Comments on the “Love Minus Sex or Romance” Section of Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator

I just got a copy of Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life by Amy Gahran. Amy Gahran is also known as ‘Aggie Sez’, and used to blog at Solo Poly, most well known for the blog post “Riding the relationship escalator (or not).” I have not had time to read the whole book, but I did skip ahead and read all of Part 5, “Love Minus Sex or Romance.”

The first chapter in Part 5 is “Asexual and Aromantic: Part of the Rainbow.” A lot of this chapter is Asexuality and Aromanticism 101.

My biggest complaint is that it seems to imply that asexuals never want to have sex, and the only reason asexuals would consent to sex is procreation. It is true that most aces prefer not to have sex. Furthermore, most of the book’s research came from responses to an in-depth online survey, and I suppose it is possible that all of the aces who responded to the survey said that they do not want sex. However, I think it would have been better if it had noted that, while the majority of aces do not want sex in their personal relationships, a few do (including non-procreational sex).

What I found most interesting in the “Asexual and Aromantic: Part of the Rainbow” chapter was this part:

Being asexual or aromantic means that one’s intimate relationships will probably diverge from Relationship Escalator hallmark #4: sexual and romantic connection.

The writer goes on to explain that ‘mutual attraction’ is one of the features of the relationship escalator, and though asexual and/or aromantic people can perform every other hallmark of the relationship escalator, this is one part they cannot do. This is why the writer chose to single out asexuality and aromanticism, and not specifically address any other orientations – she claims that no other orientation precludes riding the relationship escalator all of the way.

To be clear, the introductory section (which I also read), the writer says that, while getting legally married and having children are highly encouraged on the relationship escalator, they are not hallmarks in contemporary American culture, and thus not ‘hallmarks’ of the relationship escalator. “Sexual and romantic connection” is one of the five hallmarks, therefore any relationship which lacks that is by definition not on the relationship escalator. Again, I wish the writer were clearer about the distinction between attraction and behavior – if someone does not experience sexual attraction, but they choose to have sex anyway, does that count as a sexual connection?

The next chapter is “More Nonsexual Relationship Options” which discusses nonsexual intimate relationships in general, not specifically relationships ace people have. The beginning of this chapter says that 40% of the people who responded to the survey said that they have had an important nonsexual and/or nonromantic intimate relationship, and 20% said they were open to such relationships (I do not know what percentage of the people who took the survey are ace and/or aro – I’d be interested in seeing the percentages for people who do NOT identify with asexuality or aromanticism). There are also a few pages about kink, and how kink relationships can be nonsexual and/or nonromantic.

It included various personal stories taken from the survey. The story which caught my eye the most is from ‘Theresa’. Theresa formed a clear agreement with her partner to stop having sex, though she does not know why they stopped wanting sex with each other. She has felt internal shame at having a sexless relationship with her significant other, even though it’s something they both wanted. She is afraid of her friends finding out that she does not have sex with her partner.

The last chapter in this part of the book is “Choosing Celibacy” which does not have any significant new information or insights for me, though I think it’s a good thing that this chapter is in the book for readers who know less about it.

One of the things which struck me while I was skimming through the book is that stories from asexuals who responded to the survey are throughout the book, not just in the asexuality & aromanticism chapter. The writer herself says:

One of the most unexpected and enlightening parts of my survey was hearing from dozens of people in the ace (slang for asexual) community, as well as many more who have been intimately involved with asexual partners.

These were some of the most eloquent and thoughtful responses I received. But in retrospect, that is isn’t very surprising: if you want to think really, really hard hard about intimacy and relationships, try taking sex and/or romance out of the picture.

Is this book worth reading? If one is primarily interested in asexuality and/or aromanticism and NOT the rest of the book, I would say no. The Invisible Orientation by Julia Sondria Decker goes into much more depth about asexuality, and while I am not aware of any good nonfiction book about aromanticism, one would still be better off researching aromanticism on the internet, or even reading about aromanticism in The Invisible Orientation, than tracking down Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator. However, I have not read most of the book yet. I am guessing other parts of the book will be more informative for me because they are about topics that I know less about. Based on my skimming, this does seem like a very good book about close personal relationships, particularly unconventional close personal relationships.

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Alliance of the Non-mono Folk in the USA, Part 5: The Asexual and Polyamory Communities (Conclusion)

Here is the previous post.

Since the only two major non-mono groups in the 21st century whose interactions I am aware of are the asexual and polyamory communities, this post is going to be about how these two groups interact. That is not to say that interactions between other non-mono groups is unimportant, I am simply not sufficiently informed.

First of all, the article “Asexual Polyamory: Potential Challenges and Benefits” by Dan Copulsky is worth reading (note: I am one of the people who corresponded with the writers of the article).

Mutually Informed?

