First dates, by and large, are cringe-fests. Someone who seemed perfect in an online profile waltzes in late, doesn’t resemble their photo, and can’t stop talking about themselves. But for people who identify as asexual — or under the asexual umbrella — online dating can be even more exhausting, and often downright fruitless.
Instead of friendly conversation about shared interests, first dates often involve fielding intrusive questions about their orientations and histories, especially from those who don’t believe that their identities are “real.”
“‘Are you sure?’ ‘You know, if we try having sex, I’m sure it would be different,’” says magazine editor Emily Cutler, 23, rattling off a list of unwelcome comments she’s fielded while dating as a demisexual woman. “‘You just haven’t found the right person.’” Cutler has spent a lot of time perusing OkCupid in Philadelphia and now Alhambra, California, and she’s used to men questioning the validity of her sexual identity.
Nathan Lickliter, a 32-year-old heteromantic asexual bank teller who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, first realized he was asexual after reading a Guardian article. Shortly after, he says his manager at work tried to set him up on a date with someone who ended up questioning the validity of his identity. “I told them, ‘Hey, I found this thing and it makes all these disparate pieces of my life click into place.’ And they were like, ‘Oh no, that’s not true, you’re just afraid.’ … I felt crushed.”
Asexuality remains poorly understood by the public at large, and includes a broad spectrum of orientations; some asexual people feel no sexual attraction toward others and may be averse to sex, while others who feel no sexual attraction may still happily have sex with their partners. Other aces (the umbrella term for those on the asexual spectrum) like Cutler identify as gray asexual or demisexual, meaning they sometimes feel sexual attraction once they develop an emotional connection with someone. Some may want romance but not sex; others fall on the aromantic spectrum, meaning they sometimes or never feel romantic attraction. For those who do feel romantic attraction (to men, women, or any combination of genders), that’s where online dating comes in.
Asexuality remains poorly understood by the public at large
But workable online alternatives for aces seeking their preferred levels of partnership and connection are few and far between. Free apps like Tinder and Bumble, and paid services like Match.com don’t have specific mechanisms that allow users to identify themselves as ace, or to filter for asexual and/or aromantic matches. Their options are to include their orientation in their bio, message it to potential dates, or broach the subject in person.
None of these options is perfect, and all provide barriers to aces who want to meet compatible matches, asexual or not. Although asexual-specific dating services exist, they aren’t well-trafficked, and many aces say the lack of accommodation on mainstream apps often makes them feel ignored and frustrated.
“Historically, we just haven’t accepted asexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation, and I think we’ve been only catching up to that in recent years,” says KJ Cerankowski, an Oberlin assistant professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies. “If you see the categories that are coming up on dating apps, that’s part of that legacy of just not taking asexuality seriously.”
But as mainstream awareness of asexual identity continues to grow, online dating services are finally starting to do more to acknowledge asexual users. Cerankowski says that knowledge and acceptance of asexuality have surged, particularly since 2010, which they credit to increased activism, scholarship, and pop culture representation.
OkCupid director of product Nick Saretzky acknowledges that infrastructure changes like these aren’t simple — but that they are important nonetheless. “It [was] very complex to change a dating app that had been around for 10 years, and [we] were aware it would be a pretty significant investment in terms of time and money,” Saretzky said by email. “But it was the right thing to do to create an experience that worked for everyone.”
Although OkCupid doesn’t include aromantic options or every gradation on the ace spectrum — including various combinations of romantic and sexual identities — it’s still ahead of the game when it comes to actively including ace users. “You have this one dating app that’s leading the way around gender identity and sexual orientation,” Cerankowski says. “But will the others follow? I don’t know. It probably only matters if it comes down to their bottom line.”
Tinder offers multiple gender options and allows people to select an interest in men and/or women, but that’s where the choices end. There are no identification or filtering options for aces, so if you want to identify as asexual or aromantic, you have to work around the app’s existing infrastructure.
“Users are welcome to authentically express themselves by sharing their sexuality within their Tinder bios and in messages with matches,” says a Tinder spokesperson by email. Although the representative adds that “everyone is welcome on Tinder,” these aren’t welcoming options, especially on an app with a reputation for fostering hasty hookups rather than lasting relationships.
