(A)sexuality 101

11 Jan

I seem to be working backwards, here. My last post assumed you knew what asexuality was, which many of my poly and kinky readers probably don’t. This post will fill that gap.

The generally accepted definition of asexual is:

A person who does not experience sexual attraction.

AVENwiki defines sexual attraction as:

A feeling that sexual people get that causes them to desire sexual contact with a specific other person.

I’m pretty sure my sexual readers will have an intuitive grasp of the concept. ;) Note that this isn’t the same as libido. Some (though not all) asexual people have a libido, and may even masturbate. The definition relates solely to sexual attraction.

This is simple enough so far, but it’s still important. Asexual people are often misunderstood and ignored. People often assume that an asexual person is psychologically repressed, or “hasn’t met the right person”. Recognizing the validity of asexuality as an orientation is an important step, for the same reason we accept other people’s sexual preferences.

Asexuals have lots of reasons to think about the structure of sexual attraction, however, and have done a pretty thorough job investigating it in a way the sexual community never had a need to. One crucial discovery is the existence of “demisexuality”. AVENwiki defines a demisexual this way:

A person who does not experience sexual attraction until they form a strong emotional connection with someone, often in a romantic relationship.

This is often phrased in terms of “primary” and “secondary” sexual attraction: primary attraction is the instant attraction you feel towards a stranger, while secondary attraction is the attraction you feel towards a long-term emotional partner. Demisexuals have secondary attraction but not primary.

I don’t think I initially appreciated the brilliance of this concept, until I had multiple people come out to me as demisexual in the two weeks since I’ve been researching asexuality. My impression is that this is a very common orientation, and that many demisexuals don’t realize that anyone else feels differently.

Self-knowledge is an important part of any relationship, especially polyamorous relationships. Learning about the asexual-demisexual-sexual continuum, and figuring out where you and all your partners fit on it, can only help.

The primary/secondary attraction distinction also seems useful on its own right. Poly people already acknowledge the difference between NRE [New Relationship Energy] and longer-term forms of attachment, but we don’t often think about differences in sexual attraction. Based on my introspection, I feel like they are rather different phenomena, and recognizing that seems important.

When sexual relationships “lose their spark”, a common tendency is to blame it on things like gaining weight, or other superficial changes. It’s common wisdom that this is rarely the problem, and the primary/secondary distinction explains why. The relationship lacks secondary attraction for some reason, and things like weight are the realm of primary attraction. Investigating this distinction, and learning more about what fuels secondary attraction, seems like a fruitful project for sexual people to explore.

My last thought is entirely speculative, but it intrigues me. Demisexuals can have a gender preference. You can be demihomosexual, or demiheterosexual. On the general principle that any given set of labels applies to someone or other, I wonder if there are people who are heterosexual and demihomosexual, or vice versa. If so, this would be a very interesting discovery for us straight or gay people! In normal society, such a person probably would never realize his demi half, and happily date one gender forever. I wonder if polyamory can help identify those people and allow them to more fully explore their own sexualities.

Romantic Orientation 101

6 Jan

This is the post I should have written before my last one. The technical definition of (a)romantic is interesting, but only for people who are already informed about that aspect of asexual theory. This post is for all you poly and kinky people who have no idea what this idea of romantic orientation is.

AVENwiki defines romantic orientation this way:

Romantic orientation refers to an individual’s pattern of romantic attraction to men, women, neither gender, either gender, or another gender.

This concept came about due to a subset of asexual people who, while they didn’t desire a sexual relationship, nonetheless wanted to establish romantic relationships, often with a specific gender. The traditional sexual orientation labels are obviously insufficient to describe such a person, so a parallel series of romantic orientation labels was added. Thus, someone might be asexual and homoromantic, or asexual and panromantic, and so on. The parallel to “asexual” in this schema is “aromantic”, someone who doesn’t experience romantic attraction to anyone.

This is obviously crucial for the asexual community, as this is often the only criteria for choosing romantic partners. But I think that sexuals, especially in the polyamorous community, could also stand to gain a great deal by considering this model.

