Trigger/content warnings: references to rape (including corrective rape), discussion of abusive relationships, victim blaming
When I saw the call for submissions for the Rotten Zucchinis zine going around, my first thought was, No one is going to submit to that. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the idea for the zine, per se–personally, I think it’s definitely something that should be talked about–but the idea was so at odds with the discourse I’ve seen in asexual communities that I knew that it wasn’t going to get any submissions. And, lo and behold, it didn’t.*
Here’s the problem: people (not just aces) generally don’t like talking about relationships failing. Saying, “Yeah, we tried our best and it still didn’t work” is painful at the best of times, and if you’ve just exited a dysfunctional or abusive relationship, talking about it in a public forum is probably the last thing you want to do. Yeah, you probably have that one friend who overshares about all their relationships, but for every one of those friends, you probably have 20 other friends who are very quiet about things going wrong. You also probably have friends who are willing to talk about relationship troubles one-on-one, but don’t want to post anything on the internet, ’cause it’s much easier to control the flow of information if you’re talking to a person you trust than if you’re spilling your guts before a crowd of who knows how many people.
Beyond that generalized dislike of talking about failed relationships, though, I think there are factors specific to ace communities that dissuade people from talking about failed ace/ace or otherwise non-normative relationships.
For one thing, in ace and aro communities there’s a lot of talk about relationship ideals rather than relationships that actually exist. Sciatrix put it particularly well:
I’m sort of… less than comfortable with theorizing about how one would like one’s relationships to work in the absence of actually having them. I’ve noticed that when people do that, they often seem to build up this very detailed fantasy of a perfect partner who will do and be all these different things, and then that fantasy hits messy, human reality and doesn’t work out.
Beyond that issue, fantasizing about relationships often turns into “if only I had an ace partner, everything would be perfect!” As someone who has been in relationships with several aces, I can tell you that, in fact, just having an ace partner isn’t enough. Yes, having an ace partner can remove sex from the equation of potential relationship stressors (for those of us who prefer nonsexual relationships), but there are still about a million other relationship stressors out there. Do you have compatible personalities? Do you have similar communication styles? Do you have shared interests? Will this relationship work out geographically? Are you actually attracted to each other? (Strangely enough, just knowing someone is ace isn’t enough for me to be interested in dating them!) Do you have compatible worldviews? Do you want the same things from this relationship? Do you have compatible life goals? (If Party A wants to get married and have eight kids and live in blissful domesticity and Party B doesn’t want to date, let alone marry, and hates the idea of having children and is pursuing a career that requires them to move every two years, there are going to be serious problems.) The list goes on and on.
When people present ace/ace relationships as a panacea for relationship difficulties, all those potential stressors are erased. When every ace/ace couple is squealed over and pointed to as the ideal,** it can be really hard to talk about the fact that, hey, no relationship is completely bump-free. When your relationship configuration is elevated as the Holy Grail for lonely, scared, and anxious aces, it can be extremely uncomfortable to talk about the fact that, actually, work (sometimes a lot of work) goes into maintaining that relationship. But, hey, you should be grateful you have that relationship at all, right? After all, there are so many aces out there who don’t have relationships and want them, who can’t find anyone to date, who are looking to you for hope and guidance, because maybe, someday, if they play their cards right, they can be like you.
All this idealization can, in the best case scenario, make it very, very difficult to talk about ace/ace or other non-normative relationships,*** because the moment you start talking about real people, everything gets messy and complicated and horribly human. People don’t want to hear about how you and your partner had to have a two-hour conversation about boundaries because one of you totally goofed. People don’t want to hear about the time that you and your partner misunderstood each other and someone got hurt and there was a lot of crying and you’re still trying to rebuild bridges. People don’t want to hear about how you tried to make that relationship work but you just weren’t compatible and everything wound up falling apart. People want to hear happy stories about how you were lonely but then you found your ace partner/QPP/platonic partner/best friend, and suddenly everything was unicorns and rainbows!
In the worst case scenario, this idealization of ace/ace or other non-normative relationships can spawn pronouncements such as “The only way to be safe from rape is to date another ace!” or “Of course your relationship turned abusive; what were you expecting from a mixed relationship?” This attitude paints all mixed relationships as inherently abusive (they’re not) and dismisses the notion that ace/ace or otherwise non-normative relationships can ever be abusive (they can). It puts pressure on aces who have been in toxic, abusive, or otherwise dysfunctional relationships to stay quiet; their relationship couldn’t have really been abusive, because ace/ace relationships/QPRs/otherwise non-normative relationships aren’t abusive! I mean, really, you must have been doing something wrong, or maybe you weren’t trying hard enough? Or maybe you’re just oversensitive. That must be it.
