crushes, relationships, and amatonormativity

I don’t think I would’ve had crushes as a child if my friends hadn’t made it seem like a necessary part of a social life. When you’re an eight-year-old assumed-cis-girl and you walk home with your neighbors every day, you learn pretty quickly that even if your idea of “liking” people doesn’t match up with theirs, they’ll usually take any expression of affection or longing for a boy as something akin to a crush. They’ll hype it up or make fun of you, finding ways to reinforce that you must be feeling these same specific feelings they had for others.

And when you’re not presented with any alternatives, you eventually give in and resign yourself to the fact that they must be right—and with more practice/willpower/time, you too will feel and understand these things just as they did. As an adult with a lot more queer smarts, I can look back at the people I had “crushes” on from elementary school through most of undergrad and realize that in almost every case, what I wanted was some combination of camaraderie, emotional closeness, and/or respectful treatment. Most of these “crushes,” whether on people who bullied me, barely acted like I existed, or (on rare occasion) were nearly my best friends, were reinforced—often painfully—by the girls around me at the time.

Honestly, I feel for the guys (always guys) who were on the other end—the close friend others felt I could no longer show affection to when he started dating a wonderful girl; the upperclassman whose musicianship I functionally hero-worshipped but who I was told by the girls around me I must be in love with; the guy I went out with for three weeks my freshman year of college because I laid my head on his shoulder at 1am during a movie marathon and half our floor decided we were perfect for each other.

(Seriously, are the allos okay?)

This phenomenon, thankfully, is one we can clearly define due to generations of work by queer theorists, academics, and activists. The bedrock of our discussion today is Adrienne Rich’s 1980 journal article, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (link is to JSTOR because I find the footnotes really valuable, but you can find a copy without them here). In her writing, Rich establishes the idea of compulsory heterosexuality in women as a societal bias arguing that women are, by default, inherently attracted to men. She establishes that this structure actively stigmatizes and threatens to erase lesbianism, drawing on works by many other researchers to highlight how heterosexual society frames wlw (women loving women) relationships as optional at best and often in direct defiance of a perceived default attraction to men. Rich’s work expertly illuminates how compulsory heterosexuality (shortened to comphet by the community) is an active tool in the oppression of women and underscores how a greater societal understanding of wlw relationships is necessary for women’s collective liberation.

Essentially, Rich’s work points out that our imperial world’s default setting is that the patriarchy ensures women are pressured toward attraction to men regardless of their actual sexuality, and anyone who resists that structure is penalized or dismissed. This idea of comphet still permeates vast swaths of our lives today, decades after the essay was published. It’s no surprise this mentality remains very prevalent among school-age children, especially since it’s still pretty common to ask kindergartener girls if they have a boyfriend.

But the treatment I experienced didn’t boil down to “I like girls, but everyone else thinks I need to like boys;” an accurate reading would be closer to “I don’t like anyone, but everyone else thinks I need to like boys.” Me being bi/pan wasn’t the whole issue—the wires got crossed because I’m an angled aroace.

Luckily for us, folks have taken Rice’s concept of compulsory heterosexuality and extrapolated from it the specifics that apply to ace and aro identities. The term compulsory sexuality began appearing in journal articles in earnest during the mid-2010s. In her 2015 article, “Compulsory Sexuality: Evaluating an Emerging Concept” (links to JSTOR, sorry), sexuality studies researcher Dr. Kristina Gupta explains the term as “the assumption that all people are sexual . . . [and] the social norms and practices that both marginalize various forms of non-sexuality, such as a lack of sexual desire or behavior, and compel people to experience themselves as desiring subjects, take up sexual identities, and engage in sexual activity.” Her paper also points out that allosexual people maintain this model by stigmatizing and Othering any behaviors or identities that deviate from their default. Gupta goes on to clarify the importance of acknowledging the allosexual/asexual power imbalance when analyzing vectors of control: “[compulsory sexuality] seeks to emphasize that our society’s definition of the human and the normal are tied to the sexual, but not necessarily entirely to the heterosexual.”

