Writing From Factor X

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).

February 19, 2011

Why I Hate Ticky Boxes

There’s this piece about asexuality that’s just been published: Asexuality–Not Just For the Amoebas: What It’s Like to be “Ace” in College. It did not go on the linkspam. Admittedly, part of the reason for that is that I found it shortly after the linkspam went up, but even if I’d known about it weeks ago it wouldn’t have gone on the linkspam, because this piece is everything that is wrong with articles sexuals write about asexuality. It’s not even original in its failure, in fact, which is why I’m going to specifically critique it here. I may as well get some use out of its mediocrity.

First, way to cast suspicion on aceness as an identity right there in the title by calling us quote-unquote “aces.” That sets the tone for the rest of the piece, in fact; nothing asexuals have to say about themselves in the piece is treated as above challenge. We don’t even have the right to our own words without air-quotes.

And then we have the tired old trope of calling up a “sexologist” to explain why asexuality isn’t really real. This is what really gets me, folks, because it shows up in just about every damn article or TV discussion of asexuality you can name. But oh, the media have to provide a balanced opinion, as if there really are two legitimate sides to every issue, so of course they need to dig up someone to prove us wrong in our silly little self-identifications! It’s not like we can be definitive experts on our own experiences or anything!

But anyway. We’ve got our sexologist out to prove asexuals wrong. Her name’s Dr. Patricia Fawver, in fact, and it appears that she’s Dr. Joy Davidson, Round Two: a self-proclaimed expert who is dead-set on hiding her refusal to accept asexuality as a valid identity beneath a heavy layer of concern trolling. Again: not original. Davidson did it four years ago; you’d think they’d have learned something new by now, but apparently not. Davidson, incidentally, has since had the gall to express surprise that asexuals don’t like her. Wanna bet this lady does the same thing down the road?

Fawver, I might add, appears to have no idea what we mean when we claim “asexual” as a label, which would call her status as an expert on sexuality (or at least asexuality) into question if we were discussing any other topic. However, we’re discussing asexuality, so her assertion that “asexuality” means “without sexuality” goes totally unchallenged. In fact, the piece immediately follows this up with the line “In some ways, it is difficult to argue with Dr. Fawver.”

Yes. It is totally difficult to argue with Dr. Fawver. The fact that she’s setting up a complete straw argument about the nature of asexuality goes completely unnoticed and undiscussed, of course. So does the fact that she’s apparently never heard of asexuality or what it means before this conversation, since the fact that we’re discussing lack of sexual attraction rather than total lack of sexuality appears to have flown over her head. But her arguments are so good, guys! She’s totally a credible expert on this topic!

Then the article moves on to discussing whether or not asexuals actually exist. This is treated as a topic worthy of serious discussion. I don’t even have words. For the record? I exist. Fuck anyone who tries to say otherwise. This is another one of those “no, actually, there are not two legitimate sides to the story” topics.

Fawver returns later on in this one with a stern warning to the rest of us not to identify as asexual without checking all the laundry list of causes that could potentially have done it. For crying out loud, we’re discussing an orientation, not a symptom of disease! This is what I mean by concern trolling, by the way: Fawver is covering up her insistence that no one identify this way by insisting that making people jump through a ton of hoops before identifying as asexual is for our own good. As a special bonus, she hits most of the common stupid explanations for asexuality on her way down. Apparently that old whine about claiming to change one’s sexual orientation because of a bad break-up could be true, guys!

Of course, the flip side to the “two sides to a story” malarkey is that the article’s got to present the pro-asexuality side, too. Which it does by… citing possibly the worst research paper on asexuality ever published. Seriously, they’re claiming that the fact that 5-6% of Americans are still virgins has some kind of useful relevancy to asexuality, despite the fact that asexuals are generally quite happy to say “asexuality is not the same thing as celibacy” until we’re blue in the face. The author, who is writing from a college campus and therefore almost certainly has a lot of access to actual academic journals, presumably cited this pile of steaming academic fail because it’s available free on the Internet.

Finally, halfway through the piece, it goes on to detail what a real asexual person actually has to say about the experience of being asexual in college. I don’t have anything much to say about that; it’s pretty unobjectionable, but the fact that it took a solid page and a half for the author to get around to asking an asexual person what their experiences have been like is fairly significant. It demonstrates exactly whose opinions on asexuality are important here: nonasexuals’.

