Hey hey, it’s Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week. I already kind of cheated and started blogging about this last week, but needs must and all. This week, not-so-coincidentally timed to follow Valentine’s Day, is all about reminding the world that not everyone experiences romantic attraction in the same way, or to the same degree. And today I want to do this by picking apart the seams we often imagine between romance and sex.
I recently read Son of a Trickster, a new novel from Eden Robinson. I highly recommend it; go check it out! There’s a fabulous exchange between the teenage protagonist, Jacob, and Sarah; they are sexual partners but their relationship status is blurry and ill-defined at this point:
“No, you don’t understand. I’m not regretting it. I’m saying I don’t believe in monogamy, but I don’t fall in the sack with just anyone. And I certainly don’t believe in gender the way you do, and you’ve made it clear that you find my ways ‘pervy.’”
“I’m normally attracted to people willing to push heteronormative boundaries.”
Jacob felt his eye twitching. “So you’re gay?”
“There you go,” Sarah said. “Thinking in Western binaries again.”
“So you’re not gay.”
“It’s like talking to a wall,” Sarah said through gritted teeth. “Do you even listen to anything I say?”
“But what does that mean? For us?”
“It means you confuse the hell out of me. I’m frustrated.”
“Well, that’s a big ditto.”
“You’re so retro. How can I be with someone who still defines himself as strictly male?”
“So you like chicks? Or guys … or both? Is that, like, the trans one or the bi?”
Sarah stopped swinging her legs and coolly considered him. She hopped down. “You’re so not getting laid tonight.”
Disclaimer: as far as I know, neither Sarah nor Jacob are themselves arospec. I chose this quote not for its representation of arospec identity but rather because it’s such a great, general conversation about sexuality in a book I recently read.
I love this quote, because in a short section of snappy dialogue, Robinson encapsulates so much of the constrictive thinking around sexuality and gender in our society. Even though we, in broad strokes at least, have moved towards more tolerance and acceptance of lesbian, gay, and sometimes transgender people, we still police the whole concept of sexual orientation in rigid, categorical ways. Ideas of gender fluidity and gender queerness, sexual orientation fluidity, etc., are not quite as mainstream yet. That is, it’s now “ok” to be gay, but only if you’re “acceptably gay” in the Lady Gaga-I-was-born-this-way kind of gay. If you’re gay and then end up dating a woman, suddenly you’ve destroyed people’s worldview—and then the torch and pitchforks come out. For some people, it isn’t one’s particular sexual orientation that is the issue, so long as they can pigeonhole one neatly into an orientation. When they can’t, they get confused, frustrated, and even a little angry, like Jacob.
I also love this quote because, as obtuse as Jacob is being, it’s also a healthy conversation between two sexually-involved teens about their relationship. Jacob and Sarah have been having sex and need to figure out if that’s all they’re doing or if there is more to it. (Although this is a conversation that people of any age can have, I think in particular, younger people face a lot more difficulty separating romantic/sexual feelings. Firstly, they face extra pressure, from both parents and peers, to perform socially acceptable ideas of romance. This begins from infancy, when we start telling girls how they will “break hearts” or tease boys who hang out with girls that they are “sweet” on those girls. Secondly, simply by dint of inexperience with relationships of most kinds, I expect it’s probably harder for younger people to navigate these waters—I say “expect” because, of course, I have zero experience with this myself!)
Asexual ≠ Aromantic
Here are some ways the conversation can go when I drop in my asexuality, if the topic comes up.
Them: So, seeing anyone?
Me: No, I'm not really into that whole thing.
Them: What do you mean?
Me: Well, I’m ace—you know, asexual.
Them: What’s that?
Welp, here go.
Them: So, seeing anyone?
Me: Dude, I’m asexual. We just went over this in the last example.
Them: That was the other guy. But what is that, again?
Me: I don’t experience sexual attraction to other people.
Them: Ahhhh. Wait, how do you know if you've never tried it?
Them: OMG isn’t RachelRichardBenedict CumberDownieMcAdams so hot??
Me: I guess? I don’t really know.
Me: Seriously, you need to get this memory checked out. I’m asexual.
Them: Oh. Cool. Want to go catch the new Mean Iron Sherlock movie anyway?
Yes. Yes I do.
Them: So, seeing anyone?
Me: For the fourth time: asexual.
Them: Yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t want a romantic relationship….
Me: True, but I’m also aromantic.
Ding ding ding we have a winner, folks.
What does this mean?
I am increasingly encountering the fourth type of person, and although this often extends the conversation and involves the introduction of yet more possibly unfamiliar vocabulary, it is also more gratifying.
As someone who identifies both as asexual and aromantic, I’m guilty of conflating the two under the umbrella of asexuality. It’s just easier, in an allo/amato-normative world where everyone assumes you want both sex and romance (albeit maybe with more gender options these days)—it’s hard enough, sometimes, to get people to wrap their head around asexuality as something normal and valid.
