This is a post about the ace and aro communities’ reclamation of the term “split attraction model” from the most recent anti-ace online harassment wave, picking back up on the discussion from here. A quick recap of that post: romantic orientation & differentiating types of attraction are not the same thing, and “split attraction model” is an anti-ace-derived piece of terminology that lumps the two of them together. For that reason, I’m here referring to ace & aro use of the phrase as a type of reclamation, in that it was imposed on us from the outside and now some have adopted it.
In this post, I do some more thinking out loud about the semantic work that the phrase “split attraction model” does and does not accomplish. The post has roughly three main parts. First, I share some of my understanding of why the term surfaced in the first place, in order to contextualize how it’s been reclaimed and is used now in the present. Second, as a response to that, I’ve present five narratives to complicate the resulting binary. Third, I’ve got some tentative suggestions for finding a way forward.
Here’s a rough timeline to explain my understanding of why the phrase exists:
- Most of the asexual community hails from Western nations where, generally speaking, “orientation” is used interchangeably with “sexual orientation;” there is only the one orientation, and this (sexual) orientation is generally presumed to be a supercategory over an individual’s romantic interests. Note that this is not how it works everywhere — in Japan, for instance, the word for “same-sex love” is closer to our ideas of romance than of sexuality.
- When the contemporary asexual community formed around the late 90s/early 00s, however, some aces discussed how this formulation did not work for them. That is, some of them did experience crushes and want to date — making their romantic interest category larger than their sexuality, so to speak. And so, although not the first to do this, they resolved this apparent contradiction when they came up with their own language for the idea of “romantic orientation.” “Romantic orientation” could explain how some but not all aces could be “aromantic” and others could have more familiar orientations in conjunction with asexuality (such as gay, bi, hetero, etc.). This also eventually caused its own problems when every ace started getting presumed to have a romantic orientation, leading to the creation of the wtfromantic umbrella in response.
- Tumblr started getting popular, for reasons I’ll leave to somebody else to explain.
- 2011 happened.
- 2011… kept happening. 2011 never stopped happening. A bunch of tumblrite baby aces were never even told that these waves had been happening since 2011, and also the names for it got lousier.
- As a part of the 2015 iteration, as I talked about in the previous post, anti-ace tumblr antagonists (and this was initially, before they had seemed to even notice aros) gradually formulated the term “split attraction model” to talk about their objections to ace language. “Split attraction model” does not appear to have ever been granted a formal definition. Its primary purpose was to say “you’re saying [insert ace concept here — and there were several] applies to everyone.” That universalizing factor was, yes, an original, baked-in part of the definition of “split attraction model;” some antagonists even made a distinction between “split attraction” (which was fine) and “the split attraction model” (which conceived of “split attraction” as universal).
- Based on what’s happened since and how the phrase has proliferated, I have to infer there was a step in between early 2015 and today: that some contingent of tumblr aces and/or aros must have responded to the attacks by accepting the phrase “split attraction model” and simply saying, “no, it doesn’t apply to everyone, just some of us.”
- This means that, as a consequence of that rhetorical move, now you’ve got a situation where folks have accepted a model that sorts aces and aros according to “those who use the SAM” and those who “find the SAM doesn’t work for them.” That is, people (especially people who use tumblr) are using “SAM” and “non-SAM” as identifiers for a corresponding category of people.
This would be fine if “split attraction model” were ever a coherent idea in the first place, but it wasn’t. This would still also be fine if it had been thoroughly redefined into a coherent idea for classification purposes, but I’m not convinced it’s done that either. I’ve talked before in the previous post about how “SAM or non-SAM” has been imposed on me, and so some of my irritation here is personal.
With that said, I understand better now from talking to others that the term has stuck around for another reason besides just inertia. “Non-SAM” (moreso than “SAM”) is performing certain semantic work. I’ve come around to the perspective that that work is important. My hangup is this: I’m not convinced that the phrase, itself, is a good tool for that work. Or in other words, I think the reclamation process and how we choose to repurpose these ideas needs to be reassessed and then remodeled accordingly. “SAM” and “non-SAM,” themselves, as they are currently being used, are not yet sufficient — which is to say, as they are currently being used, the definitions involve too much conflation for the binary itself to remain coherent.
Here are five narratives to complicate the “SAM”/”non-SAM” binary. Note that in this post I’m using “orientation” to refer to a way of conceptualizing and describing raw experience, not the raw experience itself. Read through the list and see if you can determine who out of these hypothetical narratives would belong in which category.
- Flint experiences multiple kinds of attraction and labels ixself in terms of one orientation. Ix orientation is gray-asexual, and ix does not think of ixself as having any other orientations than that. Flint finds it useful to differentiate among types of physical attraction — such as aesthetic, sensual, and sexual — as distinct experiences, and ix places a high importance on the language necessary to make this distinction. However, ix does not use multiple sets of orientation labels to go with every type of attraction ix does or does not experience. Ix soley self-describes as gray-asexual.
