I will never know if I see colors the same way that you do.
Think about it: no matter what I do, no matter what you do, no matter what technology provides or glasses we put on, we will never have the same vision. I can never know for sure if what I describe as pink or yellow is what you see as pink or yellow, no matter how much I describe it. You can never know if I see blue and green when you do or if I see orange and brown instead. No matter what we do, we will never live in the same body or have the same brain and eyes. That’s just how sight works; we can describe what we see to each other, talk about it, even think we’re in agreement, but we can’t ever truly know what exactly someone else sees or feels. No matter how in depth we go or how empathetic we are, we can’t know completely what it is to live someone else’s life.
For most of my life, sexual attraction was like this. I thought that I was experiencing it because other people who do told me that I was. I didn’t know that my sexual and my romantic attractions don’t go hand in hand the way they do with many of my friends. I thought, “well, I love this person, so I’ll have sex with them to express that.” Or I would think, “Well, this person wants sex, and I think that’s what I’m supposed to want right now, so, I guess I do, too.”
Not having sexual attraction, romantic attraction, or both — or having one here or there, but not knowing that you’re acting as a performer who’s supposed to be seeing a certain color — that’s kind of what being aspec can be like.
Imagine if you’d never seen the color red before.
When you pointed to a red towel, your friends and family who could see red thought you were seeing it the way they were. Because you were never taught about different shades of red, you thought so too.
Your friends and family see red. They point to a painting and say, “wow, what a beautiful shade of red!” They show it to you expectantly and wait for you to say how much you also see the red. It’s right there in front of you, after all — you must see it. You tilt your head thoughtfully. Finally you say, “Uh, yeah, cool. Red.” You think that you’ve convinced them that you can see it, and they move on, but late at night you wonder why everyone likes red so much.
To you, red just seems boring. It seems drab and reminds you of a stormy autumn day that has you stuck in a place that’s too cold and you didn’t remember to bring more than one sweater. You sit there, shivering, watching all your classmates in high school chatter on about red and how warm they feel. You don’t want to be left out, so when the conversation turns to you, you nod and fake it. After class, you wonder if you really like red or if you just want to be wanted — you don’t know anyone who will date you if you don’t like red.
“What’s your favorite color?” A boy asks you one day as you sit together, waiting for the bus.
You like him. You want him to hold your hand, share his locker with you, and ask you to prom. You like being around him and you can’t quite explain why. All you know is that you want to be around him a lot more than you do the other boys. You know, also, that he expects your favorite color to be red. That’s what you tell him — it’s red, of course, just like everyone else.
He nods and accepts your answer, smiling like something has been confirmed for him. As he keeps talking, you wonder if you can ever really be honest with him — after all, your favorite color is purple. You fear that someday you’ll have to tell him this and that he’ll say you were manipulative towards him for saying it was red, that he’ll be angry and judge you.
Late at night you write in your diary about all the little sensations you get when you’re around him, but you’re too afraid to write down that you lied about liking red. You wonder if maybe you do like it but you just haven’t seen the right shade yet, or maybe you like it and you’re just trying too hard to seem different from other kids your age — but deep down, you know that your favorite color is purple, just as you also know that you’ll be risking social and familial ostracizing if you ever actually admit this.
You and the boy start dating. It’s official — you’re his girlfriend. People start associating you with each other. You begin to talk all the time and he becomes one of your best friends and confidantes. He isn’t your first boyfriend, but you wonder if this time will be different — if you’re really feeling more comfortable for the first time.
Then, one day, out of nowhere, you can see red — really see it. You’ve never seen it before. You only see it when he’s around, and you only see it when thinking about him — but you see it. It’s not the dull, drab grey you thought it was. It’s bright, vibrant, lifelike. It feels warm, rich, and inviting. You feel so strange because you think — wait, has everyone else always just seen this? You suddenly understand why it’s a favorite color of so many of your friends have loved it for so long.
You start asking your close friends if this is what they’ve always seen, just to be sure. They don’t know what the big deal is.
