The a-spectra

This page discusses a conceptual framework for discussing asexuality, precisely defines important terms in the asexuality community, and is intended help those questioning understand whether they are asexual or not. For a more introductory look at asexuality see What is asexuality?. If after reading this page you are unsure if you are asexual or not, you may find Am I asexual? helpful.

Human sexual behaviour, physiology, and psychology is composed of several distinct (though strongly related) mechanisms that are usually lumped together – for example, sexual attraction, sex drive, and romantic attraction. When it comes to asexuality, it can be instructive to tease these components apart and consider them separately. In the asexuality community, these different components are called spectra, where a person's place on each spectrum describes how often or in what way they experience that kind of attraction. This page details the main spectra that are discussed in relation to asexuality.

People are familiar with defining sexuality in terms of a spectrum (e.g. homosexual–bisexual–heterosexual), but while these can be useful models, we shouldn’t expect sexuality to be neatly reducible to a small number of variables in that way. Asexuals in particular do not fit well into many popular versions of these spectra, even when they include a space for ‘no sexual attraction’. For example, they often tacitly assume that the set of people a person is sexually attracted to is the same as the set of people a person is romantically attracted to, which is inaccurate for many asexuals.

Sexual orientation refers to where a person lies on the spectrum of sexual attraction. Although the average spot on the other spectra tends to be different between asexuals and non-asexuals, the only thing that defines a person as asexual or not is the absence or presence of sexual attraction. Because of this, and because orientation is different to behaviour, a person may have or even enjoy sex, masturbate, form romantic relationships, or none of the above, all while being asexual.

The term 'a-spectrum' refers to people that fall in atypical places on any or all of these spectra. The a-spectrum community is both broad and diverse, including

The a-spectra as a framework do two things. First, they emphasise non-binary thinking. Just as not everyone is either exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual, not everyone is exclusively asexual/non-asexual and so on for each of the a-spectra. Secondly, the model emphasises that sexual attraction, romantic feelings, arousal, platonic feelings, etc. are all separate things, and while they might typically line up, a single person can have a complex series of cross-orientations all at once.

Approaching sexuality and human relationships from this more open-ended, inclusive perspective helps everyone, not just asexuals. For example, heterosexual homoromantics might be marginalised in a similar way that asexuals are because they don't fit well into more popular models.

Sexual attraction

Sexual attraction is an urge to actually have sex with specific people in real life. It is distinct from arousal because it involves an identifiable target [1]. It is both possible to have libido without experiencing attraction [1] (common among asexuals) or to experience attraction without libido (usually a symptom of a sexual dysfunction).

Analogies

The difference between sexual attraction and libido is best explained with analogies such as the following.

Sex Food Hunger
General urge (Psychological)
arousal
Hunger "I want to watch a movie"
Frequency of general urges Libido
How often you are hungry "I usually want to watch a movie once a week"
Targeted urge Sexual attraction Craving a certain food "I want to watch
Finding Nemo"
Pattern of targeted urges Sexual orientation Which foods you tend to crave "I tend to want to watch animated movies"

To see how these analogies work, consider the example of food. When you have a craving for a food it can feel quite different to just being generally hungry. For example, you might see a cake and start to crave it: you imagine what it would be like and are pulled to it specifically over other food. Although being hungry might lead to cravings, it doesn't always, and craving can happen without hunger. Satisfying one's hunger is done primarily to remove the feeling of hunger, though that of course doesn't mean that food automatically tastes bad just because it hasn't been craved.

All of these aspects that distinguish between the targeted urge (craving) and the untargeted one (hunger) apply equally to sexual attraction and arousal. Sexual attraction is a pull towards having sex with a particular person – you might imagine it or literally feel like you're being pulled towards them. This is quite different to the general feeling of arousal, which is when there's no particular target for the desire for sexual release – like for example a desire to masturbate. Although arousal might lead to feelings of attraction (or, perhaps more usually, the other way around), neither one is required for the other. And though satisfying one's arousal (though masturbation or sex with partners) might be done just for sexual release, a person can still enjoy the associated physical sensations without experiencing attraction.

If you found the above explanation confusing, you may like to read Experiences: Sexual attraction, which has a few allosexuals describing the sexual attraction they feel. The most common theme is a strong urge to touch and get as close as possible to the other person – usually as a result of seeing them or a particular of their body parts.

Demographics

Sexual attraction falls on a spectrum. Some people experience sexual attraction often or usually (allosexuals), and some people don't experience sexual attraction at all (asexuals). Lots of people also fall somewhere in the middle: they may only experience attraction rarely or under specific circumstances. These intermediate sexualities – for example demisexuality – are usually classed under the asexuality umbrella as grey-asexualities. For more information on grey-asexualities see Grey-asexuality.

