When love is (really) complicated: being asexual, aromantic, demisexual

Feb 14, 2018 at 11:06 am
Jae Sledge (photo by Francis Dumstorf)
Jae Sledge (photo by Francis Dumstorf)

Throw a rock in February, and you can find someone complaining about Valentine’s Day. But for some people, the way sex and even romance are pushed at them on the 14th of February is indicative of something more difficult than just this day of chocolate and obligatory flowers.

It can be an everyday discomfort for people such as Justin Alexander, an asexual living in Louisville.

“Like, you’re in high school, in this hyper-sexualized environment, and every dude is looking at every girl like, aw I wanna bang them. And I didn’t get that,” Alexander told LEO adding, “I just tried to fit into that, and look at things that way, and even trying to pursue women the way everyone around me did made me really uncomfortable.”

With the rising focus on all sorts of genders and sexualities, and the ease of communication brought by the internet, groups of people who have previously been isolated, overlooked by society, are starting to come out into the open in a way that they haven’t before.

Asexuals and aromantics are no exception.

Let’s get to know a little about our interviewees and also find out how they handle a holiday that regularly depresses all of us.

Start out by letting go of what you think you know.

Jae Sledge, another one of our interviewees, put it this way:

“When you tell [people], they make a lot of assumptions. And it’s a lot different situation than they assume.”

Justin Alexander (photo by Francis Dumstorf)
Justin Alexander (photo by Francis Dumstorf)

We Make A Lot of ‘Invisible Jokes’

Asexuals are out there, but their lack of visibility came up in my interviews multiple times.

We met Justin Alexander already, but let’s fill in some details. He’s a white guy, 22. He moved around a good bit as a kid before landing in Louisville. He’s tried a couple of different directions — for a while he wanted to go into drafting — but for now he’s a valet at The Seelbach, trying to figure out what’s next.

Jae Sledge is a 21-year-old student at UofL. Sledge is nonbinary, which means they reject completely the idea of being a boy or a girl. In the nonbinary community, much like the trans community, people frequently reject the pronouns they were assigned at birth — “he” and “she.’ Sledge uses “them,” “they” and “theirs,” instead.

Sledge is studying to be a teacher and, in the meantime, they work in childcare.

Ly Fawkes, 39, is another nonbinary, or NB, person. Like Sledge, Fawkes rejects normative pronouns and uses the less well known ne, nem and nirs pronouns. Ne is equal to he/she/they, nem works like him/her/them and nirs subs in for his/hers/theirs.

Fawkes is (among other things) a nerd who has intense feelings about nir favorite fandoms, is in a long-distance romantic relationship, uses a wheelchair due to a medical condition called Stills and is an old friend of mine from Catholic school.

It’s Alexander who said, “We make a lot of invisibility jokes,” and that invisibility somewhat extends to the research community.

Not a lot of information exists on asexuality. Estimates on the number of asexuals are based on self-reporting and, therefore, are flawed. What estimates do exist vary widely. Well, wildly from a statistical standpoint, anyway. But, for now, let’s go with 1 percent, a figure arrived at by Canadian researcher Anthony Bogaert, though Bogaert suspected this number was pretty low.

‘Not Black and White’

As medical and social sciences progress, the idea of spectrums keeps emerging. For sexuality, you can go back to Dr. Alfred Kinsey, arguably the most-influential sexologist in history. He posited sexuality as a six-point spectrum from gay to straight, with almost no one being a true one or six.

Lots of people think asexuality is the same: There is a spectrum of desire. On that spectrum, Alexander is firmly asexual.

“I tried having casual sex with one person,” Alexander recalled, “and I actually felt like I was going to throw up.”

Fawkes is demisexual, another spot on the spectrum, sometimes described as “gray,” because it’s neither black nor white, neither fully attracted to sex, nor completely unable to feel attraction.

“I don’t experience sexual desire unless I feel an emotional connection to the person.

“The more connected I feel to someone, the more positively I feel about them, the better looking they are. And if the connection goes away, they become ugly,” said Fawkes.

There is never an instant attraction to someone, although Fawkes still notices when people are good looking, an aesthetic attraction.

“It’s like, ‘Oh wow, that person is really, really nice looking.’ Like, ‘Oh wow, that’s a really pretty flower.’ It’s got the same feel. There’s nothing physical or sexual,” Fawkes said.

Sledge also currently identifies as asexual, but they are open to the possibility they are demisexual, if the right relationship comes along, the right romance.

Because there’s another axis on this spectrum: Asexuality is often accompanied by, or associated with, aromanticism. Aromantics don’t ever feel romantic attraction. They are cool with just having friends.

So, not wanting sex is way different than not wanting love, and not wanting romantic love isn’t the same as not wanting friends.

Fawkes isn’t aromantic at all.

“I get romantic crushes on people. But 99 percent of the time, there’s no sexual component to that. I want to go on dates with them and stare into their eyes and cuddle them, but I don’t want to fuck them. The person has to mean something to me. You have to feel like you know them.”

Sledge is single, but isn’t sure if they’re aromantic. They pointed out that, maybe at 21, singleness comes from another factor:

“Right now, I’m not sure if I’m on the aromantic spectrum, or if I’m just not good at dating people. But right now, I’m pretty comfortable saying I’m asexual, but not aromantic.”

Similarly, Alexander isn’t worried about romanticism right now. He’s just working on himself.

‘It never fit me’

My biggest question going into these interviews was: How do you know?

For me, sexual attraction was always so strong that it felt like I was being hit in the face with the urge to get intimate. How do you have a realization about the absence of something?

