A Quoiromantic Perspective on Compulsory Romantic Orientation

Romantic orientation: some people identify with one, some people don’t — but the problem comes in when everyone is expected to have one. This post spells out my (quoiromantic) perspective on compulsory romantic orientation by sketching out a few different ways this expectation can manifest in certain contexts. Note this post is largely just rehashing things already familiar to my regular readers; for everyone else, the goal of this post is to serve as an introductory primer on the topic.

[Preview image by Nccmrm97, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.]

In talking about this, I’m starting at the following base principles: the concepts of “romance,” “romantic attraction,” “romantic desire,” “romantic relationship,” and “romantic orientation” are all social constructs, culturally constituted — not inherent, objective truths. For some people, these constructs may prove troublesome, incoherent, or simply not useful as a way of organizing identity. In my case, I happen to find them troublesome enough to actively disidentify with them, and I designate that relationship with the term “quoiromantic.” Others may avoid labels for this or simply choose different ones.

Regardless of what we call ourselves, though, we’re being eclipsed out of the picture whenever romantic orientation is treated as compulsory. This doesn’t usually happen at the large scale, but it does happen in particular, localized community contexts, and here are three different examples to illustrate.

Compulsory romantic orientation among aces

Although the concept of romantic orientation arguably may predate the ace (asexual umbrella) community, the ace community has played a significant role in popularizing the concept, and its usage is highly prevalent among aces. In fact, according to the 2018 Ace Community Survey, aces who do not identify with a romantic orientation are by far in the minority: only 8.3% of ace respondents identified as wtfromantic or quoiromantic, and only 3.9% reported that they prefer not to use a/romantic orientation terminology.

Accordingly, it has become extremely common for aces to casually assume that all aces have a romantic orientation. For example, last year I wrote about card suit sorting as an informal manifestation of this assumption. The practice is usually just an ambient, unquestioned expectation. Because aces with romantic orientations appear so prevalent, the possibility of aces without romantic orientations may easily slip the mind or never even occur to people who have not had this possibility pointed out to them.

Even among those aware of wtf/quoiromantic identities, however, we have sometimes seen a pattern of umbrella crunching and essentialism in how it is conceptualized. When quoiromanticism is referred to as an inability to “tell the difference” between romantic and other attractions, for instance, that frames the matter as if A) quoiros do definitively experience this thing called “romantic attraction,” and B) they’re simply failing to recognize it when it happens. This is a reductive approach that flattens the identity instead of dealing with how it resists and challenges the universalization of the concept, in disidentifying with romantic orientation as a construct. The difference between these two understandings is the difference between enclosing quoi identity within an essentialist framing (that there is an underlying answer, and quoi people are simply imperceptive of it) and paying due respect to quoi identity through a social constructionist framing, which must recognize the malleability of “romance” as a concept without any definitive, independent substance.

Compulsory romantic orientation among LGBT bloggers

When non-ace LGBT bloggers have been introduced to romantic orientation by the ace community, many of them have come to associate romantic orientation with ace people as a whole. Subsequently, some of them go on to adopt their own form of compulsory romantic orientation — specifically just for aces. The variant of this I’ve seen the most (and that was discussed by Queenie in 2014) emerges wherever this group decides to sort aces by romantic orientation and gender alignment in order to separate out the “cishet aces” from the “LGBT aces.” For example, when the perspective “if you’re not a wlw you’re a straight woman”* intersects with the perspective that all orientation terminology should be sexual, romantic, or sexual/romantic, it is clear how combinations of [ace + other label] are being used and interpreted.

Under this framework, all aces are necessarily being conceived of as romantically hetero, gay, or bi, and entirely categorizable between the three. It has been frequently remarked upon how this het/LGB binary tends to eclipse aro aces, but it also leaves aces-without-romantic-orientations out of the picture, as well. It’s an oversight that becomes downright ironic once you notice that some of these selfsame bloggers have themselves objected to compulsory romantic orientationexcept when it comes to aces.

*I have to presume that the speaker here thought they were exclusively addressing women, and not that they think all people are women.

Compulsory romantic orientation among aros

Within the aro (aromantic umbrella) community, it has also become common to inscribe romantic orientation on others. Sometimes this is done implicitly, in general talk of “alloromantics” that may extend beyond people who actually identify that way. Sometimes, though, compulsory romantic orientation is applied to aces in particular. As I have discussed before, this is made apparent in posts sorting us all between “aro aces” and “allo(-romantic) aces” as if this division is comprehensive of all aces. Aces who are neither aro nor alloromantic typically are left unaccounted for — or otherwise misrepresented.

