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.

Assailing myself

Reading Coyote’s post “When Being Asexual Is What Makes You Assailable” gave me a revelation. I’ve gotten the implication from other people (never stated completely explicitly, so far) that my opinion on certain things isn’t valid because I’m ace, but I’ve mostly held that attitude toward myself.

When I started this blog, I felt the need to tag some of my posts “ace-influenced(?)” as a kind of disclaimer, a way to say, “Being asexual might be impacting my thinking on this, so my opinion may not be fully valid.”

I’ve wondered if I’m sex-negative just because of my personal aversion to sex, if that aversion is actually the only reason I think of and agree with criticisms of sex and its role in society and relationships.

And when I say things like “romantic relationships don’t have to include sex” or “a romantic/sexual relationship isn’t necessarily the best kind of relationship”, I have this inner inkling of doubt, this feeling that I don’t have a right to speak on these subjects—because I’ve never experienced sexual attraction, and so can never have a fully valid opinion on the importance of sex in other people’s lives.

I see now, though, that those questions and caveats come from internalized heteronormativity; that I’ve absorbed the idea that any perspective not coming from a heterosexual isn’t “normal” or is automatically biased in a way that means it shouldn’t be taken entirely seriously. I don’t want to feel that way, and I don’t think I should. Being ace is just as legitimate as being straight—or gay, or bi, or pan. If allo people don’t have to preface their thoughts with disclaimers noting that their orientations may be influencing them, then neither do I.

Genderless and asexual: two interconnected identities

This post is for the January 2015 Carnival of Aces, which is on Nonbinary People and Asexuality. Yesterday I wrote a sort of disclaimer about whether or not I actually “count” as non-binary, which can be read here if you’re interested. It explains why I call myself a genderless woman, a term I use below.

If I wasn’t asexual, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t currently be identifying as genderless. For one thing, I would never have come across the word if it wasn’t for my involvement in online ace communities. After growing up in a conservative Christian environment, reading ace blogs has exposed me to so many new concepts and ways of looking at the world and made me realize just how limiting and inaccurate the pre-fabricated boxes that society attempts to place everyone into are. While I realized on my own that I didn’t strongly connect to the feminine gender, I had never heard of people being neutrois/genderless/genderqueer until I started hanging around ace communities. So I would never have found a word to describe the way I feel about my gender—maybe even never have thought about it much more—if it hadn’t been for reading about the experiences of other, ace community-connected people.

But I also wonder if I would still feel like I was genderless if I experienced sexual attraction. Of course it’s pointless to speculate about what might have been, but I do think it’s interesting and useful to investigate the connection between my asexuality and my non-binary gender, or lack of gender (if you’re interested, here’s a post that discusses more generally the possible relation between being ace and being transgender).

I’ve written before about not wanting to be viewed as feminine, because being feminine can mean being seen as an object of sexual attraction/desire. Allosexual* women (and men) often do want to be seen that way, as least by certain people and under certain circumstances. But, being a sex-repulsed ace, I never do. Were I a feminine-identifying (sex-repulsed) ace, I would struggle with how to express my femininity without feeling like I was being sexualized by other people and society.

Being genderless, then, is a way for me to opt out of sexuality, and the expectations that come with it. Feminine women are often assumed to be heterosexual, and masculine women are often assumed to be lesbians (assumptions that erase femme lesbians and bi/pan women as well as aces). But as a genderless woman, I’m free, at least to some extent, of those assumptions. I express my genderlessness by dressing in as gender-neutral a way as possible. While people will look at me and most likely still see a woman, it’ll be a woman who doesn’t quite fit into society’s molds for female people. A woman who, hopefully, is human first, female second, and whose sexual orientation can’t be inferred from her appearance (although, if anyone did look at me and assume I was ace, I definitely wouldn’t mind as long as the person was ace-friendly).

So for me, being ace and genderless go hand in hand; I can’t really separate the two. I can’t imagine myself as a feminine or masculine ace, because in our sex-normative culture both of the binary genders have become so entwined with sexuality—society tells us that to be a woman is to be sexy, and that to be a man is to have a voracious sexual appetite. As an ace, I don’t fit into either of those paradigms.** On the other hand, I think that if I did experience sexual attraction I would be fine with other people seeing me as either masculine or feminine, because I would want other people thinking I was sexually attractive—and, at least in mainstream culture, sexual attraction is often connected to (stereo)typical aspects of the two binary genders (e.g. muscles on men, smooth legs on women).

