Asexual Relationships

Most people assume that sexuality—or at least sexual attraction—is an integral part of most if not all long-term relationships.  So, as an asexual person, one question I often hear is “How do asexual people ‘do’ long-term relationships?”

Do we all stay single?  Are we lonely?  Do we get married?  Do we have sex?  Do we just find and hook up with other asexual people, or are there sometimes mixed-sexuality relationships?

The answers to those questions vary greatly depending on the people in the relationships, of course.  But yes, asexual people do sometimes get married, do sometimes have sex, and do sometimes have partners who experience sexual attraction.

Aromantic Relationships

First, I’ll point out that romantic partnerships are not the only kind of long-term relationship that a person can have.  Sometimes, people form partnerships that are committed and long-lasting, but NOT romantic.  They may even live together and support each other like other kinds of more traditional romantic partners, but not feel romantically about each other.  Not all kinds of intimacy are romantic.  And anyone can find themselves in a situation like this—not just asexual people.

That said, the question of how romantic asexuals deal with partnerships can be a complicated one.  Mostly because sex is so commonly “expected” in romantic relationships . . . to the point that some people don’t see how a relationship can be romantic without it.

Relationships Between Asexuals

The most common assumption is that if an asexual person wants a relationship, that person just finds another asexual person and everything works out because neither is likely to require or expect sex in a relationship.  Well . . . if only it were that simple.

Problem 1: Asexuality is uncommon.  Many asexual people spend most or all of their lives unaware that “asexual” is a thing a person can be, and if they do find out it’s a legitimate orientation, they’re usually the only asexual-identifying person they know in their social group.  This leaves those folks who want an asexual partner to search online or across distance, as they’re unlikely to randomly meet each other and there’s no Asexual Night at the club.

Problem 2: There are plenty of other compatibility factors.  Sexual compatibility is not always an asexual person’s first priority in dating; not being expected to engage in sexual behavior with significant others or spouses doesn’t make it an ideal situation.  It ends up being more practical to partner up for other reasons, and if it’s possible, work out the sexual compatibility in individual cases.

Mixed-Sexuality Relationships

So in a relationship that includes asexual people and people who do experience sexual attraction, compromise is in order, and we find that most people will assign the fault to the asexual(s) in this sort of relationship.  This couple or group is seen as problematic because “the asexual person doesn’t want sex enough,” not because “the sexual needs here are mismatched.”  To begin to understand these compatibility issues, we have to first acknowledge that every arrangement is different and the ultimate purpose should not be “how can we change the asexual person?”

Some people feel that those who experience sexual attraction are “the default” and therefore shouldn’t share any of the “blame” for incompatibility.  In their minds, sex is just something they should expect to receive in a normal relationship.  It is owed to them; it is understood to be part of the package deal.

Anyone who feels it is impossible to be in a relationship in which the partner(s) might not consider sex a necessity should not establish a relationship with an asexual person who’s reluctant toward or repulsed by sex.  I should stress that there is nothing wrong with feeling that sex is necessary in your relationship.  That’s fine—it’s your right to specify what the boundaries of your relationship are and what expressions of intimacy you’re looking for.  Just please try to understand it as your preference, not as “the way things are supposed to be” (therefore supposedly justifying demands that the asexual person should be the only one to compromise).

If an asexual person wants a relationship with someone who does want to make sex part of the relationship, compromise is required in individual cases.  Here are some ways that couples or groups with different sexual needs involving one or more asexual people have handled their relationships.

  1. Sometimes a partner with sexual needs is willing to give up sex for an asexual partner, and ignores/dismisses sexual urges or takes care of them through masturbation.
  1. Sometimes an asexual person agrees to have occasional or regular sex, depending on the degree of tolerance for or interest in sex the asexual person has.
  1. Sometimes an asexual person agrees to an open relationship or open marriage in which a partner who wants to can have other partners.
  1. Sometimes an asexual person is part of a polyamorous group in which the other partners have their sexual needs satisfied with each other.
  1. Sometimes the partner(s) with sexual needs can be satisfied by physically intimate play that does not actually lead up to sex (some asexual people enjoy or allow kissing, cuddling, making out, petting, or even stimulating a partner’s genitals manually or using toys).

Some people for whom sex is vitally important scoff at the idea of a person of “normal” sexuality actually being willing to give it up for an asexual partner who’s unwilling to have sex, but I have explicitly heard from non-asexual partners of asexual people who say they just don’t consider sex absolutely imperative when other things in the relationship mean more to them.  People outside this equation don’t get to judge that relationship as incomplete, accuse the asexual person of being cruel, or accuse the non-asexual person of obviously “getting it on the side” (or suggest cheating is inevitable once they get frustrated).  Close-minded people often insist that their sexual negotiations define what is healthy, accusing anyone with a different arrangement of lying about their happiness.  But every partnership needs to be negotiated by its participants—not by people who simply can’t imagine being happy in that arrangement themselves.

Asexual people do sometimes feel guilty if they don’t satisfy their partners in a way that seems so fundamental and important to them.  This happens even without inordinate pressure from the partners or society.  No one likes to be a disappointment, and asexual people are (sadly) pretty used to being treated like they are not good enough for a partner because of this “flaw.”

