Writing From Factor X

February 14, 2012

Valentine’s Apathy

If you hadn’t noticed, it’s Valentine’s Day today.

Honestly, this is the first year in a long time that I haven’t managed to completely forget Valentine’s was a thing, and that’s more a testament to the fact that seemingly everyone around me has insisted on making a huge fuss about it than any particular interest of mine in the holiday. It usually doesn’t make me feel particularly bad, or particularly good, or anything more than vaguely apathetic. As a holiday, my feeling is that it’s not for me or about me, and it usually passes me by before I bother to pay much attention to it.

This year the generalized feeling of not existing has been a bit worse than usual, precisely because people have made more fuss about it than I’m used to. When people try to discuss Valentine’s with me, I often find them surprised that I am so completely apathetic about the holiday–it seems to me that the vast majority people expect others to be either happy to be spending the day with a partner or bitter and upset about not having one. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for honest apathy in the range of allowable emotions for the holiday.

Oddly enough, that reaction is what has made me irritable today, not the fact of the holiday itself. I’m not bothered that people in romantic relationships are taking the day to make a big fuss about it, and I’m mostly not even bothered by the massive commercialism that always comes along with the holiday. But I am bothered that people expect me to care about it.

One of my classes felt the need to play this TED talk today, which didn’t particularly improve my mood. I don’t like fluff in class–I’d rather be absorbing useful information–and the talk felt to me less like an interesting set of scientific work and more like an excuse to recite anthropological poetry about romantic love and talk about how important and universal a feeling it is. It also did a lot of universalizing about the feeling of romantic attraction, which was occasionally interesting but mostly just annoying.

However, I’m attempting to drag myself out of a grouchy funk at the moment, so I’ll talk about the one thing I did find interesting about the talk. Dr. Fisher describes romantic attraction in an interesting way in that she relies heavily on describing the feeling in terms of obsession.

Out of curiosity, people who say romantic attraction is clear to them, is that an accurate way to frame the emotion? I’m finding it interesting because it’s totally alien to my experiences; for me, initial interest in new people I’d be interested in forming a relationship with is very much “out of sight, out of mind.” Once I am good friends with a person, it’s a little different, but even people I’m terribly fond of don’t get anywhere near the level of fixation I’d call “obsession.” So the idea of obsessing over a person, particularly a person you don’t know well, is fairly alien to me. Thoughts?

July 11, 2011

My Thoughts on the Word “Zucchini”

So I lurk around discussions a lot, and lately I’ve been seeing a bunch of people discuss “zucchini” used in a queerplatonic context. Which is really really awesome. I can’t even begin to explain how awesome I find that. But one of the things I also see a lot is people looking at the word “zucchini” in particular and going “that’s just silly!”

Okay. The thing about “zucchini” is that it’s meant to be a little silly. Here’s a situation between two people that the English language has absolutely no words to describe it. There aren’t even good roots to use to make a short, unwieldy, easy-to-say alternative (although “queerplatonic” is a good try). So we use a random vegetable, because why not?

Actually, let’s give out a short history of the word “zucchini” in this context, because it seems to me that a lot of people don’t know where it comes from. Last December, Kaz wrote a post discussing zer confusing, blurring-the-lines romantic orientation. In the comments, ze and meloukhia (who also goes by s.e. smith elsewhere on the internet) got to discussing the total lack of words available for talking about relationships that blur the lines between what is traditionally considered friendship and what is traditionally considered romantic relationships. Meloukhia made a joke (“Ok, I am now referring to these kinds of relationships as zucchini. This is official, and so shall it be.”) and the word took off.

Let me repeat that: the word “zucchini” used in a relationship context started as a joke.

Half the fun of “zucchini” as terminology (and “squash,” and other puns) is that it’s totally silly. It doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s slangy and fun and absurd and colloquial. It makes no sense when you think about it. And that works, because there actually aren’t words in the English language that do make sense when you think about them for the kinds of relationships we’re discussing–everything either gets subsumed under the devaluation that gets attached to words like “friend” or has been taken to refer to romantic relationships. “Zucchini” isn’t entirely meant to take itself seriously in the first place.

And yet on a different, deadly serious level I am ridiculously attached to the word “zucchini.” Seriously, any time I see it criticized as a silly, unnecessary word I wilt a little and get defensive–including, for crying out loud, when Elizabeth described an entirely hypothetical person who thought it sounded stupid in her recent communities post.

