Romantic Friendship, Passionate Friendship, and Queerplatonic Relationships

I’m back for round two of parsing out the differences between romantic friendship, passionate friendship, and queerplatonic relationships. For round one, go here.

Disclaimer: There are exceptions to every rule.


 

In history, romantic friendship was usually a same-sex relationship, between young unmarried people, that often ended upon one friend’s marriage to a third party or at least became diminished by said marriage. Romantic friendship was often totally nonsexual, but some portion of them must’ve included sex either because humankind used to be a lot less rigid about sexual activity as it related (or didn’t relate) to sexual orientation or because gay people used romantic friendship to have romantic-sexual relationships with each other safely, in environments that condemned homosexuality but supported romantic friendship.

Romantic friendship, in present time, can exist between any two people regardless of sexual orientation, romantic orientation, their corresponding genders, their romantic and/or sexual relationships with other people, their ages, etc. Romantic friendship is typically not a primary relationship, and if it is, that status is probably temporary. What that means is, assuming everyone in the picture is cool with it, you can have a romantic partner–whether you are sexual or asexual–and still have a romantic friendship with someone else, whether you’re monogamous or polyamorous with your romantic partner. Romantic friendship is nonsexual, meaning no sexual activity or sexual attraction. (If you’re having sex with someone you’re romantically involved with, you’re just a plain, ol’ romantic-sexual couple, whether you want to identify yourselves as such to the world or not.)

Romantic friendship was named to express the gray-area that it occupied in its historical manifestations: usually nonsexual friendships that did not fill the Romantic-Sexual Primary Partner/Spouse role but that did include romantically coded behaviors, emotional intimacy, and feelings that went beyond the other friendships that both people had with others. I acknowledge that the term “romantic friendship” can be problematic for a few reasons: the term is inaccessible to aromantic people, it suggests that certain behaviors and a certain amount of emotional intensity and investment are innately and universally “romantic”–which isn’t true, and it can be misinterpreted to mean a “fuck buddy” relationship or a transitional period in a relationship that’s moving from standard friendship to normative romantic-sexual couplehood. That said, romantic friendship can still be a useful term for some people, like romantic asexuals who are polyamorous and/or relationship anarchists or varioriented sexual people who feel romantically attracted to people they are not sexually attracted to.

Romantic friendships can include a type of romantic attraction without including a desire to be a normative romantic couple in a primary romantic relationship. This can be romantic attraction that happens outside of a person’s romantic/sexual orientations, like two heterosexual men who feel romantically attracted to each other enough to want romantic friendship but not romantically attracted to each other in a way that motivates them to become a full-blown romantic-sexual couple. Romantic friendships can also be relationships that do not include romantic attraction but do include a strong degree of emotional attraction that surpasses normative friendship, in which case there’s overlap with queerplatonic relationships and the terms become interchangeable.


 

It’s occurred to me that sensual friendship may also be a useful term to describe a nonromantic, nonsexual friendship that involves a lot of sensual touch: cuddling, holding hands, kissing, co-sleeping, massages, caressing the body, etc. A friendship can be physically affectionate without being extremely emotional, so that’s why I think “sensual friendship” does not negate the usefulness of the term “romantic friendship”–which is not to say that intense emotion is automatically romantic, because it’s not. But if you have a friendship that is both physically intimate/sensual and very emotional and you don’t want to use the term queerplatonic for whatever reason, romantic friendship may be your best option.


 

I’ve already written at length about passionate friendship, so I’ll just reiterate its distinctive features that separates it from romantic friendship and queerplatonic relationships.

Passionate friendship is a primary relationship. It does not come second to other relationships, including romantic-sexual relationships. A passionate friend is the most important person is one’s life. A passionate friend is usually treated like a primary partner, whatever that means to someone.

A passionate friendship is nonsexual. It does not include sexual attraction or sexual activity.

A passionate friendship is usually not inclusive of romantic attraction. In my mind, it is essentially a nonromantic relationship and the ultimate expression of nonromantic love, passion, sensuality, etc. It’s a nonromantic relationship that matches romantic relationships as much as any nonromantic bond can. That said, being a fan of ambiguous feelings that refuse to be categorized, I think passionate friendships can be the result of feelings and love that feel neither 100% romantic nor 100% nonromantic. If your feelings are too grey for you to confidently call them “romantic” or “nonromantic” but all those standard features of passionate friendship are present, the term can be a great fit.

A passionate friendship is rare enough that you’re probably not going to have more than one in life and certainly not a long list of them. You can have several romantic friends in life, several queerplatonic friends, several sensual friends, but a passionate friendship is pretty, for lack of a better word, special. Serial anything does not apply to passionate friendship. You don’t “date” to find a passionate friend the way you do with a romantic partner, nor can you pick just any friendship you already have and make it into a passionate friendship. Passionate friendship is a very specific combination of deep, intense feelings, commitment, involvement, emotional attraction, usually a lot of physical intimacy, no sex and (usually) no romance. It either happens to you or it doesn’t. It’s not synonymous with sensual friendship because there’s more to it than physical intimacy; it’s not synonymous with romantic friendship or queerplatonic friendship because it’s both nonromantic and consistently primary with high involvement, high commitment, symmetrical feelings and investment, etc.

Passionate friendships can overlap with queerplatonic relationships, in which case whether you call your relationship a “passionate friendship” or a “queerplatonic relationship” (that’s your primary partnership and involves commitment, intense love, intimacy, complete reciprocity, etc) is up to you and just about personal preference. We might say that passionate friendships are a type of queerplatonic relationship, but not all queerplatonic relationships are passionate friendships. (In other words, chocolate ice cream is ice cream, but not all ice cream is chocolate.)


