Me and romantic attraction

I talked in this post about how I don’t actually know what romance is, but in this post I mentioned getting crushes on guys when I was a teenager. So despite a lack of knowledge or certainty about the definition of romance, I’m pretty sure I have felt romantic attraction.

What did that actually look like? I would say that I experienced aesthetic and perhaps mild sensual attraction toward certain guys, which were both aspects of my romantic attraction to them. My thoughts toward my crushes were things like, “He’s so cute, I really like him, I hope he talks to me”, and if one of them did talk to me I’d be all happy. I didn’t really go so far as hoping for or imagining being in a romantic relationship with any of them, though, I think because that possibility was just so remote. But I did get somewhat jealous of attention they paid to other girls, so I did at least want them to like/notice me above other people.

Most of these instances were pretty mild and fleeting, though, based more on my loneliness and desire for any guy to pay attention to me than actual romantic attraction toward the specific person. But there is one example that was particularly strong and which now forms the basis for my definition of romantic attraction.

That definition, the best one I’ve come up with to define and distinguish my own experiences, is “a strong emotional draw toward a certain person which isn’t entirely rational/can’t be fully explained.” The main feature of romantic attraction, to me, is that element of irrationality. This is as opposed to platonic attraction, which you can generally pin down a specific reason for—you’ve hit it off with the other person, you have interests in common, you admire them. (Maybe for some people sexual attraction forms the basis of romantic attraction, so they would have that as an explanation, but that’s obviously not universal.)

So back to that specific crush. I was about 14 and there was this guy I really liked, to the point that I lay in bed crying when I found out I’d probably never see him again. I knew and interacted with him much less than my other main crush from my teen years, but I’d say my attraction to him was stronger, or was at least more definitely romantic in nature. I just… liked him. He was sweet and nice and easygoing and liked dogs and was just generally a good person (as far as I could tell) and was an oldest child like me, and I admired him and I thought he was aesthetically attractive—but those things are not enough to explain the strength of my draw toward him. Especially when you throw in the multiple ways that we were clearly incompatible—he was four years older than me (which is kind of a big deal at that age), and also one time he kept emphasizing how this book he’d read was reallllly long, but he had it right there and I could tell it was only a few hundred pages, meaning he obviously wasn’t a big reader, while I loved reading and writing and my dream guy was someone who was also a writer. But instead of taking that incident as a sign that he wasn’t for me, I just thought, “Aww, that’s so cute!” See? Irrational.

This is part of why I can’t really determine whether I’ve experienced romantic attraction to people I actually know and am friends with, because I do have a rational basis for my strong feelings toward them—our close relationship, our shared history, our common interests. Maybe there is an irrational, romantic element in there, but I can’t separate it out from the rational, platonic ones.

My definition of romantic attraction could actually be hindering my understanding, since it specifically shuts out instances of attraction that do seem completely logical. But I don’t know how else to describe my weirdly intense feelings toward that one guy (or some of the others who I’ve liked but really wasn’t very compatible with).

I’ve also seen the irrational element detailed as a factor before, like in this post by Arf explaining her experience of romantic attraction: “It feels a little more irrational than the love you feel for your best friend—like you always want to keep tabs on it in your mind and you want to think about it all the time. Kind of obsessive.” Which I relate to when it comes to some of my crushes; I definitely thought about them a lot and journaled about my feelings, which I’d never done with any friendships. Cianna also noted in this comment the aspect of seeing the other person as perfect, which also rings true for me as I would either not be aware of my crushes’ flaws or would see them as endearing.

Not everyone experiences or would define romantic attraction this way (Queenie’s comment just below Cianna’s is proof of that), but it’s the best definition I’ve come up with to help explain my own past feelings, as well as some of the feelings and behavior of people around me.

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Me and romance (trying to define it, and of course failing)

This seems like a good time to keep talking about me and romantic stuff, so I guess my last post is becoming the start of a short series. In some of the comments on Laura’s recent Asexual Agenda post, people discussed uncertainty as to how to actually define romance (and of course that’s something that’s been talked about a lot in online ace communities). I don’t know any better than anyone else, but way back before I knew I was ace or had heard of aromanticism (or greyromanticism, or wtfromanticism), the defining feature of a romantic relationship to me was commitment.

As I wrote in my last post, I wanted a romantic relationship, because I wanted commitment. To have a person who I knew would always be there for me; to know that I was their primary partner and that that wouldn’t change. And the only way that I saw to get that, looking at society and the people around me, was a romantic relationship.

