On friendships, part 2: Ace culture and ideals of friendship

When I think of asexual culture, I think of a community that has come together in true joy and relief, of many isolated individuals finally discovering that they are not alone in their experiences—that we are not broken, not disordered, and not delusional. That we are normal.

Last week, I shared an exchange I had with my partner on twitter:

The context of this conversation is a little fuzzy and half-remembered by now, but it’s perhaps not quite what you’d think. Her meaning, when she said that, was along the lines of “yeah, asexual people do get depressed and struggle with friends… just like everyone else.” That we try to hold ourselves to superhuman standards in order to be accepted, because so many people unfairly assume that asexuality must be a defect caused by [insert BS here] and must be cured.

We have named that phenomenon: Unassailable Asexual.

When I think of the asexual community and the culture we’ve developed, I think of a group of people who share common struggles, and try to come together to help one another. I think of a group of people who, before we even know each other, often already have a sense of kinship or intimacy with each other, although not on an individual level—and also have names for that sort of feeling (community-based intimacy), because we are that interested in delineating different kinds of connections human beings can have with each other.

And yes, there’s drama. There’s infighting. There’s unexamined privilege, and subsections of the community that never really engage with the parts of it outside their own comfort zones. But I defy you to find any large community where that’s not the case, and I think so far we’ve handled it quite a bit better than other communities I belong to—like the atheist activist community, for example, which has basically split in two.

The asexual community is not nearly that fractured, nor is it as vicious. There are parts of it that are more cloistered than others—AVENites are rarely aware of what’s going on outside of AVEN—but people in our community actively make efforts to connect discussion bubbles together when they get so remote that issues that have previously been raised are ignored, especially in contexts like advice blogs where people demonstrating ignorance of prior discussions inherently construe themselves as experts.

What forms of strife we have in our community (at least from the vantage point in my corner) tend to be more covert and passive-aggressive than direct attacks. People from within the asexual community don’t often come directly to my blog to tell me that I’m not a “real” asexual—but they imply it in the way they frame discussions, and occasionally someone (invariably on tumblr) will even link to a post of mine as an example of someone who is “co-opting” the asexual identity or “promoting rape culture” by writing about having sex—without, apparently, realizing that I’m well aware of rape culture and a survivor myself, or that I will see where people click to my blog from (eventually). It’s not “bizarre internet magic” when old posts get around, as I saw it called a while back—it’s 100% normal, and assuming the people you’re discussing will never see that post is rather naive. I think it’s a good idea to always write with the assumption that whoever you’re talking about is going to eventually find out what you wrote instead—even if it’s not likely, you’d still be prepared if it happens.

More often, though, when I don’t feel supported by the community it’s not necessarily because people aren’t trying to be supportive—usually they’re just focusing on being supportive to someone else. Many people have generally supportive feelings, but don’t always know the best thing to do—and that’s understandable, but we can learn to be better. It varies in degree between different specific communities, but I think generally the (online) ace community is a place where people are expected to be progressive, and already have a certain level of knowledge about alternative models of relationships (poly, QP) and social justice issues. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, except inasmuch as not including basic information on those things in our educational materials can make it harder to gain acceptance from, say, conservative family members. I think it’s better to be inclusive of people who are inclined to be considerate and inclusive of other people, than to try to reach out to people who are bigoted and likely to cause a lot of pain—not a thing I see happening in the asexual community.

In part, that’s because right now, the people who accept us—for what we really are, not for what they think we are—are progressive people, not conservative people. We’ve gained traction with the social justice-oriented half of the atheist community, while the libertarian, anti-feminist types attacked us.

But I think another big part of our community’s inclusive impulse, and a major contributing factor in the way that our community drama often manifests so covertly, is that asexual people tend to highly value friendship and want a harmonious community. That’s perhaps an aspect of ace culture that manifests differently in this sphere of influence than elsewhere—Tumblr call-out culture can get rather aggressive, for example—so much so that I tend to stay away from it. But I think that while it doesn’t succeed in making safe spaces, and suspect Tumblr itself might be structurally incapable of hosting a safe space due to its design, the call-outs are intended to chastise people who create (actual or perceived) disharmony.

We are often so sensitive to the way that others might feel excluded, so incredibly attuned to each others’ feeling of being excluded and erased, the feeling of loneliness, that if we even see potential for other aces to feel that way based on even a fairly minor badly worded phrase, we’ll try to correct it. That’s the kind of culture we have.

There is so much focus on friendship and human connection among aces—especially non-normative ones. We quite often complain that society doesn’t value friendships as much as it should. Many of us have experienced the pain of a friend suddenly dropping out of contact with us after finding a romantic relationship. In the ace community—and I don’t think this is limited to the aromantic-spectrum portion of it—we find others who actually understand why we find that so disheartening, and feel able to commiserate in our distaste for that particular norm.

But sometimes, so much focus on that phenomenon is not helpful. It comes to be something that ace people expect to encounter, and such things have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies sometimes. If you have a friend who has recently begun dating someone new, and you expect them to stop talking to you completely, you might say something that tips your friend off to your negative expectations about them, thus alienating that friend. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who genuinely expect friends to just be there as back-up while they’re in between romantic relationships—there certainly are. But it’s a big problem when people become so embittered about it that they not only withdraw from all alloromantic people (including asexual alloromantics), but also loudly proclaim that they’ve come to the conclusion that alloromantics are incapable of friendship (see comments here). I get that it’s a defense mechanism, and of course everyone is free to decide who they do or don’t want to be friends with—and yes, people should respect others’ choices not to be friends. But when you start encouraging others to view all alloromantic people as fundamentally incapable of “true” friendship? That’s really going too far.

There’s a particular kind of friendship that typically gets valued way more (or at least discussed more) than other kinds of friendships in the ace community, I’ve noticed. It’s the type of friendship that is so close you’re like family, the type that potentially blurs the lines between what’s considered platonic and what’s considered romantic. The ideal friendship for a lot of people in the ace community seems to be something like a queerplatonic partnership. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself—and it’s something my partner (who is aromantic bisexual) and I may or may not have—we don’t know, but it’s nominally romantic and whatever it is works for us well enough that we’re not trying to define it further. But there’s a tendency sometimes to focus solely on that kind of extra-close friendship and the desire for it, to the detriment of giving other friendships the recognition they deserve. I even caught myself doing that in part one of this series! It’s extremely difficult to adequately acknowledge looser friendships, the type that ebb and flow without any particular commitment, but contain a true connection and enduring mutual concern for one another.

The deeper friendships often grow out of that kind of less committed friendship, anyway, so if finding a queerplatonic partner is the goal, failing to appreciate such friendships, mentally demoting those people to “acquaintances” only, might be self-defeating. And where does such strong emphasis on super-close friendships in our rhetoric—as a “humanizing” factor—leave those who aren’t looking for them?

Despite these shortcomings, though, I think the emphasis on friendship in ace spaces is a positive thing. We’re kinder for it, and more interested in making our community a place to build constructive relationships. The entire world would do well to value friendships more. If our understanding that friendships (and plenty of other things) can be just as fulfilling as romantic/sexual relationships rubs off on the rest of the world, we’d all be better off. And if we can take our understanding of the dynamics of human connections even further, that can help us more successfully stave off loneliness.


This post is for the Carnival of Aces; the theme is Asexual Culture. Cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.

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