In recent times, asexuality has begun to move from the peripheries in queer spaces and discussions, thanks to the efforts of communities and activists. With an ever-growing presence at pride events, increasing media representation, and rising popularity of activists like Yasmin Benoit (who recently became the first openly asexual woman to appear on the cover of a UK magazine), asexuality is getting easier to talk about in the mainstream.
But as with many marginal identities and communities, there is a lag between accepting the most visible concepts at the tip of the iceberg, and the rich history of discourses underpinning them. While the idea of asexuality is largely understood, the ideas within ace communities are still under-discussed in queer spaces. When considering all these discourses together, one quickly realises that equating ‘A’ with ‘asexuality’ doesn’t represent the full picture.
So how do we move towards a broader understanding of these ‘A’ identities beyond asexuality?
A definition of attraction that goes beyond sex
One starting point is in expanding the way we think about attraction. The notion of attraction features heavily in many definitions of queer identities; it’s often the point of divergence from heteronormative expectations. Given this context, it’s reasonable to understand why a queer understanding of attraction highlights the diversity in who people experience attraction to.
Queer discussions around attraction, to a lesser extent, have also accounted for differences in how people experience attraction, particularly attraction that decentres sex. Although these lines of discourse aren’t unique to ace communities (there is a strong record of gay, lesbian and bisexual communities resisting stereotypes of promiscuity), online ace communities have arguably been at the forefront of developing these ideas.
“In mainstream culture, people talk about sexual orientation, but actually that’s not just sex. Implied as part of that is that they’re romantically attracted to their partners or potential partners,” says ace blogger Siggy, admin of The Asexual Agenda.
“In the ace community, you’d usually say that they’re sexually and romantically attracted. But in mainstream culture, you’d just say that they’re attracted,” he says.
“That can be a point of confusion because when people talk about sexual orientation… they don’t necessarily want that to be reduced to just sex.”
Siggy described how this idea of differentiating between types of attraction has been around in modern ace communities since their inception. He pointed to the late 90s to early 2000s as their starting point, with forums such as The Asexuality Visibility & Education Network (AVEN) and various LiveJournal blogs.
“Initially, people were using terms such as ‘romantic’ and ‘sexual’ interchangeably,” he says. “Then people started talking about the possibility of having romantic relationships without sexual attraction, but not yet about ‘romantic attraction’.
“It’s this piecemeal development of the concept,” he continues. “First we talk about romantic relationships, later people talk about romantic attraction, then people started creating labels for these.”
Today, the idea of having a ‘romantic orientation’ is a common and widely accepted framework for determining such labels. An alternative to ‘sexual orientation’, labels within this framework replace the ‘-sexual’ suffix in describing an individual’s identity; e.g, biromantic, panromantic, aromantic, etc. For many in ace communities, identifying themselves according to their romantic rather than sexual orientation is more useful and accurate to their lived experiences.
The Split Attraction Model (SAM)?
As ace communities grew, so too did internal ace discourses and the language used to articulate new concepts. One example that has experienced a resurgence in some online communities is the Split Attraction Model (SAM).
In simple terms, the SAM is a model primarily used within ace communities to describe ways of thinking about attraction and orientation. It most commonly refers to the ‘split’ between sexual and romantic ways of experiencing attraction, but it has also been broadened in recent times to account for things like platonic, aesthetic and sensual attraction.
The SAM, in many ways, is the product of changing discourses within ace communities to better capture the diversity of experiences people have. It can be a useful starting point for many people in exploring the nuances and making sense of their identity. It can also be a good introduction for allies in better understanding asexuality and other ace identities. However, it’s not without its issues.
“The term ‘the Split Attraction Model’ originated in 2015 Tumblr, and was actually coined by critics with certain flawed assumptions about ace concepts,” Siggy says.
“For example, one of the things they criticised was the idea that the SAM was meant to be a universal concept applied to everyone, including non-aces.”
Siggy discussed how critics, particularly on Tumblr, would accuse ace communities using this model of being prescriptive, as not everyone found the notion of a ‘romantic orientation’ useful. To try to impose this on non-aces, they argued, was harmful.
Other ace bloggers like Coyote on The Ace Theist have chronicled an ‘actual’ history of the SAM’s emergence with specific examples of arguments against it. Some recurring themes include accusations of homophobia, identity alarmism, and overall scrutiny of ace language.
“This is a mischaracterisation of ace communities,” Siggy says. “Although there has been some pressure in some places to conform to these ideas, such as adopting a romantic orientation, it’s never really been mandatory, and there has been a history of internal criticism of these ideas within ace spaces.
“These are concepts that we use internally within the community,” he continues. “If non-ace people find them useful, we’re happy to share these ideas. But we are more concerned with using it to describe our experiences than applying it to everyone universally.”
He also described the SAM as a “late community development” that has been retroactively applied to earlier ace concepts, such as other orientations and forms of attraction. This has its own issues, he says, because it flattens into a “conglomerate model” a diverse set of ideas that do not always work coherently together.
“I think calling it a ‘model’ is overly simplistic,” he says. “It’s not just one model; at best, it’s many different models.”
For Siggy, it’s more helpful to talk about these ideas discretely than within a model, using the “precise” language that was originally created in earlier discourses. However, he doesn’t think we should do away with the SAM completely.
“It has resonated with communities for a reason,” he says. “The ideas it describes of having sexual and romantic, and other forms of attraction and orientation, are useful for many aces. If the SAM helps you understand that, then go for it.”
Ace communities are inherently diverse
The concept of having differentiated attractions and orientations has opened up many possibilities for ways of describing identity beyond just sexual. Attraction can be divided along discrete concepts such as romantic, platonic, aesthetic and sensual, and individuals can adopt orientations based on these experiences.
There is, however, an important distinction to make between attraction and orientation.
Ace blogger Sennkestra on Next Step: Cake said in a post that while the two are related, they don’t always go hand-in-hand.
“For example, there are many gay, straight, lesbian, bi, etc. people who regularly differentiate between different types of attraction – romantic interest, sexual interest, aesthetic interest, platonic interest, etc. – while still choosing to use a single orientation label for the sum of their experiences,” Sennkestra writes.
Siggy makes a point of distinguishing between forms of attraction, which individuals might experience simultaneously (and to different degrees), and orientations that are the “most resonant label/s” to them.
He also highlights aromanticism as an emerging orientation within ace communities: “It’s not always tied to romantic attraction, but for many people, it might mean that they’re not interested in romantic relationships. So romantic attraction and interest in romantic relationships might be distinct.”
“There isn’t always necessarily a connection between attraction and orientation,” he says.
Instead, Siggy emphasised that ace communities are inherently diverse, and that these points of differentiation also occur along multiple lines.
“One of the important dimensions of diversity is this discussion about other forms of attraction and orientations, but that’s not the only dimension that’s important,” he says.
“There’s also ‘asexuality’ versus ‘grey asexuality’ versus ‘demisexuality’, which doesn’t really fall under the hetero-Split Attraction Model. There’s also the [sex-] ‘repulsed’ versus ‘indifferent’ versus ‘favourable’ spectrum, which doesn’t really get talked about because it’s not as related to identity.”
He also references the need for further discussion on intersectional identities, including race, gender, transgender and nonbinary, and age.
“I think it’s important when educating people about asexuality to educate people about the diversity of ace communities,” he says.
Recognising this inherent diversity is an important first step in moving towards a broader understanding of ‘A’ identities, and indeed, experiences. Ace communities have a rich plethora of concepts and insights that are useful not just within internal ace discussions, but to broader discussions inside and outside queer spaces. It’s time we started paying more attention to ace communities.