Because asexuality exists on a spectrum, the term can cause some people confusion—including among some asexual, or “ace,” people themselves if they’re unfamiliar with its many meanings. What some don’t realize is that many asexual people are still interested in romantic relationships—and that that doesn’t discredit their identity.
To understand this, we first must understand that sexual orientation and romantic orientation are two disparate entities. Sexual orientation defines who a person has sexual desire for, while romantic attraction is the feeling of being attracted to a person in a way where you want to form an intimate bond. Basically: Romantic attraction is love, and sexual attraction is lust. These two concepts can be intertwined in many different ways: A person can be heterosexual while being homoromantic, or homosexual while being heteroromantic—or any combination of attraction types, including feeling only one type out of the two.
Surveying the prevalence of asexuality is hard, considering asexuality is an umbrella term that includes multiple identities. A person who identifies as ace can fall anywhere on the spectrum of asexuality—including antisexual, sex-positive, grey-A, and more. Other asexual people might not be aware of the term itself. The Williams Institute estimates that one percent of the population is asexual, though that number is sourced from a study by Anthony F. Bogaert in which he says it's a rough estimate.
To better understand what it’s like to be in a romantic relationship when you do identify as ace, I spoke with asexual people who experience romantic attraction on what they would like non-ace people to know about their identities and partnerships, and what they wished they’d known earlier, too.
Some asexuals have understood their sexuality their whole lives. Angelica (who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy), is a 21-year-old demiromantic asexual; the former term means that she only experiences romantic attraction after developing an emotional connection with a person first. “I knew I was ace since I was around 10, though I considered the possibility of being gay, as I tend to find women more attractive,” she says. “I settled back on my ace identity as I realized that attraction had been a mixture of aesthetic attraction (like finding a work of art beautiful) and personal admiration.
“I've never wanted a relationship—I imagined myself living in a small apartment with my various pets when I grew up,” Angelica says. “Then I met my partner, and I went from identifying as strictly aromantic to demiromantic after months of research and deliberation.”
Angelica says that being strictly aromantic meant that she’d never develop romantic feelings for anyone, but as a demiromantic, she fell for her best friend (she notes that this wouldn’t have happened with just any of her best friends—it was that she was into this specific person). “When I first met my partner, I still had no interest whatsoever in romance. It was only after we became really close that I started thinking about him all the time to the point where it gave me headaches…but they were nice, addicting headaches. I always looked forward to talking to him—seeing the message notification light up on my phone made me really happy. For the first time, I could actually see myself living together and spending my life together with someone.”
“People often think asexuals are basically people who don't want sex, mistakenly equating sexual attraction with sexual desire,” she says. While this description does fit part of the asexual community, there are also many asexual people who enjoy and actively seek out sex,” she says. Though the two are often conflated, sexual attraction relates to the gender(s) a person is attracted to and is often emotionally motivated by the feelings someone has towards a person they find sexually appealing—while sexual desire is purely motivational, and refers to the drive to seek out specific sexual activities or objects. Sexual attraction can lead to sexual desire, but that is not always the case, and ace people have a lot of variation within how they individually experience each and act on them in relationships.
Elisa Hansen, a 35-year-old living in North Carolina, is biromantic ace, meaning that she is attracted to more than one gender romantically, while her sexual orientation is asexual. “Some asexual people do experience arousal despite not experiencing attraction, but I am not one of them,” she says.
Elisa is currently married, and met her partner around the time she was finally figuring out her sexuality after three other serious long-term relationships with both men and women. At the time, Elisa says, she didn’t fully understand that she was asexual, and instead felt something was “wrong” with her as she tried to power through it.
After coming to understand her asexuality, Elisa met and married her current partner. “Our marriage is very happy and healthy, and sex is a small part of it. We want to have a family, so we have had sex for the purpose of having children,” she says.
"Our marriage is very happy and healthy, and sex is a small part of it."
Elisa says her partner is sexually attracted to her, but does not have a high libido—though Elisa says he understands that she is willing to have sex with him for the purpose of making him happy, he rarely requests it. “When we are not trying to conceive, I'd say sex occurs once every three months or so,” she says. “I am not sexually attracted to him at all, though I love him dearly and I love building a life together with him.”
Elisa says the fact that she occasionally has sex can lead to misunderstandings about her sexuality from others. “A lot of conversation sounds like, ‘If a person does X, then they're not really asexual,’” she says. Elisa believes that the only thing that actually matters in determining whether a person is ace is whether they identify themselves that way.
Elisa cites The Purple-Red Scale of Attraction as being helpful for her in understanding that asexuality is a spectrum. The scale measures attraction in two dimensions: who you're attracted to, and how you're attracted to them. It’s designed to replace the Kinsey scale in an attempt to simplify human sexuality while still allowing for complexity. The scale also goes in depth about primary and secondary attraction. Primary attraction is based off of easily perceivable information about a person, such as looks, smell, physical features and first impressions. Secondary attraction is based on the relationship and emotional connections we develop with a person, and is more based on the perception of their personality and shared experiences.
Aaron, a 25-year-old heteroromantic asexual living in West Virginia, describes his relationship to attraction this way: “I can look into my girlfriend’s eyes and feel the care, love, and warmth that anyone in a happy relationship will feel—I just don’t feel that sexual urge to jump someone’s bones.”
As noted in the 2015 study “Queering Asexuality: Asexual-Inclusion in Queer Spaces” by Dominique A. Canning, a PhD Student in Linguistics at the University of Michigan, there has always been a push to deny asexual inclusion because many within the community do not deem them to be “queer,” which has caused few “real life” spaces for asexual people to center their identities. However, Aaron thinks the asexual community is growing as more people become aware of the LGBTQ community, which is also referred to as the LGBTQIA+ community to include those who are asexual.
“The lack of sexual attraction is just as much an important part of the sexuality spectrum as the rest of the LGBTQ community’s sexual and romantic orientations,” Aaron says, but he notes that even some within the LGBTQ community don’t understand, or hold contempt for, asexual people.
“A lot of discussions about asexuality with those who don’t understand it or dislike it end up at the same place many bisexual conversations went a few years ago, with people saying, ‘You just haven’t found the right person,’ or, ‘It’s just a phase,’” Aaron says.
A lack of understanding from prospective partners can also be an issue for some ace people. Connecting with romantic partners can be harder for them, especially when their partner is not asexual. Some will have sex with their partner to make them feel comfortable, like Joey Schwind, a 26-year-old from Ohio who is heteroromantic and gray-asexual (or “gray-ace”), a term that applies to people who generally identify as asexual, but still sometimes experience sexual attraction. He says, “It’s difficult to navigate around the sexual desires of a partner—it makes you feel like you’re not doing enough for them.”
Joey says that if someone wants more than what he can offer, then it’s not someone for him: “I try to find out about the person and their sexual desires prior to getting close with them.” His lasting relationships tended not to focus on the physical parts of sex, but on considering each other's particular sexual needs and experiences. “I’d often do what I could to please them, and the fact that I was doing something they enjoyed so much made me enjoy it too. If there was sex, it tended to focus on their experience. I’ve also been with someone who didn’t need sex either, and so, if we did have sex, it was extremely rare, but still meaningful.”
Angelica says that society needs to do away with the assumption that sex is a universal need in order to enjoy intimacy and close relationships—or even sex itself. Angelica continues, “There are many asexual people who enjoy and actively seek out sex,”she says. “Acknowledging and discussing variations is an important part of understanding asexuality.”