Coyote over at The Ace Theist is talking about the SAM again,1 which in turn means that I’m thinking about the SAM again. There is an odd point of intersection between Coyote’s thoughts on this subject and mine, because taken at face value, we’re basically in agreement. However, once you actually break things down we actually attribute the issue to different problems and have different ideas on how to fix it. In this post I will attempt to lay out my thoughts on the subject.
Compulsory Romantic Orientation is not terminology that I’m particularly familiar with since we didn’t use it on Tumblr. As far as I can tell, it refers to the assumption that all aces have a romantic orientation and therefore should label it. To be honest, I take some issue with the fact that the terminology is too old to take account people who identify primarily or solely as aro (am I supposed to interpret this as meaning compulsory sexual orientation can’t exist?), but that discussion is both beyond the point of this post and beyond my own experience.
Then there’s Split Attraction Model or SAM. This terminology I’m much more familiar with. In full transparency, I’m new enough to identifying as ace that I’ve never known the concept of labeling both a romantic and a sexual orientation as anything but the SAM which I suspect is a big source of my disagreement on the subject. Apparently, “SAM” is a blanket name for several models of labeling that the ace community originally used, but I’ve never found a decent explanation of what those models actually were and how they were different from each other. As a result, I generally end up horribly confused whenever someone starts talking about how the SAM is incoherent, especially since I can (and have) come up with a coherent definition of the concept as it existed in the Tumblr communities I used to be a part of. I offer it to you here to hopefully get us all on the same page at least for the duration of this post:
The Split Attraction Model (SAM): (1) A model of sexual orientation which maintains that attraction is inherently composite (split) and that all people—regardless of whether they’re aspec or allo—can (and in the case of aspecs should) split their attraction into its component parts without violating their internal experience or experiencing any dissonance. (2) A name used in some aspec communities for the act of labeling both a romantic orientation and a sexual orientation which was coined by anti-ace antagonists on Tumblr and later adopted by ace people.2
My issue with the SAM is not what it’s called, it’s with what it assumes about the way that attraction works. On a personal level, I’m actually okay with the fact that it’s assumed that I’ll identify as both grayromantic and asexual, it’s the fact that people then use the fact that I’ve called myself grayromantic to dictate what I mean when I call myself asexual that I take issue with.
The difference between multi-label identification3 and split attraction as concepts is that the former doesn’t say much of anything about the person’s actual experience and how the multiple labels interact, per se; the person is just using more than one word in concert. Split attraction, on the other hand, is directly about the person’s experience. Split attraction assumes that because you are using both words they must be talking about inherently different things and it would be incorrect to conflate the two words in any way.
To give an example using my own experience; I identify as grayromantic asexual. I use more than one orientation label and I would consider myself to have a romantic orientation. However, I don’t experience my romantic orientation and sexual orientation as inherently different, in fact, I think the fact that I’m grayromantic at all has a lot to do with the fact that I’m asexual. When it boils down to it a lot of the experiences I have that are technically aro experiences feel like ace experiences to me. I don’t have aro experiences because I’m grayromantic; the word grayromantic just makes it easier to talk about experiences that I already had when I was just calling myself asexual. Attempting to discuss my romantic and sexual as inherently different is an actively uncomfortable and maddening experience akin to attempting to cram a square peg into a round hole. By the model I laid out above I practice multi-label identification but do not experience split attraction.
In other words, split attraction is the assumption that your romantic orientation and your sexual orientation are inherently different. It’s also the assumption that the line between romantic orientation and sexual orientation is the same for everyone. Split attraction would say that a person I used to know who identified as biromantic asexual but only experienced romantic attraction when a close bond was formed was actually demiromantic asexual because it wouldn’t allow for the space for someone to draw a different dividing line between ace and aro. As I hinted at in the above definition of SAM, split attraction would also say that allo people’s orientations can be split into parts as well. Split attraction would say that a bisexual person is actually biromantic bisexual and just chooses to only label their sexual orientation as opposed to acknowledging that they probably have a convergent orientation which is solely bisexual and wouldn’t gain anything from making a distinction between a romantic and a sexual orientation.
