Not Nothing and Other Negations

(This post was written for the December Carnival of Aces, of which the topic was “attraction”.)

Under timely circumstances, some of my friends went to a workshop on campus the other day on the topic of love and “why we all crave it”.  By the sounds of it, I’m glad I didn’t go.  Much of the discussion seems to have been about romantic relationships, how we all (by this account) desire unconditional and everlasting ‘true love’, and how without it we are nothing no matter how much else we might happen to accomplish in our lives.  My aim here isn’t to talk about the workshop: the people who organized it had their own reasons for saying the things they did, and I wasn’t actually there to hear them.  Instead, I want to talk about these ideas of romance, and in particular how they relate to the realities of those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t experience love in such ways.

To make it clear where I’m coming from, when pressed for a one-word description of how I understand myself in terms of romantic orientation, I tend to say that I’m aromantic.  It is perhaps a bit more complicated than that.  I find the whole concept of romance somewhat confusing if not incoherent, particularly once sex has been removed from the equation (since sex can be used to arbitrarily differentiate between romantic relationships and other kinds of close friendships, although even for non-asexuals this doesn’t really work all of the time).  It is entirely possible that I actually do experience what other people might term romantic attraction and so am not aromantic, but the fact is that I don’t find the romantic paradigm useful for describing my own experience or understanding the dynamics of my relationships, seeing as how I find it so confusing.  How can I tell whether I experience romantic attraction if I don’t understand what is meant by ‘romantic’?  I prefer simply to think in terms of ‘closeness’ or whatnot: I feel closer to some people than to others.  It is true that I feel the desire to be closer to some people than to others as well.  This could perhaps be understood as indicating some kind of attraction, but I’m not sure what else to say about it.  Attraction is not by necessity romantic any more so than it is necessarily sexual, and without clearly understanding the romantic I’d be hard-pressed to call such attraction romantic or not.  In any case, none of this is important to my identity: I’d rather just call myself an ‘asexual’ than an ‘aromantic asexual’ or (with the alternative assumption that I do experience romantic attraction) a ‘panromantic asexual’, but I don’t care too deeply about it one way or the other.  Fair enough?

So, let’s return to the ideas about romance which I mentioned at the start.  I won’t say anything much about the idea that it must be unconditional: I think the problems with this are obvious enough to (well, almost) anyone who stops to think about it for about for a moment.  What about ‘true love’?  At the risk of sounding terribly unromantic, I’m going to say that this term is poorly defined and can be unceremoniously discarded for the purposes of our discussion.  (And don’t say anything about ‘the one’ either!  That’s an unabashedly supernatural notion I’ll have no truck with.)  That leaves one thing, the idea that we’re nothing, or at least incomplete, without romantic love.  Before even speaking about the idea itself, it’s obvious enough that this can be an annoying if not hurtful claim to aromantic asexuals.  If we don’t experience romantic attraction, but need romance in order to be ‘complete’, then we’d find ourselves in a situation where we’d be at a great disadvantage in living meaningful lives, were we not to simply be declared ‘broken’ by our own nature from the start.  The more basic problem with it though is probably one that is familiar to many asexuals: substitute the word ‘romantic’ with the word ‘sexual’ and it should be clear why.  (“You must experience sexual love to be complete as a human being.  Your relationships aren’t the real thing otherwise.”)  It is a clear privileging of certain forms of affection over others.  (I’m not saying that this is a problem at the personal level: of course we value certain things above others.  The problem though is saying that other people must follow suit when the values in question are simply our personal preferences.  This holds true even of preferences that are generally shared among one’s peers or by society at large, which may indeed be socially conditioned.)  Anyhow, another problem might by now be obvious.  The idea that we need to experience romance in order to be complete is a form of the idea of true love, which has in fact crept back sneakily into this discussion.  “You must desire this kind of love.  You must experience this kind of love.  This is true love!  Without this you are altogether lacking.”

I make no claim to be a complete and perfect human being and am willing to accept that I am quite deficient in certain respects, but in certain other respects I think I actually have much to be proud of.  I think it’s fair to say that I amount to more than nothing.  Yet for the reasons explained, I have not experienced the kinds of love described here.  Someone then must be wrong, and I don’t think it’s me…

But there’s more to it.  When I say that “I’m glad I didn’t go” to the workshop I don’t mean that this is because I think the people presenting the workshop were simply mistaken, and if I thought that the ideas about the importance of romance which I’ve mentioned here were merely incorrect then I wouldn’t have anything much else to say about them.  The fact is though that these ideas have a way of playing to one’s insecurities.  Consider that one of the positive things about an asexual identity is that it can help replace the idea that one is defective for not experiencing sexual attraction: this seems to describe the experience of more than a few of us.  Now what of romance and those of us who are aromantic and don’t experience romantic attraction or (aromantic or not) simply don’t seem able to make sense of romance or connect with people in that way?  To say that it’s just how we are and it’s fine and we can still live fulfilling lives is reassuring.  It also flies in the face of almost everything our society says about love.  After all, a quick look at popular culture shows us that romance (and sex too) is held in very high esteem, and more than that, is thought to be a considerable part of what makes us who we are.  It’s something we should have, or at very least want (and be inconsolably miserable without).  To simply say that this isn’t so for us is perhaps to say that it needn’t be so for others.  It’s a challenge of sorts, and it is not made against one found to be resourceless.  After all, how can I even write this without feeling just a little bit like some sort of loveless orc?  How can I even try to dodge the charge that I must just be a bitter person who’s chosen to denounce (what is held to be the only meaningful kind of) love for want of its experience?  But no one has told me these things: I am rather giving voice to my own doubts, which exist in light of social expectations of the universality of romance and sex.  In truth, I don’t even think I’m saying anything that radical.  “I still desire love and affection, just not of those sorts.”  In this respect I see little substantial difference between myself and anyone else who desires love, who feels any sort of attraction to others.  But I’ve set a distance between myself and the forms of affection commonly designated as especially important.  Some sort of difficulty is to be expected.  So be it.

