Suspicion — that my
grief is not so noble
as the grief of
the deeply ensouled
who face ruin without
the comfort of delusion.
Sentinel, Fifth Watch, 1991
I told him. Although Kenneth had plucked me out of my bucket of selfish frustration and wrung me fairly dry, I still felt as soggy and soiled as any floor-cloth. And although, so far, he had shown nothing but love and understanding, I was ashamed at being seen with all my barriers down. I had to explain myself. I owed it to him, even if it spelled the end — surely the end of his love and maybe the end of his understanding. So I told him. I told him hesitantly, incoherently, in the wrong order. Let me try to retell it here in less garbled shape.
As a kid, I had no obvious problem. Such things hardly loom large in childhood. It was at prep school that I became aware that not everything was as it should be. I was perhaps ten when my friends and I began to compare the naughty parts of our anatomy, with no motive beyond curiosity. Sometimes my friends went stiff. I had occasionally reached this state myself, involuntarily and by night, and was not unduly surprised; not until it emerged that they could deliberately make themselves stiff. To keep abreast of them, I tried. But every time I failed. And whereas they obviously enjoyed it, I found that I hated it. It slowly dawned on me that I was different.
At first it hardly signified. But as we grew older, as we hit puberty, as erections in the changing room or the dormitory became more common, as the others took to masturbation as a matter of course, my difference became increasingly difficult to hide. I became the object of speculation. Kids can be very cruel. One day they tested me out themselves. They pinioned my arms and stroked and tickled it. Still nothing happened. At that age I hated any form of physical contact, and I was sickened. But my difference was not the result of their abuse. It was the cause. It had always been there, it was still there, and it was now on public display. I became the object of outright derision. Innocent happiness changed to shame-faced misery.
When I was twelve I began to develop. Hair appeared, my equipment enlarged, my voice started to wobble. I had already heard from my peers about the basics of sex. But while it fascinated them, I simply could not understand the fascination. It depressingly underlined my difference. And when Dad tried to give me The Talk, I burst into tears and told him. He was magnificent. He understood. He took me to the family doctor, a fine old pill-pusher no doubt, but in this realm a broken reed who prevaricated with clichés. It’s early days yet. Boys bloom at different ages. Give it time and it’ll sort itself out. Come back in a few years if things haven’t improved.
But the time was near when I was due to move on to Harrow. From all that I had heard, nakedness was as standard at public school as it was at prep school, and sexual experimentation was almost a norm. At Harrow my difference would be even more conspicuous. My heart quailed, and Dad remained magnificent. We talked it through and through, and agreed that I should go to a state school instead, where students were together for eight hours a day not twenty-four, and the changing room was the only potential source of embarrassment. And so I went to Penygroes, to Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle, where I made some good friends, both girls and boys. But I had not been there a year when I made a new discovery.
Ordinary school friendships were one thing. But on another plane I was still wounded and still felt an outcast. I found myself longing for deeper companionship, for a meeting of souls, for understanding, for love. Girls, however fine as friends, did not fit this bill. Boys, at least in theory, did. Boys had hurt me, boys could heal me. Their mindsets were closer to mine. I liked their bodies to look at, and by now I was yearning for physical closeness, so long as it was of my choosing. But I had no hint of desire for sex. The very idea revolted me. So did the whole vocabulary of sex, clinical or vulgar. I even closed my ears to dirty talk and dirty jokes. Apart perhaps from the few bible-bashers, my language was the least earthy in the school.
But while I knew what I wanted, I could not pursue it. I had no friends close enough to confide in, let alone make overtures to. In that department I was thwarted. And now I was doubly different — gay without physical desire: almost, on the face of it, a contradiction in terms. In that department I floundered. Gayness was a recognised category if not, at Penygroes, a popular one. I might have coped with that by itself, for at least I would have known what I was. But lack of desire was not a recognised category. I had no idea what I was, any more than I do now.
