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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.

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?

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.

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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.

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.

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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