Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sexuals and Grey-Area relationships

This is a response to The Thinking Asexual's post Are Asexuals Capable of Nonsexual/Nonromantic Love Unique to Us? Like most of The Thinking Asexual's posts, it is well thought out, well argued, and makes some very good points. It is also quite mistaken.

The post starts off like this:
Recently, I started to deeply contemplate an idea that has flit in and out of mind a handful of times, and the idea has evolved into a theory. The theory feels strongly probable to me, but I haven’t yet decided to view it as truth. I feel like my life experience has been building to this theory for a long time, but I haven’t explored it long enough to make it a part of my worldview.
The theory is this: Asexuals, including aromantics, may be capable of feeling a unique kind of nonsexual/nonromantic love that romantic-sexual people cannot feel. 
Later, the theory is stated more strongly:
"romantic-sexual people can’t feel the feelings necessary for these types of friendships"(Where "these types of friendships" refers to relationships that fall outside 'just friends' or a traditional romantic relationship. Grey-area nonsexual relationships.) 
This is something I know to be false. I have a few case studies to illustrate my point, but even more than having counter examples, I know deep down that "everyone in X group is incapable of Y feelings" is probably always going to be a false statement. It's too general, too restrictive, and too simple. If there's one thing I've learned about people and identities, it's that they're frigging complicated. Nothing is clear-cut, and even when two variables seem to be linked, it's never a 100% correlation. There are asexuals who feel arousal, who have sex, who masturbate, even ones who seek out sexual experiences for their own pleasure. We know that knowing someone is asexual tells you nothing about how and whom they love and what they do with them. They could experience a whole dictionary of types of attraction to any gender imaginable. They could desire and have relationships that are monogamous or polyamorous, kinky or vanilla, romantic or platonic. We do not assume to know their feelings on any of these things based solely on their asexuality. So why on earth would it be alright to assume knowledge of a sexual's feelings, based solely on their sexuality?

But I'm not just arguing assumptions here. I have data. Let me restate the original theory here.
"romantic-sexual people can’t feel the feelings necessary for these types of friendships"
Yes, they can. Or rather, some can. I have no idea what the majority take on this is, but I have three examples of romantic sexuals who do have these feelings. (It only takes one example to prove this theory false since it's stated as an absolute.)

My first example is on the internet, so you can go have a look. She is a sexual who clearly states a desire for a non-sexual, non-romantic partner whose importance would equal that of her romantic-sexual partner. A really cool thing about this lady is that she had, nurtured, and articulated this desire all on her own. There was nobody going 'Hey, we should be platonic life partners!'. There's no platonic partner at all right now. There's just a heterosexual lady sitting around going 'Man, you know what would be the bee's knees? Having a deep platonic bond on the same level as my hypothetical marriage.' 

My second example is my own Flower Lady. She's romantic bisexual, and when I asked her to read The Thinking Asexual's article, she had a similar reaction to the one I had. Good thinking, good arguing, but clearly wrong, because she (Flower Lady) has experienced the kind of non-sexual, non-romantic love that the author describes. She wrote up her thoughts on her own blog, and I find her perspective very useful.

My last example is Hat Guy, and this one's my favorite because Hat Guy is the last person you would expect to understand this based on his labels. He's white, cisgendered, male, middle class, young, able-bodied, basically all the privileged labels you can think of. He has a somewhat conservative family background, and is happily engaged to a lovely (Flower) Lady, and yet he loves me deeply in a way that is totally non-sexual, and is outside his definition of romantic. Not only does he have and express these feelings, but he developed them and decided what to do with them on his own. 

Well, not really on his own. Relationships are kind of a two-way street. What I mean by that is that I did not sit down and say "Hey, we should have a queerplatonic relationship". I sat down and asked "What is this?", and it was Hat Guy who said it was obviously more than 'just friendship' but could/should not be a traditional romantic relationship. It was Hat Guy who thought that as long as we knew what was going on we didn't need to label it. He was the one who first formally stated what we were, and placed it cozily in the grey area as if it was the most obvious and natural thing in the world.  So there you go. A sexual who not only can feel these emotions, and sustain these relationships, but who deliberately engaged in a very non-normative relationship, despite having no context for it, or having any specialized words to describe it.

At this point I have shown The Thinking Asexual's theory to be false, but I'd like to keep going because there were some good points behind the theory. 