 

Queerplatonic relationships are the most flexible, varied type of gray-area friendship. Queerplatonic relationships can be super casual or super intense. They can be very involved or barely involved. They can function identically to a normative best friendship or they can become the primary nonromantic partnership in a person’s life, especially if you’re aromantic. They can be sexual, but they are never romantic. They can be subordinated to a person’s romantic-sexual relationships, or they can be superior to a person’s romantic-sexual relationships. (That is, if the two people in a QP relationship are both romantic and sexual, rather than aromantic and/or asexual). You can have as many QP relationships at a time as you want, and they can all look very different from each other, with varying levels of involvement, commitment, emotion, physical intimacy, etc.

Queerplatonic seems to refer to feelings primarily and the actual conduct of the relationship secondarily: meaning, some people who use “queerplatonic” to describe their relationship use it because their feelings are different than the other nonromantic feelings/attachment they have to normative friends, even though the actual queerplatonic relationship looks no different than your average best friendship. This separates queerplatonic relationships from romantic friendship and passionate friendship: romantic friendships and passionate friendships don’t look anything like normative best friendship in practice, nor can they exist if only one person in the friendship wants a lot of involvement/commitment/emotion/touch, while the other doesn’t. Queerplatonic relationships accommodate asymmetrical investment, feelings, commitment, etc; romantic friendships and passionate friendships don’t.


 

It may be accurate to say that passionate friendship and some romantic friendships are actually subtypes of queerplatonic relationships. Queerplatonic is an umbrella term for nonromantic relationships and feelings that exceed or differ from the nonromantic feelings of normative friendship. There’s room for a wide variety of nonromantic relationships that exist between “standard friendship” and “romantic relationships,” which is why you can encounter ten different queerplatonic relationships and they may all work differently.

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Asexuals aren’t “just like everyone else, minus the sexual attraction”

Originally posted on The Asexual Agenda:

This post was written for the April 2014 Carnival of Aces.  This month’s theme is “Analogies to an Asexual Experience.”

When I wrote my post on the aromantic vs. alloromantic divide (here on tumblr) a while back, there were a weirdly large number of reblogs/links with commentary on tumblr that were refuting the point that asexuals are essentially allosexuals minus the sexual attraction.  Which would have been fine…had I actually made that point.  But I didn’t, so I don’t really know what they were attempting to refute.

Anyway, thanks to that plus some discussion with Jo in the comments of that post plus this month’s carnival prompt, I’ve decided that it’s time to approach this dreaded topic.

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Queerplatonic Definition and Reading

queerplatonic(above image/definition not mine)

Queerplatonic relationships come in a wide variety of flavors, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before. It’s a term that aromantic asexuals came up with to describe the feelings some of them have for others and the kind of relationships some of them want. Not romantic but (usually) greater than what normative friendship looks like, feels like, etc.

Check out s.e. smith’s awesome post on queerplatonic relationships: “I Don’t Mean to Baffle You but I Do.”

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Link: 9 Strategies for Non-Oppressive Polyamory

Super important and excellent post written by Janani Balasubramanian on Black Girl Dangerous, about how to practice non-oppressive polyamory. Poly folks have to watch themselves for a lot of inappropriate shit, just like monogamists, and this is especially true of white heterosexual poly people.

 

Read the list of pointers here.

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Link: “Relationship Anarchy is Not Polyamory.”

Olle, over at MultipleMatch.com, wrote a great post entitled “Relationship Anarchy is Not Polyamory.” Ze is actually Swedish, like Andie Nordgren who coined the term relationship anarchy, so I appreciate ze’s perspective on relationship anarchy and the difference between RA and polyamory. Ze actually has a section in this article regarding raising kids as an RA, which is definitely interesting despite it being a superficial examination. I totally agree with and support ze’s choice to use the term “friend” to identify all important people in ze’s life, rather than falling back on the standard terms to separate “romantic/sexual partners” from “nonromantic/nonsexual partners,” a conclusion I pretty much came to in my own post recently.  I also really resonate with this concept: “I’ve been trying to establish a language which focuses on the content of each relationship, rather than looking for a word to describe it.” That’s pretty much my approach not only when it comes to forming relationships with other people, but when it comes to helping fellow asexuals and aromantics who ask for advice on how to determine what their feelings are for another person: instead of mucking around in the shitty, traditional binary and definitions of “romantic” feelings/love and “nonromantic” feelings/love in order to decide what direction to take a particular relationship in, I usually advise to think about what the person wants in the relationship rather than how their feelings should be categorized.

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Differentiating Sexual Attraction and Sexual Desire

Ace:

Ace Theist wrote a super awesome post explaining the difference between sexual attraction and sexual desire. To refresh your memory: asexuals do not experience sexual attraction but some can experience sexual desire (which is usually tied into having a libido, though having a libido doesn’t mean an asexual will desire partnered sex).

Originally posted on The Ace Theist:

A companion piece to Differentiating Types of Attraction .

On the surface, attraction and desire would appear to be equivalent and interchangeable terms, especially for those who have only experienced the two simultaneously, but the assumption that follows — that they’re “basically the same thing” — only makes sense if you’re unaware of or have not considered the ways in which one can exist without the other.  You may quibble that one of these should be redubbed with another name, but what’s relevant is that two different possibilities exist, with the potential to overlap and the potential to not.

