Assumptions and Dichotomies
What is “the aromantic experience?” What is it that defines the aro community? What do you consider a “typical aromantic”?
As aromanticism becomes more well known and as the community grows, plenty of us are circling back to these questions. Many aro resources – AUREA included – offer a list of common aro experiences to help in the questioning process. However, once in the community, many of us find that we don’t exactly fit into these narratives.
This, of course, is because the community isn’t a monolith.
Aromantics quickly discover this as they interact with the many diverse members of the community, across its many diverse platforms. But what will happen as we grow? Already we are at a point where a new aromantics' first foray into the community tends to be through a specific sub-group, ones which often have specific experiences that differentiate it from other sub-groups in the community. Depending on when and where you enter the community, you may come across different narratives and form your own ideas of what is “most common.” These ideas can become assumptions that you carry through the rest of the community and beyond.
What follows is an examination of some common default assumptions, the false dichotomies they present, and how they impact our community.
ALL AROMANTICS ARE ANTI-ROMANCE
“Aromantic” is commonly misunderstood to mean “does not experience romantic attraction at all and does not desire any sort of romantic partnership.” While “aromantic” doubles as an umbrella term and the specific identity of feeling little to no romantic attraction, that specific identity is just one kind of aromantic person within a wide spectrum of experiences.
It’s important to remember that attraction does not correlate to action. There are aromantics who participate in romantic relationships despite not feeling romantic attraction to their partner(s). There are alloromantics who do the same, for a number of reasons. There are also many aromantics who feel romantic attraction occasionally, or under certain conditions. They also may, or may not, seek out romantic content and relationships.
Aromanticism can be characterized by taking a queer approach to romance. A common item on the aromantic agenda is fighting amatonormativity. However, fighting compulsory romance is nowhere near the same as being entirely anti-romance. There are aromantics who are romance-repulsed, but being personally repulsed by something does not mean being morally against it or trying to prevent others from pursuing romance.
What this all means is that aromantics who are not romance-repulsed, who are romance-neutral or -favorable, who seek out romantic relationships, who feel romantic attraction sometimes, are often left feeling “not aro enough” because of many of these assumptions.
MOST AROMANTICS WANT QUEERPLATONIC RELATIONSHIPS
There are people who assume that aromantics “fill the void of lacking romance” with very strong platonic relationships and/or QPRs. The “aros can still love!” mantra has permeated parts of the community, as well as minds outside of it. Even when these assumptions are not filled with amatonormative conflations, there is often a ‘default’ narrative presented that includes seeking QPRs and significant partnerships. Some people cannot imagine us being happy to go it alone.
This ‘default’ led to the coining of nonamorous and nonpartnering, because many folks really do enjoy the solitary life. In response to this response aromantics who don’t fall under the nonamorous description expressed their discomfort with the natural opposite of nonamorous, i.e., “amorous.” The latin root of ‘amor’ means ‘love’ and in our more modern times both amor and amorous are commonly used to describe romantic love. This word choice created a dichotomy which people felt they had to choose a side on and the once useful term nonamorous became rather loaded.
Another group alienated by the assumption that aromantics want QPRs is that of aplatonic aromantics. An assumption that often goes hand in hand with wanting QPRs is that aromantics have stronger platonic relationships “in the absence of” romantic relationships. For those of us that have difficulty forming platonic relationships or do not have particularly strong bonds with others, the implication that they are missing something or are broken makes them feel disconnected from the community.
MOST AROMANTICS ARE ALSO ASEXUAL
It is well known that aromanticism’s history has been close-tied to asexuality. Many aromantics began their questioning process on AVEN, an asexuality forum, and through resources dedicated to asexuality. That’s simply because asexuality was once the only word for any kind of ‘absence orientation.’ But, just as simply, not all aros are asexual. Aromanticism’s close ties with asexuality have led to a common narrative: “most aromantics are also asexual.” In some cases this common experience has turned into something prescriptive: “all aromantics must also be asexual.” As a result, non-ace aros are often left behind in any sort of a-spec discussion.
In response to this representation problem, the aromantics who have been left behind have tried to advocate for themselves, to better educate their fellow aromantics and a-specs. The most vocal have been allosexual aromantics and the tensions between them and other aromantics has resulted in an allo aro vs. aroace dichotomy. There is an assumption that allo aros are all specifically angry at aroaces - the aromantics who are more common and often regarded as the default.
