This is a long post, but Girlfriend, otherwise known as Ashley, offered to have a conversation with me about being in an asexual/sexual relationship, and we found a few things to discuss. Lots of this is, of course, unique to us. But since the number of available accounts are so small, any addition to the conversation helps build a wider picture.
A vague overview of what we talked about: how we experience romantic attraction, how she experiences sexual and aesthetic attraction, how we experienced our friendship with both of us being in love with the other but not knowing, and not having the cultural sexual cues to work off of, navigating sex and consent, and a question from Maddox about how we ‘came out’ to each other in regards to sexuality and gender. Also, we occasionally lapse into sap.
You know me, but I thought I’d introduce you to Ashley. Ashley is also a student, and preparing to major in East Asian languages and religious studies in college. She’s recently started Hermeneutism, where she plans to discuss philosophy, religion, gender, sexuality, and fashion, among other things. She’s a polysexual (attracted to many genders, but not all) genderqueer femme, and we’ve known each other for several years now. She enjoys discussing politics, cooking, and assures me her attraction to Stephen Colbert is no threat to our relationship.
Me: What made you want to have this conversation? I asked if you wanted to do a guest post, but you helped direct what we would talk about and obviously agreed to do it.
Ashley: First of all, I wanted to help out because I love you and I love this blog and I wanted to support you. But also, there’s a lot if ignorance and misinformation out there surrounding asexuality. I hoped that this would clarify what asexuality is and isn’t and what it can look like in a relationship. I know a lot of people who would claim that because we have sex, you’re not asexual anymore or never were, and I hoped I could maybe help clear up that misunderstanding.
Me: You are terribly sweet. I love you too. And I definitely have seen that. “You have sex? You masturbate? Not asexual!” I think that’s a fairly common impression. It seems like there’s a basic confusion about what asexuality is. And not a lot of examples of what it can look like in an ace/sexual relationship. So thank you for working so hard on this with me.
Ashley: You’re welcome! I hope people find my contributions at least somewhat informative and interesting.
Me: I think it’ll be a useful point to reference. Especially when there starts to be a network of stories out there. And of course I already use any excuse to get to talk smart with you.
So, to start us off, do you separate romantic and sexual attraction in your head?
Ashley: I don’t think I really can! To me, they are so tied up into the same thing most of the time, and they basically feed into one another.
Me: So if you see someone you are not in love, with who you think is sexy, do you think of that as aesthetic attraction?
Ashley: Yes, basically. With the exception of the occasional man that I find so aesthetically attractive as to be sexually arousing, my romantic feelings are the origin of my sexual ones.
Me: That is very interesting. I don’t think I have heard anyone talking about this before. They just kind of squint and seem confused if you ask.
Ashley: It’s a bit more pronounced in your case, because I love you so much more than any of the other people I’ve been in love with, but it’s mostly because I love you so very much that I desire and enjoy sex with you. When my feelings reach a point where verbal expressions and cuddling and stories aren’t enough to express all my emotions, I turn to sexual expressions of love.
Plus I think you are very aesthetically attractive, yourself. ;)
Me: Well I’ll be ;) I think you are pretty aesthetically attractive too.
And aww, I love you too. And the things we do together, I want to do them because I know you enjoy them and find them fulfilling. But that’s very interesting! I wish we had other sexual perspectives on aesthetic vs./and sexual vs./and romantic attraction so we had some data to compare this to.
When we have talked meta about the things we do together I have always gotten the impression that everything we did was very emotional for you, not just something that could be satisfied by anyone wandering by.
Ashley: No, not really at all. For me it’s all tied up with both the love and frankly, the lust I feel for you, and I think the longer we’re together and the more things we share, the more my love map changes to revolve around you.
Me: It makes my heart go all funny when you use smart words like love map. I think the longer we are together the more mine shifts to build around you, too. And I express it through ways like talking about cuddling and researching apartments and looking at cute salt and pepper shakers to reflect our inside jokes.
Ashley: Even my kinks have shifted to reflect what you are comfortable with, the way you behave when we’re together, and what you enjoy doing.
Me: Aw. I am glad. I know that there are some things I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable with that you might want to experiment with if I was. But you’ve never made me feel pressured and you’ve always taken the time to explain things for me
Ashley: I mean, previously I would fantasize about any number of people but I find myself doing that less and less, noticing other people less and less. And when I do, it’s a severely scaled-down version of the attraction I used to experience Of course, that’s by no means a universal truth, but so far it’s been my experience.