So, to recap: so far, we’ve established that societal constructs in the U.S. and other Western imperial countries promote finding a straight, sexual, and romantic life partner as a prerequisite for a fulfilling life. That’s our national community’s default setting, and it makes sense that it would show up in kids and young adults who use social interaction to reinforce the cues they’ve picked up from the world around them.

But hold on a minute! I mentioned a romantic life partner a minute ago, and we haven’t talked about that at all. I’m not skipping aromanticism, but I wanted to slide it in early because of the pervasive belief that sexual and romantic attraction go hand in hand. Folks who aren’t ace, aro, or mspec might not necessarily consider that the two attractions could be different.

(Side tangent: if you’ve never come across this previously, I recommend learning a little about the ideas surrounding the split attraction model. The SAM can be a really useful tool for some individuals, but aroace theorists and historians have pointed out that a) the term’s early discourse includes backlash from biphobic and acephobic perspectives, and b) as an idea most useful to the ace and aro communities, it doesn’t do a stellar job highlighting all the ways we understand our attractions and orientations. The terms differentiating attraction and differentiating orientation have been suggested as more accurate signifiers, and I at least tentatively like those.)

If aromantic identities are new to you, that’s understandable; aro rep in the media is, for the most part, pretty rare—precisely because not feeling intrinsically compelled to seek and acquire a romantic life partner is widely framed as a failure. If you’re alloromantic (experiencing romantic attraction to at least one gender category without situational or blanket restrictions), you might not have an idea of how a happy, fulfilled life without a romantic partner would go. There is a distinct lack of academic research on aromanticism when compared to marginalized sexualities (or even asexuality specifically); in fact, the media often incorrectly subsumes aromantics under the asexual umbrella by assuming all aros are also ace. While aroace people are absolutely a thing (hi), speaking solely to aromantics who are also asexual means you’re still missing a good chunk of the community.

Because I’m still digging for great scholarship on aromanticism, I won’t point you at any professional researchers right now. But as its history continues to evolve, aromanticism (or concepts and structures related to it) can be traced to at least the 1600s. Modern aro communities are vibrant but, depending on location, largely exist online as a result of mainstream aro erasure. That means it can be harder to find in-person community, but there are also really great discussions about nuance in aro identities and some stellar introductory resources available (and, when websites and blogs have been maintained, they’re more accessible than things behind paywalls)!

The thing is, people don’t inherently need a singular, monogamous, romantic and sexual partner to have a fulfilling life. Ace people don’t necessarily seek out people to sleep with (but they might!). Aro people don’t necessarily seek out people to engage in romantic relationships with (but they might!). Polyamorous people and other ethically non-monogamous folks may seek out more than one! But the prevailing narrative in the U.S. and other Western imperial cultures is that your life is worth living if you’re seeking out (or have found) a single, cis, opposite-binary-gender romantic and sexual partner with whom to spend your life.

I’m nonbinary and an angled aroace. This combination of comphet, compulsory sexuality, and compulsory romanticism (which isn’t super extensively written about but is out there) leave little to no room to accurately describe how I approach and experience relationships. But that’s what we are taught as children to pursue and perpetuate, so I as an aroace child got stuck trying to map these expectations onto my own experiences. And when those experiences didn’t—couldn’t—fit the artificial default, I gave my friends and peers the best facsimiles I could of the crushes they expected me to have. Most of the time, they took those little crumbs and blew them wildly out of proportion, which I know was usually well-intentioned but only made me more uncomfortable navigating the world in my own skin.

Because we don’t as a society have conversations (outside queer circles*) about opting out of amatonormativity, we also don’t talk about the expectations this forced default creates in allosexual-alloromantic people versus in ace-spec and/or arospec people. We don’t talk about how when an amatonormative intrinsic urge to seek out these partnerships isn’t present, relationships can look (honestly and non-manipulatively) like sources of power, protection, or access just as readily as they’re having someone cool to hang out with.

And next week, I want to talk more about that.

*it is worth noting that queer exclusionists don’t think aro or ace people belong in the community unless they are trans, nonbinary, or romantically/sexually marginalized in some way beyond being aro or ace. I don’t stand for that.

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