This divide has also created a pressure for many aromantics to identify their sexuality and put themselves in one of these two categories, regardless of whether or not they fit. What about our grey- or demi-sexuals? Those who may not feel entirely “allo” or “ace?” What of aromantics who can’t or don’t differentiate romantic and sexual feelings of attraction? Or those of us who don’t use the split attraction model (SAM)?
SAM OR NO SAM?
Speaking of the split attraction model (SAM): some aromantics use it, and some don’t. This simple sentence has often been turned into a zero sum game. If you aren’t using the SAM, you must be a non-SAM. If you aren’t, join the aroaces or allo aros. There is a double assumption here that everyone who does not use or identify with the SAM is also comfortable with non-SAM as a label. The reality is a number of aromantics are uncomfortable with the idea of defining themselves by something they don’t use or find helpful. Many reject the label of non-SAM altogether.
This pressure to either specify a sexuality or commit wholly to the aromantic identity leaves no room for questioning, fluidity, or the grey space of being somewhere in-between. These aromantics - in the eyes of the SAM or no SAM debate - simply don’t exist in the community. The rigidness of those categories have prompted many a new term to be coined, such as semi-SAM, unit aro, and neu aro, so that aromantics who can’t box themselves in can still feel like they belong in the aromantic community. The obvious implication here is that without these new terms, many aromantics do not feel a part of the community.
IF YOU ARE AROMANTIC AND SOMETHING ELSE, YOU MUST PRIORITIZE YOUR ARO IDENTITY
This one is a bit more implicit than the others, but it has been commonly present in many discussions lately.
Whatever kind of aromantic you are, there seems to be an underlying pressure to identify most strongly with aromanticism. If you have another identity label, such as a separate sexuality label or a sub-label under the aromantic umbrella, the understanding is that you are either with the aromantic community wholly or against it. This leaves many greyromantic, quoiromantic, and aro-spec folks in the dust, as well as aromantic folks who may identify more strongly with their sexualities, other orientations, or other personal identities.
Identifying with the aromantic community is a choice. Having to commit to being either aromantic or alloromantic and to advocate only for that one group allows no grey area, little room for inter-community collaboration or support, and makes gatekeeping far easier, and likelier.
THE AROMANTIC EXPERIENCE IS STATIC
If you’re romance-repulsed, you’re always romance-repulsed. If you’re nonamorous, you’re always nonamorous. If you’re aromantic, you always feel the same way about romance. These are common assumptions about us, from alloromantics and aromantics alike.
Although there are specific labels for aromantics who fluctuate on the aromantic spectrum (e.g., arofluid, aroflux), it is blatantly untrue that every other aromantic is always stable in their orientation. Feelings and attraction can be fluid and difficult to pin down with words. They might not match up with a definition exactly. Just as one aromantic’s experience is unlikely to be the same as another’s, a single aromantic’s experience one day is unlikely to be the same any other given day.
As many of our definitions become rigid, we become more and more attached to ‘default’ narratives. The more attached we become to defaults, the less room we give aromantics to question and be queer, or non-conforming. Our own rigidity restricts us from community growth.
THE PROBLEM OF THE DICHOTOMY
In attempting to make sense of our own experiences, false dichotomies have inadvertently sprung up that further divide the community.
Dichotomy: a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different
All of us are aromantic, but some of us now feel pressure to be Aro Type A or Aro Type B. There is an expectation that we “pick a side” and stay there. In reality, few of us fit into a nice neat box. Feelings and attraction don’t care for our desires to label them and when we feel forced to pick an ill-fitting descriptor, the simplest solution often appears to be: create a new box.
Our community has seen a massive uptick in the coining of new terms and re-imagining or re-coining of old terms, likely because many of us are feeling pressured to define ourselves under some sort of sub-umbrella. Questions beginning with “am I aro enough if…” are very common at the moment. Many people feel as though they are being forced through the questioning process all over again, some despite having been a part of the community for years.
