AroAce Identity and Mental Health

The aromantics and asexuals of the AroAce community are too often ignored in the conversation about LGBTQIA+ mental health. 

Online blogs typically state that the AroAce community is 1 percent of the population. This data point comes from two main sources, the first being Welling’s and Kaye’s (1994) Sexual Behavior in Britain: The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, and Bogaert’s (2004) Asexuality: Prevalence and Associated Factors in a National Probability Sample, which was also based in Britain. In the USA, a 2017 GLAAD report found that asexuals accounted for 4 percent of the 2037 LGBTQIA+ adults surveyed. In turn, a 2019 study found that asexual people made up about 1.7  percent of their 1504 sexual minority respondents, representing a minority amongst minorities.

Of course, how well these surveys generalize to the broader population is difficult to ascertain, in part because of the language used. Consider how asking a crowd if they’re asexual will yield a wholly different set of results, than asking them to mark the intensity of their affectional and sexual feelings on a Likert scale. 

Since Kinsey, there have been many studies exploring the spectrum of heterosexuality and homosexuality, yet there has been little to no research measuring the spectrum of aromanticism to alloromanticism, and asexuality to allosexuality. 

To provide a simple definition: While an aromantic person has little to no romantic attraction to others, an alloromantic person does. While an asexual person has little to no sexual attraction to others, an allosexual person does. Grasping this, alloromantic, allosexual people make up the majority of the population, generating a world of social norms and expectations emphasizing love and sex. Yet for every out and proud member of the AroAce community, many people don’t realize they’re aromantic or asexual because said identities are so minimized. 

Many in the AroAce community will recall their precontemplative years before they knew asexuality or aromanticism were “a thing.” Some may say that they felt odd, or unlike other kids, or stunted in their development. Some may reveal that they wrote off their unique differences as a social quirk, and how confusing it all was until they encountered others with a similar experience, and found the words to articulate how they really felt. 

Since there is so much misinformation, let’s cover some fundamental aspects of aromantic and asexual identities and some key aspects of AroAce mental health.

Aromantic Identities

Aromantic people have little to no romantic attraction, yet there’s a broad spectrum of personal experience, including those who abstain from relationships entirely, to those wholly capable of deep affectionate bonds provided they’re not all lovey-dovey.

Pouring over the numbers, The Thinking Aro blog estimates that there may be as many as 14,275,076 aromantic people scattered across the U.S.A.  Perhaps the most comprehensive data collection comes from Hermann et al. (2022) 2020 Ace Community Survey Summary Report, which found that 41.5 percent of their asexual respondents identified as being on the aromantic spectrum. 

For aromantic people, navigating a society preoccupied with love stories and wedding bells can be a surreal and often tedious experience full of social complications. Romantic affection is so presumed that society tends to roll affectional orientation and sexual orientation together. So when people say they’re gay or straight, they’re talking about both love and sex simultaneously. 

Yet it’s quite possible to have a sexual attraction for one sex and a romantic attraction for another; just as it’s possible to have a sexual attraction for one sex and no romantic attraction whatsoever; just as it’s possible to have no sexual or romantic attraction at all. To put it another way, there is a cross-section between the affectional spectrum and the sexual spectrum, allowing for aromantic allosexuals and aromantic asexuals, as well as alloromantic allosexuals, and alloromantic asexuals. 

For many aromantic people, their identity often incorporates their personal experience of affection in a nuanced way. An aegoromantic person may, for example, enjoy depictions of love even if they don’t feel it, whereas an apothiromantic person may be entirely repulsed by romance. 

A cupioromantic may desire romance, but also not feel it, while a demiromantic may feel a romantic affection for someone provided a deeper, more trusting connection is made first. 

A frayromantic may feel romantic affection for people they barely know, only to lose these feelings once they get more acquainted. 

A grayromantic may feel romantic attraction at different points in their life, either weakly or in response to a very specific context. 

A lithoromantic may experience romantic attraction but lose said feeling if it’s reciprocated, creating an emotional one-way street, while a quoiromantic person may not be able to differentiate between their platonic, sexual, or romantic feelings. And, of course, an aroflux person may fluctuate between two or more of these aromantic identities depending on a range of factors. 

Aromantic people realize and come to terms with their identity at many different ages. For some, it was quite obvious when they were young, as they never desired a romantic relationship so they never pursued one. For others it can be more complicated, playing along with the dating scene, or pantomiming conventional romance as part of their awkward coming-of-age journey. 

Fortunately, when one drops all the flowers and chocolate boxes and examines oneself honestly, it becomes possible to recognize one’s needs and boundaries. While not always easy, authentic self-expression can help aromantic clients make social connections and maintain meaningful relationships where they can be honest about their feelings.  

