On WLW, Asexuality, and Competiting Interpretations

This is a post in response to a conversation started by aceadmiral about what gets read as desexualization and what gets read as asexuality in regards to w/w relationships.

Relevant snippets:

[Side note: I’m confused by Ryan’s implication that interpreting a character as a homoromantic asexual is mutually exclusive with saying the character is gay, and I don’t think the distinction between queerbaiting and ace representation is as blurry as Sennkestra made it sound, because my understanding of queerbaiting has less to do with “is there sex or not?” and more “are potentially homoerotic readings set up for the specific purpose of being disavowed and mocked?” (then again, in the Dragon Age fandom I remember there being some good discussion of this re: Leliana’s dialogue in DA:I).]

I suppose it would be easy to brush this off as yet another case of people assuming “nonsexual relationships are less important and meaningful than sexual relationships.”  And, yeah, I’m sure that’s something that people are bringing to the conversation.  But when this happens in the context of wlw issues, I think there’s more going on than that.

It’s the heterosexual motivation for interpreting a woman-woman pair as “gal pals” to make room for the possibility of (romantic) relationships with men taking precedence.  It’s the reasoning behind assuming that lesbians date women as a fallback because they couldn’t get a man.  It’s the broad criteria that classes affection between women as “normal” and nondeviant unless, like in the case of N., they have sex and thus “prove” it’s a relationship set apart from everyday nonromantic friendship.  Even then, it’s the enthusiasm of straight men saying “girl on girl is hot” because that part is just supposed to be foreplay to the real action.  It’s the wlw anxiety that their girlfriends will leave them for a man, in a culture that tells them at every turn that relationships with men are more worthwhile.

It’s the fact that, across the board, women are expected to prioritize men over other women.  And that’s an issue that just doesn’t apply in the same way to men (“bros before hos”).

This thing which I’ve seen called “lesbophobia”* isn’t just a matter of denying/demonizing/delegitimizing romantic/sexual attraction between women.  That’s just the first half.  The other half is attacking lesbians for not being interested in men.  Which is why you’d think there’d be a natural alliance between aro/ace women and lesbians, but, uh, I guess bickering over the q-slur is more important.

*It’s very much a thing, but I have qualms about the medical/nonmoral connotations of the phobia suffix, and I haven’t seen any alternative terms coined and used by lesbians.

Incidentally, having been primed, among other things, by very specific rhetoric around this subject, it’s actually bizarre to me that there are WLW who celebrate the relationship between Ruth and Naomi as “q***r” on the basis that they express strong committed love for each other, which is pretty cool (although, I really don’t want to read their relationship as romantic/sexual, specifically, because we can assume Naomi was old enough to be Ruth’s mother).  It really is a noteworthy passage, if you think about the fact that Ruth does eventually marry a man again & have a son with him and it’s treated like a minor sideplot next to the centerpiece of Ruth and Naomi’s love.

I forget where I was going with this.

But I think… part of what’s going on, in discussions of what’s sexual and what’s not and what’s romantic and what’s not, when it comes to w/w relationships, is an unspoken assumption of what it would take to disavow a Phantom Hypothetical Man taking priority…  and an assumption that the “type” of relationship (romantic/sexual or not) is the difference between Women Actually Prioritizing Each Other First and… as Sciatrix put it, just “hanging on and waiting for the right man to show up.”

Which makes the story of Ruth and Naomi an interesting example of how that doesn’t have to be true at all — regardless of whether they “experienced same-gender attraction” or not.

3 responses to “On WLW, Asexuality, and Competiting Interpretations

  • Sciatrix

    I think some of the historical tension driving that focus on your “first half” in lesbian communities miiiiiight tie into the history of the connection between radical feminism and lesbian communities. Specifically, the historical existence of political lesbians. So you have all of these women in lesbian communities who are there not because they’re necessarily inherently sexually interested in other women but because, politically, they think that men are to be avoided. They’re coming in strong on not being interested in dudes because, well, dudes, but they’re subsuming whatever their other desires are under a political ideology.

    And unfortunately, they’re using the same word that women who are sexually-and-romantically interested in other women are using. And they’re dating in the same pools, and they’re acting like there isn’t a difference there for them. I’ve spoken with a few older queer women who have spoken about finding it really traumatic to try dating and relationships with women who weren’t really as interested in them as people as they said, if you see my meaning, and feeling like they were broken or less-than. So I think that the backlash against political lesbianism in many lesbian communities has grown into this emphasis on, yeah, put your money where your mouth is, be in these woman/woman (sexual, romantic) relationships because you specifically want to be in them and not just because your feminism holds that men are terrible. Like, obviously it’s more complicated than that, but I bet that’s where some of the roots of that tension come from.

    And, well, obviously some of it is also just quarrelling over very limited potential role models to work with. Queer narratives are hard enough to find as it is, and queer women are even harder. Hell, it’s hard to even find media with strong female-female relationships in them! So people clutch as many as they can which even remotely fit them, and I think the tendency to go “no, this one is mine I have so few is kind of understandable. I mean, female characters just in general are fucking thin on the ground, and more so if you want ANYTHING remotely non-heteronormative. I don’t really fault people, given that, for clinging pretty hard–although I do fault them for not metaphorically being willing to share and let other people see themselves for a bit.

  • Sennkestra

    Mhm, I think I was kind of conflating a couple different things into that queerbaiting-related post that I probably should have spelled out separately.

    The definition of queerbaiting that I’m used to using is close to yours, but I think slightly different – I’ve largely seen it used to refer to when content creators add homoerotic content because they know it will titillate fans and make them money, but keep it vague so they can still have plausible deniability and can aggressively enforce that their characters are straight as needed (which often takes the form of mocking denials in some of the most hated examples, but is not always the case). So it’s not necessarily about mocking gay relationships as it is about putting in token “gayish” moments while being unwilling to put in any more fleshed out or explicit queer representation.

    Still, you’re right that a lot of queerbaiting in mass media shows tend to be pretty clear cut, especially in Sherlock (see the ‘why do all these weird gross fans think he’s asexual/gay, haha, what weirdos’ type comments in interview). When it becomes less clear is when it’s commonly broadened to include anything that attracts fans of queer things without being perfect representation – for example, Dumbledore is sometimes considered an example of queerbaiting because his sexuality is often brought up as proof that the books are queer-friendly, despite them never actually talking about it explicitly and relying on word of good from years after the fact.

    Still, I think the part I’m not comfortable with is when it’s not just major content creators being called out for queerbaiting, but when any fan who doesn’t consider said couples gay, or who expresses liking anything about the show is accused of “reinforcing queerbaiting” and the like. So like, saying “moffit stop queerbaiting” is great. Saying “hey fan over there, your fanfic with platonic JohnLock means you support queerbaiting and that’s gross, stop it” is not great. So I think the conflict isn’t over “is the original content queerbaiting”, as much as “is it okay to take something that was written as queerbaiting and reclaim it as ace”. (I mean, I’d love to not use reinterpretations of possibly problematic content as my main way to see myself in fiction, but considering the current lack of alternatives, I’ll take what I can get).

  • Linkspam: December 25th, 2015 | The Asexual Agenda

    […] Coyote wrote about wlw, asexuality, and competing interpretations. […]

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