Last month, there was an incident where a prominent ace blogger very publicly questioned whether “allo aro” should be seen as an empowering label. This caused a furor among aro bloggers, and even the author deleted the post because they admitted it was unproductive and wrong.
The truth is that people who are allosexual and aromantic-spectrum are at a unique intersection. Historically, they were only acknowledged as a theoretical possibility within ace communities, where they were often subject to hostile speculation. They have to deal with people’s hangups about sex without romance, and deal with the question of how (or whether) to navigate sexual relationships without romance. I think it’s obvious why allo aro people have had to fight for their identity, and why they should be proud of it.
But I’m going to look at this wrong argument, and not just say that it was wrong, but explain why it was wrong. Then I will take a journey through hierarchies that have been reinforced over and over again within ace and aro spaces. Finally, I forcefully assert the importance of fighting for allo aros.
Intersections with the default
As the now-deleted argument goes, “ace” names something that goes against norms, while allosexual is just the negation of that, the default group. “Allosexual” can be compared to many other terms which fulfill similar roles, such as cisgender, straight, theist, gentile, non-disabled, neurotypical, etc. Generally, we don’t consider any of these negative terms to be empowering, even when combined with another marginalized identity. For example, we wouldn’t consider “neurotypical woman” to be an empowering identity, nor “straight person with a disability”. Therefore, “allo aro” cannot be considered an empowering identity either.
The argument sort of makes sense in the abstract–if you completely ignore the reality of what allo aro people’s lives are actually like. It does appear to be a general rule that these “negative” labels are not considered components of empowering identities. “Allo aro” apparently breaks that rule.
But the truth is, there are no absolute language rules in social justice. The only rule is to understand people’s diverse experiences and desires, and try to build a better world that accommodates everyone. When we listen to allo aros, we understand that they have unique problems which do not stem from either allosexuality or aromanticism alone. Imaginary rules must give way to empirical fact.
Furthermore, the allo aro intersection is far from the only exception to the rule. For instance, much has been said about the experience of asexual men, even though it’s not really an underprivileged group. There are unique questions regarding asexual men, such as why they seem to be missing from ace communities, and how asexuals deal with toxic masculinity. Another relevant intersection is sex-favorable aces. Although sex-favorability is the default in larger society, among aces it can lead to community exclusion, and compulsory sexuality. I’ve even made the case for the significance of the hetero ace intersection.
And then there’s the grandaddy of all these intersections, so old that we all take it for granted: the alloromantic ace intersection.
The other allo intersection
In my decade of experience in ace communities, I have seen many arguments about whether aromantics or alloromantics have it worse. It’s sort of a “grass is always greener” situation and I find it unproductive. It may be the case that some groups have it “worse”, but how worthwhile is it to argue about it? Do you really want your activism to be reliant on disproving the problems of other groups you are not part of? Is that the hill you want to die on? I am not interested in comparing problems, so instead I point out problems that each group has in different contexts.
In absence of any ace education efforts, aromantic asexuality has typically been viewed as the default form of asexuality, and you can see this throughout ace history. In Nat Titman’s historical account, one of the best-known asexuals in the 1990s, to whom all other asexuals were compared, was “Toby” (aka Jim Sinclair), who was apparently not interested in romantic relationships. Communities like Asexual Pals explicitly stated that asexuals “lack sexual or romantic attraction to either gender.” The aromantic default was even enshrined in the AVEN triangle, which located asexuals at a single point, based on the assumption that asexuals did not have any directional orientation.
Within ace communities, the aromantic default was quickly deconstructed. However, the aromantic default was (and is) still widely extant throughout society, which means having to deal with it in public education, and in newbies to the ace community, over and over and over again, for literally decades.
Observers have also remarked that the most powerful ace activists today are predominantly aro. We don’t know why that is, but it hardly feels like an accident.
But in many other domains, alloromantic aces are taken as the default. For example, in fiction, it’s really obvious that alloromantic ace narratives dominate. This reflects broader choices that the ace community has made in presenting itself. The narrative of the asexual in a romantic relationship has a lot of traction because it disrupts the aromantic default, while replacing it with something that mainstream audiences tend to find more relatable. Aros are correct to be infuriated about this, as it deprives them of representation, and positions aromanticism as inherently less relatable. Fiction is becoming an increasingly common way for people to first learn about asexuality, which means more and more people are taught to take alloromantic asexuality as the default.