The piece’s ending makes this particularly clear, because it concludes firmly on an anti-asexual note. First, it stresses that asexuality is totally fluid and subject to change, comparing it to other “identities” rather than other sexual orientations. Again, this is telling. Asexuality discussion is particularly prone to stressing the potential changeability of sexual orientation and explaining that this is why someone shouldn’t take on an asexual identity–after all, one’s asexuality could change any moment! Of course this is never applied to other sexual orientations like identifying as straight or gay. Those are legitimate, cast as unchanging; asexuality is framed as a temporary state that could change at any moment, despite being no more fluid than any other sexuality.

Also? Apparently we shouldn’t “pre-diagnose ourselves with a trendy label” before we’ve thought very hard about who and what we are. There’s a bargain–two commonly used tropes to dismiss asexuality in one phrase! We’ve got “pre-diagnose,” which harkens back to the framing of asexuality as a sort of mental or physical illness, and then we have “asexuality is a trendy label,” which implies that we’re all just mindless fashionistas adopting the word because it’s cool. I don’t know what planet the author lives on where being ace is the next big thing, but I’d love to live there. The planet I live on, as a person who is actually an out asexual, is the one where being ace is a thing coated in obscurity and treated with condescending distaste under that. Hers sounds way more fun.

And Fawver gets the last word, as always in articles like this; heaven forbid we end on a positive note about asexuality from our own perspective. Apparently we’re supposed to “claim our sexuality and be proud, but understand it’s a choice not to engage with another person”. Does Fawver have a functioning grasp of logic? How do I claim my sexuality for what it is while simultaneously writing it off as a choice that I’m making? Unless of course that I’m supposed to understand that the choice is for me to own my innate sexuality, which duhthat’s what I’m doing when I identify as asexual. Which we’re not supposed to do. Why is this person held up as an expert, again?

So seriously, fuck Her Campus. Dr. Fawver may be an arrogant twit when it comes to asexuality, but they were the ones who gave her a platform in the first place. As an asexual in college, all this article is telling me is that Her Campus doesn’t actually care about or respect college asexuals. Instead, it’s telling me that Her Campus cares more about what nonasexuals think asexuality is than listening to what we have to say about ourselves. And honestly? That’s worse than not helping. If we’re going to have pieces on asexuality, can we maybe find some that aren’t packed chock-full of dismissive language and interviews from uninformed, pontificating “sexologists” who have never studied asexuality in their lives?

January 8, 2011

Planning For The Long Term

One of the things that always keeps me up at night is thinking about the long term. Thinking about family, about my relationships, about whether people will take their relationships with me as seriously as I take them. Or whether, instead, my friends with gradually pair off and develop “more important” relationships and leave me permanently alone. It hasn’t happened yet, but then I’m a college student. I’m only twenty years old, and I know that I won’t be living close to most of my meatspace friends two years from now; we’re all ambitious enough to jettison our lives here for the shot at a career studying the things we collectively love, and I might end up in a program near one of theirs but I’m not betting on it. Which sucks.

I plan to be single, in fact. No, actually, it’s more complex than that–I plan to be without zucchini as well. I’m a cynic and I plan for the worst case and for me, that is the worst case, but… I suspect it to also be the most likely.

Romantic relationships are always more important than friendships; friendships get devalued and are almost inherently defined as “less-than.” And of course the weird relationships I do want–the friendship that is understood not to end as soon as something more important comes along, the person-I-love-who-becomes-family, the blurred lines–I don’t even have real words for those, they’re so invisible that there’s nothing in the whole language to describe them at all.

I suspect that much of the value that gets placed on specifically romantic relationships rather than friendships is that romantic relationships are assumed to be a prelude to developing a family. The ways in which different kinds of relationships get devalued seems to relate to the “realness” of the families which might result from them–monogamous queer relationships get devalued because of not being able to produce biological children, for example, and friendships and non-monogamous relationships get devalued because of not being nuclear and easily defined. The definition between family and not-family is supposedly absolute, easily understood, with no crossing-over; relationships which do not have the possibility of becoming family are assumed to be inherently lesser at best, and entirely temporary at worst. Or both.

