How do I tell my parents that I'm not having sex?
September 14, 2012 2:53 PM   Subscribe

I have no idea how to talk to normal people about my not-normal relationship, particularly when it comes to parents. At what point does it become strange?

I am 28 female asexual demi-romantic.

He is 13 years older than me, male, heterosexual, polyamorous, has a girlfriend.

We have dates, cuddle and occasionally sleep in the same bed (just sleep. My ace-ly limits are anything involving any fluids and/or mucous membranes). Our relationship has been slowly developing over 2 years. He is important to me.

My mother is coming to visit in a month and is very likely going to meet him. We are fairly open with each other. She knows about the asexuality, but I‘m not sure how much she actually gets about the asexuality thing. How much and how should I tell her? And what should I tell people generally?

Obviously, you don’t know my mother, but I’m looking to get a sense of what is going to make people look twice. I’ve been spending a lot of my time in queer and alternative communities and my whole relationship seems perfectly sensible to me but I'm generally aware it may not read that way to the broader society. It's the specifics that are tripping me up.

Is the bit where we don’t have sex reassuring (I occasionally spend the night at his place, we may travel together in the future) or something that doesn’t need to be mentioned (I wouldn‘t tell her if I was having sex, after all, but I might mention crashing at his place)?
Should I mention his girlfriend (reassuring: He gets sex from other people, doesn't need it from me. Not helpful: dating a man with a girlfriend and multiple lovers, perceptions of bedpost notches?)?
Is the age thing weird?
The experience difference? (second actual relationship, first lasting one over a year vs divorced)

Ultimately, which parts are of what we've got going on are green (people will generally be fine with this) which are yellow (this may require some explanation/care) and what's red (only tell your very closest friends) to you?

(note: live in canada)
posted by platypus of the universe to Human Relations (34 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think a good rule of thumb about the asexuality is to think about whether or not you would talk to this person about sex. If so, then sure, mention it. If not, then it's not necessary. I'd think that family, coworkers and casual acquaintances would be in that second category for most people, but of course YMMV.

As for the polyamory, I'd say it's a good thing for family and close friends to know about if they are generally open-minded about that kind of thing and if you expect him to be in your life for a long time and be interacting with your family and friends.

People will have a wide variety of reactions to the age gap, but there's nothing you can do to hide it and it's really their issue to deal with, not yours.
posted by the essence of class and fanciness at 3:00 PM on September 14, 2012

My fear would be that the more you explain, the more your mother is going to say "oh, so he's your friend, and sometimes he'll sleep over, but he has a girlfriend".

If you want to introduce him to your mother as your boyfriend, or your special guy, or whatever term you want to use, just do that.
posted by Oktober at 3:01 PM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

To expand on my thoughts about the asexuality bit: I get that you probably think of it as part of your identity, and there's nothing wrong with that. But it's no one else's business whether or not you have sex with your partner(s) and some people will probably take it as you telling them about your sex life and it may make them uncomfortable.
posted by the essence of class and fanciness at 3:03 PM on September 14, 2012 [14 favorites]

you honestly don't need to over-think this. At the stage someone becomes important enough to share any kind of information with, you say he's your friend, boyfriend, partner, Cthulu person, whatever you think in your mind he is.

That's it.

Mom, I want you to meet my ( ) David...

if she gets nosy, "so you guys are doing the dirty?"

"Look it's not like that, but he's really important to me so please treat him as you would any other really good friend...."

that's really all your Mum needs to know.

as for anyone else, rinse and repeat
posted by Wilder at 3:04 PM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

You mom does not need to know the specifics (or even the generalities, really) of your sex life. All she wants to know is that you're happy and satisfied.

The age thing doesn't matter. His girlfriend does not matter. Your experience differences do not matter. Your mom just wants to know about you and him together, really.
posted by joan_holloway at 3:06 PM on September 14, 2012

Why do you feel the need to discuss your sex life? I really do not get this. If your parent specifically asks you about your sex life, I find that invasive.

You have a right to privacy! Especially in the bedroom!

