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Despite what most romantic comedies would have you believe, long-term singlehood is not a curse. The idea that a person might not be sexually attracted to anyone (as demonstrated by Kinsey’s X group in his 1948 sexual attraction scale) has existed throughout history—as have people who preferentially choose to be single their whole lives. See, for instance, life as a bhikkhu, a male Buddhist monk, or queer analyses of Jane Austen’s Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Yet many people still dismiss the possibility that someone may not experience sexual and romantic attraction. Single individuals are questioned about how they know they are not attracted to anyone—or they are assured that they “just haven’t met the right person yet.” These responses undermine and erase the lived realities of people with asexual and aromantic identities.
Sexual identity consists of multiple elements, including romantic attraction, sexual orientation, and behavioral preferences—like whether you want to maintain a monogamous sexual and romantic relationship, or pursue multiple consensually non-monogamous or polyamorous intimate relationships. (Other types of attraction include emotional attraction, physical attraction, and aesthetic attraction.)
“Asexual” is an identity term used to describe the experience of low to no sexual attraction, while “aromantic” is typically defined as the experience of low to no romantic attraction or being uninterested in romantic relationships. While asexual and aromantic identity categories overlap, an individual can identify as asexual but not aromantic if they experience romantic attraction but not sexual attraction and want to be in a romantic relationship. Or they can identify as aromantic but not asexual if they experience sexual attraction but not romantic attraction. Others identify as both aromantic and asexual, often abbreviated as “aroace.”
Asexuality and aromanticism are emerging fields of research within sociology—and beyond—that contribute to our understandings of sexuality, different types of relationships, and family. Some scholars have focused their research on asexual identity, while others have focused on differences in attraction or more broadly on possibilities for intimacy beyond sex. This research also offers insight into understanding the concept of splitting attraction, where romantic love and sexual desire do not always align and an individual may want to be sexually intimate with someone of a different gender than their romantic partner or the person they are romantically interested in. For example, scholarship by Tony Silva, Jane Ward, and Héctor Carillo has focused on men who identify as straight despite engaging in sexual relationships with other men.
Different types of relationships can vary in significance throughout people’s lives. Most people grow up within families and make their first social connections with friends as early as preschool and elementary school. For many teenagers, exploring crushes and romantic relationships are common in middle school and high school. Among college students, hookup culture takes on social importance even when not all students participate regularly in hooking up. In early adulthood, people are often expected to find a romantic partner, get married, and “settle down” in stable partnerships. In contrast, singlehood is seen as a deficit identity, and there are negative associations with labels like “aging bachelor” or “spinster.” Prevailing characterizations of long-term singlehood as the result of undesirability or misanthropy, for instance, can lead to a single person experiencing social isolation and a sense of personal failure. The DSM listed asexuality as a disorder until 2013, and low sexual desire and asexual identity are still pathologized.
The term “amatonormativity,” coined by Elizabeth Brake in Minimizing Marriage, describes the widespread assumption that romantic relationships are assumed to take precedence over friendships and other types of relationships. However, there is value in maintaining familial and platonic relationships throughout our lives. In 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General reported on the loneliness epidemic as a public health concern, citing that the mortality consequences of being socially disconnected are similar to the impact caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. The report quantifies social connectedness not just as the number of close relationships a person has, but the diversity, variety, and frequency of interaction in these relationships, among other factors. This suggests that marriage or partnership is not the deciding factor in social well-being: we need relationships with co-workers, friends, family, and neighbors, too. At the same time, not everyone draws the same boundaries between close friendships and romantic relationships. Both relationship types share commonalities such as emotional intimacy and commitment, and as recent books such as The Other Significant Others and Big Friendship have highlighted, close friendship can hold deep meaning in people’s lives.
Traditional definitions of family, meanwhile, still center on a straight married couple with children, despite the fact that this does not reflect the history of American families. More recently, in 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage based on the argument that same-sex couples should have access to the same rights afforded to heterosexual married couples. But the ruling did not allow for legal recognition of other LGBT+ household and family arrangements. Queer definitions of family have historically gone beyond blood and marital ties to establish more expansive ones such as family of choice or “found family,” based on shared experiences and connections. In this understanding, “family” can be defined as committed, caring, relationships among individuals and do not have to be limited to biological or legal relationships. For instance, one city in Massachusetts recognizes domestic partnerships using the definition that “you are in a relationship of mutual support, caring and commitment and intend to remain in such a relationship.”
Asexuality and aromanticism are identity spectrums that have historically not been as widely recognized or well-known as other LGBT+ identities. However, in recent years there has been an increase in research and reporting on asexuality and aromanticism (including in my own research). In addition, contemporary Netflix shows such as Heartstopper, Sex Education, and Bojack Horseman have featured asexual and aromantic perspectives, increasing the visibility of these identities.
Asexuality and aromanticism offer exciting research insights; although these identities have existed long before the associated terminology developed, many people have not heard of these terms and/or have invalidated these identities. Asexual and aromantic erasure occurs through direct dismissal or disbelief, but can also take place through not acknowledging these identities as healthy or mature. While many single people are “waiting for the one,” some singles may not be interested in sexual and/or romantic relationships for a variety of reasons, or may not experience sexual or romantic attraction. Asexuality and aromanticism studies have the potential to expand our understandings of sexuality, different types of relationships, and family—in ways that can be beneficial for everyone, not just people who identify as asexual and/or aromantic
Research into asexuality and aromanticism reveals norms for straight people and romantic relationships in society, including how sexual and romantic partnership are conflated with each other (that is, if you want to be in a romantic relationship with someone, it will also be sexual) and prioritized over other types of relationships. Not everyone is interested in sexual and/or romantic relationships, and the nuclear family model itself absent of greater community and social connection may be detrimental to our health and well-being. These identities have existed for a very long time, even as they’ve been dismissed as “not real.” Recognizing asexuality and aromanticism now can help us understand the value of social connection and community, regardless of relationship status.
Hannah Tessler is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Yale University.