According to the 2016 Asexual Community Survey [2, p.6], most people who identify as on the asexual-spectrum most closely identify as only asexual (and not any grey-asexuality). The breakdown is as follows:

Note that for this question, respondents were asked to select only the response they most identified with, so this will underestimate the number of people in each of these overlapping categories. Additionally, it's important to note that the above figure for the number of grey-asexuals is not representative of the entire population, but only of those grey-asexuals that also identify as asexual-spectrum.

Romantic attraction

Romantic orientation refers to the gender(s) with which a person is most likely to have a romantic relationship or fall in love. For example, although a bisexual person may feel sexually attracted to men and women, they may be predisposed to romantic intimacy with females.

Romantic love is a significantly harder concept to pin down than sexual attraction, because it differs from person to person and is influenced by cultural expectations. Below is a list of some of the things that may be considered elements of romantic love. The list is not exhaustive, and it should be noted that how strongly they are felt can change significantly over time, not everyone experiences each one, or each in the same way, and some of them may be considered to occur platonically.

You can also find some personal accounts of what romantic love feels like in Experiences: Romantic attraction.

When considered biologically there's no one defining feature that makes a feeling (or group of feelings) for another person 'love' and not 'liking'. The two emotions – as well as their physiological aspects – differ in degree rather than kind, both being associated with general pro-social and bonding hormones.

Usually, a person's romantic and sexual attractions line up so that it's difficult to tell the difference between the two. However, romantic attraction is a useful concept for asexuals since many of them report feeling romantic attraction without sexual attraction attached. Similarly, aromantic people find this separation useful because they may report feeling sexual attraction with no romantic component. Considering romantic and sexual attraction to be separate is called the split-attraction model.

Demographics

Just as with asexuality, romantic orientation is also a spectrum. According to the 2016 Asexual Community Survey [2, p.20] the most common romantic orientations among asexuals are:

Note that this adds up to more than 100% because respondents where able to check as many boxes as they wished. Definitions of the above terms can be found in the Glossary.

Squishes

A squish is a crush that lacks either romantic attraction, sexual attraction, or both: an urge to form a deep connection with someone or an intense feeling of attraction, liking, appreciation, or admiration. Generally speaking, a squish can be understood as a platonic version of a crush. So whereas a crush involves an urge to form a romantic relationship, a squish is about a desire to form a close friendship (sometimes with sensual elements included). A squish may include any if the following.

Although allosexuals / alloromantics typically do not find the concept of squishes to be useful, the term can help those on the a-spectrum better understand the experience of themselves and others. You can read more about people's experience of squishes and their understanding of the difference between squishes and crushes on the page Experiences: Squishes.

Romantic libido

'Romantic libido' is a term referring to a person's frequency of romantic feelings (or desire to form romantic relationships) without reference to their cause. Just like sexual libido, romantic libido can occur with or without alloromanticism or aegoromanticism. It can be a useful term since some people on the a-spectrum report feeling romantic desire that is entirely abstract, and not directed at any people (fictional or otherwise).

Libido and arousal

Libido and arousal are terms that talk about urges or bodily changes without making reference to the cause or target. They are distinct concepts, both from each other and from sexual attraction.

Arousal has two components: psychological and physiological. Physiological arousal refers to bodily changes such as an erection or increased heart-rate. Psychological arousal refers to a general urge to engage in sexual activities such as sex or masturbation (which is distinct from sexual attraction as described in Sexual attraction). It is possible to physiologically aroused without being psychologically aroused. For example, it's not uncommon for male rape victims to experience erections or ejaculation, which can be both confusing and shame-inducing. For more details on the physiological aspects of arousal see the FAQ What does arousal feel like?.

Libido refers to a person's general pattern of (psychological) arousal. A person may be often aroused (high libido), rarely aroused (low libido), or never aroused at all (no libido). Some asexuals may become psychologically aroused in response to erotica/pornography/concepts/etc., but with no desire to be a participant in the sexual activities therein. For more information see the page Grey-asexuality.

Analogy

The analogy to hunger works well for explaining libido and arousal. Physiological arousal is analogous to the feeling of hunger itself – it's a physical sensation and/or a physical reaction, e.g. pain in the abdomen or a grumbling stomach. Psychological arousal is analogous to the thoughts you might have with a 'hungry mind'. Often (but not always) being triggered by physiological hunger, this includes compulsively thinking about food, wanting to eat, and so on. These feelings can also (but don't always) trigger craving for a particular food, which would be analogous to sexual attraction – though again, it's possible for craving to precede hunger just as attraction can precede arousal.

In this analogy, having a high libido is analogous to saying "I'm hungry often", and a low libido is analogous to saying "I'm rarely hungry".

Of course, hunger and sexual arousal differ in the sense that a person needs to eat, whereas people don't strictly need to have sex. Even so, the analogy works because both are psychological and psychological urges that a person can have.

