I sometimes call myself a spinster because it’s my word to use. I’m a grown woman, single by choice. Call me an aromantic. No, really, do so – it’s a word I’ve accepted after exploring the realm of asexuality and aromanticism, which get little attention in dialogue of sexual diversity and can be pathologized by simplified concepts of evolutionary biology. As I get older the prejudice against me as a single woman is only going to increase. What’s wrong with me that I can’t find a man? What traumatizing experience did I have that turned me off relationships? What is lacking in my physiology that hinders my biological drive for mating and partnership?
(The answer is nothing, by the way.)
I’m lucky enough to have a family that at least doesn’t speak openly about its opinions and prejudices against single women. I’m lucky to be able to work at a job that pays well enough to support myself. But those personal benefits aren’t present for everyone, and any disadvantage asexual or aromantic people might face is from systemic bias. It’s not only embedded in our culture, but written in stone in the law and applied to the economy that single people should face consequences for a lifestyle choice, no matter how healthy and natural the orientation away from sex and partnership actually is.
Culturally, it’s not hard for anyone to see how much value is placed on sex, romance, marriage, and offspring. All of those are implied in the word “family” (though small advances have been made towards greater acceptance of childfree couples or unmarried parents). Legally, everything becomes an inconvenient ambiguity when you don’t have a spouse to default as your next of kin. Tax laws are framed around marriage. Economically, most housing is designed for couples and families. Home prices are cashing in on the dual income standard. Newer developments have dual sinks in the bathroom and dual closets in the bedroom, or as many bathrooms as bedrooms assuming that there will be children living with parents. There are heterosexist implications as well, especially where same sex marriage and adoption are legally prohibited, and they tend to stick to the narrow definition of a nuclear family that doesn’t accommodate multi-generation households. The legal definitions of “family” are very subjective to our culture, and yet they’re applied in objective ways. We’re led to believe that it’s the natural way, and recognition or accommodation of any other family structure under the law is seen as unfair.
Sex and romance are ubiquitous in popular culture and the media. It’s what sells, and there’s a lot of money to be made off of not only ignoring but outright stigmatizing asexual and aromantic people. Characters portaryed as such are at best in the background with beta personalities, but they’re frequently the joke. A single person’s life without weekly dates and sexual adventures has no stories to tell, especially for women. Main characters who don’t have romantic interests are portrayed as psychologically broken, or it’s merely a symptom of an overarching mental condition, like the neuroatypical Sherlock, or sociopath Dexter who started out in a relationship that was part of an overall guise. Even those characters are white men.
In feminist critiques, sex and sexuality is ever present. It’s absolutely an important aspect of patriarchal structures and gender inequalities, and this overlaps with the stigma and structural barriers to single, asexual, and aromantic women (or all genders, really). But so much of popular feminist dialogue revolves very specifically and exclusively around heterosexual dynamics that occur within the context of romantic relationships, sexual desire, or sexualized behaviours. Other conversations within feminism are LGBT inclusive, and examine dynamics within same sex relationships, and the broader oppression of LGBT people and lives by the cissexist and heteronormative establishment. Again, this is very important to the overall discussion around the harm patriarchy imposes on individuals and their personhood, but it doesn’t invite asexual and aromantic people.
Even LGBT dialogue can turn their noses up at the voices of asexual and aromantic people. In the elaborated acronym LGBTTQIA, the A is often assumed to mean ally, and it’s specified as such even by some LGBT organizations. It gets very complicated when you include multiple dimensions of asexual and aromantic orientations, because while some people don’t want sex they might still be homoromantic, biromantic, or heteroromantic. Aromantic people might still be sexual to varying degrees – grey-sexual is a common term for someone somewhere between asexual and sexual (or allosexual, as it is often referred to). I’m sometimes sexually interested in men, making me hetero-grey-sexual, and beyond desire to have sex I still do experience aesthetic and physical attraction to men. This saves me from the stigma and persecution of homo- or bi- orientations, whether romantic or sexual. So how much of a place do I or people like me really have in the LGBTTQIA dialogue?
This is skimming the surface of a deep issue that permeates the institution of medicine, workplaces, money, religion, and social rites. It’s like a Freudian Inception – our society is so obsessed with sexual undertones that we base our understanding of existence on sexual undertones, and we see a lack of sex in life to be unhealthy no matter what the individual genuinely desires. Aromantics aren’t cold, emotionless people unable to maintain meaningful social relationships. Asexuals aren’t stunted adults who are missing some kind of hormone fundamental to basic health. It’s also not black and white – I mean, I literally used the word grey to describe my own sexuality – and actions that may or may not include sex or relationships don’t make an asexual or aromantic person a fraud. Sex and relationships are still a means of survival, and asexual and aromantic people are physically and mentally capable of participating as a compromise or in their best interest.
But since I won’t participate in romantic relationships, I face consequences in my everyday life. It’s easier to get by as a single woman here and now than in eras when financial independence and sexual freedoms were aggressively blocked off for my gender, and I’m grateful for that. But all things are not equal, in culture, in the economy, and in law. If I punch someone in the face for saying “Oh, you’ll find someone” too many times, I’ll be charged with assault. What’s the deal, huh?