Friday, October 22, 2010

The Web of Mystery: Platonic Attraction

Sometimes asexuals will say, "We talk too much about what we don't do and what we don't experience. What about what we do experience?" I agree, and you could consider this a response.

But first, check out this diagram, which has been spotted in the asexosphere:

It's supposed to describe attraction, and it makes my head hurt. But something on it really gave me pause, and that is "platonic attraction". I experience no sexual attraction, very little romantic attraction, and I rarely go, "Wow, s/he is cute!" (which I think some people consider "aesthetic attraction".) But I realized that what the web of mystery calls "platonic attraction" is a whole 'nother story. In the web, my platonic attraction would probably be rated somewhere around "high" whereas everything else would be low or nonexistent. I have a high "friendship drive", if such a thing even exists. I know that after sex drives and romance drives, another long drive seems excessive. But this is the thing I do experience, and I venture the same is true for many other aces. There also must be non-asexual people who experience more platonic attraction than either romantic or sexual attraction.

(And let's pause for a minute to acknowledge that "attraction" is so tied up with something sexual that it sounds vaguely creepy to be attracted to friends in any way, even if it's entirely nonsexual. But moving on...)

For me, I was in my mid-20's before I realized that no, I could not be everyone's best buddy if I only put in enough effort and was flawless in all my social interactions. I actually didn't know that some people will always be casual friends or acquaintances, and will never become your best friends, for whatever reason. I can attribute part of this to a lack of social knowledge. But maybe the other part comes from a desire that things would be otherwise. I don't just desire human companionship, but very close friendships. I would be happy to have a "partner"-type relationship that was with a friend, for instance.

Especially in the years before I learned I was asexual, I always wanted a boyfriend. However, I did zero work to make this happen. On the other hand, I was very committed to friendship, and had no problem putting in the hours it took. Surely, that means something. While I wanted a boyfriend, I could live without him. But I knew I'd be miserable without friends.

The issues one may face experiencing high platonic attraction in our society are various. But the main one is that I often feel I can't tell my friends how important they are to me, because they might consider it weird or out of place. Maybe I just suck at expressing my feelings, but I'm pretty sure that can't be all of it. Often I shy away from even writing about friendship here, because I know some of my friends read this blog. I don't want them to think, "Well, she says friendship is important to her, but that's not clear from her actions!" Maybe my feelings and actions aren't always aligned very well. But anyway, this is getting slightly embarrassing, so I'll be moving on again...

Anyway, I'm realizing that platonic attraction is one more reason why I don't like the romantic/aromantic binary. For aromantic and barely-romantic people who still want friends, wouldn't a more accurate name be "platonic asexuals"?

10 comments:

Mage said...

I think this is an important post!

Personally, I definitely experience a high level of platonic attraction. Much higher than my romantic attraction, which is intense when I do experience it but it doesn't happen frequently. My platonic attraction is both strong and frequent.

I usually just tell people that I have "crushes" or whatever on the people I'm platonically attracted to so that they'll take me more seriously.

I've never understood why so many people seem to think friendship is a low-priority kind of relationship, but maybe it has to do with the whole heteronormative thing where marriage is the ultimate relationship.

writingfromfactorx said...

Wow, I haven't seen one of those webs in a long time.

You also get into the panicky "Do I want to just be really close friends with this person or do I want to DATE them and how can I tell what the difference is???" thing. Or I did, anyway.

And does platonic attraction specify a particular pattern of being more interested in being friends with specific genders/types of people? Is it meant to be that feeling of "I like you, I think I will try to befriend you"? Because I do get that. It's really the only form of attraction I think I do experience.

I think that for me personally there does seem to be a gender difference there--I tend to make much closer and longer-lasting friendships with women in meatspace than with men. Which has caused me a lot of confusion, especially when I was trying to figure out whether I was romantic or not, because generally you don't think of your relationships with friends as having a gender-based component.

