You’ve heard of asexuality, right? I mean, somewhere in between your friends joking that their sex lives are crap, Morrissey’s autobiography, and that Wikipedia loop you got stuck in at 4 AM, you discovered that one percent of people feel a complete lack of sexual interest in anyone.
And it is pretty well acknowledged that sexuality is a spectrum. Pan, bi, homo, hetero, demi—there’s plenty to (not) choose from. But most people don’t know that beyond sexual orientation, there’s a thing called romantic orientation as well. You can be heteroromantic, homoromantic, biromantic, and you can be aromantic too.
Aromantics—or “aros” for short—are individuals who don’t experience romantic attraction. It’s not about disliking romantic gestures. To be “romantic” in orientation you don’t have to like flowers and heart-shaped boxes, just like to be aromantic you don’t have to dislike these things. Aromanticism is simply the fundamental desire to not be in a romantic relationship.
Psychopaths, right? I’m talking about psychopaths? No. Unlike psychopaths or people who just don’t want to be in a romantic relationship with you (ugh, weirdos), aros are capable of love. Love like the kind you feel for your dog, or chicken nuggets, or that-person-you-met-on-a-night-bus-you-just-knew-would-be-your-BBFL. They just don’t feel romantic love.
“I’m not interested in romantic relationships because I don’t derive any pleasure from intimacy,” explains Steven Davis, a 25-year-old aromantic author from Kansas. “If you think of romance as a personal interest, like golfing or bondage, you’ll understand that some people just aren’t interested.”
It’s hard to know how many people feel the same way. There aren’t many stats available on this phenomenon, though a 2011 survey of over 3,000 asexuals discovered that 16 percent identified as aromantic. But not all aromantics are asexual, and often aromantics feel sexual attractions.
Diana is a 26-year-old lesbian aromantic from the US. She enjoys sex with women but doesn’t attach any romantic feelings to it. “If I had to describe it,” she explains, “I’d say that the idea of being in a romantic relationship or being in love feels the same way the idea of sleeping with a man does: thoroughly wrong on a visceral level.”
But much like romance itself, aromanticism can be hard to define. It’s widely defined as a lack of romantic feeling (no butterflies in the stomach or not wanting to propose after he gives you the last piece of garlic bread) but there’s no checklist or set criteria. Some aros are repulsed by the thought of activities like kissing or cuddling, while others can enjoy these—but don’t see them as an expression of emotion.
Thomas, 15, is a straight aromantic from Canada who enjoys romance stories and would prefer to be single until the day he dies. These two contrasting aspects of his personality caused him much confusion about whether he could in fact identify as an aromantic.
“I eventually realized liking romance stories is just a genre taste. I just didn't feel what other people felt when it came to romance, and that was that,” he explains. “For me, every time I try acting romantic it feels like I’m acting out a part I was assigned. I never get that obsession with someone where you can’t get them out of your mind. I don’t get butterflies in my stomach when I see anyone.”
The problem is, Thomas is undeniably young. When I was a bushy-haired 15-year-old, I’d never felt love either. But it wasn’t because of my romantic orientation, it was because I hadn’t learned to brush my retainer properly and thought the best way to get boys to notice me was to quickly appear offline and then online again on MSN Messenger. Should people really define their romantic orientation so early in life? Droves of teenagers online seem to think so, which begs the question: Is aromantic just a label invented by teenagers on Tumblr in a desperate attempt to be different?
If you search Tumblr for “aromantic,” you’ll see a variety of posts discussing pseudo-oppression (“shout out to everyone who gets told by spell-check that their identity isn’t a real word!”), theories on aromantic characters (Elsa, Charlie Weasley, and Katniss Everdeen, apparently) and some questionable Microsoft Paint designs for an aromantic flag. These childish elements can make it hard to take aromanticism seriously.
But Thomas is adamant he is not merely a late bloomer and considers his aromanticism instinctual. Suggesting aromantics might “grow out of it” might be equally as offensive as suggesting the same about homosexuals. Diana, who is 11 years older than Thomas, explains that much like her sexuality (she came out when she was 12), she felt her aromanticism from a young age—though it was harder to come to terms with.
“I didn't start really identifying with it until I left college—before that I was hoping I was just a late bloomer or picky or hadn't met enough women yet. Now I've lived in a couple of big, queer-friendly cities and still no romantic feelings, and 26 is beyond late blooming, so I'm aromantic.”
