On (A)romance

I find romance confusing. In the abstract, some aspects of it appeal to me: emotional intimacy and support, companionship, having a stable partnership. I enjoy well-developed, true-to-character romantic storylines, and I’m as much of a shipper as the next person. But for myself, I can’t quite understand how it would work. I spent a long time wondering how other people made the seemingly arbitrary decision of who to date. Did they just pick someone good-looking and go for it? That seemed unlikely to be pleasant. Someone they wanted to get to know, then? It still didn’t make sense. I couldn’t imagine acting in such an intimate way (and I’m not even talking sex) with anyone I wasn’t already close to–and in that case, why risk ruining a friendship?

I realize now that I don’t experience romantic attraction in the same way as the average person. I occasionally get ambiguous maybe-romantic, maybe-platonic attraction to people I’m getting to know, but I very rarely have a true crush on anyone. The two major exceptions I can think of were both distinguished by some heavy-duty limerence. This was the main thing that convinced me my feelings were romantic; it was also deeply unpleasant. I’ve had a few other minor attractions that could probably be classified as romantic, but they’ve been fleeting.

As far as romantic love goes, I’m not sure how it would be qualitatively different from other forms of love, aside from the elusive attraction component. I have felt, and continue to feel, deep love for one of the people to whom I’ve been romantically attracted. We were already fairly good friends before the attraction began, and it took root during a period when we were building a good deal of trust and intellectual/emotional intimacy. But I perceive my love for her as an independent entity from my romantic attraction and limerence. Indeed, it acted in opposition to them in some ways. That love actually prevented me from acting on my romantic attraction, because I knew that any declaration would bring up stressful recent history for her, and probably damage our friendship. Now that I no longer feel attracted to her in the same way, I still love her deeply, companionately, and (I’m fairly certain) NOT romantically. I could still see us as partners, but more in a platonic way.

So I’m still not quite sure what romance is, or how it works in real life. But I feel a lot better about that confusion now that I know the aromantic spectrum exists. It’s good to know that I’m not somehow defective, that there are others who don’t “get it,” that some are interested in prioritizing platonic relationships. The idea of forming a (queer)platonic partnership feels so much more comfortable and less daunting than going through confusing romantic rituals over and over in order to find a relationship I may not even want. I will probably experience romantic attraction again. One of these times it might even lead to a romantic relationship. But for now, I’m ready to stop beating myself up for something I don’t feel, and start doing whatever makes me happy.

Why I won’t be changing my gender on Facebook (just yet)

I’m just as excited as everyone else on the (queer) internet that Facebook has added a bunch of new gender identity options, plus they/them/theirs pronouns! But unlike a lot of people, I’m not ready to dive in and change my settings just yet. If you’d asked me a year ago, or even a few months, I’d have been happy to label myself as a cis woman. Now? I’m not so sure.

I mentioned a few days ago that I’ve been going through some personal changes of late. One component of that has been allowing myself to acknowledge that I have some confusing feelings about my gender. On the one hand, I’m a DFAB* person who has always operated relatively well as a girl/woman. On the other…I feel like my grip on that identity has been slipping over the last few years. (Ironically, this happened after I chose to attend a women’s college.) Some days I still feel female, but I have the occasional day where I kind of feel like a guy. And a lot of the time, I don’t feel very gendered at all.

Even though I’m dealing with all this, I feel kind of guilty not labeling myself as cis. Because I’m not sure. And even though I know intellectually that having to be “sure” about being trans is a crock of cissexist bullshit, it’s hard not to buy into. I struggle to remind myself that it’s okay to question, to try things on for size. I can be far too hard on myself, especially when it comes to the difficult questions. I’m too attached to my need to be sure.

But for now, I’m trying to do what’s right for me. And that means having the same compassion for myself that I would offer anyone else struggling with the same things. It means being as honest as I can be by not explicitly labeling as cis, and guarding my safety by not coming out as gender questioning, either. I won’t be changing labels visible to people I know in real life, because I’m not ready. Not just yet.

*Designated female at birth

Ace Vocabulary: Attraction

When people talk about attraction, they rarely discuss the idea that you can be attracted to different people in different ways. If you say you’re attracted to someone, most people take that to mean combined romantic and sexual interest. And that, dear readers, is far from the whole story!

One of my biggest stumbling blocks in connecting my own experiences with the asexual and aromantic spectrums was a very limited understanding of attraction. If I enjoyed looking at visually appealing people, if I sometimes felt myself drawn to peoples’ personalities, if I wished for sex and romance, I had to be experiencing sexual and romantic attraction, right? Wrong!

The first thing to remember here is that drive is not the same as attraction. I could’ve had a sex drive so active I wanted it three times a day, and that still wouldn’t have meant I experienced sexual attraction. Attraction is directed at someone; it’s a specific desire to have sex with this person, to go on a date with that person. Drive is just…there. And while I liked the idea of sex and romance in the abstract–part of my drive towards both, in combination with societal expectations–in reality, I had an ongoing history of not feeling the right way about anyone to actually pursue either one.

So, drive =/= attraction. That’s all well and good. But what about my habit of being drawn to peoples’ looks and personality? Well, I have more news for you, friends: there are different kinds of attraction!