So let me talk about why that is here.

I have spent an absurd amount of time questioning and re-questioning what my romantic orientation is in the past three years. I have sat up nights wondering if I’m lying to myself about my romantic feelings, if I’m repressing romantic attraction and the way I feel about my friends is just that bleeding through. I have spent hours and hours trying to figure out what I am, who I am, because the kinds of relationships I want don’t seem romantic and trying to shove them into the boxes my culture assigns to “romantic relationships” seems unpleasant and strange–but they don’t into fit into the boxes it assigns to “friendship,” either.

I have never wanted to be uncategorizable. I know that some people enjoy the opportunity to cast off labels, but I have always preferred to find a succinct descriptor of myself. Labels mean that I can find other people like me to share my experiences with–being so unique that I can’t be labeled is a nice idea, but it also means being isolated and alone. I hate feeling alone.

The discussions that have been happening in the past six months about queerplatonic relationships and zucchinis and squashes have been the first steps that have helped me to figure out what I actually am. Even better, they’ve shown me that I’m not alone–that I’m not the only person who wants relationships like this. My most heartfelt fantasy is in essence a Boston marriage, and the discussions I’ve been having recently have shown me that I’m not the only person in the world who thinks like that.

And even better, words like “zucchini” and “squash” have given me vocabulary to talk about my dreams and my hopes and my current relationships so much more effectively than I could otherwise. I mentioned a few weeks ago that there’s a relationship in my life that is not going well–well, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s been going on with this relationship for three years now, and developing terms like these is what has given me the tools to understand what’s happening. (They’ve also given me the perspective to walk away, because in many ways this relationship is badly unbalanced and I keep getting hurt on it. Without understanding why those balance problems persist, I would probably keep emotionally hurting myself over and over as I have been doing for, as mentioned, years.)

That’s another thing: words shape our thoughts. If no word exists in a language to describe a thing, it’s almost impossible to discuss that concept, at least not without convoluted circumlocutions. Lack of words becomes a way to silence minority viewpoints.

Right now, “zucchini” is the only word I can use to describe these kinds of relationships, except possibly the unwieldy “person I am in a queerplatonic relationship with.” I’m attached to “zucchini” because these discussions are very, very important for me to have. It’s a silly word on the surface–but under that surface, I’m deadly serious when I use it.

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).

June 12, 2011

What I’d Like To See

Filed under: Visibility — Sciatrix @ 8:50 pm
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Last week, the Ace Eccentric asked me on Tumblr what I’d like to see in media in terms of representations of aromantic people. And I got to thinking. (For the purposes of this post I am more or less categorizing my wtfromantic identity under a larger “aromantic” umbrella–I’d count any character who isn’t sure they fit well with the concept of romantic orientation here.) Here’s my list.

0. I want to actually see some aromantic characters to begin with.

I am pathetically grateful to see aromantic characters at all. I very rarely see aromantic characters written from the perspective of someone who is paying attention about asexuality, and I don’t believe I have ever seen a work written respectfully about an aromantic sexual person.

From an asexual perspective, when it comes to writing about asexuality (particularly in fandom, which is currently my main source of writing about asexuals because the writing doesn’t really exist in published fiction), I see a lot of emphasis on writing romantics, which in the absence of writing aromantics can feel erasing. For instance, there’s this project called queer_fest which involves writing about the experiences of queer characters and which this year explicitly welcomed asexuality. When I was watching the prompts go up for it, I noticed that a lot of them used the phrasing “asexual but not aromantic” character over and over and over again–but I never saw anywhere near the emphasis on naming aromantic  asexuals in other prompts.

That said, here’s my wishlist for the characters once I have them.

1. No more aromantic sociopaths. Or inhuman characters. 

Please, please, please. This is an offensive stereotype. Aromantic people are not necessarily emotionless. We are not robots, serial killers, sociopaths, emotionally stunted–we’re just people who don’t grok the romance thing. I would like more aromantic characters who buck this stereotype.

Experiencing romantic attraction does not necessarily make you a good person. It does not necessarily make you emotionally open or a warm person, either. So why do people seem to assume that taking romantic attraction away makes you evil or inhuman or emotionless?