- Ven experiences multiple kinds of attraction and and has multiple labels for what he prefers to think of as one orientation. He is gray-asexual, and he also self-describes as grayromantic. He understands these to be a part of one singular, integrated orientation, rather than simply a “matched set” of two different ones, because for him that is how it is experienced. This makes it uncomfortable to him that the two communities are split accordingly, and in that context, he would prefer to have language to express that for him, his orientation is felt as all one singular whole. While he does experience aesthetic attraction which he recognizes as distinct from romantic or sexual feelings, he strongly feels that romance & sexuality are not separate for him.
- Alex experiences one kind of attraction and self-describes with three different orientation labels. Their romantic orientation is aromantic, their sexual orientation is asexual, and their sensual orientation is demisensual. They experience these as three distinct identities and find aromantic the most salient of the three, although they also find sensual orientation language to be very important to them. The one type of attraction that they experience is sensual attraction, not differentiated from anything else in their own experience (because it is the only kind they actually feel) but nonetheless distinguished from how their society generally talks about attraction, which tends to be alienating to them as an aro ace.
- Luna experiences one type of attraction and self-describes in terms of one orientation. For Luna, the concepts of “romance” and “sexuality” are too frustrating to apply to herself one way or another, and so, if pressed, she’ll self-label as both quoisexual and quoiromantic to express that she does not find romantic or sexual orientation to be useful ideas. The one type of attraction she is sure she experiences and relates to in a useful way is some type of maybe-platonic-maybe-not emotional attraction. She is interested in exploring labels such as biplatonic or bialterous, and while she hasn’t settled on a particular label just yet, this is what she thinks of as being her orientation. Making sure that people are clear on & understand the differences between this orientation and a romantic or sexual orientation is what’s most important to her about conveying this aspect of her experience.
- Mal experiences no attraction and describes their orientation with two different labels, as a way of expressing a connection to two communities. They identify primarily as asexual, but in the past they also identified more with bisexuality, and they continue to do so today. Although they do not have a romantic orientation and do not identify as anything “-romantic,” they continue to feel like a part of the bi community and relate to “bisexual” as an important part of their identity for expressing their openness to & personal history of partnering with people of more than one gender. For them, this does not describe two different “types” of orientation, along distinct romantic/sexual axes. Rather, for them this counts as “one” orientational identity — an identity they think of as being “beyond the gay/straight binary” — and they simply have two names for it.
Which of these people are “SAM” and “non-SAM”?
Is it the ones with a romantic orientation vs. the ones without? Is it the ones who experience more than one type of attraction vs. the ones who don’t? Is it the ones with more than one type of orientation label vs. the ones with just one? Is it the ones who view romance & sexuality as distinct for themselves vs. the ones who don’t? Is it the ones who experience some type of nonromantic attraction vs. the ones who don’t or the ones who experience some type of nonsexual attraction vs. the ones who don’t or–
I don’t think people usually bother with all this detail. It’s been my impression — from how I’ve seen people deploy it on Tumblr, Arocalypse, and AVEN — that people mostly just use “split attraction model” to mean romantic orientation. Yet this would imply that the idea of “differentiating types of attraction” is only relevant for aces with a romantic orientation, or that romantic orientation is the only kind of orientation derived from “splitting” attraction, or that aces who have a “matched” romantic-sexual orientation necessarily don’t experience more than one type of attraction, and any number of other things you could pull out here from the conflation of concepts. It’s a mess. It was never intended to be anything less than a mess, because the entire idea from the beginning was that “split attraction model” was supposed to name something overreaching and absurdly reductive.
The “split attraction model” was not coined, theorized, or designed to address all the variations in experiences I described in the five narratives above. It was coined to criticize aces. It was coined to give a sweeping label to ace language, condensing it all into one bunch, and defined in universalizing terms so that it could be rejected as such.
For the record, though, I don’t think it makes talking about any of the above narratives too complicated or impossible. These narratives aren’t unworkably complex, and you don’t need the words “split attraction model” to talk about them. We’ve been using our own language for some of these ideas before 2015, after all. We just need to go back to the parts that actually worked and add onto them from more solid foundations than “SAM and non-SAM” can provide.
We can say things like: for some people, it makes more sense to say that they have more than one type of orientation. In addition to or even instead of “sexual orientation,” some people use other orientation labels. One of the more common of these is “romantic orientation,” although it is not the only one. There are also people who don’t find those to be useful ideas, and there are people who experience their orientation more as an integrated, singular thing. The suffix of an orientational identity label doesn’t even necessarily correspond strictly to one specific type of attraction.
We can say things like: there are multiple names for different types of attraction. Some people find using the more specific names useful, and some people experience attraction in ways that they prefer more general names for or experience in close conjunction with each other. You can also experience a type of attraction without thinking of it in terms of an orientation. Some of the names for attraction types that people use are sexual, sensual, physical, aesthetic, emotional, romantic, and more. Just because you use some of those names doesn’t mean you have to use all the others.
We don’t need the phrase “split attraction model” for any of that.