When I was about fifteen, my family moved across country, and in a fit of pigheaded idiocy I deliberately decided not to make close friends. Never again! Those three years were some pretty nasty ones, all told. They made an excellent object lesson to me about the importance of maintaining close friendships, because I really don't do well at all without them. I don't know if I experience all that much platonic attraction, per se, but I definitely experience a lot of desire to have close friendships going.

With respect to the whole "platonic attraction" thing sounding kind of creepy and sexual--oh yes, I am so there on that. I also get irritated when I want to be discussing my relationships with my good friends and it looks like I'm discussing SOs or something because "relationship" has really been co-opted to mean romance. I find it irritating.

Sea said...

I'm not sure what you mean by your final paragraph -- aromantic means "not interested in people romantically," not "not interested in people at all," am I right? But it's possible that I actually agree with you completely... Let us find out.

I don't believe that romantic love is a separate, special kind of love; for me, anyway, the emotion is the same no matter whether I'm directing it at my sister, my writing, my favorite musician, or my closest companion. The difference is in the amount of love I feel, and in what I want from each individual or object. I call myself aromantic because I believe that romance is a set of behaviors, not a type of love, and the set of behaviors associated with conventional romance is not something I want -- ick. I like the behaviors of deep, close, committed friendships much better.

It sounds to me like you're saying something similar? Maybe? That platonic attraction is as important as (or the same as) romantic attraction, and therefore should be considered in the label? Bah, I don't know. Labels, labels. I love them, but they like to be confusing.

SlightlyMetaphysical said...

"But the main one is that I often feel I can't tell my friends how important they are to me, because they might consider it weird or out of place. "

I think that's a really crucial bit. In trying to implement non-binary relationships, one of the hardest parts seems to be getting your friends to a stage where you have commitment and talk seriously about your relationship and where it's going, when we've all been told that 'friends don't do that'.

Ily said...

Thanks for the comments, y'all!

I usually just tell people that I have "crushes" or whatever on the people I'm platonically attracted to so that they'll take me more seriously.

People would be so disoriented if I started doing that ;-) Isn't there an expectation though, to "pursue" the people one has a crush on?


You also get into the panicky "Do I want to just be really close friends with this person or do I want to DATE them and how can I tell what the difference is???" thing. Or I did, anyway.


Actually, I don't think that's ever happened to me...I've never really had a strong desire to date anyone, even people I had romantic crushes on. I can understand it, though. Maybe I just default to friendship because it's what I have experience with, but since I've experienced romantic attraction a few times, I feel like I know if it's absent. However, do you have to date people you're romantically attracted to? Not necessarily, although I'd imagine it would help.

I think that for me personally there does seem to be a gender difference there--I tend to make much closer and longer-lasting friendships with women in meatspace than with men.

The same is true with me, although I guess I just assumed that it was "the norm". Especially when you get past puberty and have the issue of "opposite-sex" friends interpreting your friendliness as something else.

That platonic attraction is as important as (or the same as) romantic attraction...

I don't think it's the same, but I think it's just as important.

Slightly Metaphysical, I would love to see a nuts and bolts discussion somewhere about how to get to a level where you can have those conversations. But I don't think I could write it. I feel like having had no romantic relationships, I've been given no practice in talking about commitment. However, since commitment IS something I value (just in general), maybe I'm further along than I think?

Byggvir said...

I agree with these other posters that this has been a great run of posts for you! I think that as you think about these issues and write about them consistently (because "writing is thinking" after all), you're having more and more insight.

This post is particularly on point for me. I think I'm in a similar place to you in terms of forms of attraction (I agree it sounds creepy. Maybe "affinity"? But that's sort of creepy too...). Perhaps with a bit more aesthetic attraction, though I go in for "striking" rather than cute.

I would love to have a partner-type relationship, but I really have difficulty moving relationships forward because of the underlying wondering--"Does this mean we're dating?" "Does this mean we're going to have sex?"

Actually Sheldon's "dating" experience on the Big Bang Theory last week addressed this: his friend-who-is-a-girl announced that she'd like him to meet her mother, which sent him skittering after Leonard, wondering what it means.

