Mistaking Romance for Sex: Intersections of Mental Health and Sexuality

Yesterday I discovered a new blog about asexuality and spent some time diving into the archives. As someone who is still trying to sort out their identity I spend a lot of time asking myself if the experiences of other aces resonate with me, and as I read a theme started to pop up: an inability for ace individuals to understand or empathize with sexuality or sexual desire, and because of this difficulty with understanding flirting or innuendos.

At first glance this sounded nothing like me, but when I wasn’t paying much attention something hit me: I am deeply incapable of telling when people are hitting on me or flirting with me. I can tell when other people are flirting with each other, and I understand the types of things that one is supposed to do to be considered “sexy”, but I’ve never had any clue how to do them myself and when others try to flirt with me it often goes flying right over my head. For most of my life I’ve assumed this is because I have cripplingly low self-esteem, and I was one of those people who could never imagine someone flirting with me. But now another possibility had presented itself: what if I never noticed or could flirt because I have always tended towards asexuality?

This was the first of a series of realizations that perhaps having a sexual orientation/identity other than straight, allosexual, monogamous, CIS etc. and having a mental illness might lead one to misinterpret one’s emotions and attractions, or may mean that one’s presentation of their identity looks significantly different from others’. It may make it a little harder to parse what exactly your identity is.

Here’s the thing that’s been bothering me for a while: how is it that I suddenly can identify as asexual when I happily identified as allosexual without even a thought that I might be chasing the wrong things for almost 10 years of active dating? I certainly don’t think I was repressing any feelings of asexuality. I actively pursued relationships because I felt attracted to people. I have been actively sexual and enjoyed the experience at times. How can I be asexual if I never felt any confusion about what sexual attraction was, if I never felt as if I was missing out on a feeling that everybody else had, if I never felt that something wasn’t working about my allosexual identity?

But then I read one person’s musings on the fact that it makes sense for them to be aromantic and asexual becuase they rarely feel the feelings that are supposed to be “romance” or “sexual attraction” (e.g. nervous, excited, obsessive, racing thoughts). They say:

“I’m a pretty chill person. I don’t get excited, overjoyed, scared, or stressed out much. Most of the time, I just feel calm, comfortable, and slightly positive about life. My emotional reactions are quieter, shorter, and fainter than most people’s (except for laughter – I laugh a lot). It’s not that I suppress my emotions, I just don’t feel them very strongly in the first place. I’ve been like this ever since I was a child.”

And it hit me: I am the exact opposite. I have all the feelings of being romantically attracted to someone ALL THE TIME. I am always nervous and obsessive and excitable and have huge swings of emotions. I am hyper-romantic.  When I fall for someone I fall HARD. And because I have this overwhelming attraction to someone on a romantic level, I think that I’ve always just assumed that I was also attracted physically: I mistook my hyper romantic attraction for sexual attraction (just another minor consequence of compulsory sexuality and the tendency of our society to conflate romance and sex).

The thing is, I can’t imagine anyone who didn’t have extremely strong emotions doing this. Strong and sudden and whole body feelings of “want”. I can’t imagine anyone who didn’t get taken away by their emotions would ever find themselves so romantically attracted to someone that they’re convinced the want is actually a want for sex.

But that desire, that feeling of “need” is the same kind of feeling I might get towards my fluffy cat, or a beautiful picture, or a philosopher I find particularly fascinating (often with some added element of “I just want to hang out with you all the time” that indicates romance). Genitals don’t come into the picture. It’s simply the strength of the emotion that got to me.

And here’s where we come to mental health. Because that tendency to get utterly overwhelmed by emotions is one of the borderline personality disorder traits that I have. The tendency towards obsession and anxiety is part of my generalized anxiety disorder and eating disorder. The particular intersection of this intense emotion and a society that says “if you love someone you want them in your pants” may have fooled me into thinking that what I wanted was sexuality when in reality I wanted deep connection, a special relationship with someone, care, romance.

It’s fairly obvious to me that as a society we don’t spend a whole lot of time being careful about the ways we speak of attraction: you LIKE someone or you don’t. And if you do then you want to date them. And if you want to date them then you want to have sex with them unless you’re not “ready” or you’re repressed or you’re too self-conscious, then you’ll want to have sex with them at some unspecified point in the future. This means that if someone feels any sort of strong emotion towards another person, they feel pressured to identify as “attracted”. Additionally, the identity that goes with attraction is not supposed to be fluid: if you feel any attraction towards the same sex, you’re gay. Any attraction towards the opposite sex, you’re straight. Any attraction to both, you’re bi. Similarly, if you have any desire towards one overarching relationship, you’re monogamous and if you have any desire for more than one partner you’re poly. End of story.

If you combine this with any sort of mental illness, it seems like a recipe for confusion and frustration, because often mental illness means emotions and desires express themselves in all sorts of new and interesting ways. Example: for those with BPD, deep amounts of care for someone often mean that you spend a lot of time “testing” them (for fear they’ll leave you) by doing odd things like not calling or talking until they do so first. I would imagine that for someone with OCD it would be difficult to distinguish feeling obsessed from feeling attracted. For those on the Autism spectrum, sensory stimulation can be overwhelming. How to tell if you’re sex-repulsed or simply experiencing a sensory overload?

When you perceive the world differently from others, or experience emotions differently (more or less heightened) than others, how can you tell what category you fit into? How do you see the parallels between your own desire (or lack thereof) and the desires of others? Especially because mental illness can make it difficult to understand and effectively manage your emotions, the “all or nothing” approach to dating and romance seems to be perfectly suited to further confuse the issue and lead to misunderstandings of identity. Almost everyone feels some amount of attraction to all kinds of people. Almost everyone feels some element of desire for stability and some for freedom and new experiences.

How do you interpret these feelings if a. you’re not stellar at identifying your feelings in the first place b. your feelings tend to be significantly stronger or weaker than other people’s c. you tend towards all or nothing thinking d. you’re not very good at coping with emotions or making healthy decisions when in the grips of emotions? How do you incorporate the feelings you have into a sense of identity when your feelings might change rapidly or you don’t want the things that are supposed to be a part of “attraction” (or you want more, e.g. kink)? And if you’re already struggling with relationships, boundary setting, expressing needs, or simply being effective at communicating, how do you learn to create your own kind of relationship rather than using the template that’s already available?

Now none of the elements of understanding identity are unique to those with mental illness, but what mental illness can do is obscure things and simply make life a whole lot more complicated. It can also amplify certain emotions or diminish others, so that the attraction or repulsion you feel might be HUGE or barely noticeable.  And all that makes it a lot harder to parse out what kinds of relationships are good for you and what kinds of relationships you want.

 

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