So to me, romance pretty much meant a strong, deliberate, committed bond between two people. In my view, you and your romantic partner could not have sex, not even touch each other at all, not sleep in the same bed, not even live in the same house, but still be in a romantic relationship because you had committed to each other. And I think this is really the only defining difference I saw between romance and friendship. Friends often fade away and fall out of touch, because most of the time you haven’t made any sort of promise to each other or even a personal resolution to yourself to keep up the relationship. With a romantic relationship, though, there’s a level of commitment and deliberateness at all stages (at least, the ones I saw modeled in my conservative communities)—dating, engagement, marriage.

And that was always what I wanted, and why I ruled out an aro-spectrum identity for myself for so long (as I also talked about in the last post), because when I first heard of the concept of being aromantic, I thought that it described people who didn’t want that kind of bond. I didn’t know about the idea of queerplatonic relationships until very recently, and it was only through online ace communities that I came across that idea, because apart from family relationships, you just don’t see committed non-romantic relationships in the media or real life (or at least I haven’t).

Finally, though, I am realizing that you can have a long-term, deliberate, committed relationship without it being romantic. But then… what the hell even is romance??

At this point, my idea of it does include some level of physical affection, as well as a certain sweetness—like, doing nice things for the other person, and saying nice things to them, more than you normally would in a friendship. Maybe being a little more forgiving toward the person than you would toward anyone else; maybe being more accepting of their flaws than you would if they weren’t your romantic partner. Not getting tired of them; not wanting to be away from them.

But I bet all those things also apply to certain friendships or queerplatonic relationships, and that many romantic relationships lack some or even all of them. So maybe, “it’s romantic if you say it’s romantic” really is the only definition that works.

Me and romantic desire

I don’t know what my romantic orientation is (or if the concept is even useful to me). I had settled on wtf/quoiromantic, but have also wondered if aromantic is really more accurate, and after reading Queenie’s Greyromanticism 301 post, I feel like greyro could be a possibility. But! Right now I’m not really concerned with finding a label; it doesn’t currently matter to me which of those, if any, is the best fit. So this is not a “what am I??” post, but just a (slightly fragmented) overview of some of my history of romantic (or not) desires.

As I’ve seen a lot of other people say, when I first found out I was asexual and learned about the concept of separate romantic and sexual orientations, I assumed without question that I was heteroromantic, because I’d previously had crushes on guys and wanted to have a boyfriend. But now I’ve started wondering if I actually experienced romantic attraction to those guys/actually wanted a normative romantic relationship, or if I was just brainwashed by compulsory heterosexuality.

I was lonely a lot as a young teenager, and dreamed of having a best friend. I also dreamed of having a boyfriend—because I thought they were two separate things. Now I can see that I wanted the same thing from both relationships—someone who would care about me, be there for me, like me a lot. There was really no difference in what I wanted from a boyfriend and what I wanted from a best friend. But I imagined the best friend as a girl, and the boyfriend would’ve of course been a guy. I didn’t even consider the possibility that I could have a guy best friend who wasn’t my boyfriend (or that I could have a girlfriend!).

When I had crushes on guys or “liked” them, which did happen to me with a number of different guys, and when I thought abstractly about having a boyfriend, I never actually wanted all the typical trappings of a romantic relationship—as far as I remember I never thought about kissing or touching them in any way, didn’t think about romantic dinners or going on dates or receiving flowers from them. What I wanted was the commitment—to know that someone really liked me (not in a romantic way, but just as a person) and wanted me in their life in a long-term, definite way. All my life, society had told me that the only way to have this long-term committed partnership that I wanted was through a (heterosexual) romantic relationship. So no wonder I thought I was heteroromantic for so long.

I never assumed I was allosexual (or, as I would have thought of it at the time, the same as everyone else sexuality-wise), because it was obvious to me that other people wanted something—sex—that I didn’t. But I assumed I was heteroromantic because I did want society’s idea of a romantic relationship.

I think the stories I wrote when I was younger provide an interesting look at how I saw romance and what kind of relationship I wanted, since I could write whatever I wanted and give my characters the relationships that I viewed as ideal. I wrote sweet romances with a close bond between two people but no physical element, as well as stories of strong male-female friendships with no romantic component (like the Cinderella story I mentioned in this post). In the latter cases, that friendship was always both characters’ primary relationship; neither of them had a closer friend or a romantic interest or partner. And it was the same with the romantic relationships I wrote—the two romantic partners were also best friends.