Still as dysfunctional as ever, I went back to the doctor. This time he referred me to the sexual health clinic at Ysbyty Gwynedd. God, that was horrific. The waiting room was full of sufferers, presumably, of gonorrhoea or worse. The specialist to whom I had to explain myself was disgustingly breezy. He quizzed me. He examined me. He tested my testosterone and found it normal. He showed me pictures of naked women, with no response. Of naked men, with no response. He asked if I had involuntary erections in the night, and was delighted to hear that I did, and, er, involuntary emissions too. The mechanics are all right, then, he said. It’s the trigger that’s missing. You simply (simply?) have a low libido, a low sexual drive. It’s not wildly uncommon. Not to worry. When you find the love of your life, she’ll turn you on. And if all else fails, there’s always Viagra, though you’re too young for that now.
I won’t be going back to him. He had totally missed the point. I had told him, but he had missed it. That even if I had an involuntary erection, it went down as soon as I noticed it. That I just did not want sex. That the very thought of it repelled me. That nothing, nothing, could possibly turn me on. But he had put one idea into my head. I would experiment. I bought some Viagra on the internet and tried it out. It did work, mechanically. For the first time in my life I could masturbate. I hated it, but I forced myself to carry on to orgasm. And when I experienced for myself what orgasm involved, when I saw my, um, body fluids emerge, I threw up. Literally.
That was my private life, at home. At school, everything continued smoothly enough on the surface until eighteen months or so ago when I was fifteen, almost sixteen. I used to play in a seven-a-side team. The others often talked about sex, but in the changing room there was no practical problem until one day when we had won an important match and everyone was on a high. They chattered at length about their girlfriends and their plans for that night. Someone sprang an erection, and everyone else followed suit. Everyone except me. I tried to hide my failure, but they saw. It was a repeat of my prep school. They were astonished, and grabbed me, and handled me, and still nothing happened. They roared with disbelief and laughter. They called me disbaidd, a eunuch. Next day it was all round school, and I was dead. Socially dead, and bruised once more to the core.
Dad was magnificent again. So was Gwilym the vicar to whom, at Dad’s suggestion, I told all. But they could do no more than comfort and support. I stuck it out until my GCSEs were over, and left. My exam results were lousy. Next term I moved to the college. So far so good, there, both in my work and in my … secret.
“That’s the story, then, Kenneth,” I ended dejectedly. “That’s why I told you I don’t leap into bed with boys. You’ve found yourself someone with a major defect. A wimp with an abhorrence of sex. Without potency or virility. Just what a virile and potent gay like you is looking for.” I laughed bitterly. “Kenneth, I’m sorry.”
But he was still hugging me, lending me strength to finish the litany of my woes. He had been strengthened by his own tribulations, I thought enviously, where I had been weakened by mine. Now he hugged me tighter.
“Cilmin. I’m sorry too. For you. It’s hell if people laugh at you. Of course it is. But do you feel defective? Inferior?”
I considered it as dispassionately as I could. “No. Not normally. I know it’s just my natural state. The way I’m meant to be.”
“So it only worries you when it becomes, um, relevant? Like in the changing room? Like now? If it really is relevant now.”
“Yes. And of course it’s relevant now.”
“Is it?” He cogitated. “It must be rather like being deaf, you know. There was an article in the New Scientist about that, a month or so back. About cochlear implants to restore hearing, or partial hearing. Deaf people on the whole get on perfectly well — they’ve learned the skills to cope. It isn’t them who have problems with deafness. It’s hearing people, who don’t understand it. A lot of deaf people don’t see themselves as disabled, so they don’t reckon there’s anything to cure. And if they have implants they feel they don’t belong to the deaf community any more. They feel they’ve been changed from first-class deaf people into second-class hearing people. And it makes some sense to me, to want to stay clear of the bedlam of the hearing world. Isn’t that rather like you?”
