As fulfilling as it is to learn more about the queer community, it can be overwhelming to wade through the ever-thickening alphabet soup known as the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. On top of that, each letter functions as its own umbrella for a variety of more specific identities and subcategories — and all those names and hyphenates run the risk of giving you a beautiful, rainbow-hued headache. The “A” in LGBTQIA+ actually encompasses about 26 different identities as outlined by the Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society, including (but not limited to) asexual, agender, and aromantic. But let’s assume you’re not yet well-versed in those 26+ identities. If your partner comes out to you as asexual (or ace, as it’s often abbreviated), it might be difficult to know exactly how to support them through this major discovery. In that case, Claudia Johnson, a Seattle-based sex and relationship therapist from the PNW Sex Therapy Collective, offers a great place to start.
“If somebody comes out to you as ace, instead of responding with this morbid curiosity of ‘Ooh, what is that like?’ you could say, ‘What can I do? How can I support you? Have I ever done anything to harm you?’ Those are good questions!” Johnson tells Elite Daily. Additionally, she says it’s important to ask for greater clarity about how they identify.
What Is Asexuality?
At its most basic, a person who identifies as asexual does not feel sexual attraction for other people. But of course, there’s a kaleidoscope of individual experiences that make up what’s called the “Ace Spectrum.” In order to best support your partner and your relationship, it’s useful to have a sense of where your partner falls along that spectrum.
“There are a lot of people who identify as ‘ace’ but they still find sex pleasurable. Some of them are sex-neutral, and some of them are sex-repulsive. There are a lot of different experiences,” Johnson says.
On the ace spectrum, Johnson explains that allosexuality — a term used to describe people who do experience sexual attraction — sits at one end. In the middle of the spectrum are people who might identify as gray-sexual or gray-romantics, who “go a bit more either way,” Johnson says. This means they may enjoy having sex for pleasure, are neutral about having sex, or are just not at all interested in sex, period. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s asexuality and aromanticism — people who have little to no sexual or romantic attraction to others.
The Split Attraction Model (SAM)
To illustrate the difference between sexual attraction and romantic feelings, the ace community coined what’s known as the split attraction model (SAM). “Somebody who identifies as asexual may still experience romantic feelings toward a partner,” Johnson says. “SAM means you can identify as heteroromantic, or biromantic, or panromantic, and you could still be asexual, and just not have sexual feelings.”
So, what if sex was a regular part of you and your partner’s relationship, but now they’ve come out to you as asexual? Johnson says they very likely could fall somewhere in the gloriously murky middle of the ace spectrum. “Maybe they still understand the importance of that [sexual] transaction or that interaction, maybe they’re able to access their pleasure, or they’re able to just experience a good time with their partners and connect in that way,” Johnson says. “It’s not the same for somebody who would experience sex repulsion or who could be super triggered and is really not able to engage in that kind of activity. There are some people who identify as ace who have no problem engaging in masturbation practices but when we add another partner, that’s not OK. Or they’re totally OK with giving and not receiving. There are so many different iterations.”
How To Support Your Partner After They Come Out
As a partner to a newly out asexual person, it’s totally normal to feel confused or lost as you attempt to move forward together. Johnson encourages those partners to take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about their own relationships to sex and desire.
“We live in a society that shoves sexuality in everybody’s faces; it’s so expected for everybody to be allosexual and want to have sexual connections with other people,” Johnson says. “But that is one option, that is one story. So what does it say about you [if you’re uncomfortable with your partner’s asexual identity]? Does it make you feel vulnerable because you’ve tied your value to that desire and that sexuality? Does it have an impact on your own ideas of what you’re worth?”
Johnson says that in her sessions, clients working through similar situations often ask a version of the question, “Who am I, and who are we, if we’re not having sex?” But it’s important to remember that sex is just one part of building a connection. “There are so many ways to express love and intimacy,” says Johnson. She encourages anyone in a relationship with an asexual person to consider what they’ve been “exposed to” culturally and how it might “impact your reaction to your partner’s identity.”
“You might feel like, ‘Whoa this was really out of the blue, but I love you so much, and not being with you doesn’t necessarily resonate with me, so what do we do?’ And I firmly believe in self-advocacy and self-realization. You will figure it out,” she says. “This is not a dealbreaker unless you want it to be. At the end of the day, do you want to be with this person and do they want to be with you? If not as partners, how else can you support them? As a friend? As an ally or advocate?”
Understanding What Asexuality Means For Your Relationship
Your ongoing conversation about sexuality and the ace spectrum might offer both you and your partner a chance to expand your assumptions about sex. Societally, people tend to think of sex as penetration, and as the primary way to communicate desire. But the ace spectrum sheds light on the many ways people can express love and desire, and the infinite forms a relationship can take.
“When we start moving away from those standards or those boxes, we begin to understand that sexuality is always changing and evolving,” Johnson says. “You might become less rigid with the way you experience sexuality and romanticism and relationships. And a lot of people in that situation navigate towards open relationships; they move away from putting all their expectations on one person. So ask yourself: What is the relationship structure that I feel comfortable with? Is it the one that I think I want because of society and what I’ve been exposed to, or is it something different that I want to co-create with my partner?”
No matter how you feel about moving forward in or outside of your relationship, Johnson stresses the importance of not taking your partner’s exciting new discovery personally. “With the ace spectrum, there’s this misconception that it’s something you choose. You can choose to be celibate, but with asexuality, it’s not a choice. It’s your identity, it’s who you are,” Johnson says. In fact, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) clarifies that asexuality is not a choice, nor is it a disorder, or the product of a hormonal imbalance. It’s simply an identity, like being queer.
By coming out to you, your asexual partner is inviting you to explore your love with a new set of boundaries. “It doesn’t mean you’re a bad lover, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad partner, it just means your partner is doing their own thing,” Johnson says. “And what an incredible gift it is that they’re choosing to share who they are with you.”