There is a remedy for this, but whether it is an easy one I can’t altogether say.  We have to consider where our expectations come from and try to evaluate them on their own merits.  “Does it really make sense to say that I am flawed if I do not desire love in such-and-such a way and broken if I do not even desire it?”  When we’re talking about sex and even romance, I don’t think that it does: to me it would not seem reasonable to say otherwise.  Have I reasoned correctly?  Then all I have to do is actually believe what my reason tells me is true.

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A Sexual Orientation

So, I was on the radio last week talking about asexuality.  I’ll have more to say about that later: I should soon have an audio copy of the program which I can post here, and I’ll share my thoughts on it then.  For now though, there’s something that came up during the show which I want to talk more about.  It’s the answer to a basic question that people often seem to have when introduced to the definition of asexuality and the concept of it as a sexual orientation.  To review, when we define as asexual a person who does not experience sexual attraction, it is necessary to explain what we mean by sexual attraction.  Following what we said at the workshop earlier, I’ve been defining it as directed sexual desire.  This leaves open the possibility of defining as asexual someone who can experience some kind of undirected sexual desire, as it does someone who does not experience sexual desire at all.  The question is, why do we call both these sorts of people asexual?  Since they have such different experiences as regards something as basic as their own sexual desire, shouldn’t we distinguish them in such a way as to not say that they share the same sexual orientation?  Additionally, since the word “asexual” suggests a negation of sexuality, why do we not confine the label to those who experience no sort of sexual desire at all?

The justification for calling both these sorts of people asexual lies I think in the concept of sexual orientation itself.  After all, what exactly do we mean by this?  I’d say that it is a concept referring to our sexual desires in relation to others.  For instance, when we talk about homosexuals we are talking about people who have sexual desires directed mainly towards members of the same sex/gender.  (This is another matter, but I don’t think the prevailing concepts of sexual orientation really distinguish between sex and gender, so I’m going to call it “sex/gender” for now.)  When we speak of asexuality as a sexual orientation we are therefore speaking about a term describing people who have no sexual desires directed towards anyone.  People who experience no sexual desire and those who experience only undirected sexual desire are both then meaningfully described as asexual, since neither experience desire directed towards anyone: their experiences of sexual desire in relation to others are both null, and so both are equally asexual by the standard logic of the terms of sexual orientation.  Of course, it could be objected that despite their shared lack of the experience of sexual attraction, we’re still describing a diverse group of people who differ in many ways as regards their experience of sexuality.  This is true.  However, this is also true of the people described by any other designation of sexual orientation.  For instance, we define as heterosexuals both men who are attracted to women and women who are attracted to men, despite the sex/gender difference in the objects of their desire and even the subjects themselves: the focus of the term is entirely on the relative sex/gender relation.  The language of sexual orientation is generalizing, and if we want to label people with anything beyond their own names then I think that we have to be willing to make such generalizations.

Some Thoughts on “Aesthetic Attraction”

This is in response to this post.

So what does aesthetic attraction mean to you? Because, as I mentioned in my lengthy post before, for me aesthetic attraction is always romantic. I cannot think of anyone I find aesthetically attractive (as I would say) to whom I am not also romantically attracted. In fact, many of these people I am romantically attracted only because they are aesthetically attractive (because I know little to nothing about them).

Y’all out there – asexual and sexual alike – how do you experience aesthetic attraction? What does it mean to you to be aesthetically attracted to someone? What kind of actions do you wish to take due to that aesthetic attraction? If the feeling is not romantic, then what is it?

This friend is a WTF?romantic (he doesn’t have a conceptual framework for differentiating between friendship and romantic relationships) so he couldn’t provide a very helpful answer. I would love to hear any personal insights…?

Since I’m the one mentioned there, I think I should say something.  To first explain, there was an AVEN meetup held here on Tuesday, and among the things discussed was the concept of aesthetic attraction.  We agreed that the description commonly given, in which it is likened to the ability to appreciate a beautiful work of art, is inadequate: there is no reason to describe as any sort of ‘attraction’ the basic ability to recognize aesthetic qualities.  Let’s call the latter ‘aesthetic recognition’ instead.  The question is, what exactly is aesthetic attraction, and how is it experienced?

