This post is for the Carnival of Aces, Round 4.
This is going to be a thinking-out-loud sort of post, so please bear with me.
This prompt has had me stumped about what to write about for a while now. Relationships aren’t something I spend a whole lot of time thinking about anymore, I gotta say. Not in the traditionally asexual way, at least. I mean, everybody thinks about their relationships to some extent, and I’m no exception, but I’m not sitting here thinking about relationships themselves, in this meta sort of way. I’m not thinking about group relationships (largely because I don’t really have them), or questioning what counts as romantic and what doesn’t, or trying to figure out how to define romantic attraction, and so on and so forth. Largely because… I just don’t think it matters that much.
All this focus on trying to pin down exactly what “romantic attraction”—a fairly recently coined term—means seems like overthinking it to me. From my perspective, it’s straightforward: it’s a shortcut to expressing some idea that everybody has different ideas about.
If somebody tells me that they’re “romantically attracted” to someone, I don’t know whether that means they experience a myriad of other kinds of attraction to them that they’re smushing into one term, I don’t know whether it includes limerence or not, I don’t know what level of infatuation is involved, and I don’t know whether it includes an actual desire to be in a “romantic relationship” (whatever that means to them) with them or not. Different people use it to refer to any or all of these things. I only have a vague idea that something like that is involved. Most of the time, clarifications don’t make a difference, because it’s not need-to-know information. Unless they’re asking my advice on something, I won’t ask.
Likewise, if someone tells me they’re aromantic, I don’t know whether that means they just don’t experience the “in love” feeling (aka limerence), or whether they choose not to get involved with romantic relationships—and if it means the latter, I don’t know what relationships they don’t want beyond the most conventional romantic relationship imaginable. They might want a Boston Marriage-type thing, which I would usually consider romantic, but not everybody does. I’d have to ask for more information to know what specifically they mean by aromantic. I have a vague idea, and I’ll usually assume it probably means both the lack of limerence and lack of desire for romantic relationships, while keeping in mind that I don’t really know exactly; it’s enough to get by on, and unless I’m presented with more information I won’t usually ask.
I understand, in a way, why the first question people in the asexual community ask one another is often about romantic orientation. It gives some key information about how to treat people, allowing you to avoid making the wrong assumptions (at least to some degree) about what people want out of life, and what type of people they want it from. But at times, it becomes too much of a focus. It becomes something that divides us into different camps, something that others use to tell us that some of us are allowed to join their club, but others aren’t. And the people who don’t know where they fall are just sort of left out of the discussion going, “Romantic? Aromantic? Demiromantic? Buh?” So it becomes this persistent, nagging thing, because they don’t know what they are, because they don’t know how the terms are being defined, so they try really really hard to (get other people to) define them. It’s understandably really frustrating.
But to me, it just seems straightforward that there are at least three or four different major definitions of what “romantic attraction” refers to that are used by different people in different situations. And… that’s okay. All of the definitions can exist at the same time. There is no clear line between friendship and romance, and everybody draws the line in a different place. All of this stuff is just interpretation of biochemical events called emotions and ways to structure expectations and agreements with other people. The interpretations are naturally going to vary. Even among fairly conventional people, cultural constructions only go so far to produce conformity of interpretations.
I would like to see less emphasis on categorizing people according to their “romantic orientation” in the asexual community (and MUCH less emphasis on doing so outside of the community). It’s a useful concept insofar as it provides a non-sexual alternative to gender-based inclinations toward attraction, but beyond that, its usefulness rapidly deteriorates. Communication gets really sticky when people are using different definitions for the same word, and using the term “romantic orientation” in particular leads to a lot of trouble, because it references the concept of romance, which is not really one concept but many bundled up into one word. I prefer to avoid it, and use the term “affectional orientation” instead. But, since this is not a commonly used term, I sometimes just go with the more well-known term for simplicity’s sake. More and more lately, I’ve stopped even calling myself panromantic or biromantic (which again, I use when people aren’t likely to be familiar with pansexuality). I can’t even remember the last time I called myself that. In most cases, I don’t need to; I need only make reference to my girlfriend, and people know as much as they need to know about my affectional orientation. I have yet to run into a case where more clarification is necessary. If I do, I don’t plan to use those labels.
And if I’m interested in someone romantically, I’ll just say I’m interested in them romantically. I see no reason to try to use a “shortcut” phrase like “romantically attracted,” which actually would probably just derail the discussion with explanations about what exactly that means. I… honestly don’t believe in the concept of “romantic attraction” at all anymore. There’s romantic interest, sure. And there’s infatuation, there’s limerence, and there are other kinds of attraction. Why do we need to muddy these separate ideas up by using a term that rolls them all together? I suppose there’s something to be said for vagueness in cases where people aren’t sure how to classify their feelings for someone, but we already have vague phrases. Why not just say something like, “I like [x] in this sort of way where…” and then describe it a little?
Rather than spending so much time trying to come up with a strict, clear, universal definition for something that’s not universally definable, I think it’s more useful to think about the particulars of a relationship. Semiel from Intimacy Cartography made a wonderful list about this a while back, and if you’re interested in this sort of thing you should totally check it out. It can be applied in a lot of different ways, and provides a lot more insight than I’ve ever seen from posts about whatever “romantic attraction” is supposed to mean.
I want our vocabulary about relationships to increase, not be subsumed under a broader term that encompasses more than one concept. I don’t want it to increase because it’s being filled with lots of new words that all just come from a vague term like that. I want to see more specific words, words that refer to more clearly defined concepts. Words that refer to different relationship models, words that describe how relationships work. I hope some of the people who have been very frustrated by trying to figure out what people mean by romantic attraction might feel a little bit of relief from that frustration by realizing that there’s more than one definition, and you’re never going to get everyone to agree on the same one. Although I love dealing with theories, I’m a pragmatist about this. Realistically, I think this is one abstraction that’s just too abstract.