What a Poly, Aromantic Relationship Looks Like

15 Jun

Crazy shit’s been happening in my life lately. One of the most exciting bits of news (and the most relevant for this blog) is that I have a new partner! (Now I can use the phrase “One of my partners” with complete accuracy. This is very important.)

I’ve been seeing an excellent woman (let’s call her S) for a couple months now. We’re definitely in the middle of New Relationship Energy (so ask me about it again in several months) but I’m excited enough about it that I wanted to share the love. I think we’re working out in practice some of the stuff we like to talk about here.

I don’t know what order to talk about this stuff in. I guess I’ll just go in vaguely chronological order, since that’s easy?

So, we met at a party. This is not where I normally meet people, but I guess miracles can happen? Nothing happened that night, but we traded information and promised to be friends. “Friends” turned out to be “introduce S to Doctor Who”. Note that Doctor Who is a crucial element in any non-normative relationship’s courtship phase.

We started out on a good, communicative note. I’ve basically made it a policy to be incredibly up-front about things, and this is working out well for me. I suspect that has a lot to do with the environment (UChicago students are a special breed), so we’ll see if this continues to work in the real world. In this case, I had mentioned that I was poly at the party, so we talked about that (and about kink) the very first time we hung out. At that time, I also talked casually about the fact that I was hitting on her at the party (she was surprised I would just say that up front), and explicitly asked consent to put my arm around her and play with her hair. There was a little bit of awkward first-date boundary testing, but a lot less than there would have been without those conversations.

Then the next time we hung out (actually probably the third or fourth, I think I’m compressing things), I brought up the sex question. This was admittedly pretty fast, but we had been very comfortably talking about sex and kink and poly, so it seemed reasonable. I basically just said, “So, it seems like an obvious question here is whether you want to move this relationship in a sexual direction. I’m happy either way, but I wondered what you were thinking.” She said she wasn’t sure, which was fine by me, and we went back to watching Doctor Who and cuddling.

She pretty quickly decided that she did want, after all, so we began exploring sexuality and, pretty quickly, kink. We moved very deliberately, talking about everything before we did it. I think precisely because of that, we also moved pretty quickly. She had never done kink before, and within a month or so we were doing some pretty heavy stuff. This was all really smooth, however, because we established from the beginning that we were comfortable talking about everything. (Also she’s ridiculously kinky. Although she may make a face at me when she reads that. [Editor’s note: Yep, she did.])

In the mean time, we were becoming really great friends. She’s funny and hyper and really, really clever. We talked about the similarities and differences between Renaissance and Ancient Near Eastern magic,  and social hierarchies within friend groups, and the weird academic cult of “non-biased” teaching, and polyamory, and why people don’t identify as feminists. We started spending more and more time together, watching Doctor Who and talking about incredibly nerdy things and introducing her to kink.

At some point I asked her, “So, if someone asks what’s up with us, what do I tell them?” We ended up deciding on the word “partner”, though neither of us were quite sure what the word meant. We knew we were important to each other, though, so it felt pretty right.

Both of us felt, however, that this wasn’t anything like what we had experienced before. It just felt qualitatively different from any relationship I had had before, and I think she felt the same.

We had a conversation about this a few weeks ago, and we came to the conclusion that this was because we had a legitimately aromantic relationship. Sure, it was sexual, and intimate, and cuddly, and wonderful, but it just didn’t feel romantic. It certainly didn’t seem to involve the thing I call romantic attraction. And we agreed that it still, on some crucial level, “felt like a friendship”.

We talked about how this came to be, and S said some pretty interesting things. For me, I think this is what I’ve always wanted. I’m aromantic, or close enough, but I’ve never realized before that it was possible to have this sort of relationship. (Not even, really, after starting this blog. It’s sorta amazing to see it happen in real life, and there’s a strong sense that I couldn’t have told you what I wanted before I got it.) S, on the other hand, says she’s definitely romantic. But for a variety of reasons (an initial misunderstanding of what poly meant, a recent breakup) she unconsciously decided to keep this one aromantic. Now that it’s established that way, she finds that she likes it, and wants to keep it that way.

Somehow this never occurred to me, that romantic people could choose to be in aromantic partner relationships. It shouldn’t be surprising, but somehow it was.

