Navigating Asexual Relationships

As part of the modern world, we are bombarded by sex and sexuality. Every image, advertisement, film, and tv show portrays sex and sexuality as a normal and constant part of our lives. And for most people, it is.

However, for the about 1% of people who identify as asexual, the prevalence of sex in the world can feel confusing and exclusionary. Asexuality, the sexual identity characterized by a lack of sexual attraction, is one of the most misunderstood sexualities in the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Information and awareness about asexuality can be difficult to find, especially for young people questioning their identities.

I want to start by saying that I do not personally identify as asexual and therefore, do not claim to speak from any point of expertise or experience. However, I believe this is an important issue that is not explored enough, especially for college-age women. My purpose in writing this article is to spread awareness of asexuality and asexual relationships and I endeavor to do it with the utmost respect for the asexual community. For this article, I interviewed an asexual friend of mine about her personal experiences; she is a freshman at Itahaca College, but has requested to have her identity remain anonymous.

“I realized near the end of my year and a half long relationship [in high school] that I was asexual. There was a point where I really loved the guy, felt safe and comfortable being vulnerable with him, but I never once wanted to have sex with him. I started thinking about and researching asexuality and realized I’ve never had the urge to have sex with anyone or found anyone sexually attractive,” she said.

Approaching a relationship with an asexual person or as an asexual person can be intimidating; however, navigating any relationship successfully requires communication and compromise. One of the most important concepts to understand is that everyone approaches dating and sexuality differently; this is not exclusive to the asexual community. The asexuality spectrum is unique in that it is incredibly broad. There is no one statement or characteristic that will apply to all asexual people, so it is integral that both partners discuss and determine their boundaries together. Some asexual people don’t differentiate between romantic and non-romantic intimate relationships. Other asexual people feel romantic attraction and value some forms of physical intimacy, including cuddling, holding hands, and for some, kissing. Some asexual people are sex-averse and others are merely sex-indifferent. There are asexual people who have active sex lives with their partners and others who seek physical fulfillment through masturbation. Asexual people can also have fluctuating sexual attraction, making consistent communication doubly important.  

“[In a romantic partner], I personally look for a friend who I’m very comfortable joking with and being myself around. I also look for someone I find physically attractive and like to cuddle with. When I’m attracted to someone, it’s a combination of physical attractiveness and their personality,” my friend told me. “The type of physical attraction I experience doesn’t make me want to have sex with them, but I just want to look at them a lot.”

Asexual people should not feel obligated to come out; no one is entitled to an explanation of your sexuality or sexual habits. However, being open about your sexuality and sexual boundaries with potential partners early on in a relationship can help set healthy boundaries and prevent misunderstandings later on in the relationship. All dating is about is exploring your long-term compatibility with another person, and this includes exploring sexual compatibility and honestly.   

Redefining what it means to be intimate can be an important aspect of asexual romantic relationships. Many asexual people feel the desire for a deep, emotional connection through a romantic relationship. If intimacy and sex are completely intertwined ideas for you, you may have to reconsider your personal definition of intimacy or judge whether you can pursue a relationship with an asexual person. Many asexual people desire physical intimacy separate from sex. Taking the time to explore different types of attraction - romantic, aesthetic, or intellectual - can be just as powerful and important to the success of a relationship as sexual intimacy. Though often used interchangeably, there is a clear difference between romantic orientation and sexual orientation.

“I believe some people have a very narrow definition of intimacy and consider sex the only way to be intimate, ignoring other types of physical or emotional intimacy. As a result, they may consider a relationship with an asexual person to be lacking in intimacy,” my friend said.

It can be difficult for asexual people to find each other when looking for a romantic partner and the asexual spectrum is so broad that two asexual people could have very different sexual needs regardless. As a sexual person dating an asexual person, it is important that you do not take your partner’s lack of sexual attraction personally. Asexuality, like any other sexual identity, is not a choice. Assuming your partner does not feel sexual attraction because of your body or sexual performance is a fundamental misunderstanding of what asexuality is. Guilt and insecurity on either side will cause any relationship to quickly deteriorate. It is also critical that you do not judge or pressure your partner for sex. Treating an asexual partner as broken or flawed is deeply damaging and will reinforce the pervasive, incorrect idea that asexuality occurs due to trauma or disability. This common misconception is why many who identify as asexual are misunderstood by mental health and medical professionals alike.

“In my last relationship, I eventually told my non-ace partner that I felt emotionally apathetic about our sexual activity. I was ok to do it, but I would have been just as fine without it. He took it personally when I told him I wanted to partake in sexual activity less,” my friend confided. “[He] tried to get me to ‘compromise’ with him on my stance on sex and he was ignoring the fact that I wasn’t consenting to it.”

As someone with sexual desires, do not allow your sexual needs to take a backseat in your relationship. Mismatched or hidden sexual desires can make or break a relationship, so establishing boundaries acceptable for both partners is important. If sex with another person is definitely a need for you and you are dating an asexual person, research and discuss potential compromises. Some asexual partners are willing to have sex with their partners and others may be willing to pursue an open or polyamorous relationship.

“A lack of sexual interest doesn’t mean that their partner is not attracted to them. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that sex will be absent from the relationship,” my friend said. “Like with any relationship, consent is essential.”

Finally, if and only if you and your partner are completely comfortable with it, consider being open about your relationship. One of the issues many young asexual people face is a lack of representation. Knowing that people who experience sexual attraction are in happy relationships with asexual people without it being framed as “settling” can boost awareness and acceptance of the asexual community.

“I have never seen a neurotypical asexual person depicted in the media. The lack of asexual representation and visibility made it very difficult for me to find the words that best expressed my experiences. I also grew up very knowledgeable about the LGBTQIA+ community and the terms associated with it so it’s a little troubling that it took me 18 years to realize that I would define myself as asexual,” my friend revealed. “I also feel like I would be less scared of my partners leaving me when I come out to them if asexuality was a more familiar topic. I would also like to hear stories from successful relationships ace and non-ace people have had. That would have been comforting.”

Some sources available for anyone more interested in learning about asexuality include The Asexual Visibility and Education Network. This website also has a specific forum for partners, friends, and allies of asexual people.