Lenses of Memory: Youth and the Demisexual Gaze

Lighthouse at Montauk Point. Photo by Sylvia Clark.

For quite some time I was convinced that I was a square, an old soul, or an old school romantic type when it came to relationships. I am all of those things, but as I found out recently, I am also demisexual.

I’m hesitant to use the word to describe my sexuality, it’s that new to me. In all honesty, I question my own authority on the matter, because my sexuality isn’t so precisely defined. I know for certain that all my sexual encounters began with love or a deep trust for another, and that my attraction toward another in a sexual light is predicated on having a connection. I can recognize a person with alluring sexual features, but this carries no influence in my desire to know or be with them. I see no incentive in the parts of others, and I’ve never had the inclination towards one night stands or any meeting that was for some physical catharsis. For me it is all about intimacy, the exploration of trust, vulnerability and emotional reciprocity.

Beyond potentially letting other demisexual people down with an inaccurate representation, I can hardly enjoy this written announcement without imagining my argumentative, otherwise intelligent conservative uncle — that everyman, that model Buckeye — his words ringing in my ears as if he had just responded to me: “Why add another label?”

It’s funny you should ask.

Labels are lenses that allow us to look at the past with clarity. It’s handy to say that “Hindsight is 20/20” because we understand what that means in a relative, casual way, but it’s no coincidence that the phrase is concerned with vision. We change labels as time progresses, many which we have little control over: child to teenager, teenager to adult, adult to elder status. Some individuals, like myself, go from male to female. For so many years I lived without the proper context that may have explained my actions and feelings — my inner turmoil, my need for comfort, my struggle to find joy within the structures others have built. The lenses of identity that I use to describe myself allow me to examine past events and make sense of my life. Though the past is quite distant from me, it is meant to be seen under a microscope, not a telescope. This is the “power” of labels: each lens magnifies the last until we can see the mechanics of a memory.

This is just one memory, as seen through a demisexual eye.

Long Island, New York. Winter 2012.

There’s something to be said about the power of adolescent influence to have sex as soon and as often as possible, or rather, the pressure from peers to follow what feels so inherent. This naturally conflicted with most of what I was told growing up. Adults portrayed sex to me in a negative light, as if my desires were the original sin, bestowed upon me with the onset of my pubescent rebirth, an exasperated wound unsatisfied by itch or cleansing that I will always carry. Even then, in high school, when there was so much I hadn’t yet figured out in terms of my sexuality, there existed a natural inclination for the body, another’s body. Implicit, hearsay reminders only heightened this unavoidable inclination. We all heard them. Most gave into their intuitions in the harmless privacy of one, some in the electricity of two. And in the electricity of two, it wasn’t about how connected you felt to another, lying there in your childhood bed in the glow of post-coital warmth. That didn’t win you any points with your friends, and that rarely happened anyway. But this was part of the ideal I sought: an emotional observance between myself and another that might attest to the grandeur of our love, expressed through the minute physical considerations of touch and sensation.

I was not prepared on that day to meet any expectations, my own or peer derived, with honesty or with what I thought to be genuine romantic intent. But now, it’s more important to note that I no longer look over past sexual situations as if I had all the control, like it was solely up to me that nothing happened. It’s appropriate, as the narrator of this story, to portray myself as the main protagonist. But to do so in real life is automatic, thoughtless, and wrong, especially when sexual consent is concerned. I knew this at the time, but not to the extent which I do now. For a long time I carried this story as another example of me blowing my chance at something great, but in the meeting of two it isn’t — and shouldn’t — be all about what I want. For all I know, Mandi wasn’t interested when my perceived opportunity arose. Perhaps I never had a chance to begin with, and I respect this.

It had snowed a great deal in our area, on the northern shore of the island. School was cancelled for a whole week, and many people went days without power. My house was without power for less than 24 hours; Mandi, my girlfriend at the time, wasn’t so lucky. With no ulterior motive whatsoever, I invited her over.

Our relationship was light and naive, but that’s not to say we lived without the knowledge of the harsh circumstances that surrounded us. I knew depression quite well, and over the months I only became more dysphoric about my male expression. But youth does not owe itself to accurate expressions or communications of complex feelings, especially when we have yet to realize so much. Similarly, I didn’t yet have the faculties to appreciate Mandi’s caring gaze, her patience or her optimism, boundless in persistence and depth. For much of our relationship, I looked for something deeper within her that I never found, but I realize now that it was because I was unable to comprehend her for her intricacies. There was nothing missing about her. She was absolutely radiant, and I didn’t see it. Mandi was my best friend, loyal and compassionate, and I can only say it now that it’s too late.

We were kissing on a comically over-sized pull-out couch, taking breaks every few minutes for a breather or a light-hearted joke. There was nothing overtly sexual about it; it wasn’t, for lack of a better term, “progressing” anywhere. I’d hardly call it “making out,” if only because we kissed almost completely rigid and upright in our seats. I wasn’t all over her. We kept our hands to ourselves, except for my caressing one side of her face.

My mom was upstairs, the only other person in the house. We heard her descending to the first level where we were. We stopped and tried to sit casually, attempting to give the impression that we were just talking.

“Hey, how are you two doing down here?”

The TV was off and my laptop was closed. The way we sat was completely stilted and obvious. We smiled, embarrassed, like we were hiding something, like two kids who painted the family dog’s fingernails.

“We’re good,” Mandi spoke up for us.

“Yep, we’re just, y’know, hanging out,” I said. I noticed my mom had her shoes and coat on. “Where are you off to?” I asked, desperate to get the attention off of us.

“I’m just going out to the gas station. There’s huge lines because of the storm, it’s all over the news. So, I’m going to be a while, at least an hour.”

My body reacted before I could even process what she just said. My eyes widened and a jolt shot through my body. I was so nervous at the prospect of Mandi and I having the house to ourselves.

“Oh yeah, yeah. Yeah, we’ll be here. Yeah.”

“See you soon!” Mandi said, apparently un-phased. She gave my mom a delightful little wave as she left.

We looked at one another like we were on a sitcom: her eyes, at least how I read them at the time, said, Are you thinking what I’m thinking? We laughed in that nervous, alleviating way, myself more than her.

It was only after I sighed the last of the steam in my chest that I knew I wasn’t prepared whatsoever. We had never talked openly about our desires or boundaries. We never had the available alone time to pursue anything overtly sexual, let alone penetrative sex. Besides this, I didn’t feel as though our emotional ties were strong enough. Mandi had always seen more in me than I saw in her, or at least that’s how it felt. I didn’t want to lead her on, or masquerade as if I were somebody who found her equally as lovely.

The author. Courtesy of Sylvia Clark.

The author. Courtesy of Sylvia Clark.

But to admit all that would have undermined our relationship, and I wasn’t prepared to do that. So, after talking for a bit, I asked her if I could play a song from the laptop that sat on the coffee table in front of us. Mandi agreed. I went on YouTube and found Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex” and played it for her.

This is not some weird, made-up punchline for the hipsters in the back — I actually did this. It made complete sense at the time, and she got the point pretty quickly.

After the song ended, I closed the laptop and put it back on the table. We went right back to kissing, happily going nowhere fast, with the knowledge that we weren’t ready.

We still laugh about it to this day.

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