I don’t know how to extract the elements of the relationship are due to its aromantic nature, and which have more to do with poly and feminism and what have you, but there are certainly some unique things going on. (I’m also probably going to make it sound like all of these things are universally good. This is almost certainly untrue. Different things are good for different relationships, and even different moments in the same relationship. This is just what is making our relationship tick at this particular moment.)

One interesting things is that we both feel like this relationship, unlike previous relationships, really allows us to remain autonomous individuals. We spend rather absurd amounts of time together, often in public, but we’re not “Semiel-and-S.” We somehow avoid feeling like a unit, and other people seem to treat us that way as well. This makes the time we spend with each other somehow more special, because it’s “S likes me and chooses to spend time with me”, rather than “my other half is there, as she always is”.

It’s also very… designed? We still make advance plans to see each other and stuff like that. Even stuff like “feeling possessive of each other” or “feeling wanted” gets carefully discussed and delineated. Relatedly, we’re getting good at communicating what we need, so that we can do that design work. It’s maybe not very romantic to have a practical discussion on how often we should GChat, but it’s damn useful.

[I showed this post to S before I posted it, and she wanted to add that even more important than it being “designed” is that “we’re our own mechanics”. We are willing to pro-actively tweak things that aren’t working for us, and solve all of the small problems that tend to arise in any relationship.]

I defined romance as a sort of content-less feeling, and while I totally don’t mean to denigrate anything with that, it’s striking to me how content-ful our relationship is. We’re constantly doing something, or arguing about something, or watching something. If we get bored (which we rarely do), that would be a perfectly good reason to stop hanging out for the night and go do other things. We just really, really enjoy each other’s company, because of the things we do together.

It’s also pretty… compartmentalized? We don’t feel the need to bring this relationship into every part of our lives. We both enjoy hearing about what the other is up to, and we both invite the other into our lives to some extent, but sometimes S is going to go hang out with her friends and I’m not invited. And that’s kinda awesome, because I was going to go play video games anyway but I’ll see you tonight for Doctor Who!

Maybe another way to put a couple of those things: the commitment in this relationship is very specific. We make lots of explicit promises to see each other at certain times or whatever, but there’s no assumption that we have any obligation beyond what we say. Like, S is leaving for a few months today, and she chose to spend the last couple days with her best female friend rather than me. The fact that we both have the right to make that sort of decision is strangely empowering.

But at the same time, we really do make commitments to each other. This is clearly an important relationship to both of us, and it’s clear that we’re really both working very hard at it. I think it was a little bit hard for us to accept that we were really allowed to have preferences and explicitly ask for what we want, but we both seem to have taken to it pretty well. S was a little concerned we’d lose touch over the summer (a reasonable fear), so we made explicit promises to email each other at least once a week. This sort of low-level problem solving, without any need for anything silly like “blame” or “negative feelings” is really excellent. It makes the stress levels in this relationship really low.

I recognize that this post is disjointed, and I probably forgot half of what I wanted to say. I guess the crucial take-away is that it seems like some of this stuff can work. Ours is far from the most non-normative relationship possible, being a man and a woman in a sexual relationship, but it definitely screws with a few of the assumptions and definitions. I hold out hope that over the next decade or two some of this stuff will start to become more visible, and that intentionally designed, possibly poly, possibly aromantic, etc. relationships will become less bizarre. If any of my readers have similar success stories to share, I’d love to hear them.

Towards a Better Model of Attraction

1 Jun

So, a few weeks ago I was sitting around in the dining hall with fiveroundsrapid and bitey-mad-lady, and as tends to happen the conversation turned to attraction and all its complexities (after we had exhausted the conversation about Doctor Who, of course).  FRR is romantic and asexual. BML is kinky, panromantic, and (probably) pansexual. I’m kinky, aromantic, and straight. Between us, we are officially confused about this attraction business.

After a good half an hour of discussion, this was the result. After three napkins worth of notes, we felt we had just scratched the surface, but I thought it was interesting enough to make a post about.

So, our model divided attraction into four components: romantic, sexual, emotional, and kinky. Following this post on Hacking the Heart, I’m going to add a fifth: sensual attraction.

Romantic Attraction:

I did my best to define romantic attraction in this post, and I think I was on the right track there. I’ve since refined the definition and found better ways to talk about it, however, so I’m going to start from scratch here.

