Writing From Factor X

May 25, 2011

We’re All In This Together

So in the wake of the shitstorm that’s been happening on Tumblr this week I’ve seen one thing over and over again, and it bugs the shit out of me. It happens basically whenever the policing of asexual queer identities comes up, actually, and it hasn’t gotten any less obnoxious over time.

Sexual people, you actually don’t have the right to tell asexuals that our primary identity is “really” whatever our romantic orientation is. No, not even if we’re identifying as queer.

Some asexuals identify first and foremost as asexual. Some don’t. And that goes regardless of what romantic orientation any given asexual may or may not have. (Hey, some of us don’t have romantic orientations that make a lot of sense! It’s funny how life is confusing that way!) You don’t actually get to tell anyone that their primary identity is totally invalid and they have to use a secondary one (or even a different but related one) because it’s easier for you to understand.

And even for those who don’t put any different weight on either their sexual or romantic orientation, erasing asexuals’ identities as asexual is still absolutely not okay. A heteroromantic asexual person is not the same thing as a straight person. A homoromantic asexual person is not the same thing as a gay person. The experience of being a romantic asexual is different from the experience of being a person with a matching sexual and romantic orientation in a whole bunch of ways.

I think it’s telling, in fact, that when asexuals do divide themselves based on romantic orientation, the usual divide is between people who identify themselves as unambiguously romantic and aromantic or confused people. Within romantic asexuals, I almost never see people dividing themselves between heteroromantic, biromantic, or homoromantic, and the similarity of experiences between these groups is almost always emphasized.

I am really sick and tired of sexual people trying to ignore the reality of asexual identities by pretending that they don’t exist. Because that’s exactly what’s going on when these people try to claim that heteroromantic people are really straight and homoromantic asexuals are really gay. Instead of engaging with the reality of asexuality as an identity in its own right, these people think that they can just sidestep the issue by claiming that asexuality itself doesn’t matter, romantic attraction is the real identifier of queerness or not-queerness!

(You will notice that these people never engage with the reality of aromantic asexuals, except sometimes to put us in the box marked ‘straight’ with no discussion or explanation. You know, it’s funny but I thought that to be a straight girl I actually had to like cock. It’s good to know I was wrong about that!)

Of course, if you brought up the reality of aromantic heterosexual people to these Lord Gatekeepers of the Word Queer, I bet you dollars to donuts they’d claim that those people are also Totally Straight. Yes! Apparently if you’re heteroromantic asexual, romantic orientation is the really important part, but if you’re aromantic heterosexual, sexual orientation is far more important.

The thing is, this is a great way for sexualnormative queer people to avoid having to actually engage with the idea of asexuality as a queer identity. It provides them with a tailor-made way to pretend that asexuality itself is unimportant and that asexual concerns can be dismissed as so much unimportant whining. After all, if you’re saying that the only important problems asexuals have come from their association with The Gay (or, in very slightly more enlightened circles, The Bi), then you can dismiss asexuality itself quite easily from the lists of things that you should probably pay attention to.

Unfortunately for them, the reality of asexuality is much, much more complicated than that. There’s a reason that asexuals discussing sexuality amongst ourselves don’t divide our experience into the “really straight” ones and the “really queer” ones amongst ourselves. That’s because when we share our experiences amongst ourselves, the similarities between us are far more starkly evident than the differences.

Besides, there are a lot of queer issues that apply to heteroromantics specifically because of their asexuality. Ace Admiral recently dug up the Queerness Invisible Knapsack and pointed out that fully 36 out of 40 points can apply just as much to asexuals–including heteroromantics–as they can to other kinds of queer people. Now, if you’re an identity-policing queer person, you get to make a decision here. Do these things matter in terms of oppression, or do they not? Is being “accused of being abused, warped or psychologically confused because of my sexual orientation” important? Because that’s something almost every asexual I know has encountered at some point. How about being able to “count on finding a therapist or doctor willing and able to talk about my sexuality”? Important or no? Does it matter when it happens to aces, regardless of any other aspect of their identities, or only when it happens to gay people?

