Thursday, December 27, 2012

Romantic Asexual, or Touch Hunger?

[Note: I cannot know for certain how others feel. This is my speculation, and it could be wrong. If you identify as romantic asexual, please don't get offended, but just share your experience if you think I've misunderstood you.]

One thing that has been puzzling me is romantic orientations. According to some people, romantic and sexual orientations are separable, and may not always match up. In particular, you can be asexual and yet long for romance.

This doesn't make any sense to me. Nor can my parents, both heterosexual, explain it. And I'm beginning to wonder if this identification of romantic orientations may in fact be a reflection of some of what's wrong with society.

Our society is obsessed with sex, more than we ever have been before. In ancient and medieval times, sex was just one part of life, not taboo but not focused on either. Then the Victorian era tried to stamp it out entirely, and then we went to the opposite extreme.

I posted awhile back about a guy in World of Warcraft who wasn't very tolerant of asexuality. When I explained it to him, he translated it as 'can't love'. I tried to explain that I loved my family and my closest friends, but in his mind, love meant only romantic love.

In fandoms, you see this too. Virtually any two characters who are very close emotionally will be perceived as romantically involved by a sizeable proportion of fans, even if there is no canon support for any romantic element to their relationship. And although greater awareness of gay and bisexual people has meant some very good things, it also means that even same-sex relationships are being misperceived. Even siblings (such as Sam and Dean Winchester) have been mistaken for romantic partners by fans.

I think, as a society, we have forgotten that closeness can emerge in more than just a romantic context. We sort of recognize that family members can be close nonromantically, but there is virtually no recognition that friendships can be close.

This is something that preteen girls know. Many girls of this age have a 'best friend forever', and they're often closer to this person than to anyone else. But as we leave home, we often leave childhood friendships behind. And boys have it worse - they're not really allowed to feel attachment, because it's seen as unmasculine. Even in the romantic context, boys are portrayed as wanting sex while girls want romance, even though teenage boys report feeling and wanting emotional intimacy with their girlfriends with similar frequency to girls.

And there is little recognition of the joy and security that can come from close nonsexual physical touch. Again, it's generally assumed that touch is for romance. Although we recognize that small children desire affectionate touch from parents, they're expected to outgrow this, especially by the time they develop secondary sexual characteristics. And there are strict rules for touch between friends.

But touch is not sexual. Touch is affectionate. In virtually every mammal species, physical contact is used to convey affection. Horses nuzzle each other. Lionesses greet each other with a head bump and a rub, exactly the same gesture that domestic cats use for their favorite humans. And our closest relatives, chimpanzees, stroke and groom each other as a way of cementing bonds. This is not sexual. It's quite distinct from sexual behavior. It's affection.

And we're wired that way too. But we don't realize it. For sexual people, they often get their needed touch and closeness in life by seeking out sexual partners. In some cases, they luck out and find their life partner, while in others they struggle. A few end up seeking out one night stands, thinking that's what they want, but feeling disappointed every time because there's something important missing.

But asexuals don't really have a socially accepted avenue for getting affection and touch, not if they don't want sex mixed in. Some asexuals put up with the sex to get the affection, not realizing that it's only the love and not the sex they're interested in. Some find other sources of love without even realizing the need it fills in them. And some recognize this need, and seek out or find someone for nonsexual love, but having no other words for such a close relationship with a nonrelative, they call it romance. There are also some, sexual or asexual, who don't want such a close relationship, either because they don't need it or they're afraid of it. If they're sexual, they're the ones who prefer one night stands.*

But we don't need sexuality taking over our lives. We need to get back to what we once knew - that sexuality is only one part of a rich and deep emotional landscape. Romance is only one of many kinds of close, fulfilling relationships. And touch is not just used for sex, but for showing caring and love in all  close relationships. Friendship can be just as close as romantic relationships. And this is especially important for men to learn, because masculine ideals try to turn them into unfeeling islands.

If we recognized that, would people still call themselves romantic asexuals? Personally, I doubt it. They'd be the asexuals who got really close to their friends. And they wouldn't be 'just friends' - their friendships would be beautiful and loving and close, no 'just' about it.

* Incidentally, research shows that many of these people have insecure attachment, suggesting aromantic sexual is not a healthy romantic/sexual style, but rather a reflection of an inadequate parent-child bond. Unlike sexual orientation, romantic orientation is shaped a great deal by the environment a child grows up in.

Friday, December 07, 2012

A Broader Look at Literalism

Literalism is often described as a characteristic of autistics' language use. It varies in degree, but what is generally refers to is difficulty understanding non-literal speech, such as metaphors. For example, a literal person might think that 'it's raining cats and dogs' refers to cats and dogs falling from the sky.

By this description, I only show literalism on rare occasions. I have no trouble with metaphors or figures of speech. I only misunderstand the occasional context-dependent phrase, such as a nurse asking 'where did you come from?' and expecting to hear a hospital ward instead of a hometown. In the vast majority of cases, when someone says something they didn't mean literally, I know it wasn't literal. Or at least strongly suspect it.

But there is more to literalism than that. When I hear a non-literal statement, even if I know what it means, I always first interpret it literally, and only then do I take the non-literal meaning. (And this isn't a conscious process, by the way. My conscious mind receives both the literal and non-literal meaning from my sentence parser.)

Most people, when they hear something with multiple meanings, they will activate all meanings they know for the thing (this has been shown by semantic priming). But about 300 miliseconds later, they have suppressed all the meanings except the correct one. Although I haven't been through any priming experiments, my guess is that I take much longer, if at all, to suppress the wrong meaning, and so it enters conscious awareness.

This means that, even when I know what you really meant, part of me is thinking as if you actually meant to convey the literal meaning.

This can be funny - most figures of speech make me smile or even chuckle when I hear them, because they're so silly when taken literally. But other times it's upsetting. I've seen NTs playfully insult each other, both knowing that the other person intends no harm. For me, this kind of interaction is extremely upsetting even to observe, because part of me reacts as if they were serious about every insult they say to each other.

My Dad likes to jokingly pretend to be a cruel tyrant, for example if I ask if I can have some food, he'll act like he's considering refusing. I recently told him to stop, explaining what I've said in this post. When he fakes being a tyrant, I feel real panic, even though I know he's faking.