Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Asexual Problem Part 2: Language




Last post I left you hanging. I went through what probably seemed like an incredibly depressing  breakdown of all of the reasons why asexuals have a polar bear's chance in climate change of forming a committed romantic relationship with another asexual. Those odds are getting better all the time, and the more people chip in with local community building the faster they'll improve. Still, on daily basis almost all of the people that we interact with, get crushes on and begin to develop feelings for are into the whole sex thing. Why CAN'T we form relationships with them?

The traditional story is that there is a fundamental compatibility problem. In order to be happy in a romantic relationship sexual people need to have sex, so sexual people can only get romantically involved with people that they can boink. There is a widespread assumption that without sexual compatibility relationships are doomed to fail, because people only fall in love with people that they are sexually attracted to. So a straight woman can fall in love with a gay man, but she'll only get her heart broken because his attentions will be elsewhere. No matter how much she pines the two of them will never be more than friends. Friendship is the kid brother to romance, it's what happens when two people who aren't sexually attracted to one another (or who don't act on it) love one another. Friendship love is to romantic love what a snack is to a balanced meal- satisfying, but not that important and not enough to live on. Friendship comes with a set of emotional and sexual limitations, which get  invoked with the phrase "just friends." If you believe in this relationship binary, asexual people (romantic ones, anyway) can't be "more than friends" with sexual people because we're sexually incompatible. We have to form relationships with other asexual people because they are the only ones that will have us, and the depressing numbers problem results.

Hold up a minute. People only fall in love with people that they are sexually attracted to? Relationships which involve sex are fundamentally more powerful, fulfilling and important than relationships which don't? The logic of the relationship binary is fraught with assumptions that asexual people disprove by our very existence. If we can form emotionally powerful, fulfilling and important romantic relationships with one another, then it's possible to form them without sexual attraction and without sex. Read that again, and think about how monumental the implications are. Nonsexual relationships can be just as powerful, just as passionate, and just as deep as sexual ones. Look around the asexual community and there is plenty of evidence that the wall of "just" constructed around friendship is fundamentally a lie. This means that straight women and gay men can fall in love, a lesbian can steal a straight girl's boyfriend, and there are no limits to how deep a sexual and an asexual person can go.

The more you look for it, the more that this kind of nonsexual intimacy is all around us sticking it's nose in the face of the relationship binary. Longterm couples say that it's the little (nonsexual) things, not necessarily tons of sex, which keep relationships going in the long run. Check on facebook, where the "Relationship Status" box is used to "marry" and "date" nonsexual friends almost as much as it's used to communicate socially valid sexual relationships. Turn on the TV and you'll notice an interesting trend. Popular shows that focus on human relationships almost never focus on sexual ones. Shows like,  "Will and Grace", "Friends" and (ironically) "Sex and the City" topped the charts by focusing on nonsexually intimate relationships, not the supposedly more powerful and interesting sexual ones. ("Friends" went sexual only when it began to lose steam and ratings.) What's going on here?

I propose that there is a significant gap between the way that most of our society talks about relationships and they way that we actually experience them. Sex is exciting for some people, but it's not really that much more exciting than the other things that people are truly passionate about. Relationships that are "just" friendships can get incredibly deep and complicated, and they easily take on the ups and downs of their romantic counterparts. But how often do friends sit down and talk about where their relationship is going? How common is it for groups of friends to gossip as excitedly about new nonsexual relationships as they do about new sexual ones? Sexual and asexual, we all want to find relationships where we can explore our passions, challenge one another, build trust and feel loved. In all of the things that really matter in relationships, sexual and asexual people are fundamentally compatible. The only problem is that the words we have, "friendship" and "romance," don't adequately describe the powerful nonsexual relationships that we want to form. In short, asexual and sexual people don't have an compatibility problem, we have a language problem

The nice thing about language problems is that they're easier to solve. If we see this as a numbers problem we have to solve it with numbers- diligently building up the asexual community until the odds of finding a mate become reasonable (this still isn't such a bad idea.) If see it as a compatibility problem we have to solve it with compatibility- compromising to make ourselves more sexual and asking our partners to compromise to make themselves less sexual, which works but not that well. But what if it's a language problem, and we can solve it with language? What if having unfettered access to deep, fulfilling relationships is simply a matter of saying the magic words?

For the past four years or so, I've turned my life into an experiment which tests that hypothesis, and the results flip conventional wisdom on its head. Talk about asexuality the right way and it turns people on, not off. As much as they sometimes fixate on sex, sexual people are mostly driven be the same nonsexual desires as us and are just as eager to build relationships around fulfilling them. All we need is the language to show them how.

Next post I'll get into some of the language that I use to do just that. I haven't found the answers, if anything I've just barely scratched the surface, but it will hopefully get you thinking about language that works for you in your community. 

9 comments:

The Impossible K said...