If you’re a person who does experience sexual attraction and you find yourself dating or wanting to date an asexual person, please be sensitive to this and also understand that asexual people want to work with you to make sure you’re happy.  If there’s something they can give you that they’re willing to do and it does not violate terms either of you hold dear, it can still be a satisfying relationship.  Considering it’s common in relationships to have different sexual appetites, quirks, desires, kinks, and preferences, all relationships contain this element of compromise to some degree.  Just remember that a relationship with an asexual person is not necessarily all or nothing.

Some asexual people do get married.  It’s not impossible, and it’s not ridiculous.  They may or may not want children.  They may or may not want a monogamous relationship.  They may or may not like physical intimacy that does not lead to sex, and they should be trusted to navigate these avenues themselves even though it can be difficult.

Sometimes, therapy does help.  However, please be aware that not all sex therapists or relationship therapists recognize the legitimacy of asexuality, and it’s possible they may target the less willing partner as the problem.  If your therapy focuses entirely on how to help an asexual person tolerate or initiate sex more often to satisfy someone with a larger sexual appetite, it is not balanced therapy.  Unless the asexual person has expressed a wish to cultivate an interest in or a tolerance for sexual activity, this is not appropriate and you should find yourself another therapist.

swankivy

Swankivy is a writer, singer, and artist from Florida, USA. She writes fiction and nonfiction under the name Julie Sondra Decker, and is currently pursuing publication for her fantasy series. Her nonfiction book on asexuality, THE INVISIBLE ORIENTATION, is available from Skyhorse Publishing (September 2014). Swankivy is heavily involved in asexuality awareness and produces two YouTube series on the subject: The Asexuality Top Ten and Letters to an Asexual. She has also written asexuality-related essays on her website and on Tumblr, and she has appeared in the media consistently giving interviews to magazines, films, television, and radio. As an aromantic asexual person, swankivy is happily single (not looking!) and has an active social life, and she is always buried in creative projects. She also runs a weekly fantasy webcomic and a monthly comic strip about the writing life. She also likes karaoke, baking, biking, tennis, Dance Dance Revolution, decorating, reading, and avoiding sleep. When swankivy has to work for a living, she functions as an administrative assistant and a freelance editor, and she majored in music and education at the University of Florida.

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4 Responses

  1. Squeebers42 says:

    Yay! Informed advice!
    I’ve been roaming about the internet, looking for valid, comprehensive sources on the subject. But there are so many different sources out there, so many aspects to cover that any given source might miss, and so many misconceptions floating around, that I figured it would be best to consult people who are actually part of the community. Could you recommend any sources that are particularly thorough/accurate?

    The character in question isn’t the main one, though she will be very important. This story is threatening to become a series (gulp!), and once she’s introduced halfway through the first book, she’ll be present throughout. I promise her orientation will not be all of her personality; it may not even come up until a couple books in. When it does, I’ll try to keep it from being forced, didactic, or token-y. The story is going to take place in a superhero universe, so there won’t be any plot-lines about trying to change her orientation. (Well, I guess that could happen in a superhero universe, but you’d think people would have better things to do). She’ll probably be aromantic, but with a tendency to form very strong platonic relationships. She’ll have no qualms whatsoever about discussing sex, and will probably be a lot less repressed on the subject than my bisexual main character.

    My biggest concern about the character is this: Due to the superhero universe setting, pretty much all of the characters are at least a little eccentric. The character in question, though not the most eccentric team-member by any means, is not the least either. I don’t want to inadvertently spread the idea that asexuality is somehow eccentric or abnormal. At the same time, though, I don’t want to squash the character’s personality. How would you feel personally about such a character? What steps might I take to avoid making anyone feel hurt/marginalized/offended?

    Also, there will probably be at least one demisexual character in the story, possibly more. The main character’s love interest may identify as demisexual (in his case, demisexual-biaesthetic-bisensual-panromantic-heterosexual…and also arguably gender-fluid).
    My main concerns with him are:
    1.) Depending on the source, I’ve seen varying definitions for “demisexual.” At this point, my understanding of demisexual is someone who requires a significant emotional connection to a person before becoming sexually attracted to him/her. Is this correct?
    2.) Back to that superhero universe issue… He’s an empath. (I.e. He feels other people’s emotions directly, as if they were his own.) And I want to avoid the idea that he’s merely demisexual because of his super-powered empathy, or that his empathy in any way cancels out his demisexuality. What are your thoughts on this?

    Thank you both so much for your advice so far, and please let me know if you find any of this objectionable/problematic.

  2. Squeebers42 says:

    Hi! I was wondering if you have any tips for writing asexual characters in fiction. Though character-creation naturally requires writing the character as a person first (regardless of orientation, gender expression, etc.), I am afraid of inadvertently walking into a stereotype. What are some big stereotypes to avoid (maybe even ones held by well-meaning people who acknowledge asexuality as a genuine orientation), and how would you personally like to see asexuality depicted in fiction?

