Jessica and I had an arranged marriage. We saved sex for the wedding night.
The pre-wedding courtship had been platonic. We’d go for long walks in the narrow lanes of Kathmandu, drink tea made by street vendors, check out art in brick houses remade into galleries.
On the wedding night, her mouth was inviting. I was nervous. “Take it easy,” she said looking in my eyes. We spent the rest of the night holding hands in a dark room.
Our isolation began that night.
We moved to Hawaii where I was a grad student. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy each other’s company. We laughed a lot together. Our lives seemed fun, except for this one issue. Having sex with my wife made me cringe. On the drive back home from a restaurant or a movie, I’d start fiddling with the radio dial to mask my anxiety. “It’s okay,” she’d say, sensing my fear. “We don’t have to do it. Let’s just talk.”
We cooked and kayaked together, went to movies, spent hours on the
beach to avoid the menacing bed, but the harder we ignored the sex, the
more important it became.
In the bare Honolulu apartment, we spiralled into depression. I wanted to spend every moment with my wife except in bed. Jessica felt cheated and I didn’t know what was wrong with me.
Although modern attitudes about marriage in South Asia are shifting, arranged marriage is still the norm for millennials. According to a recent survey, 84% of married youth in India had an arranged marriage. In our case, an uncle played matchmaker and Jessica and I started with a long-distance courtship designed for us to “check each other out.”
Our phone conversations would last until dawn.
I’d never been in a relationship before my marriage. I loved female company. I just didn’t care about sex. That didn’t strike me as unusual in a culture where any mention of sex is taboo. My parents express affection by going on walks to the temple, never holding hands. I wasn’t motivated to think that being a virgin in my late twenties might be cause for concern. Sex would somehow figure into our married life—does it not eventually?
I loved female company. I just didn’t care about sex.
Jessica always worried that she might end up in a situation that she now found herself in. Stories about women ending up with closeted gay men is common in South Asia. As her patience wore out, Jessica’s needs turned sex into a force that challenged my fragile masculinity.
Her questions felt like an affront. What was I hiding? Was I gay?
I knew I wasn’t gay and the online tests that I secretly took seemed to prove that. Our marriage counselor said, “sex is natural if you’re with the right person.”
It didn’t help that I was fond of Jessica like a friend.
The ripples of anxiety would start in the morning and last all day, growing so intense by the evening that I would freeze with fear at the thought of sex.
Confused and lonely, I started spending hours at the Barnes and Noble every night, finishing entire novels, instead of going back home to face a person whose dreams I felt I snatched away.
Divorce was not an option because Jessica was on a spouse visa, without a work permit. She did cash jobs in the hope that a green card, a distant dream then, would eventually open up new doors for her. A divorce would force her to return to Nepal, face society’s questions.
A divorce would force her to return to Nepal, face society’s questions.
We moved carefully around each other to avoid arguments. At the end of a long day, we’d lay on opposite sides of the mattress, absorbed in our books or phones. If she laughed I’d ask, “what?” She found little things about American culture funny, like a server’s habit of drawing a smiley face on the receipt for a good tip. We watched melodramatic Bollywood movies because it was easier to laugh at other people’s problems.
Desperate to hold onto something, we began a conversation about having a child. We were searching for an answer, hoping it must be out there. It came like a flash of revelation—a child would give us a reason to bond. The caveat was a relentless attempt at sex. We gathered a potpourri of toys and medication. She was pregnant at the first attempt. We saw our son as a sign of our compatibility. We wanted to hope that we could make this work. We moved to Utah where I landed a new job. Everything we did together as a family—hikes to the canyons, trips to Disney Land—was done with the aim of making our reality match an
imagined life as closely as possible.
Desperate to hold onto something, we began a conversation about having a child.
One day, Jessica told me about a guy she met at the gym. “He asked me
out,” she said. Without missing a beat, I said she should consider it. “I miss having a man’s hand on my body,” Jessica said. We both started crying. remember when she would wrap her arms around me, aroused and breathless, making me shrink further into my shell.
“Let’s make a divorce vow,” we said. “As soon as the green card comes,
we’ll head to the courts.”
We’re in her house, baking tilapia and sweet potatoes. “I could never get over the feeling that you were un-attracted to me. It took me a long time to accept that our needs are different,” she says.
“I could never get over the feeling that you were un-attracted to me. It took me a long time to accept that our needs are different.
We’ve been divorced for a year, currently living together to co-parent our son. Having never been in love with each other has softened the blow of divorce. Our
friends are surprised that we can live together, but we have finally rediscovered what we had first found attractive in each other: the spark for a good conversation without sex getting in the way. Top that with
our son that we really bond over.
Even in the depth of her sadness, Jessica had an ambition to succeed.
“I’m a married celibate,” she’d say, driving all her energies toward marketing and selling trinkets at a mall in Honolulu.
After years of waiting, when the green card arrived, she was hired as a sales consultant for a Salt Lake City software company. She knows how to survive, to
hustle. While I was marinating in my own self-doubts, I failed to fully recognise the isolation she was feeling as someone without a legitimate job and an emotionally connected partner.
The irony is, as a doctorate student, I was taking a course on feminist theory, and would go into passionate discussions about gender equity, never considering that my own lack of sexual desire might be something to think about. My inability to self-reflect was a consequence of a male privilege that prevented me from questioning my sexuality. The discrepancy between what I was learning in the classroom and my own ingrained belief was lost on me. It was a complex mixture between inherited views of gender, newly acquired knowledge of feminism, and my unacknowledged asexuality.
While I fully supported Jessica’s career, when she expressed herself sexually, I shrank into a shell, resenting her natural urge as an affront on me.
Jessica created a Facebook group, Beautiful Brown Bodies, where South Asian women share their life experiences. With 40,000 members, the group has since become a community of support and strength.
Jessica’s own story remains to be told.
I’ve come to an acceptance that I am asexual. Julie Sondra Decker, author of The Invisible Orientation, says, “asexuality is a sexual orientation characterised by sexual attraction to no one. Approximately 1 in 100 people is asexual.” She goes on to say “sexual orientation is not a decision but a discovery.”
I’ve come to an acceptance that I am asexual.
Arranged marriage isn’t inherently a bad thing. Like any marriage, it’s up to the two people involved. But an arranged marriage in a traditional society assumes binary gender roles between a man and a woman.
Exploring alternate sexualities is a stigma. I had to go through a painful process to discover my sexuality, affecting someone else’s life in the process. I sure am glad, though, to be given a chance to rediscover each other and remain good friends.