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Making a case for ambient sexuality

I’m not so turned on by the body, but more excited by a network of feelings, a relation to objects and their arrangement in a scene – has anyone else ever felt like this?

Brittany’s been bad. She is a drag queen and a rat. She comes from California and was born in 1994, amidst soft cyber sounds. Her debut novel, OOLA, is available here (UK) and here (US).

I have sexual trouble. Over the years, I’ve come to identify as asexual, but the term doesn’t sit quite right with me.

The pamphlets I’ve binge-read in the bathtub usually describe asexuality in terms of neutrality: asexual folx don’t experience sexual attraction, ace folx are disinterested in sexual intimacy. But I’m not neutral when it comes to sex. I think, write, and talk about it all the time (as evidenced by this essay and an enduring schoolyard nickname of The Perv). To this day, Dr. Frank-n-Furter remains a sexual ideal.

Nonetheless, the primal equation of body + body fails to excite me. I’m all talk, no game. Touch feels like touch — clammy, cool, invasive, dull — when I was told it should feel like heaven. I think I do experience arousal, just not in a linear or concentrated or all that interesting fashion. When talking to friends about their sexual escapades, I find myself mystified by their descriptions of desire, of feelings so hot they couldn’t control them, of fucking on the roof of a car while “Cherry Bomb” plays.

I’m jealous of these peaks. I’ve spent my entire sexual career (an admittedly odd one) wondering if I was built differently if this was how things were supposed to feel (i.e. like nothing at all) or if I needed to try harder. “Get your head in the game!” I’ve literally told my half-naked self in the mirror.

My “kicks” aren’t ballistic. When hooking up, I’m distracted by everything, to the point where my body and the other person’s body become diffuse, distant, flattened. Orgasms allegedly shatter you. What about being scattered? My body’s signals are scrambled, such that arousal happens elsewhere, all around, in a haze. Call me a granny, but a May day in the botanical gardens is enough of a clusterfuck to make me feel “spent.”

It’s not just the definition of asexuality that confuses me; it’s the definition of sexuality itself. In our big gay life, as my wife Eric calls it, gender is constantly melting down, dragging sex with it. Everything is wonderfully ill-defined and confused. “Am I a bad girl?” my friend Tom wonders, pensively flicking his belly-button ring. “I’ll have to get back to you on that one.” In the background, his boyfriend Jenkin sings “Cell Block Tango” while Eric, wearing nothing but tights, cooks chicken for everyone. It’s a glittery smorgasbord.

If we’re rewriting gender, I might as well try with my iffy sex-drive. Ambient sexuality is how I’ve come, for the time being, to describe my body and what excites it. For now it’s just a theory, a nickname for what I perceive to be off in me. Perhaps it could slot nicely into the ever-widening asexual spectrum. This article is my attempt to define it and float the idea to a larger audience.

It’s probably best to lead with examples. For me, there is a full-body pleasure in riding the bus. For others, it’s house-sitting: the thrill of sleeping in a foreign bed. Using a stranger’s lotion, drinking out of their mugs...In this instance, the domestic objects form a sense of the person, and it is this sense that turns you on, the body-outline, rather than the bod itself. For still others, it’s the order of jars, so quiet, so cute, on a shelf.

Recently, an OKCupid date and I stood in their friend’s living room. It was 2:30p.m. The house was empty, filled with light. The front door was open. The furniture was mismatched: worn leather couch, scuffed coffee table, piles of DVDs from the early 2000’s. Someone had tacked a knitted baby blanket over one window, in lieu of a curtain. I don’t mean to be insulting when I say that this room, with its soft yellow walls, gave me more pleasure than my date did; I simply want to underscore how very much the room, in its amber stillness, moved me.

“So what’s at work here? I see ambient sexuality as a way of being in space, of relating to objects and their arrangement in a scene. It’s being excited by a network of feelings. Maybe New Age philosophies have gone to my head, and what I’m actually describing are vibes, the thrill of being caught in their field. Can you be turned on by vibes, rather than the sunbaked yogi who conjures them? Is there a name for the phenomena of being more interested, mid-smooch, by the love song on the radio, or the tautening of bed sheets, or the half-open window, than the sex-acts these details are supposed to enhance? What happens when the backdrop steals the show, such that the physical body you’re undressing becomes, frankly, irrelevant?

