Within the last couple years, people wise to asexuality and aromanticism started using the terms “ace” and “aro” as shorthand umbrella labels for any and all identities that exist on the “asexual spectrum” and “aromantic spectrum.” You can be demisexual or gray-asexual, demiromantic or grayromantic, and yet call yourself ace or aro whenever you feel like it. You can talk about “aces” and “aros” when you really mean everybody and anybody on the spectrum, as if being asexual is the same thing as being demisexual or gray-asexual or being aromantic is the same thing as being demiromantic or gray-romantic.
I hate it. I think it must be a Tumblr thing, and it must’ve started with younger people who showed up on the ace and aro scene after I left a lot of those spaces. I know not everyone does it—I don’t think I’ve noticed it as a consistent practice amongst my contemporaries who have been blogging and participating in the online communities as long as I have—but it seems to be popular enough now that I may be out of step with conversations about “aces” and “aros” more often than not.
It’s got me thinking about the idea of these spectrums, though, because as far as I’m concerned, you are not ace or aro if you’re demisexual, grayasexual, demiromantic, or grayromantic. If you’re demi, you’re demi, and if you’re gray, you’re gray. These different identity terms exist for a reason: they describe different experiences. If we’re going to define asexuality and aromanticism as “not experiencing sexual/romantic attraction,” does it make any fucking sense to go around talking as if demis and grays, who do experience attraction, are the same as aces and aros? No. It doesn’t.
This language problem is really just a reflection of what was already a problematic organization of non-allo identities into these asexual and aromantic “spectrums.” Demisexuality and gray-asexuality have been around for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been active in online asexual communities for going on 10 years. But we didn’t always frame asexuality, demisexuality, and gray-asexuality as a “spectrum.” Demiromanticism and grayromanticism are, if I’m not mistaken, younger concepts than demisexuality and gray-asexuality, but again—originally, there was no “aromantic spectrum,” only an acknowledgment that demi- and gray-romanticism were experiences that had much in common with aromanticism. Somewhere along the line, when I wasn’t looking, people started thinking of asexuality and aromanticism as “spectrums,” on which demi- and gray- identities fall, and without any real critical thinking that I can find, that view gained popularity and is pretty much just accepted now without question.
I don’t agree with the spectrum model, any more than I agree with using “ace” and “aro” as umbrella terms for every non-allo identity there is. Let me explain why.
Whether we’re talking about sexual orientation or romantic orientation, hetero-, homo-, bi-, pan-, and a- describe WHO a person is attracted to.
But demi- and gray- identities (which can include lith-, fray-, quoi-, etc) describe HOW a person experiences attraction. A demi- or a gray- is also straight or gay or bi or pan. They have two identities, technically, although they can choose to publicly identify as only one.
How much sense does it make to create these spectrums of asexuality and aromanticism, when the identities grouped in the spectrums are actually based on two totally different aspects of attraction? If you’re going to create any kind of “spectrum” to describe HOW people experience the attraction that they experience, doesn’t it make a whole lot more sense to group all the people who DO experience a specific type of attraction together?
I’m sure that defenders of the asexual and aromantic spectrums as they’re currently conceptualized could make the argument that asexuality and aromanticism are also about the HOW of attraction, as much as they are about the WHO, but I can’t imagine an argument for that idea that holds water. It’s redundant to say that asexuality and aromanticism are about both WHO and HOW one experiences sexual or romantic attraction. Arguing that they’re based on both looks like this:
Who are asexuals and aromantics attracted to?
How are they attracted to “no one”?
It’s pointless. On a basic logic level, it doesn’t make any sense to follow the first question and answer with the second. All you need to know is that asexuals and aromantics aren’t attracted to anyone (sexually or romantically). There is no “HOW” because there is no WHO. HOW a person experiences attraction is only relevant if they actually experience attraction.
Thus far, demisexuality, gray-asexuality, demiromanticism, and gray-romanticism have been attached to asexuality and aromanticism on these spectrum models for two reasons that I can see:
1. It’s easier and, for many people, intuitive to group together all the different experiences of sexual and romantic attraction that don’t fit into the dominant categories of allosexuality and alloromanticism, so that you have only two groups of people to think about: who’s allo- and who’s not. In other words, the idea of an asexual spectrum or an aromantic spectrum is based on a negative: on what people are NOT. If you’re not allo-, then you’re on this asexual or aromantic spectrum.
This is like categorizing colors by saying that there is “blue” and there’s every color that is not blue. “Not blue” includes red and green, but the only thing they have in common is that neither one of them is blue. Red and green are not shades of each other. They are not the same color. They each have their own shades, their own sub-colors. It doesn’t make any sense to say that red and green are the same or even closely related, unless you only care that neither one is blue.
