Growing up, I remember hearing fellow fans of my favorite television shows express frustration about the platonic relationships between characters. For ardent shippers like them, the romance was the end goal. There was a profound sense of disappointment if it didn’t materialize. What a waste, they would comment with an eye-roll.
I remember thinking, around the same time, that everyone seemed to be dating—my older brother, my cousins, some of my friends. It was an awareness that rooted in the back of my mind and spread in earnest when I started Latin dance. There had to be a hand on my partner’s chest, a sultry look from beneath fluttering eyelashes, a tension between us that promised something more.
Any comment that our instructors made about our chemistry confused me. I wasn’t sure what it was that I was supposed to be feeling. I obsessively watched videos of other dancers, making notes about how they interacted with one another, trying to condense the sensuality of the rumba or the overt sexuality of the samba into a checklist that I could follow. Every performance was a kind of game for me, a level I had to pass by meticulously accomplishing all of the tasks within it. It was a character that I eventually managed to sell convincingly, but the discomfort persisted.
“You’re still young,” I was told when I voiced my concerns. “You’ll be comfortable with it when you’re ready.”
That it was said with a knowing smile and a pat on the shoulder meant to acknowledge my naïveté. It told me that I shouldn’t worry because these feelings would change and that the day would come when I, too, understood romantic and sexual desire. I nodded along, even as the nagging sense that that wasn’t the case gnawed at me. Even as I wondered why I had to understand it and why everyone else seemed to accept that having relationships and possibly marriage and children was just what you did when you grew up.
I listened to the gossip about an unmarried aunt of mine—a successful woman, intelligent and well-liked, but also the subject of endless speculation. What was it that made her off-putting to men? Was she hiding an atrocious temper, perhaps? Wasn’t it sad that no one would take care of her when she grew old? I steered clear of these conversations as much as I could, all the while wondering if loneliness and misery and a trail of rumors were the only future for me.
I quit Latin dance at 14, which was right about when life outside of dance had become an exercise in dodging questions about crushes and dates and which celebrities I would sleep with if I could. In a particularly insidious example of misogyny, my hesitance was rewarded with praise for being “conservative,” and I was reminded that it was a good thing for a woman to be a late bloomer. I internalized this perspective, clinging to the guise of childlike innocence because it afforded me a temporary way out of confronting my aversion to dating.
It wasn’t until I was 19 that I heard of the aromantic and asexual spectra and realized that not having these relationships—not wanting them at all—was an option. Reconciling my identity as an aromantic asexual woman eased the panic that consumed me whenever I considered forcing myself into situations that I didn’t want in order to fulfill the expectations of others. Despite the continued external pressure, I can at least tell myself, with confidence, that my lack of attraction isn’t a phase. It doesn’t make me immature. It doesn’t mean that I’m confused. And I have, in fact, met the right people—thoughtful, supportive, and deeply passionate people that I have the privilege of calling my dearest friends. My identity is not a problem to be fixed; it’s just who I am.
Society conditions us to believe that a lack of romantic or sexual attraction is a transitory period. This viewpoint assumes an inevitable progression from a nonsexual to sexual state of being that marks entry into adulthood. Similarly, engaging in romantic relationships is recognized as a milestone of maturity. This stereotyping results in the infantilization of all aromantic and asexual spectra people, especially those who are entirely romance and/or sex-averse. It also incorrectly characterizes asexual people as sex-negative, even though personal sex-aversion and general sex positivity are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, the idea of “being ready” to progress from friendships to romantic and sexual relations undermines the value of platonic relationships, which are integral to our community.
Identifying as aromantic or asexual is continually being told to wait until the right person makes you snap out of it. It’s being perceived as if you’re lacking the emotional bandwidth to engage meaningfully with other people. It’s being made to feel as though you’ve missed a step in fundamental human development. Some people feel entitled to ask invasive questions about your personal life, from childhood to sexual history, as part of a pseudo-psychoanalytic effort to explain away your orientation.
I’ve seen relationships between kindergartners validated. We recognize that children and teenagers experience attraction and may act on it. The notion that I, at 22, am still too young to determine my romantic and sexual orientations is condescending and thoroughly insulting. I’ve been asked to list out all of the qualities that I appreciate so that an assessment of who I should be dating could be made on my behalf. A man who was flirting with an asexual friend of mine told her that she is “weirdly pure.” He proceeded to make unwanted sexual advances, telling her that he knew she would enjoy it if only she gave it a chance. Even if you have the best of intentions, undermining the agency of aromantic and asexual spectra people facilitates the erasure of our community as a whole.
Coming of age is an intrinsically difficult process, made all the more challenging for nonheteronormative youth. Young aromantic and asexual people have to navigate a landscape of sexual politics that has no place for them. They have to combat a stigma that questions them constantly and reiterates that their identities are invalid. Constructive media representation would be helpful in providing a guiding blueprint. But more than anything, there has to be a shift in the culture toward affirming aromanticism and asexuality. While romance and sex are an important part of growing up for many, these experiences do not constitute a universal rite of passage. They don’t define our maturity or our ability to form fulfilling relationships, and they certainly don’t diminish our humanity.
Asexuality Awareness Week runs from Oct. 21 to 27. Learn more here.