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Yes, It’s Pretty to Think So

In the fall of 2016, I found myself in a bedroom three thousand miles from home, lying next to a man I didn’t know whether to trust. I watched headlights from the cars outside cast strange shapes on the unfamiliar walls and tried to figure out how to say what I needed to say. I had to say it soon: his hand, resting on my hip, was now sliding its way toward the small of my back. There were expectations—from him, from my friends who knew where I was staying. After all, I was on a sort-of-vacation after a stressful six months at work, and this was a man I’d known for more than a decade. I was supposed to be having fun.

The problem was that I didn’t think sex was fun. I wasn’t sure if I ever had.

Earlier that day, I’d flown from Los Angeles to New England for a wedding and asked to stay the night with an ex-boyfriend. We’d dated briefly in college and maintained a casual, cross-country friendship over the twelve years since then. It was late at night on a Wednesday and I had a train to catch the next morning so, after introducing me to the dubious delights of Wahlburgers and driving me to Fenway Park so that I could raise a middle-finger salute to the Boston Red Sox, he declined my offer to go bowling. Instead, we went to bed.

“Hey,” I finally said, my skin trying to shrink from his touch in the dark. “So…I don’t want to have sex with you tonight. Maybe not at all this weekend.” I tried to find his face in the shadows. The weak light shining through the windows illuminated only outlines. “I’m pretty sure I’m asexual.”

It was the first time I’d said it out loud.

“I wasn’t even thinking about sex until you brought it up,” he said, removing his hand from my ass. I didn’t entirely believe him. In addition to the fact that his hands had gone to my body as soon as we’d crawled into bed, he’d also liked every single one of my Facebook statuses in the month leading up to my visit, volunteered to pick me up from an international airport in a borrowed car, and stayed out past midnight just so that I could flip the bird at the Green Monster. But this particular ex had always been a master of denial. Plus, he possessed the kind of memory that came with having spent a significant portion of his late teens, twenties, and early thirties drunk or high or both.

He turned over so that his back was to me and continued: “I would never make you do anything you didn’t want to.”

Soon after that, he drifted off to sleep. I remained awake and frozen in place, the way I’d done when I was little and terrified that the Borg would burst through my bedroom door to reinsert all the central lines and feeding tubes and other medical traumas I’d tried to leave behind decades ago. The only part of me that moved was my mouth, tracing the words he’d left hanging in the air.

I should have asked him: Don’t you remember what happened in 2005, when we were dating and you got impatient with my virginity? 

I should have asked him: Don’t you remember 2013, when you wanted me even though I was in a stupor from cold medicine?

Instead, I watched his torso rise and fall and listened to his breathing deepen and mouthed his words again. I tried to grasp how he could forget two moments that had branded themselves into my memory from the very moment they’d happened. I’ve never considered either incident rape, since neither instance involved complete penetration. But I’d been semi-conscious both times—a partial seizure, that cough syrup to fight bronchitis—and I remember, very clearly, saying no that second night, and I remember in both instances that he’d stopped not because I’d expressed distress or confusion, but because the logistics of forcing my stupefied, resistant body had ultimately seemed like too much effort. I’d never gone further than telling a few of my friends about either incident, because they were complicated and hard to explain, because I didn’t consider them crimes, and because I didn’t think anyone official would believe me.

I would never make you do anything you didn’t want to.

I should have asked him: Isn’t it pretty to think so?


I used to think my Jake Barnes obsession stemmed from our mutual medical issues. I first read The Sun Also Rises, the Hemingway novel in which Barnes fruitlessly obsesses over his longtime unrequited love Lady Brett Ashley, as a college junior studying abroad in Madrid. My list of medical catastrophes stretches back to my extremely premature birth. At the time of my first encounter with Jake and Lady Brett, when I was twenty years old, I’d recently started suffering from seizures, but I’d already overcome serious heart, lung, and circulatory problems, and had learned to cope with migraines, leftover neck holes from my central line, and a lifelong sensory processing disorder that short-circuits my brain whenever a firework explodes or a car backfires or a balloon pops. In addition, many of these ailments had lurked at the edges of my reproductive system. Because of how prematurely I was born, I’d had to have my vagina created for me—sliced open. In high school, some scar tissue with excessive gumption had half-nelsoned itself around my right ovary and fallopian tubes. Four years after my time in Madrid, I’d go on to have some cancerous cells removed from my cervix. In Jake and his shot-off shaft, I thought I’d found a comrade in gonzo medical trauma.

It took me a decade to realize that my kinship with Jake was less about our physical situation and more about our sexual and psychological ones. That autumn in Madrid, I had a boyfriend back home in Los Angeles who was terrified that he’d cheat on me during our five-month separation. He couldn’t understand how blasé I was about the idea of being celibate for almost half a year. The previous summer, he’d told me he wished that I would initiate sex more often, more often being polite code for at all.

