‘It’s Not You, It’s Not Me’ centers the desires of the allosexual character, at the expense of and detriment to the asexual character.
This essay contains spoilers for the short film It’s Not You, It’s Not Me and descriptions of coercive sex.
When I saw AVEN (Asexuality Visibility & Education Network) tweet about the release of a new asexual short film—and on the morning of my birthday, no less—I was eager to see it, especially when I learned that it stars two Asian performers. The vast majority of visibility in media for those on the asexuality spectrum has been reserved for white characters like Todd Chavez, Sherlock Holmes, Dexter Morgan, Doctor Who, Sheldon Cooper, Jughead (Riverdale tried its best to erase it, but it’s still canon, bitches), Valentina Danucci from the short-lived Sirens, and most recently a theater geek named Florence in Sex Education (and possibly Otis, in my opinion). Even though I knew it was an indie short film that would not have as wide of viewership as a mainstream project, I was looking forward to It’s Not You, It’s Not Me as an “asexual story” told with characters of color.
It’s late at night and a couple is spending time together in bed—an asexual man and allosexual woman. When she tries to initiate sex, he declines and instead says goodnight. When he returns to retrieve something he forgot, he finds that she is now crying. He offers her a tissue, but she turns her head and refuses. “Why don’t you want to have sex with me?” she asks, and he sighs deeply. He’s had this conversation before and he is not looking forward to having it again. “We’ll have sex next time,” he promises, unconvincingly. The offer sounds like what you reluctantly tell a friend who keeps inviting you to events you don’t really want to attend. He can probably sense the questions that are coming next, one of which is, “Are you not attracted to me?”
He’s affectionate and attentive, gently taking her hand. Their conversation eventually turns to the inevitable—his sexuality and his relationship to sex, which he describes as “kind of a waste of time” to him. Soon, she is questioning his commitment to her and their relationship. He is endlessly reassuring, but it’s not enough. Again, the tears come. At this point, he initiates sex and she accepts. As the camera focuses on him, I recognize the look on his face instantly and it makes my heart sink and my stomach lurch. It’s a look of dissociation and emptiness. This man is going through the motions, performing, swallowing his needs, neglecting himself. For her. Because she’s sad, and he cares for her. They finish having sex, and the film ends.
So… I just watched an asexual man be guilted into sex, I thought. That’s… not okay. I hope no one was triggered by watching this exchange. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was triggering for me, but it immediately took me to a place where I replayed scenarios quite similar to this in my head. I found myself reliving moments when I ended up disregarding my own boundaries in order to provide someone else sexual release because my needs were ultimately overridden by an allosexual partner’s wants and socially-prescribed expectations. Because they centered themselves and their own understanding of what sex “should” be. But what sex should be, what it is should always be, is a positive, emotionally and physically safe, healthy, consent-based, and ethical experience for all parties. Sex should never be the result of someone being manipulated, coerced, or guilted. The sex that these two characters engage in does not meet those standards.
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It’s Not You, It’s Not Me was written and produced by an allosexual woman who also stars in the film. During an interview with an asexual advocate, she admits that she made the film as a way to “process” her own previous relationship with someone on the asexuality spectrum and the frustrations that came along with that for her as an allosexual person. And, I gotta say, it fucking shows. There’s really nothing affirming, understanding, or supportive for the asexual character here. It simply ends, without catharsis or care for folks who have been in similar situations where they may have felt pressured to have sex with someone who claimed to care for them. It just ends, without doing any work to interrogate or trouble the fact that “guilt sex” is what has just transpired between these two people. The person whose feelings are centered and whose desires are catered to is the allosexual character, at the expense of and detriment to the asexual character. The consent is not enthusiastic and it is not a positive, emotionally safe, healthy, or ethical interaction.
