" And they lived happily ever after.”
We’ve heard it since we were kids. We’ve heard it so often that we instantly know what it refers to - the perfect ending to the social script that we’ve been given since birth; Find your soulmate, marry them, have kids, live in a perpetual state of monogamous heterosexual bliss.
People who know much more about this than I do call it ‘allonormativity’ or ‘amatonormativity’- the social norms that create pressures for people to engage in sexual and romantic relationships and that privilege such relationships over any other type.
To have a better understanding of what the social pressures of this entails, I spoke to people who are most impacted by them, namely those who identify on the asexual and aromantic spectrum, also referred to as the aspec community.
Cate (she/her) is an activist with the Italian asexual and aromantic collective Rete Lettera A. She defined these pressures as “the idea that is part of our society, that asexual and aromantic people don’t exist, that sexual attraction and romantic attraction are intertwined and are an experience that all humans face, all humans feel”.
Bret (he/him) added, “You’re surrounded by sexual imagery. And it’s treated as though this is just what is normal as a whole. This is what individuals are supposed to like and be seeking.” This is particularly true for cis men, he said, because of “this idea that masculinity is tied up with sexual prowess”.
As Sophie (she/her) also put it, ”Society wants you to be with a partner, married, kids, the classic thing. So if you’re ace, aro or both, you don’t belong in the picture at all.”
This is why, for some aspec people, it might be difficult to even realise they’re on the spectrum. For Lorette (she/they), it comes down to the lack of information and representation - “Often, you don’t even know that it’s a possibility.” The fact that romance and sex are everywhere - in media, books, the law, or even just in adverts - makes it hard to believe that someone might not want them. “I always knew I wasn’t really interested in anyone, even when I was a kid, but I didn’t think it was a thing,” Lorette explained. “Like, I knew homosexuality was a thing. But I didn’t know that not being attracted to anyone was a thing. I thought it was just me. And then one day, I found the word.”
" I didn’t know that not being attracted to anyone was a thing. I thought it was just me. And then one day, I found the word.
Jan (he/him) described a similar feeling when first encountering the word. “I was reading about asexuality and I thought, ‘That’s me’. All the pieces came together… Also, I was a bit frustrated because back then I was 25 and I thought, ‘Why didn’t I notice it 10 years earlier?’”
Cate called the erasure of asexual and aromantic experiences an injustice. “So many people literally don’t know the words, don’t know that what they feel is something that exists, that is allowed to exist.”
This is why language is so important.
To name something is to make a space for it. The queer community as a whole is well known for challenging the limited ways we are given to describe love and attraction, and the aspec community is bringing this a step further. Their use of language is radical and nuanced: it creates spaces for identities who have been marginalised and, at the same time, it allows for ambiguity, fluidity and inclusivity. The fact that such language is open and fluctuating is what allows it to truly reflect the diversity of the community.
Lorette said, “I identify as aromantic and asexual. So for me, being aromantic is not feeling romantically attracted to anyone, and being asexual would be not feeling sexually attracted to anyone.”
Similarly, Jan replied, “The labels I use are ace-aro, a combination of asexual and aromantic”.
Cate described, “I’m what you’d call a biromantic asexual. As far as my romantic attraction is concerned, I am attracted to all genders, to more than one gender. But I feel sexual attraction towards no genders.
“I felt sexual attraction. Once. I am, if you want the microlabel, what you call a grey-sexual person: a person that falls under the ace spectrum, but actually very rarely feels sexual attraction.”
Although she specified that she normally uses the term ‘asexual’ for political reasons, “I hold the grey-sexual micro-label very dear to my heart, because it’s how I realised that I was asexual. Because when I felt that, I was like, ‘Okay, so this is the thing everybody’s talking about and I haven’t felt it for 25 years’.”
For Sophie, finding her identity was a process. “The first time I heard about ace, I only knew ace. It’s only literally a year ago that I understood that there were different ‘subcategories’ of it…it can be very confusing, because the definitions themselves are never really quite clear, but I resonated more with grey-aro, than with aro itself.”
Bret answered, “I identify as being asexual, and either bi or panromantic. So what that means to me is when it comes to overt sexual attraction, it’s not something I really experience…I know that there’s a lot of different variations in terms of how ace individuals feel regarding sex, being sex-repulsed, being indifferent, being positive… And I’d say I sit somewhere in the middle of that. It’s just not something that really interests me, and hasn’t interested me for as long as I can remember.”
One of the main misconceptions around asexuality which stems from the misguided tendency to conflate sexual orientation and sexual behaviour - is that all asexual people want nothing to do with sexual intercourse, ever. While this is true for some individuals, the entire asexual community does not feel the same.
Bret shared how depictions of sexual acts in movies or books just “don’t carry any sort of weight” for him. He added, “But in terms of sex with other individuals, I think it depends upon, for me, what my partner at the time would be looking for. And so I’ve had sex with individuals.” For him, it’s a matter of “focusing on the needs of the other person I might be in a romantic relationship with, but it’s not something that I am going to initiate.”
