Writing From Factor X

November 26, 2011

A Set of Affections Difficult to Characterize

This post was originally written for the Carnival of Aces. This month’s theme is “attraction.”

I find attraction pretty hard to conceptualize, most of the time. I do experience aesthetic attraction, when I find certain people very pretty and other people less so, and I am pretty certain that I do not experience sexual attraction, since I have very little interest in having sex with any specific person. I’d really love for people who experience sexual attraction to talk about what that means to them, which is a conversation I don’t get to see often, but I think I understand it well enough to know it doesn’t apply to me.

And then you get on to romantic attraction. This is about the point where I start to get confused. I’ve written a lot before about how frustrating I find the concept of romantic attraction.  It seems to me to be poorly defined, a lot of the time, and people have a hard time articulating the difference to me, and I’ve largely given up attempting to understand it. I’ve also largely given up trying to shoehorn myself into traditional categories of romantic orientation and have begun identifying as “wtfromantic.”

So let me talk about how my affectional patterns actually seem to work.  I tend to have rather few friends at any given time, but these friendships are usually quite close. It is important for me to note that for me, there’s a definite gender skew here; I tend to gravitate towards forming close relationships with other women or people whose gender identity shades toward female. I can think of only one or two close relationships I have had with guys, and I am often much slower to warm up to strange men than I am to strange women. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like guys or that I think men are terrible or anything like that, just that I tend to form more relationships with other women and that my relationships to female or female-shading people tend to be closer than that of relationships with people of other gender identities.

I have a definite tendency to be all-or-nothing about people; either they are very important to me or they are only loosely important to me. And it’s this tendency—either a wealth of strong attachment and affection for a person or a comparative indifference in them—that I think is the most confusing thing for me about the difference between friendship and romantic relationships. All of my friends are very important to me; that’s why they’re my friends, and if they stop being that important I tend to walk away.

I don’t get jealous of the people I care strongly about unless my emotional needs stop being met. I think I’ve discussed this a couple of times, but as long as I feel like the relationship between me and a particular friend is strong and that I’m cared about back, I don’t particularly care who else someone I’m close friends with spends time with or whether they’re dating someone. Exclusivity and monogamy are things I do not understand very well in a gut sense, and I don’t really want either of them in any relationship for myself. That said—I recently walked away from a friendship with a person I cared very much about (and continue to care a lot about) because my emotional needs were not being met, largely because she didn’t seem to think my company was worth seeking out. I do need to feel like a relationship has a similar level of affection on both ends to feel comfortable.

I have no interest in sleeping (in the literal sense) with anyone on a regular basis. I also have no interest in ever sharing a room with anyone, even the people I am emotionally the most attached to. I would prefer not to live alone in the long term; my ideal situation involves essentially permanent roommates. With almost all of my close female friendships, I have gone through at least some phase of wanting to live together or close by. At the moment, I am trying to see if I can use my career as an excuse to move much nearer to two of my closest friends with an eye to eventually living with at least one of them. Both of them are asexual and have more or less the same romantic orientation I do, which is reassuring.

My relationship to touch is another thing again—I like being touched in certain circumstances, although I tend to be weird about it. I am told I’m very standoffish about touching people and being touched until suddenly I’m not, and then I tend to curl up on people if they’ll let me. (One close friend of mine has remarked that I cuddle with her more often than her boyfriend does.) I do react very badly to certain kinds of touch—in particular, I always react badly to being touched unexpectedly from behind, sometimes violently, and this goes regardless of my feelings about the person doing it.  

I suspect that this pattern could be characterized as either homoromantic or aromantic, depending on how you perceive things. Or, I suppose, as secondary romantic attraction, or any number of other things. I tend to see the kinds of emotions I have as combining traits from both friendship and romantic models, which is why I usually use “queerplatonic relationship” and related terminology. I have listened to people describe relationships with similar levels of feeling to mine as either friendships or romantic relationships, and I really have a hard time figuring out where the distinction is. I also have a hard time figuring out where attraction comes into it, because for me it’s a matter of strength of feeling, not type of feeling.

I would like to know, though—for those of you who are comfortable with and understand the distinction between romantic attraction/romantic relationships and friendships, how do you conceptualize that distinction?

