Conor Hilton was back from his Latter-day Saint two-year service to Lithuania in 2017 and living with a couple of mission buddies when he noticed subtle differences between himself and them in the sexually charged atmosphere of church dating.
They were at Brigham Young University and all presumably obeying the no-premarital sex rule dictated by the school’s owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it was considerably easier for him than for his friends.
Indeed, Hilton had no trouble resisting sexual temptations. He didn’t have any. Neither the sight of beautiful girls nor naked photos of either sex would arouse him.
Still, there was enormous social pressure to find and marry an “eternal companion.”
So the English major began searching for some explanations of his experience and found a blog post from BYU’s USGA (Understanding Sexuality, Gender and Allyship) that described being “asexual.” It’s the “A” in the LGBTQIA alphabet and is commonly referred to as “ace.”
It gave him language and a framework to place his experience. He then told a few friends in the queer community, as well as his parents.
“I feel love for people, love of varying shades and degrees, but never sexual love,” Hilton writes in his essay on coming out. “I know it seems for many/most/some people that romantic and sexual love are synonymous (or at least closely related), but that’s not true for me. I mean, love is a messy, complicated thing (and this seems to make it messier and more complicated).”
He didn’t think it would matter that much to be out publicly, he says, “but it really felt like living more true to myself.”
“It was,” he says, “liberating.”
Then Hilton sent that message into the online Latter-day Saint universe, offering to discuss his experience with anyone who reached out.
Cecelia Proffit was among the responders.
While Latter-day Saint teachings expect couples to be chaste before marriage, as soon as they say, “I do,” they are told that sex is a “holy, divine, celestial act.”
Marriage and family are essential to reach the highest degree of heaven in this theology, so singles in the church feel constant pressure to pair up and make commitments for eternity.
Researcher ben Brandley and rhetoric scholar Leland Spencer recently conducted a survey about asexuality “by drawing data from interviews and online posts to study how Latter-day Saint ace people navigate romantic and sexual pressures toward marriage,” according to a report by Religion News Service. “Many participants reported hearing frequent anti-queer messages from religious leadership and family members, which sometimes led them to internalize shame and self-hatred.”
One participant was told that “asexuality is evidence of the devil working in my life.”
Given these pressures, the report says, “many ace Latter-day Saints can feel stuck, lonely and even traumatized.”
And that could have been the Hilton/Proffit experience — had they not found each other.
Proffit also didn’t have a word for her feelings until she read Hilton’s blog post.
She had learned in high school what being gay or lesbian meant but was unaware of any other orientations. Plus, having a lack of desire seemed to fit in with the message she was getting at church. Unlike boys, who are being told constantly to keep their sexual feelings under control, she says, girls are taught not to “tempt the boys.”
Chastity Nights were no problem for her.
At BYU after her mission, though, her friends were all talking about their first kiss, their celebrity crushes, what their dream guy was like and their dating patterns.
“I didn’t have any,” Proffit says. “People think you’re lying or withholding. You start to feel weird and left out.”
When she came across Hilton’s coming-out story, it resonated with her.
She messaged him, and they met.
Latter-day Saint culture “really values heterosexuality and marriage,” she says. “Mormonism talks about sex as the highest and most holy experience. I had never felt those attractions. Having someone to talk to about that was nice.”
They became friends, then dated for quite a while before they kissed — which was a conscious choice.
Eventually, they married and now have two young children ages 2 and 4.
An ace marriage
It was Hilton and Proffit’s shared ace queerness that brought them together.
They both had a sense of being outside the norm, but there is a “broad range of attitudes and approaches toward sex within the ace community,” says Hilton, who is working on a doctorate in English at the University of Iowa. “Some can identify as sex-repulsed, sex-neutral and sex-positive.”
Hilton and Proffit weren’t sure where they’d fall on that spectrum, but they were curious to explore the possibilities.
And that openness, Hilton says, “has been good for all sorts of intimacy in our relationship.”
For this pair, sex is more chosen than spontaneous.
“We decide the way that sexual intimacy can be performed,” he says, “not in a fake performance, but in something you are creating together.”
Sexual behavior is not the same as sexual attraction, Hilton says, so their relationship has been an unexpected joy.
“I rarely experience sexual attraction — meaning I am and have only ever been sexually attracted to one person,” Hilton wrote in his blog after six months of marriage, “and that sexual attraction was a secondary attraction, developing after an intensely close emotional bond was developed and a variety of other attractions were in the works (aesthetic, intellectual, sensual, etc.).”
His marriage is “a grace,” he wrote. “Not all aces will or want to get married and that’s fine. A year ago, I was pretty sure I would never get married, but here we are. Life is full of surprises. I am incredibly grateful for the marriage I have and for my relationship with Cec. I cannot imagine my life without her in it, now that she’s become a part of it. I love her. I love her with all my might, mind, heart, body, and soul.”
Is asexuality a disease?
Many Latter-day Saints don’t realize that they are not having the same feelings as their peers, says Proffit, who does social media and marketing for various Mormon and Mormon-adjacent groups. “They think they may be late-in-life lesbians or bisexual.”
Many people think sexual attraction is all or nothing, but there is actually a spectrum of folks on the ace spectrum.
Still, there are not a lot of spaces in the church, she says, that are “ace-friendly.”
Those who have this orientation “feel a lot of shame in some circles,” Proffit says, while others treat them like asexuality is “an absence to be cured.”
Liberal progressive people sometimes “just see us as repressed,” she says. “But we are not freaks, and there is nothing wrong with us.”
In a lot of ways, Proffit says, “it’s a blessing.”
There are some unique elements of “the ace Mormon experience that differ from other queer Mormon experiences,” Hilton says. “And they can all be positive.”
Hilton contends it could help many non-ace Latter-day Saints break out of some damaging scripts and behavior.
By making sex a choice, rather than an impulse or inescapable drive, he says, it underscores the importance of consent and mutuality.
Their intimacy doesn’t require a sexual “spark” to ignite it, he says. The fire is built on the attraction of intelligence, wit, humor and emotional connectedness.
Not a bad model.
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