In the context of aro discourse (aro talk), the consideration of quoiromanticism in particular is complicated by the range of relationships that quoiros hold to the aro umbrella and the aro community. On the one hand, there are some quoiros (including quoiro aces) who identify with the aromantic umbrella, so there are quoiro aces who are covered under the term “aro aces.” With that said, the discursive formation that splits all aces between aro & alloromantic is necessarily inscribing the aro/allo binary onto all of us, regardless of how we do or don’t relate to it. Functionally, then, it is allowing for quoiromanticism only to the extent that it can be subsumed under the aromantic umbrella. An ace who identifies as “just” ace is presumed to always be sortable, one way or the other, along romantic lines.

In this post, I’ve described the different contexts where I’ve encountered a treatment of romantic orientation as compulsory: universalizing it within the ace community, universalizing outside the community it by splitting aces into a het/LGB romantic binary, and universalizing it outside the community by splitting aces between an aro/alloromantic binary. I consider compulsory romantic orientation to be one of the less urgent issues I’ve covered on this blog, but it is certainly annoying, and I would like to see it less.


8 responses to “A Quoiromantic Perspective on Compulsory Romantic Orientation

  • Linkspam: April 16th, 2021 | The Asexual Agenda

    […] Coyote wrote about kinds of compulsory romantic orientation. […]

  • Aubri

    I’ve been reading through your blog (not all of it) and very much appreciate how you explain the problems with The SAM. I’ve been using your terms of attraction subtyping and differentiated attraction and being more mindful of separating Sexual Attraction from Sexual Orientation in my usage. But I’ve also been researching “romantic attraction” through Lisa Diamond and now through Dorothy Tennov. Have you explored the connection between non-limerent people and Aromanticism? I recognize that people can want a romantic relationship in the sense of the societal construct with or without limerence, but the actual experience of Limerence is not just societal, it’s a drive like the drive some people call “baby fever.” It manifests differently in different cultures, but is just as real as lust. I had no idea that I was feeling limerence and not lust my whole life until I understood Asexuality.

    • Coyote

      Hey there, thanks for reading. I take it you meant compulsory romantic orientation? Since that’s what this post is about.

      Re: limerence — I wish I had a better answer for you, but personally “limerence” isn’t one of the key terms that’s been useful to parsing my own experience, and I haven’t looked much into its etymological/theoretical background either. Very very occasionally I’ve seen it employed by aro/ace bloggers, and usually the ones I consider more of the “older” set… For example, it gets discussed in Elizabeth’s post Aro-ish. There’s also Engineering a relationship, where Siggy mentions “limerence” as something he doesn’t experience, and it’s briefly referred to in Laura’s Aromantic Lament. This isn’t exhaustive or anything, but these examples do illustrate some of the ways I’ve seen the term used in relation to aromanticism: there’s aros who bracket out “limerence” as a specific experience they don’t have, and then there’s also folks who question how “limerence” should be positioned in relation to “romance.” So I think drawing a connection might be a little complicated, though I haven’t come across much extensive discussion of it in the first place, so it’s hard to say.

      • Aubri

        [Blogger’s note: these comments were originally separate, but I’ve combined them into one for threading purposes.]

        Thank you so much for the references! I’ll take a look through them. I highly recommend reading Dorothy Tennov’s book “Love and Limerence” because I strongly believe that this is what I personally mean when I say I do experience romantic attraction. I honestly would love so much to hear your thoughts that I will buy you the book if you tell me how to give it to you.

        *

        Ok, I just read Aro-ish and they are conflating being “in love” with “limerence.” Dorothy Tennov invented the word limerence to describe a very specific experience. She chose to come up with a term other than love because she wanted to be inclusive of people who identified with the word love, but not the other aspects of limerence. In the following quote on Aro-ish they say:

        “It’s inconceivable to me that people apparently think that having limerent feelings is the same thing as having a crush. While I still don’t really understand what exactly a crush is, what I’ve gleaned from hearing so many others talking about them is that… well, yeah, sure, limerence is part of having a crush, of course, but there’s something else there too, something about dreams and hopes and expectations and ideals, and none of that is anything I can relate to. All of these things are often unspoken assumptions tagging along behind the idea of what it means to be “in love.””

        They are misunderstanding the use of the word limerent. Limerence IS the crush. the dreams and hopes and expectations and ideals are the limerence. Love can be part of limerence, but the state of limerence is an actual experience and it needs to be something that is talked about because it is otherwise pathologized.

        I think non-limerence is actually a lot more common than people realize. It’s easy to mistake for sexual attraction for limerent asexuals and part of why it took me to age 39 to recognize my asexuality. For those who do have sexual attraction and are non-limerent they may still be interested in the societal ideas of “romance” or some form of sexual coupling.

