ETA: This post is a contribution to the February 2019 Carnival of Aros.
When I think about the relationship between the ace and aro communities, I have a lot of feelings and many things come to mind. As someone who is part of both communities, I experience how often they can harm each other, willingly or unwillingly. This post is both a reflection on this harm and a list of suggestions for things to do to improve the relationship. In general, I feel really positive towards our ability to achieve this in future, so it is ultimately quite a positive post.
First off: I am grateful that there is a Carnival of Aros now, because I am more aromantic than I am asexual, and have never felt comfortable blogging under the asexual label for that reason. There is also, and always has been, lots of negativity towards aces who have sex, and since I am one of those, I only recently started feeling like I am “ace enough”, like I am “queer enough”, to take up space in ace and aro communities.
The only question I have about the Carnival of Aros is: why did it take so long? The ace carnival has been going for years and years, and it’s only in 2019 that someone in the aro community finally decided that we’re different enough, that our experience is worth having its own space and being talked about in a separate forum and we’re not just a tiny sub-set of the already tiny asexual population.
This is amazing, of course. And I am grateful that the ace carnival existed because it will make this easier. But I think I want to be cautious with saying things like “this wouldn’t have happened without the ace Carnival” because of what that implies. There is a sense that the aro community somehow owes the ace community gratitude because the aces went and blazed a trail that we can now follow. And while it’s true that the ace presence online has made a lot of things easier for aromantics, being treated as exclusively a subset of another community isn’t good for a community’s self-esteem or growth.
All that said, I personally feel gratitude for asexual spaces, both online and offline, that were accessible to me at times when I needed them. But I also feel huge gratitude for the outspoken aromantic-spectrum folk who create fiction with aromantic characters, who set up spaces like Arocalypse and created Arospec Awareness Week (which starts TODAY!!!) – and obviously those who have created the Carnival of Aros.
Because, for a very long time, the only real aromantic presence online was The Thinking Aro, which is a site that I alwaus had a love-hate relationship with because, while TTA had a lot of great observations about relationships, identities, and the world at large, and has written things that have helped me personally and that I still think are true, she has also written a lot of things that were hurtful to a large number of people, for instance this post wherein she declares gray- and demisexuality as invalid and decides the “asexual model” of human sexuality is completely incorrect.
There was always a sense of bitterness about her writing, which made me feel, very often, that to be aro was just that: to be bitter that the world won’t acknowledge your relationships, that your friends will leave you once they find a romantic partner, that you will never find someone who can speak the same language of love as you do.
And of course, she didn’t allow comments, so discussions of her posts took place elsewhere.
In the end, of course she was just one person and the blog was there to express her personal views on things. But it was the only aro voice I knew for a long time. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for those who are more positive about their own aromanticism and aromanticism more generally. I am grateful for traditions such as Palentine’s Day, which is the first culturally scripted holiday we have where you are allowed to express affection towards your friends. What a thought!
I think we have come far since those days and I really believe we can go further. So here are some things that I think both communities can do to lessen the tension and create a relationship that is more positive, fruitful, and productive.
Your thinking shapes your language, and your language shapes your thinking. People in general, but asexual communities in particular, can often use language that inadvertently hurts aromantic people. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few things that individuals and community organisers can do to make things more welcoming:
- Don’t assume all arospec people are also asexual-spectrum.
- Don’t use phrases such as “just friends” (better: “friends”) or “more than friends” (better: “something other/different/else than friends”) which imply that friendship is worth less than romantic love.
- Don’t equate romantic love with being human (usually done along the lines of “I don’t have sex, but I still fall in love/want a relationship”).
- Specify when you mean romantic love (as opposed to other kinds of love) to call out the default: “I’m looking for a romantic partner.” “You can really see those two characters love each other romantically.”
- Add the words “aromantic-spectrum” to events announcements, group names, etc. (ex.: “this event is open to asexual-spectrum and aromantic-spectrum people and those who are questioning whether they might be asexual- and/or aromantic-spectrum”).
- Include aromantic-spectrum people in your committees, mod teams, etc.
- Run aromantic-only events. Or let one of your arospec organisers run one.
- No, seriously. That whole thing about being seen as a tiny subgroup of a tiny subgroup? Run aromantic-only events. Or let one of your arospec organisers run one.
- Listen to the arospec people you know and heed their advice on language.
I am including myself in that last one – if anyone has more language tips, I am more than happy to hear and add them, so please leave a comment if you feel so inclined.