Recognizing the equal legitimacy but different features of romantic and aromantic people is by itself, quite helpful. One of the problems that led to J and I separating is our mismatch in romantic intensity. It went unnoticed for a long time, because I was willing to do things that I knew would make her happy, but ultimately I was not romantic enough for her, and she was too romantic for me. Poly people are all about knowing oneself and one’s partners, and this gives us another thing to add to the list of considerations and negotiation topics. Aromantic people shouldn’t be scolded for not being romantic enough, but neither should romantic people be deprived of their romantic needs and desires. Luckily, a romantic/aromantic match is not nearly as problematic in a poly relationship as in a monogamous relationship, as the romantic person is free to seek outside romance, but that is a need that it is useful to identify and work to fulfill.

Another important consideration, in my opinion far too under-appreciated in the poly community, is the possibility of compartmentalized orientations. (I believe I stole that word from Asexual Curiosities, but I’m not sure.) [Edit: slightlymetaphysical informs me in the comments that this is a misuse of the term. Help me come up with a better term?] If it’s possible to be asexual and homoromantic, then it is probably possible to be heterosexual and homoromantic, or any other combination. J, in fact, is currently wondering if her longtime identification as pansexual (or bisexual, in the past) is a misinterpretation of a more complicated compartmentalized orientation. Being able to identify compartmentalization seems like it would be quite useful in a poly context. We are all about getting different sexual and emotional needs fulfilled by different people, and this offers us a way to think about that. Someone who is solely sexually attracted to women might find that they are deeply interested in a non-sexual romantic connection with a man, and possibly even not interested in such a relationship with a woman (or any other combination). I have heard lots of stories of people who had very meaningful life relationships with their non-sexual metamours, and I wonder if some of that is due to straight people being homoromantic, and that sort of thing.

Moving past the “simple” labels of gay/straight/pan and to a more nuanced model that considers sexual and romantic attraction separately is a great analytical tool, and offers new possibilities for poly people to discover new and better ways of organizing their romantic and sexual lives to best fulfill the needs of everyone involved. My next few posts will be on demisexuality, negotiated platonic relationships, and community-based intimacy, all of which I believe offer even more tools for the poly toolkit.

Let’s talk about (a)romantics

6 Jan

So, the smart way to start this blog would be to post a few basic, non-controversial introductions to relevant issues. Maybe, at most, a mildly original take on something I have special knowledge of. And I’ll probably do all those things eventually. But I’m not smart, so let’s start the blog by diving into a major topic of controversy in a community I have just discovered: the definition of (a)romantic. We had a brief but useful conversation on this subject over at Asexual Curiosities, which led to this post.

Unlike “asexual”, “aromantic” has no widely agreed-upon definition. AVENwiki starts by saying, “Aromantics are people who have little or no romantic attraction.” This is fine, as far as it goes, but it puts all the definitional work on the words “romantic attraction.” It goes on to attempt to define the difference more precisely, but it offers two very different definitions, neither of which are very satisfying. The first defines aromantics as people who don’t form deep emotional connections with other people. From what I’ve read, aromantics tend to disagree with this claim. Aromantics can have intimate connections with family members or friends, they just aren’t “romantic” connections.

And indeed, the second paragraph of the same article contradicts itself, saying that aromantics can form deep emotional connections, but they aren’t a “purposely initiated monogamous separation as found in romantic couples”. This definition seems little better, as it puts the essential difference in external, culturally defined relationship practices. This definition would include all polyamorous people in the definition of aromantic, which seems to miss the point.

If anyone wants to defend either of these definitions, I would be glad to hear it, but until then I’m going to assume that neither of them are satisfying.

Another type of definition that obviously fails is “friendship + sex”. In addition to the obvious problem that it excludes asexuals, Kaz’s comment here nicely points out that it fails even among relationships between sexuals.

A slightly better attempt at a definition is to point to traditional romantic activities, like flower-buying, candle-lit dinners, Valentine’s Day traditions, etc. This won’t work as a complete definition, however, since those things are obviously culturally determined. I don’t think we want to say non-Westerners are automatically aromantic, nor do we necessarily want to exclude counter-cultural people who reject the commercialism and cliche of romantic practices. I’ll come back to this later, however, because I think there might be a grain of truth here.

Another grain-of-truth definition relies on physical intimacy, like cuddling and hand-holding. I don’t think this works for sexuals, because an aromantic sexual could enjoy those things for the sexual thrill. I’m not even sure it works for asexuals though. My guess is that there are probably aromantic asexuals who nonetheless enjoy touch for other reasons, though I’d love to hear from people with more experience in such things than me. Even if we don’t like it as a complete definition, though, I think it’s pointing in a useful direction.