*I* first learned about polyamory for real, as opposed to just casual mentions which I did not pay much attention to, through my participation in the asexual community. Thus, for me personally, polyamory is tied to asexuality in my mind since exploring asexual is how polyamory has been most relevant to my life. And generally, the aces I know know much more about polyamory than the non-ace people I know.

In the polyamory writing and materials I have read, I have also found more references and a better understanding of asexuality than I have in writing/materials about sex and romance in general. This is no doubt skewed by the fact that the polyamory writing/materials which I’m likely to find are more likely to be ace-friendly simply because I tend to be directed to them through the ace community. Nonetheless, my impression is that poly people are more likely to be informed about asexuality than the general population. That is not to say that poly people always get it *right* – they don’t – but ace people don’t always get poly right either.

The Poly Aces (and Poly Aros)

There are people who are both poly and ace. I am not one of them (I am ace, not poly). Fortunately, some people who are ace and poly have written about it. Here is a small sample of writing by poly aces about being poly and ace:

A confession and an announcement
Polyamory: Never a One-sided Deal, even in Mixed Relationships
My Ace Poly Manifesto
I don’t understand dating, so I’m getting married

I also want to throw in a couple of essays by people who are aromantic (albeit not ace) and poly:

What a Poly, Aromantic Relationship Looks Like
Promiscuous, unloving, and incapable of commitment

Poly as a Solution to Mixed Ace/Non-Ace relationships

When the topic of polyamory is brought up in the context of asexuality, the most common assumption is that it is a ‘solution’ for a mixed couple – that is, an asexual and a non-asexual who are a ‘couple – so that the non-asexual person in the couple can get sex without putting pressure on the asexual.

Sometimes, setting up a poly relationship so that the non-asexual person can have sex without breaking up with the asexual or pressuring the asexual for sex works. But as one of the essays linked above (“Polyamory: Never a One-sided Deal, even in Mixed Relationships”) states, *assuming* this framework places the needs and wants of the non-asexual above the needs and wants of the asexual. It’s one thing for two people to consider all of their options and conclude that this is the best option; it’s another thing for someone to assume that this needs to happen just because an asexual and a non-asexual person are having some kind of relationship which society expects to be sexual and monogamous.

However, I do think, as several of the essays which I have linked claimed, it does help for asexuals to have the *option* of mixed-relationship polyamory when dealing with relationships, even if we don’t ultimately choose that option, and that this is a major reason that asexuals have such a high level of interest in polyamory.

Common Features of Asexual, Aromantic, and Polyamory Communities

Some people, particularly people who are uninformed about asexuality, aromanticism, and polyamory, assume that asexuality and polyamory are opposites. This mistake is based on assumptions that polyamory is all about having lots of sex, or that asexuals are uninterested in close personal relationships, or something.

In fact, asexual, aromantic, and polyamory communities all have a lot in common, and I think that is the main reason there is an ‘alliance’ between them.

First of all, all three of these communities have ideals of open, honest, and detailed communication. All of them have created a bunch of new words (for example, demisexual, akoiromantic, and metamour) because words in mainstream use are not adequate for the ideas they want to discuss. All tend to have extended conversations about personal boundaries. And all tend to have high-word-count conversations about what they want from close personal relationships. Mind you, just because open, honest, and detailed communication is the *ideal* does not mean that people in these communities always put those ideals into practice. However, the fact that this is a commonly shared ideal helps them interact with each other.

However, I think the most important thing these communities have in common is that they are all striving to increase their freedom to engage in personal relationships which work for them, rather than forcing themselves to fit the relationship norms of mainstream society. I think that’s why certain polyamory blogs, such as SoloPoly, are popular with asexual and aromantic readers. This, more than anything else, is why I consider the asexual and aromantic communities to be natural allies of the polyamory community. We have the common goal of wanting to make close relationships other than sexually and romantically exclusive monogamous relationships a socially acceptable option.

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NOTE: This post is scheduled to be published at a time I won’t have internet access. Therefore, it may take me a while to respond to comments.

Lois McMaster Bujold is being nice to characters now?! A Review of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

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I consider this review is spoiler-free, though I could not avoid hinting at some of the events. So … spoiler-free, but not teaser-free?

I just finished reading Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, the newest book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga.

I enjoyed reading it. I also I think it could have been much better.

First, some of the things I liked:

– I liked that it explored certain aspects of polyamory
– I also just plain liked that it torpedoed the Vorkosiverse equivalent of the relationship escalator. Finally. I was getting tired of having so many sexual-romantic relationships in the Vorkosiverse following such a similar trajectory.
– A suspicion I have had for a long time about what was happening behind the scenes was … partially confirmed true. As in, I was correct about the broad outlines, but the details came out of left field (as in “What the hell, out of all potential characters, it was that no-first-name Lt. Jole from The Vor Game??!!!”)
– As in most of her novels, Bujold’s wit comes through, for example:

Miles’s lips twisted up, but he did not pursue whatever objection he was entertaining to that.

