Sex Heroes is an ongoing HuffPost Q&A series by Voices Editorial Director Noah Michelson that explores the lives and experiences of individuals who are challenging, and thereby changing, mainstream culture’s understanding of sex and sexuality.
Steve Winter, a 34-year-old performance manager, and Thom Gray, a 26-year-old DJ who is applying to get his masters degree in psychology and sexuality, are in many ways just like any other couple who’s been together for three years.
They love to go camping, spend time with their cat, Jacx, and they’re currently putting the finishing touches on their dream wedding, set to take place on July 21. However, unlike many other couples, they identify as homoromantic asexuals, or individuals who are romantically attracted to the same gender but not sexually attracted to any gender.
Steve and Thom, who live together in Bristol, England, recently chatted with me to explain what dating is like as an asexual homoromantic person, why their relationship isn’t the same as “just being best friends,” their upcoming asexuality-themed wedding and more.
How do you define asexuality?
Steve Winter: Being asexual can be primarily defined as an identity. In its most basic description, it includes those individuals who do not experience any form of sexual attraction or desire to have sex with other individuals. It shouldn’t be confused with celibacy, where individuals who do experience sexual desire and attraction make a choice not to act upon these feelings or urges.
However as asexuality has a spectrum, there are so many other elements and identities on the “scale” which fall under the asexual umbrella ― being asexual isn’t just a one-size-fits-all way of life. Some examples include graysexual, aromantic, and demisexual.
When did you know that you were asexual? How did you know?
SW: I discovered asexuality when I was 31. In all honesty, when I came out as bisexual at 15, and when I then came out as gay at 16 or 17, I never had any real desire to want to start sticking things into people or for the experience to be inflicted upon myself. I was quite happy looking at the aesthetically pleasing individuals that I went to college with for the simple purposes of having any form of close contact with someone that I found myself attracted to but letting it simply stop at a kiss and a cuddle and then falling asleep.
I discovered what asexuality was when I came across a Gaydar profile from someone who is a very good friend of mine now ― Stephen Lloyd ― who will be my best man at my wedding to Thom in July.
Stephen absolutely went to town on his profile when it came to educating the masses on what being asexual was and when I found the links that pointed me to AVEN (The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network) everything clicked beautifully into place. Ironically, I found myself reading about this while lying in bed at night and I can happily say it was one of the best and my earliest awesome experiences that I had ever had in bed!
This could not have happened at a better time as I was finding myself to be heading towards a really dark place where I was convinced that I was broken and that something was wrong with me as I didn’t experience the same feelings towards other individuals that my friends did. This was also starting to affect my health with how much I was drinking in order to cope with these thoughts. At the same time I was trying to bring my confidence up in hopes that maybe this was just nerves and maybe all I had to do was take the plunge and get on with it outside of my comfort zone!
Thom Gray: I discovered asexuality in 2012 following a year identifying as gay. I knew quite soon after coming out as gay that I had misjudged my desire to go out with guys as I was unaware of what sexual people’s expectations were. I looked online to work out if you could be gay but not into sex, but initially failed to find an identity that felt right. Shortly after, a gay friend who I almost went out with (but he thought I didn’t like him as we didn’t have sex!) mentioned asexuality and showed me some websites. Like Steve, I joined AVEN and met Stephen Lloyd on there and later came out to friends and family. I knew it was the right community for me as suddenly there was no pressure to conform to sexual ideals. Looking back, I realized I have always been asexual, but it sadly it took some bad experiences whilst identifying as gay to find that out.
What’s it like dating as an asexual person? Did you look for other asexual people to date?
SW: I have dated two asexual people, the latter being the person I am planning to spend the rest of my life with (Thom) and in all honesty what I loved and still love about it even now is the fact that there is no pressure and both of us knew at no time was there any ulterior motive about getting the other person into bed to try and “perform” or conform to a stereotype. You can just focus on enjoying your time with the other person and being completely and totally immersed in them as a human being, a personality and overall a person to get to know with all their quirks, features and fun bits! Even now, for as long as I have been going out with Thom, I still discover new things about him on a weekly basis that I never knew before and each time grows another place in my heart to accommodate this.