Unlike arousal, sexual attraction and sexual desire both occur on the psychological level, and both are generally thought of as “wanting to have sex with someone”, which is accurate, in a sense, but only sometimes — to the point where such a definition can muddle understandings once it’s taken into other…

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The Word “Partner” and Relationship Anarchy

I’ve contemplated doing away with the term “partner” before, and I’d like to revisit that idea in the context of further exploring what relationship anarchy means to me personally and philosophically.

I’ve used the word “partner” to designate the two people I want to live with long-term, and that’s honestly the only distinctive feature of those relationships that warrants a separation of them from all my other relationships: the committed cohabitation. That cohabitation doesn’t have to be and ideally wouldn’t be full-time in either relationship, for the simple fact that I’d like to live with these two people separately from each other, which would mean I would never be in the same place 365 days a year. Add in the other factor that I’m someone who likes to travel around, partially to accommodate my relationships that do and will forever be located in multiple states, and it’s a given that barring financial limitations, I’m never going to be someone with roots in one city, one house, with any one person.

When I’ve used the word “partner” to describe this man and woman I want to have steady domestic ties with, I never meant to assign special value to them in my social network or to say that those relationships have to look dramatically different than all of my other relationships. I wouldn’t be a relationship anarchist if I did. In my life, there is no sex, no marriage, no kids, no normative romance as a different and superior entity juxtaposed against friendship. So already, right out the gate, the lines between “partner” and “non-partner” are pretty damn blurred, if not nonexistent.

In friendship–which is a very specific term in my language, one that doesn’t apply to casual or emotionally superficial relationships–I’m naturally a very loving, caring, emotional companion. Given free rein to do whatever I please, I like to be affectionate and to create emotional intimacy and make shows of my feelings the way romantic people “romance” their lovers. I can experience love toward people I don’t want to be coupled with in a normative romantic relationship, very intensely. The kind of love that can either send me walking around with a smile on my face for no reason, glowing as I think about a friend, or privately crying my eyes out because I don’t feel loved by them. I’ve been known to hijack acts of love traditionally considered “romantic” and use them in my friendships, not because I want to ‘date’ said friends the way romantic-sexual people or even romantic asexuals do, but because why the hell not?

Whether it’s hours of cuddling or spending a whole evening together one-on-one or handwriting a love letter or composing a poem meant for someone specific or engaging in domestic acts like cleaning or errand running or stepping in to be caretaker during times of physical or emotional distress, the full gamut of loving is something I make available to anyone and everyone I love. There’s nothing that’s specifically meant for the people I want to live with, other than cohabitation, and even that I can be flexible about. If it’s cool with everyone in the picture and it’s something I want to do, I’ll do it with a friend who I’m less practically involved with in addition to the friends I live with. No form of physical affection is off-limits in my non-cohabiting friendships, no level of emotional intimacy, no demonstration of affection and love. Not on my end.

I take the RA tenets of equality and universal freedom seriously.

Likewise, when it comes to my cohabiting friends engaging with other people outside of their relationships with me, I want to extend that same degree of freedom to them. That doesn’t mean they’re obligated to have other relationships as intimate or emotional or physical as ours, if they don’t want to. I have no idea how they’re going to feel about relationship style in their own lives, whether they’re the types who are happy with just one primary, sensual, passionate relationship and normative friendships or whether they’re more poly-esque, but no matter what they actually want from their other relationships with people, they should have the same freedom I have to pursue connection and affection.

The only sticking point for me is our commitment to live together at least part-time, simply because if I establish a domestic life with someone I’m really attached to, the disruption of that for the sake of them moving in with someone else would be very painful for me and would likely end or interrupt my relationship with that friend. That’s not to say they can’t have someone else in our home while I’m absent; I don’t care what any of my friends do when I’m not around or who they do it with, as long as my relationships with them are in a good place and I feel loved and secure, which isn’t dependent upon monogamy.

So, the word “partner.” This is a term that’s more neutral than others commonly used to describe a primary companion, like girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, wife, spouse, significant other, lover, etc. I think if you’re someone who does relationships in a normative way, if you’re romantic and your primary partners are romantic interests, if you’re a monogamist of any kind–romantic or aromantic, if you’re married, the word “partner” makes a lot of sense.

But it’s a word built on the very things that my own radical relationship anarchy seeks to reject: the superiority of a romantic companion over nonromantic friends, the concept of a primary relationship that’s more important and valued and involved than all other relationships, the intertwining of “primary relationship” with certain behavioral markers like cohabitation or physical intimacy, the implication that whoever is a “partner” has power over your relationships with other people, amatonormativty, romance supremacy, etc. “Partner” is a romantic person’s word. By that, I mean it’s predominantly used by romantic people to enforce romance supremacist relationship hierarchies, whether they’re monogamous or polyamorous.

Yes, aromantic people have taken this word for themselves, to describe their own primary nonromantic companions, but at the end of the day, you can be someone who doesn’t experience romantic attraction or do romantic relationships but still structures your relationship network based on romantic society’s value system. That value system holds that you ought to have just one primary partner, who you are romantically and sexually involved with monogamously, and that relationship should be superior to all your other relationships in every way and come with an in-built entitlement to your time, attention, and emotional energy. That partner is supposed to be “special.” Which means everybody else you know isn’t. That partner is supposed to command a level of authority over you and your life such that no other person you know has the right to. That partner is supposed to be the person you love the most, meaning more than everyone else you know, and someone you love in a “special” way (as if there’s such a thing as non-special love). Obviously, not all of these rules transfer over to an aromantic person’s nonromantic partnership smoothly and completely, but the point is, an aromantic person is not somehow magically beyond this narrative that romantic-sexual society feeds us and that we use to view our relationships and other people’s relationships. You can be an aromantic person who’s internalized romance supremacy or romance-based relationship paradigms, just like you can be an asexual who’s internalized compulsory sexuality and sex supremacy.