There are a number of accepted narratives for mixed relationships failing: “I didn’t want sex and he did, so we broke up,” “once I realized I was asexual I broke up with her because I knew she’d be happier with a non-ace,” “we just couldn’t make it work sexually,” even “my allosexual partner tried to correctively rape me.”**** You may notice a theme in those accepted narratives (spoiler alert: it’s sex). Ace communities can get so focused on sex as The Issue, that singular issue that is causing all the problems in relationships, that they can fall into this mindset whereby if you remove The Sex all your relationship difficulties magically disappear! So if I say, “I tried to date a straight guy once and it all went horribly wrong,” people nod and make sympathetic noises, but if I say, “I dated an ace and it all went horribly wrong,” people stare uncomprehendingly.
This is all a very long way of saying that I’m not surprised the Rotten Zucchinis zine never got off the ground, because ace communities currently don’t have room for that kind of discourse. There isn’t space to talk about non-normative relationships failing, because there’s a relentless pressure (often from people who aren’t even in relationships!) to present non-normative relationships as the way to fight against compulsory sexuality, a haven from the evils of the sexual world, and basically composed of rainbows and magic. I’m sorry if this bursts your bubble, but they’re not. Non-normative relationships don’t work for everyone, and even if they do happen to work for you, they are relationships between human beings and thus have the same messiness and potential for hurt as any other relationships between human beings. When you idealize these types of relationships, it pressures people in them to live up to an impossible ideal, and when they (inevitably) fail to live up to that impossible ideal, it pressures them into staying quiet because nobody wants to be the party-pooper who says, “Actually, I’m in that type of relationship right now and it’s not all rainbows and sparkles.” It cuts people off from the few communities that might actually be able to support them through a non-normative relationship failing–try talking to straight friends about your nonsexual relationship falling apart sometime, and you’ll very quickly realize how many ways people can say, “Well, I know you’re torn up over this, but it’s not that bad for you, ’cause you weren’t having sex or anything.” It further isolates people who have been abused by platonic partners, queerplatonic partners, romantic ace partners, and so on, by dismissing their existence as an impossibility, because, you know, ace relationships are the only way to be safe from abuse!
I don’t want to tell people not to believe that ace/ace and otherwise non-normative relationships can be awesome, because they totally can. I just want there also to be room to talk about them as relationships between actual human beings, with all the messiness that implies. Even the most functional and happy relationships have their rough patches, and it’s really important to leave room to talk about that. It’s important to have space in ace communities to talk about relationships failing, relationships falling apart, and relationships turning abusive for reasons other than sex. It’s also important to have space to talk about going through a rough patch, misunderstanding each other, and then talking it out. I want there to be space for imperfection, because no relationship is ever going to be perfect. If we only ever talk about idealized relationships, relationships that don’t actually exist in the real world, we create a standard that we simply can’t live up to.
*It’s worth noting, though, that the zine has been renamed (f-ACE-ing Silence–The Zine), expanded its scope (asexuality-related stuff there isn’t really room to talk about in asexual/ace communities), and is still looking for submissions. Funnily enough, I wrote most of this post before I knew about the expanded scope, and somehow the theme of this post has wound up fitting very neatly into the expanded prompt. Anyway, if you would be interested in submitting to that zine, you should definitely do so.
**I’ve gotten this reaction offline, and, let me tell you, it’s pretty supremely uncomfortable.
***But seriously, try to think of examples of aces writing about their relationships. I collected some posts on nonsexual relationships here, but it’s actually very hard to find people writing about relationships they’re actually in. Most people either write fairly non-personal descriptions of their relationship structure (romantic, queerplatonic, poly, kinky, etc.) or write something sufficiently vague that it won’t come back to bite them if their relationship falls apart. Others mention relationships they have (partner, boyfriend, zucchini, etc.), but never delve into specifics. It’s also much easier to find posts on how people got into relationships than it is to find posts on people being in relationships. I could find exponentially many more posts on what relationships people want to have than what relationships people actually have.
****Well, vaguely accepted. I tend to run in circles where that is an acceptable narrative, but then again this is me we’re talking about. I’ve seen other people scoff at the idea that aces are correctively raped, even when faced with actual ace survivors.