Imagine everywhere you went, people essentially constantly yelled at you that you should feel something, and you knew you didn’t?

That’s how Alexander describes high school. He tried to fit into the available molds of straight and gay, to figure out where he belonged.

“I tried the gay thing, and I wasn’t gay. Even had a friend who had a crush on me, and we talked about it, tried kissing and stuff. But I still didn’t feel much. I’ve had relationships with women,” said Alexander.

To make matters worse, he was trying to figure this out in high school, when it seems like everybody is hyper-sexual, and some people can’t deal with anyone who isn’t.

“It was a long, uncomfortable process of feeling like there’s nothing to explain me. I always felt like an outsider. And guys would call me gay, or a fag, but that didn’t really fit me. I had bisexual friends who would ask me if I was bisexual, and I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and they said, ‘That means you probably are,’ and I was like, ‘OK? Whatever.’”

Like a lot of outsiders in the digital age, Alexander found his people online.

“It was actually a group on Facebook. There was this group called ‘Asexual A.C.E.S’ Ace is, like, an acronym for awareness, community, education, support. I was looking through their stuff and reading these people posting, and I was like, well this sounds, like, eerily similar to the things I’ve been through,” said Alexander.

Ace is also a shorthand for asexual, so there is a little wordplay with the acronym. Aromantic also has a shortened form, aero or aeros.

Fawkes also found nir people on Facebook, discovering nonbinary gender and asexuality at the same time. Ne didn’t know how to identify nirself, but had known for a long time that hetero and gender normativity was not the answer.

“It never fit me, like wearing a pair of shoes that’s a size too small. You can do it, but it’s uncomfortable and you’re always aware that these aren’t right,” said Fawkes.

Fawkes said when ne encountered demisexuality, it was like a lightning bolt.

But it’s not always that obvious. Sledge’s first reaction to the idea of asexuality was that it didn’t apply to them, because of the generalizations they had been fed.

“I had always heard of it as ‘don’t touch me, don’t love me!’ or whatever, and that’s not me,” said Sledge.

But as Sledge explored college, friendship and romantic love, they noticed something. When they dated, and it was time to get intimate, they were never into it.

“At first I wasn’t sure. Like, maybe I just don’t like this person like that. So you start adventuring out, and one after another I just didn’t have any interest in being sexual with another person. And I was like, OK. Maybe it’s not just one or two people,” said Sledge.

After attempting to feel sexual attraction for a variety of folks, they finally gave up on trying to feel something and began identifying as asexual.

Ly Fawkes
Ly Fawkes

Dating is Hard

None of the people with whom I spoke are definitely aromantic. So what’s it like when they all try to find love?

“Dating is hard,” confided Sledge, “because they’re like, ‘Oh, you don’t wanna do that? Well, I don’t wanna be with you.’ I wish people would get to know me and not just look at my identity. Look at me.”

Fawkes laughed when asked about meeting people.

“I’m an egg when it comes to asexuality. It’s only been a few years for me, and I’ve been in exactly one relationship during that time — that I’m still in — with my partner Suzy.”

In addition to being Fawkes’ first relationship after ne realized ne was asexual, it was also the first time ne had ever made the first move and asked someone out.

And Alexander still isn’t even trying.

“I’m single and trying to work on myself. I mean, I’m 22 and I haven’t had a whole lot of time to think about myself with the things I’ve dealt with.”

‘People Like to Throw That Around’

Before we get to the big Valentine’s Day plans, we have to stop and say one more thing, something we probably shouldn’t have to say, but here it is anyway.

Aces don’t want to be fixed. They don’t feel they are sick, despite the fact that there are still some healthcare professionals who act like they are.

“I get a lot of: ‘It’s because of trauma,’” said Sledge, referring to the sort of analysis they get from people.

Alexander also had some strong words on the subject.

“The only reason it would be a disorder is if it causes distress to the person, and that’s not the case for most aces. It causes me no distress,” he said, adding, “The hormone disorder thing. People like to throw that around, even in the psychological profession. Doctors, that’s the first thing they suggest.”

Alexander said distress came not from being asexual, but trying to pretend he wasn’t.

We’ve Felt Real Heartbreak on Valentine’s Day

Holidays are tough for Fawkes and neir paramore Suzy. Not because of some epic, asexual crisis, but because they live in different cities and aren’t always financially in a place where they can travel to see each other.

“I’ll probably send them something nice and they’ll send me something. I know they are working on a painting for me for a late Christmas gift,” said Fawkes, pointing to another painting Suzy sent, noting, “It’s a communist octopus.”

Alexander, as noted before, is pretty nonplussed by the holiday.

“I do have one friend, she sends all of her friends roses and those chocolate dipped strawberries. And that’s about the most enjoyable part of Valentine’s Day for me.”

His tone made it seem like that isn’t too big of a deal, more like responding to a friend who remembered to pick him up a thoughtful tchotchke on vacation.

Sledge however, has a valentine, the same one they’ve had since middle school, their best friend and roommate, Trevon.

“It started when we both had boyfriends, and we both got dumped, and it really sucked. It happened on Valentine’s Day,” said Sledge. Trevon has been her Valentine’s date ever since, just two friends offering each other companionship.

At the end of the day, once we remove all the preconceived notions about what it should be, how it should work, or even how it should or shouldn’t make you feel in the pants, once we stop dividing friendship from romance, maybe we’re all just looking for a place where we feel like we belong, with people who care about us and accept us as we are. •

For another Valentine's Day-related article, check out "Make Valentine’s Day? Great Again."