Monday, September 2, 2013

Variable Separation (or, Asexuality 102 and Why Sexuals Should Hear it As Well)

One of the things I’m most excited to do on this blog is talk about separating variables. What do I mean by that? Let’s use attraction as an easy (Hah, jokes!) example. I am (somewhere on the) asexual (spectrum). What this means is I do not experience primary sexual attraction. I do, however, experience romantic attraction. I've been thinking of sexual and romantic attraction as separate things for years now, so it seems very natural to me, but I remember a time when, like mostly everyone in our society, I assumed that the two could or should only be experienced together. Figuring out that they were actually separable variables was one of the most important mental adjustments I've ever made. Right up there with object permanence. It can be very valuable to be able to pull complicated things apart into their component bits.

I really like metaphors, and in particular food metaphors, so I will now explain variable separation in terms of coleslaw. Imagine for a moment that you are an orphan who has grown up on pre-plated food and have only ever seen cabbage, carrots, and dressing tossed together in the form of coleslaw.

Please sir, I want some more.

Since you've never seen a cabbage on its own, it would be perfectly reasonable for you to think that all cabbage is part of coleslaw, or even to not realize that cabbage is a thing – you could just see coleslaw and not think about the different bits that make it up at all.

This is what most people do. They look at things – attraction, in our example – and either don't see that the things are made up of smaller parts, or assume that, since they've never seen the component parts individually, those parts must always go together. But I can have cabbage without having carrots or dressing, and I can have romantic attraction without having sexual attraction. Getting people to understand this is not always easy.

Click to enlarge
Attraction is the category I have the best model for. Here is a list of attraction variables which I, and a nontrivial number of other people, believe to be independent. Make no mistake, they can and often are closely linked for many or most people, but I don’t believe that they have to be.

Kinky Attraction

For a more detailed essay on these types of attraction, I highly recommend this post over at Intimacy Cartography, a blog I envy for its excellent name.

Types of attraction get talked about a lot in the asexual community because they need to be, but I think that they could have real value to sexuals as well. My clearest example of people who could benefit from this model is queer folks. Some people wake up at the age of seven and go “Yep, I’m gay,” and that’s great. It is by far the most direct path. But many queer people go through a lengthy and painful period of introspection, often in middle or high school, where they’re trying to figure out what their orientation is. This can be very confusing. Go to any teen advice website (or Queer Secrets) and you’ll find a slew of anguished questions something along the lines of “Am I in love with my best friend? The other day she slept over and we had this really sensual massage session and I enjoyed it – does that mean I’m gay?”, or “I get butterflies in my stomach when I think about this boy, but I’m not [sexually] attracted to guys! What’s going on?”, and so on.

It seems to me it would be a lot easier to figure out your sexual orientation if you had a model of attraction that didn't mash all the types together, particularly because sexual orientation is based only on sexual attraction. Separating the variables would give people the tools to go “ahah, I am romantically, but not sexually attracted to this guy, but since I only get sexually attracted to girls I must be straight”. Trying to figure out your sexual orientation with "attraction" being one unified category is like trying to tell someone whether your coleslaw is made with green or purple cabbage if you're an orphan who's never seen cabbage outside of coleslaw. You can probably do it, because it tends to tint the entire dish, but some things may not line up. Like orange carrots. What the heck?

Being able to make those distinctions between different flavors of attraction could be enormously helpful to people of any orientation. Think of the drama that could be avoided if people had the tools to think “I have a romance-like friendship with my best guy friend and that’s very important to me, but I don’t want to get physical at all, even just hugging”, or “I find this person very sexually attractive, but I’m not romantically attracted to them, so I shouldn't accept their offer of a romantic relationship structure”, or "I find this person very aesthetically attractive, but I don't want to interact with him". Better yet, imagine that people could communicate their feelings clearly to others using widely agreed-upon vocabulary. Amazing!

That’s what all this dissection in the asexual community is all about. That’s why I have an obsession with variable separation. It’s all so that people can have frameworks to think about themselves in ways that make sense, and vocabulary to talk about it with others. I'm talking about models of attraction here, but variable separation is incredibly useful in almost any category. I'll tackle some others in future posts.


  1. great post! variable separation is something that I sort of take for granted in other people, and I also never thought about how it would be useful for non-aces.

  2. You make awesome analogies. And also awesome analogy comics. (In particular, it's awesome how you extend the analogies to explain things, like the bit about green and purple cabbage).