The Romance Myth
I recently participated in a survey on asexuality that is currently being conducted by AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. It is open to all people, whether or not they identify on the asexual spectrum. It is a short survey, taking about ten minutes to complete, and I would recommend that anyone who is even remotely interested in asexuality go fill it out because the questions, aside from the general demographic ones, really reflect the things many, if not most, asexual people consider while developing an asexual identity.
Overall, I found the survey to be well-written and inclusive, but there were two sections that gave me pause. First was a section on romantic attraction, specifically the question “Which of the following romantic orientation labels do you most closely identify with?” The options were aromantic, heteroromantic, homoromantic, biromantic, panromantic, WTFromantic, androromantic, gynoromantic, skolioromantic, I don’t identify with a romantic orientation, and other (with space to elaborate). Second was the follow-up section on relationships. This section contained the following note: “For the following questions, ‘significant relationships’ refers to relationships beyond just family or close friends – typical examples could include marriage, domestic partnerships, boyfriend/girlfriend, girlfriend/girlfriend, boyfriend/boyfriend, etc. though not all significant relationships will fit these models exactly. Significant relationships need not necessarily be sexual or even romantic.”
My hesitation over the first section was purely personal. I don’t really know how to answer that question. I haven’t been able to determine whether I am aromantic or not. I am a hopeless romantic, I love the idea of romantic love (though I’m not always happy that I do), but I can’t figure out if I really want it for myself or if the occasional niggling desire for romance is merely a product of almost constant exposure to the myth of romance.
What I see as the romance myth has two main parts. One, romance is the only reliable happy ending. There is a lot of media addressing lost love and broken hearts, but the only genre that can be consistently counted on to produce a recognizable happy ending is the romance genre. Of course there are a few exceptions, but your odds of picking a novel or movie that has a happy ending are much higher if you pick from romances than from any other genre. Two, romance and romantic relationships are more important than anything else, particularly any other type of relationship. The first part contributes to the second part: romantic relationships are the only reliable happy ending, therefore they must be more important than everything else. The term ‘significant other’ is a perfect demonstration of the higher value placed on romantic relationships.
The second part of this romance myth is what stopped me in my tracks about the second section I mentioned above. The asexual community generally does a good job separating sex and romance and recognizing that not everyone is interested in romance or sex. I think asexuality and aromanticism challenge the romance myth by their very existence. However, that wasn’t the case in this survey. Again, the note preceding the relationship section reads, “For the following questions, ‘significant relationships’ refers to relationships beyond just family or close friends – typical examples could include marriage, domestic partnerships, boyfriend/girlfriend, girlfriend/girlfriend, boyfriend/boyfriend, etc. though not all significant relationships will fit these models exactly. Significant relationships need not necessarily be sexual or even romantic.” What makes me mad is that the writers of the survey apparently couldn’t figure out how to escape the language of romantic relationships, nor the underlying implication that some relationships are more significant than others. The writers of the survey make a clear effort to include nonsexual, nonromantic relationships, as demonstrated by the last sentence of the note, which is admirable and necessary for the asexual community. And I like to think they recognize that those relationships are not the only significant relationships a person can have, but I don’t think I can forgive the phrasing of the description: “beyond just family and close friends” (emphasis added).
If you don’t understand why I am so upset think about the following: according to that definition of ‘significant relationships’, I have never had a ‘significant relationship’ and I may live the rest of my life without any ‘significant relationships.’ That is utter bullshit.
It is utter bullshit and an example of the tyrannical hold the myth of romance and the romantic relationship have over values about relationships, even within circles that acknowledge that not everyone wants a romantic relationship. To have a significant relationship, this note is saying, it doesn’t have to be sexual or even romantic and it doesn’t have to fit perfectly into the traditional heterosexual, romantic, long-term, paired relationship, but it does have to loosely follow that model. If you have managed to forge meaningful, loving relationships with your parents or siblings or grandparents or any other relatives, those don’t count. If you have lifelong friendships, they aren’t good enough. Family and friends cannot possibly be significant. Bullshit.
I have significant relationships with my family and friends. I even have a significant relationship with you, who I may not have ever met, because you are taking the time to read something I wrote.
I’m not arguing that these romantic or nonromantic relationships aren’t significant. They are. But they aren’t more significant than other relationships. The significance of different types of relationships cannot be compared. They are different and important in different ways for different reasons, not more or less significant.
I understand that the terminology is difficult, that there are no agreed upon words to describe those relationships which are not those of friendship, family or acquaintance. I understand that ‘significant other’ is a commonly used term and that it is better in a lot of ways than wife/husband/spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend. But it still perpetuates the myth that some relationships are automatically more important than others.
What is worse is that the survey itself shows that the terms ‘significant other’ and ‘significant relationships’ aren’t even necessary. Some of the questions in the relationship section use the term ‘partner’ (ie “Have you ever had a partner who is asexual, grey-A or demisexual?”). Partner is another common term that is often used in place of wife/husband/spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend/etc. It drops the word ‘significant’ out of the equation so it doesn’t have an inherent value implication. It is gender neutral and, as with partners in a law firm, the term can be used to refer to relationships that involve more than just a pair of people. It is flexible enough to encompass a range of commitment levels and a range of sexual and romantic involvements. It isn’t a perfect term, in part due to the overlap with the terms ‘lab partner,’ ‘business partner,’ ‘tennis partner,’ and others. However, it is the best term I can think of and I wish the writers of the survey had tried harder to use ‘partner’ and maybe even ‘partnered relationships’ throughout the section for a greater level of inclusion and as a small rejection of the romance myth.
I will leave you with the following: compare the original statement with this revision of the statement I made above and think about the language you use and how the romance myth impacts your life.
I have never had a ‘significant relationship’ and I may live the rest of my life without any ‘significant relationships.’
I have never had a ‘partnered relationship’ and I may live the rest of my life without any ‘partnered relationships.’
Featured image from Dean Spade.