Treating aromantic characters as otherwise normal people who don’t happen to experience this one kind of attraction would be nice. So would making more of them unquestionably human. I’m done with robots and aliens, thanks.

2. I’d like to see more aromantic characters who are not men.

Seriously, what is with this one? I don’t know if it’s a combination of the sociopaths thing with tropes about women being more in tune with emotions or what, but the aromantic characters I’ve seen have been heavily male.

Actually, since women are more likely to be shoehorned into works primarily as romantic interests for male leads, combined with stereotypes about women being more focused on avoiding being single, I think it might just be that fewer women are portrayed as single at all, let alone anything that could be construed as terminally single. It would be nice to see more works that buck that stereotype altogether.

(I’d also just like to see more nonbinary characters in fiction period. Hence phrasing this as “more not-men” rather than “more women.”)

3. I want to see characters that actually read to me as aromantics, not romantics who just so happen to be single at the moment.

I mean. As a person who doesn’t do the whole romance thing? I do not think like a romantic person who just so happens to be single at the moment, okay. My orientation informs how I think and how I plan for the future and how my interpersonal relationships work, as well as a whole other things about my personality.

I’ve noticed this trend where characters, if they’re labeled as asexual, never have the narrative spend much time on what that actually means to them. And this seems to be somewhat worse for aromantics than romantics, in my limited experience. I think a lot of people assume that since aromantics aren’t dating anyone that they have no particular special problems and can be more or less written like a perpetually single romantic character, especially if they’re also asexual. The thing is, it doesn’t actually work that way.

Think about what being aromantic means. You’re generally going to have the same need for emotional intimacy and support, but you’re not going to be able to get it from the same source that society has “set aside” for that purpose. Some people draw their support from communities, either large ones or small ones. Some people draw it from groups of friends of varying sizes or from their families. Either way, I’d like to see aromantic characters being shown finding support from alternate, nonromantic channels.

4. I want to see the long-term effects that being aromantic has on a person.

I actually don’t know any aromantic or wtfromantic people who are all that enthusiastic about the future of their personal lives. I’ve written before about how I plan to be alone, and that hasn’t changed–I’m sufficiently pessimistic about my chances at getting to have friendships that last, particularly in meatlife, that I assume it’s not going to happen. (I have gotten very slightly more optimistic in the past month, but not much.) And okay, maybe I just hang around with pessimistic people, but that planning to be alone is something that every aromantic or WTFromantic person I know does to a greater or lesser degree.

I also want to see characters who worry about losing friendships or having friendships with unequal emphasis on the importance of the relationship. If you’re trying to rely on friendships for emotional support and your friends all happen to be romantic and subscribe to a model of friendship that says “friends are back-ups for when your romantic relationship isn’t working,” there’s going to be an imbalance between your view of what the friendship is “for” and theirs. That can be painful, and I’ve written about that to a limited degree before, too.

I want to see what the effect of being told that you’re basically inhuman for not experiencing the whole romantic attraction thing is. Because I’ve seen that over and over again, including people telling me that to my face when I explained what my orientation actually is. And it’s actually, as far as I can tell, worse for aromantic sexuals in this respect. That kind of thing takes its toll, and everyone reacts differently to it.

5. I want to see the aromantic character’s extant relationships acknowledged as important.

This doesn’t mean a queerplatonic relationship, necessarily (although I’d love any author who gave me one for ever). But it does mean that I want to see the relationships the character has acknowledged as important. I hate the “we’re ‘just’ friends” phrase in all situations, but I would be especially upset to see an author frame friendships or other platonic relationships as unimportant with an aromantic character. I don’t care how the aromantic character derives their emotional intimacy, be it a queerplatonic relationship or several friendships or larger communities or something totally new, but I want to see their relationships treated with respect.

6. I’d like to see happy endings in there somewhere.

This isn’t so much a realism point as a personal wish list. Going back to that fourth point about a lot of the aromantic and wtfromantic people I know being pretty pessimistic about their long-term chances… well. This is contradictory to a point with the rather gloomy things I’ve discussed there, but it would be nice to see works that tell aromantic people that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and that good things are possible.

Besides, in my experience happy endings in fiction tend to go right along with finding a romantic partner to settle down with, possibly with children involved. It’s a type of ending that is almost perfectly geared to leave aromantics out in the dark.