And for me, this is nonsense. There’s more kinds of families than the two-adults-and-children sort. What happened to extended families, for example? Why is this one, constricting model so annoyingly pervasive?

I want a friendship that is taken just as seriously as this culture takes romantic relationships. Or multiple friendships, which would be even better. I want a family of my own, without having to lie to myself or a partner to do it. I want consistency in my life. Ideally, I’d want to live in the same house as someone I cared about; I’ve been living alone for the past six months and it is not my ideal situation. I want someone to share my life with and someone to care about and who cares about me, who is understood to be sticking around and not going to drop me for a real relationship as soon as that comes along. I don’t particularly care about exclusivity, but I care about committedness.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find that kind of a relationship, because so few people are looking for one. Which means that it will be far more difficult for me to form the kind of family I’m looking for. There’s another traditional route to starting a family, though: there’s always children. (Assuming I want or consider myself to be a fit parent, which is an entirely different conversation to have.)

One of the big reasons I personally get worked up about better maternity policies and more parent-friendly workplaces, in fact, is that without such policies it’s nigh impossible for me to have children, because I plan to be single in the long term. The fact that I cynically think that the hell I don’t believe in will freeze over before America institutes enough social policies to make such a situation truly workable means that when I plan for my future, I don’t include children–while not even taking into the consideration the broader question of whether I want to have them. (The answer is a resounding maybe, anyway.) And so romantic relationships, in this culture, are almost necessary to having a family in that respect as well.

I’d like a family, eventually. I don’t plan for one, because like I said, I’m cynical. But I hope anyway.

October 25, 2010

Queer as Ace

I want to talk about passing, and queerness, and how asexuality fits into that. Or more specifically, my particular aromantic brand of asexuality, since that’s the only one my experiences apply to.

One of the charges leveled against (aromantic and heteroromantic) asexuals identifying as queer that I saw most often in the recent brouhaha at ontd_feminism had to do with two contentions: one, that we pass as straight and therefore don’t count, and two, that we don’t experience our own personalized forms of oppression, at least not on the scale of homosexuality. And I think both of these charges are bullshit.

In particular, the first time I saw the bit about asexuals passing for straight so easily, I was a bit flabbergasted. Because I don’t pass as straight for any length of time. My experience throughout high school always came back to carefully guarded questions and tentative attempts to get me to come out. And those were the polite ones. Growing up, much of the bullying and harassment I dealt with came down to bothering me about my sexual orientation. The one incident of street harassment I’ve suffered to date occurred when I was out walking my dog and some assholes in a car drove up right next to me, yelled “FAGGOT!” and drove away. When I started coming out as asexual for the first time, it was because I was sick of people getting it wrong.

Some of this is my particular gender presentation. I’m cis, but I freely admit I’m not the most femme cis girl out there. But a lot of it comes down to the fact that I never expressed any interest, sexual or otherwise, in anyone. And in this culture, not experiencing interest in opposite-sex people automatically means you must be interested in same-sex people. I freely admit it’s not every asexual’s experience, but it’s mine. In my experience, I can choose to come out as asexual and be honest about who and what I actually am, or I can be regarded as a lesbian in a closet so transparent that people feel entitled to try to “help” me come out of it. Passing as straight for anyone who knows me well enough to ask about my personal life has not been something I have been able to do well since I hit puberty.

Okay. So it’s possible that asexuals don’t always get passing privilege.  Even if we’re not bi/pan/homoromantic. And for the record, I know a heteroromantic fellow who gets coded gay as often as I do. This isn’t necessarily an aromantics-only thing. But what about the contention that the oppressions we face which are specific to asexuality (e.g. not homophobia misapplied) are so weak and easy compared to homophobia that we’re making a big fuss over nothing?

Well, anti-asexual sentiment is really fucking similar to biphobia, for one thing. One of the things asexuals share with bisexuals is the fact that many people seem to have problems with the idea that one’s orientation is not actually the same thing as the gender of the person one is dating. (Or not dating, as the case may be.) I have seen the very same accusations of attention-seeking and oversensitivity directed at asexuals as I have at bisexuals. As well as the very same charges of appropriativeness. After all, there are plenty of bisexual people who end up in opposite-sex relationships, or even who tend to experience sexual attraction to more opposite-sex people than to same-sex people. Not every bi person is a Kinsey 3, after all.