Like this one: If sexuals can experience these feelings, why don't know...act like it? Why is it so enormously uncommon for anyone to understand that there are relationships to be had other than garden-variety friendship and romantic-sexual ones? The Thinking Asexual has an answer to this:
I think that when it comes to the sexual population’s disconnect from gray-area nonsexual relationships (romantic friendship, passionate friendship, and primary nonromantic relationships), there are really only two explanations:
1. They can’t feel the feelings that fuel these kind of relationships.
2.    They can feel the feelings that fuel these kind of relationships, but through their own social conditioning, they come to believe that such relationships do not and cannot exist and have nothing desirable to offer. In the event that they do feel emotions for someone that are naturally of the gray-area nonsexual friendship kind, they mistake those emotions for romantic and sexual and thus pursue a romantic-sexual relationship with someone they actually want to be romantic friends/passionate friends/nonromantic primary partners/super close QP friends with. Or, they don’t act on their feelings at all.
And then, despite feeling these feelings, they act totally confused and weirded out ... when asexuals bring up the subject of romantic friendship ... because they feel the need to uphold their own culture’s [norms] ... despite the fact that their own emotional experiences prove those norms to be bullshit. 
The Thinking Asexual applied Occam's Razor and theorized that explanation number one is correct, but I think that in reality there's a bit of each going on.  It is entirely possible that some (but not all) sexuals are incapable of these kinds of feelings*, but I think that in many (if not most) cases, explanation number two is spot on.

The effects of social norms should not be underestimated. Even I, an asexual-spectrum person living in an environment where the word 'heteronormative' is commonly tossed out over breakfast, took a long time to stop trying to put my relationship with Hat Guy in a neatly labeled cubbyhole and accept the weird grey-area stuff for what it was. Why? Because I didn't know that grey-area relationships were a thing, and for some weird (but very common) reason, that made it hard for me to come to grips with mine. And I had an internet of relationship anarchists at my disposal. In theory, everyone has an internet at their disposal, but information on grey-area relationships isn't easy to find, even if you're looking for it. I poked around the internet for months and months before I ever found mention of queer platonic relationships. When I did, it was through asexuality. If I had not identified with descriptions of asexuality, I probably would never have stuck around this corner of the internet long enough to discover all the nifty relationship deconstruction that goes on here. The fact is, sexuals are much less likely to come across this information than asexual-spectrum folks, and are therefore much less likely to realize that these feelings are a Thing - that they are legitimate and can go places.

Flower Lady theorizes that many a romantic-sexual relationship has ended because one of the parties' feelings, while loving, were not in line with the traditional romantic-sexual relationship model. They didn't feel the feelings society said they should, so they thought the relationship was a bad one and ended it. Society says that you either pair-bond sexually forever, or cease interacting (unless you can pull off 'just friends'). It takes an uncommon bond (or an uncommonly clueless person) to punch through that burden of norm. That, or access to information which will map out a new possible sub-norm.

Another factor here is necessity. As a sexual, you can sort of putter along with the assumptions you got in grade school. As The Thinking Asexual said in another post, it "takes guts" to engage in a non-normative relationship. It takes change, and in general, people don't change without a good reason. But if you're asexual (and that affects how you would behave sexually within a relationship), you have to look at non-normative options, because the normal ones won't work for you. Most sexuals never have a reason to question their norms.

So maybe that's why The Thinking Asexual has never met a sexual who has understood their desire for grey-area relationships. Because anyone who has those feelings inside of them has been trained to neglect and mistake them, hasn't had a strong enough reason the challenge their conditioning, and/or hasn't had access to the information and support that would be needed for them to be able to really shake off the norms and embrace a new way of thinking.

And now a word of caution. I cannot blame anyone for wanting to draw conclusions based on their personal experience. That is how we process the world. I do not blame The Thinking Asexual for arriving at the conclusion they did, given the data they had. But to take all the 7 BILLION sexuals our world has, and say that not one of them is capable of feeling deep platonic love... that's a long jump to make. It is also a very harmful one. This attitude of "I know your orientation, therefore I can assume ___ about you" is exactly the kind of thinking that hurts asexuals - and many other minorities - the most. It is no bad thing to theorize, and to try to find patterns in data, but we must all of us tread very carefully here, and avoid hostility and animosity where it does not need to be. The sexual/asexual spectrum is just one variable axis in a nesting thicket of variables, and grouping the world into 'us' and 'them' based on it does nobody any favors.

One-sentence summary: Sexuals can experience non-sexual, non-romantic love, and assuming things about people based on their sexuality is a bad idea.

* I also suspect that some (but not all) asexuals are incapable of these feelings.

One more thing: What about those periods of history during which romantic/passionate friendships were the norm? When women wrote gushing letters to one another and slept in the same beds without a whisper of impropriety? To be fair, some of those pairs were probably 'closeted lesbians' (to force the modern terminology), but all of them? I am willing to bet that at least a healthy portion of these relationships were between heterosexual women who honestly and (since their society accepted it then) openly felt and expressed passionate, nonsexual love.