Romantic attraction (as I define it) is the particularly “romantic” part of things. It’s butterflies in the stomach, intrusive thoughts of the other person, thrills when you hear their name. Most crucially, from a definitional perspective, it’s contentless. It’s not that you feel drawn to the other person because of some other thing, you just feel drawn to the person, full stop. If you find yourself adding the word “because” in a sentence, you’re probably not talking about romance any more. As an aromantic, when I miss someone, I miss them because I miss the conversations or the sex or the cuddles. When a romantic person misses their partner, however, they just miss them because they miss them. The other person’s very existence (divorced from anything about the person) is something that pleases them.

I’m convinced that this thing exists, based on the conversations I’ve had with several romantic people over the past few months. If enough people say that this isn’t what they mean by “romantic attraction”, then I’ll change the label, but this is definitely a real phenomenon.

Romantic attraction is on a scale (from completely aromantic to completely romantic), and can come with a gender preference.

Sexual Attraction:

Sexual attraction is a primal, full-body experience of desire for the other person, often connected with arousal and/or sexually explicit fantasies. For some people, it can happen immediately upon meeting the other person. For others, it requires a certain amount of emotional intimacy before it occurs (these people are called demisexuals). I suspect there are even more complications than that, however. For me, it doesn’t really occur until there’s been some sensual intimacy (I’ll talk about what I mean by that later), though emotional intimacy is much less important.

Again, this is on a scale from completely asexual to completely sexual, and can come with a gender preference.

Emotional Attraction:

We might need a better word for this, but I think this is a crucial and under-appreciated part of attraction. This is the desire to really get to know the other person, and to share in their life. It involves a desire to be vulnerable with the other person, and for them to be vulnerable with you. It can include sharing secrets, taking care of each other, and talking about feeeeeelings until the wee hours of the morning.

I see no reason this sort of attraction couldn’t be on a scale, with optional gender preference, just like anything else.

Kinky Attraction:

This definitely exists, and it’s definitely different than any of the above. For me, this is often prior to, or even exclusive of, the other types of attraction. I’m a dom, so it manifests for me as a desire to take power (generally physical power) over the other person. It can involve fantasies of dominating them, though it need not. Like sexual attraction it’s very visceral, but it has a totally different feel. I imagine there is a parallel experience for subs, and I would be very interested to hear how it manifests for my kinky readers of all orientations.

As with everything else, it’s on a scale with an optional gender preference.

Sensual Attraction:

I’m stealing this idea wholesale from Antissa, so let me quote what she says about it:

Sensual attraction is experiencing the desire to be in physical contact with someone, though that physical contact, no matter how close or intimate, need not be sexual.

I think this is a really useful concept. In my own case, I experience sensual attraction well before sexual attraction, and the switchover is very dramatic. For more details, her whole post is fantastic.

And, once again, it seems obvious that it should be on a scale with an optional gender preference.

I suspect that we could continue adding varieties of attraction more or less indefinitely. I also suspect that no two people share the exact same attraction profile. Each of these can vary in their intensity, frequency, and type of person they are aimed at. I have some level of kinky attractions to all sorts of people, but am primarily attracted to women in every other category. I am aromantic (or very close to it), but have overpowering needs for sensual and emotional attraction. Strong sexual attraction is pretty rare for me, but strong emotional attraction happens all the time. I don’t have any reason to believe that I’m especially complicated, so I bet we’d find that we need a lot more labels than “gay, straight, bi, and asexual” once we got everyone to think about themselves in these sorts of terms.

ADDENDUM: Outlawroad complied a great list of definitions, which I think improves on my post in certain ways. You can see it here.

Tumblr!

28 Apr

So, my posting here is really irregular, because it’s a pretty big investment of time and energy to write the sort of serious posts I’ve been trying to write. I decided to supplement the main blog with a Tumblr, where I can feel more free to post the day-to-day stuff that isn’t worth a full post here. All of my longer, more substantive pieces will still go up here.

Come follow me!

(If you are on Tumblr, or just know any cool people I should follow, hook me up!)

I’m Not Your Bro, Bro

28 Apr

I wrote this for a kink-related forum thread a few months ago. I might phrase some stuff differently now, and I think I’ve made a little progress since, but I like this as a piece of writing, so I decided not to change it.

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Disclaimer: I’m not ignoring the fact that a lot of people have it worse off than me, nor am I trying to claim that it’s somehow terrible to have privilege. I’m just reflecting on an aspect of privilege that kinda sucks. With that out of the way:

I can’t stand how my identity is co-opted by the rest of our culture.

