The Irony of “the SAM” as a Failed Critique of Essentialism

In light of how “the split attraction model” (the term) emerged, this post delves into how its associated critique overlooked preexisting efforts, neglecting to fully disentangle itself from prescriptivism, and at this point, the term is getting used to perpetuate the selfsame problem it was originally devised to combat.

[Reposted to Pillowfort. Preview image by Peter Thoeny, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.]

The origins of the term “split attraction model” in 2015 had to do with many things, but key among these was a critique of essentialism. People began using this term (“the SAM”) in response to certain constructs of identity being universalized to “every single person,” generalized as “inherent,” and applied to other people without their permission. Early on, these bloggers differed on whether the term “split attraction model” referred to the identity type itself or the universalization of it, but objecting to universalizing was a common thread among much of these critiques.

If those who created and popularized the term were sincere in their objections to essentialism, then it would have made sense to incorporate preexisting critiques already happening within the ace community. In practice, that’s not how it played out, and there are some clues as to why. Whatever their true intentions, though, the results are… disappointing.

Ignoring Critiques from Within the Ace Community

In all the digging I’ve done to try and recover the background on “the split attraction model” (as a piece of terminology), I’ve found a lot of repeated points about universalization, but I’ve yet to find any which engage with aces’ own intracommunity critiques of the selfsame problem. In the ace community, we’ve had conversations about not finding the concept of “romantic orientation” personally useful, pointing out that it shouldn’t be thought of as a “required,” and challenging the practice of universalizing it. These conversations preceded and unfolded concurrently with the emergence of the term “split attraction model.” Yet I’ve found no evidence of early cross-pollination between the two groups.

Is that because they simply never happened to cross paths? Maybe. I’d have no clue, if not for a post from tumblr user rubyfruitjumble alluding to a label for “people who ‘don’t understand the difference between attractions’.” In context, it’s unclear whether this was meant as an intentional reference to quoiromanticism, but regardless, the post frames the label as a bad move that “naturalizes” such a difference in the first place — which, again, to me suggests a lack of real familiarity with quoiromantic perspectives. Point being, considering this user’s involvement in early “SAM” blogging, this suggests there could have been more in-depth engagement between these outside critiques and intracommunity critiques of compulsory romantic orientation, if the notion of quoiromanticism itself hadn’t been summarily rejected.

So where does this leave the quoiromantic aces? Or any aces with a troubled relationship to romantic orientation? Within early “SAM” blogging, the emphasis on containing romantic orientation to aro & ace people (exclusively) reads as though these bloggers were only objecting to the mandate extending to anyone but aces. Forcing romantic orientation on aces, meanwhile, was left outside the purview of their complaints.

Trading One Form of Prescriptivism for Another

If we interpret early “SAM” blogging as genuinely opposed to universalization, opposed to prescriptivism, and opposed to pressuring people into certain identity constructs, then it’s disappointing that it wasn’t more consistent about that.

To their credit, early “SAM” bloggers vocally spoke out against pressuring people into an identity label… so long as it was that kind of label, if you know what I mean. For example, tumblr user rubyfruitjumble objected to telling people what they are based on a two-sentence anonymous message. That’s a fair point to make. What I also need to highlight here is how the post concludes with the hypothetical example of “according to mogai-archive, you appear to be a dingdongsexual.” So on the one hand, they’re objecting to certain bloggers’ overinflated sense of authority in declaring other people’s identities (fair), and on the other hand, in order to illustrate the principle, they’ve constructed the deliberately absurd example of “dingdongsexual.” In this way, the legitimate critique of an inappropriate practice (identity prescriptivism, assigning identity labels to others) is linked to the ridicule of particular identity labels for sounding illegitimate and undignified.

When it comes to more familiar, standard LGBT labels, the “SAM” bloggers took the opposite stance. For example, tumblr user deermatriarch declared without reservation homoromantic bisexuals should exclusively identify as bi. Other bloggers made similar declarations and blanket statements, in styles ranging from one-sided permission (“you can just say that you’re bi”) to the more definitive (“ur friend is just bisexual” & “tell them they are bi”) to an expressly formulaic if-X-then-Y approach to declaring people bi/pan, gay/lesbian, or straight. The prevalence of this approach within “SAM” blogging points to a solid faith in the bi/gay/straight triad to encapsulate the identity of every single person.