TG: It fascinates me how people are so surprised when they see Steve and I together ― they realize we are like any other couple. The reality is, we do everything a couple does except sex. So that means cuddling, physical contact, romantic gestures, etc. Normally you wouldn’t see your friends having sex, so why would an asexual couple appear any different in comparison to any other couple? What does or doesn’t happen behind closed doors does not define a relationship.
What’s it like dating a sexual person when you’re asexual?
SW: My first experiences before I identified as being asexual and dating a sexual or “allosexual” person – a person that does experience sexual desire and attraction ― are those that I have pushed to the very back of my mind mainly down to how I felt through the whole process. Because that’s what it felt like. For the whole time that I was seeing this person/these people I cannot recall as many of the pleasant experiences that I am having currently, simply down to the fact that I was always thinking about what would happen when we were in bed, or what I would be expected to do when I was there and how I was supposed to “act.” This was something that dominated the majority of my days when I was with these people, which essentially is none of their fault. It is safe to stay that all of my previous relationships genuinely ended on that terrible cliché of “It’s not you it’s me” – and that’s being truthful, it really was me!
TG: Imagine being a gay guy who is dating a straight girl. He may have an interest in women but the script from society says that he should be interested in having sex with her, but he just doesn’t feel it. In fact, it feels so incredibly wrong he just physically can’t do it. I know a lot of asexuals who have integrated sex into their relationship as a way of pleasing their sexual partner, but for me it just isn’t something I’d be prepared to consider.
What does or doesn’t happen behind closed doors does not define a relationship.
You both identify as homoromantic. What does that mean exactly?
SW: Being homoromantic means that both myself and Thom are romantically attracted to the same gender – namely each other.
Just to ensure that this is made clear, being asexual does not mean that you need to be gay or bi or lesbian. Asexual people can be guys attracted to girls, girls attracted to guys, guys attracted to guys and girls, girls attracted to guys and girls, guys attracted to guys and girls attracted to girls.
Asexual people can identify more so within the asexual spectrum as heteroromantic – a romantic attraction between people of opposite genders― homoromantic ― a romantic attraction between two people of the same gender ― or even aromantic – no attraction or desire both sexually or romantically towards any gender. There are also additional romantic and non-romantic identities within the asexuality spectrum that may be worth people looking into should they find themselves questioning if they identify somewhere under the asexual umbrella.
TG: Basically, whatever you can be as a sexual person, you can also be as an asexual. Instead of “homosexual” you can be “homo-asexual” (or “homo-romantic”), or bi-asexual, etc.
Most people never talk about (or even think about) their romantic orientation. Why do you think there isn’t more discussion of romantic attraction versus sexual attraction?
SW: Romantic attraction is something that is used quite simply to allow people to move onto the more sexualized attraction. When was the last time that you ever saw an advert that used purely romance to sell a product to the consumer without the slightest hint of sexual attraction being included in any plot or storyline to sell the product? Car adverts are great at this ― essentially drive this car because it will make people want to come and sleep with you.
Society itself knows that sex sells. Romance is something that people do towards their later years when the sex has run out and they have nothing else to offer each other ― or is this really the case? This is certainly something that is perceived by a lot of younger people today. Imagine a load of 18-30 year olds raving it up in a night club and the conversations turning to the fact that everyone wants to go home after a romantic walk, dinner, a movie, a snuggle in front of the TV and then a bubble bath with a cuddle in bed as you fall asleep. What! That’s just not going to happen!
TG: I think the main problem is that society generally does not see the two attractions as separate constructs. Romance is not mutually exclusive to sex for a lot of people. But as asexuals we promote the fact that you can have sex without love, so why not love without sex?
I’m sure there are people who are thinking “how is this different from just being best friends?” What would you say to them?