I’m a heterosexual, white, culturally-upper-class (lower middle class family income, but I go to the U of C, so who am I kidding?), dominant, cisgendered man. I fit allll the stereotypes. This means I have a ton of privilege, which I don’t deny at all. But it also means that my identity can’t just be my identity, it becomes a direct part of the kyriarchy whether I want it to or not.

I want to be loud and proud about my dominant heterosexual cisgendered manliness. But I can’t, because all of society is already doing it for me. This post on Asexual Curiosities has it exactly right.

I’m constantly working this annoying balancing act between being myself, and avoiding reinforcing the kyriarchy as much as possible. I almost envy the people who get to be transgressive just by authentically being who they are. I’m sure it sucks to have everything you do be interpreted as a political act, but it also kinda sucks to have nothing you do be so interpreted.

Last year, I went to “Genderfuck”, which is a party based on screwing with gender presentation. I wore a dress and makeup, and I really enjoyed it, but not for any of the reasons someone else might. I don’t really like the way I look in a dress. Frankly, I’d wear jeans and black t-shirts my whole life if I could. But it was weirdly freeing to have a concrete thing to point to and say, “This. This is what I think of your goddamn gender norms, society.”

But, of course, even that has a limited impact. I’m a socially privileged person, so it gets written off as a weird thing that I do for fun, because I’m “being confident in my masculinity.” No, I’m not somehow fucking masculine (in the sense you mean it, at least) in a dress. My magic manly powers don’t protect me from the evil femininity I might otherwise get from dresses and makeup. I am being feminine today because I don’t give a flying fuck what you think of my gender presentation. It’s bad enough that my preferred presentation fits nicely into your transphobic, misogynistic narrative, can’t you at least let me be transgressive when I’m trying to be?

This even bleeds over into the ways in which I actually am transgressive. I recently tried to explain poly at a party, and I got a freaking fistbump for it…

Yes, because being poly means that I’m especially good at objectifying women and tricking them into sleeping with me. Thanks for the support, man. If I were a woman, at least I’d get called a slut for it, which frankly might have squicked me out less.

It’s the same with gender in the kink community. Yes, I’m a man, and yes, I’m a dom. No, you don’t get to assume the latter from the former. I hate that I can’t fully flaunt my domliness, because it would reinforce gender roles way too much for my comfort level. I think that’s honestly part of why I love kink so much. During a scene (and mayyyybe in certain safe social spaces) I can be my domly, male self without worrying about the political implications of everything I do. But the fact that people who accept society’s gender roles uncritically (of which there are many in the kink community) see me as an ally squicks me the fuck out.

I am not really sure what my ultimate point is. Half of it is just that I’ve wanted to rant about this for a while, and I guess maybe the other half is that I’m looking for advice? How do I balance politics and identity? How do we get to a point where we can reclaim things like cisgendered masculinity? Do I just need to shut up and get over it?

What I Learned At “What I Learned At Straight Camp”

19 Mar

So, a week or two ago I went to an lecture called “What I Learned At Straight Camp”. This guy, amusingly named Ted Cox, decided to infiltrate a Christian gay-to-straight conversion camp to see what they’re all about. What he found was strange and fascinating, and if you haven’t read this article, you really should.

I have no bone to pick with that stuff, I think it’s important and interesting. But a lot of the details of the presentation, and the way the audience responded to it, really niggled at me.

There were a few things that stuck out as especially problematic. For one, there was a strong undercurrent of “men being intimate is totally gay, lololol.” There were several moments where we were talking about men being intimate (emotionally, physically-but-not-sexually, spiritually, etc.), and we were supposed to see this as proof that the men involved were totally gay. While I agree that the men involved probably are totally gay, it’s not cool to conflate intimacy and sex, nor is it cool to perpetuate the destructive cultural norm that stigmatizes male intimacy.

Relatedly, there was a repeated mockery of anything that showed vulnerability in the men involved. There was this “demonstration” (that I was asked to take part in), where we recreated one of the rituals they did at this camp. Several of us guys sat together, laying comforting hands on one particular guy, and singing a song that was meant to be affirming. This was clearly intended to be hilarious in the context of the lecture, and it succeeded. But why is that inherently funny? What’s so amusing about the idea that some men think they need more physical and emotional support, and are finding ways to get it? I mean, I know why it’s funny: it’s funny because it shows a particular form of vulnerability on the part of the men involved, and men aren’t supposed to be vulnerable. But I figure that’s something we should be fighting against, rather than simply accepting and perpetuating, right?

