An interest in sex is common ground for most people, but not for me. There’s no onscreen depiction of sex that arouses me. It’s foreign at best and horrifying at worst. Why? Because I’m asexual.
Let’s clear a few things up first. No, being asexual is not the same thing as being celibate, and no, I can’t reproduce by budding. Asexuality is its own spectrum with a swath of variations: demisexuals are physically attracted to someone only after falling in love; greysexuals might be into someone every once in a blue moon. I identify as an aromantic asexual. I’ve never had a crush, been in love, or been sexually attracted to anyone. I’m fine with others having sex, but I’m repulsed by the idea of it involving me.
“That sounds like a non-issue,” you may think. It’s not, though — I still live in a culture where sex the norm. If anything, I see sex as a morbid curiosity. Some people are drawn to pimple-popping videos; I have sex scenes in films. The problem is that no one in movies shares my outlook. I never see myself represented, so instead of embracing the similarities between a protagonist and myself, I have to embrace the differences.
Oddly enough, the first movie that made me feel validated in my asexuality was Eyes Wide Shut — 159 minutes of cinematic blue-balling. When playing to the straight male majority, it skewers heteronormativity by conflating it with arrogance. By seeing it at 16 years old, it helped me realize and embrace my orientation.
The film is virtually perfect in every way, but its exploration of the male id is especially amusing. First, it doesn’t feel a need to depict its straight male protagonist as a hero. Bill (Tom Cruise) is a detestable character whose fragility adds to the film’s entertainment value. He’s the archetypal Straight Man — what the majority sees as an emblem of power, and something that I can never be. Throughout Eyes Wide Shut, we see him endure the awkwardness that sexual minorities feel, and as he comes across any obstacle, he uses cash and privilege like an unspoken cry of, “But this can’t happen to me!” It’s a satirical viewpoint rarely explored, and seeing the film allowed me to laugh at the majority for once.
Most of the film exists in a dreamscape, subverting male fantasies better than a realistic tone would allow. This solipsism shows how self-centered Bill is: Everyone is an offshoot of him; virtually everyone is white; and every woman could be his wife’s body double. This power is also where his isolation is. Sex may be an integral part of these characters’ lives, but the film desensitizes it from the beginning. The opening shot, in which Alice (Nicole Kidman) slips off a black dress, lacks context. In fact, the shot is divorced from the opening sequence, rendering itself pointless.
When I saw the film for the first time, just those first seconds made me think I was in for something special. That feeling continued, too, as sex was treated like a prizeless game. In the world of Eyes Wide Shut, physical intimacy is like playing tag: Once you touch someone, you win. OK, cool, but is that it? … Oh, that is it? Well … what now?
It’s just another part of these people’s lives and it’s often associated with unpleasantness. However, this depiction of sex isn’t regressive — it’s cynical. Early on at a cocktail party, the super-rich Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) shows Bill a nude woman who has overdosed. She’s unconscious and lying like a polished corpse, and the nudity is banal enough to dare viewers to find it erotic. Finally, something meant to be uncomfortable! Back downstairs, Alice rolls her eyes as a pickup artist (Sky du Mont) tries to sleep with her. “Hey, that’s how I roll my eyes when I see horny people in real life,” I think to myself.
Later, at the film’s turning point, a stoned-out-of-her-mind Alice reveals that she almost cheated on Bill. But it isn’t unfaithfulness that angers him: It’s that Alice could want someone else. It’s here that the film displays Bill’s misogyny for the first time as he labels women coy and domestic. Alice thankfully calls him out, but before the conversation can further digress, Bill is summoned to visit the daughter of a recently deceased client.
Upon his arrival, a grief-stricken Marion (Marie Richardson) throws herself at Bill. It’s a straight male fantasy — the emotionally vulnerable woman and the strong-willed Straight Man — but this take-me-now interaction is presented as ludicrous. Hell, even Bill doesn’t know what to. He doesn’t act like a doctor played by Hollywood’s hottest star; he acts like a kid at a middle school dance. The subversion sewn through these scenes relates sex with invasion, which is something I’d always felt. It’s especially rare for the Straight Man to rebuff others’ advances in movies, and sympathizing with that was unprecedented to me.
Bill is similarly confused when he goes to have sex with a prostitute named Domino (Vinessa Shaw). Once he enters her apartment, he adopts an “aw shucks” attitude, standing in silence. “What do you recommend?” he asks her. For once, the Straight Man is unsure of what he wants; the object of his desire looks at him like he’s an idiot. “What do I recommend?” she chuckles. “Well, I’d rather not put it into words.” And I think to myself, “Oh GOD, what could that mean?”
But Alice calls Bill and accidentally cockblocks him, so I don’t have to see that.
It all comes to a head in the ritual sequence, and in addition to being perfect filmmaking, it portrays sex the way I’ve always seen it. As a stripped-down redux of the earlier cocktail party, the rich are not only entitled to monetary belongings — they’re entitled to others’ bodies. The emotions associated with intimacy are nowhere to be found.
It’s such a heartbreaking concept: the sight of all these people, interchangeable and unable to communicate. An unknown woman approaches Bill and goes to kiss him, and after their masks keep them from embracing, they resort to wandering the halls of the rich. They remain unseen and unfulfilled. As I saw this for the first time, I felt both pity for their loneliness and resentment toward their power. But most importantly, for once I felt fulfilled for not wanting sex.
The orgy-goers look like bugs in a diorama, and as Bill proceeds through the mansion, the camera takes his point of view. It was then that I finally saw sex from the Straight Man’s perspective, and yet I still saw it with fear.
The scene disturbs a lot of people. It disturbs me too, but it’s also kind of comforting. This is how I always saw sex, and finally there was a time where I was in on the joke.
As I realized that I was asexual, I watched a masked man lead a blindfolded Nick (Todd Field) through a corridor of nude partygoers slow-dancing to “Strangers in the Night.” It was foreign, oddly fascinating, and something that I wanted no part in. After that scene, Nick was never seen again. And neither was the possibility of my being sexual.