In a freshers' week haze many years ago, I dated a boy whose bed sat parallel to a mirrored wardrobe. Once, when we were having sex, I caught my attention shifting from his face to my reflection.
"You like that?" he asked.
I didn’t know what to say. He’d caught me watching myself enjoy an experience which women are often criticized for enjoying, and I felt humiliated.
The mirror incident seemed insignificant and yet this boy’s question left me feeling exposed, as if he’d walked in on a private moment. Which was ironic, as we’d just had sex. I was horrified that he thought I found myself attractive enough to stare at, and confused about why I’d found my reflection so distracting.
I didn't think about that night again, perhaps out of shame, perhaps out of confusion. Most likely it was a general misunderstanding of its importance. I filed it away under memories to keep hidden at the back of my brain. Until we went into lockdown.
For me, lockdown was an immensely unsexy time. I traveled back to my childhood bedroom to finish my degree and wrote my final essays about repressed Victorian novels, surrounded by soft toys and my parents' framed Coldplay tour poster. In a time when I should’ve been wearing Zara mini dresses and picking up men in Newcastle clubs, I was back home, where the most action I’d get would be the Joe Wicks workout every morning.
The banning of physical contact with those outside your bubble forced my relationships to turn digital. But I soon realized that taking provocative photos of myself in the mirror was more enjoyable than receiving them from men. Here we are again, I thought, feeling increasingly confused. Back at a mirror.
I didn’t understand how, in a time when hairdressers were closed and I was living in elasticated trousers, I could view myself as sexy and — even more strangely — sexy to the point where it eclipsed the attraction I felt towards someone else. So one day, in between clapping for carers and ordering reusable masks from Etsy, I turned to Google to make sense of my experience. The term that emerged was 'autosexuality'.
People who identify as autosexual are often more aroused by themselves than by a partner so may prefer masturbation to penetration, or enjoy sexual encounters where they can watch themselves in mirrors — either independently or with partners. You can still want to please a partner and enjoy sex with them but overall you feel that you have a more satisfying experience alone.
This doesn’t mean that autosexuals can’t have fulfilling sexual relationships with partners. Like all sexualities, it’s a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, autosexuals may exclusively prefer private and independent sexual experiences; at the other, they may be aroused by taking nudes or by their own sex noises without impacting their attraction towards their partner.
Another big misconception (and perhaps why I felt so uncomfortable during the mirrored wardrobe incident) is that autosexuality is synonymous with narcissism. In reality, autosexual tendencies emerge even on days of low self-confidence. It feels embarrassing to say "I feel sexually attracted to myself" when you don’t feel attractive enough to be attracted to yourself. But this ties into the wider misogyny surrounding female pleasure.
We occupy a culture where women who show even an ounce of confidence, self-love or acceptance are labeled vain and, in turn, female pleasure becomes taboo. Obviously, autosexuality isn’t exclusively a woman's experience but perhaps men navigate it with less guilt as they’re raised to be autonomous sexual beings in ways that women aren’t.
But once I knew there was a word for how I felt — and had been reassured that I wasn’t a Patrick Bateman-level narcissist — I used lockdown to explore autosexuality and unlearn my own internalized fear surrounding pleasure.
Since lockdown has lifted, I’ve felt simultaneously excited and nervous about dating again. The excitement stems from no longer worrying about impressing men because I feel liberated knowing that even if our dates don't go well, I'll always have myself to go home with afterwards. After a lifetime of patriarchal, co-dependent relationships, this feels so refreshing.
The nerves arise because our society prioritizes male pleasure; even porn finishes when the man does. And so I worry that future partners will feel intimidated by my autosexuality. Therefore, it’s not something I’ve openly discussed so far, but my attitude towards sex is a lot more positive. Knowing my body has boosted my confidence and helped me to communicate better. Crucially, if I find my attention drifting away from my partner while we're being intimate, I no longer feel guilty.
I’m looking forward to the day when I can fully integrate autosexuality into my sex life; until then, I’m reveling in this newfound self-reliance. As a woman, taking ownership of my body and its turn-ons feels like the tool I needed to overcome years of disappointing sex with men. Whether you're autosexual or not, lockdown has taught me that the most important relationship is with yourself.