There was, of course, no discussion of whether there could be any benefits of these camps, or whether there might be elements that would be worth preserving in a more healthy context. There was certainly no discussion of whether choosing to forgo your own sexuality could ever be a legitimate life choice. There was only, “They think teh gay can be cured, lololol.” I’m not suggesting we welcome gay conversion camps into the sex-positive movement with open arms, but there was an incredibly strong “us-versus-them” narrative that showed nary a hint of concession or common ground.

In general, I felt that the emphasis was not on actually understanding these people, but simply on discussing how they were wrong, and therefore bad. That, and having a jolly time mocking them. The attitude in that room was at least as judgmental as any church service I’ve ever been to, probably more so. Obviously I agree that marginalization and persecution of homosexuality hurts a lot of people, but that seems like a weak reason to turn around and have celebrations about how dumb and bad and wrong and gay Christians are, especially when that mockery invokes a lot of the prejudices and tropes we really ought to be fighting against.

What do people think? If you went to the presentation, am I wildly misrepresenting it? Even if you haven’t, is this a trend you can see in liberal discussions of this issue, and do you think it’s as big a problem as I do?

Apologies for the Inconsistency

19 Mar

Writing a blog and going to the U of C are not incredibly compatible. I’m on break this week, so hopefully I’ll get a few posts up soon. In the mean time, this roundup of recent posts on asexuality has a ton of great links, which are relevant for anyone who reads my blog. I’ll probably be responding to some of them directly, but basically all of them are worth reading.

I Have Weird Friends

5 Feb

I was originally going to make several of these separate posts, and I may still expand some of them (especially if people are curious), but for the moment I’m just going to present these as disconnected-but-sorta-related tidbits. Most of them are about my friends, a few of them are about me. Here’s a very partial list of people I know:

 

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A person in love with both halves of a monogamous couple, who would be ecstatic if she got a chance to be in a triad with them.

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A person who is widely known to be very sexually active, who nonetheless doesn’t experience sexual attraction. He enjoys the physical sensation, and likes getting to know people in an intimate way, but doesn’t feel the instinctive sexual attraction most sexuals do.

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A person who tends to stop experiencing sexual attraction during the first couple sexual experiences with a new partner, and thinks that’s a pretty reasonable way to do things.

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Two people who are deeply incapable of understanding the social function of jealousy, to the point of doing things that anyone else could easily have told them would provoke very strong jealous reactions.

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A person who is in something like romantic love with a small, tightknit group of platonic friends.

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A person whose preferred “aftercare” after an intense BDSM scene is to immediately starting intellectually dissecting it.

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A person who fetishizes traditional fancy-restaurant-and-wine dates, in much the same way other people have kinks.

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A person who actively seeks out “emotional one-night-stands”: intimate, personal, flirtatious conversations that last several hours without necessarily leading to anything afterwards.

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Multiple asexual people who are very active in the BDSM community.

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A lesbian in a serious relationship with a man.

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A person who thinks an intense game of chess is amazing foreplay.