Do I want the people I live with in a committed way to be more important or loved or more valued than everyone else I know? No. Should they be? No. Do they have to be identified as somehow different, socially and emotionally, than my other friends, in order for me to have the kind of relationships I want with them? I don’t think so. Do I want to structure my relationships according to the rules and traditions of romantic-sexual people who privilege romance and sex and monogamy and primary partnerships made of all three of those elements? Do I even want to talk about my relationships the way they do? No.

So, how useful is this word “partner”? How useful is the concept of it, if I’m someone who honest to God doesn’t want to make any one person or persons significantly more important than everyone else I know? What am I trying to communicate about those relationships and those people by using the word “partner” instead of “friend”?

The thing about the word “friend” is that it’s pretty meaningless in its wide usage. It lacks specificity. It’s overused. It’s a signifier of a relationship assumed to be inferior by our society, in comparison to every other type of personal relationship. Romantic-sexual people, who are the majority worldwide, don’t give a fuck about friendship in comparison to romantic sexuality or to biological family. Just friends, more than friends, friendzone, the very binary posing “friend” (meaning: nonromantic, nonsexual companion) against “partner” or “spouse” or “lover” or “girlfriend/boyfriend” or “significant other,” for fuck’s sake (meaning: romantic and sexual mate)–all of these are linguistic symbols that reinforce romantic-sexual supremacy and the idea of “primary partner as definitively romantic and sexual” on a constant basis. We are constantly communicating to ourselves and to each other that friendship is inferior to romance, that the two never mix, that they are inherently different and separate, that nonromantic friendship can never be better than romance or equal to it. People use the words “friend” and “friendship” to describe all kinds of people and connections in their lives, many of which don’t actually carry any emotional weight to them or include love.

If you got someone in your life who you love a lot, who’s important to you, who you have some kind of a commitment with, who you’re connected to in ways that surpass normative friendship, then it’s logical that you would want to communicate that to people about your companion, whether they’re romantic or nonromantic to you. “Friend” was not enough for aromantic people who want and have nonromantic primary partners, so they created the term “queerplatonic” to describe a nonromantic feeling or attachment that goes beyond the perceived emotional limits of “friendship,” even “best friends.”

But ah, isn’t that falling into the trap of Romantic Ideology? Is that submitting to the rules of amatonormativity? Isn’t that an agreement that mere “friendship” can never actually include all of the emotional intensity and physical touch and love and involvement and connection and even commitment and exclusivity that is associated with romantic relationships? Isn’t that creating a context in which now, you can say, “This person is my [queerplatonic] partner but that person is just a friend“?

What if instead of creating new words to describe loving, intimate, even passionate or sensual nonromantic relationships, what if instead of appropriating romantic language, we actually just reclaimed the words “friend” and “friendship”? What if we got more careful about how we use the words “friend” and “friendship”? Instead of calling someone a “friend,” we could use associate, co-worker, peer, acquaintance, friendly acquaintance, activity partner, collaborator, colleague, cohort, etc to name people who aren’t our friends if we conceive of friendship as emotionally significant and specific. We could give the words “friend” and “friendship” more significance that way, so if we hear someone call somebody else their friend, we immediately know that person is important to the speaker.

In my own life, I can call the man I want to live with long-term my passionate friend, because what I want with him is a passionate friendship. I could call the woman I want to live with my queerplatonic friend or my female best friend because what I want with her is what I’ve experienced as a best friendship + committed cohabitation + a kind of exclusivity that eliminates traditional romance as something she engages in with other people (thus, why I want her to be an aromantic asexual). Or I could just call them my friends, no different than the other people I love in my life. Instead of “this is my partner” and “these are my friends,” I could think of the people in my life this way: “This is my friend who I live with, this is my friend who I hang out with once a week, this is my friend who I talk to on the phone a lot because we’re long distance, these are my friends who I’m physically intimate with and those are friends I’m not physically intimate with, etc.”

That would create equality in my relationships both linguistically and mentally, and I bet over time, it would lend itself to creating emotional equality too. And sure, if I did that, I would inevitably have to face romantic normativist assholes who immediately downgrade those people and relationships I have in their minds because to them, “partners” and “spouses” and “lovers” are important and “friends” aren’t. But why should I care how they view my relationships anyway? And why should I further enable them to think of friendship the way they do?

Hell, if everyone I love is my friend, regardless of what the relationship looks like, I could use conversations with relationship traditionalists/romantic hierarchists as opportunities to mindfuck them about what friendship is.

“Wait. So you own a house with them and cuddle with them in your underwear and travel with them and neither of you are looking to get involved in a romantic relationship with someone else because you want to stay with each other? I thought you said that person was your friend?”

“I did.”

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Aesthetic Attraction

So anyone who’s spent any time learning about asexuality from asexuals likely knows that many asexuals experience aesthetic attraction to people, despite our inability to feel sexual attraction. Aesthetic attraction is about the image of a person, the visual: their body, their face, the way they dress, even the way they move (though this is sometimes separated out and identified as kinesthetic attraction). Asexuals can have types, when it comes to physical appearance: certain body types they find especially attractive, hair color they prefer, eye color, style, etc. Basically, if you’re an asexual who experiences aesthetic attraction, it’s the same experience as being a sexual person feeling sexually attracted to someone hot, except there’s no sexual component to finding the other person hot.

