On my other posts I talk almost exclusively about asexuality – the lack of sexual attraction. But there’s much more to the acespec orientations, including limited sexual attraction for certain people, or a limited sexual attraction that appears only on rare occasions, but the biggest orientation of them all isn’t actually to do with sexual attraction, but rather romantic attraction.
How can you split sex and romance?
One of the problems with the suffix ‘-sexuality’ is that it means one thing but is used in another. Someone who is homosexual, for instance, has an attraction to people of their own sex. And most people get that; it’s a concept that makes sense, even if you don’t agree with it. However, I’ve spent long enough on homosexual personals forums to know it’s not quite that simple.
See, these forums are populated by a large number of nominally heterosexual men. But surely, you might think, if they’re on a m4m dating site, they’re not homosexual – they’re at least bisexual, and at most very heavily closeted.
The problem with that logic comes when you see what it is they’re looking for. Spoiler: it’s sex. These sites have a large number of heterosexual men who want to have sex with other men. Not a relationship, not love, not even attraction. For the most part they don’t like men in that way, they’re not attracted to men, they just want to have sex with a man. This is where the words ‘homosexual’ and ‘bisexual’ become … ‘inaccurate’.
Someone who describes themselves as ‘homosexual’ is very likely to desire both a) to have sex with men, and b) to enter into a long-term relationship with a man. If you only want one of these, regardless of which one it is, are you still ‘homosexual’? Similarly, can you say you’re truly ‘bisexual’ or ‘pansexual’ if you don’t want to do both with more than one gender? If you’re a man, and have sex with men and women, but only want a long-term relationship with a woman, how would you describe yourself? In dating terms, you’d be heterosexual. Now some people use the term ‘bi-curious’ for this, but if you’re going to gay saunas every week, I’m not sure how ‘curious’ about the whole thing you still are. I’ve also seen the term ‘heteroflexible’ bandied around, but again that still defines things lexically in terms of ‘sexual’ preference and activity, even if in practice it’s a more accurate and broad terminology. And yes, ‘homoflexible’ also exists.
Aside from horny men going behind their wives’ backs, in general people’s sexual and relationship desires align – people fall in love with the same kinds of people they want to have sex with – and so this isn’t normally an issue … until you reach asexuality. We don’t experience much sexual attraction, for anyone, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fall in love, nor does it mean we don’t want deep, passionate, relationships. The question is, how to describe our preferences. We do so by using a concept known as the ‘split attraction model’, and separating out sexual attraction from relationship desire, which we call ‘romantic attraction’.
What is ‘romantic attraction’? Can asexuals fall in love?
The problem is defining what ‘romantic attraction’ is; it’s a somewhat nebulous concept. It’s one of those things, like pornography, that means different things to different people, and which you can only really describe if and when you experience it. I’d say sexual attraction is pretty clear – it’s a feeling when you see someone that you want to bonk (it’s a technical term!) them. It doesn’t mean you want to spend the rest of your life with them, nor does it mean you want to do mundane things with them like gardening or co-owning a cat. Nor does it mean you want to have candlelit dinners with them, hold hands with them walking down the street, or share each other’s darkest secrets. And of course nor does it mean you want to be someone’s exclusive partner.
So, someone who’s female and asexual may still fall in love, and perhaps with another woman. They’d thus be asexual and homoromantic. One of my friends is like this, and at the time of typing has found herself another asexual as a girlfriend. Which is nice.
Now, there are people who find it hard to fall in love, or who don’t think about romance in the same terms as everyone else. And naturally there’s a word for that – ‘aromantic’. And while being both asexual and aromantic is common, someone can be aromantic but yet sexual; another of my friends loves sex but doesn’t fall in love easily at all, and would describe herself as a pansexual aromantic. Still valid in the acespec community.
I always thought I was ‘romantic’; I always assumed that what I wanted was some kind of romantic long-term partnership which was not really all that different from a standard relationship, except with a bit less sex, maybe replacing it with a bit of kink. Certainly when I was musing in my early days about this, that’s how it always came across. But the older I’ve got, the more relationships I have had, the more different friendships I’ve made, and the more people in the asexual community I’ve had discussions with, have all made me realise that I’m not sure that’s at all what I want, and in fact possibly never did – maybe because of society and cultural expectations, I’ve been lying to myself all these years.
I’ve learned in many of my relationships that I like to be left alone for long periods, and only getting close to people when I feel comfortable doing so, even if those people are very special to me. I’ve had a couple of long-distance relationships, where I’ve dated people who lived in different continents, never mind countries, and they worked out really well for me. I never felt unduly pressured by them, I felt like we were two people living our own lives but who ‘clicked’ whenever we met up. Indeed, the only difference between those relationships and my just meeting penpals or netpals is we’re more likely to share a bed if I’m dating them. Interestingly, the woman I dated in the USA is polysexual so my asexuality affected her in pretty much no way whatsoever.
