In light of how “the split attraction model” (the term) emerged in part out of a half-baked critique of essentialism, this post delves into how it overlooked preexisting critiques, it didn’t fully reject prescriptivism so much as it just traded one form for another, and at this point, the term is getting used to perpetuate the selfsame problem it was originally devised to combat.
Note for necessary background on this topic, I recommend reading An Actual History of The Term “Split Attraction Model” & the last two sections of this post.
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 universalization 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.