Not only this, affirming a client’s aromantic identity can be vital to their growth, as a great deal of liberty and personal agency can be found when a client no longer feels like they have to conform. By setting aside romance and the pressure to be in a romantic relationship, a person has more freedom to focus on their individual growth, their platonic friendships, their non-romantic sexual relationships, their non-romantic partnerships, or any other facet of their life.

Asexual Identity

Asexuality is very nuanced. To be clear, it’s not a synonym for celibacy, abstinence, or hyposexuality. It’s a sexual orientation that decenters sexuality itself. How this plays out in social situations has a great deal to do with the pressures and expectations stemming from a client’s religious, racial, ethnic, and cultural identity, as well as their sex and gender. 

Demographically, the aforementioned 2020 Ace Community Survey Summary Report found that of their 15,132 respondents: 

  • 61.2 percent identified as women or female
  • 22.5 percent as nonbinary
  • 15 percent were questioning or unsure
  • 14.6 percent identified as men or male
  • 12.3 percent as agender
  • 8 percent as genderqueer
  • 6.6 percent as genderfluid
  • 5.5 percent as demigirl
  • 5.4 percent as no gender
  • 4.7 percent as androgynous
  • 2.2 percent as demiguy
  • 1.2 percent as neutrois
  • 1 percent as bigender 

Collectively, 15.2 percent of respondents also identified as transgender. 

To understand how sexism and cissexism impact asexual people differently, one must examine allosexual bias and allosexual privilege. Cultural expectations of courtship, marriage, and gender roles are reinforced throughout society, from traditional rituals to contemporary media using sex appeal in most songs, movies, and TV commercials. In many parts of the world, patriarchal scripts expect men to be sexually virile and women to be receptive to their lovers. Men who don’t show a high libido are often assumed to be “weak,” whereas women who aren’t receptive to their lovers are deemed “frigid.” 

Furthermore, trans and nonbinary people who don’t exhibit sexuality are often presumed “damaged.” When messages like this are internalized, clients may hold themselves to a sexualized social role that doesn’t fit, eroding their self-esteem and self-worth. 

Keep in mind that sexual attraction, and the act of sex, are distinct. For some asexuals, sex is aversive, yet for others, it can be a lot of fun. This is not a riddle. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) provides a useful cross-section, setting cultural attitudes about sex (Sex-positive, Sex-Neutral, and Sex-Negative) alongside personal attitudes about sex (Sex-Favorable, Sex-Indifferent, and Sex-Averse). While the nine profiles that follow are a simplified view, it does illustrate how some asexuals can be sex-negative and sex-aversive. In contrast, others are sex-positive and sex-favorable, and everything in between.  

Taking this further, Bogaert’s (2015) Asexuality: What it is and Why it Matters, goes beyond attitudes to explore sexual behavior. Bogaert notes how some asexuals engage in non-partner-oriented sexual desire, enjoying sex as an act of mutual masturbation. It’s important to highlight that a person’s sexual orientation is not defined by their behavior. An asexual person is no more or less asexual if they have sex once, twice, a thousand times, or never.

There are many reasons why asexual people engage in sexual behavior, some because they feel pressured by social norms, some because they have a certain level of compersion for their partner’s pleasure, and some because they enjoy sexual acts even if they don’t feel sexual attraction. Clients who are just beginning to explore their asexuality may spend time discerning this for themselves, especially if they have internalized the assumption that asexuality is inherently non-sexual. 

Likewise, sex-aversive asexuals may initially seek out therapy if they have internalized the message that something’s wrong with them. All too often, counselors assume sex aversion stems from trauma, yet this is not always the case. Yes, some sex-averse clients are guarded because of sexual trauma, yet some sex-averse asexual clients never experienced that type of trauma. 

Indeed, assuming a trauma “causes” asexuality not only erases asexuality, it clouds the recovery of asexual people who have also experienced sexual trauma. Some uninformed counselors may then try to attribute asexuality, especially sex-averse asexuality, to a client’s neurodiversity. Yet counselors must not underestimate the full range of diversity to be found amongst sexual minorities, as there are sex-averse clients who are neurotypical, and sex averse clients who are neurodiverse, as well as sex-favorable clients who are neurotypical, and sex-favorable clients who are neurodiverse, and so on. 

Instead of attempting to diagnose the cause of a person’s sexual orientation, affirmative therapy practices strive to validate a client’s lived experience. An aegosexual person, for example, may enjoy erotic fantasies and depictions of sex but not sexual intercourse itself.  Apothisexuals are sex-averse, and repulsed by sex, whereas cupiosexuals want sex even if they don’t feel sexual attraction. 

Demisexuals typically don’t feel sexual attraction to someone until they form a bond with that person, whereas fraysexuals are only aroused by people they don’t know very well. In turn, graysexuals do feel sexual attraction to others, on a weak level or in response to a specific person, while lithosexuals are sexually attracted to people provided the feeling is not reciprocated. 

Quoisexuals may feel a great sense of confusion around their sexual feelings, which is very distinct from aceflux people, who fluctuate between various forms of asexuality.