July 3, 2011

Wherein I Babble About My Romantic Orientation

I’ve been thinking about my romantic orientation lately. I’ve mentioned it a lot in a bunch of different spaces, but I’ve never written a post specifically about what I actually am and why I identify the way I do, and I think now might be a good time to do that.

The trouble for me is that… well, as far as I can tell I just love people, full stop. The quantity might differ, but I don’t seem to experience qualitatively different forms of affection for people.

(I have considered this to be amazingly ironic in light of the stereotypes about aromantics being sociopathic. Actually, my problem is not that I love no one, but that I don’t distinguish between different types of love.)

So the main issue I have about my romantic orientation is that I can’t really tell what romantic attraction is supposed to feel like. If romantic orientation is an orientation like sexual orientation is, romantic attraction ought to be a thing, right? But it’s very difficult to define it in a way that makes sense, and saying “wants to be in a romantic relationship with this person” is also difficult for me, because I’m not quite sure what makes a relationship specifically romantic, except for the acknowledgement by both parties that the relationship is romantic.

(I’ve also seen romantic orientation defined as “I would at least theoretically like to be in a romantic relationship with people of $gender,” which strikes me as odd–shouldn’t orientations be defined as patterns of attraction to specific people? I tend to be highly critical of this type of definition of romantic orientation.)

The thing that really made me start thinking about all this was one relationship I had with a friend about three years ago, which made me endlessly question my romantic orientation because I wanted… lots of things that were not happening. I wanted to hang out with her on a regular basis–more than I already did–and I wanted to be acknowledged as important and secretly I really wanted to be roommates, although I knew that wasn’t ever going to happen.

I was very confused by this and for about two years spent a fairly large chunk of my free time trying to figure out if I had a crush on her. The thing was, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to date her, and every time I imagined actually dating her I felt vaguely weird and discomfited. And every time I envisioned moving in with her, it was as roommates–that’s it. When she got a boyfriend, I was initially pleased that she was happy. And yet I was still feeling generally needy and wanting to spend more time with her and dealing with the insecurities and… well, the focus on what my friend was doing. It didn’t feel like friendships were theoretically supposed to, either.

As I’ve had more discussions about romantic orientation and queerplatonic relationships and the rest of it, I’ve realized that this isn’t just something I’ve done towards only this one person. It wasn’t even the first time I had those feelings–I can identify at least two friendships going back to age eleven that had similar components. It’s just that this was the first time I was experiencing these feelings and felt like there was a massive imbalance in the friendship, and so I spent a lot more time thinking about it.

The thing is, I don’t think this… infatuation thing, where I’d like the other person to be close friends and see me on a daily basis and maybe eat meals together regularly and possibly be roommates–I don’t think this thing is romantic in nature? Because aside from the living together thing, which is hard to coordinate among too many people anyway, most of it is can just be boiled down to wanting to connect with someone. Maybe wanting family out of it, in the friends-becoming-family sort of way.

Besides, I tend to make only a few friends at a time, but I also tend to try to make very close friendships. And the thing is, I’ve felt this wanting-to-see-daily feeling and even the wanting-to-move-in feeling at some point over a lot of my close friendships, including almost all the ones with other women. Sometimes after a while it goes away and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s actually a pretty common feeling for me.

(There is a gender differential here–I tend to not move into the “want to live with you stage” in my friendships with men and I tend to relate to men in slightly different ways. The jury’s still out on how that applies to nonbinary people–both because I am still trying to root out internalized binarism and because my sample sizes are not big enough.)

It’s always possible that I am just intensely poly and romantic, of course, and I don’t think I’ll ever completely stop questioning that. For the moment, I’m satisfied with identifying alternately as aromantic (because I don’t think I’m experiencing romantic attraction) or wtfromantic (because I find the question intensely confusing).

April 2, 2011

If You Can See The Invisible Elephant, Please Describe It

Sam posted a piece last week about the limits of “sexual attraction” as a term, and I’ve been feeling confused and ranty ever since. It’s a good piece, and you should read it, but mostly what it’s done is remind me why I get frustrated a lot by discussions like this.

See, I’m one of those really analytical people who likes to quantify things. I like to have certainty. I like to have operational definitions for my terms so I’m sure what we’re all talking about. I like to be clear about things. Most of all, I like to be fairly sure that I know what we’re talking about when I have conversations.

