As my partner Emily and I near the two-year mark of living together through myriad lockdowns, I can finally say we have found a way to manoeuvre through the tension when we circle back to that old chestnut of love life: sex. Specifically, that she functions happily as an asexual spouse and I function happily as a homosexual spouse. A mixed-orientation marriage that breeds a certain level of dysfunction. With a little help, my ace-fluid partner and I have found a few shiny little relationship devices to get us through our rockier conflicts.
Early in the pandemic, when our constant proximity to one another drove us both insane (for markedly different reasons), I ran to the store as an excuse to get some alone time. I came home with a special toy to help us both relax. Emily was well into her own excuse for alone time (a bath) when I knocked on the door, asking if we could talk. I waited the appropriate amount of time but no response. That’s when I turned the thing on and broke our angry stalemate with a bleating, comical fart sound.
Still, there are those agitations that even a fart machine doesn’t fix. Since Emily is both an extrovert and on the ace spectrum, and I am introverted and sensual, time with friends and personal space used to boost her and my mood, respectively. In the clutches of different lockdowns, I needed another avenue for support. Sadly, finding resources or even healthy depictions of asexuals in relationships can be difficult and more depressing than celebrating the holidays without your grandma.
Whether you are a supportive friend, brimming with questions or committed to an asexual (heyo!), the hunt for relationship tools is often discouraging. Fear not, though! As awareness of queer spectrum identities begins to saturate some media outlets, falling in love with an asexual person doesn’t necessarily mean the end of your relationship or your sex life.
Recently, I asked London counsellor Dr K for their perspective on marriage to an ace-spectrum person. They promptly directed me to the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). When I pressed them for ace-specific tools, Dr K admitted: "Without a large client pool, most [therapists] are still looking for effective practice. I might ask [a client] to draw a representation of the values you both place on your identities and sex. Marriage has less to do with orientation and more to do with communication."
I made my first real attempt to understand my partner when COVID locked us up, as if to address our differences (and without the fart machine no less). It unfolded like this:
"What have you been thinking in bed, lately?" I tried to lay out the question delicately, like tucking in a kitten you suspect has been waiting for the chance to swipe.
Emily sighed: "You, obviously." This gave me about as much insight into Emily’s sex experience as the cereal she was merrily munching. My mouthful of tea lost its flavour as I swallowed under the expression levelled at me. I searched my mug for better words. She could melt asphalt with that look.
"Don’t you enjoy it?" she asked, calculatingly. I took a distracted, violent gulp of tea.
"You know how I am, it’s that..." Suddenly, the bottom fell out of my resolve, spilling insecurity in all directions. "If you’re not sexually interested and I am, maybe we’re not really compatible."
Having sunk several hours into tweezing apart AVEN bulletins, comment boards and literature recommendations, I told Emily what I had learned. That the advice ranged from seeking a therapist (old news) to trying an open relationship (pass), with a plethora of resources on weathering a tumultuous breakup (gee, thanks).
She found it hilarious, and said: "Just because I’m ace doesn’t mean I can’t happily participate. Is there a Big Gay Rule saying we have to have the exact same experience for sex to be meaningful?"
I demurred. Maybe there was. She swivelled my face back to hers. "Hey. I’m allowed to enjoy you enjoying something; that’s just one part of my ace identity." I cracked a grin. "Google it," she added.
"And…I’m allowed to want sex with you as part of my identity?" Despite rigorous eye contact, this was not a confident response.
"Sure," Emily nuzzled me. "We can meet in the middle."
The friction eased, I brought us full circle. "Then will you tell me what you’ve been thinking in bed?" She replied: "You first."
Our awareness of asexuality is still painfully low in the UK. A 2019 poll of over 1,000 UK adults suggested that three-quarters of people were incapable of correctly defining asexuality. AVEN reports that roughly 1% of surveyed populations in the UK identify as asexual or ace-spectrum – that's one in 100 people. No small thing, but awareness takes time to percolate.
In the meantime, consider the stories that float under the queer radar; the people and orientations that are less digestible. We all know how platonic love kept the queer movement (and often queer people) alive until recent decades. As awareness of asexuality broadens, let’s keep drawing aces into our hand. Sometimes, they can be the most valuable card in the deck.