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A person who met her current, long-term partner online (not through a dating website), and didn’t meet her in meatspace until after they were in a relationship.

~~~

 

If I have a point here, it’s the amazing range of experiences and drives people have. The idea that all of these people could be served by the same very specific set of relationship structures and assumptions just seems laughable to me.

Dickwolves and the Patriarchy

5 Feb

[Trigger Warning: discussion of jokes about rape]

Here’s a weird little internet controversy.

Back in August, Penny Arcade posted a comic strip making fun of the moralistic overtones of otherwise arbitrary MMO quests. [To see it, click here. Trigger Warning.] A couple days later, a feminist blog posted about it, objecting to the trivialization of rape. Shit then hit the fan.

If you really care, you can relive the entire controversy here.

I’m not actually interested in dealing with the substance of the controversy. I haven’t really been following it, and it’s not my fight. What caught my interest was Tycho’s most recent response. I think it’s relatively insightful, y’all should go read it.

His point about the breakdown of communication is really good. In fact, he accidentally proves his point in this paragraph:

We make disgusting, immoral comics on occasion to be sure; we’re used to correspondence in that vein. But when mail started to come in to the effect that we were perpetuating a fundamental social conspiracy to rape, we couldn’t believe what we were reading. That is the entire point of the second strip, which some people took as a literal response or apology, neither of which was its intended purpose. The only people who are pro-rape are rapists. The idea that you would have to specifically enunciate an idea like that is almost overwhelming. It’s self-evident. Hence, the comic.

I think this paragraph perfectly demonstrates one of the biggest disconnects between feminists and the rest of the world. Feminists (and other social justice types) are very comfortable talking about unconscious privilege, cultural norms, and structural prejudice. When a feminist says “rape culture”, she doesn’t mean anything like “a fundamental social conspiracy to rape”. She means the general culture where consent, especially from women, is not highly valued; where rape is common, and in many cases ignored or even condoned; where non-conforming women are frequently met with threats (not always idle) of rape. The idea that a person who (legitimately) considers themselves egalitarian might accidentally be perpetuating bad social structures is not at all paradoxical to a feminist.

The average person doesn’t see things that way. When they’re told that they are part of rape culture, they read that as an explicit, direct accusation of consciously immoral behavior on their part. Most people don’t see themselves as consciously immoral, so this naturally produces a negative reaction. This makes perfect sense from their perspective. Feminists tend to counter-react with disdain, that people could get so defensive when anything questions their privilege. This also makes sense, from their perspective. Unfortunately, this is rarely an effective rhetorical tactic.

Nowhere is this problem more obvious than in the word “patriarchy”. Some feminists are deeply bothered by the current trend of replacing “patriarchy” with “kyriarchy”. They think it obscures the issue for the sake of protecting the poor little feelings of privileged people. For a cogent defense of this position, see this post. This, again, makes perfect sense from their position. But this ignores the rhetorical problem that is inherent in the conversation.

When an average person hears the word “patriarchy”, they think it means something like “a cabal of men who rule over women with an iron fist”. This would be a patently ridiculous claim, and therefore anyone who uses the word loses credibility before they say their second sentence. We can get mad at them for misunderstanding our point, but it seems more effective to concede to the obvious facts of the rhetorical situation, and modify our rhetoric accordingly.

I’m not suggesting that feminists alter their substantive message in any way. But if we’re going to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced, we need to find a way to communicate what we actually mean, without accidentally implying conscious conspiracies we don’t believe in. I recently heard the phrase “colorblind racism”, which I think is an elegant way to communicate the concept of institutionalized racism. We need a similarly clear way to explain the patriarchy, or we’re going to remain a stigmatized and somewhat marginal group.

The Anatomy of Relationships

16 Jan

In my last post I pointed out some of the flaws I see with the current monogamous culture, and even (to a lesser extent) with mainstream polyamory. But it’s a lot easier to tear down than to build up, and we need to have some way to talk about our relationships. In this post, I’m going to lay out how I’ve started to think about relationships, in hopes that it will help us build a vocabulary that doesn’t buy into mainstream monogamy and the relationship binary.

In my view, no two relationships are identical. It’s not ultimately helpful to talk about whether “friends” or “partners” should come first, or whatever, because both terms are under-defined. More useful, in my opinion, is to talk about the specific features of the relationship, which can differ along many axes. Sitting in bio class, I jotted down a partial list of potential factors to consider:

  • Sexuality. Is the relationship sexual or not? How “far” does it go, and how often? Are there particular sexual elements that are emphasized or de-emphasized?
