i’m ace. nice to meet you.
of course, when people say that you probably just smile and nod and assume they’re informing you they’re somewhere in the panoply of queerness that encompasses a huge portion of modern society. and in a way i guess that’s probably the case. but asexuality is about sexual orientation in the same way you can fornicate your way into the roman-catholic priesthood. they say absence makes the heart grow fonder. but abstinence generally makes the society incomprehensible — and your friends confused.
when i say ace (pronounced the way the first card in any suit is), i mean asexual. this is usually paired (and in my case it is) with being aro, aromantic. aro, by the way, shouldn’t sound like the beginning of words about space travel. it’s like the thing you shoot at a target — an arrow. while there are various ways to approach the definition of this word, i’ll give you two options, one i call “pure asexuality”, the other “flexible asexuality”, though these are my terms for them and if you use them you’ll probably need to explain them — or at least direct people to my explanations — or they might be even more confused. people often talk about the “asexuality spectrum” but this is a bad way to look at it. it’s not a spectrum. it’s an absolute with an option for variability and these aren’t really the same things.
let’s start with pure asexuality — because this is in many ways easier to describe and i’m one of them so it’s easier for me to explore than the alternative, which i have never been able to relate to.
when you ask me a question like “do you want to have sex?”, my immediate reaction is “no” and this generally continues to be more like “i’d prefer dental surgery but i care deeply about you…” or “stabbing myself repeatedly in the face would be preferable but i suppose if you insist and you’re going to leave me if i don’t…”.
a pure asexual has no sexual feelings. that doesn’t mean you don’t experience physical sexual feelings — if you’re a guy, for example, you will still get erections. you can orgasm. but the feeling isn’t something you desire or pursue. and you don’t feel sexual attraction. not ever. it’s not that it’s hard or rare. it’s that it simply doesn’t happen. you can appreciate beauty and art. but looking at a beautiful person is the same as looking at an exquisite statue or painting — you are appreciating it on an aesthetic level and want to be close to it simply because it’s beautiful. you don’t want fleshy parts to have to be inserted in body parts or digital stimulation to occur. this is a visual experience. like going to a museum. if you try to mount the statue in the lobby of your local art gallery, i guarantee it won’t end well for you (or, likely, the statue). that’s how someone like me, a pure asexual, feels about other humans. see, love, but hands-off. it’s the museum-distance approach to human beauty.
asking a pure asexual to have sex is a bit like asking a non-cannibal if they’d like a little of the human you’re eating. it’s not just rude — it’s unimaginably disgusting and generally traumatic. it’s a bit more extreme than that but that’s probably the closest i can describe to an experience you can imagine. i’ll give another example. imagine your life-partner comes home and smiles at you and says “i got some powdered arsenic at the store — can we make some tea from it?”. you probably respond “fuck no — are you crazy?” … now imagine they say “oh, come on, i don’t ask all the time but just a little, just this once?” — do you drink the arsenic? well, yes, if the arsenic is in fact horizontal recreation. because society says that’s what couples do. it’s expected. it’s necessary to exist in our modern world. and it’s probably more dangerous than the arsenic in many ways.
now that you have an idea of pure asexuality, let’s look at “flexible asexuality”. and i suspect you’ll quickly discover why it’s dangerous to conflate these two things — one is an absolute while the other is an atypical reaction to a culturally-mitigated desire framework. one isn’t better than the other but one isn’t just an extreme version of the other. it’s the difference between “the light in this room is really dim” and “there’s no bulb”.
a “flexible asexual” or, as i usually call them, flexace, is someone whose desire for sexuality or sensation of sexual attraction, arousal or awareness is less than the cultural norm. this is often talked about as a “lack of sexuality” but i find this a very curious way to look at something that is a cultural experience rather than a natural thing — i’ll say that again for those who didn’t catch it. while sex itself as a procreative act is a natural part of being a mammal and absolutely necessary throughout all evolutionary history, recreational sex or what we think of as “sex drive”, “lust” and “desire” is something we learn as children and adolescents and develop as we grow and become behaviorally-imprinted by the world around us. how often do most mammals have sex? very rarely compared to humans. very, very rarely. a wolf might have a handful of sexual encounters in their life. many primates never have sex from birth to death unless they’re the dominant alpha in their family-group. wild horses generally have about as many sexual encounters as they have ears. and they have the same number of ears as us.