I suppose it’s worth acknowledging outright that I’ve had more trouble with this kind of thinking in the Aro Community than I have in the Ace Community. The Aro Community is in the process of separating itself from the ace community, which is a really great step especially for non-ace aros or for aroaces who would prefer romance-free spaces. However, this development has put non-split/convergent aroaces like me in a tight spot where the act of describing aro experiences as ace ones (ex: “I’m not interested in dating; I’m asexual”) becomes an actively harmful act of erasure, or “conflation.”
Before I washed my hands of Tumblr aspec communities altogether, I spent some time trying to be more involved in the Aro Community. Overall, it was not a particularly positive experience. There’s a lot of pressure in the aro community to talk just about being aro without ever talking about being ace. This was especially hard for me, because as I mentioned above that I can’t really talk about being aro without talking about being ace because to me they’re the same experience.
While interacting with the Aro Community, I tried to just talk about being aro and it didn’t end very well. Trying to say aro when definitions said I should be saying aro has the curious effect of shrinking my asexuality into just not thinking people are sexy. I actually don’t think about how I don’t want to have sex and basically everyone else does as often as you’d think. Actually, I still tend to forget that experiencing sexual attraction is common and assume that everyone around me is ace much as I did as a teenager. My asexuality has always been as much about the fact that I’m not interested in dating as it is about the fact that I don’t find people sexy and don’t want to “do it.”
The hard ace/aro split of split attraction demands that I accept that the word asexual says nothing about me other than that I’m not interested in sex. If I want to talk about anything else then I must use the word grayromantic, because those other things are not ace things and it would be harmful for me to imply that they are. Asexuality is solely and completely about sex; there is no room for anything else. If that bothers me then the word asexual is too small to contain me and I should be identifying primarily as grayromantic instead.
I’m not sure why this kind of thinking seems to be more common in the Aro Community. Maybe Aro Community discussions end up self-selecting for split aroaces4 and non-split aroaces find the space unwelcoming and don’t stay. Maybe the Ace Community doesn’t care as much about whether people are using ace and aro correctly as the Aro Community does. Maybe I just give the Ace Community more passes for bad behavior as a whole because I feel more comfortable and welcome there.
I’m still working out how I want to deal with this issue. When I first starting pushing back against the concept of split attraction, the only way I could think of to describe my experience was to say “but to me ace and aro are conflated” but I’ve become increasingly opposed to using the word conflated (which was used on Tumblr to imply that my experience was inherently wrong) to describe myself. I briefly described myself as non-SAM, but I didn’t like how that terminology made it about me refusing to use the SAM not my actual experience of not being split. These days, I describe myself as either non-split or convergent5 depending on my mood. I’ve been experimenting with identifying solely as asexual, though, honestly, I’m not a huge fan of it, and I’ve been trying to teach myself that I’m not a bad person for conflating when I’m talking about my own experience.
Thing is, I actually do think Coyote’s idea of ditching the SAM terminology would make it easier for people like me to exist because a softer model wouldn’t have so many rules to break, but I also don’t think that the name itself is the problem. The problem is that we’re assuming that the lines are inherently in the same places for everyone as opposed to letting people decide where the lines are individually (or if there even are lines) and respecting where they draw those lines. That’s not an issue that just not calling it the SAM anymore will fix.
1 For those of you unfamiliar with Coyote’s earlier writing on the subject I suggest you start here: option a, option b. I would also recommend TAAAP’s response to option b, which so far as I know is the only other perspective that this discussion has ever received.
2 This is a fragment of a “in my experience when people say this, this is what they mean” definition list that I’ve been fiddling with over the last few months. Likely, this will never see the light of day.
3 I am in no way married to this terminology. I just needed to call it something for the explanation to work.
4 Acknowledgement that I am talking almost solely about aroaces in this post and I’d be curious to hear the perspectives of others. I’m especially interested in whether alloaces or alloaros feel like they experience split attraction, but I don’t know if I have any readers who would fall into those categories.
5 I picked up the terminology “non-split asexual” from a small group of people on Tumblr who experience no attraction and identify solely as asexual. I lifted the term “convergent” off these posts of Coyote’s. However, I’m fairly sure that I use both terms in slightly different ways than they were originally used. In other words, even though I’ve never coined any microlabels I’m still firmly in the Tumblr ace’s wheelhouse of inventing neologisms.