Me: Oh, naturally. That’s one of the downsides of this conversation — having nothing to compare it to. But also one of the reasons that it’s great you’re willing to have it for other people to look at. Can you tell I just finished reading a ton of research papers complaining about having no data to compare to? But you have to start out somewhere, so maybe in the future, there’ll be more conversations for people to reference when they’re trying to figure out themselves or get a sense of people in general
Ashley: Well, I was under the impression that this was part of a larger project? So my hope is that as the submissions come in, the data pool will begin to paint a more complete picture of what sexual attraction is at a core level. I’m excited to read what-all people write!
Me: People have been asking others to write about how they experience attraction, and also how people navigate ace/sexual relationships. Right now it’s not organized into a blog carnival or anything. I hope more people start writing, too
Ashley: I know we’ve talked about this before, but for the sake of this conversation, how do you experience romantic attraction?
Me: Hmm I think I experienced it for a long time before being able to identify it. I’m still working on that post, but there was a point where I recognized that my feelings weren’t just intense feelings of friendship. Because if they had been, I could’ve been happy labeling our relationship as friends. But the thought of you being happy with “friends” and not with “romantic partners” made me sad, and that was part of what made me realize I was in love instead of having found a BFF.
Ashley: Huh. That’s interesting and I think it goes back to what Sciatrix said about so many people defining their romantic feelings in terms of what they aren’t: in this case, romantic love is not intense friendship.
Me: Oh that’s true. I hadn’t realized that. But I suppose sometimes having reference points to define things off of each other helps, because when you’re talking about sub-sets of “emotions,” refrences to other emotions help. But if you don’t experience an emotion, it’s hard to imagine what you’re not experiencing.
But it was wanting you to feel a certain way and and looking at how I felt made me realize I was in love. It’s just like, this deep pit of feeling in my chest. I’ve had good friends before, even intense friendships, but the intensity of my feelings for you are so all-encompassing that it blows the rest of what I’ve experienced out of the water. None of my other relationships compare. Even though we were doing normal “friend” things, I wanted… reciprocity, I guess. I wanted to know it was intense for you as it was for me. And if it wasn’t and had no chance of being that way, asking you whether it could be could’ve messed things up. Which was part of why I couldn’t find a way to ask
Ashley: Well, I am really glad I was so brave, then.
Me: I am too. You were ridiculously brave. I’m still in awe of that. I guess a good thing to ask would be what made you come to the point where you had to ask, even with the risk.
Ashley: I think our experiences are somewhat similar in that before I realized I was queer I mistook my romantic feelings for ones of intense friendship. The only way I was able to realize that they weren’t platonic was due to the accompanying surge of sexual feelings once I hit puberty. I think some of the difficulty in defining romantic and sexual attraction comes from the fact that society is so centered around heterosexual relationships that anyone whose experience falls outside of that is basically left without a frame of reference in which to contextualize their experience. (Which includes heteroromantic aces, fellow sexual queers!)
Me: You are so smart. That’s true! All our words and ideas are built off the idea of the heterosexual sexual and romantic relationship. Like I remember looking up “romantic friendship” and seeing how that fell out of favor once physical contact started to become more taboo because it became to be seen as more inherently sexual, and intense friendships between people of the same gender (or even not the same gender) were regarded with more suspicion and hostility, like they were edging into “romantic” territory, which was only open to men and women in societally-approved relationships with each other. So I think there was definitely a shift where we lost some ideas and concepts and words.
There was a Queer Secret where someone asked “What happened to romantic friendship?” and back when I was confused whether I was in love I almost reblogged it, but I knew you knew my Tumblr and I didn’t want to be hideously obvious or make you feel awkward if you found I’d reblogged it.
But that was back when I didn’t know how I felt and I was afraid if I was in love with you, you’d never feel the same way about me, so I thought if I could categorize my feelings as friendship they’d be more acceptable to you. And you would be less likely to reject me for being weird and feeling too intensely about you. I didn’t want to creep you out.
Ashley: Ditto, which is why I tried to throw in so many red herrings about my “unwillingness” to get romantically involved with an ace person — I figured it would provide an appropriate barrier to keep the high levels of affection I was expressing within socially appropriate norms.
Me: Well, it worked. ;) I didn’t have much experience with friends who were as affectionate as you but the red herrings did just make me think, “Oh, she’s affectionate. This is normal for what friends do.”