Over time I’ve also realised that some things sound better in my head than they are in real life. Like kissing. I love the idea of kissing; I think it’s really fabulous and intimate and pleasurable. Except when I ever get around to doing it, I’m often left with the feeling of ‘…well, is that it?’. I have the same thoughts around pizza – it’s something that sounds great when you’re talking about it, and you build up the expectations for it, but when you come to have it, it’s usually a bit of a let-down. “Oh you just haven’t eaten the right pizza” – mate, I’ve eaten a lot of pizza, and I’ve had lots of kisses. Neither excite me as much as they do to most people.
I’m even not fond of being touched that much. I mean, there are exceptions; I love holding hands, and I like hugging – from friendly greeting hugs to long cuddles on the sofa – and let’s not talk about how ticklish my feet are, but in general I’ve realised I’m not as tactile as I thought I was. I noticed this in my last relationship when my partner would give me backrubs in bed, and I tended to just lie there feeling … indifferent. I do like touching, though, so I’m more than happy to give other people backrubs, footrubs, massages etc, but there’s a large caveat that, looking from the outside, would confuse most people.
I do these things with my friends.
Friendship is more important to me than anything else, and I act around friends the way many people may act around lovers or partners. I hold hands with friends, I hug friends, I’ll give massages to friends, because it’s a nice and pleasant thing to do with and for them. I’ve even gone travelling with friends, shared restaurant evenings and even hotel rooms with them.
Me and my friend Laura, when we were travelling Philippines together.
When I think about future relationships, that’s kind of what I imagine: yes, to spend my life in some way with someone I can talk with late into the evening sharing darkest secrets whilst cuddling on the sofa, have candlelit dinners with, and hold hands with walking down the street. Not gardening though, I have my limits. But equally, they’d also be someone who has their own separate life, their own friends, their own lovers. I’m fully aware that most people are inherently more sexual than I am, so I’d imagine, nay expect, any friends I have to have their sexual needs met elsewhere. The relationship we’d have would be one born out of friendship rather than any kind of exclusive romantic attraction/commitment. We’d both have other friends, with no thought that these friends couldn’t be just as close as we would be. Anything and everything we’d do together would be because we were close enough friends to do them, and there’d be no sexual subtext or feeling that either of us were expecting anything more out of the relationship than we were doing.
It’s like ‘dating’. I’ve never quite known what a ‘date’ is, since most activities that people consider doing on a ‘date’ are things me and my (female) friends have done just on a whim anyway, and we don’t really think anything untoward about them. Pubs, concerts, meals, theatres; they’re great places for two friends to go just as much as two (would-be) lovers. It would be perfectly natural for me to arrange to meet a friend and go to a restaurant with them, I don’t have to eat their mouth for desert.
It may not surprise you to know we have a name for this too: Queer Platonic Relationships, or QPRs. Not to be confused with the Association Football team of the same name. It’s a fairly simple name: ‘queer’ because, well, we are and they are; ‘platonic’ because they’re based on friendship rather than romance; ‘relationship’ because, well, what else are they? That said, as long as the people involved are comfortable with the arrangement, and communicate their needs and expectations clearly, it probably doesn’t matter what it’s called; a QPR to one person could be ‘simply friendship’ to one person and yet ‘deep romantic love’ to another, but if they’re both happy in it together then it works.
Finding this … is tricky.
How can asexuals find love?
Traditional dating sites and apps are mostly geared to the sexual cultures, not just in terms of admin (few dating sites have an ‘asexual’ option, never mind ‘aromantic’), but also in terms of the people who use them. There’s an expectation that if you’re signed up to one, you’re there to develop some kind of romantic relationship, and one that includes sex, because, well, isn’t that the whole point of dating? Unless the other person is also acespec, which (given you usually can’t sign up as ace, and have to put it in the profile, and of course no-one reads profiles) is pretty unlikely to be honest.
Of the standard personals sites, the only one I’ve ever actively used (and, incidentally, one of the only ones that acknowledges the existence of asexuality) is OKCupid, and even that I haven’t been on to since about 2012. Apparently it’s got much worse and more like standard dating sites than it used to be when I was active on there, which is a shame, but I did use it in the past as a means to find friends specifically, rather than lovers. I found lovers too, but the usual happened and they became good friends anyway.
Acespec-specific dating sites do exist, though I have to say I haven’t used any yet. Obviously any social site can be a dating site with enough determination (it’s three parts squick and one part ‘aww bless your naivety and overblown self-worth’ when people slide into your DMs on sites like Instagram with a ‘hey’, and even forum sites like Reddit can be used to flirt), but from my end, I’d argue the best way to find friends on the internet is to … use any sites in the manner and purpose for which they were intended. If you ‘click’ with someone through it, then fabulous. I have a couple of close friends I met because we connected through LiveJournal, and then developed our friendships over time elsewhere. Similarly, I’ve got some very special people in my life that I know through Twitter, with whom I very definitely have a ‘platonic relationship’.