Basically, I look at the gender binary and all the cultural assumptions and associations that have become wrapped up in it, and say, “That’s not me.” And a big part of that is because I’m ace.

*I’ve been following the latest Tumblr debate about this word to some extent, and my usage of it here doesn’t mean I support either side; I’m just going to continue to use it as long as it’s still the generally accepted term.

**Not that all (or even most) men and women do fit them or want to, and I definitely don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a masculine or feminine ace—I’m just saying that identifying as either of the binary genders wouldn’t work for me. I know that masculine and feminine people of every sexual orientation struggle with sex-normative stereotypes of their gender, and then certain groups face the opposite problem of having the dominant narrative say they aren’t or shouldn’t be sexual. So to some extent everyone has to deal with being a certain way but not matching up to the stereotypes of that identity, and that definitely doesn’t mean their identity is wrong. For me, opting out of the gender binary altogether was the best way to deal with that, but I recognize that that wouldn’t work or be a good choice for everyone.

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.

Making assumptions about different-gender interactions

I read a blog post in which a woman described meeting a man on a plane and getting a glimpse into his fascinating life. She also spoke well of his looks, not in an “I was attracted to him” way, but in a way you might talk about admiring anything beautiful. This was a very small part of the post, which was mainly concerned with her anxiety about talking to a stranger and her gratefulness that she overcame that anxiety and was able to briefly connect with him. But what was the first comment on the post? “Sounds like you found him attractive ;)”. The author had replied to that comment saying that was her husband’s response as well, but not at all what she had felt or meant. And it made me sad that this was both the commenter’s and the husband’s focus, and that they took the author’s words in an entirely different way than she intended them.

People tend to do this to each other a lot, at least in spaces where heteronormativity reigns unquestioned—if someone shows any sort of interest in a person who is perceived to be of the opposite gender, it’s assumed to be romantic interest and treated accordingly, because of course everyone is both straight and interested in romantic relationships, and that’s the only reason they would ever interact with anyone of a different gender than their own. This often means that the person showing the interest gets teased; my teenage sister mentions a male friend, and my whole family starts asking, “Ooh, do you like him?” and making jokes about the two of them as a couple. Reacting to kids especially this way sends the message that the only relationships there can be between people of different genders are romantic ones, which is severely limiting. It’s quite possible to be friends with, be intrigued by, have a good conversation with, or desire to get to know better someone of a different gender without any romantic attraction being present. But heteronormative circles don’t acknowledge this, and some perhaps don’t even believe it.

The typical nature of the responses—“Oooh, you like her”; “You must think he’s attractive”—makes people (again, probably kids in particular) feel like they need to defend these instances of non-romantic interest in those of a different gender, or else causes them to feel that they can’t talk about them to others at all—because other people won’t understand and will turn the occurrences into something they’re not. The FedEx guy who used to pick up my office’s packages every day was really nice, and my brief conversations with him were always pleasant. But I avoided talking about him to certain people, stopping myself from mentioning a fun place he’d recommended I go or a story he’d told, because I didn’t want to get asked, “Ooh, what’s his name? Is he hot?”. I didn’t want anyone insisting I felt something that I didn’t, and I didn’t want the point of my story—“This is a cool guy, and I enjoy talking to him”—to be completely missed.

Even worse, these typical reactions can cause the person expressing interest to be embarrassed, which could lead them to avoid non-romantic encounters with or interest in people of different genders in the future. Several times I have tried to minimize my interactions with a certain man after being teased about him, because the only way I saw to escape getting teased again was to not talk to the man I was being teased about. But how awful is that? At worst, the person I’m suddenly ignoring will be bothered by my apparent rudeness, and even if he doesn’t actually notice or care, I’m still missing out on interaction and possibly a relationship with a fun or interesting or good person, just because he happens to not share my gender.

I think making assumptions of romantic interest is especially harmful when it’s done to kids, because they don’t know to be heteronormative or amatornormative or assume that they can’t be friends with people of different genders until they’re taught to do so (which is done by popular culture as well as interpersonal interactions). Once they learn that they should only be having certain feelings and relating to other people in certain ways, anything that doesn’t fit into this mold becomes something to be ashamed of—something to then defend, or repress, or excise altogether.