That was interesting. “Yes. I suppose it is. But there are differences. There’s no community for people like me, like there is for the deaf. I’m all alone. And I’d be happy to stay where I am, clear of the bedlam of sex, if it weren’t that I do want love. But love only comes in a package, with sex included whether you want it or not. That’s the trouble. Nobody stocks love without sex, do they?”
“Don’t they? Look, Cilmin. I’m beginning to understand. Impotent isn’t the right word for you, is it? Not in the ordinary sense. It means wanting to, but not being able to. But you’re the other way round. You’re able to, but you haven’t got the desire. There’s bound to be a name for it, though I’ve no idea what …
“Look, can we try to pin things down more accurately? Where the boundaries are between what you can stand, or even like, and what you hate? Can I ask some very personal things?”
Nothing could be sacrosanct now, and I steeled myself to answer unpalatable questions as honestly as I could.
“You say you can’t stand, er, body fluids. What about pee and crap? They’re body fluids too, sort of.”
“Oh, no problem there. I’ve no more hang-ups about them than anyone else. Everyone craps and pees. You have to.”
“What about kissing? Expressing love without sex?”
I had kissed Mum, of course, but that was different.
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried. Maybe, er, light kissing would be OK. On the cheek, say. Even on the lips.”
“But deep kissing? With tongue? And saliva?”
“No, I doubt I could take that. It seems too, um, intimate. I think it comes into the same category as physical sex. That’s what repels me.”
“Can you describe how it repels you? The thought of it?”
“Not just the thought. I told you that actual masturbation made me sick.”
“But the thought of a blow-job, or fucking, would be worse?”
He saw my expression.
“Sorry,” he said. “Just my dirty language.”
“It’s not that. Don’t apologise. I told you I don’t mind that. No, it’s thinking about … those things. Oh God, how can I describe it? Well, what’s the most disgusting thing you can think of?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Putting a live frog in my mouth and crunching it, guts and all?”
“No, I meant disgusting sexually.”
“Mmmm. I think I’d be willing to try anything, with someone I loved.”
He still did not fully understand. I had to be brutal, and forced myself to use Kenneth’s language.
“But what about with Rasmus, say? What about … giving Rasmus a blow-job?”
Horror came over his face.
“Or fucking him?”
“No way! Anyway, I couldn’t get a hard-on to do that.”
“Exactly! And that describes me! That’s exactly how I feel. At the very thought of doing it to you. Or you doing it to me. Oh, no offence to you, Kenneth — I’d rather do it with you than anyone. But does that explain it?”
It did. There was a long silence as the last pieces of his understanding fell into place.
“Right,” he said at last. “Right, I’m with you. Let’s try again. We’re hugging. You don’t mind that?”
“God, no. It’s great. You’ve no idea how comforting it is. Mum isn’t a huggy person. Let alone Dad.”
“What about nakedness? Hugging skin to skin?”
“I … I don’t know.”
“Shall we try, then?”
I looked at him. Trustworthy, reassuring, a buttress in time of trouble, at least until it registered that there was nothing in it for him and he looked for his fulfilment elsewhere. Draw on his comfort, Cilmin, while you can. It won’t last long.
I took the decision, stood up and rapidly stripped. So did he, and we gazed at each other’s nakedness. He had a good young body. Nothing like as hairy as mine — it probably never would be — but sturdy, well-muscled, desirable for everything except … that. And he looked me over with obvious approval. But he remained flaccid. That surprised me, and reassured me. We squeezed into my bed, a single bed, which brought us flesh to flesh, face to face. It was bliss. He hugged me, he stroked me gently down the back from shoulder to thigh, he kissed me on the cheek, I kissed him on the lips, and it was still bliss. But, bliss though it was, it did not turn me on, not in that sense. Nor did it turn Kenneth on. Still puzzled, I asked him why.
“I don’t know. I thought I’d be randy as hell. Maybe my cock’s taking its cue from yours. Knowing you can’t, um, answer back. Not to worry. But if you’re OK so far, can we go a bit further?”