There is a large part of me that reacts to something that says “well, actually, this term is squishy and imprecise” with flailing and dismay, and then my natural tendency is to start trying to construct better definitions. Unfortunately, when you have no actual personal experience of the thing you’re trying to describe and you’re trying to define a feeling, constructing better terms is fairly challenging.

It’s like this: you’re born into a world where, upon maturity, everyone gets a pet elephant which is invisible to everyone but themselves. Society is structured around the needs of peoples’ elephants. People talk about the elephants and their foibles incessantly. The mass media includes the elephants in every story ever as major plot points. Until you hit the age where you get your own elephant, you can’t see them, but you’re assured that you’ll get your own when you grow up and then you’ll understand everything.

So you grow up, you reach the Age of Elephant Acquisition, and… no elephant. You infer that elephants exist–after all, people keep insisting they must, and people your age have started talking about their elephants and how wonderful and interesting they are, and also people with fairly unusual elephants are willing to do truly baffling things for the elephants’ sake. Probably, you think, the elephants exist, but you’re not sure, because you’ve never experienced anything that seems like an elephant of your own, and couldn’t it be possible that this is some sort of elaborate plot or mass delusion or something?

But people keep insisting that the elephants are totally real, and everyone else your age has started talking about how their elephants are doing. And you’re seriously the only one who is confused by the elephants thing, so you maybe try to casually bring it up–maybe you sort of try to ask people how their elephants look in casual conversation, because it’s possible that you do have an elephant and you just haven’t noticed! Possibly they are in fact very small and hard to see, but they cause a lot of mischief! After all, sometimes funny rustling things happen around you, too, just like they do to people who do have elephants. So you try to ask around, in case it’s something that you can miss, or you’re not interpreting things right, and you look very hard for things that can be interpreted as being sort of vaguely elephantine. But when you do ask them, people give you funny looks and treat you as if you’re stupid for asking, because duh they know what an elephant looks like. Everyone has one! All you have to do is look, it’s not like they’re hard to see!

You see how this can become frustrating.

Eventually you assume you are, in fact, different and not just unobservant, and try to construct the image of what an elephant looks like so that you can understand properly. But no one who has one will sit down with you and answer your questions and help you understand, even if you’re really stubborn and you ask a lot of people a lot of questions. You end up having to construct your understanding of the elephant from tiny snippets, little bits of information you can coax out of normal people before they get aggravated and change the subject. And of course everyone emphasizes different parts of what the elephant is, because everyone is different and thinks about things differently, and you have to try to pick at the distortions as best you can.

That’s what it’s like, being asexual and trying to define sexual attraction on its own. Or being aromantic-ish, and trying to define how romance works. I suppose being agender and trying to suss out gender identity is similar, and I bet there’s other parallels to make. The thing is: you don’t have something, and you’re trying to understand how it works, and no one who says they understand will try very hard to teach you what it’s like.

The thing is, you could say that my innate need to define things is fairly unproductive, and that human sexuality is so varied and complex and squishy that operational definitions are useless. You might also say that there’s no point to defining things well enough to have labels, because that gets in the way of celebrating our Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Except I’m not going to say that, because I think operational definitions are really useful even if you don’t have an innate desire to categorize everything properly so you can understand it better.

For one thing, operational definitions are sort of necessary to having conversations about things. If no one is quite sure what the terms we’re using actually mean, conversations usually end up confusing a whole lot of people. Especially if someone asks for a bit of clarification and no one is able to provide it.

You know who else operational definitions are really useful for? Questioning people. No, seriously, if you’re questioning whether a particular label works for you or not, or how you should identify, or whether you “count” with a specific group, it really helps to be able to point to things and say “well, I have that, and that, but not that.” How can we use terminology that says “asexuals don’t experience sexual attraction” without explaining what sexual attraction is? How can we expect questioning people to make a decision about whether a term fits them when the definition of that term is unclear?

I have been trying to figure out how romantic orientation theoretically works so I can decide what mine is for, oh, two years now, because there is no concrete definition anywhere and every time I corral a bunch of romantic asexuals into a corner and demand that they explain I get shrugs and “I don’t know, you just know.” (Well, when I’m not getting outright condescension, anyway. That’s always fun.) Asking people who haven’t spent a lot of time around the asexual community is arguably worse, because they’re prone to giving silly explanations like “friendship but with sex!” and that’s clearly wrong because the category of friends with benefits also exists, and also there are longstanding romantic relationships which are without sex–lesbian bed death, anyone?–even outside the asexual community. No matter how much I ask this question of people who use these terms I never get any answers.