Lorette offered a different perspective. “I would put myself in the category of not interested, it grosses me out. Like, for example in movies, just people kissing makes me uncomfortable.” If they had to describe their feelings about it, they said it would be like asking: “Do you want to eat slugs?”
According to Cate, the misconception that all asexual people don’t want anything to do with sex stems from “the idea that two different concepts are actually the same thing”. These two different concepts are sexual attraction and sexual desire. “Sexual attraction is the feeling that drives me toward a person, a specific person that normally is of a certain gender, all genders, none.” Instead, she describes sexual desire as something “different, that is also physiological, that is created by different factors,” like hormonal factors, stress levels, and what type of life someone leads, to name a few.”
" To have a community that can understand, that can fight alongside me, is something I treasure so much...
“For example,” Cate continued, “when I was a teenager - because my hormones were crazy, I guess - I didn’t feel sexual attraction to people, but I still felt sexual desire…I felt sexual urges. I was curious. I felt at ease with the person I had a relationship with at the time. And so I tried, I explored it, I liked it. No problem. Right now I have a non-sexual relationship and to me it’s just as fine.”
“When allosexual people ask me, ‘Why would you have sex if you’re not sexually attracted to the person?,’ I doubt they have been having good sex because it should be pleasurable,” she joked. “Of course not everyone likes sex, but I did, so I would definitely do it again!”
To put it simply, Cate explained, “There are asexual people that are repulsed by sex, others that are not, but simply don’t want that, or are indifferent to it. Others are, as we say, ‘favourable’ because they like it.”
As Jan said, ”everyone is different in that, so just be true to yourself and to what you like and say what you don’t like. That’s really important as well.”
Bret commented, “I think it’s important for people outside the community and within to know that there’s not one way of identifying on what is considered the ‘asexual spectrum’ as a whole. And just because you meet one person that’s ace doesn’t mean that the same things are gonna apply to someone else who identifies as ace.”
When aspec people come out, Jan added, sometimes people have a tendency to negate it. “People don’t believe it or other people will just say I’m crazy or something like that.” Lorette also spoke about this lack of understanding from other people, saying, “Because romance and sexual attraction are everywhere, when you say to people that you’re not interested, not attracted sexually or romantically to people, they don’t really believe you, they are very sceptical of what you’re saying.”
Sophie shared, “When I did come out, it felt really like a relief, and at the same time [I felt] scared because then it meant, ‘Oh, I am those words. I am this person’. But does that mean I will fully be this all the time?”
Speaking about her own experience, Cate said, “I know I am very lucky, because I have been doing activism from almost as soon as I came out. I was lucky to have a lot of aspec people together with me. But I know it’s not always like that. I know that many people have difficulties coming out.”
Finding other people that have felt the same as you, finding a community - be it online or in person - can feel like a relief.
“When you start to realise that you feel different than others, you always feel like you’re by yourself, like the Ugly Duckling,” Sophie shared. Finding other people that talked about the same experiences made her feel like she wasn’t alone. “It was kind of nice to see that other people felt the same way and you weren’t just by yourself with those thoughts, positive or negative.”
Highlighting the importance of representation, Sophie mentioned how good it is to see more TV shows and movies portraying aspec characters. “If people write about us or show us on screen, then that means we actually will slowly start to have our place in society.”
“To have a community that can understand, that can fight alongside me, is something I treasure so much,” Cate said. “It feels like home. It feels like even when I feel very depressed and dejected, I’m not actually alone.”
Cate added, “Asexuality and aromanticism are very different experiences, but we ultimately share many of our political goals”. One of the most important contributions that aspec activism can bring to the table for everyone is a new way of conceiving relationships and “the radical idea that relationships should only be founded on consent”.
“Aspec orientations inherently challenge imposed monogamy, because they challenge the idea that we have to give each other everything, that one person is gonna give us all that we need.”
Bret also reflected on this: “Just because individuals might identify as ace or aro doesn’t mean that they’re not looking for deep connections with other individuals. And I think that’s the biggest part of it: that having human connection takes a lot of different forms and doesn’t have to look like the ways that are stereotypically presented.”
Describing his experience of a queer platonic partnership, he said, “I’ve been married to my partner for the past 10 years, she identifies as a lesbian. Our relationship is very much non-sexual, non-romantic, but deeply caring.”
Jan described, “I have a friend right now in Brazil. And we do not call it a relationship but friendship, but it is quite clearly a queer platonic relationship. Like we’re calling each other every week a few times…We tell each other all things about our daily life.
“I’m really aromantic, that other guy is ‘some kind of romantic’. So we have some different levels and we have to face it. And I thought it would be really good just to let things grow and not put pressure on things.”
“I personally think that so many things we advocate for are important also for people that are not asexual, or are not aromantic. As aspec people, deconstructing allonormativity is something we need, it’s about survival to us,” Cate said. “But the aspec perspective on relationship, sex and consent can also be truly revolutionary for the whole queer movement. For everyone, actually.”