Societal norms around sexuality and relationships

3 minutes

Learning objectives

After completing this unit, you will be able to:

  • Describe how societal norms impact ace and aro people.
  • Explain how expectations to be (or not to be) sexual are more likely to impact ace and aro people in certain groups.
  • Identify how these norms contribute to sexual violence.

Harmful societal norms

Many people assume that everyone should and eventually will engage in sexual activity. In addition, many people believe that everyone should be seeking a romantic partner and that romantic relationships are more important than platonic ones. These widespread assumptions invalidate and erase ace and aro identities and perpetuate the idea that ace and aro people are broken and should not exist.

Sexualization and its damaging effects

Sexualization is when a person is seen to be especially sexual or is regarded as a sex object based on stereotypes about their race or other identities. When an ace person is sexualized because of other identities they hold, finding validation can be especially difficult because other people may be less likely to accept their asexuality as true. Notably, women of color are regularly sexualized and portrayed as exotic, and Black men, gay men, and bisexual people, along with other groups, also face forms of sexualization.

Aro people who aren’t asexual are also sexualized, often being seen as promiscuous people who only have sex for pleasure. When aro people face sexualization because of other identities they hold, they may have an even harder time finding validation in their identity. Those who do have sex may feel like they are confirming negative stereotypes, making them feel conflicted about living authentically.

On the other hand, some identities and groups are seen as inherently less sexual and are therefore desexualized. East asian men, disabled people, and autistic people are examples of groups that experience desexualization. Ace people with these identities may worry about confirming stereotypes by not having sex, and they may be told that their asexuality is only a result of their desexualized identity.

Importantly, sexualization and desexualization do not affect people or groups in universal, black and white ways. As one example, groups that are typically desexualized may be the subject of fetishes, meaning desexualized identities often face some level of sexualization as well. Any of the identities given as examples can be both sexualized and desexualized. Ace and aro people who hold these identities may find validating themselves conflicting and complicated.

Sexual violence

Sexual violence is any form of unwanted sexual contact or interaction and includes sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. When a person fails to conform to society’s expectations regarding sex, they are at a higher risk of experiencing sexual violence from those who might try to pressure or coerce them into participating in sexual activity.

Ace people can become victims of sexual violence for all of the same reasons anyone else might. However, ace people can be especially susceptible to sexual violence when they aren’t aware of asexuality, and they can also face violence after disclosing their ace identity. While aces may be more susceptible to sexual violence in some cases, this in no way means they are at fault for the violence that they are experiencing.

When someone doesn’t know they are ace, they might go along with sexual activity because they feel they have no valid reason not to or because they think that it's common for people to have sex despite being uninterested in it. Social expectations and media messaging may also lead ace people to believe that sexual activity is a requirement in romantic relationships and they may feel guilty for saying no to their partner. In all of these cases, some level of coercion is at play, whether from peers or from society.

Ace people are also susceptible to sexual violence that aims to correct or disprove their asexuality. They may encounter people who don’t believe that asexuality exists or who don’t believe that someone can be uninterested in sex. These people — whether they are romantic partners or other acquaintances — might attempt to force a sexual activity on an ace person with the intent of proving their disbelief right. Rape that occurs when the perpetrator is attempting to change another person’s sexuality is known as corrective rape.

Further reading