“What are you talking about? That’s how red has always looked,” they say.
But it wasn’t like that before. This is the first time you’ve ever seen red. Over time, you begin to think it’s not important; surely everyone sees it the same way. Your friends were right — there was nothing special about when you finally saw red. You reach adulthood and think, “well, I don’t see red anymore, but that’s okay.” Or you think, “I guess this is just how I am.” You resign yourself to living a life where you just say you like red because that’s what you’re supposed to do, even long after you and your high school boyfriend have both broken up and moved on. Surely something is wrong with you for not seeing it every time you like someone, and even often when you don’t. You feel self conscious and weird, and you fake your way through a lot of situations because you think that’s just what you should be doing, but at the back of your mind you wonder if someone else sees what you do.
Then one day you meet someone else who tells you they’ve never seen red.
“Never?” you ask. “How did you figure out it was… different for you?”
“Other kids in high school always picked it as their favorite color. But it’s so drab, like a rainy day. I just don’t understand the obsession.”
You find more and more people who don’t or rarely see red, who have favorite colors like purple and green and orange. You even find people who have never seen purple, or who have never seen either, who have entirely different favorite colors and who always knew they didn’t see either and never felt ashamed of it. You think, “wow! Everyone should know we’re here too, so people feel less alone.” You don’t want people to go through the confusion that you did and it seems like there’s an opportunity to let other people know that there are people like them, too.
But… there’s a snag.
Many people can see red and purple, and they still think there’s something wrong with you if you can’t.
People who do and can see red don’t get you. They think you’re exaggerating or that you’re lying.
“Everyone sees red,” they say.
“I don’t, and neither do these other people,” you reply. “I can talk to you about what we do see.”
“Not sewing red isn’t an identity,” others sneer. “This is a rainbow. You don’t belong here if you can’t see all parts of it.”
It’s discouraging. If the rainbow itself is about seeing things outside of the color spectrum, then why is not seeing red or purple not okay? Where else can you go?
Then one day someone who sees red stands up and says, “hey, I don’t totally understand what you see. I see red. But if this is that important to you, I support you.”
Your heart swells. Over time, you watch more people who see red and purple come forward and say that they don’t mind if you can’t, that the rainbow is for all of the color spectrum, even the invisible and the infared. After a lifetime of feeling out of place and feeling invisible, feeling like something was wrong with you, you have a community of people like yourself and others who support and love you just as you are.
You might rarely see red. You might never see it again. It’s okay — it doesn’t distress you anymore. You know that nothing is wrong with you now, and you know that you are a part of the rainbow and that there are people who aren’t like you who will defend you, and people like you who will understand you, and you feel okay. That’s all you ever really wanted.
Not everyone sees red.
I know I may never see the same colors as you, but I do know that there is nothing wrong with me if I see them differently.
Not everyone has sexual attraction, romantic attraction, or both. This is what advocating for asexuality and aromanticism can be like at times, though. There are people that think that romantic and sexual attraction are so inherent to our being as humans there’s not another way to be. They think something must be wrong with us if we don’t have it and something is especially wrong with us if we’re not distressed by it and have community around it.
The big secret is that there is nothing wrong with us. For us, owning that we don’t have sexual and/or romantic attraction is saying out loud that this is who we are and that no, we aren’t lacking in something vital. We are people who are looking for acceptance and visibility in a world that treats us like we’re invisible even when we’re loudly shouting who we are out into the world.
If you want to be an ally to asexual & aromantic folx, you have to stop assuming there’s something wrong with us for how we experience the world differently from you. This often means challenging your preconceptions towards attraction and sexual behavior VS sexuality. Let it go.
Because we are here, and queer, and there’s nothing wrong with us just for existing.
Elle Rose, also known online as secretladyspider, is a freelance writer and demisexuality advocate specializing in LGBTQIAP+ education and issues. She also creates YouTube videos about the intersection between pop culture and mental health. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to see how she can work to advocate for you, or help her advocate by becoming a patron today.