“When should I do that?” I asked, as if this was a subject I could ace by memorizing his answers.

“You know,” he said, “whenever you feel the urge.”

I nodded and smiled like I did indeed know. Throughout my twenties, this faux-knowing nod-and-grin would become my Pavlovian response to any mention of the urge and its cousin, the need. This was the mid-2000s and I was a college student; the United States was still a decade away from a federal ruling on marriage equality, and the general expectation was that people my age should be boning down heteronormatively and with enthusiasm. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain to anyone—not to my friends, and definitely not to my then-boyfriend—that I had never felt the urge in my life. All the same, I understood that if I wanted to pass for a normal and healthy adult, that if I wanted to keep my boyfriend happy, I had to pretend I did.

So I nodded and smiled and calculated a ratio that would make it seem like I had the urge. For the rest of that summer, for every three times my boyfriend initiated intimacy, I initiated it once. To our friends with whom we shared a house, I’m sure it seemed like we were having a damned good time together. And I was: when we weren’t in bed, the hours flew by too quickly, bringing us closer to the moment when I’d fly halfway around the world. In bed, though, I watched the minute hand crawl with the speed of a freshman baking in his first high-quality bong hit.

A few months later, I opened The Sun Also Rises and ached for Jake Barnes as he fantasized about being the person who could keep Lady Brett Ashley happy, right up until the final line when he admits that he never will be: Isn’t it pretty to think so? Jake wasn’t asexual—he’d had his genitalia permanently injured, but his desire was in working order. Besides, asexual was a word I had only heard used to describe Godzilla’s reproductive methods in the 1998 film. I didn’t yet know I could apply it to people, let alone myself. But I recognized what Jake was doing, with his Lost Generation version of the nod-and-grin as he and Lady Brett drunkenly waltzed around the fact that he’d never be able to perform one of the most basic heterosexual acts. I recognized the pretense.


I grew up as both a multi-sport athlete and a medical miracle, two conditions that swiftly taught me how to endure pain and violation caused for my own good. For as long as I can remember, I’ve used the same technique: clench my jaw and stare at the ceiling and float my mind away and think about something else, usually my writing. It’s served me well for everything from childhood tooth extractions—my baby teeth had the stubborn, clinging worldview of toddlers with separation anxiety—to a surprise catheter insertion. I’ve developed an incredibly high tolerance for pain.

The fact that I didn’t enjoy the act of sex—that I clenched my muscles and stared at the ceiling and spent a lot of time saying ow into pillows—seemed irrelevant. I thought that sex, in some inscrutable way, was like wind sprints or orthodontic adjustments or blood transfusions: sometimes you do it to yourself and sometimes someone else does it to you, but you grit your teeth and tell yourself you can bear this for just one minute more, knowing that somewhere down the line, there will be a payoff that will make all the pain and recovery worth it. I didn’t know what sex’s payoff would be, exactly, but I was confident that there would be one if I just put in the effort.

Except there wasn’t.

At first, I attributed it to the fact that I was a woman in my late teens sleeping with men in their early twenties. We were young and selfish, and there was a built-in learning curve. Or maybe, as my women’s college education was telling me, it was a cultural hangover: for centuries, women had to pretend that they didn’t have the urge, and that repression had sunk into me too deeply. What I needed was to exorcise my prudishness, the result of those pesky Puritans who were so great at ruining everything for everybody. Concurrently, I wondered if maybe I liked other women instead—after all, I liked to kiss them—but the idea of anything more than kissing repelled me there, too.

Then, as I graduated and moved into my mid-twenties, I attributed it to medical trauma. At birth, there had been the sliced vagina—something I’m still wrapping my brain around, to the extent that I’m moved to use passive voice when referring to it. In high school, supposedly a time of growing sexual self-awareness, I’d had two different surgeries to remove adhesions from around my reproductive organs; the lead-up had involved its fair share of gynecological examinations, internal ultrasound wands, and cold metal tools in warm squishy places. The process had repeated itself, basically, with the procedure to remove cells from my cervix. A decade I should have associated with sexual exploration became one I associate with vaginal pain.

It’s only in the last five years that I’ve accepted inherent asexuality as an option, because for a long time, I’d never met any asexual people or seen them represented anywhere. Until Todd Chavez declared his ace status at the end of Bojack Horseman’s fourth season, Jake Barnes was the closest thing I had to someone like me, even though he thought about sex all the time and spent a whole scene gazing wistfully at his discreetly depicted injury. I’m not surprised at the anecdotal theory that most asexuals don’t realize that’s what we are until our early thirties, especially since asexuality covers such a broad spectrum. My asexuality may not look quite the same as anyone else’s. Getting one’s penis shot off in World War I is a lot more cut-and-dried, in terms of figuring out where one stands.