Unfortunately, this erases aromantic allosexual people—that is, people who don’t experience romantic attraction but still experience sexual attraction. You might know such a person and not even know it, if you’ve just chalked their behaviour up to “not wanting commitment” or “really into casual hookups.” Really, they’re just not into the whole romance side of things—but because most people don’t even understand this is an option, they have to suffer through a life of microaggressions, especially every time February rolls around and “love is in the air.”
We could also get into the fact that plenty of aromantic people are in relationships, that these relationships are not lesser than or substitutes for romantic relationships but are, in fact, entirely valid modes of expressing appreciation for the companionship of other human beings.
Romance ≠ Sex
This is the big takeaway. Sexual and romantic feelings are so complicated that they don’t always coincide.
There’s a great episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that demonstrates this. One of the main characters, Jadzia Dax, is a joined Trill. Jadzia is a young woman; Dax is a symbiont who lives inside her body. Together their brain patterns form a new individual, one with Jadzia’s memories and desires from before joining as well as the memories and desires from all of Dax’s former hosts. In S3E15, “Destiny”, Jadzia must work with Lenara Kahn, another female joined Trill scientist. Kahn and Dax used to be married in previous lives, and the Trill have strict customs against two joined Trill reigniting such a romantic relationship. Given that this is TV, and TV needs conflict, I bet you can guess where this goes.
So, spoiler: Dax and Kahn kiss. This was the ’90s, so two women kissing on screen was a pretty big deal, and lots of people touted it as a “lesbian kiss”. But is it, really? Up until this point in the show, Jadzia Dax has shown every indication of exclusively pursuing men or masculine-coded aliens, and indeed of enjoying and encouraging the attention of those men. Jadzia Dax presents as straight. The kiss, though—the kiss was a result of Dax’s romantic attraction to Kahn, which is independent of the fact that they are both women now.
(The Trill are one of my favourite species in Star Trek because they open up so many interesting questions about gender and sexuality and norms. But that’s another conversation.)
We humans like things to be simple, and we like our labels simpler still. It’s so tempting to be as reductive as possible when talking to each other about our identities; I don’t really want to stand around all the time going, “I’m an aromantic asexual white, able-bodied atheist settler with access to post-secondary education and a stable job.”
But labels matter. Identities matter. Intersections matter.
Just remember that you don’t get to determine which labels someone else uses. You don’t get to pick and choose, either, which labels you can accept and which ones you ignore. People are a package deal, a take-it-or-leave-it deal. Just because someone is using a label that is new to you, or seems overly-complicated, doesn’t make it any less valid than “straight” or “gay” or “I am the Walrus”.
So it might take a few more seconds in the conversation, but I’d argue it’s worthwhile to clarify rather than to make assumptions. If you’re talking with a friend about their sexual or romantic experiences, don’t assume that one type of attraction implies or requires the other. Ask, if it’s an appropriate time. (Nothing I’m saying, by the way, is meant to imply you’re ever entitled to demand this information of anyone. If people don’t want to disclose their identities to you, respect that too.)
In the conversation I quoted above, Jacob trips over his vocabulary. Unlike Sarah, he hasn’t had exposure to the ideas and language that will help him understand the way she identifies. He’s trying to make sense of it given his slightly more constrained worldview.
That’s why things like AroSpec Awareness Week are important. There are teenagers out there right now like Jacob who are only starting to learn these concepts. Some of these teenagers might even be aromantic, or arospec, and not realize that this is an option for how they can identify. They might be experiencing sexual attraction to others around them but not feel capable of engaging in the social aspects, like dating, that are often expected to accompany sex. I was kind of lucky, because I managed to opt-out of all of it (the advantage of being aro and ace, not to mention male and therefore less frequently targeted for comments about my attractiveness). I just read books all the time, and that seemed to do the job.
I know those teenagers aren’t reading this, because this is not on Snapchat. But if they were, I’d tell them that they aren’t broken or weird. They are what’s normal for them. I’d tell them to learn about the labels that are out there, and to identify the way that feels right to them, regardless of what others say. You choose how and when to call yourself aromantic or romantic, allosexual or asexual, straight or bi or pan or whatever. Don’t let anyone else define who you are.
Do the thing?
If you have managed to stay with me until the end of this somewhat long and disorganized post, then, here is one thing you can do right now. I noticed over the course of writing this post that aromantic is not in Firefox’s spelling dictionary (and I checked, and it isn’t in Chrome’s either). You go ahead and you type that word into a text field, then right click and “Add to Dictionary.”
It’s a small thing. I’m never going to know if you did it. No one, unless they sit down at your computer and start typing about aromantic stuff into your web browser, will ever know. You will not get cookies for this act of allyship—and so much the better—but you will explicitly be declaring a stance that aromantic people are valid. Language is political, so let’s use it that way.