One story I wrote ended up being pretty much my ultimate “this is how I feel about romantic relationships” story. A girl ends up in a new setting with two guys she’s never met before, and she develops a romantic relationship with one, based on physical attraction (aesthetic and sensual, I guess; maybe kind of sexual, but I didn’t think about that really or go into any detail about it), and a friendship with the other, based on common interests and deep conversations. At the end, she kind of has to choose between the two guys, and she chooses the friend. It’s kind of ambiguous whether she’s decided that she actually loves him romantically, or just that she values this relationship over the other, considering the friendship more real and meaningful than the fairly shallow, superficial romance.

That ambiguity, and the fact that the friendship wins out, is pretty much a perfect illustration of how I feel about romance. I don’t know if I feel romantic attraction—I just know I want a deep friendship with someone, something more solid and definite and committed than friendships are normally viewed as. Romance without friendship doesn’t really make sense to me; I know it’s a thing (see the comments on this article [the article itself is very sex-normative, unfortunately], where some people say they don’t consider their partner a friend at all), but I could never have a relationship like that.

I used to think that I just conceived of romance differently from most people, but now I’m starting to wonder if maybe other people are feeling something that I don’t. Maybe what I always saw as romance is more of a queerplatonic relationship. But, maybe there is an element of romance to what I want. Who knows? I don’t, and for now, I’m okay with that.

Asexuality in Guardian of the Dead

I started seeking out novels with asexual characters once I realized there actually were some (here’s one list). I’m always excited when I start one; it’s just so unusual to see asexuality even mentioned outside of online ace communities that reading about a character who’s ace is a big deal. But I was somewhat disappointed in the way the ace character and asexuality in general were portrayed in the young adult novel Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. So this post is mostly about what I wasn’t happy with, but I do first want to start with what I liked. Mild spoilers ahead.

Pros: Kevin is not your typical cold/awkward/unfeeling asexual character (thinking of characters who aren’t explicitly ace but are widely speculated to be, like Sherlock, the Doctor in Doctor Who, and Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory). He’s the main character (Ellie)’s best friend, is quite likeable, and is an attractive, non-white guy who multiple girls are interested in. His asexuality is also accepted by the other characters, and seeing them treat it as valid and not question its legitimacy was nice. The book starts soon after Kevin has told Ellie about his orientation for the first time, and while her initial reaction is to say, “Maybe you’ll change your mind,” she stops herself, knowing that wouldn’t be appropriate.

Now, the cons: When Kevin comes out to Ellie the conversation pretty much ends there. Asexuality looks so different for each person—some are repulsed, some have a libido, some are also aromantic. But in Guardian of the Dead, what Kevin’s unique experience of asexuality is isn’t discussed or revealed at all. “I’m ace” is the beginning and end of the conversation; Ellie just makes her own assumptions about what it means and doesn’t ask Kevin any thoughtful questions.

Further assumptions are made when it comes to the relationship between Kevin and another good female friend of his, Iris. Iris has liked Kevin for a long time, but he’s never reciprocated—because he’s ace. Eventually, so that Iris won’t keep hoping in vain, Kevin tells her about his orientation, and while we don’t see this scene and thus don’t know exactly what’s said, by this point we’ve gotten the message that the reason Kevin and Iris won’t be having a romantic relationship is Kevin’s asexuality (as opposed to Kevin just not being interested in Iris in that way). However, we don’t know why exactly his asexuality is stopping them. It seems to be implied that either asexuality is always accompanied by aromanticisim, or else that an allosexual person would never want to be in a romantic relationship with an ace. Both of which are inaccurate and not ideas that should be spread.  Maybe the author didn’t intend either of these, but readers don’t know what the truth actually is (is Kevin aro? Does Iris feel the need for her relationships to include sex?), because what being ace means for Kevin is never discussed.

The last thing that bothered me is that Kevin’s character is never really developed. This is because he’s not actually around for most of the main part of the story, and when he is he’s either under a magic spell and kind of in a daze, or being lied to/kept in the dark by the Ellie. So the book starts by introducing an ace character, and then proceeds to basically remove him from the rest of the story, and not let us get to know him much more.

Some aces like the book’s portrayal of asexuality better than I did—see this and this (and here’s a review that mentions some of the same problems I saw, but also talks about other ways the book was well done). The author is also actively seeking to do representation better, and I am really glad that she’s aware of asexuality and chose to include it in her novel; at this point, I’ll take whatever ace characters I can get, and I’m sure plenty of people who might never have heard of asexuality otherwise were exposed to the concept through this book. But I do just wish that it had been represented a little better.