2. People make the mistake of thinking that because demisexuality and gray-asexuality are both experiences of attraction and desire that often include a lack or absence of said attraction and desire, that they are logical and natural extensions of asexuality. (The same goes for demi-, gray-, and aromanticism.) But this can only be true if we think of asexuality and aromanticism as “not experiencing sexual/romantic attraction,” without accounting for the objects of that missing attraction. Making asexuality and aromanticism purely about HOW attraction is experienced. Which again, doesn’t make any sense whatsoever because attraction can’t exist without an object in the first place. Asexuality and aromanticism are not about HOW one experiences attraction but about WHO asexuals and aromantics are attracted to: nobody. That demis and grays do experience attraction to other people, sometimes with enough regularity to warrant a specific sexual or romantic orientation, should make it clear that demi- and gray- orientations are not variations of asexuality and aromanticism.
If demi- and gray- orientations are going to be attached to one of the poles of attraction (a- vs. allo-), it would actually make a lot more sense to say that they are extensions of allosexuality and alloromanticism, not asexuality and aromanticism. Why?
1. As I already said, demi’s and gray’s have other identities that describe WHO they are attracted to, when they’re attracted. They, like allos, are straight or gay or bi or pan or queer. They share with allos something that asexuals and aromantics never experience: sexual or romantic attraction. That they experience it differently, often quite differently, doesn’t negate the fact that they DO experience it. Asexuals and aromantics don’t, at all. If you ask me, there’s a big difference between “rarely” or “sometimes” and “never.”
When a demi- or gray- person DOES experience sexual or romantic attraction, there may be no difference whatsoever between their experience and that of an allo- who is also experiencing attraction to a particular person. The difference between a demi- or a gray- who wants to have sex with somebody or who’s in love with someone and an allo- person who wants to have sex with somebody or who’s in love with someone is HOW they arrived at that point or HOW often they have the experience, not what they’re actually feeling.
2. There is enough variation in how allos experience sexual and romantic attraction that if we were to examine the full range of their attraction and desire patterns, especially throughout adulthood instead of during just one phase of it, we would see that there’s enough similarity between how some allos experience their attractions and how demis and grays experience it, that the demis and grays actually have much more in common with those allos than they do with asexuals and aromantics. One could make the argument that a lot of demis and grays go through periods where they don’t experience attraction at all, to anyone, in which case they are identical to asexuals and aromantics at that time. But there are also allos who, if they’re in between romantic/sexual partners and don’t have anyone around that they’re interested in, don’t feel sexual or romantic attraction either. This doesn’t make them less allo-. This just means that they are not, at the moment, attracted to anybody. Being allo- doesn’t mean that you’re in a constant state of sexual or romantic attraction, any more than it means you’re in a constant state of sexual activity or romantic relationship.
That being said, I don’t think it’s necessary for demi- and gray- identities to be part of a spectrum of allosexuality and alloromanticism, any more than it’s necessary to attach them to asexuality and aromanticism. I think that demi- and gray- and their related expressions can stand on their own, as a third category. That would probably make the most sense, considering that these experiences of attraction are literally a kind of middle-ground between a- and allo-, a kind of blending of the two poles. (Thus, the “gray.”) Personally, I think of demi- and gray- folks as being in their own, third category. But if, for some reason, the masses are hot to make demi- and gray- identities a part of either the a- or allo- category, I say that it makes more sense to go with the allo-.
Please understand that I am NOT denying the legitimacy or the necessity of demi- and gray- identities here. They are real, and they are valid. The labels themselves are necessary. Demis and grays are NOT allos. I’m just pointing out that grouping the demi- and gray- identities with asexuality and aromanticism, to create these ace and aro spectrums, is a flawed and problematic practice. I understand that demi- and gray- experiences were originally given voice and recognition through the asexual and aromantic communities, through dialogues had in those communities, and I understand also that some demis and grays feel far more kinship with aces and aros than they do with allos. I know that some demis and grays lean closer to the allo- pole of attraction, while others lean closer to the a- pole. That’s why I personally tend to think of demis and grays as neither part of an asexual spectrum categorically nor part of the allo- population categorically. There is enough variation within demi- and gray- experiences that grouping all of them with aces and aros or all of them with allos- doesn’t work well.
Eliminating the “asexual spectrum” and “aromantic spectrum” model doesn’t mean that we dismiss the legitimacy of demi- and gray- identities or that we cut off demis and grays from the asexual and aromantic communities. It pretty much means we go back to the way things were originally, where demis and grays could be a part of ace and aro spaces and conversations as much or as little as they chose but where there is enough acknowledgment of the differences between demis, grays, and aces/aros that nobody lumps them all together into a singular group.