We’re Bad at Understanding Behavior Based on What We’ve Never Experienced

This is for the January 2020 Carnival of Aces: “Conscious and Unconscious Difference”

In articles describing people’s personal journeys towards identifying as ace, a common theme is ‘I thought other people around me were having sex mainly because of peer pressure’. In fact, one of the other submissions to this month’s carnival describes a similar type of thinking. I think the logic goes something like this…

1) I don’t understand why these people want to have sex.
2) What could cause them to choose to have sex?
3) What could possibly motivate me to have sex?
4) Maybe I would have sex if I were under strong enough peer pressure?
5) Therefore, these people around me are probably having sex because of peer pressure.

I think the flaw in this thinking is obvious. It is skipping over the possibility that people might be having sex because they really, truly want sex. And that possibility is skipped because we cannot imagine ourselves truly wanting sex.

We tend to model other people’s feelings/behavior by putting ourselves in their shoes. For example, I might try to understand the feelings/behavior of a person who seems angry by getting in touch with how I act when I feel angry. This is only useful to the extent that our feelings/behavior is similar to the feelings/behavior of other people.

This is why, for someone who has never experienced wanting sex as its own end rather than a means to an end, the possibility that someone actually wants sex with a particular person is easy to skip. It is especially easy if they are not aware that other people do in fact feel strong sexual attraction and/or desire. Even as an asexual who recognizes that I am asexual and most people are not, I can still skip over this possibility when I am trying to understand other people’s behavior, especially when I am being sloppy in my thinking.

This is something I discussed in more detail in the blog post “The Allosexual Experience Still Doesn’t Make Sense”.

In recent discussion of aro spaces, I ended up looking at some threads on Arocalypse and reflecting on what I read, and I think something similar is going on there. In particular, while thinking about Siggy’s comment that respectability politics are not the point of romantic relationships, it occurred to me that, for many aro people, it is hard to imagine wanting a romantic (or romance-coded) relationship for its own sake. I personally have trouble understanding why people pursue romance. And I think a lot of people who participate in the Arocalypse forum also have a lot of trouble understanding why people would pursue romance. Thus, when they consider why people may pursue potentially-romance-coded relationships, the possibility ‘they are doing it for respectability politics’ may seem more natural than ‘they enjoy being in a potentially-romance-coded relationship’.

Do people who fall under grey-asexuality and/or grey-aromanticism also find it difficult to understand the behavior of allosexual and/or alloromantic people? I don’t know. If you fall under grey-asexuality and/or grey-aromanticism, feel free to leave a comment about this.

Because I do not know what it feels like to feel sexually attracted to someone and want to have sex with them, nor what it feels like to want a romantic relationship with someone, I can’t draw on my own experiences of feelings to understand these behaviors from the inside. Instead, I have to base my mental models of this behavior on external observations.

It is like trying to understand why some plum trees bloom earlier and others bloom later, or not at all. It’s a question I’m never going to be able to answer by examining my own direct experiences and feelings. It’s a question I might be able to answer by making observations, considering plum cultivars, sunlight, temperature, wind exposure, etc. I might even get as far as visiting the various plum trees and personally experiencing ‘I feel cold and wind blowing in my face’ and ‘I feel warm and sun shining on my skin’ but that is as personal as it could get.

If I, as an aroace, were to write a fictional story featuring a sexual-romantic relationship between characters who were sexually and romantically attracted to each other, I would, as a minimum, probably do a lot of mimicry of other fictional works featuring sexual-romantic relationships. If I was lucky, I’d pick up all the bits which would make the sexual-romantic relationship convincing; if I was unlucky, it would come off as a trite rehash of a zillion other stories. I could try to go further, and do additional research on how sexual-romantic relationships really work, and incorporate it into my story. If I was lucky, it would come off as a fresh yet realistic representation of a sexual-romantic relationship; if I was unlucky, it would come off as forced and ‘off’. However, even if I miraculously managed to write a good fictional representation of a sexual-romantic relationship, I still would not know what it feels like to be in such a relationship. It would have come from outside of me, not from inside me.

About Sara K.

Sara K. is an aromantic asexual from California who has previously lived in Taiwan. She blogs at the notes which do not fit, has previously been a contributor at Manga Bookshelf, and has written guest posts for Hacking Chinese. She enjoys reading, travel, live theatre, learning languages, and gardening.
This entry was posted in Articles, Carnival of Aces, Modeling. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to We’re Bad at Understanding Behavior Based on What We’ve Never Experienced

  1. There was a good bit from an asexual character in a Josepha Sherman book A Strange and Ancient Name, (a wind elemental) that compared it to something like, what does blue sound like? It’s that alien.

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