My reactions to non-normative relationships

I desire long-term exclusive romantic relationships.  Save for the same-sex issue, my primary relationships are normative.  I also prefer casual, take-it-or-leave-it friendships, the kind where it’s unnecessary to negotiate commitment, the future, or anything whatsoever.  Most of those “friends” I have on Facebook… I actually consider them friends.  My friendships are normative.

I’d have to be living under a blogging rock to not realize that there is plenty of ace discussion about non-normative relationships.  Not just nonsexual romantic relationships, but lifelong friendships, queerplatonic partners, schrodinger’s relationships, polyamory, and relationship anarchy.  I know my relationships have some privileges over these other kinds, because mine have the cultural infrastructure behind them.

I have an admission: some talk about non-normative relationships makes me uncomfortable.

But it’s not inherently a problem if a radical idea gives me discomfort.  I’ll describe some of my feelings, and you can decide when they were justified.

I remember first feeling uncomfortable in 2009, when I heard some of the things David Jay was saying.  In an “Asex 101” talk from 2006, he described the asexual community as a huge conversation all about how we form relationships–mixing and matching properties from friendships and romantic relationships, questioning monogamy, and forming relationships with communities rather than individuals.  At the time, I didn’t like this because it seemed more wishful than descriptive.  It was odd that in trying to present the positive face of asexuality, he presented something that neither reflected my personal experience, nor what I knew of the asexual community.

But history showed me!  Now non-normative relationships really are a big topic.  It turns out David Jay’s talk was more prophetic than wishful.

Another thing I’ve complained about, in 2011, was the idea of the “relationship hierarchy”.  This phrase described society’s placement of the romantic relationship above all other kinds of relationships.  The problem of the relationship hierarchy is symbolically encapsulated in the hated expression, “just friends.”

But for me, “just friends” is a perfectly appropriate expression!  I do in fact spend less time with my friends than my romantic partners.  I have, at times neglected friendships due to commitments with romantic partners.  I abandon friendships left and right without really thinking about it.  Is the “relationship hierarchy” problematizing the way I do friends?

In response, Captain Heartless made a sensible point.  The “relationship hierarchy” is not meant to express that it is wrong for individuals to place some relationships higher than others, but rather that it is wrong for society to shame or pressure people who do not share the normative hierarchy.  However, advocates aren’t always consistent about this.  Most notably, The Thinking Asexual (who is the same person I criticized in 2011) has suggested that asexuals are capable of a “unique” form of love, and/or that allosexuals and asexuals who only want conventional relationships are under the influence of romance supremacy.

More generally, I feel that aces are so caught up in raising up non-romantic partnerships that they accept a hierarchy of a different sort.  Even when it isn’t about romantic relationships, it’s still all about strong committed relationships.  When a relationship is “more” in the literal sense, we think it is “more” in the figurative sense as well.  This is great publicity–saying even aromantics form strong non-romantic relationships, which are equal to if not more than your standard romantic/sexual relationship.

On the other hand, no one ever cares to advertise how shallow their relationships are.  Who here is willing to stand up for the value of devaluing friends?  Here are some advantages to uncommitted friendships:

  1. You can have lots of them all at once.
  2. You can lose them and it’s not a big deal.  Breakups are infrequent.
  3. There’s no obligation.  If an individual can’t make it to an outing with friends, it’s not a problem.
  4. If you are bad at talking about your feelings, it’s entirely optional.
  5. With more people, there are more stories to be heard.
  6. You can tell your own stories over and over, as long as you tell it to different people each time.

There are also, I hear, non-normative casual relationships.  Casual sex, for instance–not really a favorite topic among aces.

Discussion about non-normative relationships has come a long way since 2009.  I wish for it to continue, even when I am occasionally made uncomfortable.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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13 Responses to My reactions to non-normative relationships

  1. I’m always torn about whether or not to keep using the “relationship hierarchy” term- I’m pretty sure I coined it, but outlawroad/the thinking asexual then started using it to advocate for elitist arguments that were just as bad as what I wanted to argue against!

    It’s especially bizarre because the idea is basically just a modification of Gayle Rubin’s “Hierarchy of Sex Acts” idea (from the book “thinking sex”). And if I recall correctly the devaluation of casual (gay) sex is a big example there! It’s a perfect example of how a relationship hierarchy works, and why this isn’t just an asexual issue. I’m pretty sure the conversation with David Jay where I had the idea involved him trying to present it as “something the asexual community can offer everyone else” in his usual accommodating, conciliatory tone.

    Either way, one of my go to examples of an assumption everyone holds about how relationships are valued isn’t to focus on the sexual side of them, but the temporal side. I am yet to meet a single person who doesn’t assume longer relationships are better, and relationships involving more time spent together are better. Yet this seems like a pretty large moral assumption!

    Ironically, for a long time I’ve felt like advocating for the acceptance and value (if the participants want) of casual sexual relationships would do wonders for the asexual community, in part to emphasize that this is just about finding and questioning the normative assumptions we all make about relationships- and instead letting individuals make their own claims as to what relationships are valuable.

    • Siggy says:

      I don’t have any problem with the expression “relationship hierarchy” per se. I keep using it because honestly I can’t think of a more succinct way to say “the assumed superiority of romantic relationships”. And without the expression, I’m sure The Thinking Asexual and others would still be saying the same things.