The advantage of not using a dating site and letting things develop organically is that there’s even less pressure and subtext, you don’t have the knowledge and feeling that you’re going into something ‘on purpose’, that you’re ‘directing’ or ‘forcing’ things just because of how you know each other. The disadvantage is that, by and large, it won’t happen very often – you may have 9,000 followers on Twitter, for instance, but how many of them do you have a deep personal connection with that makes you want to stay up all night talking about your deepest feelings, or hold hands with in the street if you met up with them? [In my case, hmmm … about ten maybe? I think they all know who they are, too, which of course helps].
Do asexuals have crushes?
This doesn’t mean I don’t still have crushes, or ‘squishes’, which is the name given to the asexual equivalents. They’re exactly what you’d expect – feelings inside when you think of someone that make you kind of ‘giddy’; that give you a sense of excitement when you see their name coming online, or having ‘liked’ one of your tweets, or something, and that imagining being physically next to makes you either get really excited or a little lost in longing. A little like teenage crushes on pop-stars and actors, but confused by the fact you really know this person.
My personal issue here though is that the people I have a squish on, and the people I’d be comfortable in a QPR, aren’t necessarily the same, and it’s kind of hard to align the two sometimes. In part this is because I can’t explain why; I mean, even if you’re standardly romantic and sexual, sometimes you can’t explain why you crush on someone who’s obviously not even right for you – now imagine how annoying it is in my position. It’s not that I want to do more with them than I would with someone who’s just a close friend, just that … I think it’s best explained by saying I want to do more *of* it. Like, I want them more, not more than other people, but more often than other people. And I’m more likely to overthink about how I talk with them, worry about whether anything I say will irk them, worry about how I come across to them, in the same way that someone may do if they fancy someone else but are too shy to say so. And if I sit down and think logically about them, they’ll often be with people with whom I’m less likely to have a successful QPR, because they’re more sexual than I am, more romantic, more into traditional relationships, more likely to need exclusivity with that level of intense intimacy and emotion.
Ultimately, I’m stuck with having squishes on people who aren’t right for me, for whom I’m “not enough”. It’s not that I’m not *good* enough, not at all, it’s that what I offer isn’t *enough* for what they personally need. So we’re still good close friends, but I’m wary about being as close as I’d like to be, just in case they take it the wrong way and pull away. I’d rather have a friend I can’t hold hands with but would want to, than someone who used to be a friend.
Two people holding hands. One of them is me.
We also need to consider aesthetic attraction.
What is ‘aesthetic attraction’?
Have you ever felt that someone ‘looks nice’? That’s pretty much what aesthetic attraction is. Now, you might wonder how this is different from sexual attraction, so think of this: suppose you have a painting on your wall, of, say, a landscape, a bowl of fruit, or even a person. You like that painting, it appeals to your senses. You like the way it’s painted, the style of painting, the intricate care taken with the brush strokes. It makes your wall, your room, brighter. But do you want to fuck the painting? Reader, you do not, because that would be weird.
Now imagine the same principle applied to real humans. I’ll admit it’s rare that I experience aesthetic attraction – indeed one of the early pointers to my asexuality in general was finding it hard to answer the questions that friend groups and work colleagues often ask of each other: ‘so, tell me 5 people you find attractive’ (in such questions, ‘attractive’ means ‘bonkable’). I once told a work colleague that I found the music video to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” to be very boring as it was simply “three women dancing, nothing actually happens”. His response was “oh, but what women!” – an example of how a highly sexualised society also relates to toxic masculinity.
I find people aesthetically attractive without finding them sexually attractive. And I can find them aesthetically attractive without then having a crush or squish on them, although the two often align. I can also have deep platonic relationships with people I don’t find aesthetically attractive. While there are overlaps between all these segments, I’m comfortable having friends that sit in only one of them. The area where they all overlap, where I find someone aesthetically and platonically attractive, who I have a squish on, and who matches my desires/needs/preferences for a QPR, is presumably where I should be looking for a partner, but I’m not sure there’s a word to describe either this kind of attraction or the type of person who fits. Which of course makes looking for them very difficult. Especially as they’re also likely not to be looking, because like me, they’re comfortable being on their own without having that “special one”.
For me, personally, all these revelations I’ve been having recently about dating and romance have made me realise that I’m probably aromantic. That I don’t have romantic attraction to people. Indeed I’ve never been quite sure what ‘romantic attraction’ is. In the UK Asexuality Conference in September 2020, someone said “if you are having difficulty defining it, then you probably don’t experience it’, so that’s a thought to take away. Rather, all I want is close friendships with people who mean a great deal to me and with whom I can feel very comfortable being around without ever feeling awkward. It’s just something hard to define and describe in a sexual world; there’s even less representation of it in media than there is for asexuality.
For a broader summary, take a listen to Episode 32 of my podcast.