  • Touch. Is touch an important part of the relationship? What forms of touch are expected/acceptable/unacceptable? What purposes do each form of touch serve?
  • Limerence. This is the “in love” feeling I was calling “romance” in this post. Does either person feel limerence toward the other? Do both? How strong is it, and how long has it lasted? If limerence is not present, was it present in the past?
  • Emotional Vulnerability. Do either or both people feel comfortable being emotionally vulnerable with the other? Do they feel comfortable crying in front of the other? Is emotional vulnerability an occasional or frequent part of the relationship?
  • Thought-Sharing. How much does each person know about the other? To what extent is it expected that new thoughts will be shared with the other person, and how does that differ based on the topic? To what extent is it acceptable to have secrets from each other, and how does that differ based on the topic?
  • Resource Sharing. Are the practical matters of life intertwined? Do they share living spaces, finances, clothing, etc? To what extent is borrowing without asking acceptable?
  • Commitment. Have promises been made about the permanence of the relationship? Can the relationship be dropped if either person becomes busy or interested in something else? What actions are required to end the relationship?
  • Prioritization. Do they have an obligation to put each other’s needs ahead of their own needs or the needs of “outside” people? How far does this obligation extend? Does it differ based on the type of need?
  • Time. How much time do the people in the relationship spend with each other? How much of that time is one-on-one, and how much of it is in groups? How much of that is “accidental” and how much does each person actively seek out time with the other?
  • Common Interests. What activities or interests do the people in the relationship have in common? How much of the relationship is based on those activities or interests? How would the relationship change if either or both people lost interest in those topics or activities?
  • Group Membership. Is there a shared social group? How much of the relationship is based on that group membership? How would the relationship change if either or both people left the group?
  • Exclusivity. Are certain activities reserved for the relationship? (This can be sex, but it needn’t be. My relationship with J was exclusive with regards to watching new episodes of Dr. Who.) Must this activity be one-on-one, or can it be done in a group setting? Are there non-exclusive activities where it’s nonetheless expected to invite the other person?
  • Negotiation. Have conversations about “the future of this relationship” happened? Are the expectations of the relationship explicit or implicit?

This is just a partial list, although I think it hits many of the crucial points. What other factors can you guys come up with?

This model has a lot of potential uses. Looking at this list, it becomes increasingly clear how many different things get lumped together by culturally enforced monogamy. A “romantic relationship” (which you’re only supposed to have one of) is supposed to have high levels of each of these factors, with the potential exception of Group Membership and (unfortunately) Negotiation. A “friendship”, especially between people of different genders, is not expected to have high levels of anything besides Common Interests and Group Membership, although Sexuality and Limerence are the ones that are most vigorously policed. (Same-gender relationships, especially between women, occasionally get designated “best friends” and have a bit more leeway with other factors.)

Modern Polyamory does much better, and there are many more acceptable combinations. However, there are still holdovers from monogamy. Many of these factors are expected to happen together. In particular, high levels of Sexuality are expected to accompany high levels of anything besides Group Membership and Common Interests. (Metamours are a weird case. There need not be high levels of Sexuality between metamours, but the relationship is defined by each having high levels of sexuality with a third person.) This is the stuff I was talking about last post, just translated into this new model.

Another use of the model is as an introspection tool. What factors do you need most in your life? Are there any two or more factors that need to be a package deal for you? Are there any factors you don’t care about?

For me, I need a ton of Emotional Vulnerability and Thought-Sharing in my life, and think almost all of my relationships are better when those are increased. I also need a lot of Sexuality, but don’t need all of my relationships to include it (so long as there is at least one person, preferably two or three people, with whom I have a high level of Sexuality). I don’t care about Limerence at all (in fact, the other person feeling it often makes me actively uncomfortable). Moderate-to-high levels of Time and Prioritization are greatly appreciated, and a good way to encourage me to invest a lot of energy into the relationship, but they’re not crucial once a relationship has been established (and very high levels make me uncomfortable).

Finally, this model offers us new possibilities for building new relationships that work for us. As long as they fulfill the needs of the people involved, any combination of these  factors is potentially valuable. Rather than sticking to the culturally accepted relationship scripts, we can find the best equilibrium for our unique relationships of all sorts.

The Crisis of Intimacy

13 Jan

This post is heavily inspired by a variety of posts at Asexual Curiosities and Writing From Factor X. Those links go to the most directly relevant posts I could find, but I’m sure they (and others) have written many more interesting things on the subject, so I encourage checking out their blogs more thoroughly.