By the time I hit my late twenties, my pretense had started to fray. I’ve been told I’m good at writing fiction, but I’m absolutely abysmal at living it. I stopped having sex outside of pre-established relationships where sex was already expected. I tried online dating, but quickly decided there was too much risk. In addition to all the usual fears, my experiences with men had taught me that even the ones who said they loved me and would never hurt me got persistent if I tried to turn them down. The ex-boyfriend who’d wanted me to initiate sex had been especially guilty of this. It didn’t matter whether we’d just had sex two hours ago; it didn’t matter if I told him that I didn’t want it or that it would hurt: if he wanted it, my desires were a moot point, steamrolled by cajoling and whining and physical penis-prodding until I gave in. Even more questionable was the extremely drunk friend who told me that he “wanted to rape me, but in a good way,” and scariest of all was the man in college who told me he “just wanted to take advantage of me,” followed me around at parties, and insisted he’d do what he wanted to do regardless of what I wanted. I didn’t trust random men I met online to be any kinder.

By the time I turned thirty, the only sexual partner who remained was the ex-boyfriend who’d moved to the East Coast and came back to California for the holidays, a friend who was also an annual fling. We spent Decembers dancing and drinking and pretending we were young again, taking long, aimless drives through the mountains and staring at the views spread out in front of us, posing with pelicans on the pier, watching daredevils backflip from the sea wall to the sand below: a Jake Barnes and Lady Brett lifestyle, transplanted to Southern California and reeling from the 2008 recession. We teased each other about the relationships that never seemed to last more than a few months—the fact that we were always single in time for the holidays, the nagging suspicion that maybe we’d end up together, after all. We also fought. There were years I didn’t go to see him, or met him only for a coffee and bowling in the afternoon, because I still needed more time to forgive him.

In the twelve years we shared, I think we both used that friendship to prove to ourselves that we could have a long-term, quasi-romantic connection with someone. I’m not sure what demons he was trying to exorcise, but I spent a decade’s worth of New Year’s Eves trying to live up to the expectations for a “normal” single woman in her twenties. I tried to sleep with him as a friend. I tried to sleep with him while I was in romantic love with another man. I tried to sleep with him as my feelings for him ebbed and flowed and changed, as the things he’d done to me in 2005 and 2013 provided a constant background noise. Sometimes, I didn’t sleep with him at all. But as long as I had those weekends, I could convince myself that I was, if not a sexual person, at least someone who could compromise on sex for the sake of love, or something like it. And I could convince myself that the other person wouldn’t mind and would love me anyway.

“Why do you even have sex?” he asked me, after an instance when the pretense had fallen away completely. “You obviously don’t enjoy it.”

“I don’t have sex,” I told him. I’d never told anyone else.

It didn’t change things.

Once, not long after the cold medicine incident, a friend told me that she was worried about me. That she didn’t understand why I’d willingly keep seeing a guy who had so little regard for my person. She used the phrase attempted rape.

On one hand, I knew she was right: theoretically, I deserved someone better, someone who could meet me where I was. On the other hand, finding that person had begun to feel like searching for a unicorn. The idea of saying no to sex within a relationship is still fraught. Whenever friends had asked me how the sex was with a new boyfriend, I’d made something up instead of telling them the truth, which was It happens and I get through it. It is cruel, everyone insists, to deprive someone of sex; it’s a biological need that stretches back to primeval days. In comparison, society has decided only recently that it is cruel to force sex upon someone who doesn’t want it.

I’d also realized that the cold medicine incident hadn’t felt all that different from many—maybe even most—of the times I’d had sex. I remember thinking, as he’d wedged his hands between my legs, But he can’t because this time I said “No,” immediately followed by, Well, I’ve gotten through this before. The difference between these times and all the other times was my physical capacity, not my physical pain. In many ways, the wooziness and discomfort and resignation felt familiar, like preparation for surgery or one of those thorough, invasive gynecological exams I’d undergone in high school.

I hadn’t yet resigned myself to the fact that I would never want it, but I’d long ago accepted the fact that it would always hurt.


Jake Barnes continued to weave himself into my life in unexpected ways. I wrote a portion of my undergraduate thesis on The Sun Also Rises, examining Jake’s situation through a queer lens. After college, I shifted my writing focus from academic papers and historical fiction to mystery, noir, and my hometown of Los Angeles. I learned that Hemingway had been one of Raymond Chandler’s inspirations, and that he’d drawn from The Sun Also Rises when creating The Big Sleep. Chandler places his protagonist, Philip Marlowe, in sexual situations much less often than you’d think, and while some of this avoidance likely stemmed from the cultural mores of the time, modern Chandler scholars still like to debate Marlowe’s sexuality.

