and I came across it a lot during my search for what other women do when it comes to sex. I think it’s very important that women do not legally become like children when they marry (since 1950s) and rape is illegal even inside marriage (1980s) and sexual slavery is forbidden (since 2004, in the US). I think it’s very important that I can do with my body what I like, especially since I started wanting sex long after I would have had to marry in earlier centuries and other countries. I love that there’s more attention for the exploration of female sexual body parts, because stimulating my clitoris works, my vagina doesn’t do anything for me. Wouldn’t have known to try that, a decade or two ago. I like that there’s way more female writers who produce good sex, romance and erotica, and the female audience that demands it, since I need emotion to go with my sex, in fiction, and that just very often doesn’t happen in porn. I like that there’s more women in fiction, because reading early science fiction books where women just… don’t exist… is deeply creepy.
…is very important for one reason for demisexuals, specifically: genders mix much more. I am able to meet and know guys socially and professionally in ways I wouldn’t have a hundred years ago. It’s alright to be in a room together, because you’re all able to treat other people as people. Since genders mix, men and women are much more comfortable in each other’s company. Less posturing, less rules, less bullshit. Much more that you’re able to do in your life in general. This way of living, meeting and mixing as people with little regard as to whether you’re a man or a woman… that’s how the world is when you’re demisexual. People are just people. Gender is as relevant as someone’s choice of shirt, 99% of the time.
Until I know someone personally, sexual attraction doesn’t even really register, and that goes much deeper, and has much more fundamental consequences than just not wishing to have casual sex. I hope I’ve been able to show what that’s like, just a little.