        *

        YES! Engineering a relationship directly supports what I’m saying! They said they didn’t feel limerence, but still wanted a “romantic” relationship in the societal sense. As an Asexual I can feel no sexual attraction for my partner, but still want to engage in the experience of sex for fun.

        *

        These are fabulous references! An Aromantic’s Lament is talking about the exact problem with conflating “Limerence” to “being in love” or with “affectional bonding.” Again, limerence is the crush. You don’t need limerence to fall in love with someone, but for those who experience limerence, the person they are limerent for can become an obsession. Identifying what exactly was Sexual Attraction was huge for me in terms of understanding my Asexuality to really see that there was something real out there that I didn’t experience. I think understanding Limerence is just as important for the Aromantic community. I know that sounds incredibly presumptuous of me, but I think lack of awareness of limerence has hurt limerent people through pathologization as much as it has hurt Aros for marginalization.

        • Coyote

          There’s actually a copy of that book at my university’s library, although I probably won’t be able to stop by and pick it up until this summer.

          In any case, I might not necessarily have much to say about it, but if you wanted to write your own blogpost about it, I’m sure Siggy would be happy to include it on one of the Friday linkspams at The Asexual Agenda.

          Note if you’re looking more stuff that affirms romantic asexuality more generally, there’s plenty of academic work that covers romantic orientation labels among ace people — and that might be more suited to what you’re looking for if you need specific references.

        • Elizabeth

          Ok, I just read Aro-ish and they are conflating being “in love” with “limerence.” Dorothy Tennov invented the word limerence to describe a very specific experience. She chose to come up with a term other than love because she wanted to be inclusive of people who identified with the word love, but not the other aspects of limerence. In the following quote on Aro-ish they say:

          “It’s inconceivable to me that people apparently think that having limerent feelings is the same thing as having a crush. While I still don’t really understand what exactly a crush is, what I’ve gleaned from hearing so many others talking about them is that… well, yeah, sure, limerence is part of having a crush, of course, but there’s something else there too, something about dreams and hopes and expectations and ideals, and none of that is anything I can relate to. All of these things are often unspoken assumptions tagging along behind the idea of what it means to be “in love.””

          They are misunderstanding the use of the word limerent. Limerence IS the crush. the dreams and hopes and expectations and ideals are the limerence. Love can be part of limerence, but the state of limerence is an actual experience and it needs to be something that is talked about because it is otherwise pathologized.

          Hi Aubri, I’m the author of that post! :) (For reference, my pronouns are she/her.) And I actually have read (and own) Tennov’s book. And I strongly disagree with this.

          It’s not that I don’t understand what Tennov was trying to describe by coining the word limerence in the 1970s. But I disagree that the word “crush,” as people use it today (or twenty years ago, as I was discussing experiences I had while I was growing up), is really the the same as what Tennov was describing with the word “limerence.” What I was trying to say with that paragraph you quoted, is that from my understanding, there is more to “having a crush” than just experiencing these limerent feelings, because you can feel the things that Tennov describes without also hoping for a specific type of path for the relationship to develop on along the “relationship escalator.”

          I also have strong disagreements with Tennov about the way that she defines limerence, because the way that she does so explicitly excludes asexual people. From page x of the 1999 preface in my copy:

          “And limerence is sexual because the limerent object is always desired as a sex partner; despite this, the limerent wish to obtain emotional commitment is greater than that of physical union.”

          And on page 24 and 25 in my copy, Tennov says:

          “It occasionally occurred, although rarely, that an attraction was described to me which seemed to fit the limerent pattern in all ways except that the informant felt no initial inclination toward physical union. Despite those few exceptions, I am inclined toward the generalization that sexual attraction is an essential component of limerence. This sexual feeling may be combined with shyness, impotence or some form of sexual dysfunction or disinclination, or with some social unsuitability. But LO [limerent object], in order to become LO, must stand in relation to the limerent as one for whom the limerent is a potential sex partner. […] Either the potential for sexual mating is felt to be there, however, or the state described is not limerence.”

          So basically Tennov heard from some informants who did not feel sexual attraction as an inherent part of their experience of “limerence,” and then just dismissed them like that and said that sexual attraction is still a necessary component of limerence anyway. That’s bad science, and it deserves to be questioned. And I think you must surely agree with me on that because in your comment you used the phrase “limerent asexuals,” which Dorothy Tennov would say cannot exist.

          Soooo… yeah, given that, I don’t think Tennov is the ultimate authority on all of this stuff, she is just someone who interviewed a lot of people and tried to make up a new word to describe what they were experiencing (while still injecting her own biases into her definition). I’m taking that word and I don’t use it the exact same way that she meant it, I fully admit. (And so are you, if you are talking about “limerent asexuals”!) I think there’s still quite a bit of variation in the way that people experience the feeling of “limerence,” if that’s what we’re calling it, that goes unacknowledged.

