Adventure Time & the Touch Escalator

Recently, I saw this image set [edit: here’s a working link] circulating around Tumblr.

In it, Jake the dog explains “some junk about dating”: “Right now, you’re at tier 1, which is hugging, but pretty soon you’ll be at tier 2, which is smooching.  Then–”

[dated pop culture reference redacted]

Incidentally, “junk” was a good choice of words there, because this paradigm represents a set of norms that should be thrown out.

Upon seeing this image set, I immediately thought of the physical touch escalator, a concept articulated in this post from The Thinking Asexual.  The general idea is that if you engage in one form of physical contact with someone — especially, under a heteronormative point of view, if this is a cross-gender interaction — it’s expected that you would consent to an additional form of contact which is viewed as “the next step”, escalating to the point of intercourse.  Within the confines of a romantic relationship, many people believe something similar holds true: if you’re dating someone, you “progress” from early steps, like holding hands, to the eventual goal of penetrative sex.  This is framed as an index of relationship health and intensity.  If you don’t want to do “more” than the current step you’re on, that’s viewed as the stagnation or termination of a relationship.

You don’t have to be on the asexual spectrum, nor celibate, to complicate this model.

Maybe the standard relationship staircase as you understand it is more or less an accurate representation of what you want, but with the caveat that you may want to skip certain steps altogether, or customize the steps, or take some of them from a different direction.  Or maybe you want to date someone with minimal touching and no hugging at all.  That’s all valid, and you have a right to set custom boundaries.

I can’t find the post, but I recall one person saying that they liked receiving kisses on the neck, not the lips, which is an example of a touch preference you would never know about if you followed the relationship staircase model and just assumed — without asking — that lip kisses are where you “should” start, as opposed to asking after what would make your personfriend happiest.  While the staircase may represent at least one person’s preferences, Jake presents it as a general guide “about dating”, as if we can assume — supposing the relationship lasts long enough — that all the steps will be reached, in that order, in that way.

Maybe the proliferation of this idea wouldn’t be so harmful except for the fact that it does get generalized and enforced.  If you fail to conform and take all the stairs, you get told that your relationship is invalid or that you are unjustly holding out on what is reasonably deserved.  This can be seen in what has become the infamous example of an asexual woman’s romantic relationship being laughed at as an instance of “friend-zoning.”  The concept of the friend zone is a needless one anyway, as has been laid out elsewhere, but what this demonstrates is how a romance can be socially demoted to a friendship if one party declines to “continue” up the stairs.  This same paradigm can be seen in many narratives of rape within romantic relationships, as well as in the arguments of rape apologists.  The relationship staircase becomes the justification for what you should “expect”, what you should want.

Funny, and here I was thinking that these forms of touch — hugging, kissing, canoodling — were supposed to be motivated by something as simple as wanting them, not a societal mandate.  They’re supposed to be fun, right?  They’re supposed to feel good?  Then why do we need strangers stepping in to say, “you have completed insufficient amounts of having fun”?  Are we supposed to be trying to fill some sort of quota here?

If you’ve ever had someone get mad at you for not wanting something, you know it’s crap.

This entire worldview — that you can rightly assume what forms of touch will come after others in a relationship — rests on the belief that you can know a person’s preferences without asking, and even restaurants know better than that.

[ Dragon has written a response to this post in defense of Adventure Time. ]


11 responses to “Adventure Time & the Touch Escalator

  • Ace

    Reblogged this on The Thinking Asexual and commented:
    Good response post to my own post about the Physical Touch Escalator!
    I especially appreciate the inclusion of the example the author used, of someone liking kisses on the neck but not on the mouth. Kissing on the mouth is as compulsory in romantic relationships, according to mainstream sexual society, as sex. And yet, I know of plenty of romantic asexuals who definitely feel romantic attraction and want romantic relationships but do NOT like kissing on the mouth and/or making out. Personally, I really like being kissed on the neck, but kisses on the mouth are a no-no, unless and until I form a bond with someone where we organically reach the point of exploring that with each other and I discover I like it all right with them (but even in that scenario, close-mouthed only!).

    Why should we feel like mouth to mouth kissing is a requirement of a romantic relationship, that a relationship isn’t romantic unless that kind of kissing goes on? Conversely, why are kisses even classified as romantic anyway? I love the idea of nonromantic kissing. It’s totally a thing, at least for some asexuals. (I’m not talking about open-mouthed/with tongue kissing. But closed-mouthed, on the lips kissing? Can totally be nonromantic, as well as nonsexual.)

  • Jo

    I like this post a lot – it goes very well with a post of mine on The Asexual Agenda, where I looked at how the touch escalator is also assumed to correspond with the increasing amount of emotional closeness you feel towards something to someone. (Also, were you referring to this thread on AVEN with the neck vs lips kisses thing? I think I may have said something along those lines at one point. Or maybe on my own blog… Not sure. Either way, it sounds like something I would have said.)

    • acetheist

      If memory serves, I hadn’t read your post before writing this one, but looks like we both hit on a very similar idea. Cool.

      No, I don’t visit AVEN anymore. It may well have been you, but it’s probably a fairly common sentiment (The Thinking Asexual just reblogged this post and expressed a similar preference).

  • Linkspam: September 20th, 2013 | The Asexual Agenda

    […] The Ace Theist writes about Adventure Time and the Touch Escalator. […]

  • Rose

    And also harmful is when people see some of those Physical Touch Escalator indicators showing up in a platonic friendship and then not only are the indicators out of order but the escalator is phantom due to the friendship being just that — a platonic friendship. My best friend and I were casual friends for about a year before one day we spontaneously started cuddling with each other and being very close physically with no intent of sex. Not just causal hugs while hanging out, we would curl up together or stand hugging each other or hold hands while out (thankfully we lived in a very accepting community!). It drove several people around us to distraction trying to figure out if we were gay since we are the same biological sex when in reality all it was was that we both wanted the physical contact and developed a nice bond out of that shared need. I wish it that two people could share that physical contact without the Escalator being called into play and the thought of sex in the future always looming due to expectations even when neither party wants it.

    • acetheist

      Another good example! Thank you for commenting. Funny how it goes both ways — fail the arbitrary standard and your romance gets booted from recognition, but engage in some forms of touch with friends, and people anticipate romance and/or sex. Why can’t this culture recognize that sometimes it’s nice to cuddle just to cuddle?

  • Diana

    Reblogged this on Part Time Monster and commented:
    This, this, a thousand times this article. Sooner or later I’ll get ’round to writing a more intelligent take on it, but for now I can do is cry “this” because I get it.

  • An Exoneration of Adventure Time | The Ace Theist

    […] user Dragon (of thedragonandthefox) has written a response to my touch escalator post, and you should go read it.  Turns out, the full narrative that gifset was pulled from actually […]

  • On Aces, Relationships, and Being “Up Front” | The Ace Theist

    […] If we agree (as I presume many of those reading this will do) that you cannot reliably determine the sexual availability of an individual by such indirect cues such as what someone is wearing, what location they’re at, etc., and if that the viewing of those behaviors as “implied consent” is a paradigm that is as inaccurate and as it is harmful, then I think it’s just as worth questioning the default assumption (which, to be sure, we’re not going to change overnight) that sexual interest is implied within romantic interest and that, by extension, agreeing to date someone is tantamount to an implied promise of eventual sex, depending on the duration of the relationship. […]

  • Asexuality and the Relationship Escalator – A life unexamined

    […] subset of the relationship escalator. Both The Thinking Aro** and The Ace Theist (on two occasions, here and here) have written about the physical touch escalator, so I won’t spend too much time […]

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