All that said, I had friends who were polyamorous. Instead of all of the secret keeping and weirdness surrounding who was in on the secret and who wasn't. - I WISH they had just acted like it was no big deal a not referred to it specifically. Like, I wish they could have just acted like it was nothing but a chicken wing. Get me here?

In your specific sitution, your mother does not need to know about his girlfriend and she does not need to know about your sex life.

Although you have been dating this person for two years, you are not living together, nor do you have plans to do so. You do not sound that close to your mother, at any rate.

This is entirely a non-problem.

Upon preview: My rule of thumb is to dicuss my sex life in the same manner as I would my toilet habits, which is to say, not at all unless you are my doctor or my spouse.
posted by jbenben at 3:08 PM on September 14, 2012 [17 favorites]

I made the mistake once of confiding my non-traditional relationship to someone i worked very closely with, really respected, and it came up in response to some problems he was going through in his relationship...

it was a huge mistake and since that time I have applied the kidney test.

What are the chances that this individual would consider donating a kidney if I needed it?
Note I say "consider"

if the chances are high, I'm comfortable discussing my non-traditional lifestyle when it arises.

Otherwise, no. It's still pretty grim out there for anything other than vanilla.
posted by Wilder at 3:09 PM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

Nthing everyone who says you should introduce him as a close companion or friend.
posted by jbenben at 3:10 PM on September 14, 2012

So you have two aspects of your relationship your mum might not be familiar with: your asexuality and his polyamory.

I don't know how much you have to explain about either to your mum, but that's up to you. You're not being untruthful by leaving it at "Joe and I are seeing each other" is that feels accurate.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:10 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Or "dating". Unless your mum has issues about non-marital sex, in which case "my friend Joe" is probably what you would say even if you and he had a sexual relationship.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:12 PM on September 14, 2012

Regardless of all the details, he's your boyfriend right? Can't you just say "Mom this is my boyfriend [name]?"
posted by grapesaresour at 3:14 PM on September 14, 2012

(Unless it's important to you to share more info about asexuality and/or polyamory with your Mom, in which case listen to other people!)
posted by grapesaresour at 3:17 PM on September 14, 2012

I'm usually everyone's most-conservative-ever buddy; I strongly prefer it if people just say something like "we're seeing each other" and leave it at that. It's not like you need to reassure her about your STD status or anything. I certainly have no need to know what my parents or siblings get up to in terms of anything beyond "we're seeing each other" but not quite at "we're engaged." Nice, broad categories are more than sufficient.

More like I'm the most-naive person, really; I seriously "got" the Monica Lewinsky dress stain more than a decade after the rest of America, and my six-years-younger-than-me sister got it as soon as she first heard it. Much of what I know about such things has been knowledge gained through intensive research; I seem to lack the innuendo gene or something, and no matter how much I research it never improves. I'm choosing not to research the several things in your post I'm not sure I understand; my suspicion is that, based on your post, your mom would like to do the same not-knowing thing.
posted by SMPA at 3:18 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh... and as a literal answer to your last question, bearing in mind I'm almost certainly quite a bit more religious, quite a bit more American, and quite a bit younger than your mom:

Green: This is my friend Joe. We're seeing each other.

Yellow: We sleep together but not in "that way." Have you noticed how old he is, it's like funky but it's comfortable and that's what's important to me.

Orange: This whole situation is because I like romance but not sex.

Red: Oh, and also, he's polyamorous, which means neither I nor his girlfriend are (necessarily) the only people he sleeps with, and his girlfriend may not be the only one he has sex with, and everyone is totally OK with that, and we love to cuddle and here are my specific boundaries and did you know how turned on in an intellectual sense one can be by a person and yet still fail to experience like, I don't know, those hormonal gooey things (and I mean that in a super explicit chemical way) that other people say they get? By the way, I never really got past fooling around with any of my boyfriends and you'll never have grandchildren. This is the couch we cuddle on! Would you like to talk to Joe about his amazing collection of dildos? He has advice for that one problem you mentioned, not to mention some really disturbing stories from his first marriage that you're just going to die when you hear in copious detail...