It occurred to me that the way a lot of asexuals describe and define aesthetic attraction isn’t actually correct. Asexuals frequently mix up what I call aesthetic recognition with aesthetic attraction, and I myself have done this in the past. The most common way asexuals describe aesthetic attraction is with the nature or painting analogy: “When I feel aesthetically attracted to someone, I think they’re really beautiful and I like looking at them, but I don’t want to have sex with them–like when you’re looking at a beautiful sunset or a painting.”

It’s logical that we would make this comparison because recognizing beauty in a person, without sexual desire, is similar to recognizing beauty in inanimate visuals. But that analogy describes recognition, not attraction.

The difference applies to sexual people too: a heterosexual woman can recognize another woman as beautiful, but that doesn’t mean she’s attracted to that other woman’s physical appearance, the way she’s attracted to a man’s appearance. And yes, it’s harder to parse out what nonsexual aesthetic attraction would be like for someone who’s allosexual and thus difficult to compare it to nonsexual aesthetic attraction in asexuals, but what I’m saying is, when we talk about sexual people recognizing physical attractiveness in people of the gender(s) they are not sexually attracted to, we’re almost never talking about actual aesthetic attraction. We’re talking, again, about aesthetic recognition.

When you see a beautiful sunset, you don’t want to fuck it, but you’re also not attracted to it in the sense of being involuntarily drawn toward it. You could have a big photo print of a beautiful sunset on the wall of your home and walk past it every day without even paying attention to it, no matter how pretty you think it is when you do look at it. Try it on for size: try saying out loud, “I’m aesthetically attracted to sunsets.” Or “I’m aesthetically attracted to Renaissance paintings.” You may really like art from a certain period or in a certain style enough that you collect it and really enjoy looking at it all the time, but you aren’t attracted to the art so much as you’re appreciating it. There’s something more to attraction, of any kind, than appreciation.

Since figuring out that aesthetic recognition is not, in fact, aesthetic attraction, I’ve realized that maybe aesthetic attraction is something virtually exclusive to asexuals. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of an allosexual person feeling aesthetically attracted to someone they don’t want to fuck, which makes sense because sexual attraction is almost always inclusive of attraction to a person’s looks/body/etc. It’s possible to be sexually attracted to someone you don’t find physically hot, but if you’re an allosexual, I don’t think you can find someone physically hot without also feeling sexually attracted to them. You don’t find every single person of the opposite sex or same sex or whatever gender you’re sexually attracted to, physically good-looking or sexually attractive, but when you do see someone you think is good-looking and that person is of a gender you’re sexually oriented toward, is that attraction to their appearance ever truly devoid of sexuality?

Let me try to describe the difference between aesthetic attraction and aesthetic recognition from my own point of view. I’ve experienced both, though aesthetic recognition is exponentially more common to my experience than attraction. I am rarely attracted to people based on looks. Very rarely. As in, when I realized that aesthetic recognition is not aesthetic attraction, it became clear to me that I’ve been aesthetically attracted to fewer than ten men thus far in my life and almost never aesthetically attracted to women during the first 20 years of my life or so.

Aesthetic recognition basically entails me seeing someone who’s good-looking, whether in face or body or both, and thinking, “Oh, that person has a nice body/pretty face/nice smile/nice eyes.” There’s nothing compelling about it. It doesn’t feel much different than noticing the moon or a beautiful suit in a department store. (Actually, I’ve probably been significantly more excited by a gorgeous classic car or a high-quality leather jacket than by anyone I recognized as good-looking.) Aesthetic recognition doesn’t feel irresistible. There’s no involuntary, inexplicable draw to the other person, just because I recognize they’re good-looking by society’s standards or whoever’s. I don’t have intrusive thoughts about someone who’s good-looking, if I’m just recognizing their looks without feeling attraction. If I see a good-looking stranger at a mall on a Saturday, and I’m not attracted to them, I’m not going to think of them again after that moment.

Aesthetic attraction feels compelling. It feels like there’s this magnetic force driving me to look at someone, really look at them and look for as long as possible. When I’m aesthetically attracted to someone, I’m aware of their presence and position in the room. If I’m aesthetically attracted to a celebrity, I may seek out photographs of them just to look at repeatedly. (Pretty sure no one goes hunting for sunset photos online, on a regular basis, no matter how pretty they are.) Someone who is aesthetically attractive to me stands out in public. That might be because I am so rarely aesthetically attracted to people, but I also think that it’s a feature of aesthetic attraction abstractly. It’s sort of like, if you’re looking at a big painting and most of it is black and white but there’s a red circle somewhere–you are immediately and consistently drawn to the red circle. That’s where your eyes want to go.  And you may walk away from the painting and think about that red circle again later in the day because it’s just so visually appealing to you.

I recognize that aesthetic attraction works differently for different asexuals, and for the romantic aces, aesthetic attraction can be tied into romantic attraction. But for me personally, I’ve come to understand that aesthetic attraction doesn’t actually have much to do with who I choose to get to know and who I form emotional bonds with or don’t form them with. Aesthetic attraction is this background experience for me. It’s nice when it happens, but because it usually isn’t happening and because I intellectually understand that aesthetic attractiveness doesn’t have anything to do with a person’s overall appeal as a potential friend, it’s basically a blip on my radar. I don’t need to be aesthetically attracted to someone to be emotionally attracted to them, and just because I’m emotionally attracted to someone, doesn’t mean I’m going to find them aesthetically attractive.