Male-female relationships in fiction

I enjoy reading young adult books (I’ll write more about one of the reasons why in a future post), and I was listening to one recently, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, in which—spoilers—a friendship develops between a guy and the main character, a girl. It was the typical “they start out hating each other and then find out they actually enjoy being with and talking to each other and become friends” thing, which was nice if unoriginal. And then it became even more typical because the relationship turned romantic. And I was disappointed, because why couldn’t we just have a good male-female friendship story? Why couldn’t we leave it at “they actually found that they liked each other platonically and became good friends”?

That got me thinking about male-female relationships (between people who are roughly the same age and unrelated) in fiction in general, and it seems like for the most part they always do end up romantic, even if they don’t start that way (in mainstream movies even more so than in books). It’s frustrating, but it actually does kind of make sense. If a story were to end with the main male character and the main female character in a purely platonic relationship, that would be unsatisfying, because the relationship wouldn’t feel solid or lasting. There would always be the possibility that one of them would enter a romantic relationship, and if (or when) that happened, that relationship would replace or at least diminish the friendship (especially if both characters were heterosexual). And who wants to read a story where the focus is on a relationship that’s so fragile and easily dissolved? In fiction—and quite possibly in real life too, generally—to last, and thus to provide a satisfying ending to a story, a male-female relationship has to be romantic.

I found this to be true when I tried to write a story focusing on a non-romantic male-female relationship. Years ago I wrote a retelling of Cinderella in which I, typically, got around the love-at-first-sight issue by having Cinderella and the prince know each other before the fateful ball. The way my story was unusual is that their relationship never became romantic, not even after Cinderella realized that her best friend was actually the prince in disguise and he took her to the palace to live with his family. (Although when my mom read the beginning, she commented, “Ah, a romance,” and I said, “Nope! No romance here!” and she countered, “Of course it’s a romance! It’s Cinderella, and the girl is giggling at something the guy said.” I don’t know if that speaks to the flawed nature of my mom’s assumptions about male-female relationships, or the flawed nature of my portrayal of one…). I don’t remember what inspired me to keep the relationship platonic—maybe it was just a desperate attempt to bring some originality to a story that’s been told and retold so many times already. But I’m guessing that at least part of my motivation was a desire for a different kind of story—a less heteronormative, more ace-friendly one, even though I had never heard the terms “asexual” or “heteronormative” at the time—from the ones I had been told all my life.

The problem was that my ending, with Cinderella and the prince living together as best friends rather than a couple, no romance involved, was unsatisfying even to me, the author. Because yay, when the story ends they’re together and happy, but the prince at least will be getting married at some point in the future, and then what happens to Cinderella? Is the prince’s wife going to be okay with his female best friend living in the castle with them? Is the prince still going to care about Cinderella and want her around as much as he does now? Probably not. So even though the end of the story was seemingly happy, it felt wrong, because if I looked beyond the written ending things really weren’t going to be that great for Cinderella. Her happiness likely wouldn’t last; she’d probably eventually lose her friend (and her nice new life), and after he’d been the most important person to her during the story, and their relationship had been the main focus of it, that made the ending just feel sad. Maybe it was realistic, but I’d been going for a platonic happily-ever-after.

Maybe such a thing doesn’t exist, though. While I didn’t want to do the stereotypical romance thing, my platonic relationship-focused story kind of failed and would have been much more satisfying, if also more cliché, as a romance. But it’s sad that stories of platonic male-female relationships just can’t be as satisfying as romances, because it locks people into telling just one kind of story—and the fact that romantic male-female relationship stories are the only ones that get told may be part of what makes people think that men and women can only relate in a romantic way.

Right now I’m rereading The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale, which is about a friendship that forms between the two titular characters, who are both married to other people. It’s great to read a story about a non-romantic male-female relationship—but a lot of the story is about the two main characters trying to decide if they do actually have romantic feelings for each other, and people making assumptions about their relationship (that it is sexual and/or romantic in nature), and their spouses having issues with it. So when stories of platonic male-female relationships actually are told, the idea of romance is still very much a part of them—and if it’s that hard for a fictional woman and man to have a platonic relationship, think how hard it must be in real life.

Dividing children by gender

Note: Since non-binary genders aren’t recognized in the situations I discuss in this post and I’m not sure how these institutions would handle trans* people, these groups aren’t mentioned, but their lack of recognition and inclusion by and in society is yet another reason why systems that divide children based on their being one of two sexes/genders are problematic.