I felt his tongue rest very delicately on my lips and begin to inch inside. Hesitantly I brought mine forward to meet it. The tips touched, and I recoiled as if stung.
“Sorry,” he said. “Obviously not. Not yet, anyway. Shall we try, um, elsewhere?”
“Well …” He was right, of course. We had to try. “Yes.”
“Turn on your other side.”
I wriggled round and he spooned in behind me, reaching over to stroke my front, tickling the hairs on my chest. His hand moved slowly down until it was on my genitals. Needless to say, there was no reaction, but no problem either. Then he stroked them again, over, around, under. The sensation at once became alien, repugnant, as if he were rubbing a sore. I could not help flinching. Kenneth sensed it, and stopped.
“Never mind,” he said. “Would you try the same on me?”
We turned over so that I was spooned behind him, and I stroked his smooth chest. It felt good. My hand slid down over his pubic hair to his penis. It was still soft, and it also felt good. It was just another part of his body, a good part of a good body. It did not disgust me, any more than I was disgusted when his hand was first on mine. But as I lingeringly cupped it, as he had mine, it began to grow hard. What I was doing instantly became offensive, equally alien and repugnant. Holding my breath, clenching my teeth, hating every moment, I stroked it more.
“No, stop,” he said. “You’re not enjoying it. I can tell. So I’m not enjoying it either. It’s no good if we’re not in it together.”
I breathed again, and we lay as we were. Occasionally I stroked his front. He was already soft again. God, he was good. And God, it was good. I was in both heaven and hell. The heaven of the present, of bodily contact, of being understood, of being loved, of fulfilment — my brand of fulfilment. The hell of the future, of the knowledge that it could not last, of the prospect of loneliness again. The hell of frustration at my difference, that it would snuff out our love.
“Cilmin,” he murmured. “I meant what I said. I still love you.”
Teetering on the cusp of hope and despair, I could not reply. I barely believed him. We had talked about sexuality, but we had not talked about love. I loved him, and I needed his love. God knows I did, but it could only be on my terms, and that was something I could not expect from him. I could only hope for it, forlornly. I could not bring myself to talk about it because he was beyond my reach. For the same reason, presumably, Kenneth had not talked about it either, beyond kind words of encouragement which he could not mean. No blame to him. On his agenda, sex was high. On mine it could not feature. Love on his terms and love on my terms were simply incompatible. Our paths could converge no closer. I seem to remember that I cried before I fell asleep.
At one point I half-woke, half-aware of my erection pressing into the cleft of his buttocks. But the moment the fact registered properly, the erection subsided. When I next awoke, I awoke fully. Morning was filtering past the curtains, and Kenneth was no longer in the bed. Had he left me already? I sat up with a jerk of panic. But no. He was at the desk, fully clothed, reading his New Scientist. On seeing me surface he brought it over, a finger marking the place, beaming.
“Shove over, Cilmin. I’ve got news for you. Great news.”
He squeezed in beside me and put an arm round my back.
He flipped the magazine open and laid it on my lap. Bewildered, I looked. On the right was a photo of a handsome young man wearing a T-shirt with the message ‘Nobody knows I’m asexual.’ At bottom left was a bold headline, ‘Glad to be A.’ Below it was a subtitle, ‘If you absolutely, positively, have no desire to have sex, you’re not alone.’
Oh, my God! I tore through it, all six pages of it, as if it might at any moment be snatched from my hands. Kenneth’s arm was still round me, and as I reached the end he hugged me tighter.
“Now you know what you are, Cilmin. And you’re not alone.”
I hardly heard him. I was turning back to the beginning to read it again, more carefully. It started with David Jay in St Louis, the young man in the photo, who was twenty-two and had never felt sexual attraction to anyone, let alone had sex. He called himself asexual. It wasn’t a matter, as it was in celibacy or abstinence, of deliberately rejecting sexuality. It was a matter of not wanting sex, or even of being repelled by sex.