Learning from the past
This whole situation strongly reminds me of another chapter in ace history: that time that sex-favorable aces became the default. This was very strange, because in the latest community surveys, sex-favorable aces make up about 8% of the community. Nonetheless, there was a time when people were extremely insistent about highlighting aces who actually enjoyed sex, to the extent that they built the impression that such aces were in the majority. Sex-repulsed aces were, in the mean time, swept under the rug as a political liability to even talk about.
This should sound familiar. Why is it that alloromantic ace narratives seem to dominate despite aro aces being the majority in leadership? Why are aromantic narratives are swept under the rug as a political liability?
In many ace communities, sex-repulsed and sex-indifferent narratives were initially taken as default. However, on Tumblr, the narrative of aces who like sex gained a lot of traction, because it disrupted the narrative of all aces being indifferent repulsed, while also being more appealing to the LGBTQ Tumblr crowd.
Many people were mad at sex-favorable aces for dominating the conversation, but this was not entirely true. Many of the people who promoted sex-favorable asexuality as default were not themselves sex-favorable. In my personal experience, there was a lot of positivity directed at sex-favorable aces, but it felt very hollow. There was very little in the way of actual narratives of aces who like sex. There was little acknowledgment that many of those narratives do not involve actually having sex. People were using sex-favorable aces to promote compulsory sexuality, and failing to understand that compulsory sexuality harms sex-favorable aces too.
Right now, many people in the aro community are mad at alloromantic aces for dominating ace narratives. But given the absence of alloromantic aces in leadership, we ought to consider the possibility that alloromantic aces are not necessarily the ones behind it. And we ought to consider that all these narratives about aces in relationships don’t just ring hollow for aros, but may ring hollow for alloromantic aces as well. In community surveys, we have found that only about 55% of alloromantic aces have ever even had a romantic relationship, which is not much higher than the 45% of allosexual aros who have had a romantic relationship. This all feels too familiar to me. I don’t think aros are the only ones who should be mad about it.
All of this ties back to allo aros. Don’t you see? It’s all connected! I flourish my hands in front of a peg board full of string. Allo aros have alternately been treated with hostility by ace communities, while also being subject to hollow positivity, and history repeats itself.
At the beginning of this article, I referred to a public incident where a prominent ace blogger made anti-allo-aro remarks. Public incidents like this one have caused allo aros to be mad at ace communities. However, having seen how aces talk about allo aros in more private discussions, my honest opinion is… allo aros should be even madder than they currently are! Take this thread from 2010. I’m not quoting that painful garbage, just let me quote Sciatrix (former TAA contributor) giving much-needed pushback:
I’m sure you did not mean to imply that aromantic people as a class do not care about the emotions of others or connecting with others, but it is implicit in your post. Also, please to not be implying that everyone who has one-night stands is trying to trick their partner or something.
It’s not all as bad as that, of course. It is worth pointing out that allo aro people have occasionally found their niche within ace communities; for example, I have highlighted a couple examples in the blogging scene. But this must be placed in a larger context, where allo aros have been systematically mistreated by ace communities, and often chased out to the fringes–such as the blogging scene.
Within the aro community, I think allo aros are treated much better. But I also feel defensive on their behalf, like the aro community doesn’t treat them quite as well as they would like to imagine. The aro community is quick to highlight its acceptance of allo aros, but they have a secret: very few of them are allosexual! …I think. We don’t actually know, because aro community surveys thus far have deliberately chosen not to ask the question. As a survey activist, this really gets my goat. They’ve basically erased the problem instead of confronting it. (Fortunately, this will change with the 2020 Aro Community Census.)
Same thing I’ve said about asexual men, the absence of allo aros likely speaks to some hidden pain. Over the next decade, we are going to discover just how many allo aros had been deprived of tools to understand themselves, and how little we knew about them. Were you surprised to learn that 45% of allo aros have been in a romantic relationship? Would you also be surprised to learn that only about 55% of them have had consensual sex? These numbers are inexact, and we will get better measurements over time, but the takeaway is that we know so little, we don’t even know how much we don’t know.
2010 was part of a long era when people could idly speculate about allo aros and how heartless they must be. It was an era when even the defenders of allo aros were disempowered by their own ignorance. That era must come to an end.