A Case of Romantic Binarism in Scholarship

This month, the Ace Journal Club read an article in Archives of Sexual Behavior called “Sexuality, Sexual Behavior, and Relationships of Asexual Individuals: Differences Between Aromantic and Romantic Orientation” (2022). There are a lot of things to take issue with about this piece, and you can read the AJC summary for an overview, but in this post, I’m just going to focus on the binary treatment of romance.

[Crossposted to Pillowfort. Preview image created in Inkscape.]

Some issues with how this article handles the topic of romance:

1) Throwing out respondents who did not indicate a romantic orientation. Take a look at this bit on the third page, under the Participants heading:

A total of 635 individuals started the online survey, 11 of which did not provide their consent, and 177 did not indicate a romantic orientation. The final sample comprised 447 individuals.

They’re admitting there that if someone didn’t indicate a romantic orientation, they just threw that data out. This approach to research participates in and contributes to an impression of compulsory romantic orientation, which is a problem for those of us who don’t identify with that concept.

2) Defining romantic attraction as emotional intimacy. According to the Measures section on the fourth page, the first question about “romantic attraction” defined it as “an emotionally intimate connection with someone, not related to sex.” This definition is so broad it’s absurd.

3) Expecting everyone to embrace the construct of “romantic attraction” and describe their experiences accordingly. According to the Measures section on the fourth page, participants were asked, “To what extent do you feel romantic attraction for other people?” and asked to answer on a linear 1-7 scale, where “1 = Not at all” to “7 = Very much.” If you do not use this construct or do not categorize your feelings this way, you would just be unable to answer the question.

4) Equating attraction with orientation. The researchers assigned orientation labels to participants based on the following question: “If you experience romantic attraction, which of the following groups are you romantically attracted to? Check all that apply.” The article says outright that “This item was used to categorize participants according to their romantic orientation.”

Equating attraction with orientation is a problem. It does not make room for people to identify based on other factors or respect the fact that people do, already, identify based on a variety of factors. Instead of assigning orientations to people, they should have just asked “Which of these is your romantic orientation?”

5) Imposing a resolution on the “Unsure” participants. With regard to the question above, “participants who indicated ‘Not attracted’ or ‘Unsure’ were categorized as aromantic asexual.” Here they are equating any uncertainty on this question with being aromantic. So for instance, if a participant were unsure between “Attracted to women” and “Attracted to both men and women” and so selected “Unsure,” then that person would have been classified as aromantic.

6) Leaving no room for gray areas. Even setting aside the choice to categorize all participants romantically, assign them a category rather than ask how they identify, and base that assignment on “romantic attraction”… the categorization of participants into “romantic” and “aromantic” leaves no room for gray areas. They couldn’t even be bothered to make a “grayromantic” category.

7) Equating relationship significance with romance. Some of the language employed initially makes it sound like they might be using “significant relationship” in a broader way… but then the article indicates otherwise.

Given our aim to study romantic relationships, we defined “significant relationship” as an intimate relationship with another person besides family or close friends. These could include, but were not restricted to, marriages, domestic partnerships, boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, or other (see also Bauer et al., 2018). After being presented with this definition, participants were asked “What is your current relationship status?” […] Participants who indicated “I am currently dating and I would like to have a significant relationship,” “I currently have one significant relationship,” “I currently have more than one significant relationship” were later categorized as having a romantic relationship.

8) Inconsistent definitions of “romantic.” Initially, a “significant relationship” (equated with romantic relationship) is defined in this article “an intimate relationship with another person besides family or close friends.” Marriages and partnerships were supposed to be included here.

Then on a different question, asking about “past experiences with romantic relationships,” a “romantic relationship” is defined as “a close and intimate non-sexual relationship based exclusively on affection.” Along with failing to exclude other kinds of nonsexual intimacy, this bizarrely dictates that romance cannot be sexual.

Then a different question asked, “To what extent would you like to be in a significant romantic relationship with physical intimacy, including sex,” so suddenly romantic relationships can be sexual again after all.

9) A superficial, contradictory nod to queerplatonic relationships. Based on all this conflation of intimacy and significance with romance, you’d think the researchers had never heard of queerplatonic relationships before. But no, it gets worse. They actually do use the word “queerplatonic” in this article. It appears in this sentence: “Aromantic asexual individuals establish aromantic relationships with significant others (e.g., queerplatonic relationships; Chasin, 2015).”

There is so much wrong with this sentence, including but not limited to 1) referring to QPRs as “aromantic relationships,” as if to further the impression that QPRs belong to aros, 2) stating this as a blanket assertion about “aromantic asexuals,” as if all aromantic asexuals have QPRs, and 3) sticking this token acknowledgement toward the end of the paper despite the rest of the study equating significance with romance.

I also think it’s pretty rich for them to be citing CJ DeLuzio Chasin here, knowing what I do about Chasin’s politics. In fact, let me pull a quote from that article for you:

There is clearly strong resistance within the ‘official’ AVEN discourse against declaring people asexual on their behalf. If the asexual/ace identity and community are predicated on a sense of shared experience and sympathy, then it makes sense that community membership (i.e. asexual identity) should be left for individuals to determine—and should not be a matter of blindly applying a definition.

Hmm. I wonder who that’s for.


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