Demographics

Asexuals typically report much lower libidos than allosexuals: according to the 2016 Asexual Community Survey [2, p.34], on a scale of 0–4 asexuals most commonly rate their libido as 1, with 0 being the next most common response. Even so, some asexuals report high levels of libido as well, just as some allosexual people report low levels of libido.

Sensual and aesthetic attraction

A sensual act is any act of physical intimacy that isn't sexual in nature, and sensual attraction is an urge to be participant such acts with a specific person. Generally speaking, this can involve any of the senses, though the two most common are sight (which is also called aesthetic attraction), and touch. Sensuals commonly describe fantasising about being sensual with a particular person or a feeling of safety / calm that results from sensual contact. Though the term is most often used in a-spectrum spaces, both asexuals and allosexuals may feel sensual attraction towards another person.

You can read people describing their own sensual attraction / sensuality in Experiences: Sensual and aesthetic attraction.

For touch, examples of sensuality include:

Aesthetic attraction is an urge to observe, be close to, otherwise be sensual with, or have a relationship with a specific person based on their physical appearance. Some people who experience aesthetic attraction describe it as similar to looking at a beautiful painting or landscape, while others say it involves feeling drawn to the other person in a non-sexual/romantic way.

The less common senses may be, for example, being drawn to listening to someone's voice, or being attracted to someone's smell.

Demographics

According to the 2016 Asexual Community Survey [2, p.21], almost 80% of asexuals report experiencing aesthetic attraction and almost 40% report experiencing sensual attraction.

Sex-repulsion and -favourability

This spectrum relates to a person's knee-jerk response to the prospect of sex. Sex-repulsed individuals find the idea of having sex disgusting, not unlike how allosexuals perceive sex with close family members or with people they aren't attracted to. On the opposite side of the spectrum there are sex-favourable people, who think of sex as a good time or fun activity. Again, people can fall somewhere in the middle as well, which consists of varying degrees of sex-indifference – that is, not feeling positive or negative about the prospect of having sex.

Sex-aversion is an alternative term for sex-repulsion that carries the same or a similar meaning. Sex-aversion is sometimes used to describe sex-repulsion that lacks the element of disgust – that is, generally not wanting to have sex, but not necessarily able describe a reason why.

Both allosexuals and asexuals may be sex-repulsed, but typically they will relate to this repulsion in different ways. When an allosexual person is repulsed, it can create a conflict with their attraction and/or desire to be sexual, resulting in distress. For such people, it is usually recommended that they seek treatment for their repulsion. Many (though not all) asexuals on the other hand, have no desire or incentive to treat sex-repulsion, and there's no problem with that.

Demographics

Although asexuals can fall anywhere on the repulsion–favourability spectrum, there are significant average differences between them and allosexuals. Very few allosexuals describe themselves as sex-repulsed, sex-averse or sex-indifferent, which is in contrast to the following breakdown for asexuals from the 2016 Asexual Community Survey [2, p.49]:

Sex-positivity and -negativity

The sex-positivity/negativity spectrum refers to a person's opinion about other people having sex, their political views on sex, and their general outlook on sex. Someone who falls in the middle of sex-positive and sex-negative is called sex-neutral. The precise meanings of these labels are varied and contested, and it must be emphasised that the views associated with each label are not necessarily in opposition to each other.

Demographics

Few asexuals are sex-negative, but at the same time, asexuals are less likely to be sex-positive than allosexuals (the majority of which are sex-positive at 62.9%). According to the 2016 Asexual Community Survey [2, p.49] asexuals place themselves into these groups at the following rates:

Platonic and alterous attraction

Platonic attraction refers to an urge to form a platonic relationship – that is, a relationship of close friendship – with another person. When used on its own the term usually implies that there are no sexual or romantic feelings attached, though it is by no means incompatible with them. In fact, though it usually goes unlabelled, people seeking a sexual and/or romantic relationship often also experience platonic attraction bundled together with other attractions. Because of this the line between platonic and and other attractions is blurry and dependent on who you ask.

The term 'alterous' embraces the ambiguity this creates by labelling a form of attraction that can't be well described as entirely romantic or entirely platonic. Those who experience alterous or strong platonic attraction may decide to form a queer platonic relationship, or QPR.1 A QPR is an intimate relationship that is the same as a standard relationship but without the romance and sex. Essentially a very close friendship where the parties agree to be committed to each other in the long term (e.g. living arrangements, family assimilation, etc.); and that is celebrated by society in the ways that a regular relationship is, perhaps with ceremonies and legal codes such as marriage, anniversaries, etc. The members of a QPR are called 'queer platonic partners' or 'platonic life partners'.

Demographics

According to the 2016 Asexual Community Survey [2, p.21], around 70% of asexuals report experiencing platonic attraction.

Footnotes

  1. QPP (queer platonic partnership) is another common term with the same meaning – though it can be ambiguous with 'queer platonic partner'. A much less common version is 'quaziplatonic relationship/partnership', which is sometimes preferred because it avoids use of the potentially offensive term 'queer'.

References