As someone who identifies as gray asexual—meaning I don’t experience sexual attraction except in a very rare, once in a blue moon case—I see a lot of misconceptions about asexuality and aromanticism, everywhere. I also see a lot of erasure, whether that’s in the form of outright denying that people can be asexual or aromantic, or in the subtler form of portraying sex and romance as life necessities.
Until I was 19, I didn’t know what asexuality was and had never heard of aromanticism. My only exposure to asexuality was in the context of jokes and dismissals about how people couldn’t be asexual—that asexual reproduction was something bacteria did, that people who thought they were asexual didn’t know what they were talking about. This erasure of asexuality—combined with compulsory heterosexuality and the glorification of sex and romance—is part of the reason why it took me years to realize, at age 22, that I belong on the asexual spectrum myself.
Today, I am much more critical of the media I consume and much more conscious of the ways mainstream culture erases asexuality and aromanticism. I can’t help but notice it all the time—on TV shows, in blog posts, and even in conversations with my own friends. For the longest time, I bought into these messages and assumed that my lack of attraction was due to my own selectiveness—that I was an overly picky straight woman, and that was why I hadn’t ever dated anyone. Now that I understand my identity and why it took me so long to get here, I want to address some of the most common ways people erase asexual and aromantic people and suggest how to be more inclusive.
1. Assuming ace (asexual) and aro (aromantic) people “just need to get out there” and “find the right person.”
When I meet up with friends who I haven’t seen in a long time, one of the questions they often ask me is, “Are you seeing anyone?” or “How’s your dating life?” I know it’s just casual conversation, and they don’t mean anything by it. After all, I don’t tell every single one of my friends that I am on the asexual spectrum. Still, every time someone asks me that, I am reminded of the foreignness of my gray asexuality in a world where dating is commonplace and, to some degree, the social expectation.
I don’t date because I don’t have any interest in it. I don’t experience attraction to other people, and I have no need or desire for a sexual or romantic relationship. Yet, when I tell people that I don’t date, they usually assume it’s for one of the following reasons: I’m choosing to focus on my career right now, dating isn’t a priority, or I’m just not ready for a relationship. All of those reasons imply that not-dating is only a temporary state for me, and that I will either start dating or get in a romantic relationship at some point in the future. None of those reasons acknowledge the possibility that I may never want to date or have a romantic partner.
With the exception of the few friends I know who understand asexuality and aromanticism, I am painfully aware that most people in my life expect me to eventually meet “the right person” who is going to change my mind about dating and romantic love. I hear it all the time—that I needed to be “open-minded” and “give people a chance.” But they are missing the point. It doesn’t matter how many people I meet if I don’t experience attraction, and more importantly, it doesn’t mean I’m missing out on anything.
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2. Pitying ace and aro people or their partners.
Sometimes, when I try to explain asexuality and aromanticism to people who have never heard of the concept before, they respond with statements along the lines of “Wow, that is so sad” or “I could never live like that.” Projecting your own feelings on to someone else’s sexuality is unnecessary at best and oppressive at worst. Asexual and aromantic people are perfectly capable of living happy, fulfilling lives—whether they are single or have partners, whether they are sexually active or not.
Even worse is when people go as far as to pity the partners of asexual and aromantic people—saying things like “I could never date someone like that” or “How is that fair to the other person?” Asexual and aromantic are not burdens on their partners, and to imply that they are is wrong and hurtful. In every relationship, people have their own ways of expressing love and intimacy—why should that be any different when that relation involves an asexual or aromantic partner?
3. Calling ace and aro folks “special snowflakes.”
After I realized I was on the asexual spectrum, I didn’t say anything about it to anyone for at least a year. I was afraid people wouldn’t believe me or that people would think I was using a made-up term to make myself feel special or different. This attitude towards asexual and aromantic people is common, especially to those of us who don’t fall squarely into either one of those categories.
I shouldn’t have to justify my identity, but I want to explain the importance of having a word that describes who you are. I don’t experience sexual attraction as a general rule; I haven’t felt attracted to anyone in at least the past four years. That is why I identify as gray asexual—because while I know I’ve experienced attraction before in my life, I haven’t felt it at all since my teenage years. It’s important for me to have that word because, in a culture dominated by compulsory heterosexuality, gray asexuality is the only thing that I can relate to. It helps me make sense of my experiences, and it helps me know that I’m not alone. Let’s not call people special snowflakes simply for finding and creating the words to describe their lived experiences.
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4. Tying sexuality to humanity, or saying that sex is an essential part of being human.
This is a problem I see all the time within the sex positivity movement. After decades of sex-negative messaging in our culture, I understand the motivation and the need to normalize sex and sexual desire. But this shouldn’t come at the expense of asexual folks. When we say that sex is what makes us human, we are excluding asexual folks and everyone who doesn’t desire or engage in sex.
The truth is that there are many people who don’t experience sexual attraction or have a sex drive; for some asexual folks, it’s both. In fact, some asexual people are sex-repulsed and have no desire to engage in sexual activity at all. It doesn’t make them any less human or their experiences any less valid. Sex positivity often emphasizes that sex is “great” and “normal” while rarely ever acknowledging that it’s also completely normal and human to not want sex as well. Real, inclusive sex positivity should not portray sex as normative; instead, it should express the reality that not everyone experiences sexual attraction, not everyone has a sex drive, and not everyone desires sex—and that is all okay.
5. Treating sex and/or romance as the pinnacle of happiness.
I’m convinced that the main reason behind asexual and aromantic erasure is the widespread belief that we need sex and romance in our lives to be happy. Growing up, this belief is something we take in everywhere—television, young adult novels, all the way down to the way we were raised. The romantic comedy genre is full of different tropes telling us all the reasons why we need romantic love in our lives. Even in conversations with our families, from the time we are young, it seems that marriage is a foregone conclusion in our future.
When I tell people that I don’t see myself getting married, they usually react with either disbelief—“You can’t know what’s going to happen in the future”—or concern—“Everyone needs someone, you can’t spend the rest of your life alone.” It has taken me a very long time to deconstruct these messages I’ve taken in my whole life about sex and romantic love. I once felt that I was missing out on something in life because I had never been in a romantic relationship, but now I know better. I am capable of being happy without either romance or sex in my life, ever—I wish people would acknowledge that more often.
Now that you know some of the common ways ace and aro folks face erasure, here’s what you should do instead.
Once, I told a friend that I might be asexual, and her reaction was, “Yeah, I can see that.” I remember this conversation clearly because it was the first time someone had reacted to my gray asexuality in a way where I felt heard. That’s the most important thing. When someone tells you they are asexual or aromantic, or somewhere along that continuum, make sure that they feel heard, that you acknowledge the reality of their experience.
If you don’t understand something, it’s okay to ask. There are many misconceptions about asexuality and aromanticism out there. Personally, I don’t mind explaining to people what it means to be gray asexual or what it means to have a sex drive but not feel sexual attraction. But keep in mind the emotional labor you’re asking for, and be sure to make the effort to learn about asexuality and aromanticism yourself.
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