This article is part of a series in which I address criticisms of the Split Attraction Model (or SAM). See the masterpost for my reasons writing this series, and a brief discussion of my issues with the phrase “split attraction model”. In this article, I address one of the most common arguments, which is that the Split Attraction Model is harmful to youth who are still exploring their identities.
Commonly this argument is expressed in the form of an anecdote, saying that when they were younger they were convinced that they were such-and-such-romantic and such-and-such-sexual, and it really messed them up. I’ll take these anecdotes at face value–perhaps these people were on Tumblr when they were teens, and were reading Tumblr advice blogs, which had a known tendency to impose prescriptive identities on askers, much to our dismay. That sucks and I’m sorry to hear about it.
I know it sucks, because I, too, was completely misled about my orientation for the entirety of my teen years. I believed I was straight.
The plight of being mistaken
It should be abundantly clear that teenagers thinking they’re one thing, and then being another thing, is not a new problem. It long predates split attraction models, or modern identities for that matter. People don’t need to identify as biromantic homosexual to avoid admitting to themselves that they’re gay. “Bisexual” is a much more widely accessible label that can serve the same purpose. And I suspect the most stable way to avoid admitting one’s orientation to oneself is to just identify as straight. I hope we are all on the same page thinking that this is not a good reason to stop telling young people about bisexuality, or straightness for that matter.
And you know, the flow of identities goes in all directions. People identify as bi/pan/gay/lesbian at first, and then later realize that they were actually bi/pan/homo-romantic asexual. This is an extremely common trajectory, but that does not mean we should stop telling people about the possibility that they might just be bi/pan/gay/lesbian. It would just be so selfish to advocate for sex-ed that only helps people with exactly the same orientations as ourselves, while ignoring all the people who settle on other orientations.
Rather than depriving people of options that might possibly be “wrong”, we should instead be trying to ensure that people have positive experiences even when they inadvertently identify the “wrong” way.
I have an example of such a positive experience in my own life. When I was a teenager, there were two major roadblocks to identifying the way I do now (as gay and gray-ace). I was blocked from identifying as ace because I had never heard of it. And I was blocked from identifying as gay because media representation emphasized same-sex crushes, which I never had. I overcame both of these roadblocks by briefly identifying as asexual, during which time I learned about the ace spectrum, and I also learned that I didn’t need crushes in order for it to “count” as gay.
The deluge of questions
While I wish that everyone could have such a positive experience, the reality is more messy. Ace communities, since their inception, have always been barraged by questioning folks. You see a lot of the same questions over and over (“Am I asexual?” “I feel something for this person is that attraction?”), modulated by more individual anxieties. It is a struggle to maintain, in the long term, a large number of people who are interested in answering those questions, experienced enough to answer them well, but not so experienced to be sick of it.
We are always trying to build resources and do better, but I think some people fall through the cracks, encountering people who don’t give them space to explore, the space to be safely wrong.
If there are a lot of questioning people who start out with a split orientation, and then later stop splitting their orientations, that might be because ace communities (and to my knowledge, bi communities) are relatively welcoming to questioning people.
Meanwhile, the lesbian community is notorious for its gatekeeping culture, which absolutely scares questioning folks away. I definitely don’t think every lesbian is to blame, but I’ve noticed that the same people who troll against split attraction models are also engaged in gatekeeping. I find that hypocritical. If you’re so concerned about people wrongly identifying as something else before identifying as lesbian, maybe you should make it easier for anxious questioning people to identify as lesbian in the first place?
Addressing specific concerns
So that’s my rant about questioning youth, but I should also address concerns that are more specific to split attraction models.
One common concern is that young teens usually aren’t experiencing their orientation in a particularly sexual way. So when we present split attraction models to young teens we are a) sexualizing teens, and/or b) leading teens with typical experiences to believe that they might have an atypical orientation, such as heteroromantic asexual.
I wish that people, instead of scaremongering about “sexualizing kids” would dig up actual research on kids, as I have been obliged to do. A 1996 review by McClintock & Herdt showed that, on average, people have their first experience of attraction at age 10. With a standard deviation of 3-5 years. It’s not clear to me how sexual attraction is defined here, but for what it’s worth the paper also mentions an average age of sexual fantasy around 11-12. In any case, I would advise people under the age of 17 or so to think of their orientation identities as subject to change. And that’s okay because it’s okay to be wrong. Lots of us have been wrong.
There are also various concerns about love without sex, or sex without love. For instance, I saw someone say that men are already trained to think that male sexuality is lacking romance, and we don’t need more orientations to confirm that view. I’d like to point out the premise of this argument, that men are already trained to think this way, as in, before hearing about aromanticism. I believe that split attraction models do not create our hangups about love and sex; rather, they provide a space to reflect on those hangups until we can get over them.
Another concern is that split attraction models introduce far too many labels. Between bi/pan/homo/hetero/a-sexual and bi/pan/homo/hetero/a-romantic, that’s about 25 combinations, and that’s only the beginning. I think some people find that overwhelming and stressful, especially if they feel pressured to pick just one.
This comes back to how we handle questioning folks. I think that sometimes we wrongly pressure people to pick some hyper-specific identity. Or we don’t do enough to instill the idea that it’s okay to have been mistaken and switch to something else. Saying that split attraction models are horrible because it causes people to identify the wrong way… that seems counterproductive to cultivating a low-stakes environment where people won’t be overwhelmed.
Split attraction models are not about overwhelming people with choices. They’re a way of acknowledging and discussing the many ways that people can be. Even though I don’t personally differentiate my romantic and sexual orientations, I found split attraction models to be indispensable, as they led me to the possibility of having other combinations of feelings, such as not having crushes but nonetheless forming romantic relationships. Split attraction models did not prevent me from recognizing my orientation, rather they enabled me to do so.
Please stay tuned for more articles in this series, where I’ll about split attraction models in relation to bi/pan/gay/lesbian folks, and more about the “sexualization” of sexual orientations.