Problems in the Promotion of Romantic Orientation

While romantic orientation isn’t inherently bad, there have been some recurring problems with how people promote the idea, as demonstrated in the article picked this month for Ace Journal Club. So in the hopes of showing people how to spot these issues, this post pulls some quotes from that article and explains their implications, illustrating the tensions between introducing/endorsing romantic orientation as a conceptual tool (favored by those who use it) vs. leaving space for those of us who find it personally unhelpful.

Crossposted to Pillowfort. Preview image: Stoplight Silhouette, NYC by Bruce Thomson, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you might wonder why I would write another post like this after the last one. My previous AJC post unpacked a case of romantic binarism in scholarship, where the problems were much more central — and pretty easy to spot. In the Kennon article, though, the issue is more subtle and specific in who it’s letting down, and I consider it representative of certain ways of thinking within ace and aro communities.

Patricia Kennon’s 2021 article on asexuality in fiction frames romantic orientation as a necessary part of how to portray aces responsibly. This comes across in the presumption that ace characters necessarily have a romantic orientation, the remarks about romantic orientations that are “not stated,” and the expressions of disappointment and condemnation of works which do not employ the concept.

Take a look at these excerpts:

  • “The mysterious Jordan is the only asexual character (her romantic orientation is not stated)” (p. 12)
  • “Although an increasing number of YA novels do indeed acknowledge and explicitly identify the various romantic orientations of their [ace] characters, various recent YA novels conflate these orientations. For example, the asexuality of the narrator of Emma Griffiths’ 2015 After I Wake is explicitly stated and emphasised throughout the novel – Carter consciously attends her school’s LGBTQA club parties because she ‘wants to represent the A in LGBTQA because I’ve always been absurdly full of asexual pride’ (37) – yet her romantic orientation is never identified or stated.” (p. 14)
  • “Similarly, although the sexualities of the asexual protagonist and her pansexual best friend are explicitly named and explored in Marieke Nijkamp’s 2018 Before I Let Go, the protagonist’s (or any other character’s) romantic orientation is never identified or addressed.” (p. 14)
  • “There are more queer characters than straight characters in the main cast of Destiny Soria’s 2018 Beneath the Citadel alongside an admirable diversity of sexualities, racial identities, ethnicities, and body types, yet the asexual Alys’s romantic orientation is never named or specified although this character could be [interpreted] as aromantic or gray-romantic. While it is refreshing that Alys is secure in her asexuality and that her asexuality has nothing to do with the plot, it is nevertheless disappointing that Soria does not acknowledge or state Alys’s romantic identity” (p. 14)

These statements do not just note the absence. They presume that these characters have romantic orientations, that these identities are being withheld, and that to withhold an ace’s romantic orientation itself indicates a “conflation” of orientation types.

Presumptions like these have negative implications for at least two different groups of aces.

In context, what Kennon denounces as “conflation” actually appears to me more like convergence. Convergence is something we might read into, for instance, an asexual character who doesn’t experience crushes, who considers themselves romantically incompatible with others, or who describes themselves as “not any good at” love. These are all things presented in the article as “conflation of asexuality and aromanticism,” simply because these asexual characters experience or say these things without going out of their way to label themselves as “aromantic” — as if convergent aces have a special obligation to others and can’t just exist without a disclaimer.

With that said, the article is also drastically failing to account for divergent aces without romantic orientations. Throughout the article’s discussion of “unstated” romantic orientations, nowhere does it consider not using romantic orientation to be a type of ace experience, too. Aces like us are just completely off the radar. Impossible creatures. Unthinkable. I get that we’re very few in number, but I am still disappointed that we keep having to have this conversation.

This is why I worry about the promotion of romantic orientation. It’s not inherently bad, but in the areas of advocacy and “representation,” its proponents have been prone to take it up in this essentialist way. Instead of framing it as just an optional tool, compulsory romantic orientation treats the concept as inherent and universal, which sends the message that people like me simply either haven’t figured out what we “are” or are neglecting to say. Worst of all, people have been treating this outlook as something necessary for the good of ace and aro communities. It may not be the most high stakes of issues, but I hope I don’t need to explain why I don’t want my identity swept under the rug like it’s bad for our image.

So in short, let this be the takeaway of this post: If you identify with a romantic orientation, find a way to introduce and endorse the practice without treating people like me as incomplete.

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