This was comic, but in fact we all KNOW what it means, and for many asexuals it leads away from a "friendship" relationship that we can make work and into a dating/sexual relationship which we/I worry will not work, and will eliminate the friendship.

The only antidote I've found for this is to be open about asexuality, which is why I think the visibility work is so important. It's not enough to disclose to a potential close friend that you're asexual right at the start of a potential friendship, because this seems to add a weird frisson. It's better if it's just out there as common knowledge.

I'm finally out to my entire peer group (almost all the people that matter or could potentially matter in my emotional life), and it really makes a huge difference. The tension of "what does this mean?" is alleviated, because everyone starts out with a clear idea of what it could mean, and what it can't possibly mean.

This benefit only occurred for me because I was and am fairly far out of the closet, and because the people I'm out to are open-minded and don't believe I was abused as a child or that I must've been castrated or something.

It took me three years (more if you count high school) to build up the self-knowledge to be out, and my ability to have this out-ness be a boon rather than a pain in the ass is predicated on having friends who know, or can easily find out, that asexuality is a legitimate orientation.

Neither of these conditions is inevitable, and I think that producing them is very important, because it's difficult to get close with people while simultaneously self-censoring or holding back. And it's why the visibility and education work of activists and the AVEN community is so important.

Ily said...

Why thanks! :-) Luckily (?), my friends don't try to date me much (okay, never). And also, most of them were accepting when I came out to them, which was awesome. My dream for visibility is people being able to guess that their friends are asexual through available evidence. Not to stereotype, but to just see it as an option alongside all the other orientations. If asexuality was better known, I think it would be blindingly obvious in my case.

writingfromfactorx said...

Actually, I don't think that's ever happened to me...I've never really had a strong desire to date anyone, even people I had romantic crushes on. I can understand it, though. Maybe I just default to friendship because it's what I have experience with, but since I've experienced romantic attraction a few times, I feel like I know if it's absent. However, do you have to date people you're romantically attracted to? Not necessarily, although I'd imagine it would help.
Well, the issue there as far as I can tell wasn't me experiencing romantic attraction to them so much as being very confused over what romantic attraction actually was. You may have noticed that this is a recurring theme with me, ahem...

I think that's a really crucial bit. In trying to implement non-binary relationships, one of the hardest parts seems to be getting your friends to a stage where you have commitment and talk seriously about your relationship and where it's going, when we've all been told that 'friends don't do that'.
I've actually had some success discussing jealousy with my own friends, specifically issues with a core group of three people where two of the three spent more time together than I did with either of them. Mind you, I couched that a lot in "I haven't had meatspace friends recently, I am out of the knack and I AM HAVING SOME ISSUES HERE," so I don't know how that would work for you. It also helps that my personal friend group includes at least one other (nonasexual) person who also experiences jealousy over friendships, so there's at least some measure of understanding on the other side there.

Have not gotten to the "where is our relationship going?" stage yet, though, except as pertains to "I would like to go to graduate school near you if I can, but that might not be possible given our various programs."

Snowclrops said...

I'm a little confused. Friendship is such a loaded term for me that I pretty much need it defined anytime it is mentioned. I grew up not having a lot of friends, if any. So to me, the term friendship was always something that was very important to me.

Problem is a lot of people seem to call everyone their friends even if they barely even know the person. That makes it hard for me to even judge what the word even means when people say it.

On top of that, we were using the word romantic attraction to describe your interest in someone you're really passionate about (whether you call them friends, dates, whatever), yet you seem to imply that romances and dating lead to sex, but isn't that sexual attraction?

What do you mean by platonic? How is that different from romantic especially when you're separating out romantic and sexual attraction?

Ily said...

Well, I don't think there's only one definition of "friendship". It's getting more confusing now that people are "friends" (like on Facebook) with folks they hardly know, as you mention. The dictionary defines "friends" as "a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard." Actually I think this is pretty accurate for me. A friend is someone you stick with just because you like them, not because you want to have sex with them, and not because you are necessarily in a "committed" relationship. Friendships CAN be "committed relationships", but don't necessarily have to be.