Splitting Attraction: A History of Discussing Orientation


Edit as of 6th August 2019: Added a few links that were missing.

Creating new terminology to discuss hyperspecific experiences is nothing new in a-spec communities, and the divide between sexual, romantic, sensual, aesthetic, and other attractions is no different. In this article, the AUREA team tackles the foundations of orientation modeling in the a-spec community, as well as the origins of the phrase “split attraction model (SAM)”. We are not the first to write about this topic, and we want to thank Historicallyace, Siggy, and Coyote for their work cataloging and investigating this. The purpose of this article is to summarize what we know, what we don’t know, and what we can do with the information we have access to. We also want this article to inform others about some of the nuances of the SAM, beyond a simplified definition.

Seattle Aces & Aros march in Seattle, USA

Seattle Aces & Aros march in Seattle, USA


The idea of orientations being mismatched - or split - is first recorded back in 1879 with the researcher Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s work on non-heterosexual attraction. He discussed the idea of a man being what we would now call homoromantic heterosexual. Like our tendency to coin terms, Ulrich used the phrases “uranodioning” and “disjunctive” to describe this orientation. 

The next occurrence of a system similar to the modern SAM is found in 1979. Dorothy Tennov used the phrase “limerence” to describe a romantic love that does not necessarily include sexual love. The works of theorists discussing limerence also discuss the existence of “non-limerent” people - people who never felt “limerence” in their life. While this could also include those who felt infatuated, but never in love, this is notably one of the first acknowledgements of the possibility of what we now call aromanticism. Ten years later the discussion on modelling orientation continued, with the phrase “affectional orientation” making its own case for common use. Once again, the terminology was used to separate the idea of sexual and affectionate (or romantic) love. 

Further development in an a-spec specific space would come in late 2003. Previously, terminology akin to “bi-asexual” and “asexual-asexual” were used to indicate a divide (or not) in how people felt attraction. This thread began to develop the concept of the [orientation] + [attraction] means of discussing attractions in the asexual community. Finally, in 2005, the concept of aromanticism began to be discussed in this thread. This kind of language became popularized and is still used commonly used today, with additions such as “aplatonic”, “-sensual”, “-alterous”, and various other definitions of attraction and orientation. It’s important to note that this was not the only model of discussing orientation, as it was developing. The ABCD system, as well as several others, were in use throughout the asexual community at the time.

The actual phrase “split attraction model” is trickier to trace through the pathways of the internet. Broken web links and deleted blogs are common roadblocks in charting a-spec history, with both the asexual and aromantic communities growing largely through online spaces. Some of the earliest references are from 2015, and they don’t include information on the term itself. Instead they show some of the thoughts various reactionary groups had on the term and concept. Google search histories also reveal that people were searching the phrase “split attraction model” earlier than the oldest posts we can find on the concept. These Google searches may indicate that the term was coined earlier than we can find record of, or they may simply show that these words were commonly searched together until they became one unified concept. The phrases “split attractions”, “split sexuality”, and “split orientation” were used to refer to orientation as now described using the modern SAM, while the use of “model” to reference attraction modeling systems can be seen in AVEN’s wiki and throughout a-spec threads.  While this tells us that the term was possibly in use before these posts were made - at least long enough for people to debate all manner of things regarding the SAM - it gets us no closer to knowing when exactly the term ‘Split Attraction Model’ came into common use or how it was initially received at its conception. 

Today, the SAM refers to an experience of attraction that splits into distinct types of attraction, depending on certain characteristics. It is unclear whether this definition is accurate to the coiner’s conception, if there is even one single coiner to be named. We simply don’t know what the intentions were when the term was first used. However, we do know that it has become a useful term for more than a few people, standing for many similar disjunctive experiences of attraction and split orientation models. 

At this point, the a-spec community has largely adopted the SAM; however, there is an ongoing discussion about creating alternate models that aim to be more inclusive and less specific. While plenty of people define the split attraction model solely as ‘where romantic and sexual attraction don’t match’, the term has evolved and continues to do so. We believe that the assumption that all a-specs use the SAM - and in this simplified romantic/sexual form - is inaccurate and, at times, harmful. Whatever its origins may be, the SAM has become an established model within and outside of a-spec communities - flaws and all.  

That isn’t to say that there aren’t valid criticisms of the SAM. Attraction is a many layered concept that has multitudes of meanings to different people. Finding a single, easily definable term to talk about how people relate to attraction is a tough - nearly impossible - task. The assumption that every a-spec must use the SAM, or that it only refers to a romantic/sexual split, has caused more than a little confusion and strife in the a-spec community. People have criticized the SAM for being too specific, saying that the idea of the SAM as a rigid split doesn’t allow for a grey area between attractions. For many, attraction is not so clear cut, and the SAM becomes more of a hindrance than a help; many of these people do not use the SAM for that reason. Others have criticized it for not being specific enough, saying the SAM lacks nuance. This argument is supported by the common assumption that the SAM only refers to a romantic/sexual split, although general lack of knowledge about other forms of attraction may also contribute. 

The split attraction model as it is - a way to describe multiple forms of attraction - is, at its base, a seemingly simple concept. Is it difficult to navigate even still? Of course. How many LGBTQIA+ folks actually label themselves correctly on the first go? Think of how much harder it is to label yourself when you have to try to distinguish between different types of attraction, or how it feels when some types others commonly feel don’t seem to show up at all for you? The confusion of questioning and finding a label is a widely shared experience in the a-spec community and beyond, a process that can occasionally find a use for the SAM. While the SAM terminology can largely be found in a-spec spaces, that doesn’t mean it is exclusively for a-spec communities. As the history of the concept shows, there are many communities that have found split attractions a useful idea, and today there are many ways people do and don’t engage with the split attraction model, all based on their personal identities and preferences. 

Whether or not someone uses the SAM can be a very personal topic. It is the unique nature of the a-spec community that makes the SAM so popular within it, since the traditional collected view of attraction that most people use can sometimes make us feel left behind. Some of our experiences as aromantics don’t fit under a big orientation umbrella, in any way, because our relationships with romance as a concept itself are queer. Representing both our a-spec identities and other orientation identities can be challenging if we try to adhere to a collective view of attraction. This is why the idea of describing split attractions can be so important to some of us. It gives us the language to describe our experiences, to highlight whichever attractions are most important to us, if indeed we highlight any. The most common way you will find people describing their attractions is through the romantic/sexual split, but it is far from the only way. The rise of terms like “aplatonic”, “-alterous” and “-sensual”, among others, could be considered proof of this. 

The history of aromanticism is undoubtedly intertwined with the idea of split attraction and many a-specs find the current model a useful and necessary tool. However, this does not mean everyone who labels their romantic orientation or identifies on the aromantic spectrum is using the SAM. Orientation modelling is subjective, after all. As we’ve seen across the history of this concept, where one model ends and another begins is hard to tease apart. The SAM is just the latest iteration, and above all, it is meant as a tool, to be used in the way that best suits you. If it begins feeling like a burden, or that you are forcing yourself somewhere you don’t think you want to go, it’s OK not to use it. We have no obligation to the SAM on an individual level, because labeling is always a personal, self-reflective choice. The SAM is a concept with a long developmental history - one that is still ongoing and one that will no doubt grow with those of us who engage with it.

Papo Aromantic