That’s my wish list. Anyone have more points to add?

May 22, 2011

Writhing in the Throes of Unrequited Like

I’ve been thinking a lot in terms of my romantic orientation lately. I keep seeing things that invite me to discuss them based on whether I identify as romantic or aromantic, for one thing.

The trouble is, I’m not always entirely sure what my romantic orientation is, or even how to define romantic attraction to begin with. I have asked a lot of people to explain how the difference in feeling is so I can tell, and I haven’t really gotten anywhere. I don’t actually expect to any more at this point, to be honest. I usually put myself in the category “aromantic” under the theory that if I was experiencing something that felt like romantic attraction which was qualitatively different from desire for friendship that I definitely experience I would almost certainly notice. Maybe.

It would probably help if I subscribed to a binary understanding of friendship/romance, wherein you have a bunch of friends who you’re rather fond of and like to hang out with sometimes and, basically, like, and then you have your romantic partners who get to cuddle with you and matter more than everyone else and whom you love. Except I don’t, because that trivializes friendships and also would mean that I am dating about ten people by now, some of whom are in monogamous romantic relationships with other people. And I don’t think I am anyone’s secret hidden love affair.

So okay, I tend to identify as aromantic when I’m feeling easily categorizable and wtfromantic when I’m feeling frustrated and cranky. (I don’t actually like greyromantic because it’s not a matter of experiencing romantic attraction rarely or only in certain situations or whatever, it’s a matter of not being sure I even know what romantic attraction or, for that matter, a romantic relationship even is. I can only rely on what other people tell me and a lot of it is contradictory or feels very, very weird.) I can live with that, even if it’s a little unusual. Besides, I know several other people who feel pretty similarly to me, and talking to them helps a lot. (Hi, guys!)

Except I keep running into things where people say they wish they were aromantic and asexual because that seems like it would be so much emotionally easier, and it must be really nice not to have to ever deal with unrequited love, and aromantic people are so lucky to be able to avoid that! And then I have to laugh, and laugh, and laugh, and then sometimes go hit something.

For those people who are allergic to tales of personal woe, you may wish to turn back now.

Background information: the kind of relationship I actually want involves a bunch of things, but it boils down to having a friend who is close enough to me that I get to see them all the time and either live very close to them indeed or live in the same home. I don’t really want to share a room or a bed, just live in close proximity and do things like cook dinner and bicker over terrible television and shove books at one another and, you know. Share my life with someone. In short, I would like to have a zucchini one day. I really don’t care if said zucchini dates anyone else or gets married or anything like that, as long as they don’t either leave or make me leave. Most of what I want can be found under the TV Trope Nakama, which makes it really awesome that the trope description includes this sentence:

This sort of group dynamic appeals to younger audiences who are unfamiliar with romance, and appeals to older audiences who live in a world of complex relationships and convenience masqueraded as false friendship, who are feeling nostalgic about the times when friendship meant a lifelong bond.

Yeah, either I’m an immature child who doesn’t know what real romance is yet or else I’m… nostalgic for oversimplified, easy relationships from a time in my life I haven’t actually experienced. Ever. It really gets you coming and going–either you love this trope because you’re too naive to understand it’s not real, or you love it because you’re too cynical and embittered to like romance the way it is! Wow, I love reading that sentence, it makes me feel invisible and insulted all over again every time I see it. That’s quality erasure right there.

Anyway, I am unfortunately no more logical and in control of my emotions than any romantic person is, and I have been fixating on a friend of mine and wanting her to be my zucchini for a depressingly long time. (Because I like puns and neither “crush” or “squish” seem to work–I don’t want to date her and we’re already friends–I think of this as an unrequited squash.) This is almost certainly not going to happen, which does not prevent my friend from giving me the mother of all mixed signals every time we have a discussion about our relationship. It is very painful.

In a lot of ways, I actually would rather that I had an unrequited crush on my friend, because then (assuming I could get the courage up), I could say “I have a crush on you, and I need you to know this so that I can take some time to avoid you for a little while until I get over it.” And then I could flee until the waves of embarrassment subsided and eventually we might have been able to be friends again properly. At the very least, in that situation I could say that sentence and the mixed signals would probably go away.