Cordelia, frowning, said to him, “I’m sorry that you were disturbed by the slanders. You never said much…”

“It happened at school, mostly. Boys trying to get me going, when the mutie insults stopped working. I eventually taught them…not to. Ivan had it easier. He could just slug them. I couldn’t get him to slug them for me very often, except for the one time some twit accused Aunt Alys of sleeping with you. That…went off well. In a sense.” A vicious grin.

“Alys came in for a lot of criticism in her own right for not remarrying,” said Cordelia. “Still, at least that one credited me with good taste. I was flattered.”

“Grandfather once said to me, when I was upset about, God, I don’t even remember which one, ‘We’re Vorkosigans. If the charge isn’t at least murder or treason, it’s not worth rolling over in bed for.’ Then he thought a moment and changed it to, ‘Treason, anyway.’ And after another, ‘And sometimes not even then.’”

– Much of the novel is driven by the suspense of ‘How will character X react when they find out the truth about Y?’ And I lap that kind of thing up in fiction.
– Sergyar is now my favorite planet in the Vorkosiverse.
– I loved the scene where Alex looks through his grandfather’s drawings

Now, there are a number of things I did not like about the novel, but the substantial ones are all tied to one thing: Lois McMaster Bujold is being too nice to the characters in this novel!!!!

Lois McMaster Bujold’s guideline for many of her works of fiction has been “So what’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?” as she explains in the afterword to Cordelia’s Honor:

I now had in hand a messy first draft of about a hundred pages of narrative, with no chapter breaks, that clearly wasn’t long enough to be a novel. I paused briefly, flirted with a really bad scenario about a convenient alien invasion that would force Barrayar and Beta to ally, decided “Why should I make things easy on my characters?”, and plunged on to the much better and more inherent idea of the Escobar invasion, thus accidentally discovering my first application of the rule for finding plots for character-centered novels, which is to ask “So what’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?” And then do it.

I think this “So what’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?” line of thinking inspired her to write some of my favorite parts of the Vorkosigan saga.

Alas, Lois McMaster Bujold did not do her worst to the protagonists of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.

I’m not suggesting that, say, the Cetagandans should have attempted a genocide of everyone on Barrayar via biological warfare. I would not have wanted an action-adventure/mystery/etc. plot appended to this story if it did not belong. However, even within the scope of what this story is about … Lois McMaster Bujold really held back.

Now, one could argue the “worst possible thing” was the bombshell which dropped about three years before the novel begins. However … it dropped three years before the novel begins. I suspect this novel might have been better if it had been set (or at least begun) before that bombshell, because that was serious shit hitting the fan. Additionally, had the story been set at that earlier time, we probably would have been treated to even deeper explorations of polyamory/unconventional intimate relationships, which I would have liked. However, by the time this novel begins, the characters have already gotten past the worst aftermath of that bombshell, so that event no longer works as a “worst possible thing.”

One of the consequences of not doing the worst to the characters is that … it limited the amount of growth the characters could experience. Rather than the protagonists learning, adapting, and maturing to deal with their challenges, it seems they were mostly ready to meet they challenges already (again, this is why I wish the story could have started at an earlier point, before the characters had learned so much about how to deal with these challenges).

It’s not a bad novel but … arghh, it tantalizes me with wonderful possibilities which are not realized. Another review I read said that the novel feels like an epilogue. I agree. I felt like the real story happened before this one began, and darn it, I would like to read that story. Or failing that, I would have liked to read a sequel where the protagonists are thrown into a serious NEW challenge.

Vorkosigan fans will read this no matter what I say. I also recommend this book to people who are interested in polyamory and/or bisexuality in fiction, or in fiction which features protagonists over the age of 48 years old (and a female protagonist who is 76 years old). As far as the general reading public … it is a decent novel which covers some topics which are under-represented in fiction. Make of that what you will.

This is not part of the book review, but since this is an asexuality blog…

… I feel obliged to quote the part in Chapter 6 where asexuality (in humans) comes up. Has asexuality ever come up in any of the other Vorkosigan stories? I’ll let the asexuals who are reading this blog try to figure out this passage:

She sat back, crossed her arms, pursed her lips, and studied him. His chin came up in unconscious response to the challenge, and what a fine chin it had always been. “You know, it occurs to me—belatedly—have you actually had any practice at seducing people?”

His eyes widened, then narrowed back down. “Certainly! I’m hardly asexual, Cordelia!”

“I didn’t suggest that! You have to be one of the least asexual people I’ve ever met. Much to the puzzlement, I have no doubt, of those who have flung themselves so futilely at you over the years, poor sods. And odds.” Definitely both odds and sods.