Part of the problem I have with this discussion is that I suspect I may be aromantic. When I analyze my own intimate relationships, I don’t find anything I would isolate as specially “romantic”. Everything is some combination of sexuality and emotional intimacy for me, without any need for an additional category. Unfortunately, if I’m indeed aromantic, then I’m going to have a lot of trouble describing what romance is!

Because of this, I enlisted the help of my good friend J. J and I were in a monogamous relationship for about nine months, and were primary polyamorous partners for about five months after that. She is definitely romantic, and I thought she might be able to help tell me what I might be missing.

I asked J a barrage of questions about how she felt in a variety of scenarios, and we worked together to cobble together a possible definition of romantic. Specifically, these were the two crucial questions:

First: “Is there a reason you enjoy cuddling so much, beyond the sexual implications and the promise of emotional intimacy?”

I asked this because I’ve always secretly been a bit perplexed by some people’s attitude toward cuddling. I enjoy cuddling with attractive women because it is sexually thrilling, and I also like the implied promise that conversations in that setting will involve acceptance and emotional intimacy. But I don’t understand why someone would enjoy silent cuddling with someone, once the sexual thrill has worn off (which it quickly does).

This was clearly a promising question, because J reacted with absolute incomprehension. “It’s cuddling! How can you not love it?” When I pressed her, she said, “When I cuddle with someone I love, it makes me all floaty. It’s a high!” (“Floaty” is a term often used in the BDSM world to refer to a rush of endorphins that comes from, for instance, being flogged. It’s supposed to be a very intense sensation, so saying that cuddling makes J floaty is a strong claim.)

Second: “Do you get the same feeling from, for instance, being surprised with flowers?”

J: “Partially. When I cuddle, it’s that floaty feeling combined with a sense of calm. When I get flowers, it’s still a floaty feeling, but combined with excitement.”

I think we’re onto something here. According to J, this natural high is much stronger with people she would consider herself romantically attracted to, doesn’t require touch but is amplified by it, doesn’t require symbolic gestures like flowers but is enhanced by them, and is not necessarily connected to sexuality, conversation, or “good company” (though it can and often should be combined with those things).

So here’s a preliminary definition, that I’d love to get some comments on:

“Aromantics are people who do not experience the feeling of romance. Romance is a natural high that occurs in the presence of certain people, without obvious connection to sexuality, ‘good company’, or emotional intimacy.”

I’m definitely not married to this definition yet. J might be very idiosyncratic, or this might be a common phenomenon that nonetheless isn’t what people mean by (a)romance. But it seems promising, and I’d love to hear if this matches people’s experience. What do you guys think?

(Brief addendum: J and I further speculated on whether this was just a specific manifestation of the obvious fact that she’s more emotional in general than I. Is there anyone who considers themselves emotional but aromantic, or unemotional but romantic?)

EDIT: I just ran across an interesting comment by someone calling themselves wizardsapprentice, over at Writing From Factor X. The whole comment (and parent post, for that matter) is interesting, but the most relevant bit is this:

I’ve often wondered about what makes a romantic relationship different from any other as well. But recently, for the first time, I have an answer for myself, although it’s not something that I can define and communicate, because it’s just that I experienced it for myself. What is the difference between love and in love? I still don’t know, but now I feel that I can tell that there is one and I can identify the shift within myself. I know the exact night it happened, but I don’t know exactly what changed. Before that she was a friend I thought was cool, after that thinking of her made mood skyrocket up, my stomach fluttery and my thoughts speed up. I had always thought people were making that stuff up, but it seriously had physical effects. Nothing is likely to come of it because she already is in love with someone else, but the experience has been enlightening.

If I’m not misreading wizardsapprentice, this could easily be the same feeling J was talking about. Possible support for our theory?

Hey, what’s this thing do?

3 Jan

Oh look, a blog!

My plan is to use this blog as a platform for my musings about relationships, sexuality, poly, kink, and related things. This’ll be a sex-positive, feminist, and queer-friendly space, and topics relating to those issues will probably get some attention as well.

The main topic at first will be the theoretical and practical intersections of polyamory and asexuality. We’ll see where things go from there!