So how on earth are we supposed to get people who actually do claim to see the invisible thing to describe it? Because if those of us who can’t see are trying to paint around the invisible thing–well, it’s clear we’re missing something, even if we’re not quite sure what.

The problem is that people who aren’t missing that feeling are considered to be the default. So there’s no incentive for them to define the modular feeling that some of us are missing–be it sexual attraction, or romantic attraction, or other things. No matter what they do, on that aspect of their sexuality they get to be easily understood and mainstream. Why would they spend their time defining what an elephant is? From their perspective, all they have to do is invoke the concept of “elephant!” and everyone will understand them! Except those of us who don’t have the elephant to begin with, and we’re in the vast minority.

Here’s the thing. If painting around an invisible concept doesn’t grasp the whole of the thing, perhaps someone who actually experiences the invisible concept should define it. Until then, those of us who aren’t “default” and need to explain how ought to continue to try. It would be good to have the help of people who do experience these forms of attraction. But if they’re not going to work on a definition, the rest of us need our painted edging to get by.

February 27, 2011

Let’s Have a Conversation About Compromise and Consent

The discussion on compromise in last week’s comments has got me thinking about compromise as it’s generally discussed in the asexual community, and not necessarily in a good way. However. Before I continue in this vein, I want to make one thing clear: I have no interest in casting judgement on what any individual asexual person chooses to do. Seriously, as I pointed out repeatedly in that comments section, all the options for asexuals trying to achieve long-term intimacy suck. If you, anonymous reader, have found a situation that works for you, excellent! Nor have I any interest in making unilateral, black-and-white statements here. My goal in writing this piece is to create discussion, not to make all-encompassing pronouncements.

That said, there was this piece on Tumblr that made me start thinking about the way we often discuss compromise in the asexual community. It’s called Sexual Ethics As Applying to Asexuality, and what it’s trying to do is apply the principles of enthusiastic consent to asexual/sexual relationships. It’s worth a read, and there’s a lot of things in it I’m all behind. I certainly agree with the original piece that expecting sex from anyone else is wrong, full stop. I don’t, however, agree with it entirely, and I want to talk about why.

Enthusiastic consent as a concept is pretty clearly one of those things thought up by sex-positive people without actually knowing that asexuals exist (or possibly, caring). At first glance, the idea that no one should be having sex they’re not totally into on their own account isn’t a bad idea. After all, what’s rape but sex without consent? And there are a whole lot of different ways that people can be pressured into sex without force, and is that consent truly consent? After all, consent ought to be free in order to count as agreement, not coerced or pressured in any way.

Except… what holding enthusiastic consent to be the gold standard as consent does is essentially tell many asexuals that we can’t consent at all. And that is an implication I am seriously not comfortable with. For one thing, it tells me that we don’t have ultimate control over what happens to our own bodies. It tells me that even if an asexual person does actually want to have sex–and there can be a number of reasons to have sex beyond one’s own personal physical gratification–we still can’t consent on our own behalf.

Do you know who else can’t consent to sex? Children. Drunk and drugged people. Animals. In short, people who can’t be trusted to act in their own best interests regarding their own bodies at the moment. And the thing is, as an adult and sober asexual woman, no one gets to tell me what to do with my body but me. If I verbally make it clear that I have chosen to do something with my body, and if check-ins from my partner make it clear that I’m not in actual distress, I should be able to do as I please without anyone calling it rape because I was not, myself, totally into the activity.

Enthusiastic consent therefore cannot be the only understanding of valid sexual consent without calling personal rights to control one’s own body into question. There needs to be a broader understanding of models of consent. SlightlyMetaphysical recently posted a piece discussing ideas for this which I like–does it count as enthusiastic if the enthusiasm is purely about your partner’s enjoyment, for instance?