New terms and new labels can undoubtedly be important personal identifiers. In the last year or two, however, there has been increased interest in creating terms in response to others that seem exclusionary - as if every term must have an opposite. This may be further dividing the community in ways that breed conflict. It must be considered that the rampant coining of new terms is a band-aid solution and our real issue is identity policing. Discarding old problematic terms in favor of new ones is sometimes necessary, but this will not always be the case. There are many issues that can be resolved by discussion and re-definition. By dropping and re-starting, we risk discontinuity in the community. We risk splitting ourselves to the point where we can no longer be a coherent force to be reckoned with in this amatonormative world.
WHAT IS OUR AIM
The aromantic community, like any other community based on identifying with a lifestyle that is not mainstream, is brimming with people who have the dream of being accepted for who they are. Are we so used to not having our experiences be believed that we feel the pressure to put ourselves in boxes and defend our experiences within the community too? The many assumptions being made inside our community are often leading to defensiveness and further divisions.
Why do we all choose to identify as aro? We are united by having a nonstandard approach to romance, whatever the kind. We don’t want it to be the default, to be compulsory. We may want to prioritize other pursuits in life - relationships, passions, missions, etc. We want to show that yes, we know what we want in life and what is good for us as individuals, even if a great many people would hate our lifestyles for themselves. We want to defy the assumption that everyone needs romance - for ourselves and for others to come.
We’re still a young community. Many of us are still searching for our place in it, comparing experiences, trying to work out what our aromanticism means to us. We’re defining who we are as a group as we speak, but it’s happening that with our baggage we create divisions when we could be putting more energy into uniting. The aim is high, but we believe that it’s within our capabilities when we stand together.
WHAT WE CAN DO
The members of AUREA won’t pretend we haven’t fallen into these dichotomous and assumptious traps. The ‘us against them’ mentality has the world in a stranglehold. We all want to be seen, to be heard, to be respected. Aromanticism is so often ignored and misunderstood, it is no wonder we go to such great lengths to explain ourselves. However, there are infinite experiences that can exist under the aro umbrella, and there are infinite experiences that can exist under each and every single aromantic and aro-adjacent term, regardless of its simplified definition. We aren’t the first to bring these points forward, we have been inspired by those who have. It’s important to remember that a more common aromantic narrative is just that, common. It doesn't make that narrative any better, or any worse, than any other aromantic narrative.
So what can we do to avoid the pitfalls of dichotomy?
First and foremost, we need to explicitly acknowledge that terms will only ever be approximations. What being “greyromantic” feels like for one person may not be the same as what it feels like for another. What “non-SAM aro” means to one person may not be the same as what it means to another. Being open about our personal experiences and offering up these diverse examples for new and questioning aromantics can help normalize the variety naturally present in our and every other queer community.
Work on your assumptions. Are you expecting aromantics to fit a certain mold? We had a look around and found many examples of “the typical aromantic.” On Tumblr we found the aroace with no attraction who wants a QPR. On Facebook we found the nonamorous aro who is single and not looking for a primary partnership. These are near opposites. The assumptions and dichotomies mentioned above aren’t a detailed list of every expectation, just common ones we’ve noticed. These are the grand sweeping declarations of the aromantic community. It’s important to understand that each aromantic person carries a different mix of assumptions and dichotomies. None of these expectations have any more basis in fact than the “aromantics are heartless” statement we often receive from beyond the community. Let them all go.
Identifying as aromantic is a choice - a highly personal one, at that. How someone defines their aromanticism is up to them and it is never anyone else's place to exclude them or gatekeep. A person’s labels beyond aromantic, or their sole label of aromantic, is no one’s business but their own. Just because someone’s experiences fit under a term doesn’t mean they’ll identify with said term. Labels are important but the weight of that importance is subjective. It can be tough when your community is constantly under attack, when outsiders try and redefine you as something you're not. The safety of an established term, trying to prove yourself as 'valid', it all becomes easier when you have certain terms you can point to and say “That's me!”. Unfortunately, this does nothing to dissuade those attacking us, and can lead to a certain demand of rigidity, causing intra community debate that ultimately does little good. We need to ask going forward and not assume.
Finally, we need to talk about our problems with specific terms, specific sub-groups, larger groups, groups outside the aro community, and more. We need to look at what we have, lest we abandon words people still use and thereby fragment the community. We should have discussions about what already exists and how to make it better and more inclusive. As we grow, communication will only become more important. We are at a point in our community’s history where we can set this precedent. It may be challenging, it may take time and effort and a lot of self-care to recover from disagreements and ignorance, but it will be well worth it.