(Note how much longer and far-flung the red zone content is - that part is just as crucial as the specific details of the situation; I made stuff up but as you can guess I have no idea what things you might be able/willing to say in the red category. Asexuality - don't use that term unless you want to get into an explaining game - is orange to red. Polyamory is generally red unless your mom is unusual for people over 48 years of age. Metafilter is non-representational, and I'm an outlier in the other direction, but I'm pretty sure about this still. Note how many polyamorous people are on TV and how they're portrayed.)
posted by SMPA at 3:29 PM on September 14, 2012 [13 favorites]

This is just my opinion:

* If you wouldn't talk about the fact that you are having sex, then I don't see why you'd mention that you're not. If she asks, that's a different issue, and I'd probably be open about it, but that's me.

*It seems to me that whether or not you talk about your boyfriend's other girlfriend is going to depend on his opinions on the matter - she's not your girlfriend too, is she? If so, that would affect my answer, but his relationships don't seem to be your responsibility to share or to conceal.

*If your mom is anything like my parents, what she wants to know is that you're healthy, happy, safe, and secure. I think that our culture wrongly considers asexuality, polyamory, and age differences as barriers to happiness or security, which is why discussing them with family members can be fraught. I think as long as you maintain that you're fulfilled and happy, your mom isn't going to be too interested in personal details.
posted by muddgirl at 3:31 PM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

but I’m looking to get a sense of what is going to make people look twice

The less you say and the fewer details you give, the less people will look.

My mom and I had the kind of relationship where we talked (and fought!) about all kinds of things; she met my girlfriends and I assume that she assumed we were having sex, but she never ever asked and I never told.
posted by rtha at 3:33 PM on September 14, 2012

I don't think anyone needs or wants to know about your sexual activities or lack thereof. She might want to know because she's your mother and she already knows things are a bit outside the usual in that area for you. It doesn't need to be a secret if you're comfortable talking about it with her, but she doesn't need to know and if she doesn't ask, it's probably best you don't bring it up.

Polyamory's a bit different in that it involves relationships that, ideally, you would be able to be open about. Straight, vanilla people don't have to hide the fact that they are dating, poly people shouldn't have to either. So, ideally you would be able to tell people that you are dating this man, but that you're not his primary partner and you're okay with that.

But the world isn't ideal and whether your mother would be accepting is, as you noted, not something any of us can guess.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:34 PM on September 14, 2012

Since you asked for traffic light levels, I'll try to assign green/yellow/red to this type of communication:

Green: "[Name] is a dear friend, and we spend a lot of time together."
Yellow: "[Name] and I have a chaste, but romantic and very close, relationship."
Red: "[Name] and I have a chaste, but romantic and very close, relationship. We engage in [sexually-charged activities], but do not have sex. He's polyamorous, though, so he does have a girlfriend with whom he has sex. This is all above-board and we're all very happy with the arrangement."

In my life, my parents are very conservative, so workmates, acquaintances, and parents go in the green category. Friends who are not my closest friends would go in the yellow category, and my 3 or 4 closest friends would go in the red category. I am a bit more conservative in talking about sex than many friends, but this is the level of disclosure that makes me feel most comfortable.
posted by pammeke at 3:35 PM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

Just to add: the above delineation is simply what I *would* do, not what I think you (or anyone else) *should* do.
posted by pammeke at 3:36 PM on September 14, 2012

I would go with, "This is my good friend Joe."
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:40 PM on September 14, 2012

People who go with conventional views (i.e. Most people) will view you as basically The Other Woman. No amount of explaining (about polyamory, whatever) is likely to really change that. Many people will not believe you sleep in the same bed and don't have sex. No amount of explaining is likely to convince them otherwise.

In most social settings, it would probably be best to introduce him as "my good friend". At least I suspect I would do so if I had such an arrangement, though I don't so that is a guess. If you sleep in the same bed when his girlfriend is also coincidentally present in the home, I would be inclined to frame that to other people as "visiting friends" or "happened to crash at their place". I would let people assume I slept on the couch or an air mattress if they were so inclined and do my best to avoid giving anyone any reason to specifically comment or inquire about real details.