The strongest experience of aesthetic attraction I’ve ever had in person was to a man who most closely resembled my ideal type. Total stranger. Never formally met him. A friend of mine did meet him (this was in college), then said to me, “If you want, I can introduce you.” To which I said, “What would be the point of that?” I absolutely loved seeing him around campus, loved the feeling of being so drawn to his looks, but I also figured, “He’s straight, he’s got a girlfriend, odds of me getting what I want in a connection with him are nil, so why bother?” Just because he was hot as shit, doesn’t mean we would’ve gotten along as people anyway. I heard he was a great guy,  but that says nothing of our personal compatibility.

I’ve definitely experienced secondary aesthetic attraction: which is described as, “I met someone cool, I developed feelings for them, we formed a meaningful friendship, and now I can see them as physically attractive, even though I didn’t see it when we first met. Now I can appreciate certain features of their face or their body, their smile or their laugh, etc.” It’s basically the brain fucking with you, distorting your perception of someone because you like them or love them. If they were a stranger, you wouldn’t look at them twice because you don’t actually find them visually, physically good-looking. But once you love them, now all of a sudden you can like the way they look not because their looks are objectively great but because their looks belong to them. It’s their face, their eyes, their voice, their body, their hands, their hair, whatever. You love them, so you come to love these visual parts of them, too.

In this vein, something like internet dating or internet socializing in general, is really weird for me because

a) on the one hand, very few people strike me as physically/visually attractive

b) physical appearance is most of what I have to go on, when browsing a sea of strangers online (or even in person)

c) I’m aware of this disconnect between who I think is physically attractive and who I actually end up feeling emotionally attracted to.

It’s not that aesthetic attraction is totally unimportant to me. I do want to be aesthetically attracted to my male partner, for instance. Powerfully attracted. I know what that feels like, and I want it to be part of the dynamic between us. Yet of all the emotionally significant relationships I’ve made in life, few of them included aesthetic attraction and hardly any of them started with aesthetic attraction. When I’m looking at people online, I’m aware that I’m ignoring people based on their looks alone, while also being aware that I don’t need to be aesthetically attracted to someone, to love them and adore them and have a really rewarding relationship with them. So aside from the fact that I don’t actually want a normative romantic relationship with anyone, online dating just…. doesn’t really make sense for me.

Another I thing I want to briefly mention, on the subject of aesthetic attraction from an asexual perspective, is my own recent realizations of how my aesthetic attraction experiences have been influenced somewhat by internalized sexual attitudes. Namely: the sexual objectification of the female body and the eroticizing of female same-sex sensuality and physical affection in the media.

Since I was a child, I’ve been attracted to men: emotionally, aesthetically, sensually. I felt passionate love, infatuation, and desire for men who I wanted to either be romantic friends with or be a normative romantic couple with. (I went through a phase, growing up, where I assumed I wanted normative romance + monogamy + the whole shebang.) I could feel strong aesthetic attraction to male bodies, to men who I emotionally fixated on without even being attracted to their looks at first, and I’ve always been aware that I really want and value sensual/physical/nonsexual intimacy in my emotionally significant relationships, even without sensual attraction to specific individuals in the picture. I was having all of these feelings toward boys and men for years before I discovered asexuality was a thing and before I started to identify as asexual. I assumed I was straight, yet at no point did it naturally occur to me to interpret my emotional and sensual attractions to men as sexual. I never worried about the possibility that I wanted to fuck men and just didn’t know it. I knew I didn’t. No matter how deeply I loved a man, no matter how much I wanted to be close to him or to have a physically intimate relationship with him, I knew I didn’t want or need to have sex with him. Even while those feelings and attachments were happening and I had an active libido, I knew I wasn’t sexually desirous toward men! And I had a much cruder understanding of sexuality and attraction back then, during my teen years, in comparison to now.

But during the small handful of times, during the last few years, where I found myself aesthetically attracted to women, I would have a moment of panic. “Oh, my God,” I thought. “Am I experiencing sexual attraction? To women? Is this a new development in my social makeup?” I would analyze what I felt in those instances of attraction, to death. I’d re-read descriptions of sexual attraction online, trying to see if what I had felt–usually for no more than a minute or two, toward strangers in public places–matched up. I would question myself: what do I want from these women? Am I sensually attracted to them? (Nope!) What am I feeling in my body? What’s going through my head when this happens?

Then, through conversations with people close to me, one of whom is an asexual woman who’s always been more attracted to women than men, it dawned on me that I was freaking out over nothing, for really fucked up reasons. If I compare the years and years worth of attractions and attachments I’ve felt for men to my aesthetic attraction to women I don’t even know, it becomes apparent that what I’ve felt toward the women wasn’t any different than what I felt toward men I had been aesthetically attracted to in the past. In fact, my attraction to women, which is as sporadic and infrequent as my attraction to men, is pretty weak in comparison to what I’ve felt for men. If what I had felt for men never gave me pause, never caused me to question my asexuality, why the hell should my similar attraction to women give me pause? I know for a fact that what I felt toward strangers based on their looks alone didn’t even include sensual attraction, because for me, sensual attraction is a direct result of emotional attraction and attachment: I always want physical affection and intimacy in the abstract, but I’ll only desire physical affection and intimacy from you specifically if I already love you.

I think the reasons behind my irrational anxiety about finding women aesthetically attractive are twofold:

1. As my ace friend pointed out, women and women’s bodies are sexually objectified in the media all the time, by everyone. Women are taught to view themselves and each other as sex objects, and the most popular type of presentation of a woman is one that plays up her physical attractiveness in a sexual way. Women are never just pretty or beautiful; they’re sexy, the point of their physical beauty being to attract sexual attention. We are not taught that nonsexual aesthetic attraction to women is possible. Women are either sexy or ugly. Their beauty is located in their degree of sexual desirability.

