Unlearning Expectations: The Fundamentals to Accepting Asexuality and Aromanticism

The Oxford Dictionary defines unlearn as a verb meaning “to discard (something learned, especially a bad habit or false or outdated information) from one’s memory.”

A lot of my adult life so far has been centered around unlearning things I was raised with. Part of growing up is pushing past what you were taught and doing your best to figure out what you do, in fact, believe, so that you can create a better future for yourself and others. This involves both actively learning about the world around us and taking the time and effort to challenge our core beliefs.

Core beliefs are essentially how each of us sees ourselves, others, and how we each interpret our world. Everyone has them and everyone passes them along to others around them all the time. They are not necessarily good or bad — they can be either good or bad, or even neutral.

Core beliefs are extremely difficult to unlearn. Our brains do not like to be challenged. Challenging the beliefs of others can even result in The Backfire Effect, or our own beliefs becoming stronger. But how is that possible?

So what’s happening in the brain when our core beliefs are challenged?

It goes something like this: First, we are presented with new information that does not align with something we deeply believe. Our brain reacts as if it’s being physically threatened and our emotional response rushes our much more quickly than our logical thinking. Our previous biases are confirmed the stronger the emotional reaction gets for us. In the other person’s attempt to disprove our misconception, our brain goes to emotional arguments rather than anything logical, even as the other person presents us with thorough information to back up their side of the argument.

Our emotions are fast and strong and our brains like emotions more than they like logic. Even when we’re presented with logic, if the logic challenges something we believe deeply, our brains reject it before we’ve even had the chance to consider the new information.

It takes continuous, hard work. It challenges us to our very cores and asks us who we are and if that’s the person we want to be.

It is important for me to talk about here because of the core belief that so many of us are raised with and surrounded by that everyone experiences sexual and romantic attraction. This belief is incorrect — asexual and aromantic people exist, and there are many different types of attraction. There are people within these spectrums who may rarely experience one or both types of attraction, or may experience them under select circumstances, who still identify with the aspec community.

Telling people we exist, though, doesn’t seem to quite be enough. I could sit here and talk to you until I’m blue in the face about what that means and find that I’ve only reinforced your belief that people like me are just looking for attention and don’t exist. That’s what I want to talk about today — why we can explain our aspec (those who are ace, aro, or within one or either spectrums) orientations over and over and still be told we’re wrong about who we are, even by other people who pride themselves on stepping outside of expectations for relationships, romance, and sexuality.

If we want to talk about why it can be difficult to discuss and learn about asexuality and aromanticism, we have to talk about how it relates to unlearning the expectation that everyone experiences sexual and romantic attraction.

I am not going to delve deep into what asexuality and aromanticism are here; I have done that in pieces before. For those unfamiliar, however, I will give some very brief definitions.

Asexuality is a spectrum orientation in which a person does not experience sexual attraction. Aromanticism is a romantic orientation in which a person does not experience romantic attraction. These are spectrum orientations, meaning some people experience rare attraction of one or both kinds. I am a graysexual, or demisexual, myself. (Not everyone who uses one of these words uses both; they both fit me.) If you are interested in reading more about both of these, here is a link to my piece discussing the queerness of these orientations, which includes within it several links to outside resources.

The expectation for everyone to experience sexual attraction is allonormativity. The expectation for everyone to experience romantic attraction is amanormativity. These are also things that I dove into in my piece about why asexuality and aromanticism are queer, and as they both relate to heteronormativity. They also relate to expectations within the queer community — even the queer community expects others to experience sexual and romantic attraction, and when we don’t, it can quickly become a point of debate and conflict.

It is an understatement that “you’re supposed to love and want sex” is hammered into us. Everyone seems to be talking about sex and love from the moment we’re born. These norms start young and our world is saturated with them; with heterosexual, heteroromantic, cisgender, perisex couples just having fun and having the privilege to just exist without extra questions, explanations, or fear of being themselves. The desire for sex and love is thought to be a fundamental part of the human experience, and when aspecs say that it doesn’t need to be a part of ours, those around us may feel as if their core beliefs are being threatened.

A common point of confusion that comes up when discussing these things with people who are allo — that is, either not asexual or not aromantic, or neither — is that “you can’t be just not attracted to anyone.” The belief is that everyone is attracted to someone, so if someone comes up to an allo who is unfamiliar with these things and says “I don’t want to be with anyone” or “I don’t really care about sex,” their first reaction is that something is wrong with that person. That person who doesn’t experience sexual or romantic attraction is coming up to them and challenging their core belief that all humans want sex, that all humans want romance, that the alternative is dying sad and worst of all, alone.