The first time I wrote an asexual character, it was by accident: I was in my first post-college job, working on a very cathartic roman à clef novel in a series of UCLA Extension online classes. The character in question was a twenty-three-year-old male teacher who was in over his head, both in the classroom and in the mystery he was trying to solve. My classmates pointed out that this character was an unbelievable one, particularly because a normal, healthy twenty-three-year-old—especially a normal, healthy, twenty-three-year-old man—would be thinking about sex nonstop.

I should have said: I’m twenty-three, and I never think about sex. I’ve never had an orgasm. I’ve never even masturbated! Take that! But I didn’t. My classmates had already told me, albeit indirectly, that there was something wrong with me, and I was so tired of being the person with whom there was constantly something wrong.

The second time I wrote an asexual character, it was on purpose. In the development notebook for my next novel, which I began in early 2011, I described my protagonist as a “bisexual asexual,” someone who was romantically and even aesthetically attracted to men and women but didn’t actually want to sleep with anyone. I remember thinking, when I wrote that phrase, that I’d chosen it because it was me.

And yet when I moved beyond my notebook and started writing the first draft, the asexual part of my protagonist fell by the wayside.

I told myself that I’d made the choice for marketing reasons: sex sells, after all. Sex creates conflict, and conflict powers narratives. This was also a time period bookended by Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, so even though literary and BDSM circles decried those series as abysmal, the general pop culture expectation—much as it had been in college—was that women were ready to get it on, heteronormatively and enthusiastically and with whips. It was the nod-and-grin all over again, but this time from a marketing angle.

In reality, though, I discarded my protagonist’s asexuality for reasons very similar to the reasons I never knew whether to report what had happened to me in 2005 and 2013: because it was complicated and hard to explain, and because I thought no one would believe me. I still wasn’t sure whether I believed myself.


During the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination process in 2018, I texted a friend: If I’m gonna be really, really blunt, the reason I don’t date is because regular rape is a compromise I got tired of making a long time ago.

Do I really believe that? In the heat of that moment, in my anger at all the things men have done to me in the name of their satisfaction: yes. In my rage that, due to society’s expectations, discovering my sexuality has been a long, painful process of elimination—not too young, after all, not lesbian (although possibly biromantic), not medically traumatized, but just disinterested—yes. When I imagine dating, I picture a line of men like my exes. Men who tell me things like You just haven’t been with the right guy yet and then talk over my attempts to explain or protest, men who probe and prod until I give in, and then flip me face-down so they don’t have to look at my clenched jaw and vacant eyes. Men who then say, without a hint of self-doubt: I would never make you do anything you didn’t want to.

I’m in my mid-thirties. Many of my friends are married or in serious relationships, and for the first time, I’m confronting the fact that—seeing as how I’m both asexual and intensely monogamous—I may be romantically alone for the rest of my life. Most of the time, I’m intellectually okay with this. I’ve found a community of women, both single and partnered, who’ve never made me feel isolated or less-than for having no interest in sex. I’m close enough to my immediate family to visit semi-regularly, and I’m fortunate that my parents are not the type to pester me about marriage and grandchildren, in which I also have zero interest. On days when I prefer to be alone, it’s a relief to come home to an empty apartment. It’s easy to trick myself into believing that this status quo will go on forever, just like those New Year’s Eve weekends that seemed to exist in their own, separate time.

Sometimes, though, I look around me and know that all this is too good to last. Friends will move away, or move on. My parents are getting older. American cities are becoming increasingly expensive, to the extent that one-bedroom apartments in urban areas—the areas where jobs are—will soon be affordable only for partnered people. Sometimes, I just want to come home after a long day and find the dishes already done, snuggle against a partner and listen to their hopes and dreams, and retire to bed without the constant pressure of someone else’s libido. And so I keep trying to find answers to a question that seems too prickly and complex:

How do you say yes to love without saying yes to sex?

I tell myself that eventually I’ll meet someone who will meet me where I am. That I’ll write a book with an asexual protagonist and that it will sell, that no one will tell me that I need a romantic angle for my characters to be believable. That I won’t watch my parents and family and friends die before I do, one by one, until I’m left completely, entirely alone. That I’ll somehow find a compatible ace in a world teeming with lust, that unicorn of a person who doesn’t require sex, whose quirks are bearable, and whose mental, emotional, and psychological baggage complements my own. Or maybe, even, that I’ll find a love that will be worth the sex: where I will be, if not a sexual person, then one who can really, truly, finally compromise on sex for the sake of love.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Rae Wolfe lives in Los Angeles, where she writes fiction and nonfiction and takes photographs. Her work has appeared in various publications, including "Hypertext."

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