The reality is no two relationships are the same, even if they have identical labels. Married couples work out details that don't get shared with the world. They just intro each other as "My husband" or "My wife", not "My husband of 15 years who mostly gives me hand jobs" or "My wife who grudgingly services me five times a week".

Similarly, you have no obligation to clarify anything to anyone regarding the details of your private life. Come up with a generic vanilla-sounding label that you are comfortable with for intros in polite society. Then think very carefully about whom you share more info with than that.

My rule of thumb: I don't need to explain anything to anyone who isn't part of the scene, trying to be part of the scene, or somehow otherwise directly impacted by my choices in that regard.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 3:44 PM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think the "how much, and how" part really depends on your relationships with the people and how open-minded, nosy/interested they are and how comfortable disclosing you are. If your mom doesn't really "get" your asexuality, I kind of wonder whether you should be introducing her to Joe at this point. Does she actually know that Joe exists?

Generally, I think just starting with "this is my good friend Joe" or even "This is Joe, the man I am seeing" is enough. It implies that this is a person who you like, that you spend time with, who makes you happy. That is really all most people want to know.
posted by sm1tten at 3:53 PM on September 14, 2012

He's someone who is important to you - I don't think anyone really needs to know anything beyond that unless you're uber comfortable sharing the details with them.
posted by heyjude at 3:54 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Couple of clarifications:

- The reason the re-assertion of my asexuality thing comes up is because otherwise the default assumption is that I'm heterosexual and the inaccuracy bothers in a toe-stub kind of way. Asexuality and invisibility is a thing. It's not about sex, it's about relationships (i.e. when you say you're heterosexual, you're not really talking about what you do in the bedroom, you're talking about your relationships. You still see the orientation = "I don't want to know how you have sex!" thing a bit with homosexuality, but it's changing slowly).

But that is useful to be reminded that sex is a way that people will think, so if needed, emphasize the demi-romantic and drop the rest.

- I am close with my mother, but not physically close, so thus far she has heard mentions of 'Joe' but with no context. I, frankly, was stuck on how the age gap thing woudl look and I wasn't quite sure about my own romantic desires in general, let alone the specific. Now that I've figured out my romantic orientation and Joe and I are a bit more defined, I'd like to stop editing my life with a chainsaw and go for something with a bit more finesse. Hence the question.

- I apparently have no idea what level normal people talk at and my circles talk a lot and are incredibly open. Very useful answers!

Follow-up question: Give advance warning (casually mention in it a phone call, email etc.) so if she does have questions on the asexual thing we can address them in advance, or wait until she comes (Hi Mom, meet, boyfriend Joe) because this is a normal person thing and no big deal?
posted by platypus of the universe at 4:24 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

The default assumption is that I am heterosexual. My ex, who knew before he married me that there was a string of girlfriends in my past, freaked when I laughingly told him the anecdote about my uptight therapist rushing to assure me my test results ("high for bisexual traits") were merely a mark of creativity and said nothing about my sexuality. After that, I dropped it and let him be in denial. The relationship was slowly dying anyway.

I have not had a girlfriend in thirty+ years. My preference is men. I see no point in quibbling in most situations. It just makes other people pointlessly uncomfortable. I mention it when I feel it is relevant and possibly helpful (like now) and I attempt to notify interested men that I am not exactly "straight". I suppose if I had reason to be annoyed with someone being pushy about insisting I am hetero, I might take digs at them over it to make a point. In most situations though, really, most people don't want to know and it doesn't actually matter that I have been technically mislabeled.

YMMV, FWIW and similar disclaimers.

Some people aren't bothered by age difference. I have had relationships where it was an issue and relationships where it was not. FWIW: A man 14 years older than me where it was an issue was displaced by a man 16 years older where it was not.
posted by Michele in California at 4:41 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

So, I agree that it's about relationships rather than sex.

