Imagine: orange soda is omnipresent. Almost all your friends and family members crave it. I’m talking about the common old artificially flavored orange soda; you don’t understand the hype. But you’re rare. Almost every time you pick up a book, turn on the TV, or check out a movie, orange soda appears somehow. Typically, it forms the center of everything. Alliances and tensions grow around it.
Those who join you for orange soda are deemed more essential to your life than those who join you for conversation, meals, or long, slow walks. When you question that dynamic, people look at you strangely. “It’s orange soda,” they say. “Of course that’s different from taking a walk or meeting for lunch.” It makes perfect sense to most, but you just don’t grasp it. Maybe you lack a certain kind of taste bud or neurological connection.
Whatever the explanation, you’re an orange soda exile. Religions, nations, and institutions create laws to tame this orange soda obsession. Otherwise, we’d have pandemonium. Beginning in your high school days, orange soda has been the most crucial social bargaining chip, with people offering the stuff in exchange for influence, popularity, and material goods. Since you don’t love orange soda, you watch from afar, wondering, feeling freakish and unempowered but also strangely free.
As some who know me may have guessed, this is a metaphor for me… and sex. I just don’t get it. I can’t even bear to take a bite out of a friend’s sandwich; why would I want to get more physically entangled with another body? I know, I know, the two are completely different. But, what can I tell you, they turn me off for similar reasons.
Though this blasts many stereotypes, sex often feels unavoidable in Orthodox Jewish culture. Many complain that it’s too restrictive sexually, only allowing erotic contact in the context of heterosexual marriage. I hear that, and greatly sympathize. But within those heterosexual marriages, sex is an expectation, up there with food and conversation.
I loved my year among Crown Heights, Brooklyn’s Hasidic teenage girls partly because the single-sex schools and socializing minimized sexual tension and jockeying, prolonging the comforts of childhood. To me, it felt like a brilliant new universe where seventeen-year-old girls could play in the snow and act like happy maniacs at their parties without worrying about erotic games. But the next stage—the one where marriage and all that comes with it appears—would happen soon.
For most, this was a joyous opportunity, and I had great fun watching some girls move into it—most with an endearing combination of trepidation and exhilaration. I’d just be so much happier if Judaism had some kind of plan for those who don’t mesh well with sex: some kind of acknowledgement that we exist and deserve to thrive. Non-Orthodox brands of Judaism have moved towards accepting that some feel attracted to their own gender and have valid desires to share their lives with same-gender spouses: an important move. But it’s not enough.
Some say they study Judaism and start to sense its divine power because it gets into their bones and seems to know them in a penetrating, deeply personal way. I feel that it makes the same mistakes as well-meaning but misguided acquaintances when they attempt to set me up with their charming single neighbors. I don’t hold it against them: they’re human, and they’re trying. I guess I see Jewish expectations regarding erotic life the same way. They come from a good place, but they fail to grasp the range of situations within their domain.
I’m an outlier who is not accounted for. And you might say: “Look, you can’t expect Judaism to embrace every possible deviation. It deals with the majority, just like schools and large workplaces.” I get that, but when you’re one of the outliers, it doesn’t feel divine. It feels like, you know, all-too-human institutions, whose leaders do the best they can but leave many out of the culture and the greatest benefits. I realize that the overwhelming majority of human societies assume some kind of sex drive. But if Jewish law had some kind of caveat that embraced people in my situation, then I could step back and thank this ancient faith of my ancestors for understanding me when other, more distant cultures have failed.
I have a hunch that this central divide between me and so many others is a key reason I rarely feel at home in any social group. No matter how enticing or quirky a gathering appears, the fundamental energy of sexual attraction often seems to lurk. Out-of-body journeyers, diehard geeks, seekers after God, fans of artisanal cheese… often, people plan meetings over such interests but what they want most of all is, um, orange soda—or at least a hint of it, maybe a nice glass of seltzer with a few drops of orange juice squeezed in.
Again, I find myself reminiscing over my year in Crown Heights: this time, over the social activities for adults. I went to many all-women gatherings where erotic energy was minimal and we could talk, check out the snacks, and relax. I often like men as people and as friends, so sometimes the typical all-female socializing felt a bit strange. But Chabadniks tend towards more openness than most other Hasidim, and many men were friendly to me. I actually liked that we weren’t allowed to shake hands, hug, or touch: it created a comforting barrier against… you know… that hint of orange soda.
Thing is, I do get love and physical warmth. I get that hugging friends and family can bring a special connection. I get that someone rubbing my back or holding my hand can bond us in a way that words will not reach. But for me, the pinnacle of communion with an intimate companion might be sitting in a quiet café, enjoying our favorite snacks, discussing our deepest fears, greatest joys, weirdest obsessions, and scariest hopes. I don’t see how orange soda can top that.