I’m open to discussion of the use of “queer” by asexual people. But that discussion needs to refer to all asexual people, regardless of their other characteristics. And it needs to engage with asexuality as a primary identity on its own first. This divide and conquer bullshit is just that–bullshit. And it needs to stop right now.

April 10, 2011

Newsflash: There Are More Than Two Rules

So I’ve been seeing this list around lately that claims to explain the root of all unpleasantness around sexuality in mainstream culture with two simple rules:

  1. It is simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable for a woman to have sexual desire.
  2. It is simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable for a man to be sexually desired.

And you know, I see a lot of excitement around it! I keep seeing people exclaim that it totally explains everything! So it’s a pity that I think it’s horseshit.

I’m not going to go into much detail on the second point, the one about men, because I’m not male and don’t have much personal experience there. I will point out that all those super-masculine images of the Stud, who has All The Girls, is presumed to be sexy and handsome and at least attractive enough not to have to actually pay women to have sex with him. Seriously, you think women aren’t supposed to find Manly Men attractive? Really?

But you know, it’s the second contention–women aren’t allowed to express desire–that really amuses me. Because I’m a woman, and I don’t experience sexual attraction and therefore don’t exactly go around saying “mmm, you hot thing, I would totally like to sleep with you!” You’d think that society would be all over me as the Perfect Woman from that list!

And you’d be wrong.

Even before I was out as asexual, I was generally pretty open about not being interested in anyone. I didn’t go around proclaiming my asexuality, but when people asked me direct questions I answered truthfully. So I’d be asked whether I found specific boys attractive and I would say “no.” And instead of going “well done then!” and getting social brownie points as this little set of rules assumes would happen, I get suspicion. I am told that I am broken either in my body or my mind. I am told I must be lying. In short, the reactions I get for not expressing sexual desire for anyone are a far cry from accepting, let alone praising.

It’s funny how according to this, mainstream society finds it inconceivable for a woman to be different from me.

It is not okay within mainstream society for a woman to never express sexual desire. It is certainly not okay to be openly, loudly asexual, and it is damn well not the ideal for women to be asexual. Where do you think the term “frigid” comes from? Did you think it was a compliment?

I have a problem with the kinds of discussion I often see in sex-positive spaces, and things like this are an excellent example of why. I find that sex-positive spaces often set themselves in opposition to a presumed sex-negative mainstream, as if the nasty dynamics surrounding sexuality in mainstream were as simple as black and white. They’re really, really not.

For instance: women are supposed to have sexualities. Sexualities directed, I might add, specifically at men. They’re just not supposed to take charge of them or express them openly. Which is probably a large part of the reason that asexual women–I repeat, women who don’t express sexual desire for others because they don’t experience sexual attraction–come in for so much crap, because women who identify as asexual are already stepping out of the narrowly constricted boundaries for female sexual expression and owning their own sexualities.

The thing is, it would be one thing if all that came out of this depressing tendency to oversimplify the fucked-up attitudes that culture has to sex was that asexual people get to trip over works assuming that we’re what the mainstream wants and laugh until we choke. That would be obnoxious, but manageable and at least entertaining. But that’s not actually the worst of it.

See, if we’re being held up as “what the mainstream wants,” if people are hanging out in circles that espouse this kind of thinking, they’re likely to think of us as part of the problem. If the problem is that mainstream culture doesn’t like sex, then clearly people who also are not particularly interested in sex must be collaborators in oppression!

And that’s where I think most of the terrifying anger you see at asexuals in feminist and queer spaces–those most likely to identify as sex-positive–comes from. After all, if you’re dealing with a ton of crap about your sexuality and you’re being told it’s the fault of all those people who (gasp!) don’t like sex, of course you’re going to get angry when people stand up and claim to not experience sexual attraction and furthermore explain that this is not actually an enviable state of affairs.