Ambient sexuality describes a different structuring of desires, a non-linear mode of arousal based on that which surrounds and suspends rather than that which explodes. It’s not objectophilia or ecosexuality. It’s a free-floating erotic sensibility, rather than a targeted erotic goal, like that moment when you’re making out with your crush and you open your eyes and soften your focus to take in the room all around you. For me, it feels pointless to focus back in.

“I feel it at my favourite bar, with its woozy pink lights and rose-printed carpet. I love to lie down on that carpet, feel its criminal crunch. I feel it when grocery shopping”

Maybe a better way to talk about ambient sexuality is not if you feel it, but if you are into it. I’ve come to think of it like S&M — something you can be interested in, to varying degrees. We all have sadomasochistic tendencies (has anyone forgotten the pleasure of yanking a baby tooth, that delirious pain?), but far fewer people are willing to name, claim, and actively practice said tendencies, turn the inklings into fantasies or defining personality traits (Dom Seeks Sub, No Scorpios).

Since the phrase ambient sexuality first took root in my brain, I’ve kept an ongoing list as to when and where I feel it most strongly. I feel it at my favourite bar, with its woozy pink lights and rose-printed carpet. I love to lie down on that carpet, feel its criminal crunch. I feel it when grocery shopping: the exquisite onslaught of colours and names, aluminium flashing. I could literally spend hours in Whole Foods, never buying a thing, circling the hot food bar, fingering soaps.

I have certain friends, strictly friends, who titillate me with how they wear clothes, push their hair back, move through the world and interact with its objects: the way Mica pours drinks, the way Joseph touches my hair, how Jenkin is always dropping things and seems not to care. In these moments, I’m not so much attracted to the people as to the world their gestures conjure, the radius they make.

More: the Bay Bridge at night, with its neon traffic flows. A bag of oranges in a blue mesh bag, how they strained against its edges. Someone washing the sidewalk on Market Street: spraying the concrete with an industrial hose, then using a soft-bristled broom to push dirty water into the gutter.

“But why is ambient sexuality a sexuality at all?” a friend asks. “Maybe it’s just a weird habit. Or a coping mechanism.”

This question has continued to stump me. Even at our most explicit, we Americans talk about sexuality in largely metaphorical terms: she turns me on, I’m horny as hell, we did it, I shot my wad, it was heaven. It’s all rather hazy — like my sex-drive. But for once, I want concrete definitions. Is sexuality defined by whatever makes you come? That seems too simple, leaving no room for fantasy. An expanded notion of gender demands an expanded notion of sexuality, one that divorces itself from the body and ho-hum biological functions like blood rushing here, things swelling there.

“I’m neutral to kissing and every kink that’s come my way; but the squelch of a tan leather couch at 2:30p.m. makes me weak”

For me, sexuality is a matter of gravitation: what you are drawn to, what demands inappropriate amounts of your attention. What do you keep coming back to, like it or not? So really the question is, what are you helpless to? It’s less a question of what makes you feel good and more of what makes you feel funny: what makes you squiggle, what distracts you, what upsets your body’s neutral state. I’m neutral to kissing and every kink that’s come my way; but the squelch of a tan leather couch at 2:30p.m. makes me weak.

To return to our cultural repository of sexy clichés, maybe sexuality is a matter of when and how you feel “swept up”, overcome. The moments when the essential strangeness of the world, and our place in it, is revealed; the moments when your body becomes something else. If that’s the prerequisite for sexuality, then ambient sexuality is one more way to lose, or loosen, the body. The difference is that it doesn’t explode in a fit of passion; it fades into the background, while other things, like a couch, come to the fore.

I'm curious what others think. I can’t know if these experiences, allegedly mundane yet major to me, move others in the way they move me. The trouble with defining anything as sexual, ace or otherwise, is that one can never have a body other than their own (cue emo music). You can’t form any real theory of alternative sexuality without many different bodies’ input. Dancers, empaths, people who take lots of acid describe similarly charged relations to space; maybe they’re ambiently sexual too! Or maybe just fried. I’m not sure yet. One body alone with its woes and its wants is a diary entry. But many bodies together, like at my favourite bar, smooching or schmoozing or just feeling the vibes, might be onto something.