Alternatively, consent models could prioritize checking in with one’s partner or increasing the level of verbal communication before and during sex. Or paying attention to body language during sex–obviously, if someone tenses up or looks upset, you should be paying attention. There are a lot of different ways to discuss consent models that go beyond “(verbal) No Means No” without insisting that the only way anyone can consent to sex is to be totally into that sexual act for yourself at all times.

On the other hand, I do think the way I have often seen discussion about compromise go in the asexual community is seriously problematic. My experience is that acquiring intimacy is often discussed in fairly simple terms: either you’re romantic, and you date sexuals and expect to compromise or else you try to run the numbers and date other asexuals, or else you’re aromantic and want only the loose, less close friendships to begin with. And it’s unfortunately so much more complicated than that. We’re a diverse community. There’s about a million different ways to be asexual, and not all of them are served by those three options.

And I worry about pressure to compromise. As I pointed out earlier this month, the numbers are not in asexuals’ favor if the romance/friendship binary is to remain. It’s not hard to calculate the odds. Is the choice to compromise for some asexuals truly free? Pressure can come in many forms, and if you’re raised to think that your main options are being single forever or dating–and then realizing that you’ve almost certainly got to have sex you possibly don’t particularly want if you do date–well. Thinking that you don’t have many other options is a form of pressure to pick the “least worst” all on its own. And shouldn’t we be trying to make better options than that?

There needs to be more discussion of options beyond monogamous romantic relationships and trying to subsist on mainstream conceptions of friendships. Those options do work for some asexuals, don’t get me wrong–but they’re not as workable for all asexuals. There are so many ways to be asexual that no one-size-fits-all approach to asexuality and intimacy could possibly exist. We need to be thinking of ways to create more approaches in order to serve the needs of all asexuals.

November 22, 2010

On Pedestals, And Why I Fear Them

I am a young asexual woman. I am not sexually active now and never have been, and I’m not especially interested in ever becoming so. The reaction that some people have been known to have to my sexuality is amusing and infuriating all at once. I have been called “pure,” “chaste,” asked to divulge my magical secret of being able to resist the desires I must surely have.

Which erases the fact of my sexuality, by presuming that I must be resisting anything. It cheapens what I am to assume that it is derives from some sort of act of will; it erases my realness by presuming that no one could ever just be uninterested. But it is the presumption that my asexuality is a sign of some great purity of my soul that angers me most.

I am not pure, particularly not in the sense of transcending human failings. I am as flawed as anyone else. Allow me to make that clear, because purity implies that I am somehow above humanity, not part of it. And that’s a dangerous implication to make, because for better or worse, we cherish those we see as human in ways we do not cherish those we see as otherwise. It is not a coincidence that we anthropomorphize things that we wish to understand, nor that we dehumanize things we wish to destroy.

In the philosophy cherished by such people, asexuals are placed on pedestals, elevated loftily above the impure, filthy masses. We are angels, we are holy, we are good and sweet and light. We aren’t people, though, not people who have a tendency to say ‘fuck’ a lot and a filthy sense of humor and their own opinions on the system of morality we’re being shoehorned into.

Which is wrong in so many ways, really. Sex is not inherently bad. And people oughtn’t be judged on their goodness based entirely on the kinds of sex they like to have or don’t.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about pedestals, it’s that they’re constricting. You have to stand in one place; you can’t actually move about or do anything without falling off. And you will fall off, eventually, even if it only comes down to someone who dislikes you giving you a good shove. The taller the pedestal is, the harder you fall. Fuck that, I say. I’d rather stand honestly on the ground.

Asexual people aren’t devalued in the same way as gay and bi people are by people who hold such sex-negative views. Indeed, we’re prone to receive compliments, or the odd nonasexual person who enters asexual communities asking how they, too, can become asexual. With increasing visibility, I doubt we’ll be declared a sin, nor that we’ll see such hostile anti-asexuality emanating from the socially conservative.

But that doesn’t mean that asexuals will be accepted for what we are. My suspicion is that asexuality is likely to continue to be treated with something akin to benevolent heterosexism as visibility increases. That we’ll be held up as model minorities, the “right” kind of queerness, as long as we stay nicely nonthreatening and quietly out of the way. We’ll be free of explicit pushback if we hold our place on the lovely nice pedestal they’ve built for us; we’ll be lauded, even, for being specially free of such temptation.

Who could be displeased with that?