      I’m interested to hear more how you think advocating acceptance of casual sexual relationships could help the ace community! It seems like they are the one major example of a non-normative casual relationship, but it’s one that few aces are interested in. As a result, almost all casual relationships we think about are normative ones, and thus not worthy subjects of activist discussion.

      • I have a couple of reasons I like the inclusion of casual sexual relationships in discussions, but it’s mostly that I just want to see more advocacy for allowing people to value casual relationships generally and casual sexual relationships are an easy and common example:

        1. It seems hypocritical and weirdly assimilationist to try and get acceptance for our relationships (assuming they aren’t casual sexual ones) while still putting down other types of relationships and basically appealing to the existing structure (I see a lot of the current asexual non-normative relationship talk as being close to saying “we’re just like you but without the sex!” with an implicit “unlike those less valuable kinds of relationships”)

        2. It’s a relationship almost everyone has heard of, and almost everyone initially makes assumptions devaluing them. Furthermore, in my experience people (in my liberal, west coast, sex positive world) tend to be fairly receptive to those assumptions being challenged. By using it as an example of how people value and devalue relationships, I think it’s a useful tool to open people up to the idea they might have other assumptions- ones that harm asexuals. This also helps illustrate how a relationship hierarchy has many sides (such as devaluing same sex relationships), which lets me fit the concept nicely into existing queer theory. Obviously this is a practical matter, and would depend on the crowds one tends to run in and what strategy someone wants to take.

        3. The whole “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” thing. This kind of alliance also immediately shuts down anyone trying to say I’m slut shaming by talking about asexuality or demisexuality (not that anyone who says that has much of a point anyways, but it helps).

        I’ll also add that the other sort of “casual” relationship I often use in examples (in person) is one where I just play a video game with someone about once a month, and how I’ve had relationships of that kind that were important to me. But the main reason for these examples is because they are ones I can personally talk about, and don’t need to speculate on- and maybe because of my relationship anarchist tendencies I can honestly say I find these kinds of brief, casual relationships as equally important (but not equally time consuming) to my life and I don’t want to diminish or dismiss them.

  2. I’m gonna make a separate comment here to also mention that on tumblr awhile back you said something along the lines of “there are plenty of people I don’t have relationships with; and that can be a good thing” to emphasize that we often consider the existence of a relationship better than not. I really liked that point, and feel like I need to bring that up more, and think about it more. It seems like the logical conclusion of bringing up the devaluation of “casual” relationships.

  3. Eponine says:

    Although I’m a polyamorist and relationship anarchist, I can relate to some of what you said. I used to hesitate to identify as RA, because romantic and platonic relationships were indeed different for me, and I did see romance (not necessarily traditional romantic relationships, just any relationship involving romantic feelings) as “more than” pure friendship. I didn’t decide to follow a rule like “friendship can never be as significant as romantic relationships;” it was how I naturally related to people. So I can understand that friendship means different things to different people, and for some people “relationship hierarchy” just comes naturally. But I also think some aspects of relationship hierarchy and romance supremacy are unhealthy but still reinforced by social norms, e.g. it’s normal for a hetero couple to restrict each other’s opposite-sex friendships. It’s probably impossible to clearly separate the “natural” part and the socially conditioned part.

    Oh BTW, the “asexuals are capable of a ‘unique’ form of love” post definitely rubbed me the wrong way.

  4. Pingback: More Thoughts on Normative vs. Alternative Relationship Structures | The Thinking Asexual

  5. L says:

    Man, all those advantages you cite either sound terrible to me or not in any way exclusive to casual friendships.

  6. Siggy says:

    The Thinking Asexual does not host comments, so here I leave a response to their response (

    In my post, I said Captain Heartless made a reasonable point about the “relationship hierarchy”, only it seemed advocates weren’t consistent about it, and you in particular. As I wrote this, I was actually sure that you would agree with Captain Heartless’ point, when asked. Nonetheless, I don’t think you are consistent about it, and I don’t think I’m the only reader who has felt this way.

    A few examples: You convey the strong impression, without saying it, that shallow friendships are shitty friendships. You characterize normative relationships as full of problems, while as far as I can tell non-normative relationships are some sort of paradise just forbidden by social convention. The way you characterize people who intrinsically want normative relationships is reminiscent of this post–they are an exception, not part of your model. And of course, all the things brought up in this tumblr thread.

    I am sympathetic to the idea that what we want in our relationships is culturally influenced, and open to the idea that my own desires are culturally influenced. I’m happy that you put forward this idea forcefully and passionately. You are not obliged to respect my discomfort in any way.

  7. Pingback: Relationship Anarchy and Hierarchy I Guess? | FISTFELT

  8. acetheist says:

    Wasn’t David Jay the person quoted as saying something like “In the asexual community, the word ‘single’ doesn’t exist”? Maybe things were different in the community at the time he said it, but it seems a little dubious and it gives me pause, with some of the same kind of discomfort you talked about in this post.

    • Siggy says:

      Yeah, DJ says it in that video! The video dates to 2006, but I saw it in 2009, and thought it was inaccurate… maybe it was accurate for 2006, or an even earlier period? This is historically fascinating to me. In any case, I maintain that DJ deserves some credit for saying things that were, for the most part, prophetic.

  9. Pingback: Linkspam: January 31st, 2014 | The Asexual Agenda

  10. Pingback: Why don’t we talk about non-normative relationships failing? | The Asexual Agenda

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