The coming out stories of aspec people (those who are asexual or aromantic or somewhere housed under these umbrellas) seem to always involve not just misunderstanding, but extensive explanations and definitions. Nearly every time I discuss this part of the queer community with someone unfamiliar, I find that a good portion of the discussion is less about how I experience my sexuality and why I feel that demisexual and graysexual describe me well, but instead me explaining at length what all the words about it mean and that yes, I do exist.

We do exist; sexual and romantic attraction are not the end all be all of what humans are. I say this as someone who is still learning and has to reach out regularly to the aromantic community about what their experiences are like in an effort to understand them better. Romantic attraction is such an inherent part of who I am that while I can relate to some extent by expanding my ideas of the attraction I don’t experience to romantic attraction, the concept of aromanticism challenges my core beliefs about how we operate as people.

That’s scary to admit as an advocate — but I feel that it is important. I am human too; I am just doing my best to learn and articulate my life as I go along. Having our own core beliefs challenged is uncomfortable because it involves feeling vulnerable and according to my brain, even threatened.

I have never doubted aromanticism is queer — but the definition alone challenged me from the moment I read it, as did the definition of asexuality. Both challenge me personally for different reasons; asexuality, because I have spent so much of my life performing under the expectation that sexual was what I was supposed to be; and aromantic because as a person who experiences romantic attraction frequently and strongly and always has, it challenges what I expect of both myself and others.

The amazing thing about the brain, though, is that it can adapt and change as it learns to accept new information. It just takes some uncomfortable effort.

The human brain is incredibly complex but one thing we do know it is capable of is change if the person in question is willing to put in the work.

When our brains are presented with new information, especially information that challenges us, it is important to take a deep breath and take the time to digest that information.

When presenting new information to others, we can present a new narrative to help them learn a new way of thinking. What has helped me most both accept myself and learn about the asexual and aromantic community at large has been reading lived narratives of others, listening to them, and engaging with the community. By telling people about our lived experiences through more than definitions we find on wikipedia we can expand the understanding of aspec narratives and challenge the preconceived idea that everyone experiences sexual and romantic attraction, that sex and romance are what make us human.

Challenging allonormativity and amanormativity is difficult; I won’t say that it isn’t. I am still challenging myself, every day, to grow and learn different aspec narratives that reach outside of my understanding of myself and other members of the community. I know it’s hard to challenge yourself or others when it comes to their core beliefs. Humans are often averse to conflict, even if that conflict can bring healthy changes and growth.

I do not have a perfect solution for this. No matter who you are — whether you’re someone who regularly engages with my work or someone who has no idea who I am and knows nothing about asexuality or aromanticism or anything within it — I know that challenging our cores is uncomfortable.

But being uncomfortable with growth is not an adequate excuse to refuse to do it.

Many things that are uncomfortable emotionally are very important for our emotional growth as individuals and are things that we look back on later and realize needed to happen, even if they felt weird or even hurt at the time.

Unlearning allo and amanormativity is essential for accepting everyone in your life, not just asexual and aromantic people. It means challenging both what you expect of those around you and challenging what you expect from yourself. It means looking at yourself and saying, “I want to understand myself and the people around me wholly, not just as sexual and romantic beings.” It involves recognizing that while sexual attraction and romantic attraction are important to many of us, they are not what makes us human; we are complex, fascinating, creative, and each of us is wholly unique.

Everyone is different, but one thing that’s true of everyone is that our experiences are far too wide and varied to narrow us down to just our sexual and romantic attractions.Those of us who don’t experience one or both of these attractions, or who fall somewhere in between, or who are questioning what our experiences truly mean and how we feel are not less human. We are not inherently missing out on anything; many of us don’t feel like we’re missing out at all.

We all want different things, and we will often defy what you expect of asexuality and aromanticism, but that’s what humans do — we defy simplicity. There is no neat little box for being a person; there is no one way to be.

Asexuality and aromanticism are real experiences. Learning about them requires unlearning your expectations of what we need and want in life, considering where that comes from, and considering the narratives of those who are completely different from ourselves. It can feel scary — but it is an essential part of accepting us, and can be an essential part of accepting yourself, too.

We are here. We are queer. And we are worth doing the unlearning for.

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 secretladyspider@gmail.com to see how she can work to advocate for you.

I am a 28 year old gray ace advocate for asexuality and other queer identities. I also advocate for mental health and disability.

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