A few summers ago, I spent over a week in Lily Dale, NY, a community of Spiritualist mediums whose fundamental tenet is that deceased human souls survive death and can communicate with the living. One of the mediums taught a class about the afterlife: what she and her colleagues had learned about it, based on their alleged communication with personalities who had crossed into that realm. I was in pleasure-seeking mode, so I asked whether deceased souls ate. The instructor, a jovial middle-aged woman, laughed hard and said no, they didn’t. My sadness must have been obvious, because she added this further tidbit: “Aww, I know that’s a disappointment, but I hear the sex is amazing.”
Now I was really bummed. There was no food, and on top of it, I wouldn’t escape sex? I mean, don’t get me wrong: simple survival of my consciousness is the most important thing. I could handle anything that comes within that framework as long as it isn’t some kind of irrevocable hell. I looked around and saw that (of course) my classmates looked delighted about the incredible sex.
I asked how sex could happen in a body-free state, and our teacher/medium said she didn’t know, but wow: she has heard the most amazing things. I sat back and tried to imagine it, and what came to me thrilled me. Bodiless sex would be a temporary merging of souls. The “sex” would happen psychically: I’d get really close with someone emotionally, and for a brief time, I’d enter their consciousness, and they would enter mine. Our lenses would expand; we’d feel complete empathy and compassion for another soul. We’d move measurably closer to God.
For now, thank you God or Whatever Might Be Out There, I’m alive and well. The closest I can come in this state to afterlife sex is deep conversation, interspersed, perhaps, with quiet. Real, honest sharing; caring, intrigued listening. Do it long enough with the right person, under the right circumstances, and it feels breathtakingly intimate. Better than physical contact: cleaner, clearer, and more exhilarating. At least for me: I understand that most love the body thing.
Hopefully this makes the point that I do experience profound passion. In fact, my emotions can be so powerful I have trouble controlling them in public. I just don’t like the down and dirty of physical sex, or even erotically tinged flirtation. It’s just not for me.
Someone who cares deeply about me warned me against publicly exploring this topic. She thought it would turn people against me, since I don’t relate to something so basic to so many. This frightened me. I want to be liked, not mocked or tossed aside as irrelevant. But I know there are others similar to me. I’d love to help them feel that they’re not alone. The fear a few pre-readers expressed gave this article urgency. If something is so unusual, so counter to basic ways and expectations, that sharing it inspires dread and dire warnings… well, maybe I’ve tapped into something elemental. Something that needs to be discussed with open minds, out in the world’s fresh air, not bottled up and stewed over in silence.
In recent years, self-identified asexuals have banded together, trying to spread awareness in the larger population and find likeminded people. I’ve gone to a few meetings here in Boston, and, surprise, surprise, I felt a bit different even there. Bonding over the absence of a desire is hard; there’s no guarantee you’ll have anything else in common. There may not be enough asexuals in any given city to bring the spiritual seekers together, or the lovers of deep thought, or whatever.
For that matter, I’ve never enjoyed labels. Asexual: what a clinical sounding word, defining people based on something they don’t even want. Some resonate with it and have built a whole community around it… and that’s fabulous. But I’m more into open possibility. Maybe one day I’ll relate more closely to orange soda: its true charms will somehow show themselves to my particular soul. I never close any path completely.
Many self-defined asexuals don’t either; they form a fascinating community that understands continuum and gray area better than most. There are asexuals who want (sex-free) romance and those who don’t; those who feel some small sense of sexual energy and others who lack it completely; asexuals who identify as gay, straight, or bi based on emotional attractions they feel towards others…. If you feel you’re asexual, I have a sense that the community will embrace you and see you as one of its own. I like that a lot. My hesitation comes mainly because I just haven’t relished the few events I’ve attended. I didn’t get that “Wow: I’m home” sensation.
Whatever words may or may not describe me, I guess what I want is understanding. I recently shared sex’s non-allure for me with an elderly man in my building. We were chatting in his apartment, he asked me certain questions about my life, and I felt I wanted to explain why standard romance has never attracted me. He was quietly shocked, and suggested I see a psychotherapist to help me enjoy this essential pleasure. Well, when I’ve seen psychotherapists, I’ve had much more pressing concerns. How can I possibly cope with death’s inevitability? How can I learn and grow within a world I’ve never fully related to for so many reasons that go far beyond sex?
Orange soda’s failure to move me is not a problem; it’s just… there. The real problem is the resulting sense of exile from the world’s greatest desires. It’s one fundamental reason I often see myself as an outside observer of life. But I’m here, within the world and not beyond it, struggling and occasionally triumphing in this universe that feels so strange. My niche is unusual, but maybe I’ll find it one day. I wish the same for all my fellow confused travelers—whatever the source of our confusion—that we find our place: that world within a world where we can be ourselves, reach beyond ourselves, and feel that we’re inside, right in the center, because we’re home.