Bumble, a swipe-based app with a feminist bent, encourages people to network and find friends as well as romance. But as with Tinder, there’s no option to select an orientation, ace or otherwise. According to Bumble’s head of brand, Alex Williamson el-Effendi, the app is planning to launch focus groups to research a potential new feature that would allow users to select their sexual orientations. “We want Bumble to be a safe place for people to feel like they can date and connect with people on their own terms and feel like they’re going to be in a community that is respectful and kind and supportive,” she says.
Faced with the limitations of mainstream dating services, some asexual people prefer to stick to ace-specific alternatives, like Asexualitic and Asexual Cupid. It makes sense, in theory: Though many aces happily date outside the spectrum, a pool of like-minded users can be a more comfortable starting point.
However, these sites often have their own pitfalls: unintuitive interfaces, binary gender options, and, perhaps most limiting of all, few active users. (During my numerous visits to Asexualitic at multiple times of day, there were typically five to seven members online; I never saw the number on the homepage hit double digits.)
ACEapp, which launched on Android in June (with pending iPhone and web versions), has a slightly slicker look and a nonbinary gender option, but its pool of users is even smaller than that of other ace-centric sites The app has around 12,000 members, 40 percent of whom live in the US, says founder Purushotam Rawat, a 20-year-old college student from India studying computer science.
“Some people mention about how they met the most important person of their life here, or how they find ace friends in their city with ACEapp,” says Rawat. “If you can help make someone’s life better, there is no better thing.”
But as with other ace-specific services, the user pool on ACEapp is still so small that it can be difficult to make IRL connections.“If every asexual person on OkCupid suddenly was on ACEapp, I would ditch OkCupid,” says Daniel Au Valencia, 24, who identifies as nonbinary femmeromantic gray asexual. “It’s not that there aren’t enough asexual people in the world or in my area. It’s that they’re not on ACEapp.”
There’s also the larger issue of cultural awareness; online dating can be challenging for aces even when they can select their specific orientations, as other people’s biases and misinformation can limit their options. Even if users can clearly categorize themselves as gray-romantic, there’s no guarantee other people will understand or respect what that means. And when multiple marginalized identities are in play, online dating is even more complicated.
Valencia, who is autistic, says some people make the incorrect assumption that all autistic people are repulsed by sex. They, like many people in the autistic and ace communities, do sometimes experience sexual attraction, but when potential matches ignore Valencia’s profile, they can’t help but wonder if a stereotype about one of their identities played a role. “Did that person treat me differently because I disclosed my gender identity or sexuality or my disability?,” Valencia says. “Was it because they saw my last name and they know that I am Latin@?”
Relying mostly on pictures, as swipe-based apps like Tinder do, can feel empty for those who don’t prize sexual attraction
Cutler, who met her boyfriend on OkCupid, says that she also worries about how potential partners will react when she says that she’s demisexual, in addition to identifying as autistic, being a survivor of forced psychiatric care, and a Mad Pride advocate. “Are they going to think I’m weird?” she says. “Is this going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? Are they going to think that sex won’t ever be an option, or ‘Why waste my time?’”
Although she doesn’t broadcast her demisexuality on her profile — she prefers to explain her orientation in person and then give it a label — she does share information that she feels matters more, like her Mad Pride involvement. That’s why she favors OkCupid; there’s ample room for her and her matches to flesh out their interests and personalities. Relying mostly on pictures, as swipe-based apps like Tinder do, might be exciting for some users, but it can feel empty for those who don’t prize sexual attraction.
Including asexual people isn’t just about adding more genders, sexual orientations, and filters. Instead, platforms that want to make their services safer and more attractive for a wider variety of users — as opposed to just those seeking sex — also need to create space for people’s personalities and interests to shine, not just bathroom selfies, pictures of fish, and Myers-Briggs alphabet soup.
Josephine Moss, a 28-year-old aromantic asexual woman who occasionally dates, has been romantically attracted to only three people in her lifetime. If the social media professional does wind up with a long-term match, she says she doesn’t need that person to be ace. What she does need is someone self-sufficient, resourceful, athletic, and compassionate — someone who could hold their own in the zombie apocalypse, she jokes.
“I want a friend,” she says. “I want a partner for the end of the world.”