Step up your intimacy game with advice from a sexless relationship guru
David Jay has been the world’s best-known “ace” (or asexual person) since he first launched the Asexuality and Visibility Education Network (AVEN) in 2001, after his online search for information about asexuality turned up results about amoebas—and nothing about humans. Today, AVEN boasts more than 82,000 members, the DSM-5 has stopped categorizing human asexuality as a disorder, and the general public appears to be relatively comfortable recognizing aces like Jay, along with heteroromantic demisexuals, panromantic gray-asexuals, and others with a fluid sexual identity. (For a little perspective, compare Joy Behar’s attitude toward Jay on a 2006 segment of The View—in which she insists that he’s actually “repressed” or “lazy”—to a recent Buzzfeed video called “Ask an Asexual Person.”)
For Jay, an activist who has spent the last 15 years fighting for widespread recognition and understanding of his sexual orientation (to be clear: unlike celibacy, asexuality is not a choice), the battle has entered a new phase. It’s no longer only about aces, who make up about 1 percent of the population. Instead, he has a vision for a post-sex world, one that asks all of us to work on building a more empathetic, intimate society that celebrates any kind of close human relationship, whether or not it involves sex.
A deeply pensive, meticulous, and surprisingly funny guy, Jay has been trying to figure out intimacy since puberty. Like any of us, Jay craves intimacy—just not the kind that’s centered around sexuality. So when his friends awkwardly sprinted toward sex in adolesence, he says he started to feel left behind, fearing that his destiny was to become “a constant third wheel.” Instead, Jay opted to spend his adulthood “geeking out” on relationships—analyzing them, dismantling them, and creating new models for connecting with the people he cared most about. Having embarked upon several relationships with both sexual and asexual people (his current girlfriend Jessica* is also an ace), Jay has had to develop a formal system of commitment that involves setting boundaries that work best for him and the individuals he cares most about. He likes to think that system could work for anyone—including you.
First thing’s first: Stop thinking that sex is the same thing as romance.
When Jay first met Jessica, he was drawn to her with an urgency he hadn’t experienced before. Jessica felt just as powerfully about him. Over the years, the pair developed a romantic relationship that has blossomed into a primary partnership.
As an ace, Jay says he used to be uncomfortable forming committed, long-term relationships—in part because “to express interest in another person was to enter this minefield of sexual innuendo that I had no internal reference to understand.” In fact, Jay’s closest friends as a young adult were queer women—a way for him to avoid these misunderstandings.
Jay recommends exploring nonsexual touch with romantic partners to connect without words, beyond desire. But without sex, there’s no natural stopping point. Jay says he’s experienced instances in which he and another partner “needed to remind ourselves to go to sleep.” He’s learned that it helps to clearly delineate types of touch that are appropriate for given situations, ranging from more dynamic, intense forms of bodily contact to soft, slow, and relaxing touch—a great way to unwind together with the person you care about after busy days.
It isn’t just about you: Create a network of relationships that balance each other.
“This relationship is really incredible, this foundation in my life,” he says, “and I really want to do things that complement it so that the whole picture is more stable.” Jay structures other relationships in his life around his commitments to Jessica, though he says they’ve never felt a need to create exclusivity around the type of touch they share with each other. If Jay wants to cuddle with other people, for example, it's fine for him to do so. Meeting some of his needs through other relationships doesn’t diminish his relationship with Jessica, says Jay, even if our culture tells us we should be able to meet all our needs through one person: our spouse or partner. But Jay says this is a nearly impossible task; instead, we should try to meet our needs through a diverse mix of people that allows all of our traits to flourish.
Learn how to identify relationship “scripts,” then choose when to break them.
Social scripts are culturally shaped conventions. The most common script for partnerships includes things like “move in together,” “get married,” then “have kids”—otherwise known as the relationship escalator. As Jay and Jessica’s relationship developed, they really wanted to live together, but they needed to balance their classic introvert-extrovert dilemma; Jessica requires a lot of time to herself to wind down and David seeks connections with others to recover from his day. They decided to live together in a collective house, but keep separate rooms, which allows them both space but offers the ability to retreat together into one of their rooms.
Don’t forget to celebrate and honor intimacy—in all its forms.
In young adulthood, Jay occasionally watched friends disappear whole into romantic relationships. After a particularly heartbreaking loss, he decided to consciously structure his relationships, to acknowledge the deep connections he has with friends and to ask for explicit commitments from them. It can be an awkward business, and he’s found that he loses some friends when he tells them their relationship is important to him. But with those that stick around, Jay says his relationships become more powerful. In one of his central relationships, with a couple named Erin and Zack, Jay says that after their explicit talk about commitment, “Suddenly we could talk a lot more openly about how we felt about one another. I'd had friends that wildly fantasized about the possibility of living near one another, of helping one another raise kids, but this was the first time I had a relationship where we were talking about the practical steps towards making that happen.”
If you want a strong relationship, you’ve got to be open to change.
Ultimately, Jay says he’s driven to understand human relationships scientifically. One of his current projects involves trying to create mathematical models for predicting relationships. Because he has created unique structures for so many relationships, Jay has reflected on how they evolve—a process he says is similar to species evolution. In relationships, people naturally explore together, seeing which types of things they like to do together. Then, Jay says, “You chop off the ones that work poorly, and take the ones that work well and kind of riff on those possibilities to explore a new set of possibilities.”
The more people explore and openly communicate about what works or doesn’t, the faster their relationship evolves. People can’t control influences on their relationships from the outside—like one person becoming ill or moving to a different neighborhood—but they can allow their relationships to grow and change in response to the needs of those involved.