November 15, 2010

Reflections

Growing up, this book was one of the most important things in the world to me. And it’s not because it was a perfect representation of asexuality or anything, because holy shit is it ever not. Among other things, most actual asexual people have neither been gang-raped or sworn a holy vow of celibacy. (And yet Tarma was the only asexual model I had growing up, particularly in that strange twilight between which I started getting an inkling that I was not like all the other girls and when I found the words “aromantic asexual” to describe myself.)

When I wrote about asexuality as portrayed in media, I was focusing on the works themselves. Now I would like to focus on the way we react to those works.

I think communities like asexual_fandom and, more broadly, lgbtfest do a great service to the rest of us, that way. I think transformative works have a lot of potential to help us tell our own stories in our own way, because the cost of entry for derivative works is so very low. It’s so much harder to get an actual publisher to take up one’s work than it is to merely publish it on the Internet, for one thing.

I wonder, sometimes, how to strike that balance between wanting to see more asexual characters and wanting to see more asexual characters who aren’t embodying an offensive stereotype. (And perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to it, being autistic and having serious issues with the similar conflation of autism and sociopathy.) Because there are so damn few of us out there, and almost none of them are actually written by asexual people. In fact, most of them don’t even seem to have been written by people who made a half-assed attempt to connect with actual asexual people.

It makes me angry that I have to make that trade-off. It reminds me of my reaction to reading Guardian of the Dead, in fact, which has a semi-minor asexual character and did it right. I’d gotten the book, read it, and cycled through elation and excitement and then grateful. Really grateful. And then, being myself, into anger, not at Ms. Healey but at the whole world. Because what kind of world is it where I feel grateful for reading a single book? What kind of world is it, where seeing a character with the same orientation as me is an occasion for great joy, where the sudden cessation of invisibility is a moment for wonder?

In the absence of a better world, I make trade-offs.

I watch The Big Bang Theory, even though I find it problematic as hell. (And growing more so, I think, with the “but they’re REALLY dating” dancing about it has been doing with the Amy/Sheldon arc.) And there are bits of it I like, but there are so many that make me cringe, and cringe, and cringe, but I put up with them anyway because where am I going to find another aromantic character whose orientation is actually sort of slightly respected by the writers and discussed? (Certainly it’s not respected by the fandom.) And I reread Oathbound even though the old hackneyed trope of gang-rape changing a person’s sexuality makes me cringe.

I’d like a world where The Oathbound is a cringe-worthy portrayal of asexuality rather than one of the better ones, please. I think I might be satisfied then.

October 11, 2010

Invisibility Internalized

Here is my great problem when talking about asexuality: I find it much easier to talk about being asexual and what that means to be on the Internet, with people who do not know me in meatspace*.

I’m dealing with that for my project for National Coming Out Day. I am not actually coming out per se to anyone. Rather, what I will be doing is making a Facebook post inviting anyone who wants to talk to me about asexuality to do so at any time over the course of the week, and I will make a concerted effort to answer any questions they might have.

But I’m not talking about that here. Instead, what I want to talk about is why I find it so difficult to talk about asexuality outside of asexual spaces, especially off the Internet. My asexuality is a fairly important aspect of my identity. It colors how I perceive the world and it impacts the way I view my relationships with friends and family. And, as this blog evinces, I spend a lot of time thinking about asexuality and its place in the world. I care enough about this topic to write an essay on it every week. It’s a big part of me.

And yet I don’t talk about it much. Oh, I’m out, and I’m feeling more and more comfortable coming out as asexual fairly casually. I joke about it sometimes, or other people do.

I still don’t bring up issues related to asexuality much in conversation. My meatspace friends don’t know this blog exists, for instance. Not because it’s a secret, but because I don’t talk about it. They barely know AVEN exists, mostly because occasionally I will mention it if a discussion off AVEN is really upsetting me.

There was an exercise I did last week in my Human Sexuality class. We were asked to write three important parts of our self-identity on a piece of paper and go and talk to a total stranger without giving any hints to them about what we had written on our papers. And you know, the hardest part of the whole exercise was letting the person I was talking to know I was ace at the end of it. Dancing around my identity? Ignoring the entire question of sex, romance, of dating and of life plans? It was easy. I do it every day.

When the topic of sexuality comes up, I am often afraid to speak up because I feel that, for some reason, my opinion doesn’t “count.”