2. In this same vein, same-sex sensuality and touch between women is often eroticized subtextually because media is created by and for the heterosexual male gaze, and straight men think lesbianism is hot. I’m not talking about actual lesbians in TV shows and movies, having actual lesbian relationships or lesbian sex. I’m talking about straight female characters who have a sexually suggestive scene with each other, where one woman is applying sunscreen to the other woman’s bare back in such a way that we’re supposed to find it a little sexy–even though they’re not going to fuck and even though they’re straight. It’s about fantasy. The fantasy of straight men viewing women as sex objects in whatever way turns them (the men) on.

This isn’t just an issue between females, though. We’ve now reached a point in American culture where no matter what the gender combination is, everything is sexualized and romanticized: every kind of affectionate touch, strong emotion, verbalization of love and affection, demonstrations of how much one values the relationship one has with someone else. Basically, the message is: “If you want or feel anything for anyone that goes beyond the most superficial, unemotional, non-physical, meaningless ‘friendship’ possible, you’re romantically and sexually attracted to that person. The only reason you would want to touch them, love them, be emotionally intimate with them, is because you want to fuck them and be in a romantic relationship with them.” We’ve taken every kind of marker of emotional connection between human beings and narrowed down the context in which they can happen to one highly specific type of relationship: the romantic-sexual couple relationship.

Men and women can’t be friends. Men can’t be friends. Women can’t be friends. Unless by “friends” you mean people who hang out together casually in public spaces and don’t give a flying fuck about each other. Oh, and they better keep at least three feet apart from each other at all times.

In American media, there is no presentation of an emotionally intimate, physically affectionate or sensual, deep, meaningful friendship between two characters–regardless of gender–that is not eroticized and/or romanticized by the TV show/movie itself or by the audience. Everything is either gay or straight because everything is sexual.

(And sexual people act shocked when I say that they don’t give a shit about friendship. Or when I suggest that asexuals may be capable of a type of nonromantic, nonsexual love that sexual people are incapable of.)

 

I wasn’t concerned because I felt attracted to women’s looks. I was concerned by the possibility of that attraction being sexual, as I would be if I had any reason to question whether my attractions to men are sexual. Now that I understand my aesthetic attractions to women are no more sexual than my aesthetic attractions to men, I can relax and reflect on how silly it was for me to react to my own noticing of attractive women as if it was somehow fundamentally different than my noticing of attractive men.

If I can want and be both attracted to a man’s appearance and very sensually, physically intimate and affectionate with a man, without wanting sex from him, I can feel that way about a woman, too. Finding someone, anyone, physically good-looking doesn’t mean you want to fuck them and it also doesn’t mean you should pursue an actual reciprocal relationship (of any kind) with them. Aesthetic attraction is not romantic attraction or emotional attraction or sensual attraction. Aesthetic attraction isn’t love. And even sensual attraction can happen apart from romantic attraction, apart from aesthetic attraction, and apart from sexual attraction.

It might not be true of romantic-sexual people, but I can be very attracted to someone visually without wanting to know them or touch them or fuck them. And I can want to touch someone–sensually, affectionately, intimately–without wanting to fuck them or be in a normative romantic relationship with them and without feeling aesthetically attracted to them. Gender doesn’t make a difference.

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Relationship Anarchy vs. Nonhierarchical Polyamory

I’ve noticed that in the sexual polyamory community, when the subject of relationship anarchy comes up, it is often used as a term interchangeable with nonhierarchical polyamory. I view the two as dramatically and significantly different, and (I could be wrong) I think that Andie Nordgren, who can be credited with creating the term in her native Swedish, views the two as different also.

Here’s how I view the three major types of emotional nonmonogamy:

1. Hierarchical Polyamory: There’s a primary romantic-sexual relationship that all other romantic and/or sexual relationships are secondary to, meaning the primary relationship gets the lion’s share of emotional energy, commitment, time, etc. Usually, it also means that the primary couple has veto power over the other satellite romantic/sexual relationships. The secondary (and even tertiary) romantic-sexual or sexual relationships will be sacrificed, diminished, damaged, etc to preserve and protect the primary romantic-sexual relationship if necessary. A secondary partner, whether sexual or romantic-sexual, has fewer rights than the primary partner by default. I’ve seen hierarchical polyamory described as “monogamists doing poly by monogamy’s rules” and I think that’s a pretty accurate description.

Hierarchical Polyamorists only consider romantic-sexual relationships to be a part of their poly network. Their friendships are inferior to their romantic-sexual relationships, just like they are in the lives of monogamists. Their friendships also most likely look normative: little to no commitment, touch, emotional passion or intimacy, etc.

2. Nonhierarchical Polyamory seeks to create a poly network where no single romantic-sexual relationship is privileged over any other. That means nobody has veto power. That means no person has any authority over someone else’s relationship with a third party. That means there can be a pretty equal love amongst partners, even if the practical commitments are not all identical: so if Janie lives with her  lover Mike and they have kids together, and both Janie and Mike have at least one other lover who doesn’t live with them or function as full-time co-parents to the kids, but they’re nonhierarchical about their poly practice, Janie and Mike’s other romantic-sexual relationships are still viewed by them as important, valuable, and worthy of as much time and attention as can be given and as if wanted by all parties involved. That also means that Janie and Mike both put in the same amount of effort and courtesy into their other romantic-sexual relationships: they care just as much about the needs, desires, and well-being of their other lovers as they do about each other’s. Janie and Mike aren’t going to damage their own relationship to please one of their other partners, but they’re also not going to damage their relationship with another partner to please each other.

