Recently there have been a number of articles in the media about asexual folks in relationships. This is great! Maybe we’re finally moving past the “wow, these people exist, how weird is that” articles! What isn’t so great is that, inevitably, these articles have a section that I like to call “but what about The Sex?” It usually goes something like, “But how can aces date without The Sex? What do they do without The Sex? Romantic relationships without The Sex??? How???” And then, inevitably, I make the mistake of reading the comments section, which devolves into, “No such thing as a relationship without The Sex!” and “I’m so confused about the lack of The Sex????” and “That guy’s been friendzoned SO HARD.”
Of course, if you’re an ace who’s ever had (or even thought passingly of having) a partnered relationship (whether romantic or not), you’re probably well-acquainted with the “what about The Sex?” question. For some aces–those in sexual relationships–the answer is, “We do The Sex.” As I’m not personally equipped to talk about the issues that arise following that revelation (and there are a lot of issues), I’m going to address the other side of things. For aces in nonsexual relationships, the inevitable answer–“We don’t do The Sex”–leads to shock, awe, and/or accusations of lying. “But how are you dating without The Sex? What makes that different than a friendship?” I don’t know–what makes a chicken different than a pig other than the feathers? There are a whole lot of differences that I’m sure you could figure out on your own if you stopped and thought about it. Also, for the record, I’m pretty sure that friendship + sex = “friends with benefits” (among other appellations), not “romantic relationship,” so romantic relationship – sex =/= friendship.
“But how do you do The Sex?” is a question that many folks in non-standard/non-heteronormative relationships face. Mae Martin has done a routine (.gif set at the link) on a similar question with regards to lesbian relationships–“Which one of you is the man?” Lesbian relationships, she points out, kind of lack men; that would be why they are lesbian relationships. The person questioning her is assuming that there is only one way to do The Sex (i.e. with one cis man and one cis woman), and so the fact that she is claiming to do The Sex with two women means that one of them must be “the man” for it to really be The Sex. With nonsexual relationships, the issue isn’t necessarily the ratio of men to women (although it may be!)–the issue is that The Sex apparently isn’t happening at all. “But how do you do The Sex?” We don’t. That’s kind of the point.
“But you must do something instead! What do you do instead of The Sex?” We don’t. We genuinely don’t do The Sex, and don’t do anything instead of The Sex. Aces in nonsexual relationships (whether with other aces or with non-ace folks) may do a variety of things with their partners–cuddle, watch TV together, cook together, play games together, give each other massages, sleep together (literally, not euphemistically), bathe together, etc. But none of those are a substitute, per se, for The Sex. Partner A doesn’t turn to Partner B and say, “Let us bake a literal cake that will metaphorically be The Sex,” and then Partner B doesn’t say, “Oh baby oh baby, let us do the metaphorical cake sex; take me metaphorically via this vaguely phallic whisk.”
To use Martin’s salad metaphor (yes, I know, another food metaphor, but bear with me), it’s like you’re making a cake and I’m making a salad. You ask me whether I’m putting in baking soda. No, obviously I’m not; I’m making a salad and salads don’t need baking soda. “But what are you putting in instead of baking soda?” you cry. Well, nothing–I’m making a salad; I don’t need a leavening agent.
And here we come to the crux of the issue–we’re describing fundamentally different things. You’ve decided that all foodstuffs (or romantic relationships, if we’re going to stop being metaphorical for a moment) are composed of the same ingredients, and so you can’t understand how mine can function without the ingredient you’ve decided is essential. Most cakes require a leavening agent, but I’m not making a cake. Similarly, perhaps your romantic relationships require The Sex, but not everyone’s do. Not everyone is making metaphorical cakes–some people are making metaphorical salads and some are making metaphorical enchiladas and some are making metaphorical udon.
Not every relationship has the same elements, and that’s okay! There are some people in romantic relationships who don’t want to live together. There are some people in romantic relationships who don’t like kissing. There are some people in romantic relationships who hate “romantic” gestures like giving flowers or having candlelight dinners. It’s not like there’s someone standing by with a checklist going, “Okay, yes, kissing, uh-huh, living together, oh, you haven’t met the gazing-longingly-at-each-other requirements, so, sorry, going to have to revoke your romantic relationship license.” And yet a surprising number of people think that your romantic relationship license should be revoked if you’re not engaging in proper amounts of the proper types of sexual activity with each other. What makes The Sex so important–more important than any other potential component of a relationship? Why is The Sex more important than commitment, than affection, than any other activity you could do together? I’m not entirely sure, but sexual normativity probably ties into some of the obsession with sex in romantic relationships. What I do know is that relationships (regardless of the type) should be tailored to the people in them, not the people standing outside wailing, “But what about The Sex?”