To the extent that the term “split attraction model” itself has served a purpose, its purpose has been to talk about a dynamic around the idea of “romantic orientation” as first formulated by the early ace community. Not only have aces presumed that all aces have a “romantic orientation,” but also, they started talking about “romantic orientation” and “sexual orientation” as separable for everyone. This is a niche particular community norm. It needs to be addressed and shut down as a community norm. But just as the perpetuation of the “romantic orientation” norm for aces continues to make quoiromanticism relevant, the continued existence of this “split”-orientation community norm makes salient a need to mark its inapplicability.
That is, “split attraction model” may have started out as an anti-ace measure, and that’s what’s shaped my impression of the term the most, but I’ve also heard from greys and aroaces who need a way to express that cohesion to their orientation as not something made of such distinctly separate parts.
So let’s talk about some different ways about talking these issues. I’m taking a page from Queenie’s 2014 post on prioritizing identity as a source of inspiration here — which you can think of as a kind of precursor to this post, in that it was responding to some very similar dynamics circulating the year just before the term “split attraction model” took root.
Here are at least 5 different norms & relationships to those norms to think about [updated 3/28]:
1) ORIENTATION LANGUAGE: This is the norm of using the word “orientation” as a part of how to talk and think about particular ways of desiring, connecting, and relating to other people. Not everyone uses or wants to use orientation language at all. And even among those who do, they don’t all use the same models, definitions, types, or categories; using orientation language for one thing or in one way doesn’t necessarily entail using it for every conceivable experience of interpersonal desire or attraction. The degree to which orientation language feels right or applicable to different people for different feelings will vary. And again, some people may prefer to stay away from using it at all.
2) COMPOSITE SEXUAL ORIENTATION: This is the Western composite norm of thinking of “orientation” in the singular, where “sexual orientation” is synonymous/interchangeable with “orientation” in general, where romance & sexuality are intertwined, and where one’s pool of romantic interests is integrated with one’s sexuality. One’s relationship to this norm can be thought of as a scale ranging from “convergent” to “divergent.” The more you prefer this way of modeling your orientation, the more you could say your relationship to this norm is more convergent. The more you feel alienated from this norm or want to distance yourself from it, the more you could say your relationship to this norm is more divergent. Those are just the extremes, though; think of this as a sliding scale.
3) ROMANTIC ORIENTATION/SEXUAL ORIENTATION DYAD: This is the aro & ace communities’ norm of talking about “romantic orientation” and “sexual orientation” (RO SO) as two things that aros and aces have. In other words, we are expected to have a “romantic orientation” box and a “sexual orientation” box, and we are expected to apply labels to or some how fit our experiences into those boxes, making ourselves legible under this framework. The more you relate to this norm (RO SO) as an applicable and useful framework for yourself, the more you could describe your identity as “rosol.” The more you feel alienated from this norm or want to distance yourself from it, the more you could describe your identity as more out of alignment with this dyad, or “non-rosol.” Think of this as a sliding scale with plenty of room in between for those whose relationship to this norm is ambivalent or apathetic.
4) ONLY ONE OR TWO TYPES OF ORIENTATION: This is the norm of thinking and speaking of “orientation” language as something that only, strictly pertains to either sex, romance, or both. One’s relationship to this norm is strong when you think of all your orientations as making reference to romance and/or sex in some fashion. One’s relationship to this norm is more alienated or distant the less you think of your orientation (or one of your orientational identities) as being “about” the canon categories (of sex or romance). With reference to this norm, we might think of romantic and sexual orientations as the more “orthodox” types, and we might think of other kinds of orientation (like sensual, aesthetic, affectionate, etc.) as more “unorthodox.”
5) ORIENTATIONS BY AXIS: This is the norm especially prevalent in the ace & aro communities that all orientations must be specified along a specific axis, such as romanticism, sexuality, sensuality, platonism, alterity, and so on. Under this norm we are expected to “map” every orientation label along a specific axis on a grid. One’s relationship to this norm is stronger the more that all of your orientations align with a specific axis (or bundle of axes) and the more you feel comfortable with this way of sorting and defining your orientational identities. These are identities that we might describe as more “axial.” One’s relationship to this norm is more alienated or more distant the more you do not subscribe to this framework. The less you bind or map your identity to this norm, the more you might describe that identity as “non-axial.” Again, think of this as a sliding scale.
These different relationships to labeling norms may not perfectly describe everybody. What they do accomplish, I think, is getting away from the SAM/Non-SAM dichotomy, which is good because of the problems with it I hinted at in the five narratives above: its conflation of attraction with orientation plus its centering of romantic & sexual as the only important kinds of attraction being “split” from each other. The drawing of these four scales, on the other hand, makes space to acknowledge more than two types of orientations, and it doesn’t presume that anyone who “splits” romantic & sexual orientation necessarily does so in order to have one of each.
Right now I am still thinking of these ideas as a work in progress. So in that spirit, you are invited to further its progress. Do you see yourself as fitting anywhere among these scales? Do you spot any problems with how I have described them? Me, I’m only saying one thing for sure, and that’s that I’m sick of people over-extrapolating inapplicable specific narratives about what it means to not have a romantic orientation.