One of the most important advances in our understanding of sexuality occurred fairly recently, when the concept of asexuality became recognized, studied, and accepted.
Asexuals, we now know, are people who do not experience sexual attraction. American society has been so preoccupied with sex for so long, and so sure that sex was part of a healthy romantic relationship and a healthy life, that many people’s initial reaction to learning about asexuality was to dismiss it. They either denied that it exists, or they demeaned the people who identify as asexual — for example, by suggesting that they have a sexual disorder or that their lack of interest in sex is a symptom of some other pathology. By now, though, a decade of research has been conducted, and neither of those stigmatizing interpretations has prevailed. Asexuality is a sexual orientation, not a sexual dysfunction.
Once a phenomenon or group of people is newly recognized, a typical next step is the realization that not everyone in the group is alike. Asexuals are a diverse group, and one of the most important ways they differ is in the extent to which they experience romantic attraction — aromantic people, for example, experience little or no romantic attraction.
Asexual + Aromantic = 4 Groups
According to the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN):
People who do not experience sexual attraction (asexuals) may or may not experience romantic attraction. Similarly, people who do not experience romantic attraction (aromantics) may or may not experience sexual attraction. That means we have four categories to consider:
1. Romantic Sexuals. We used to think that just about everyone fits in this category, just as we used to think that just about everyone was heterosexual.
2. Romantic Asexuals. Romantic asexuals experience romantic attraction, but not sexual attraction. In a study of nine asexual women, seven said that a romantic relationship was the same as a sexual relationship, only without the sex. One romantic asexual woman who participated in the study said that to her, an emotional bond is what matters most, and she described her relationship with her asexual boyfriend as such: “For us, it is more about talking, searching solutions, and communicating ... love is the most important part.”
3. Aromantic Sexual. Aromantic sexual people do not experience romantic attraction, but they do experience sexual attraction. As another participant in the study said, “The feeling of being in love ... I don’t experience that when I engage in sexual behaviors.”
4. Aromantic Asexual. People who are aromantic asexual do not experience romantic attraction or sexual attraction, but they may care very much about relationships in the bigger, broader sense of the word, and they do experience love. As Buzzfeed noted in a terrific article on myths about aromanticism, people who are aromantic can “feel love as deeply and intensely as romantic people.” They can “love their friends, their family, their children, their pets, themselves, and their partners.” Theirs is an expansive, open-hearted love, not a narrow, romantic-only variety.
Physical affection is not the same as sex, and aromantic asexual people differ in their interest in physical intimacy. Some don’t want any touching at all. Others might enjoy holding hands or hugging or cuddling. Still others are somewhere in between.
The term “queerplatonic” is sometimes used to mean “a relationship that’s more than friends, but less than romantic," but I don’t like the implication that romance is somehow above friendship. “Squish” is a similar concept with a better definition: “the platonic equivalent of a romantic crush.”
Did You Believe in Amatonormativity?
When you first heard about asexuality or aromanticism, was your immediate reaction negative? As the Buzzfeed article noted, there’s an understandable reason for that. You’ve probably internalized the pervasive and largely unquestioned “amatonormativity” assumption. Professor Elizabeth Brake described that in her book, Minimizing Marriage (which I discussed here).
Amatonormativity, Brake explains, is “the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.”
That’s not what Brake believes; it is what she is critiquing. Amatonormativity, she argues, results in “the sacrifice of other relationships to romantic love and marriage and relegates friendship and solitudinousness to cultural invisibility.”
The thing about invisibility, though, is that it can come undone. People who used to stay quiet about valuing close friendships or family relationships more than marriage or romance can start speaking up. Reporters take notice, and they write stories. Bloggers share their experiences. Online groups appear. Books get published.
The same thing is happening with regard to people who like being alone. See, for example, the book Alone: The Badass Psychology of People Who Like Being Alone.
The proliferation of new concepts sometimes seems dizzying. In a previous post, I defined 60 sex-relevant terms. Working on that list made my head hurt. Ultimately, though, what is happening is a good thing: Humans are no longer being forced into a narrow set of culturally approved options for living their sex lives or their love lives. I wouldn’t say that the full range of our humanity has finally been recognized, but we are growing closer to that ideal.