1. More mutual education.
Visibility and education to the general population often starts with reductive definitions. Aces “don’t have sex”, aros, “don’t want relationships”. This sort of thing is maybe okay when you’re trying to get allo* (especially allocishet) people used to the general concept that not everyone wants to have sex or be in a relationship, but we’re letting ourselves and each other down if that is the end of it.
Nuance is needed because, as I’ll get to in the next point, everyone’s experience is different. We are a community that is good at acknowledging this in some senses because we have a lot of complex sub-identity labels. There can be a tendency to “cordon off” each identity into its own little space, and I’m personally never sure whether that’s an isolating experience that makes it harder to feel part of a larger umbrella or whether it makes people better at acknowledging that we sit under the same umbrella, but our individual experiences of our identities are still different because people are different. It comes down to the individual, I suppose, but if we talked about our identities more and did it in a respectful way that acknowledges that both asexuality and aromanticism are spectrums, that certain labels are useful to some people and not to others and that that’s okay, that people’s actions (as opposed to attractions) don’t define their identities, this would improve the relationship between the communities.
2. Normalising diverse relationships.
This is the hard one from an aromantic perspective. Personally, I think that normalising relationships that are anything other than the heterosexual two-person romantic relationship with marriage, the acquisition of property, and children as the ultimate life goal and source of fulfillment, is absolutely crucial, for LGBTQIAP+ folks as much as for anyone else.
I’ll start with media representation first. The asexual characters we get to see in mainstream media are, by and large, modelled on a specific type of asexual (usually sex-repulsed, usually romantic) and get into a specific type of relationship (usually monogamous, sexless, romantic).
This isn’t bad by all means, because it does represent a specific type of asexual experience, and it’s amazing that we are getting more and more asexual characters in more media. But it doesn’t represent every asexual ever. More representation of more diverse experiences is needed. And we need to be there to weigh in on this, to make sure we get to tell our own stories rather than leaving it to the non-asexual, non-aromantic folks.
And that goes double for aromantics because, you know what? Just as it’s hard to be visible as an asexual in a relationship (whatever it may or may not involve), it’s really hard to be visible as an aromantic person in a QPR unless you give people intensely personal information about what the relationship does and doesn’t involve and how you specifically feel towards the other person. If you tell people you’re “seeing” or “dating” or “going out with” someone, they will assume that you have romantic feelings and that you’re sleeping together, because of amatonormativity and allonormativity.
Creating fictional characters who are living these diverse experiences is a safer way of exposing people to them than giving people intimate details about our personal lives. I think as asexual-spectrum and aromantic-spectrum people, we have real power to challenge the normative view of relationships. The world we live in is set up to center and give value to two-person romantic relationships, but we don’t have to live that way if we don’t want to. And we’re the best people to talk about this, because we already have so much language about relationships, attraction, and identity that isn’t really used in mainstream discourse.
I would love seeing words like “allonormativity” and “amatonormativity” normalised in mainstream discourse. I would love to see physical affection between friends (especially hetero* male friends) normalised, whether that’s a hug or a kiss or a makeout session or sex. I would like people to be more educated about the fact that romantic feelings, sexual feelings, and strong platonic feelings are different things and that one of them doesn’t necessarily have to be more valuable than others. And that’s before we get to the different types of feelings (sexual desire, sexual attraction, libido, arousal, romantic drive, romantic attraction, and so on). I would love to see people discuss what language to use instead of the normative words like “partner”, “girl/boyfriend”, “the person I’m seeing”. I would love to see diverse relationships normalised!
4. More communication.
Just because we are marginalised in one way, doesn’t mean we can’t hurt people who are marginalised in another, advertently or inadvertently. Asexual visibility and education is often at great pains to say “aces still fall in love, they still have relationships, they just don’t have sex”. Which is not only reductive, but is a way of saying, “look, we’re still human”, because under amatonormativity, romantic attraction, “falling in love”, is prioritised. You could say a similar sentence, “aros still have sex, they still have relationships, they just don’t fall in love”, and people wouldn’t understand how a long-term relationship can involve sex but not romantic love, because other types of love aren’t even part of the conversation. And that really needs to change. Unfortuantely, no one is going to make this change for us, we have to do it ourselves, but on the flipside, this also means we have power. And the first thing to do is to talk more, and be more welcoming, towards each other.
Let’s talk about how to make our communities welcoming to and inclusive of anyone who identifies on the asexual and aromantic spectrum, or is questioning whether they might be. Let’s respect and celebrate people’s identities.