But. The important question, from your mother's point of view, is what sort of relationship SHE'S going to have with this guy. If he counts as your boyfriend, then that gives him and your mom a particular relationship status, and she'll want to know about that so she can behave appropriately. She doesn't in fact care how YOU interact with the guy. She just wants to know how SHE should behave.

So if she asks "is this guy your boyfriend?" she isn't asking "do you have sex?" and she isn't EVEN asking "do you have romantic feelings for each other?" She's asking, like, "Should I make sure to invite this guy along to dinner whenever I'm in town?" And "Should I send him a Christmas present?" and "Should I try to remember his birthday?" and "If you're in the hospital, does he go on the list of people I need to call right away?" and a bunch of other practical shit like that. THOSE are the questions you need to be answering honestly.

If I were you, I would either (a) say "he's my boyfriend," because that automatically gets him treated like a Special Important Person, or (b) say "he's just a friend, but he's a really important friend, and you'll be seeing a lot of him, and you should totally call him if there's an emergency." That second strategy really might or might not work. Some people will adapt to it eventually. Some people will never really get the hang of it, and will keep forgetting that the guy is important to you, because they're so used to the idea that significant others count for more than friends. But it will let you keep identifying as Not Heterosexual if that identification matters.

(FWIW: I'm a queer dude who married a woman. I count as straight now whether I like it or not. It bugs me a bit, but not enough that I raise a stink. Most of your visibly queer friends probably think I'm a traitor and a sellout. Keep that in mind as you decide whether to listen to me. :)
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:47 PM on September 14, 2012 [29 favorites]

Regarding your follow-up question - again, just based on what I would say, given the relationship I have with my parents, which is emotionally close - I would think that they would be a bit hurt if I didn't tell them I had a *boyfriend* but not if I was simply "seeing someone" - if you plan to introduce him as your boyfriend, you might want to mention him ahead of time, just so your mother's aware that there is Someone Special in your life, rather than just someone you're seeing...
posted by pammeke at 4:48 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

As far as advance notice goes, I'd give her a heads up HOWEVER you decide to introduce him. If it's gonna be "he's my boyfriend" then tell her now that you're seeing someone. If it's gonna be "he's my friend," then tell her now that you're gonna introduce her to this guy and he's NOT your boyfriend. (And prepare yourself for the possibility that she'll assume you're lying, since asexuality sometimes gets mistaken for "oh she's just very private, she never wants us to know anything about her love life." But if she's not a total jerk, then she'll at least humor you and treat the guy like just-a-friend, even if she secretly thinks you're lying.) That way when she meets him she won't be all awkwardly "Oh crap how am I supposed to treat this dude?!"
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:57 PM on September 14, 2012

Might want to flip it around and imagine how you would feel about learning that your parents haven't had sex in 20 years .... or that they still hump like bunnies. I don't know about you but I have ZERO interest in that level of info from my immediate family members and would be intensely uncomfortable if it came up. I assume they feel the same way about my life in the boudoir.

All that said I've known some mother/daughters who were very very frank about sex. So... YMMV.

I think nebulawindphone has a pretty good idea about how to approach this. I say be conservative - you can always reveal more information later on. If you generally introduce him as your boyfriend, then introduce him in that way to your mother (the heads up is a good idea). The questions she asks you will give you some idea about what she is comfortable knowing. You should make your own decision about how much you are comfortable with her knowing.

When I discuss people I'm seeing with my mom I tend to tell her about their interests and hobbies, why I like them (speaks 3 languages, has a dimple, makes the best jambalaya ever), and what we do together *out* of bed.
posted by bunderful at 7:27 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

What do you think about Joe? If you think of him as a romantic partner, call him that. If you think of him as a close friend, call him that.

Telling your mum you're asexual is a different thing, because that's about you, not about Joe. Yes, it is annoying for people to make assumptions about your sexual identity based on who you're dating, but that's a thing not limited to asexual folks.