At some point during (Christian) summer camp orientation, an adult would always announce to the other teens/pre-teens and I, “Girls are red, guys are blue. No purpling.” I never knew exactly what this meant, and I’m sure it wasn’t completely clear to lots of the other kids either. Did it just mean no physical interaction with the opposite gender, or was it meant to discourage us from even hanging out with them? I remember gossiping with my cabin mates one year about Lauren, a girl with purple eye shadow and pretty hair, because she spent lots of time talking to the guys—”Lauren’s purpling,” we said with condemnation and self-righteousness. We would never engage in such illicit behavior.

After a few years of attending that camp I went to a different one, which had somewhat of a different format. Instead of having boys and girls there at the same time, they had three weeks of boys’ camp followed by three weeks of girls’ camp. Their reasoning, if I remember correctly, was both that boys and girls have different interests and that it was better for them to enjoy camp without being distracted by the opposite gender. This is similar, I’m guessing, to the philosophy behind having separate girl and boy scouts (which I’ll go into more in a minute).

I have two problems with these attitudes. “No purpling”—at least when left up to the kids’ interpretation, who may decide it means all interaction with the opposite gender is prohibited—says that you shouldn’t pursue friendships with people who don’t share your gender. If you’re looking for human interaction, socialization, friends, you should stick with people who have the same body parts (because of course everyone is cis!). Besides restricting potential relationships (perhaps romantic, which I assume is what the leaders were trying to discourage, but platonic as well) that could form, this attitude says that it’s dangerous for you to be around the opposite gender. There will be too much temptation for you to do things that the adults would disapprove of, so they’re going to mandate your separation to keep that from happening. But that grossly overemphasizes kids’ sexuality, as if the only possible relationship a girl and a boy could have is a romantic/sexual one. If kids think the opposite sex has cooties, if they think it’s impossible for boys and girls to be friends, if they only think of the opposite gender as potential romantic partners to either reject or pursue, they end up denying the humanity of the other gender. Boys become males first, humans second, and the same with girls, and that becomes awfully limiting because the potential for engaging with someone simply as another human being whom you might enjoy talking to or being friends with is removed. And I don’t think kids would hold this view—that you should avoid the opposite gender unless you’re looking for romance or sex—if it wasn’t for adults cultivating the attitude through their fear. Yes, surely these prohibitions have kept plenty of immature summer camp romances from happening. But how many friendships and moments of connection have they also prevented?

By limiting children in these settings to friendships with those of the same gender, we’re also sending another message—that all boys, and all girls, are the same. The attitude of the second camp that I mentioned especially cultivates the idea that girls and boys will get along best with people of their own gender. Anyone who’s found that they connect more with other genders than with those who share theirs, or who likes and forms relationships with others regardless of whether they’re male or female, is out of luck. And beyond the relational aspect, this camp format, as well as organizations that divide kids by gender like girl/boy scouts, declares that girls are interested in X, and boys in Y. When my brother was in boy scouts, I always thought it sounded like fun—wilderness safety, camping, knot-tying (and my sisters and I always enjoyed Boy’s Life magazine, much more than my brother did). I didn’t know what girl scouts did, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be as appealing to me as boy scouts, because I knew that their activities would be different from those the guys got to do. And in fact when I was talking to my aunt and uncle once, who have one boy and one girl who are both involved in scouts, my aunt, who helps with her daughter’s troop, told me that all the outdoor/adventure aspects have been excised from the girl scouts. Nothing has changed for the boys, who still go on camporees and learn how to treat snake bites, but girl scouts are apparently expected to have no interest in such activities. My aunt was unhappy—it was a frustrating process for her to convince the higher-ups to let her scouts go canoeing—and rightly so. Just like all boys won’t enjoy camping, all girls won’t be happy sitting inside earning computer merit badges (which is what my aunt told me when I asked what activities were available to the girls. I guess it’s good at least that computers aren’t considered to be boys-only?).

Couldn’t we just have scouts, instead of dividing the organization into boys and girls? Let everyone choose the activities they’re interested in, instead of only making certain ones available based on the participant’s body parts. And if you’re worried about kids’ hormones running away with them, distracting them or causing them to engage in inappropriate behavior, can you give kids a little more credit and see that you’re keeping them from the chance to have friends who are different from them, friends that some of them might get along with better than those of their own gender? If we stopped keeping boys and girls apart and promoting the idea that they’re innately different, maybe we’d see a difference in their interactions when they grow up to be men and women.