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.