One of the best surprises of my survey on unconventional relationships were the many thoughtful responses I received from people who are asexual — that is, they experience little or no sexual attraction. Sex typically plays little or no role in the deep bonds of love and commitment that asexual people form in relationships. I treasured these responses because they made me think very, very hard about the nature of intimacy, connection, and relationships.
Asexuality is a rich and varied part of the full spectrum of human sexual expression. Nearly 9% of my survey respondents indicated that they fall somewhere on the asexuality (“ace”) spectrum, or the aromantic (“aro”) spectrum. (Aromatic people don’t generally experience the intense emotional fluctuations that most people associate with “falling in love,” although they can experience deep love and intimacy.)
Being asexual is an orientation, like being straight or gay. So why, then, do I say that intimate relationships where sex is absent (or unimportant to bonding) represent a step off the traditional Relationship Escalator — while same-sex marriage does not?
In writing my book, I had to make an interesting judgement call on this. In analyzing over 1000 surveys, it became clear that sex for bonding is generally considered an inextricable part of the traditional intimate relationships. That is, if you’re riding the Escalator, it’s presumed that you and your partner do share sexual attraction and intimacy — as well as that you do not have sex with anyone else. And even though sex commonly withers in long-term monogamy, it’s assumed that Escalator partners did have sex at some point, and that this was an important part of the bond they formed.
In contrast, nonsexual relationships (whether they involve people who consider themselves asexual by orientation or not), tend to be viewed as as “just” friends, rather than “real” relationships. This typically puts them on a lesser scale under social norms, even if they are deeply emotionally intimate, committed, and enduring. Thus, social norms unfortunately tend to devalue the love that asexual people hold most dear.
Several asexual people shared eloquent stories of their lives through my survey. No one story reflects the entirety of asexuality, of course — but I was quite struck by this one, from Marie:
“In high school I had a long distance relationship with a fellow asexual. At the time, I considered it a typical romantic relationship — although in retrospect, I don’t think the presence of romantic attraction from either of us would have made any difference. Because, romantic or not, we loved each other and wanted to have a life together. We were both asexual and we both wanted to live a celibate life. Had we been in the same location, we would’ve had a highly sensual and physically intimate but nonsexual relationship, since we’re both big fans of sensual touch.
“Later, in another relationship, we were never an official ‘couple’ — but it was definitely a romantic friendship during the first year we knew each other. That friend was a straight boy my age. I came out to him as asexual as soon as we met, so he knew I wasn’t exactly a possibility for a stereotypical romantic-sexual girlfriend at any point. However, we were powerfully drawn to each other immediately, and our relationship was intensely emotional.
“He and I also were much more physically affectionate than typical friends, since we’re both very tactile and highly value physical affection. We hugged a lot, we cuddled a few times. He would kiss my neck and give me massages.
“During this first year of our friendship, he dated two other girls — and his second romantic relationship devastated me at the time. I was very sensitive to being subordinated by sexual partners of my sexual friends. I was sufficiently hurt that I immediately broke off our relationship without discussion. He was deeply hurt by my abandonment, even while he should have been in the initial honeymoon phase of his new romance. Two years later, he and I eventually rekindled our friendship — but thus far it’s been an ordinary friendship, no longer a romantic one.
“For me, the best part about these relationship experiences was that they contained so many elements of what I’ve always really wanted. I’ve always wanted passionate friendship — and I’ve had a specific, powerful attraction to nonsexual love which surpasses ordinary friendship in terms of emotional intensity and physical intimacy.
“When I was a younger, many of my relationship difficulties came down to language. My friend and I had no framework easily and universally familiar to both of us that we could look at and say, ‘Okay, this is how we should conduct this relationship.’ Or, ‘This is what this means, this is how we feel,’ etc.
“Language is tremendously important. I have it now, but only because I’ve been more heavily involved in the ace community in recent years. So I’m now educated and old enough to have come up with my own language; I didn’t have it in the past. And I think that was one of the main reasons I couldn’t get most people to understand where I was coming from — either the people I wanted to be intimate with, was intimate with, or with onlookers.
“As an asexual person, obviously it’s most comfortable for me to be in nonsexual relationships. Also, as someone who experiences love passionately and prizes physical affection more than any other expression of love, my nonsexual intimate relationships have been very close to my ideal. They are the types of relationships that resonate with who I really am; the kind that excite me and make me happy — and also the kind that give me the freedom to be myself.
“It’s also gratifying as hell to be involved with a fellow asexual person — to know that I’m making that person feel loved. I’m giving them the same freedom and comfort to be who they are, to live out their natural preference for celibacy, while still getting love. This is one reason why, now in my adult life, I only wish to be intimately involved with other celibate asexuals.
“If I’m involved with a sexual person who wants to (or tries to) have a normative dating or sex life, their relationship with me can be a practical and emotional problem. This is yet another reason why I now only consider celibate asexuals or aromantics for intimate partners.
“Most people probably aren’t going to get my asexuality. They’re going to misinterpret what my relationships mean — how I feel about my friend, how my friend feels about me, etc.
“Asexual and aromantic visibility is a huge deal to me — not just because I’m ace, or for visibility’s own sake. It’s because I believe raising visibility for the ace and aro communities heavily corresponds with a rethinking of love and relationships.
“I’d also like more visibility for cross-orientation sexual people. I really want to be a part of a movement that supports and promotes lifelong celibacy as a relationship/love choice — completely disconnected from religion and sex moralism. Especially so that asexuals who genuinely desire to can more easily be celibate for life, or have nonsexual love.
“I want the concept of nonsexual love, of passionate friendship, of nonsexual and/or nonromantic partnerships and tribes to become a widespread reality. I’d love to get the word out about relationship anarchy and simply expand vocabulary we all have when it comes to relationships, love, sexuality, etc.”
I will be covering some basics about asexual relationships (as well as important nonsexual intimate relationships involving people who do desire sex, just not with each other) in a chapter in my book. And throughout my book, you’ll hear asexual and aromantic voices on a variety of topics. But I can only scratch the surface, of course. If you’re seeking more insight into what it means to be asexual or aromantic, I recommend AVEN, the Asexuality Visibility and Awareness Network.
…Many thanks to Kathleen, who requested a post about asexuality in this blog.
Would you like a post about a specific unconventional relationship topic? I’ve compiled a massive library of quotes drawn from my survey. Please look over that list and suggest a topic that interests you. I’ll tell you what people said about it in my survey — like I did today, for Karen!