This post is adapted from a workshop that I gave at a queer student conference in Sydney a month ago. It was well attended and I got some great feedback, so I thought I’d share a recap here. It’s quite broad and there’s probably nothing incredibly new in here, but it might be a useful resource for someone one day.
And He Will Be My Squishy: relationships, asexuality, and thinking beyond the reef
Normative relationship models are usually constructed on very rigid foundations and assumptions about how relationships are meant to work. Relationships that don’t fit the standard model are characterised as somehow inherently lesser. That means that asexual experiences are often completely marginalised. However, there is actually a lot that can be gained by looking at relationships from an asexual perspective: not just for ace spectrum people, but also for the broader community. Asexual perspectives allow us to challenge some of those ideas about how relationships are meant to look and work, and recognise that there are many different ways of doing relationships.
So what do normative relationships look like? Generally, the common perception replicated in the media and the wider community looks something like this chart:
To extrapolate a bit: people meet (usually heterosexual people). They find themselves attracted to each other in some way, so they eventually ask one another out and go on dates and get to know each other and all that stuff. Then follows a progression of events where both partners become more emotionally close and start to get more physically close as well. Finally they have sex, and from there things usually progress through other events such as moving in together, marrying, having children, etc. (There are some variations on this idea as well: one night stands, relationships based more on sex than emotional connection or commitment, etc. But in the end, these are usually still seen as unsustainable rather than a healthy and fulfilling relationship.)
There are a whole load of assumptions behind this model: monogamy, for example. But the far biggest one is that all relationships (all serious, proper relationships) will be sexual in nature. Sex is the ‘big thing,’ the thing that makes a relationship get taken seriously, legitimated, valued. Sex is naturalised, both in heterosexual and queer communities. As an example, consider the idea of the ‘friendzone,’ which is based on the idea that there is nothing more frustrating and horrible than a relationship that doesn’t progress to sex (apart from being a misogynistic and selfish concept). This idea is also disseminated in the media. Take for example a discussion from that episode of House MD:
Adams : Hormone levels are normal. This woman seems perfectly healthy. What does it matter if she says she’s asexual?
House : It’s the fundamental drive of our species. Sex is healthy. Orgasms oxygenate the brain, lighting up over 30 different areas and making us forget how boring Susie Cooper is. That last one may not be universal.
Park : How about damage to her spinal cord blocking the signals from her genitals?
Adams : Sex drive is in the brain. I suppose it could be psychological intimacy issues caused by childhood abuse.
House : She’s been sharing a toilet with the same guy for the last ten years.
Adams : It’s not the same. Sex releases oxytocin. It’s the neurochemical basis for bonding.
House : And that’s why men always marry their right hands.
Adams : It’s different for girls.
Park : No it’s not. I’ve tapped over 30 guys and never wanted to see most of them again. [House and Adams look at each other, surprised and speechless.] I live next to a Jewish frat.
House : We are veering wildly off track. Please continue.
Adams : This woman’s life is probably better off without sex. Eliminates most of her insecurity, she’s immune to most advertising and can have honest relationships with men.
House [chuckling] : Not a lot of them.
Adams : We’ve run every test and ruled out all the options. You’re gonna have to accept she just doesn’t want sex.
House : Lots of people don’t have sex. The only people who don’t want it are either sick, dead, or lying.
(Bolded for emphasis – boy, that quote manages to stuff every misconception about asexuality into one scene, doesn’t it?)
Obviously, for ace people, that central assumption about sex and relationships doesn’t quite hold. Sex can be a part of the relationships ace people form, but it generally isn’t the driving force.
What asexuality really highlights is that people have different understandings of love, romance, attraction and relationships. And there aren’t always enough words to be able to describe those feelings. As a result, the asexual community has come up with a lot of new terminology that can be a bit confusing to newcomers. Things like the difference between romantic and sexual attraction aren’t always obvious to people outside the asexual community, never mind concepts like queerplatonic partnerships or primary and secondary relationships (borrowed from the poly community).
Once you look past the option of a traditional relationship structure, there are infinite possibilities for how your significant relationships could play out. Sadly, those possibilities often aren’t considered serious or valuable, which is a mistake, I think. It’s tempting to create hierarchies of relationships and their significance, and hierarchies aren’t bad in themselves. But there’s something to be gained from recognising that relationships can be valuable in different ways.
Another example from TV that highlights this is Sheldon and Amy’s relationship on The Big Bang Theory. Though neither characters are named as asexual, Sheldon at least is pretty obviously coded as such. The relationship he and Amy share is often the subject of ridicule – both by the other characters and by the audience. This is mainly because their relationship doesn’t involve a lot of physical intimacy, and no sex whatsoever. It is quite explicitly coded as something abnormal and weird.
Recently, however, we got this scene:
What we see in this episode is that Sheldon and Amy have different conceptions of what counts as intimacy between them, but are still able to find a compromise that both are happy with. Most importantly, the show starts to take Sheldon and Amy’s relationship seriously in this episode, showing that just because their relationship doesn’t pan out the way the average viewer expects it to doesn’t mean it isn’t serious or valuable.
As a practical exercise that demonstrated this further, I asked everyone in my workshop to write down on a piece of paper the thing that made them feel closest to a partner (of any sort). When I collected them all and read them out, only a handful of people had actually written down something sexual. I’ll admit, the workshop was about half ace people, but it demonstrated nicely that even though society assumes that sex is the culmination of closeness to someone, it doesn’t have to be at all.
[After that, I went on a little to talk about asexual/sexual relationships, and some of the issues that commonly arise - different understandings of love, feelings of rejection, etc - and some keys to making relationships work, like communication, negotiation, and respect for personal boundaries. However, since a lot has been written on this in the ace community, I won't got into any more detail in this post.]
To finish off, I’ll just raise some points to think about in regard to your own relationships. Do your relationships necessarily fall into normative patterns? What defines a significant relationship in your life? What makes those relationships valuable?
If anyone would like a copy of the powerpoint presentation I used, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.