My orientation is something to joke about on occasion, and that’s pretty much it with some rare exceptions. It’s not something I discuss seriously. Because that would make it real.

And this… I think this is because I have internalized the broader culture of asexuality as being something which is not quite as real as other orientations. After all, it’s very rare to hear asexuality discussed in the context of anything outside of specifically asexual spaces. When I do see it outside of our discussions–even so much as a mention that asexual people exist, without any discussion of actual asexual experiences–I am taken aback. Shocked, really, at least for a second. Seeing asexuality so much as mentioned is an acknowledgement that our issues are important, even among people who are not themselves asexual.

I’m not the only asexual person I have talked to who does this, either. Even within the ace community I see many people arguing that, for instance, visibility efforts are a waste of time. Or coming out is, because no one needs to know about asexuality but asexual people. Or that we don’t really experience any hardships, so we ought to just be quiet and keep our asexuality to ourselves, and save the real discussion for people who have sexualities that are oppressed.

I think: invisibility is stifling. It is having one side of me focusing on one part of myself, and another side to show the people outside of my community. It is downplaying something which is important to me.

And yet breaking that invisibility is terrifying. Especially when I have seen, so often, attempts to raise dialog about asexuality in non-asexual spaces dissolve into concern trolling about health, or anger about appropriating the struggles of others, or being told that we’re upset about nothing. That this isn’t a problem. It isn’t simply a matter of irrational fear.

I think it’s worth doing, even if it is terrifying. I hope I have less to fear than I think.

*I consciously use the term “meatspace” rather than “real life” to refer to spaces off the Internet, because I don’t think Internet interactions are any less real than off-Net ones. Especially for people whose primary source of social contact is through the Internet–and I’ve been there and probably will be again–I think the term “real life” trivializes the important relationships that form and the conversations which happen using the Internet as a medium.

September 27, 2010

What Is This Thing You Call… Love?

I identify as an aromantic asexual. But only because it’s the closest possible term that makes even a bit of sense.

See, I don’t quite understand romantic attraction, exactly. I find the concept rather confusing. I assume I would notice if I was experiencing romantic attraction or a desire to be in a romantic relationship with a specific person, but how would I know? As is my wont when attempting to understand a concept, I tried to comprise an operational definition of “romantic relationship.” (Yes, that is actually my process. Science, it worms its way into your brains.)

What differentiates a romantic relationship from a friendship, even a very close friendship? The “is it sexual?” criterion is the most obvious and appears to be the most societally sanctioned, but the existence of asexual romantic relationships indicates that something else is probably going on here. And even ignoring that, the existences of concepts like “friends with benefits” tends to show that you can have the sex without the romance, so that fails as a litmus test. The other obvious possible criterion is the presence of “romantic trappings,” like presenting one’s lovers with flowers and candy or celebrating Valentine’s Day. However, the multitude of romantic couples I have encountered who profess disdain for most of the trappings associated with romance tells me that the trappings aren’t what distinguishes romantic relationships from others.

Most of the people I saw post on AVEN about what made romantic relationships special were talking about things like being willing to die for the person you cared about and wanting the person to be happy and generally, Caring A Lot about someone. But every time I read statements in that classification, I was confused further. Because mostly, I could have written the same things about people I considered good friends. And hey, myself I might have written off as a weird anomaly, since I care a lot about my people, and generally have a knack for that sort of thing. But there were other AVENites posting about how they cared lots about people but didn’t want to date them, and anyway I have enough very close nonasexual friends for me to think that level of caring is probably not the best litmus test either. After all, if all it took to make a romantic relationship was to care about someone lots, even use the “love” word, then I’m dating about a dozen people and none of us have even noticed.

Then I thought maybe romantic relationships were defined through starting with infatuation. After all, the experience of crushing on someone is also almost entirely foreign to me. I’ve had only one experience of (dimly-remembered) all-consuming infatuation in my life. I was about five years old and it ended when the boy in question turned out to be terrified of my pet terrier, thus filling me with disdain for him and embarrassment about the whole affair. And I think I’m getting closer there, but this aspect of an operational definition of romance has its problems, too. For one thing, the existence of what people call “squishes”–infatuations with people while only wanting to be friends with them–indicates that infatuation can kick-start non-romantic relationships, too. And even aside from that, the mainstream cultural conception of “hero-worship” (or between straight men, a “mancrush”) seem to back up the idea that infatuation isn’t the whole story.