It’s a pity that so much anger comes out of such a fundamental oversimplication of what Western culture really thinks people “should” do about sexuality.

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?

February 1, 2011

Spectral Amoebas: Round-Up Post

So the Spectral Amoebas blog carnival draws to a close! First, I want to thank everyone who submitted posts. The quality was uniformly quite high, and I’ve been so excited at reading the posts that people have linked and discussed over the past month an a half. There have been some awesome things written about very diverse topics, and I was really excited to see all of them.

And now to the posts!

Stephanie Silberstein at Meowing at the Moon wrote about attempting to construct a common language to communicate with her neurotypical, non-asexual best friend in Do Asexuals Speak the Same Language?

Procrastination Embodied talks about constantly being disbelieved in Asexual on the Spectrum.

Norah_Liath discusses the way that people will constantly judge her as a bad person simply for being in a relationship with a neurotypical sexual in I’m a Horrible Person…

Teafeather wonders how to define the concept of “liking” someone in Do You Like?

Quirks the Magpie attempts to come to a conclusion about his sexual orientation in Monochrome logic, greyscale sexuality, and finding my identity.

Anonymous contributed a guest post about trying to gather enough data to a conclusion about their sexuality.

Bethany Lauren writes about having the right words and about communication in Not Alone: Music, Brainweasels, and RENT.

M asks not to be touched in noli me tangere.

Ily considers outing herself about asexuality and NLD in Coming Out (When “the World is a Chaos”).

Kaz addresses the problems inherent with being assumed to be asexual even before coming out in The Lucky One.

And to wrap it all up, I wrote about my problems with being stereotyped as emotionless for being autistic, aromantic, and asexual in On Being Incapable of Love.

Thank you all so much for participating, guys, and I hope you enjoy the collective posts!

December 24, 2010

It’s Easy To Pass When You’re Invisible

One of the biggest criticisms I’ve seen from the queer community regarding asexuals identifying as queer, particularly aromantic and heteroromantic asexuals, is that we have this awesome “passing privilege” thing. The theory goes that apparently, because we are not in same-sex relationships, we pass for straight. Of course biromantic, panromantic, and homoromantic aces “count,” because it’s like they’re bi/pan/homo-sexual! And heteroromantic is the same as heterosexual! And aromantics–well, uh, uh, they don’t do the same-sex dating thing so THEY MUST BE STRAIGHT.

(And of course asexual people for whom the romantic orientation concept doesn’t work very well are made twice invisible. Awesome.)

In particular, I find that it’s not uncommon for queer people to say things like “the mainstream wants you to be asexual.” This latter is usually a good indication that the person in question has never talked to an actual asexual person in their life, but I digress.

And I have a lot of problems with this. For one thing, not everyone actually passes consistently for heterosexual. I don’t. Before I started coming out on a regular basis, people assumed I was a closeted lesbian. I can be out honestly, or I can have people try to help me out. This is my experience.

Besides, not everyone wants to pass in the first place. Passing is soul-killing. Passing means lying to others, it means hiding yourself, it means pretending to be something you aren’t. It means pretending to be straight, because in this heteronormative world, you’ve got to be heterosexual to get by. Not asexual, because asexuality does not confer privilege. Let me point out that that is not the same thing as being heteroromantic. It’s not enough to not be interested in same-sex partners. You have to be interested in opposite-sex partners as well, and you’d better display sexual interest in them while you’re about it. Passing means displaying that interest, even if it isn’t there.

It means… closeting yourself, in fact. (Wait. Hang on–you mean that asexual people might have closets, too? Perish the thought.)

But hey, I’ll buy that gender-conforming asexuals often do pass fairly well when they’re not being open about their identities. When you’re single and not dating someone, you must be straight, right? So heteronormativity goes. And it’s not like there’s acedar to match gaydar in mainstream culture, right? Well, there’s a reason for that.

