When I was 12, I was in an abstinence-only sex-ed program where I learned that I should only have sex with someone to whom I was married. Then, in high school, some of my friends and I decided that premarital sex might be okay as long as it was with someone we were really, really in love with. Now, most of my friends have decided to simply have sex with whomever they choose. But I haven’t.
Morals don’t drive my decision not to sleep around–I don’t see it as a “decision” at all, actually. I identify as demisexual, which is a point on the asexuality spectrum. Demisexual folks, including myself, are not capable of experiencing any sexual attraction to anyone with whom we don’t have a deep romantic connection. For example, it took me a while to realize that when my friends talk about how much they’d jump at the chance to have sex with various celebrities, they aren’t just joking around. I don’t mind being demi, but I hate telling people I’m demi. When I do open up, people often respond by telling me my sexuality is “noble.” They mean it as a compliment, but considering what it says about sexuality–women’s sexuality in particular—I really wish they wouldn’t say my sex life more honorable than anyone else’s.
My friends’ well-intentioned comments about my sexuality echo pop culture’s long reinforcement of the belief that the only acceptable approach to sex is to couple copulation with romantic love. The modern roots of this idea can be found in the Victorian era when an increased focus on marrying for romantic reasons—rather than reasons of economics and social status—led to the cultural norm that sex was only moral when it occurred between people wed in true love. As time has gone on, many communities, particularly conservative Christian ones, have preserved the emphasis on abstinence, but the emphasis on love being an essential part of sex is perhaps the Victorian ideal most reiterated in popular media these days.
In mainstream film and TV, it’s a given that sex scenes involving major female characters always occur after the leading couple has already fallen in love, often as the ultimate act which demonstrates that love. Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), both by James Cameron, both provide examples of this standard at work. The leading couples (Jack and Rose in Titanic and Jake and Neytiri in Avatar) spend about half the movie falling in love with one another before their respective sex scenes. Both scenes are intensely intimate, and in both cases, the lovers’ relationship extends well beyond the scene, and is even key to the overall plot.
Though neither couple is married, their sex is sanctioned because of the deep love they share. It might sound pretty cheesy, but it’s a pattern that replicates itself in almost all films (and TV shows) that include sex. It’s a hard standard to notice simply because it’s so pervasive—we take it as the norm without blinking. But this norm becomes rather troubling when you consider how far away the average person’s sexual behavior actually is from this model.
It is rare in Hollywood to see a sex scene between two partners who are only acquaintances or strangers. When it does happen, the woman involved will frequently be the less important of the characters, existing for the pleasure and story arc of the male hero, as in American Pie (1999) or James Kirk’s super-quick alien threesome in the new Star Trek: Into Darkness. Conversely, if a female lead has sex with a near stranger, it’s a decent bet she’ll fall in love with him later on in the film. In 2011, two separate films—No Strings Attatched and Friends with Benefits—told almost identical stories of couples having casual sex who fall in love despite both partners’ intentions not to. In these romantic comedies, with female protagonists and marketed to female audiences, “casual sex” can never be truly casual.
There are some examples that buck this trend. The 2012 Spanish film Young and Wild (reviewed in Bitch’s Micro/Macro issue) told the story of a young woman finding a path to spiritual harmony that includes her sleeping with multiple partners without condemning her behavior or character. In a more mainstream example, Samantha Jones from Sex and the City remains famous as a female character who took charge of her own sexuality fearlessly, sleeping with a number of men whom she had no romantic connection to. However, even Samantha had some committed relationships, and at series’ end she is involved in one that carried through at least to the series’ first movie. Since these examples are so few and far between, and often come in more independent fare, the overall moral message of mainstream media—for women, the only sex that’s okay is in a loving relationship—isn’t changed.
So it’s not surprising that people think of my sexual orientation as “noble.” Keeping sex within the boundaries of romantic relationships is morally laudable in our culture, especially if you’re a woman.
This isn’t just true for those who hold conservative norms close to heart. Many of the people who have told me I’m noble for being demisexual are avowed feminists who support women’s right to exercise their sexual agency. But believing it’s not morally wrong to have sex with people other than romantic partners doesn’t mean you don’t see one variety of sex as more desirable. In reality, my having sex with a committed partner is no more moral than my having sex with a stranger (or not having sex at all) would be, and it’s certainly not a choice. To create a world where no woman is shamed for her sexual activity, and where orientations like mine are respected as valid and not a choice, we must make this clear.
Related Reading: Our podcast on the history and logistics of monogamy discusses the role of culture and government in shaping perceptions of sexuality.