Performing an expression of sexuality that is not natural to our existence and way of being, negatively impacts our mental health and fractures our sense of self. It’s harmful and unethical to expect or demand a person perform sexual expression that is not inherently theirs—whether they be ace with feelings of disinterest or repulsion towards sex, or allo with attractions to genders that society deems unacceptable. This is precisely what the narrative of this film forces its ace character into in order to appease the allosexual person they are in a relationship with, and I find that to be incredibly irresponsible—especially of a project that calls itself an asexual story.
I need to acknowledge the fact that the allosexual character feeling undesirable and unwanted due to the absence of sex in the relationship is understandable, considering the way that our society pedestals sex and its place in romantic entanglements. But this is exactly why I’m so disappointed by the missed opportunity to explore how we collectively cultivate and promote reassurance in and evidence of our desirability as a utility of sex. Even though her partner reassures her that he wants to be with her, admits to his “low libido” on their first date, and expresses his lack of desire for sex in general, his words are not enough to convince her. Because she fundamentally believes that sex and the importance she attaches to it is the true mark of his attraction and desire to be with her, she is not consoled until sex finally occurs, even though it is clear that he is only engaging in sex in this moment because he feels guilt and pressure.
Rhetoric about how “regular sex” is necessary and “hugely important” in romantic relationships is still normalized, unfortunately—and along with being nauseatingly cis and heteronormative, it seemingly only acknowledges monogamous, neurotypical, and able-bodied individuals. As much as people do not want to admit it, this creates undue pressure for everyone, especially anyone of any sexuality who does not have a sustained libido, or is not a hypersexual individual, or may have physical or mental health/ability factors that impact their sex lives. It fosters a sense of obligation to consistently engage in a certain arbitrary amount of sexual activity—regarding it as something that should be weighed, measured, and quantified, rather than an experience that people should engage in only when all involved have the enthusiastic desire and ability to do so, regardless of how frequently or infrequently that may be. This is unnecessary, unhealthy, and unfair to all of us. De-centering sex, removing it from the nucleus and the pedestal in relationships, would serve everyone, not just ace folks.
What I need from allosexual people moving forward is quite simple, really: the understanding that 1) our sexual boundaries are not negotiable, 2) allosexual feelings and needs surrounding sex are not more important than and do not take precedence over asexual feelings and needs surrounding sex, and 3) conversations about and the respecting of individual relationships to sex should be had with all sexual partners, not just folks on the asexuality spectrum.
If you are not willing to wait until someone is comfortable and ready to have sex, or if you are not prepared to deal with the fact that the person you have feelings for may not want sex at all, then you should not be pursuing a relationship with that person. I’d argue that you should not be dating at all until you are able to accept these things, as there are a plethora of reasons why asexual and allosexual people alike may not want to engage in sex or certain sex acts. It’s up to you, it’s your responsibility as a human being, to respect their autonomous personhood. I wish It’s Not You, It’s Not Me had given its asexual character that simple courtesy, or had at least properly addressed the fact that he was not granted this by his allosexual partner.
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I don’t want to invalidate other people’s reactions to and feelings about this film. Indeed, plenty of aces have expressed their gratitude to the filmmakers on social media. There are many aces who watched the film and feel seen in a way they have never felt seen before, especially Asian aces, and I love that for them. But I do not feel the same, and that’s okay. We can and should recognize that there is plenty of room for a multitude of reactions from a-spec folks because, like any other identity, we are not a monolith and we carry with us a multitude of experiences, desires, limitations, and perspectives. Even so, I hope all aces know and understand that scenarios like the one presented here are not fair to us, to anyone, and we don’t deserve to be guilted into sex when a partner feels it’s the only way to prove our attraction and devotion to them.
The efforts of It’s Not You, It’s Not Me are appreciated, but it’s not enough for me. These are still scraps—crumbs, even—mere glimpses of the kind of content we really deserve. Asexual people telling asexual stories, with thoughtfulness and nuance and catharsis, is what we deserve, and I look forward to finally being able to engage with it and come away feeling satisfied, rather than frustrated and disappointed.