The Uptake of the Term for Continued Universalizing & Essentialism

Despite the critiques that the term emerged from, the waves of defense that those sloppy critiques inspired has since divorced “split attraction model” (as a term) from those critiques so thoroughly that the term “split attraction model” is now getting used for continued universalizing. In other words, now you’ve got people employing the term “split attraction model” right alongside statements like everyone has a romantic orientation.” The term carried over, but the critique of essentialism did not, and now the term itself is used for perpetuating the exact same problem it was meant to combat.

Regardless of how it’s used in a sentence, though, the term itself is predicated on essentialism. By sweepingly referring to so much at once, the term “split attraction model” conflates romantic orientation, attraction subtyping, and romantic/sexual divergence all together as if those weren’t separable constructs to pick and choose from. This has contributed to — not reduced — the essentialist attraction fixation in how people conceptualize identity, with a formulaic if-this-then-that approach to attraction as a determinant of orientation. Introducing the term “SAM” does nothing to explain the variety of experiences that lead people to orientation labels. Instead, it just introduces problems: since “SAM” uses “attraction” as a proxy term for “orientation,” it only makes it harder to talk about attraction subtyping without that funneling into another orientation label. So for all the disgust and fearmongering about words like “heterosensual,” that’s actually the necessary outcome of framing all attraction talk as universally inducted into orientation.

This is what I mean to say that the introduction of “the split attraction model” (as a term) has proved ironic. It was premised on pointing out some problems with universalizing in the ace community, but those early bloggers who called that “the SAM” (instead of compulsory romantic orientation) ended up overlooking aces’ own intracommunity critiques of universalizing. Meanwhile they showed no such commitment against universalizing the gay/bi/straight triad. In the end, introducing this piece of terminology into the ecosystem has not actually stamped out the practice of universalizing — it’s only muddied the waters and made the problem harder to talk about.

So where do we go from here? The ideal path would be to retain/recover the critique of universalization and dispense with everything else. Both the bloggers who universalize romantic orientation and the bloggers who call that “the SAM” have made the mistake of treating “orientation” as a fixed, essential trait, for which there is supposedly some comprehensive and universally-applicable taxonomy. The only way out of essentialist thinking like that is to accept identification as something more discursive and situational — an act of communication, a subjective selection of tools, and a judgement call about how to situate oneself in relation to others.

14 responses to “The Irony of “the SAM” as a Failed Critique of Essentialism

  • raavenb2619

    I can’t remember if you’ve found an anecdotal/concrete example of attraction subtyping not necessarily leading to orientation labelling, but here’s mine. I experience sensual attraction under rare/specific circumstances and need an emotional connection with someone to experience it. I could definitely call myself demisensual, and that would be an accurate label, but I don’t, because the label “demisensual” doesn’t have a utility when I apply it to myself. Either I’m not sensually attracted to someone, so I don’t have any particular need to talk about sensual attraction or sensual orientation, or I am sensually attracted to someone, in which case I do talk about that, but having a label for sensual orientation isn’t ever necessary or useful. (Which is not to say that no one could find calling themselves demisensual useful.)

    Your last paragraph about identification as a conscious action instead of a prescriptive/essentialist label reminded me of how right now, at least on Tumblr, it feels like a lot of questioning people are “asking” for permission to use a label for themselves. I’ve mentioned that I do think there can be some utility for some people in thinking of their own labels as being prescribed instead of actions as an early method of coping with internalized rhetoric, since that can deflect the “blame” of being a certain label away from the questioning person who has no agency in the prescriptivist perspective (and I still stand by that); but I’m also thinking about how to try to shift the mentality of most people from asking for permission to choosing to use a label, so I’d welcome any ideas/suggestions in that regard. (Certainly for me, the idea of “I can choose to try on a label” was incredibly helpful, and feeling like I had to ask someone for permission to use a label would have made things so much harder for me.)

    • Coyote

      Me too — I find “aesthetic attraction” and “sensual attraction” to be extremely useful concepts at a personal level, and that’s not something I like to think of in terms of orientation. This makes it especially absurd to me to see people emphasizing “your orientation is WHO you’re attracted to, not HOW you’re attracted,” since like… I really don’t think these folks want me labeling myself on the basis of aesthetic attraction, lol.