    • Sam says:

      Hi Squeebers, I’m not Swankivy but I hope you don’t mind if I reply anyway! I’m also not an accomplished author or anything, though I do enjoy writing and identify as asexual, so maybe I can help you. C: I’m also trying realllly hard not to go into asexual 101, since it seems like you understand that already, and instead focus only on stereotypes/misconceptions about asexuality. I’m not sure I succeed entirely, so please excuse my tangents. Also I can really only speak from either my own experiences or what little research I have done, so I definitely recommend you do some research on your own as well.

      Some major stereotypes (or rather, misconceptions) I’ve heard include:
      -the idea that I won’t know unless I try it (and therefore that all asexual people are virgins anyway)
      -that I’m scared or too embarrassed to try sex (or that I’m “picky” or cold)
      -that I was sexually abused in the past
      -that I’m actually straight but haven’t met the right guy yet
      -that I’m actually gay and in the closet
      -that I can’t have a happy, healthy (romantic) relationship without sex

      So yeah, asexual people are stereotyped as anti-sex, or sexually repressed. There is also the idea that we “just want attention” and that we are making it all up. We are thought of as boring, lonely, socially isolated or awkward, desperate, depressed, or even “mentally ill” and need to be fixed (usually by going to therapy) because EVERYONE wants sex, right?
      There is also the idea that life is easier for us (because we don’t have to deal with sex as a “distraction”) or that we are snobs or think we are better than other people. These can come from the “well-meaning” people, who usually try to either a) sympathize with us, by thinking that we are lonely or sad, by telling us that we will meet someone eventually or that we will grow out of it or b) “admire” us and say that they wish they could be like us because we probably have so much free time, are more knowledgeable or somehow spiritually enlightened. (Although the people that want us to go to therapy in order to “cure” us would probably see themselves as well-meaning or helpful as well.)

      You might want to watch the “Shit People Say to Asexuals” for a list of, well, all the shit we have heard: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBabpK_nvs0&list=UUwcxPTYqkg2JM3lFq6TifzA&index=5&feature=plpp_video

      If you want to know how NOT to write asexual characters, look at the few “visible” characters on recent tv: An episode of House M.D. titled “Better Half,” Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory, and the titular character from Sherlock. Although in the latter’s case, he apparently is not/will not be written as asexual because that would be “boring.” Here is a post about that: http://aceofholmes.tumblr.com/post/16377935287/im-kind-of-surprised-how-surprised-offended-aces-are
      And here is a post on the House episode (and mentions of The Big Bang Theory): http://asexualspace.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/stereotypical/#more-183

      Although I personally can’t really speak for or about those shows, as I have not seen them, I’ve certainly heard about them in the asexual community. These are all posts I found on the first page of google when I looked up “how to write asexual characters” by the way, so you may want to do that yourself. Swankivy has also written many wonderful articles on asexuality.
      Although if you know about asexuality- which it seems that you do- then you probably already know what the stereotypes are.

      As for tips writing an asexual character, well, avoid stereotypes. Also do your research on asexuality; although it is important to have a character defined by character traits, actions, motivations, etc., it is also important to do your research when writing about anyone who falls outside of your own group or identity, be it a different race or sexual orientation or what have you. You also probably want to decide what “type” of asexual character you want to write- aromantic, demi-sexual, biromantic asexual, homoromantic asexual, etc etc. Personally, I would love to see a wide range of asexual characters represented in fiction: an aromantic asexual who is happily single, a bi-romantic asexual who is dating a demisexual woman, a single parent who identifies as asexual, you name it. I’d also love to see an asexual protagonist or hero. ;3 It might also be a good idea to “start small,” so to speak, and not try to cover all of asexuality with one character.
      Also, and this probably goes without saying, but asexual people have the same interests as other people. Shocking, I know. We can also have sex or have sexual relationships, although not all of us want to. Like I said, it depends on the individual.

      Anyway, I think it’s great that you want to write asexual characters! C: My post certainly is NOT an end all list of what to do or what not to do- in fact, I’ve only written on this a couple of times so I am far from an expert- though I hope it helped you.

    • swankivy says:

      Hi Squeebers42.

      Glad to hear you’d like to write about asexual characters. I’m also a fiction author, and have written asexual characters, but not in anything I intend to get traditionally published as such.

      The stereotype you should probably try hardest to avoid is writing an asexual character who’s obnoxiously prudish and/or extremely ignorant about sexuality. It’s okay if a historically abstinent asexual character’s personal inexperience shines through in the places where that would make sense, but as long as you don’t portray your asexual character(s) as necessarily clueless about sex or necessarily disgusted by it/offended by it/elitist about not being attracted to anyone, you probably will do okay assuming your other character-building skills are up to snuff.

      As for what I’d like to see in fiction, I’d appreciate more incidentally asexual characters. As in, I’d like to see people who are asexual without it being a plot point. I wouldn’t want the character’s asexuality to be tangentially mentioned and then ignored to the point that the character’s presence leans toward tokenism, but I’d appreciate it if every time asexuality is part of who someone is, it isn’t their whole identity and it isn’t essential to moving the plot forward (especially if it’s about another character trying to change them, and MORE especially if that other character succeeds).

      Good luck.