Asexuals came in all shapes, the article went on. Some were straight, some gay, some bi, some had no orientation at all. What united them was the lack of desire for sex with anyone. Some masturbated, some experienced little arousal or even none at all. Some were loners, some were strongly attracted to others and, short of actual sex, wanted the deepest and most romantic relationship possible. Of these last, David Jay was one. He believed that his form of love, unconditional and unencumbered by sexual demands, was particularly powerful. He had founded a web forum which now had over 1200 members constantly interacting in a virtual community. Science was beginning to recognise the condition, and surveys suggested that one per cent of the population might be asexual, compared to the three per cent who were gay.
The overall message was that, in most cases, lack of arousal is not a medical or psychological problem and is not a defect to be cured, any more than homosexuality is. It is a natural state, and not even particularly rare. A tidal wave of relief was washing over me. Here in my hands was the answer to the conundrum that had plagued me for years. At last, as Kenneth had pointed out, I knew what I was. At last I knew that I was not alone. The equally thorny conundrum of my love for Kenneth receded into the background, still unanswered and, for the time being, disregarded.
The article gave the link to the website and, while Kenneth went downstairs to collect some breakfast, I went straight to it. It was called AVEN, for Asexual Visibility and Education Network, a large and complex site with not only the forum but all kinds of information and advice and FAQs. I was still on its fringes when Kenneth came up with a trayful of coffee and toast.
“So I’m asexual!” I said delightedly. “I’ve heard that word before. But doesn’t it usually mean lower forms of life? Worms and things?”
“That’s right. Some worms. Starfish. Jellyfish. Anything that doesn’t copulate to reproduce. Plants as well, of course.”
I did not feel like a tapeworm, or an asparagus.
“I think they’re using it here,” he went on, “in a different sense, on the lines of homosexual and heterosexual.”
“But it doesn’t describe an orientation, like they do.”
“No. It’s another dimension, isn’t it? The old Kinsey scale is supposed to cover all shades of orientation, from straight to gay. But that’s just a line. To include sex drive you need another axis, like a graph. Something like this.” He found a pen and sketched rapidly.
“Take Megan. She’s totally straight and I reckon she has a strong sex drive. She’d be at A. Someone who has a middling sex drive and is bi — say a bloke with a bit of a preference for girls — would be at B. And you’re at C.”
Firmly at the bottom right-hand corner. My other problem momentarily raised its head.
“And where are you?” I asked.
Kenneth hesitated, but honesty made him put his D at the top end of the vertical axis. A long way from me, just as I had feared.
“I thought I was there,” he said, a trifle shyly. “But I’m not sure I have to be. I might move down here.” He drew an arrow from D towards C.
Was he really contemplating changing himself to meet my needs, or lack of needs? That would never do. But he knew what was in my mind.
“Don’t worry, Cilmin. I’m still thinking about it. There’s plenty of time. You get on with your website. Come to terms with your identity. That’s your first priority. After having something to eat.”
He almost force-fed me with toast and marmalade, then flicked me on the ear.
“OK. Back to your screen, but don’t forget your coffee. I’m going to read this again.”
He picked up the New Scientist. Unshaven, still stark naked, bursting for a pee, I returned to the website and tried the forum. It turned out to be forums in the plural, nearly twenty of them, on different topics. There was a mass of stuff there. It would take weeks to read the lot, and I could only dip. But by dipping into likely-sounding threads I lit on much that resonated with me. A typical message ran,
For me, I think the repulsion largely comes from the thought of having what amounts to a pulsating, vaguely sausage-like appendage jammed inside of me. Sorry, guys, I can’t help feeling that way. But if it makes you feel any better, I don’t find female genitalia any more attractive. Who knows, maybe I’m just confusing repulsion with fear. On the other hand, I do find the whole ‘exchange of bodily fluids’ thing rather gross. Hell, I feel gross when I wake up in the middle of the night sweating like a racehorse because my room’s so damn hot, so you can imagine how I’d feel about other peoples’ juices getting on my sheets.