  • Aesthetic attraction is a pull toward looking at certain people you find visually appealing. A lot of people mistake this for sexual attraction, because hey! You’re looking at someone and thinking they’re attractive! But while aesthetic attraction can occur in tandem with sexual attraction, by itself, it is not sexual in nature. A lot of people describe it like the desire to look at a beautiful painting; for me, it’s more form-driven, and closer to my appreciation of good-looking animals, for instance. I don’t say this to dehumanize people–I just know that the way I appreciate human beauty has a lot to do with bone structure, muscle, and carriage, all things I can enjoy just as much in looking at, for example, a horse. (I do get a little extra enjoyment out of imagining what peoples’ lives might be like, but other than that, the feeling is pretty similar.)
  • Platonic attraction is sometimes used to describe a strong desire to form a friendship with a specific person. It’s easily mistaken for romantic attraction, because society tells us that if we really want to spend time with someone, it must be romantic, right? Platonic attraction is sometimes acknowledged as a thing between two people of the same gender (because heteronormativity!), but it’s generally described in demeaning terms like “girl crush” and considered the province of adolescents. In reality, a lot of people of varying backgrounds can (and do) experience platonic attraction. The term for a strong platonic attraction to someone is a squish.
  • Romantic attraction plays a big role in most forms of media, and in how people structure their relationships. In brief, it’s the desire to be in a romantic relationship with a specific person or to act in romantic ways toward that person. That might include going on dates, giving gifts, kissing*, holding hands, or whatever else the individual in question codes as “romantic.”Romantic attraction is usually assumed to occur in tandem with sexual attraction. It’s “supposed” to lead people to form society’s prized Relationship To Rule Them All, the romantic-sexual partnership. (Never mind that not everybody wants that kind of relationship, or wants to value it above other kinds!)
  • Sensual attraction is the desire to touch someone in a non-sexual way. This could include hand-holding, hugging, kissing*, cuddling, massage, hair-stroking, or any number of other behaviors. Because so many people experience sensual attraction as linked to sexual attraction, it can be difficult to express a desire to engage in these behaviors without others assuming they’ll lead to sexual contact, which is a big problem for many people, especially aces.**
  • Sexual attraction is the biggie, the one that most people use to label their orientations, for instance. Basically, sexual attraction is the desire to engage in sexual activity with a specific person. This could include behaviors such as kissing*, strip teases, mutual masturbation, oral sex, intercourse, all kinds of kink***…basically, whatever is sexual for you. Many people experience sexual attraction. in tandem with other forms of attraction, which is part of why it’s difficult for those who don’t experience sexual attraction to realize it. There’s a tendency to believe, if the other bits are there, the sexual component must be, even if you don’t feel it. This ignores the more likely explanation, that if you don’t feel something, it’s probably not there.

So, to conclude, attraction is complicated. Some people might feel all these types of attraction, some might feel none of them, and lots of people are in between. They can occur separately or in combination, which makes things even more interesting! Also, as noted above, you can have a drive toward any of these behaviors without being attracted to anyone, or vice versa. And you can engage in the behaviors without the attraction, for a variety of reasons–including “because it feels good.” That is, in fact, a valid reason. So, gentle readers, go forth and act in ways that make you happy and healthy, with the knowledge that your feelings are real and valid.

Notes:

*Kissing is variously coded as romantic, sensual, or sexual by individual people. Personally, I’ve only tried it a couple of times and haven’t liked it much, but I haven’t had the chance to give it a go with one of the very few people I’ve been romantically or sexually attracted to.

**Ace=person on the asexual spectrum. I’ll talk more about specific identities in my next post.

***Some people describe their kink as non-sexual. Again, it’s a personal thing.

Ace Vocabulary: Introduction

In my last post, I mentioned going through a period of personal discovery this year. In this new series, Ace Vocabulary, I’ll write about the ways in which my finding the asexual community has influenced that discovery. More specifically, I’m interested in writing about how specific terms in use in asexual (ace, for short) spaces have helped me to understand myself better. This blog is premised on the idea that language is vital to the way we understand the world, and I can think of no better illustration than the invention of new terms to describe emotions and relationships, a process that is even now taking place in the ace blogosphere. These are words I didn’t even know I was missing until I found them and suddenly felt more complete. I envision this as a three or four part series, with posts on attraction, sexual and romantic identities, and relationships, although that could change as I delve into the topic. I’ll add links to posts in the series as they go up!

Part 1: Attraction

A personal turn

I started a blog with the intent of using writing to find a sense of purpose and direction–or rather, to hang on to my academic identity–while taking a break from formal study. That obviously did not go as planned. I realized, as my post-undergrad gap year progressed, that academic aspects of my life were not what needed attention. Literary commentary is a task I enjoy, but for now, there was more important work at hand: examining my personal values and desires outside of intellectualism.

Now, writing can have just as much of a role in personal discovery as in professional development, but I’ve never been particularly comfortable doing personal writing for public consumption. So instead of writing more blog posts, I journaled. In the months since graduation, I’ve filled hundreds of pages with the musings and ramblings that I suddenly have time for. And in so doing, I’ve learned things about myself and what I want, things that I hope to share here. This blog is taking a personal turn.

Of course, all that introspection has its downsides. I have at times dissected my emotions to the point where they didn’t feel real anymore, or worked myself into an unwarranted frenzy of anxiety. I’ve read obsessively on aspects of my identity that I’m trying to figure out. But this has all been necessary work.

I told myself when this “year off” began that I would use the time to learn to be alone again. To be not only separated from my friends, but without the constant hum of busyness that allows me to avoid my own thoughts while in school. I believe I am learning to live with myself, in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I know much more about what I want from work, from relationships, and from my daily life. I’m by no means perfectly happy, and I’ve wasted plenty of time, but each day I’m making progress in figuring out how to live my life–and how to write about it.