It’s pretty clear that aromanticism is an intrinsic reality for many, but unfortunately, unlike asexuality, the topic doesn’t get much attention outside of Tumblr. This makes it difficult for aromantics to define and explain themselves in a society that values romance so highly.
“Growing up, you're told both implicitly and explicitly that everyone falls in love,” Diana says. “All of our cultural narratives, both progressive and conservative, focus on romantic love as the pinnacle of human feeling. And most people are romantic. People seem to consider being told I'm aromantic like being told somebody doesn't like eating or breathing."
Steven experiences similar responses when he discusses his aromanticism, with people reacting with shock, disbelief, and even pity. Though there is clearly no systematic oppression of aromantics, it can’t be an easy way to live in a world where everyone from Beyoncé to your grandma is telling you to put a ring on it.
“I worry that I’m broken. Maybe everybody is right and the point of life is romantic love,” confesses Diana. “I know my culture sees me as less valuable because I'm not properly loved. That bothers me. Sometimes I debate pretending to fall in love just so I can do things like share insurance benefits, or be visited in the hospital by someone who hasn't abused me. It's similar to thinking 'I should just pretend to like men'. Single people are swept under the rug and treated as transitory: eventually they'll be coupled, so there's no reason to consider them.”
Others are confused by the fact that Diana is both lesbian and aromantic. “The difficulty comes in when people think it means I basically just want to sleep with tons of girls and have no standards. That's ridiculous,” she says.
“Just because a relationship isn't romantic doesn't mean I want to have sex with everyone. There are still mental standards of attraction as well as physical. You wouldn't want to be friends with everyone, would you? Same thing. I want to enjoy your company and to be sexually attracted to you most of the time, it's just that said enjoyment doesn't involve butterflies, a desire to be with you a lot more than others, or to intertwine our lives.”
Diana’s self-assured and articulate explanations shed light on the situation, but the problem remains that, for many, aromanticism isn’t always easy to understand. Take, for example, the fact that an aromantic person can have a "squish" on a "zucchini." No, you’ve not installed a hilarious plug-in that changes words on webpages for the lols. These are neologisms that define aromantic relationships.
A squish, according to the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, is the aromantic equivalent of a crush, “a desire for a strong platonic relationship with someone which is usually more emotionally intimate than a typical friendship.”
Justin, a 15-year-old aromantic from the US, explains it well: “If I was in a relationship I would feel happy doing nice things for them, but no matter how happy I was, I wouldn’t feel romantic attraction to them. I wouldn’t stop and think, ‘I love this person so much.’ It would be fun and I would care for that person, but the love I would feel wouldn’t be a passionate, burning love, it would be more sort of like a familial love.”
These relationships between aromantics are called “queer platonic.” The “queer” part does not refer to sexuality, but to the “queering” of traditional relationship boundaries (basically a “fuck you” to dichotomous labels). QP relationships involve the same level of commitment as romantic relationships but in friendship form. A partner in a QP relationship is called a “zucchini.” Zucchinis are essentially best friends with intense emotional connections who therefore wish to spend a lot of time, or even live, together. Underneath the slightly unusual terminology, it all makes perfect sense.
“I think ‘squish’ is stupid and juvenile and it certainly doesn’t help the conception that we’re all emotionally stunted man-boys and woman-girls,” says Diana. “It’s called a friendship and yes, I’ve had a couple of very deep friendships. I’m very much a fan of reclaiming the importance of friendship; I feel it’s been thrown aside in our culture—the shocking idea that you can have a very important connection to someone without wanting to bang them or have romantic feelings for them.”
Other aromantics, like Steven and Thomas, don’t desire any form of relationship at all. “I like having a circle of close friends,” Steven clarifies, “but I don’t want an extremely close relationship with one person. It’s important for people not to be afraid of being single, as long as they have friends and family to rely on.”
Thomas has had squishes, but doesn’t desire a queer platonic relationship. “I couldn’t imagine myself having any sort of special relationship with a single person. I’d rather just have a bunch of awesome friends,” he says.
It’s clear that the human experience that sits under the label of “aromantic” is not simple. Aros may feel sexual attractions, they may not. They may want to be intimate, they may not. They might want relationships with one special person, or have squishes, they might not. Their ideal Christmas present might be a Blu-ray copy of The Notebook, or they might have taste. But all of this variation doesn’t make the label less valid. Why should minority sexual and romantic orientations have to fit into strict criteria? Straight, romantic people aren’t all easily defined either. Love is complicated, and humans are more so—and when you think in those terms, I guess the real question is why aren't there more labels for the way that we relate to each other?
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