That spoke for me, that and much else. I would register and make myself known and join this community of like-minded souls. I looked happily across at Kenneth, and he looked up at me from his magazine with a smile on his own face, bubbling to tell me something. I had to force myself to listen.
“This is a bumper issue, Cilmin. It’s got a report and an editorial about the gay gene. Or genes — it says there are probably more than one on the X chromosome. They’d soon die out if they affected only men. But someone’s found that the mothers and maternal aunts of gays have more children than the mothers and aunts of straight men. Which suggests that those genes also increase a woman’s chance of having more children. They carry an advantage, and so they’re passed on. It’s not the whole story, of course. But it fits me. OK, I’m an only child, and we know why. But Mum has four sisters who have countless kids. It fits.”
It fitted me too. I was an only child because my own Mum had had medical problems, but I had three aunts on her side, and a whole herd of cousins.
“But again you don’t tell your Mum?” I observed.
Kenneth smiled. “No, I think not.”
Back to the screen. A little later the church bell rang.
“Cilmin … are you going to church?”
“No. Matins is in Welsh today, and there’s no evensong. Anyway, I want to get on with this website.”
“Then do you mind if I go out by myself, to do my thinking?”
“Of course not.”
He came over, gripped me by my naked shoulders, and kissed me on the lips.
“Cilmin. I love you. Don’t ever forget that. But I’ve a lot of sorting out to do before we can talk about it properly.”
With a sweet smile, he was gone. I sighed guiltily. I recognised that, riding the crest of my wave of self-discovery, I was being inconsiderate. But I could not help it. The forum was beckoning me irresistibly back. I took the plunge and registered, posting a brief message introducing myself. Then I dipped at random into the FAQs and immediately spotted one that shouted at me in my new-found flush of optimism.
I'm in love — I want to be with him all the time, I can't imagine life without him — I like to cuddle and be affectionate and everything couples do — I know I'm attracted to him! I just don't want to have sex!
That was me. I loved Kenneth. We were in harmony. We read each other’s minds. I wanted to be with him all the time. I wanted to cuddle and be affectionate. And I just did not want to have sex.
Some asexuals, ran the answer, do have a strong romantic drive, as opposed to a sexual drive. That can be confusing, because sexual and romantic attraction are often taken to be one and the same. Not so for the asexual. Yes, that was bang on the nail.
But next to it came the fundamental question, “How exactly does an asexual compromise with a sexual?”
That is determined by the individuals involved. Some asexuals simply cannot ever have sex, the idea is repulsive. If they are in a relationship with a sexual who is okay with that, then there is little problem.
There are varying degrees of aversion to sex … How to talk this out is sometimes a challenge because it is so personal and so many feelings are at stake. It's important to stay on the same side and reassure each other that love is the most important thing — not the sex. If in the end you can't work out something that is mutually pleasant, then perhaps sacrifice is required … And some have found that compromise is simply not possible. Ultimately it's a very personal decision.
Oh God. That brought me back to earth with a bump.
‘Cilmin. I love you,’ had been his parting words. ‘Don’t ever forget that.’ I still could not believe that he meant it. And even if he meant it now …
‘I’ve a lot of sorting out to do,’ he had said. That, in contrast, I could well believe. And, during his sorting out, his love would certainly evaporate.
Compromise was simply not possible. Surely it was not possible. My aversion was total. There was no way I could meet Kenneth’s needs, or begin to meet them. I could meet him in trivial areas like earthy language or the music of the Grateful Dead, but not in any area that mattered. He might meet my needs, but only by dint of an impossible sacrifice, one which I could not possibly expect of him. And another thought struck me. Even if he made that sacrifice, our love could not be complete. Love, after all — what was it Cowley said in that poem? — is ‘not complete till bodies too do join.’
The article and the website had given my confidence a miraculous boost. Now it slumped back to where it had been when that fatal word impotent reared its ugly head.