Mainstream people don’t tend to pick up on cues that a person might be asexual because asexuals are invisible to the mainstream. Invisibility is not passing. There’s a choice involved in passing: you can choose whether or not to lie about who and what you are, even if it’s only a lie of omission. There is no choice involved whatsoever in being invisible. Invisibility exists to make it impossible or difficult to speak up about who and what you are.

Invisibility is trying to be honest about who you are and being told that you don’t exist, that you’re lying, that you’re deluded. It’s trying actively not to pass for straight, because you’re not straight, and being told that you’re wrong about your own feelings.

Invisibility is growing up never knowing that you could exist. It’s trying to find communities of people like you and failing, because no one else is ever like you. It’s listening to a thousand different ways to plan a life, and not fitting into any of them.

Invisibility is not having words to describe what you are. It’s making words up or pretending you’re something different than you are. It’s endless questioning because none of the available options fit. It’s finally finding a word that fits and seeing that word used mostly in ways that hurt. It’s trying to answer a form about your sexual orientation honestly and having to lie, because no ticky-box exists for you.

Invisibility is forced silence because speaking up about asexuality has consequences, even if it’s only to say “we exist.” It’s never having a place in discussions of sexuality. It’s feeling painfully grateful to see just the word “asexual” in a list of queer or variant sexual orientations. Not a discussion of that word, or any explanation of what it means, but only the word itself.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m not all agog at the idea that as an aromantic asexual, I’m “privileged” in this sense. Invisibility is not a fucking privilege. Stop trying to make it into one.

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 19, 2010

Labels Are For Soup Cans (And People, Too)

I see a lot of people disclaiming the usefulness of labels. (Especially, for some reason, people who have a perfectly good label for themselves complaining about other people making up new words to describe their experiences.)

So I want to talk about why labels are important to me.

My experience growing up as asexual was, I feel, an incredibly lucky one. I found out that asexuality existed and that an asexual community existed absurdly young. I was fourteen when I found the label, and so I essentially went through adolescence knowing that there was a place for people like me, that there was a name for people like me, and that it was okay if I didn’t have any interest in anyone else that way. Note the bit about having the name. It’ll be important later.

I didn’t necessarily take advantage of the community at the time. From about ages 15 to 18, I essentially abandoned the asexual community, such as it was. I was more interested in focusing on my autistic identity then, and was actively posting on WrongPlanet rather than AVEN at the time. Community itself simply wasn’t an issue for me, at least not about my sexuality. After all, I first had a group of friends who didn’t seem to care either, and then I had isolated myself in large part from my peers, and there was no reason for the whole tangled web of sexuality to really enter my life if I didn’t want it to.

No, the important part was simply knowing that the label was there. That it was real, that I had validation to be this way, that there were other people using this label.

I am not entirely sure that I would have been one of the people who independently makes up the term “asexual” without access to a community first. I rather doubt it. My adolescence was a period during which many, many (straight) people seemed to think I was a young lesbian, and were quite invested in trying to draw me out of my closet. And I’m not actually that immune to suggestion. I certainly would have gone through a period of extremely confused questioning, which would have been wrought with anxiety, and I probably would have gone with the flow and come out as gay because at least it was an answer. As it was, I was too terrified to come out of my closet until I went away to college, but at least I knew my label described who I was well enough. Even if I wasn’t brave enough to actually share it with people, I could be pretty sure I knew what I was, and if I changed so be it.

I could not have had that certainty without the existence of a label and a group of people who used it. For me, it was the difference between relative calm and frustrated anxiety. And all for the sake of a single word.

And here’s the other thing that labels do: they give us a community of other people who use that label to connect with. They give us a language to speak to others about ourselves, language with which we can come close to describing our experiences. And they provide a means to connect with one another.

It’s hard for me to think which comes first: the labels or the communities, since discussions within communities invariably lead to ever more finely gradated labels and more complex identities as people seek shorthands for concepts which recur over and over again. That’s what these words are, in essence: useful shorthands to communicate. And if they’re not acceptably fine-tuned, well, that’s a good reason to make a new one.

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.

Blog at WordPress.com.