          And there’s still more variance in what people describe as “a crush,” which I think is an attempt to describe more-or-less the same concept, but I disagree that you can say that the meaning of “limerence” and “a crush” are a one-to-one correspondence. When people talk about having “a crush,” generally their understanding of what that word means is intuitively gleaned over the course of their lives, not the result of scientific inquiry and analysis, so I think there’s MUCH more variation on how that word gets defined than there is for “limerence”. There are more assumptions, and people tend to think what they personally experience is universal. If you ask a bunch of people to tell you how they define a “crush,” you’ll get many different answers that don’t all neatly line up with how Tennov defines “limerence” (along with a lot of irritable or hostile responses, lol), and that is what I was objecting to in my post.

          The way that you define “crush” may include all of those “the dreams and hopes and expectations and ideals” but please understand that your own personal definition of “crush” is FAR from universal! In my own experience, those things are very much separate from the experience of what I, for lack of a better word, would call limerence.

          My ultimate point in bringing all these things up in my post was to object to the idea that aromantic people are all necessarily non-limerent. When the definition of aromantic is reduced to “non-limerent” or “does not experience romantic attraction,” that leaves out a lot of people who would (and do!) choose to identify themselves as aromantic or on the aromantic spectrum, despite having had experiences in their lives that could be considered “limerence” or “a crush” or “romantic attraction,” depending on who you ask. This is very similar to how I also object to the oversimplified definition of asexuality as “a lack of sexual attraction.”

          Soooo yeah, as Coyote said, it’s complicated! I hope you understand a bit better where I’m coming from now.

  • Aubri

    Thank you for your well thought out response and insight. I agree that Tennov did not go into detail of how limerence is experienced without sexual attraction. I know she says straight out that sexual attraction is a necessary component of limerence, but she also repeatedly says that sex is NOT the goal of limerence. The goal of limerence is reciprocation of feelings and sex can be a symbol of that reciprocation. In her follow up collected works she also says “It’s sexual. But it’s a special kind of sexual. It’s not . . . genital. It’s a desire for total merging of mind and body in which the sexual aspect is only part of it. That’s not what happens, but that’s what you want.” In my interpretation of her work, she went to great pains to separate limerence from sexual attraction and only ever talked of sexual desire along side of limerence or as a symbol of reciprocation. The fact that she even mentioned that she found cases where sexual attraction was not present and called them “exceptions” rather than insisting that those people must not have actually been limerent seems like a direct admission of asexual limerence being possible within her framework. It acknowledges that it’s rare and as asexuality IS rare, that is consistent.

    I will concede that limerence and crush are not interchangeable. I agree that people’s experiences of what they define as a crush vary widely. But that is the entire reason that Tennov created the word limerence so that there would be no other definitions to contend with. When you said ” limerence is part of having a crush, of course, but there’s something else there too, something about dreams and hopes and expectations and ideals..” those dreams hopes and expectations are innate aspects of limerence and I’d be more inclined to flip that script and say having a crush can be part of limerence, but limerence is a crush that also includes dreams hopes and expectations. “The feelings you as nonlimerent may have about another person may include sexual attraction, friendship, and affection, without the compulsive and intrusive fantasizing or the exclusivity” (Tennov, 1998, p. 114).

    As for defining Aromanticism as not experiencing romantic attraction, I do think that is too simplistic a definition. My goal is understand romantic attraction and help describe it for those who don’t experience it so they can better understand what it is. Aromanticism was created as a term after Non-Limerent was used for a while and I think that change was specifically because not all people who identify as Aromantic are non-limerent. AUREA defines Aromanticism as “A romantic orientation, which describes people whose experience of romance is disconnected from normative societal expectations, commonly due to experiencing little to no romantic attraction, but also due to feeling repulsed by romance, or being uninterested in romantic relationships.” I think we can acknowledge that romantic attraction is not the only variable that influences whether someone identifies as Aromantic, but I also think that if we are to discuss what romantic attraction is specifically that limerence explains it incredibly well. The fact that Tennov identified that non-limerent people exist and have difficulty relating to the limerent experience means that this is a distinction that can help a lot of people, many of whom identify as Aromantic. I do think it’s also important to acknowledge that “romance” is not the same thing as romantic attraction and romance as a social construct is where I see these issues getting conflated.

  • A Modifier | The Ace Theist

    […] As I have discussed before, these arguments can be read in terms of compulsory romantic orientation. There have been times when those making the “modifier” argument might acknowledge that […]

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