but what we’re talking about is a cultural experience mitigated by television, movies, the internet, rape-and-pornography generalizations and norms — a roman-era orgy gone viral and impregnating our broadcast-everything mentality. so if you don’t spend your days seeking sex, planning your next conquest or discussing your last one, you are often seen by those who do (who are, i assure you, all-too-common) as deficient or somehow lacking in “fun” or “spirit”. so those with a less aggressive sexual obsession have taken to identifying as “asexual” to avoid the more painful label of “sexually-deficient” or something in that direction. they often apply terms like “gray” or “demi” (an arcane latin-derived prefix for “half”) to it to show they’re not what i call “pure asexuals” but the gradienting is much the same however it’s phrased.
let’s summarize where we are so far. if the idea of sex disgusts you and you would be happy if you never had to think about penetrative recreation (never mind in yourself, in anyone else) for the rest of your life, you’re probably a pureace. if you sometimes like to be sexually-stimulated or under some circumstances you think sex is ok, pleasurable or desirable — in other words, if you’re not disgusted by it with a sense of overwhelming hatred without exception — you’re probably a flexace. if you spend your entire day trying to figure out how to get someone else in bed, you’re likely an average, card-carrying member of contemporary western society and i have no understanding of how you function. i’m not judging you. i’m just flooded with confusion.
there’s another piece, though. another arrow in the wind we haven’t tried to catch yet, you could say. i’m aware it’s a pun. if you don’t like puns, you’re probably not an ace. i’ve never met a pureace who doesn’t do wordplay. maybe that’s what we do — replace fanciful fucking with flower phrases. and yes, phrases should be spelled with an f. but it sounds like it is and that’s close enough.
what i mean, though, is that there’s another pair of possibilities — pure and flexible aromanticism.
this isn’t about having a relationship or making a commitment. this is about love. i’m a purearo, a “pure aromantic”. when i say “i love you”, i mean “i care deeply about you” — if you disappeared from my life, i would be overwhelmed with sadness. in other words, your presence is important to me and your departure is something i will do my best to prevent if i can. when others say “i love you”, they usually mean some combination of vague commitment and “i want you to touch me”. this isn’t meant to be vulgar. we have to admit the desires we have or all we end up doing is confusing each other and being unclear. that doesn’t help anyone.
romantic connection is usually about physical contact that doesn’t have to be sexual but is generally stimulating. a romantic partnership tends to involve a pair that kisses, cuddles and stimulates each other by their physical presence. an aromantic partnership might engage in some of these activities but they’re generally not physically stimulating and don’t come with desire at a physical level. this is a bit more vague than i’d like it to be, though. i’m not explaining it as obviously as i hoped was possible but it’s not as concrete an idea as sexuality or its absence.
perhaps a better way to think of it is the difference between special and not-special occasions. let’s picture a scene. it’s not a sexual scene. you’re safe.
you come home from a long day and your partner has turned off all the lights and lit the house with dozens of small candles. they’ve cooked an involved meal and decorated the room to be spectacularly-beautiful and you sit there and stare into each other’s eyes across the candlelight and what do you feel? this is where i generally think you can tell if you’re a purearo or not. if you feel “amazing! i love this! i love you so much!”, you’re not aromantic. if you think “why all this effort for nothing — i just want to be in your presence and this makes me think you want to have sex or something when all i want to do is sit with you and read a book all evening”, you’re likely on my side of the divide.
a pure aromantic is someone who doesn’t understand romantic gestures or special treatment. we see proximity as desirable (with specific people and usually a very small number of those, often just one) but a break from the pattern of proximate-comfortable-existence to be both unnecessary and undesirable.
