A Case for a Convergence-Divergence Spectrum

Introducing “convergence” and “divergence” might seem like introducing unnecessary jargon into an already jargon-heavy ecosystem, but whatever you want to call it, a concept like this is necessary in order to address a certain lexical gap. This is a subject that people are already talking about — and without a dedicated term for it, they’re being hobbled by terminology that wasn’t designed for the purpose.

In this post, I explain into the nature of the problem, where it might’ve came from, and a possible solution. Written for the January 2022 Carnival of Aces.

[Crossposted to Pillowfort.]

The Lexical Gap

Here are some examples of the thing I mean to get at:

  • “There are also people who use some variation of ‘aroace’ or ‘asexual aromantic,’ as one identity, in the same vein as the way ‘gay’ and ‘bi’ mean one orientation and not a combination of two.” —Anonymous
  • “I’m happy to talk about my aromanticism or my asexuality when the context is centered around one or the other, because I am both, but I think of them as one thing, inextricable.” —Kate
  • “I just don’t think it’s fair that we should have to conceive of our romantic and sexual orientations as different when they don’t feel different, when no other perioriented people have to do that.” —Techno
  • “I’ve recently realized that it doesn’t make much sense for me to clearly distinguish my sexual orientation from my romantic one. […] Even if I use two labels, they point to the same indivisible experience.” —Sukii

This is something people are already invested and trying to talk about.

And why is that, exactly? I don’t remember aro aces being as concerned with this subject around 2013 or 2014. The terms “perioriented” and “varioriented” may have been introduced in about 2014, but they’ve hardly stuck, and I’m not surprised — because simply put, they weren’t really needed. So… what changed?

I haven’t seen anyone else propose an answer to that question, so here’s my tentative theory: the above lexical gap has been made salient by 1) the “who, not how” backlash, and 2) what I might call, for lack of a better term, aro community growing pains.

The 2015 Who-Not-How Backlash

Although romantic orientation and specific attraction types go back further, the term “split attraction model” was coined in by critics in 2015. The term bundled several different concepts that, prior to this point, were not actually thought of as one singular, united “model.” Critics mostly focused on the “x-romantic y-sexual” label format, but they also extended their criticism to any multi-orientation labeling, romantic orientation generally, specifically-sexual definitions of sexual orientation, other types of orientation suffixes like “-sensual,” and labeling attraction in different types — treating these all interchangeably as “the SAM.” You can find specific examples of this in my “split attraction model” link compilation. These critiques were often accompanied by the framing of asexuality as “a modifier” of one’s “actual” orientation, where the slogan was that “orientation is who you’re attracted to, not how.”

For the purposes of this post, the relevant detail is that the Who-Not-How-ers provoked discussion about the meaning of “orientation.” Using the term “split attraction model,” they contrasted A) a narrow, axis-based conception of orientation (largely associated with aces) against B) a conception of orientation that encompassed emotional/romantic/sexual elements in a homogeneous, undifferentiated way. They did not give the latter any particular name, however. They simply treated it as “the definition.” Unfortunately, this leaves us without a convenient name to use for it.

Nonetheless, this proved to be an influential intervention in highlighting different conceptions of “orientation.” Before 2015, that was not really something that happened. At most, aces acknowledged people whose romantic and sexual orientations “matched,” rather than thinking of that as an optional construct. We did not make room for the breadth or narrowness of “sexual orientation” as a matter of personal preference, and romantic orientation was often universalized even though it isn’t universal even within the ace community. So in the wake of 2015, as some aro aces grasp for a way to articulate something similar to the Who-Not-How definition, some have latched onto the Who-Not-How-er terminology, even though it’s not suited to the purpose.

Aro Community Growing Pains

In addition to the Who-Not-How backlash, I suspect another factor in making these questions more salient may come from aro community growing pains.

Consider for instance a couple of those posts that I linked earlier: Techno writes that “there is a conversation we’re not having, and that’s how to carve out aroace spaces, especially as aro and ace communities rightfully become more and more distinct.” Kate, conversely, takes a more critical view of this development, writing that certain communities “ask me to talk about my experience in a default way that doesn’t actually reflect how I feel at all” and objecting to how “the aro communities I’ve seen want to delineate me into something specific, something either not aro or ace.” So in my interpretation, a categorical emphasis on “the difference” between aromanticism & asexuality — as two completely different, even opposite” things — is sparking a dysphoric reaction to that distinction.

This does not necessarily mean objecting to anyone else’s identity. Rather, it’s a response to a conceptualization of the identities writ large that may conflict with how those identities are experienced in individual people. Circumstances like these provoke people to try and articulate a more faithful rendition of their identity.

Here’s how a convergence-divergence spectrum can help with that.

A Convergence-Divergence Spectrum

Outside of the ace community, it’s common to use “sexual orientation” as a composite of emotional, romantic, and sexual inclinations. In a previous post, I have suggested some terminology to talk about degrees of identification or disidentification with this premise, which Siggy has summarized here:

Norm: Composite sexual orientation – People have just one orientation (e.g. gay, straight, bisexual), often said to be their “sexual orientation,” but is really a composite of all their desires, attractions, and behaviors.

Spectrum: A person has a “convergent” orientation if a composite orientation makes sense, and a “divergent” orientation if they have difficulty describing their orientation as a single composite.

So I’m using “divergence” and “convergence” to talk about how much any given person’s identity lines up with the broader view of “sexual orientation.” For example, there are aro aces who relate to romance & sexuality in more of a convergent way. Other people might be more divergent because they have multiple different orientations or because their one orientation feels more specific. A few people have adopted this terminology since I suggested it back in 2019, but it still needs help to spread, hence this introduction post.

Divergence and convergence can also be thought of as something of a subjective gradient. For instance, Keygoose has written about mixed divergent convergence as an aromantic gray-asexual — converging with the norm in some ways, but slightly diverging from it in others. It’s not an all-or-nothing concept.

Convergence might seem superficially equivalent to whether or not someone’s orientations “match,” but this isn’t necessarily something you can tell just by looking at labels. For example, identifying with a divergent sexual orientation alone can look the same as identifying with that label in a convergent, composite way. A convergence-divergence spectrum is the best I’ve come up with to explain how composite orientation and multi-orientation labeling can be anything but a binary.

To boil it down, here are a few takeaways:

Problem:

  • People are looking to talk about a personal sense of orientation as a singular, homogeneous unit, even if they use multiple words for it (like “aro” and “ace”).
  • The more popularized terms they have right now are not good for that purpose.

Solution:

  • We can use convergence to talk about similarity to composite orientation, which encompasses emotional, romantic, and sexual inclinations together as a unit.
  • We can use divergence to talk about a departure from that version, ex. because of identifying with multiple distinct orientations or identifying with a more narrow orientation.
  • We can discontinue the use of the term “split attraction model” in favor of terminology that’s more accessible, less essentialist, and more inclusive.

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