Collectively, the AroAce community accepts many different people, with many different experiences pertaining to sex and romance.

AroAce Mental Health

AroAce clients frequently struggle with social invisibility, traversing the world unnoticed even within the LGBTQIA+ community. Some may use this to their advantage, as a means of camouflaging at work or at school. Ironically, and unfortunately, using social camouflage to connect with others can actually increase feelings of loneliness, by hiding one’s authenticity behind a facade. 

Alarmingly, the Trevor Project’s 2020 survey of over 40,000 LGBTQIA+ youth found that asexual kids reported higher rates of anxiety and depression than other LGBTQIA+ youth of the same age. Additionally, 13 percent of asexual youth in the survey had attempted suicide. 

To conceptualize the gravity of this, remember that sexual and gender minorities face oppression on multiple fronts, as racism, sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and transphobia intersect. Simultaneously, one must also conceptualize the unique forms of oppression and minority stress specific to AroAce people in a world that minimizes their identity. Family will tell them they “just haven’t met the right person.” Lovers will tell them they “just need a better orgasm.” 

Yet one’s sexual orientation has little to no bearing on a person’s ability to have a healthy relationship or a satisfying orgasm. In fact, many AroAce people enjoy loving relationships, and sexual gratification, though the dynamics involved may differ from allosexual partnerships. 

In therapy, mental health counselors often encourage clients not to over-identify with a thought or feeling, as doing so can lead to self-limiting behavior. Upon hearing that a client has an affectional or sexual orientation defined by a muted or absent feeling, counselors may incorrectly assume the client is operating from a place of deficit. 

Counselors must check their bias here, to truly understand their client’s needs. Subjecting a client to an unnecessary cross-examination only injects doubt into their process, furthering their alienation, and potentially adding to any internalized shame they’re trying to overcome. It is far more beneficial to center a client’s self-knowledge by engaging their mindfulness, as these identities are based on observations of the self. Instead of trying to force a puzzle piece where it doesn’t fit, turn it over, examine its unique shape, and it will tell you exactly where it needs to be. 

That said, what if a client doesn’t want to be aromantic or asexual? This is a particularly tricky question, on par with clients who don’t want to be gay. Attempts to “convert” someone’s affectional or sexual orientation via suppression or conditioning can yield deep psychological distress, which is why both the American Counseling Association (ACA) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA)  condemn conversion therapy. Instead, holistic, humanistic, and affirmative counselors favor a growth process, trusting the client’s inherent ability to explore and deepen their understanding of self. 

It’s not uncommon for LGBTQIA+ clients to adjust or change their labels throughout their lives as they enter new growth periods. Just as some gay and straight people may realize, over time, that they’re actually asexual, it is possible for some asexual people to re-explore their sexuality as well. Yet this must be the client’s growth edge, for them to explore at their pace. Some may dip their toe back into the pool of romantic and sexual attraction, and say “No thank you!” Others may find themselves curious, and go wading into the water. 

Metaphors aside, it’s important to differentiate asexuality as an identity, from hyposexuality as a diagnosis. Hyposexuality is a drop in libido that can happen to anyone of any sexual orientation for a multitude of physiological and psychological reasons, including stress, anxiety, depression, health complications, hormone imbalances, or even dissatisfaction in their romantic and sexual relationships. There are, subsequently, many different treatments to increase someone’s libido, but let’s be clear about this. A heterosexual person doesn’t stop being heterosexual just because they don’t feel sexually aroused. In turn, an asexual person doesn’t stop being asexual just because they are sexually aroused. 

Like many sexual minorities, much of the psychological distress that AroAce people contend with stems from a lack of acceptance or understanding in their social environment, not because there is anything diagnostically wrong with them. In affirmative therapy, counselors help clients identify any internalized alloromantic and allosexual bias they may have while engaging in productive, self-affirming experiences that promote self-acceptance. 

Often, the pressure to “not be aromantic” or “stop being asexual” dissipates when clients release themselves of the social norms that do not fit, yet there may be a lot of residual feelings to figure out. The relief that follows may be accompanied by a mourning period, just as excitement can be accompanied by anxiety, and freedom by indecision. 

After all, letting go of former goals does not automatically provide new ones. It’s at this juncture that affirmative therapy helps clients to take the reigns by defining new life goals, new relationship dynamics, new personal boundaries, and new modes of communication, in line with their AroAce authenticity.

Alex Stitt, LMHC

Alex Stitt, LMHC

Writer & Contributing Expert

Alex Stitt is a nonbinary author, queer theorist, and licensed mental health counselor living in Hawaii. As a proud Queer Counselor, they work to educate professionals in the mental health field interested in working with LGBTQ+ populations. Their textbook, ACT for Gender Identity: The Comprehensive Guide, demonstrates how to apply Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to gender self-actualization.