Ok, so the next question is: How do you talk about asexuality in a way that turns sexual people on? I'd love to know how I can use language in a way that breaks this relationship binary. And I'm especially intrigued by your comment that straight women and gay men can fall in love (perhaps I'm a bit biased though, being asexily smitten by my share of awesome gay men)... What an interesting post! I can't wait to read the next installment! :)

pretzelboy said...

I'm not convinced that it is a language problem. As I try to think about these things and read what various asexuals are saying about these issues, I often feel that since most asexuals (online) are 16-28 or so, this gives a really skewed view of the world. It feels like most of our friends are dating, trying to find that special someone, etc. but we live in a society where our socially most important relationship is supposed to be marriage and getting a significant other is how to get there. Because of this emphasis, and trying to find that, the significant other relationship is the relationship that people look to the most to find emotional support. And that's the relationship that often determines who we live, and who we raise a family with (if we have kids.) We certainly have models for nonsexual intimacy (for example family members.) Lots of people have had the experience of having a friend that got a boy/girlfriend and they saw that friend a lot less afterwards. I feel like I'm rambling, but I'm definitely looking forward to your next post.

Ily said...

Totally agree on the power of language. I mean, since Myspace, "to friend" is now a verb. I wonder how much language can change the value assumptions that underlie the words. I also wonder how to find people that are interested in this different kind of language. It seems like for most people, even aces, it's really hard to get them to deviate from the friend/lover/spouse thing. So it kind of becomes a numbers game again...you need to find people who are pretty open-minded. What can I say, I wonder a lot :-)

midga said...

I think you raise a very interesting point. I don't think I've ever believed that a very close relationship required sex, but that it serves as another wonderful point of intimacy (though some of you would argue the 'wonderful' ;P). I think that paradigm is something fairly modern, to be honest. If you look at some basic anthropological studies on the progression of the actual reasons for marriage, romance didn't really come into play until sometime in the last 2000 years or so, and -really- set hold during the middle ages. So, before that, I assume people would have had very close relationships with other people. It's a rather natural sort of thing.

edgeofeverywhere said...

I really look forward to reading about the language you use. Lately I've been thinking a lot about the lack of sufficient words to describe my relationships with sexual people in a way that feels comfortable and right for both parties.

willendork said...

"A polar bear's chance in climate change"? God, I <3 you.

This entry was totally fascinating, and I look forward to the next. As someone who's been complaining about this particular language barrier (in slightly less concrete terms) for about seven years now, it's seriously thrilling to see it expressed.

On a total sidenote, pretzelboy's comment has me wondering if we need to consider (further?) the ways in which queer-identified and non-queer-identified asexual people have distinct needs. For instance, I suspect (perhaps incorrectly) that concerns about the socially acceptable relationship and the use of that relationship to create home/ family/ etc would be less important to people who identify as queer than people who don't. I don't think needing or not needing such a relationship is more valid, but the "discrepancy" has me thinking of second-wave feminism and how it's important to include more than just one faction of the people who adopt a label...

[/blathering]

Trix said...

My current ideal(-istic) perspective: every relationship is unique. Defining it as this or that stunts its growth and development, or at least keeps it on track within very predictable parameters. I've found myself avoiding the words "friend" or "partner" when describing my relationships to others. How odd that basing relationships on sex would be so embedded in language. But from personal discussions it seems that for many people, the difference between a sexual and non-sexual relationship really is profound and meaningful - and I wouldn't want to discount and dismiss that just because I don't see the significance of sex. It's a valid perspective - for them - just not the only one out there. And yes, the asexual perspective is underrepresented. But also, I see a problem with the words "sexual" and "asexual" by the way. Using these terms it could be easy to make it seem as if there is a clearly defined and separate camp of oddballs called "asexuals" whose experience is simply a negation, an absence or lack of something that "sexual" people have, whereas, at least as I experience it, it is rather a fundamentally different view of human relating, with different priorities and emphases. The emergence of people identifying as "asexual" begs reexamination of what is contained in the group of phenomena that are assigned the linguistic label "sexual", and whether that is not just another arbitrary parsing of fluid reality.

WorldWithoutToil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
WorldWithoutToil said...

Willendork, you seem to assume that Queer people have less "concerns about the socially acceptable relationship and the use of that relationship to create home/ family/ etc" than strait people. In my experience this isn't true. Most of the queer people I know are rather Fixated on those things. They'd like the relationships they have, the queer ones, to have the same sort of social standing as strait ones, basically, to no longer be all that queer.

back to the asexual: As a sexual person, what Djay is hitting on here is what has always interested me in asexuality. The point where he says asexuals disprove the friends/romance binary by their very existence is essentially why I think this MATTERS. As we drift in to this territory, we're starting to get away from talking about any one person's preference for a specific activity, and starting to rethink how everyone forms relationships. As a sexual person, I want to learn how David does this, because this is just as applicable to my life.