Since it’s been a few days since the meetup and I’ve had a bit more time to think about it, I’ll try to answer that question again, and hopefully I’ll do a better job this time.  So, ‘aesthetic attraction’ sounds like it should describe something of the same kind as romantic or sexual attraction: a kind of attraction.  I don’t think it is the concept of attraction itself that is of difficulty here.  The word itself is from the Latin ad+traho, meaning “to draw towards, pull, allure.”  When we use it in the context of interpersonal relations I’d say that it refers to the drawing emotionally of others to oneself, which would be the effect of one’s being attractive, and to the state of being drawn emotionally to others, which would be the effect of finding them attractive.  Aesthetic attraction would then be an attraction brought about by means of aesthetic qualities.  I think most would agree that the latter are rather subjective: aesthetic qualities are not so much something one possesses in an absolute way as they are instead something attributed to one by another.  A ‘beautiful person’ is one found by others to be beautiful.  Not everyone agrees as to who is beautiful.  Of course, some may be more regularly found to be beautiful than are others, but I think that’s a separate matter.  Focusing therefore on the one who attributes the qualities in question to another, to be aesthetically attracted is to be drawn emotionally to another by means of finding the other to be in some way beautiful.

I suppose that much is all fairly obvious: so much then for aesthetic attraction.  The question of how it is experienced is however a more difficult one.  Let’s compare aesthetic attraction to the more familiar concept of sexual attraction.  (I’ll point out that I’m asexual, and so what follows here is slightly speculative on my part.)  How is sexual attraction experienced, and returning to the OP, what kinds of actions does one wish to take due to sexual attraction?  The answer to the latter question should be obvious enough in the case of sexual attraction: sex.  What, then, of the qualities which bring about the state of attraction?  They could perhaps be reduced to “looks and personality,” at which point a certain difficulty should become apparent: sexual attraction may be coupled with both aesthetic attraction and romantic attraction.  The extent to which this is so may vary from person to person, and between situations.  In some cases the aesthetic element may prevail and in others the romantic; one can even imagine one element being entirely absent, although it is hard to imagine the absence of both.  (By this I mean that I’m not sure what qualities could be deemed sexually attractive that could be simultaneously found neither aesthetically nor romantically attractive.  How could someone possessing neither set of qualities be found to be sexually attractive?)  So perhaps by ‘sexual attraction’ what we generally mean is an interplay of aesthetic and romantic attraction in which sex with the other is desired.  Sexual attraction is then so called not on the basis of the (aesthetic and/or romantic) qualities by which it is produced but rather on their result of directed sexual desire.  Does that make sense?

Of course, if I’ve answered any question just now, it’s not the one I was asked.  How then is aesthetic attraction experienced?  To begin, as asexuals we can say that it needn’t have a sexual element: although sexual attraction is commonly coupled with it, it need not be coupled with sexual attraction.  It may be significant that apparently aesthetic attraction is so called on the basis of the (aesthetic) qualities by which it is produced and not whatever might be their result.  In this respect it is in fact different from sexual attraction.  (Were we wrong at the beginning to assume that they were the same kind of thing?)  What of that other element, that of romantic attraction?

This is what my friend (the OP) talked about at the meetup that caused us so much difficulty.  If I understood correctly, my friend finds the experience of aesthetic attraction to be necessarily combined with that of romantic attraction.  As for myself, I simply wasn’t sure what to make of it at the time.  Part of the difficulty comes from the concept of romantic attraction itself: I find it difficult to separate from the concept of friendship, especially when sex is uninvolved.  However, I realize now that I’ve not accurately conveyed the nature of my confusion.  When I called myself a “WTF?romantic,” it sounded as though I were applying it as a label to myself, comparable to heteroromantic or aromantic.  However, I don’t mean to do that.  All I really mean is that, in contemplating the concepts of romance and friendship, I imagine myself as engaged in some sort of anthropological exercise, trying to understand things which I know I do not entirely understand and which I’m not so sure others really do understand as much as they might suppose.  That is to say, I think the two concepts really may be somewhat entangled in our society.  I think I do, however, experience the phenomena with which both concepts are concerned.  I think I do feel what certain others mean by ‘romantic attraction,’ even though I’m not sure why they call it that.  (I have more to say about romantic attraction, but that should wait for another post.)

On this account, I think I should actually be capable of examining the relationship between aesthetic and romantic attraction as regards my own experience.  From that experience, I think what I said at the meetup still holds: they can be associated, but they needn’t be.  In the case of sexual attraction, the desire for sex could be related to the recognition of aesthetic qualities, but it needn’t be, and in the case of romantic attraction, the desire for romance could be related to the recognition of aesthetic qualities, but it needn’t be either.  In both cases aesthetic attraction does however have as its effect the production of some kind of desire.  What I would say now is that these desires need not be limited to those which are sexual and/or romantic.  Most obviously, since I was just mentioning the entanglement of our concepts of romance and friendship, there could be the desire for friendship.  In other words, the desire for relationships of all sorts can in certain instances be based on attraction due to the recognition of aesthetic qualities.  Perhaps there are other kinds of desires which may arise from aesthetic attraction, but to me this is the most obvious kind.

I hope that better answers the question.