(Not that it wouldn’t be normal for other people to do, if they didn’t feel romantically about each other. It was just that if I went looking for signs you might be in love with me too, I was thinking that you were qualifying your feelings as friendship.)
Ashley: I’m afraid I inadvertently broke your heart a few times in the process, and I can never apologize enough for that. But we’ve gotten really off-topic!
Me: We have. Also you didn’t break my heart a lot. I just thought that was the way you felt. I mean, people fall in love with friends all the time, I’m guessing.
Ashley: Well maybe not, since this is to do with navigating a sexual-asexual relationship!
Me: True! Because the ace person wouldn’t possibly have the same points to work off of as a sexual person falling for their sexual best friend (and neither would the sexual person falling for the ace best friend).
Ashley: The early stages: identifying feelings and confirming their reciprocity is more complicated.
Me: And it’s very scary to confirm reciprocity. So you may feel like you don’t even have that option. Like we both felt for a while.
Ashley: I agree! Without a broad social frame with which to work, it was more complicated for you to confirm your feelings and more difficult for me to pick up on vibes. For me, the most obvious one to detect was always lust, and obviously that wasn’t applicable in this case.
I actually had to explicitly ask if you felt the same as me, which I have not once had to do before.
Me: Oh, yeah. It’s interesting to see it from your side since we haven’t gotten around to talk about it before. My vibes were harder to identify because there was no established etiquette for you to rely on around what an ace person in love looks like. And I remember you did explicitly ask me right after you told me how you felt.
Ashley: I sort of suspected that time I almost died, but other than that I really did expect to be rejected.
Me: Well you also though I was probably aromantic.
Ashley: Yes. Anyways. How about we address how we navigate the sexual aspects of our relationship.
Me: That would be good.
Ashley: Obviously, sex is very important to me. It’s both necessary and deeply meaningful.
Me: Yes. But you’ve been able to communicate those feelings to me without also making me feel pressured. You’ve always stressed that you want to know what I’m comfortable with and at what pace.
Ashley: I think that’s crucial to why we’ve been as successful as we have been, and it’s a balance I’m trying hard to maintain.
Me: It has been crucial. I remember when you told me how when you visited over the summer, you didn’t expect to do anything physical if I wasn’t comfortable with it. And I was startled and then just more in love with you because most of what I remember, from back when I was on the AVEN boards, were the “bad” examples of ace/sexual relationships. Where the sexual person pressured the ace person. Not that I ever expected you to do that, because I know you’re better than that, I guess that instance just made me realize that I had been living in what I guess could be called a rape culture, where I was just used to a societal expectation that I could “owe” someone sex.
Ashley: But basically, if I stopped caring about it tomorrow, you could go the rest of your life without, yes?
Me: At this point we’ve done it so often that I would be surprised and miss it, because you enjoy it so much and I enjoy making you feel so good, but if you genuinely didn’t want to do it anymore those feelings would take precedence.
Ashley: But we’re not dissimilar in that our sexual desire is basically wrapped up in each other— in your case because you don’t experience sexual attraction and in my case because I do.
Me: You’re right. My desire for sex revolves around you, and it’s less a desire for sex itself than time with you and something special that only we do with each other. Which is why I would miss it if it suddenly went away. Because it’s so special to us in particular.
Ashley: This has to do with why neither of us like the word “compromise” or think of ourselves as compromising on any front. Which is not to say that it’s an irrelevant concept with respect to sexual/asexual relationships altogether, but rather that it’s not at all appropriate in the context of ours.
Me: It’s not. And I think the word “compromise” is not inherently bad, but I think the word is dangerous because it can so easily slip into “one person going past the bounds of what they are comfortable with to satisfy someone else” rather than “two people negotiating within the bounds of what they are both comfortable with.”
Ashley: I have never seen your asexuality as anything but purely positive, even in the context if our sexual relationship (as paradoxical as that seems).
Ashley: To be entirely honest, the reasons you’ve mentioned for wanting to have sex with me are actually completely attractive and satisfying to me. But that’s entirely because I’m a big sap at heart/ <3
Me: Aw. I am too. <3 That's why we go so well together ;) I am glad that we're able to communicate about how we feel
Ashley: So now that we’ve covered how I feel, why do you not see yourself as compromising?