if you look up “aromantic” in a dictionary or on the internet, it will tell you it’s the absence of desire for a romantic relationship but it won’t tell you what that actually means, the relationship. here’s what i think is the best way to think of it. most people have a “bestie” (whether they like or use that term for it, they know what i mean), sometimes two or three. and they have a “partner” (again, some don’t like the term but you can use boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, wife, husband, common-law, other-half, whatever you like and the meaning is indifferentiable in this instance). and these are different things because what they want from the bestie relationship is emotional support and enjoyment without desire and what they want from the partner relationship has an element of desire or physical/emotional connection that is lacking in the other. it’s not that one is deeper or better than the other. it’s that they feel different. for a purearo, this difference doesn’t exist. the person i want to spend my life with, if they exist, isn’t a partner. it’s a bestie. you can call this (anachronistically and inaccurately but the term has come to mean what i am using it for here) a platonic connection. it’s not that you don’t share your emotions with your bestie. it’s that you don’t desire them. if you do, you probably think of them as something else, often something far more confusing without a name. purearos aren’t confused about it. it’s always the most extreme and direct friendship — absolute commitment and devotion but hormone-free and without the scent of après-sex in the air.
what’s a “flexible aromantic”? again, this is my term for someone who isn’t a “pure aromatic” in the “it’s not dim in here — there’s no lightbulb” sense. it’s someone whose culturally-motivated desire for intimate partnership in the romantic sense is weaker than average. why does this happen? often boredom. sometimes just bad experiences. some never develop the obsession common in our society with performative partnership and expressions of desire even when they’re not particularly-sexual.
what’s the link? well, there doesn’t have to be one at all. in some cases, you can get someone who is asexual without being aromantic or the inverse. this is, however, extremely rare. you will often see people who are “flexible” one or the other being flexible versions of its pair. but the “pure” versions generally come as a set. i’ve never met a pureace who wasn’t a purearo or a purearo who wasn’t a pureace. i’m sure it’s possible. but if you’re this disgusted by the idea of sexual attraction and practice, you probably have the same reaction to all non-platonic interaction with others. perhaps not and human behavior is unpredictable — it’s also culturally-evolutionary and we shift not just over time from our experiences but as a societal whole — how much queerness is accepted now compared to a hundred years ago has caused a huge shift in our behavioral imprinting, for example.
i guess the other question i should address, though, is aces and aros having sex. we do. or, at least, most of us have and most of us probably will if we haven’t already. we live in a society that expects and demands sex and judges us if we show any hesitation to behave sexually. if we are not openly sexual, suggestive and provocative, we are seen as unwilling to participate in the culture surrounding us — every movie, every ad, every magazine spans the gradient between “loosely-existing-in-sexual-culture” to “softcore-pornographic”. there is a sense of “i’d rather be fucking” shared between most humans in much the same way “i wish i could have a drink at work” tends to be an assumption (one i’ve never understood as i’m even more against recreational use of chemicals than i am against recreational use of penises). but we, to use a phrase coined in the eighties, “give head to get ahead” — to thrive in a sexual society, we act sexually.
of course, this is unwise and causes so much regret and self-loathing in most of us, many aces and aros end up suicidal as a result of our behavior. but for most it’s the cost of doing business in a world obsessed with mutually-pleasurable bouncing.
this isn’t about judgment or comparison. it’s about sharing experience, of course. i talk about sex the way i do because i see it from the outside. it’s an act i have experienced but never desired. and society’s obsession with it confuses me in a way i can’t describe. it’s a bit like a sudden, overwhelming and protracted desire to cut your skin open. yes, some people seem to feel it but i can’t relate. honestly, that sounds more enjoyable than sex to me. but i’ll happily keep my genitals to myself and the knife out of my skin, too, given the choice.
i hope this has been informative or, at least, given some insight into something you may not have thought deeply about even existing until today. i am here. i am ace. and i pose you no threat. i don’t want to jump you. not even a little. and we’ll get along just fine as long as you keep your hands to yourself and your desires out of my pants. thanks for reading!