      I hear what you’re saying about many folks being nervous, and needing a way of dealing with that nervousness. To me, it’s important to discourage that subsequent attempt to latch onto an authority, because that leaves that person’s identity in a state of vulnerability to the next authoritative speaker who comes along and tries to strip them of that identity. To that point — when providing them with general information isn’t enough, sometimes I think what’s called for is an epistemic shift, as well. I’m talking about, like you said, understanding that “I can choose to try on a label” or even “I can choose a label,” period. Getting this across to people calls for getting across this entire way of looking at identity as something autonomous, which… is why I tried writing up a whole designated explanation of identity as something autonomous. For more ideas on phrasing, you might also look at Sennkestra’s Identities are Tools post, Sciatrix’s “Am I asexual?” “Who can say?” and Elizabeth’s Permission.

  • aceadmiral

    In the end, introducing this piece of terminology into the ecosystem has not actually stamped out the practice of universalizing — it’s only muddied the waters and made the problem harder to talk about.

    I know correlation isn’t causation, but in my anecdotal experience, I would go farther than this. The SAM and more importantly the amount of time/energy redirected by people who in reality had mostly ace audiences and influence to explaining why it wasn’t homophobic and/or evil incarnate seems to me to have taken an amorphous, still-figuring-it-out sort of problem and set it in amber, preserving it long past when it would naturally otherwise have evolved or died out. And a lot of the softer, more squishy norms of the asexual community were stamped out entirely in certain places by the fact of this weaponized critique.
    Also, kind of tangentially related, but the post about “heterosensuality” reminded me that the SAM bloggers were also ironic in that they actually hurt the ability of people who were concerned about allyship to LGBP+ people–be it unexamined assumptions coincidentally playing into queerphobic tropes or full-blown elitism–to locate and counteract those actual problems. After the zillionth time you find out the “homophobic language” at issue is this nonsense (or you couldn’t even track it down at all), you have to begin to wonder whether any actual wolves still exist. Or, in a post like that one: whether they know they’re looking pretty Red-Riding-Hood’s-Grandma…

  • opisaheretic

    Since reading your writing on this topic I’ve shifted from “split attraction model” to “differentiated attraction”. Obviously a small change, but #your impact nonetheless.

  • KaeS

    I feel like identity essentialism and prescriptivism have become something of an internet thing across the board in discussing sexuality. On one level, I get it, I think things like conversion therapy is cruel as well. But it’s important to note that conversion therapy has been applied to socially constructed things like language and culture with about the same results.

    On the other hand, one of the things I try to keep in mind is when a major news site killed it’s comment section, because less than 1% of the visitors were using that feature, and the comment section was dominated by only a hundred or so dedicated cranks. On-ground networks in my experience are much more open to “labels are fluid” people, or at least people are a lot less aggressive about pinning a category to me.

    I really can’t identify into anything “romantic.” Straight and cis people get romcoms; I get porn tags. The word gives me intense gender dysphoria due to prior abuse. And none of the explanations of “romantic orientation” hit on what I consider essential qualities of care I share with partners.

    • Coyote

      Yeah, I touched on this briefly/vaguely in the Identity as an Act post, but I figure a lot of identity essentialism is… if not motivated by, at least fostered by some need to push back against, you know, a “choice” outlook that just manifests as “everyone should just choose to be straight.” But as you said, even for things that vary across the world as much as language, that still doesn’t absolve the immorality of trying to wipe them out with violent tactics.

      I can’t really speak to an online-vs-offline division, personally, because in person I mostly just don’t end up talking about personal identity at all. Something I do wonder about, though…. is how a lot of online venues (blogs/forums/social media pages) allow for a static “bio” section, and how that might contribute to a sense of having to pick something and wear it continuously.

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    […] The coiners created the term “SAM” specifically in order to argue that “the SAM” is bad. The arguments varied, but they generally involved accusations of homophobia, scrutiny of aces, alarmism over mixed orientations, objections to “the SAM” as inherently universalizing, and identity policing people into the het/gay/bi triad. […]

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    […] is not personally useful or relatable to them. This has been outlined in detail by Coyote in “The Irony of “the SAM” as a Failed Critique of Essentialism”. Yet, the concept of romantic orientation is very much universal by this time. I’ve noticed […]

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