What about exclusivity? Again, looking at mainstream conceptualizations of romantic love, I see a lot of mentions of exclusivity. A lot of people talk about sexual exclusivity (“you can’t have sex with anyone else when you’re dating someone”). There also seems to be a feeling that I have observed which indicates that people in a romantic relationships ought to be each other’s primary source of affection and emotional intimacy. Some people even seem to think that one’s significant other ought to be one’s only source of strong emotional intimacy. I know my mother seems to view my very close relationships with friends as somewhat confusing; she doesn’t have friends that she sees on a regular basis outside of work acquaintances or my family. There definitely seems to be an undercurrent of “these feelings and activities are reserved for my significant other only” under running the whole concept.

The existence of polyamorous people would seem to imply that pure exclusivity doesn’t characterize a romantic relationship, though. I have done some limited research into polyamorous writing, and while some of the relationship models I have encountered seem to have the exclusivity thing (like permanent three-person closed relationships), some, like open relationships, do not. But I do get the impression that even in polyamorous romantic relationships some degree of exclusivity is involved, and at the very least the fact that you do need to notify your parter(s) when you start seeing someone else indicates that there’s a degree of exclusivity involved in romantic relationships which just doesn’t seem to be present in friendships.

The conclusion I eventually came to was that a romantic relationship is characterized by a period of infatuation on the part of at least one person and that it involves at least some degree of exclusivity or agreement to allow the other person to control one’s actions. But hey, I don’t identify as romantic. I’d love it if someone who does identify that way weighs in to explain how they conceptualize a romantic relationships differently from a non-romantic one.

September 24, 2010

Breaking the Chain

So right now I’m taking a Human Sexuality class. I signed up for it in large part because I wanted to learn a bit more about the mainstream conceptualizations of sexuality within psychology. I like psychology, you see (it’s one of my majors), and I wanted to know what the training of the sex therapists you always see on asexual interviews was like. I wanted to see how those conceptualizations differ from the conceptualizations of sex and romance I largely grew up with, which are heavily influenced by the asexuality community. I started lurking when I was fourteen, you see, and I’ve been identifying as asexual free of self-doubt since sixteen, and in a very real way the asexuality community has been my primary source of discussion about how sexuality works. So I signed up for this course, thinking to see how “everyone else” thinks about the whole thing.

Well. In some ways, I’m not impressed. There seems to be this assumption that a lot of things associated with sexuality and romance are always or usually linked together on some basic chain, and that removing one link takes off most of the rest of them as well. The most obvious ones are what asexuals categorize as sexual and romantic attraction, but there even appeared to be an assumption that behavior factors in. Which, no–if you’re studying patterns of sexual attraction, that’s one thing, and if you’re studying types of sexual behavior, that’s quite another. Using the same term for both is just confusing. Moreover, it ignores the fact that while the population of people with a particular attraction pattern and the population of people who actually engage in sexual behavior along those patterns overlap, they are not actually the same thing. Studying behavior is worthy on its own, yes, but I’m confused as to why the terminology seems to confuse these two related but separate concepts.

Asexuals also tend to unlink many different things which mainstream conceptualizations assume always go together: sexual behavior, desire for romantic relationships, desire for emotional intimacy, desire for children, ability to love, experience of infatuation–there’s a lot of it, and I think a lot of nonasexual people could benefit from the understanding that sometimes these things do go together neatly, and sometimes they don’t. The Queersecrets tumblr has been seeing a fair amount of asexual action lately, and after a while of this I noticed that several people had begun posting and identifying in their secrets as homoromantic heterosexual or vice versa. Even in this Human Sexuality class, my professor described a friend of hers who sounded very much like a heteroromantic homosexual, or at least a heteroromantic bisexual-leaning-heavily-towards-women. As she was discussing how unusual and boundaries-blurring such a case study seems, I thought to myself: no, it isn’t. I feel like people with mismatched orientations in general would benefit greatly from discussion of that, just as we who are asexual benefit from discussing asexuality. And I would love to see such conceptualizations of a broken chain become more common in the mainstream.

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