Again, nonhierarchical poly people do friendships in a normative way, and only consider their romantic-sexual partners to be part of their poly network. There is not hierarchy within their romantic-sexual relationship set, but there is hierarchy in their overall social network, with romantic-sexual relationships automatically taking superior position over nonromantic/nonsexual relationships. No different than monogamists’.

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The two greatest essays I’ve ever read describing both hierarchical and nonhierarchical polyamory are “the problem with polynormativity” and “polyamory and hierarchy.” I highly recommend them.

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3. Then, you have relationship anarchy. Relationship anarchy is not about romance or sex, although it can include either one or both, so a relationship anarchist’s partnerships and important, intimate relationships are not going to be limited to their romantic, sexual, or romantic-sexual partners. They may not even have romantic-sexual partners or sexual partners, because hey, celibate asexuals and aromantics can be RA’s too.

But let’s use a romantic person as an example, someone who definitely feels a difference between “romantic” love and “nonromantic/friendly” love. If a romantic person, whether sexual or asexual, is a relationship anarchist, then they are not going to put their romantic relationships above their nonromantic relationships. They aren’t going to view a romantic companion as a “partner” by default and never view a nonromantic companion as “just a friend” (translation: “not a partner”) by default either. A relationship anarchist is not going to limit sex, commitment, physical/sensual affection and intimacy, emotional intimacy, etc to their romantic partners and thereby deprive their nonromantic friends all of those things.

A relationship anarchist is not only  someone who rejects hierarchy amongst partners but amongst romantic vs. nonromantic relationships. An RA could make a nonromantic friend their partner. Even without sex in the picture. An RA could take all of those romantically coded “partner” behaviors–committed cohabitation, child rearing, financial interdependence, integration of partner into family of origin, etc–and perform them with a nonromantic/nonsexual partner instead of or in addition to a romantic and/or sexual partner.

Depending upon the relationship anarchist, there could even be a structuring of individual relationships and the relationship network that totally ignores romantic orientation: so in other words, a man who is a relationship anarchist and heterosexual could choose to make his male best friend his partner who he lives with or choose to have a romantic friendship or queerplatonic friendship with that friend that’s equally as important, emotional, and intimate as any romantic relationship with a woman that he has. He could end up deciding with his female romantic partner and his male best friend that all three will be a family, live together, function as equal partners, etc.

An aromantic person of any sexual orientation can be a relationship anarchist. (I also happen to think that aromantic people can be polyamorous, but that’s another subject.)

So, to me, relationship anarchy is very different from nonhierarchical polyamory. Polyamory (unless you’re aromantic) doesn’t take nonromantic, nonsexual friendship into account at all. Relationship anarchy does. Relationship anarchy also breaks down individual relationship type structures, so that there are no pre-ordained rules about what a “romantic” relationship looks like vs. what  “friendship” looks like. Romantic partners don’t have authority over each other’s friendships any more than they have authority over each other’s romantic relationships. In an RA network, you could have sexual nonromantic friendships and nonsexual romantic relationships and nonromantic nonsexual friendships that are more involved than romantic or sexual relationships, etc.

Relationship anarchy basically thrives on grey-area. It creates gray-area relationships. It lives in that space. There are an infinite number of possible relationship anarchist networks, but that’s really the core of it no matter the relationship configuration. Grey-area relationships that don’t abide by mainstream romantic-sexual society’s definitions of “romance” and “friendship” and “partnership” and “family.”

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So, it makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable or annoyed when I see sexual poly people use the term “relationship anarchy” when they’re actually talking about nonhierarchical polyamory. I’m not the terminology police of the worldwide poly community, nor am I even the person who coined the term “relationship anarchy,” so I can’t sit here and demand that all poly people adhere to the definitions I’ve laid out here.

But if I come into contact with a sexual poly person who starts talking about relationship anarchy, I’m going to approach with skepticism and ask them what they really mean when they use that term. Do nonromantic/nonsexual friendships count? Or no? Do romantic-sexual relationships pretty much look exactly the way normative romantic-sexual monogamous relationships do, sans the monogamy? Or are their forms more ambiguous and amorphous than that?

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Link: Excellent Piece on Sex Positivity as Paternalistic, Violent, Profoundly Flawed

Trudy, over at Gradient Lair, wrote a fucking phenomenal essay entitled “How White Supremacy Creates Paternalism and Violence In “Sex Positivity” Discourse” and it is so brilliant and important. She explains why the sex-positive movement is paternalistic, violent, and irrelevant to her as a black asexual woman. I haven’t identified as sex-positive for a while now; I’ve gone back and forth between “sex-neutral” and “sex-negative,” the most accurate term for my attitude being “sex-critical.” I’ve known from my first exposure to the sex-positive movement that it was flawed, but Trudy’s essay has illuminated for me just how insidiously flawed it is, when you’re looking at it from a perspective other than “White, Heterosexual Woman” or “White, Heterosexual Man” or “White Sexual Person” period.

The part that blew me away most was:

“Sexual politics will never be intersectionality-neutral space. As long as “sex positivity” remains about forcing sexuality and only particular conceptions of sexuality, it will remain abusive and beneficial only to a very small group of women, the same ones who regularly get to decide what is feminist or not while standing on the backs of the women they’re judging. If “sex positivity” means that White women get to decide what my boundaries are, it is White supremacy. If it means that only sexual intercourse itself matters, not all the politics that shape sex long before the bedroom, it will remain patriarchal. If it means that the history of the colonization of Black women’s bodies must be excluded from the conversation when that colonization is what White womanhood itself cannot exist without, it will remain oppressive.”

 

Go read the whole essay. Let it percolate in your brain a while.

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