Navigating the asexual and aromantic spectra at Williams

Lindsay Wang

Students at the College on the asexual and/or aromantic spectra often find it difficult to find shared community on campus. (Devika Goel/The Williams Record)

For a period of time in the first grade, my friends were convinced that I had a crush on a boy. He was a family friend who put up with my antics and hung out with me even though he was three years older, loud, popular, and sweet. They asked me about him so many times that eventually, I gave in: I told them, “Yes.”

Nothing really happened after I admitted to a crush I did not have. My friends easily forgot, and I eventually tucked my fake confession into a dusty corner of my brain. The years passed, he and I grew apart, I entered middle school and then high school, graduated, and came to Williams. I watched my friends fall in and out of love, plaster posters of K-pop biases (their favorite member of a K-pop group) across their bedroom walls, and construct visions of the future that always included a spouse, children, and a family.

It wasn’t until senior year of high school that I was finally able to put a name to my intense lack of desire to do any of those things: Aromantic asexual, meaning that I don’t experience romantic or sexual attraction. This discovery sent me down a rabbit hole of discussion forums and Tumblr threads, a dizzying wealth of information about this otherwise invisible identity that accounts for the “A” in LGBTQIA+. For many other ace- and aro-specs (people who identify on the asexual and/or aromantic spectrum), the journey to discovering their own identities is often just as long and winding.

“It took coming to college, coming to Williams, [to understand my sexuality] because I grew up in Taiwan, and I went to high school there, where sex was just not something that people discussed often,” Jacob Chen ’23.5, who identifies as gray-asexual (ace-specs who experience limited sexual attraction), told me. “I thought that a lack of attraction to people was normal. It turns out it’s not, after I got to Williams and heard people talk more openly about sex.”

Like sexuality itself, asexuality is a spectrum — and it’s a spectrum that doesn’t always encompass the nuances of our identities. Even those who identify as asexual can differ in their attitudes towards and engagement with sex: Some are sex-positive, meaning that though they don’t experience sexual attraction, they still find pleasure in it; others are sex-repulsed, meaning that they are disgusted by it.

The Split Attraction Model is one framework that gives ace- and aro-specs and other members of the LGBTQIA+ community the vocabulary to better express their identities through combinations of different labels. For example, someone can identify as biromantic and asexual, or aromantic and pansexual, etc. Despite some criticism about potential confusion due to the subjectivity of definitions of attraction, this model can be helpful for those who experience sexual but not romantic attraction, or vice versa, like Ri Garcia ’22, who identifies as asexual-lesbian, meaning that they do not experience sexual attraction but do experience romantic attraction towards women.

“I knew I was a lesbian first — I knew for a long time that I just did not like boys,” they said. “But when I got my first girlfriend at 15, who is still my current girlfriend … I realized that a lot of physicality wasn’t something that I sought after, and physicality was something really important for her.”

Navigating a relationship with someone who experiences sexual attraction when they don’t requires a lot of communication, Garcia said. “It worked out for me because I’m not sex-repulsed,” they said. “I don’t mind sex. It’s just not something that I regularly seek out, and when it comes to what she wants and what I want, it’s all about communication and her being able to understand when I have boundaries … but also knowing when she is also in need of something.”

The spectral nature of attraction means that identity can be fluid, and labels that once felt comfortable may change with new experiences and new realizations. “It’s really not been that long — maybe about a year — since I realized I was ace [asexual],” Blue Jordan ’23, who identifies as aromantic asexual, said. “That sort of came when I was in a relationship at the time, and I just sort of realized I don’t actually feel comfortable with doing anything intimate or sexual.”

“And then aromantic is something that I’ve been thinking about for about six months or so, and it’s still something I’m sort of considering because the idea of romance is just not super concrete in the world, and so it’s difficult to figure out how I fit into that,” they continued. “But I guess it’s just sort of not thinking about relationships or wanting things [in] relationships that I’ve seen my friends and other people do or want out of relationships.”

The difference that Jordan articulated resonated with me; the gap between my lived experience and society’s obsession with romantic love — and its “intrinsic” link to sex — was a source of fear and uncertainty for a while. After I first nervously told my parents that I’d potentially never fall in love, my father told me that this feeling would change because as I grew older, I’d want to be able to come home to someone every day. I wouldn’t want to live a solitary existence — forever alone. My mother told me that common refrain, one many members of the LGBTQIA+ community have heard: “You just haven’t met the right person.”

I harbored an existential dread of always being alone, and it took time for me to accept and even begin to find comfort in this idea because all I’d ever consumed, been told, or observed in the media and relationships around me had instilled within me a belief in the necessity of romantic love for a happy, fulfilling life.

For Jordan, the reverse seemed to be true. “Part of the reason I realized that I was aro [aromantic] was because I don’t mind being solitary,” they said. “It doesn’t always feel lonely to me… But that also sort of ties into the idea of relationships because I feel like we can still have relationships, and we can still have another person or other people that we can call our partners without having those same sort of romantic or sexual ties that we might see our friends start to have — and that doesn’t necessarily make us any lesser.”

At times, this sense of disengagement can feel especially heightened in a place like Williams — and not just for those who don’t experience romantic attraction. “I feel like on this campus, it’s very easy to be lonely,” Garcia said. “And [it’s] the kind of loneliness that’s an aching for a kind of relationship that I don’t necessarily want. To see this rampant loneliness on campus and this constant want for something can feel a little alienating. I do think that it’s important to have conversations about sexual health and relationships in general, but I never feel represented in any of these conversations as someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction, and I think that can be kind of damaging.”

As a result, it can be difficult to build a sense of community with other ace- and aro-specs on campus. Before I set out to write this article, I had only met one other person who falls on the asexual spectrum — and that was completely by chance. “It is wonderful when I get to meet another a-spec person [someone who identifies on the asexual and/or aromantic spectrum] and be able to relish in the experiences we have together, but I can never find them, and it’s hard to be able to be comfortable being outwardly ace on this campus because of people’s perceptions of asexuality,” Garcia said.

Despite the lack of visible ace- and aro-spec identities on campus, however, many of us have still gained meaningful Williams experiences. “I just don’t feel like I’m missing out at all,” Chen said. “The hookup culture or the party culture at Williams — I don’t feel like that’s a part of the Williams experience. Like, yes it is, but it’s not like, ‘Oh, you have to have done that to have been a student at Williams.’”

As Chen said, our identities don’t preclude us from living a full life, even if we don’t always have a desire to share all of the same experiences as allosexuals and alloromantics — those who do experience sexual and romantic attraction. I still watch rom-coms and needle my friends for all the details about their love lives, as do other ace- and aro-specs. 

“I still really enjoy hearing my friends talk about their experiences and people they’re interested in, since it’s a part of their lives that’s important to them,” Jordan said. “I get sort of like a secondhand excitement from talking with them about this kind of stuff, so it’s not necessarily entirely absent from my life.”

Though I came to Williams uncertain and questioning and I may still leave Williams uncertain and questioning, the process of writing this article and finally meeting other lovely ace- and aro-specs on campus has taught me the importance of being forgiving of myself.

“There’s no deadline for putting a label on yourself,” Chen said. “Questioning is a really good space to be in, and there’s no deadline for you to be finished questioning, so just observe your feelings, your emotions, what kinds of attraction you feel. No one else knows how you feel except you, so just trust yourself.”