So why is bisexuality A-OK as a form of queerness,  but asexuality is not?

October 6, 2010

The Politics Of Being Out

So, National Coming Out Day is coming up, and I’m still planning what, exactly, I am going to do for it.

I am somewhat conflicted about coming out, largely because for me the process of outing myself is still often fraught with anxiety. Much of this comes down to the fact that not only does coming out for me  entail the usual worries about how the person will react and whether they will show themselves to be a total douchecanoe, but also worrying about asexual-specific coming out issues. You know: whether I have the resources necessary to provide an explanation of my orientation. Whether I can explain my sexuality to someone and get it across without too many lingering misunderstandings. Whether I’m going to put up with the dreaded Masturbation Question. Whether I am going to be asked if my sexuality is a disease, or told to check up on my hormones “just in case.”

Neekabe recently posted a really awesome essay on why it’s often difficult to come out as asexual, even if you’re actively trying to do so, and one of the things she said really resonated with me:

As a sexual person, all you have to do drop the word of boy/girlfriend, and/or a casual mention of a person being attractive to you, and you’re basically done. Or you have a variety of slang terms that you can use if you want to be more explicit. Being out may not be a good thing, but society has gotten to the point where it is possible to come out without turning it into a Thing unless the other person chooses to turn it into a Thing through their reaction.

As someone who’s asexual, it’s virtually impossible to accidentally out yourself. The casual hints “I’m just not wired for relationships” (my favourite line) or “Not really interested/looking” tend to be just read as typical avoidance. Slang terms aren’t understood. I could tell someone I’m ace, or a gray-A(*), but they’re not going to get what that means, they’ll have to ask, and then it becomes a Thing.

If I could come out just by mentioning I was ace, without having to make a big show of it… well. I’d come out more often, for certain. If I could come out just by hinting, I’d be out to everyone. (Hell, I’m blindingly obvious if you know what to look for. The fact that people don’t usually just means that I either ping gaydars or get reclassified into this mysterious not-gendered-not-sexual category.) But that’s not where we are right now.

Right now, coming out entails playing educator, representative of my sexuality, and terrified person trying to share something important all at the same time. (I try not to show I’m terrified.) Have I ever mentioned that it is difficult to play educator when you’ve just bared a secret, important part of yourself and you know that total confusion is one of the best-case scenarios?

I have also had incidences where I was essentially given the choice between coming out or lying. In class, no less. That one was fun. I suck at lying. Let me tell you, as stressful as coming out can be when you get to pick the time and consider when to bring it up, it is a thousand times worse when you get totally blindsided. Especially when you’ve just gotten invisibled on top of that and are dealing with realizing “oh, awesome, you assume either I don’t exist or that I’m not here.”

So given that I think coming out is stressful and scary and difficult much of the time, why do I do it?

Partly, it has to do with my ability to pass as heterosexual, which is the usual “default” assumption. Which is to say, I suck at it. I do not particularly experience crushes, I tend to go silent when people are around me are discussing hot people of the appropriate genders, and I often don’t have anything to share when the inevitable dating talk goes up. Besides, people who know me well and hang around me a lot tend to notice when you never display any interest in anyone, ever. I experienced enough probing questions about whether I was gay or not in high school, especially from my parents. Coming out is a much better way to give people an explanation for why I am generally not dating or looking to date than just letting them come up with their own explanations, I find.

But that’s not my whole reasoning. I firmly believe there is a political aspect to being out as asexual. Well, to coming out in general, actually, but especially coming out ace. Coming out is the single most powerful means of forwarding visibility. Even aside from the fact that it is an act of visibility in itself, and a powerful one, coming out as asexual humanizes us. It puts a face to what we are. It makes it impossible to divorce the concept of asexuality in general from this person, right in front of me, who is herself asexual. (Or himself, or themself, or zirself.)

Which is not to say that outing oneself past endurance is a good thing. Quite the opposite: if you don’t have the mental resources to come out or do not feel safe doing so, then coming out is probably not a good idea. There are people I have decided do not get to know I am asexual, for example. Barring a serious change in the current state of affairs, I have no intention of allowing them to know. There is a balance.

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.

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