In the situation I have now, before I could say that sentence I would need to have a protracted and extremely painful discussion of romantic orientation in general, mine in particular, several months’ worth of conversation with other like minds, my own personal dreams for the future and depressing certainty that they are unlikely to come to pass, and also my complicated and apparently one-sided feelings for her. And then I would need to gamble that she a) understood and b) believed me and also c) did not take this as an opportunity to send me even more mixed signals and then not actually follow up on them.

Things are not exactly going well. So, you know, if I hear one more romantic person say they want to be in my shoes because my emotional life must be so much easier than theirs I might have to scream. After all, from where I’m standing at least romantic people can expect everyone to understand what they’re talking about when they complain about their personal problems.

March 13, 2011

On Romance in the Media

This week, I’m going on a road trip. I actually finished it yesterday and am on vacation now, but preparing for the road trip reminded me of an incident that happened on a similar trip I made some years ago. I was driving down south at the time with a couple of friends and one of them joked “If this was a spring break summer flick, who would be the hero?” And I thought immediately, “Not me. There couldn’t be a romantic subplot.”

There’s something wrong with storytelling when you can’t tell a story without your main character falling in love. Movies are hands down the worst genre about this, but it’s pervasive in all media: it seems like a story isn’t deemed complete if there’s no Designated Love Interest for the main character.

Especially if you’re not male. Women are often tokenized and thrown into these stories specifically so that the (invariably male) main character has someone to fall in love with. So if you’re ace and male, you might be able to find a hero who isn’t displaying interest within the story–but women in fiction? Almost always the love interest for somebody, even when they’re meant to be the hero in their own right, and often as not there will be only one. (If you’re nonbinary, you’re shit out of luck; generally media is pretty sure you don’t exist.)

This state of affairs actually sucks for a whole lot of people. It sucks for queer people because this focus on romance is usually intensely heteronormative, meaning that same-gender relationships are generally conspicuously absent while romance is lionized. It sucks for women because it reinforces the message that dating and theoretically marrying someone is the highest possible goal for a woman, one that every woman must aspire to. It sucks for romantic asexuals because romantic relationships are usually constructed in these narratives as specifically sexual. It sucks for anyone who is currently single because it constructs anyone who is single for any reason as essentially incomplete. The whole thing sucks for polyamorous people, it sucks for kinky people, and frankly there are a whole lot of reasons why the mass media focus on one specific type of opposite-gender relationship leaves a whole lot of different people out in the cold.

But it really sucks to be sitting here and thinking “awesome. No story without a romance is important, and I don’t do romances.” What does that say about my stories? About how important I am as a person? Can someone like me ever be a hero in my own right?

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that every confirmed asexual main character so far is romantic. Romantic relationships are constructed as a way to humanize characters–or rather, their absence is constructed as dehumanizing, because romantic is the default. Characters who don’t experience romantic relationships in fiction are almost uniformly portrayed as sociopaths, and in some cases even have their sociopathy mitigated by falling in love with the right person. There are some nasty tropes here, guys.

The desexualizing and arguably deromanticizing influence applied to several minority groups in fiction–other types of queer people, people of color, disabled people–reinforces this tendency to equate lack of romantic relationships with dehumanization, because in the shorthand conventions of fiction you can’t be a fully realized center of a story without a significant other. Unfortunately, while going “fully realize characters like us by giving us more screen time of them dating!” is a pretty natural response to that, it’s also pretty upsetting when you don’t fit into that paradigm of discussing who matters. If I never run across another person talking about poor media representation of minority characters by decrying the “asexual” nature of these characters, it will be too soon.

Even characters we can initially read as aromantic get significant others as they get a bit more authorial limelight. As soon as the narrative cares about you, the burgeoning love interest lurks in the background. The Big Bang Theory in particular has been a shining example of this: as the Sheldon character gets more and more focus within the narrative, the show introduced a “girlfriend” for him. It’s not enough to exist on your own; you have to have a “significant” other to complete you properly.

So what do we do about it? Frankly, I have no idea. I’m not a writer of fiction. I try to support works that don’t do this by buying them, but I’m a college kid and my wallet is generally pretty lean.

I just want to talk about it, because remembering that knee-jerk reaction hurt. And I’d like a world in which other aces’ response to that question–“we’re in a movie? Who’s the hero?” wasn’t immediately “Not me.”

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