Curious about what asexuality (aka ace) means? And the difference between romantic orientation and sexual orientation? Get comfy. Because there’s a lot of nuanced info coming your way about the “A” in LGBTQIA+.
Spoiler alert: Asexuality and aromanticism are not the same. And where you fall on each spectrum is probably different from where someone else does. So whether you’re wondering about yourself, trying to be a good ally, or just want to casually send this article to your aunt who won’t stop asking you questions that are way too personal — we gotchu.
What does it mean to be asexual?
Here are the basics: Being asexual means experiencing little to no sexual attraction toward others. “Asexuality is a sexual orientation when a human has little or no desire to engage sexually,” says Dr. Lori Lawrenz, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sexual health at the Center for Sexual and Reproductive Health in Honolulu, Hawaii. “Asexuality is sometimes confused with abstinence or celibacy, which are different concepts, and involve a volitional choice — as opposed to a more fixed manner of being, and experiencing and engaging with sexual themes.” Plus, asexual people can still choose to have sex for a variety of personal reasons.
And there’s a lot more nuance to the term. “There are multiple dimensions and all of them have a spectrum,” says writer and editor Lily Herman, who has written about sexuality and started asexual and aromantic digital communities. “And every single person's experience can be wildly different, under the same umbrella.” Herman also identifies on the asexuality spectrum and is heteroromantic (meaning romantically attracted to the opposite gender).
What is the asexual spectrum?
Asexuality is both a sexual orientation and a spectrum. Herman and Dr. Lawrenz identify this spectrum as: sex repulsed, sex neutral (or indifferent), sex favorable, and sex positive.
“Sex repulsed people typically are not interested in pretty much any forms of physical contact,” Herman says. “And not just including sex. Some sex-repulsed people don't even want to be hugged or kissed, even in a non-sexual way.” Whereas someone who is sex neutral has “a neutral response to sexual themes, often thought of indifference,” says Dr. Lawrenz. And she explains that sex positive means that an asexual person “views sexual themes as healthy and good” even if they don’t have much or any interest in sex themselves.
But asexual people can and do still experience sexual attraction at times. Some people on the asexual spectrum, Herman points out, might only experience sexual attraction (and occasionally have sex) in specific cases — for example, demisexual (an identity within ace spectrum), is where a person only experiences sexual attraction with someone who they have developed a strong emotional connection with.
And within the spectrum live many different ace identities. Like...
Graysexual: Where a person falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between sexuality and asexuality. “That might mean that their sexual attraction in certain circumstances differ on the individual,” says Herman. “As the title suggests, it’s a little more of a gray area.”
Demisexual: Where someone does not experience primary sexual attraction (meaning attraction based on first impressions), but may experience sexual attraction over time, with someone they have a deep emotional connection with.
Reciprosexual: Where someone only experiences sexual attraction with someone if they know that person is sexually attracted to them.
Akiosexual: Where someone who can feel sexual attraction but does not want those feelings returned.
Aceflux: Where someone’s sexual attraction changes over time.
Allosexual (allo), on the other hand, means someone who does experience sexual attraction — and is not on the ace spectrum.
“A lot of times people act like this is such a a big, strange concept, when in reality we all have plenty of people that we are not sexually attracted to,” Herman says.
And what is aromanticism?
Aromanticism (aro) is a romantic orientation that means someone does not experience romantic attraction towards another person of any gender.
Important: Romantic orientation and sexual orientation are different, according to the split-attraction model, which divides romantic and sexual orientations into separate categories — and they may or may not align. Romantic orientation refers to how a person feels or does not feel romantic feelings towards another, regardless of sexual orientation, while sexual orientation refers to the gender(s) that a person is sexually attracted to. Simply put: “An aromantic person is not interested in romance, an asexual person is not interested in sex,” Dr. Lawrenz says. But people can fall into any number of different combinations of romantic and sexual orientations. More on that below.
Two people who both identify as aromantic might identify in completely different ways. “Similar to how you have ace people who have sex, you also do have aro people who enter into relationships,” Herman says. And there are several other romantic orientations, too. Like…
Biromantic: The romantic attraction towards men and women. It’s different from bisexuality, which refers to the sexual attraction.
Heteroromantic: The romantic attraction towards people of a different gender.
Panromantic: The romantic attraction towards people of any gender.
Gray-romantic: Someone who doesn’t usually experience romantic attraction, but can under certain circumstances.
Demi-romantic: Someone who only experiences romantic attraction towards another person after developing an emotional connection with them.
When and how do asexuality and aromanticism overlap?
Someone who identifies as asexual and aromantic doesn’t typically experience sexual attraction or romantic attraction to others. They can fall anywhere on the two spectrums. And as Dr. Lawrenz points out, they’re not mutually exclusive. “One can be aromantic and asexual at the same time, or be asexual and seek romance with another, or aromantic and seek a sexual relationship with another,” she says.
What does “asexual romanticism” mean?
Someone who identifies as ace and romantic, meaning they have no interest in a sexual relationship but are interest in a romantic one. And some could identify as aromantic, but still experience sexual attraction to others.
How do you know if you’re on the asexual spectrum?
“There is no shame in being an asexual or aromantic person,” Dr. Lawrenz says. And deciding what your romantic and sexual orientations are is deeply personal. If you’re wondering if you are asexual, Herman says a lot of introspection, plus therapy, are helpful for understanding your own identity.
Herman recommends reading books and watching movies and TV shows that represent people in the asexuality space. Like “Ace,” by Angela Chen. And books by author Alice Oseman, an openly asexual writer who wrote the “Heartstopper” books and series, and “has written ace and aro characters,” Herman says. And author Claire Kann, who also writes asexual characters.
And don’t be afraid to set some boundaries, says Dr. Lawrenz. “Just because someone is asexual does not mean they need to be an ‘asexual ambassador’ and explain their sexuality and asexuality to curious others. Set boundaries, discuss what is comfortable, educate yourself."
Herman also suggests not over-defining yourself. “I feel like that you don't need to necessarily label yourself to a granular level,” she says. “I think it's very easy, especially in a lot of queer culture, to want to get so hyper-specific to be able to prove that you know exactly what you are. And it's okay if you keep it very open.”
There is no one definition for asexuality or aromanticism that fits everyone — which is why it’s considered a spectrum. And knowing as much as possible about the different identities can help reduce stigma and correct misconceptions. “Another big misconception is the idea that ace people must be broken or unable to love in some sort of way,” Herman says. “And not just even romantically, just generally. That really can't be further from the truth.”
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