Me: Hmm, because I have the privilege of not being repulsed by all sexual activity. Because I’m not repulsed by all things sexual, we have overlapping comfort zones as far as sexual activity goes. And what we do as far as sexual activity, we do within those overlapping comfort zones. And we talk a lot to identify what those areas are. So since the things we do are within my comfort zones, it’s not a compromise to do them.
Ashley: Without going into too much detail, some of your preferences have actually proven to be a plus for me. Or I’ve been able to rework your boundaries in a way so that they seem like assets and not limitations.
Me: I think that’s a good point to make. Especially if a sexual person is considering why they may feel like their relationship with an asexual person isn’t working. I think maybe in sexual-sexual relationships, the culture is set up so people don’t talk about their feelings and preferences so much, so maybe people don’t come in thinking about needing to have as many conversations as we’ve had.
Which is also relevant to, I’ve never seen your kinks as bad things. They also introduced you to a culture built around discussion and communication, and the healthy D/s model of always talking to your partner, and continually having conversations about your relationship, has been really beneficial for me.
Ashley: It’s hard for me to separate how much of that might just be my personality, though! I’m the type that likes to hash out everything. That being said, I do take my responsibilities as a sub and a considerate partner very seriously, so it’s probably a little of all three.
Me: True, you do. And we do have really interesting conversations where we’re hashing out all sorts of things. I have also been seeing people talking about consent recently and realizing I have no idea how people not working off a BDSM-influenced model of consent actually figure out things about their relationships. Because of course my model for relationships not including those elements is all contained within pop culture, which rarely if ever discusses consent at all, and I don’t have the same internal things to work off of as the people depicted in those realtionships.
Ashley: I know the popular feminist model seems to be “anything that’s not an enthusiastic, freely-given ‘yes’ is a no,” but the mainstream model seems to be “yes is yes and no comment is yes and even no is sometimes yes,” which is obviously completely unhealthy.
Me: Oh, yes. Like those male Yale students who harassed an all-female building screaming out basically rape threats. (“No means yes!” being one of them, I think.) I have also seen that sometimes iterations of the enthusiastic consent model seem to imply that asexual people couldn’t consent to sex.
Ashley: I’ve seen it as well, and I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe it’s not my place to say, but I feel like even a repulsed ace can consent “enthusiastically” which for these purposes merely means “without coercion”. That is, if you have to *badger* someone to say yes, it isn’t a yes. A “yes!” rather than a “…yes…” “Emphatic” consent would probably be a better term.
Me: I think that too. I mean, you’re not in anyone else’s head. Unless the person is actually unable to make sexual-related decisions for themselves (a child, someone in a coma, someone asleep, someone drugged, etc.), other people can’t say “Well, this person is incapable of consenting without coercion.” You can tell people to stop assuming consent in their partners without also telling them to assume that ace people or whoever else can’t consent. I don’t think being ace is the same thing as being in a coma, as far as decisions about sexual activity go.
Which is why I think it is really important to push consent models and get people talking about consent, because ace people and repulsed people are very vulnerable to messages about “owing” people sex, or that their desire not to have sex is “wrong” because “everyone wants to have sex!”, because they don’t have the same internal desires to work off of as sexual people.
Me: Also we were asked how we disclosed our identities (which I read as gender and sexual identities) in our relationship, and how that went.
Ashley: I honestly don’t remember!
Me: I don’t remember how you told me, at least about your sexuality. I think I told you I was ace when we were talking about how weird it was to be writing a het relationship in a fandom with predominantly gay storylines. Something about writing sex always being weird to me because I was ace. And then I made a joke about only fucking with people’s minds.
Ashley: I think it was more that I was so openly queer and androgynous that there was never a coming out moment. And the process of realizing my true gender was so instinctual and gradual that I can’t pinpoint a specific time that I started identifying as an androgyne.
Me: I don’t remember a specific moment when you told me, either. I do remember you talking about how you felt, but it was gradual and over time. And then obviously I remember you telling a community mod that their demographics poll didn’t have enough options under gender, because you couldn’t select yours, and then when they asked what other options were you listed androgyne and neutrois among others. And that’s how I found the word neutrois. I guess our circumstances are special because we were friends. We didn’t have to talk about our identities, initially, in the context of a dating relationship.
Me: Well, thank you for talking all this out more formally than we usually do, and writing something for the blog with me. I really appreciate your perspective and I hope that someone can find it useful.
Ashley: I’m more than happy to, babe! <3 I love you and I love the work that you do on this blog, so I was more than happy to contribute and to support you in your efforts!