~~~

America has an intimacy crisis.

Other Western countries probably do too, but America is what I know.

I’ve had intimate friends, of course. In middle school, I used to spend the night with a friend of mind and we’d talk about our lives and the meaning of the universe until 4am. Now that I’m in college, I have several friends that I can grab for a late-night walk around campus when I need to talk about something. But for a lot of reasons, this isn’t completely satisfying.

For one, I can’t really count on my friends being there on any given night. We’re all busy, and there aren’t any social structures making sure we spend time together (well, except for the awesomeness of my dorm common room). It can easily be weeks between running into a particular friend, and no one considers that a problem.

For another, it’s very temporary. In the long run, we’ll all graduate and go our separate ways. In the shorter run, my friends might get involved in a serious relationship, or take up a new hobby or a new social circle, and not have much time to spend with me.

On a more individual level, it’s a very rare friend who is willing to really let down boundaries. Even with my best friends there’s a little bit of face-saving going on. This is exacerbated by the fact that men in our society aren’t expected to show emotion. Sometimes I’ll try to get a friend to open up to me, and they will. But more often, they’ll turn it into a joke.

I don’t have much faith that it’s better for other people in American society. I’m at a really amazing school, in an amazing dorm, with a very solid group of friends. I count myself lucky to have as much social support and potential for intimacy as I do. I would be really surprised to hear that I have it worse than normal.

A lot of my treasured moments with people have to do with sharing some special level of intimacy with them. For instance, I’ve been casually involved with a certain girl for several months, and the most meaningful moment in that relationship so far is when I was allowed to be there during a family crisis. The level of vulnerability and connection shared there was way more important than any of the sexual things we’ve done. For another, in high school I spent several years chatting online with a girl I’ve never met in real life, and there were times where that was my most important friendship, because the situation gave us the possibility of being very open and vulnerable with each other, even if only over the internet. Looking back at my life, a lot of the things I’ve done have been an attempt to squeeze a little more intimacy out of the world around me.

There is, however, a socially sanctioned way of getting more intimacy: a “relationship”. In a (sexual, romantic, monogamous) relationship, you have a lot more freedom and power to gain intimacy. You are supposed to be a scheduling priority, and you can expect a certain amount of regular alone-time. You have some say into where your partner lives, and if the relationship goes long-distance you’re assured of constant communication and visits as frequently as possible. You have both the time and societal permission to really let down your barriers and be emotionally vulnerable. All of this is wonderful. There’s a reason I don’t spend much time single.

But I wouldn’t be writing this post if I thought it was all peachy-keen, now would I?

This structure causes a ton of problems:

  • It doesn’t serve the needs of asexual/aromantic people, who may want intimacy and commitment but not the trappings that come with.
  • It means that you have a lot of incentive to focus your time on energy on solely the one partner, which exacerbates the problems asexuals face, and adds to the crisis of intimacy.
  • It means that your emotional support is very fragile, as it’s based on only one person, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll date that person forever.
  • That fragility means there’s a lot of incentive to stay in bad relationships, because being single is worse.
  • Paradoxically, that fragility also directly causes bad relationships, because you’re kinda screwed when your main emotional support is also the person who’s currently hurting you. There’s a reason friends tend to stay friends even if they fight, but “relationships” have a reputation for spiraling out of control.

There are also all of the traditional problems with monogamy that my poly friends will recognize:

  • It doesn’t allow you to get all of your (many and varied) needs met, assuming you’re a real person dating other real people, who are never perfectly compatible.
  • It denies the natural human tendency to form intimate connections with more than one person at a time.
  • It often forces you into sexual patterns that aren’t completely fulfilling, due to differences in libido, fetishes, etc.

How do we deal with this?

Polyamory does a pretty good job. It fixes a lot of those problems handily. Having multiple relationships means that you have more emotional support and chances for intimacy, and the compatibility and “singleness” issues become a lot less important.

However, I think polyamory, as currently envisioned, is missing a crucial realization: Relationships are not inherently more meaningful just for being sexual and/or romantic.

This is important for being inclusive to asexuals, who deserving some loving as well, but it also opens up a whole vista of possibilities for meaningful relationship structures. No one negotiates with their platonic best friend about how their relationship will progress… but why not? Platonic relationships can be just as meaningful as the best sexual/romantic relationship, why not give them the same time and energy and communication skills? Why do we assume we have to only be “partners” with people we’re attracted to? If we decouple intimacy, sex, and romance, then we have so many more ways we can make our relationships work for us. Why not have a straight guy and an asexual guy as primary partners, with the straight guy having sex with women on the side? Why not have a triad where only one of the relationships is sexual? If we break down the assumption that we have to sleep with people we’re intimate with, we can start to solve our intimacy problem.

This won’t be easy. If polyamory is weird, this is weirder. You try getting societal recognition for your life-partner-who’s-your-gender-even-though-you’re-both-straight. Not going to happen any time soon. But there’s no reason we can’t change our own lives, whether in small or big ways, to increase our openness to intimacy.

In future posts, I’ll have some ideas on how to do this in practical terms. In the mean time, DJ over at Love from the Asexual Underground has some great posts:

A Nonsexual Intimacy Playbook

The Art of Mindblowing Conversations

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