SW: I have close friends but I am not romantically attracted to them. I don’t want to take them out and share a romantic experience with them as I don’t feel that way towards them. This is essentially the same way that a straight guy or girl would have friends of the same gender and experience a closeness to them in friendship form but would not want to do anything either with them as they are just not attracted to them in the same way. The same can be said for those individuals who identify as straight, gay, or bi and have friends of a particular gender they should be attracted to but that simply isn’t the case as they don’t experience that attraction. I don’t believe that anyone’s identity should be defined by who they want to stick things into or receive things from. Surely there is more to an individual and a person than that!
TG: Not many people would do all the things they do in a relationship with their best friend, even if you exclude sex. The physical contact, the shared life experiences, even just meeting family and appearing at the dinner table every Christmas goes beyond what most best friends provide.
Tell me about your wedding. What do you have planned? Will it differ from how people think about weddings for sexual people?
TG: The wedding is loosely themed around playing cards, as asexuals are often referred to as “aces” for short. We have 52 guests each, the décor is themed around the four suits in a deck of cards, and guests are invited to wear the colors of the asexual flag. There will still be suits and confetti, but the vibe shall be much more fun and open-minded. We have friends who are trans, bi, gay, furry, black, white, bikers, bears, pups, chavs – you name it, it’ll be varied! They all accept us and asexuality, as they have often experienced similar troubles in both their identity and being accepted by others. In this way our wedding will definitely be different from the typical “sexual’ couples” wedding, as traditions are mainly being sidelined for fun and freedom to be whoever you really are.
Asexuality, like being gay, straight, bi, trans, etc., is how you are wired. Quite simply, you are born this way!
What’s the biggest (or some of the biggest) misconception(s) about being asexual?
SW: Isn’t that just celibacy? – Nope! Once again, celibacy is a choice. Asexuality, like being gay, straight, bi, trans, etc., is how you are wired. Quite simply, you are born this way!
TG: That asexuality was made up online by social media users and bloggers when it’s actually been around since the early 1980s as a term and definitely likely to have been around for hundreds of years before that but without a name! Some people think Florence Nightingale was asexual, but obviously you can never identify someone else’s sexuality ― especially if they’re dead.
Other big misconceptions are that we’ve all been sexually abused or are sexually repressed. These are horrible accusations to make, and I doubt anyone would get away with claiming the same about any other identity. Sadly, asexuals have barely any legal cover, so any negative actions towards an asexual tend to be overlooked.
What do you say to people who claim that asexuality isn’t a real thing?
SW: My first challenge to those individuals is “How dare you tell me who I can or cannot be or identify as?” I personally wouldn’t dream of trying to force my own thoughts or beliefs onto anyone else’s lifestyle choice, gender identity or sexual orientation. Personally it disgusts me that people still feel it is their given right to do this to anyone. It is none of their business. We are not a cult, a following, a gang, a religion ― we are is a group of individuals who unlike the rest of society find attraction in something that doesn’t involve sex.
TG: I think it’s a real shame that a lot of people dismiss new identities so quickly, as it wasn’t that long ago that terms like “gay” and “lesbian” were new, too! If we treat every new term with dismissal before gaining an understanding of what the term means, we will never be accepting of minorities. But, like I said, asexuality has been around longer than people think, so hopefully they’ll grow to understand it isn’t just an online fad or microcraze.
What do you want people to know about being asexual and homoromantic?
TG: We stream a live podcast on YouTube every Sunday 7.30pm GMT called “Pieces of Ace.” We started the show in 2015, and the reaction from the asexual community has been overwhelming. We’ve heard from people in countries that have such a small population that they’ve never met another ace. We forget how small the UK is, as we only need to drive for an hour to reach the next city. In Iceland or Australia, there may not be another asexual for many kilometres. So the point is, if you’re asexual, you’re never alone. 2017 is the best year yet in terms of asexuality, as the community is connected across the globe like never before. And the great thing is, it’s only going to get better. We hope by showing people that two asexuals can be married without having sex that people can see that there is hope for them too.
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This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.