Best of luck in coming out to your mum. You might recommend some resources like AVEN to her to help her understand what's up with your sexual orientation.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:32 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with most people about not giving your mother details about your sex life. Just on the polyamory note: lots of folks deal with poly differently. For this first meeting, it's probably fine to leave it out. However, if Joe's girlfriend will be around while your mom is visiting, you may need to explain that, yes, this is your boyfriend's girlfriend. Depending on the flavor of poly, your mom may figure it out anyway, or it may be rude to Joe's girlfriend not to acknowledge her role. Again, this all varies - poly culture is complicated.
posted by linettasky at 8:09 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Once bread is toast, it can't be bread again.

Which is to say, sharing has consequences that cannot be undone.

What outcomes do you want after this conversation/introduction? How do you want your mom to feel about you (and joe. And you and joe)? How do you want to feel about yourself? And what impact might this conversation have on how your mom feels about herself?

What framing is most likely to accomplish those outcomes? What will you do if one or all of your hopes/plans for this conversations cannot be realized.

The answers to these questions may be different for everybody, and those responses can be used to choose your actions/words. I say it a lot, you make the best decisions you can with the information you have. Gathering a little more info about your internal state can really make decisions easier.
posted by bilabial at 9:56 PM on September 14, 2012

The line I draw with such conversations is: I say what I need to say in order to not feel like I am actively hiding who I am in conversation that is clearly carrying strong normative assumptions about my sex life. I say the minimum required, with each person, to meet that need and clarify that my existence is not congruent with what was assumed or stated. But I give every opening to each person to curtail the conversation there and change the subject.

With one exception: I'll discuss in depth with either, er, total strangers on the internet (*cough*), or else someone who's made extensive signals about wanting to escalate the conversation to mutual disclosure of all the unusual details of our respective sex lives (and those conversations should be mutual).
posted by ead at 10:55 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Let me give you some anecdata from the other side: although in many ways you and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum, our situations almost seem to dovetail from behind. I'm pretty theologically/morally conservative (although I'm a Leftist in various respects), and I have not had and will not be having premarital sex. I can count on one hand the people who know this about me in real life (generally, close friends who share my convictions), and my parents are not among that number. My parents raised me evangelical, so they may be able to guess (although they/we have had some odd religious peregrinations along the way, so perhaps not), but it's not something I share with them. Many of my acquaintances, from their remarks to me, clearly assume that I've slept with multiple people: I don't correct them, and also don't confirm or deny their assumptions at all, and when they probe for information about someone I'm in a relationship with, or seeing, or interested in, I leave things cheerfully vague.

This has nothing to do with me feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable by my behavior or beliefs, and everything to do with an extreme resistance to rendering my life - especially its most private aspects - a spectacle for public consumption. My sense is that whatever assumptions people want to make about my private life, those are completely their own business or problem, and I have no obligation to lay my private life bare by confirming or denying assumptions, or even to acknowledge those assumptions in any way. As I frame it in my own mind, this isn't really about me hiding something as it is about discretion. Especially since the advent of reality TV in the 1970s, we live in a profoundly mass-mediated culture, saturated in over-sharing and delighting in gleefully breaking down boundaries of personal privacy (the photos of the Duchess of Cambridge are a perfect and timely case in point).

If you want to volunteer this information, that's different - if you feel that it's something about yourself that you want your mother to know. (Whether she would want to know is another question; I personally have absolutely no desire to know about the fine print of my parents' sexual orientations or sex life, and assume they feel similarly about mine.) But I want to say that it's a perfectly legitimate choice not to want your family or certain friends or acquaintances to know about your sex life, and if your motivation for telling them is one of supposed obligation rather than desire to (rather like feeling obligated to correct all people being wrong on the internet), you certainly have my permission, as a stranger on the internet, to abdicate responsibility for setting people straight, and to omit all clarification on the subject and leave it perfectly vague and/or unaddressed. Whatever normative or ignorant assumptions people impose upon their imagination of your sex life (or lack thereof) are profoundly their own problem and not yours.
posted by UniversityNomad at 6:59 PM on September 15, 2012

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