Tl;dr Due to how new asexual and aromantic vocabulary is, including the split attraction model, we can best study asexual and aromantic history by conflating the two.
Two months ago, I started writing about the challenges and tensions of studying asexual and aromantic histories as I’ve been developing methodology. First, I wrote about the tension between queer and asexual histories. Now, I’d like to delve into a tension between asexual and aromantic identities. I’ve been seeing this particular tension growing a lot within our communities, which actually excites me a little, as it means that the aromantic community is big enough and strong enough for there to be tension (just barely), so this is an interesting moment in time (and history) to be discussing this.
The thing is, us asexuals really love the split attraction model. We ADORE it. We love it because it lets us say things like “it’s ok, asexual people can still love!” and offers us a back door into queer and lgbt+ communities when they stare closing their doors and claiming to only include “trans and sga” people (I’m still so confused by SGA, where did that even come from? It was literally an acronym used to deny space to asexual people and it just baffles me that that isn’t even the longest length people will go to do that). We also love the split attraction model because it offers insight into some pretty complicated shit – attraction is messy and confusing. Of course romantic and sexual attraction are different. That’s one tiny baby step towards understanding everything.
Except, if we’re studying a historical figure or moment, we’re looking at stuff from people who didn’t know what asexuality was, let alone, what the split attraction model was. Sure, there were probably plenty of biromantic asexual folks out there, and bisexual aromantic folks out there and that is a VERY different experience – but how different does it look in a single sentence from someone who doesn’t know the difference when we read it hundreds of years later?
Whether or not we like it, in order to find asexual and aromantic historical figures and moments, we have to accept that we cannot use the split attraction model. We have to conflate asexuality and aromanticism. We have to be able to see that these were words and tools that did not used to exist.
Aro/Ace visibility: Contemporary example
Of course, all of this comes down to one question: what can we actually find in historical documents? I want to start in the contemporary, because this pretty much aligns with a recent conversation around representation, which may be a little easier to grasp because folks in the middle of the conversation had the words we use in asexual and aromantic communities today to discuss the issue. So, let’s talk a little about Jughead. Full disclaimer, I’ve never read Archie comics (if you’re me, you’d stop reading now), and I consciously chose not to watch Riverdale when I found out that Jughead would not be aromantic. That said, I did get to witness the asexual/aromantic tensions that rose from that moment and was harmed by how quickly and excitedly all sorts of queer folks used this as an excuse to stampede all over aro folks.
In his own study of Jughead’s coming out moment in the Archie comics, Miller points out how Jughead is not only identified as asexual by another person (ie. It isn’t really self-identification until Jughead agrees with the other character, Keller), but that Jughead is identified as both asexual and aromantic together (Miller, p. 360). This, of course, was the beginning of a lot of conversation around asexual representation. In the beginning, it was specifically around the queer/asexual tension that I have previously discussed. Aroaces did not really claim Jughead as their own until Riverdale came out, keeping Jughead as asexual, but giving him a girlfriend. For us aroaces, it was an act of betrayal, even while other aces were excited to see media that recognized the split attraction model and represented an asexual person in a relationship.
While I do personally believe that this is an instance of overlooking aromanticism and legitimizing asexuality through respectability politics, it’s important to recognize that the original representation lumped asexuality and aromanticism together in a strange, undefined way that made it difficult to pick apart in the first place. Jughead’s aromanticism did not become pertinent until it was taken away. Up until that point, a strange conflation of asexual and aromantic had been fine. It had told readers about Jughead.
In practice: a historical example
Here’s a historical example: Laura (ace-muslim) wrote this brilliant study of possible asexual muslim women a while back. I still think it’s probably one of the most effective and successful historical studies of asexual figures that I have read to date (so like, go and read it, seriously). I want to draw your attention to the second woman studied here: Rabi’a bint Isma’il. Laura mentions:
“A discussion of Rabi’a’s sexuality appears in several reports listed on page 316 of Early Sufi Women.
Ahmad ibn Abi al-Hawari [d. 845 CE] said… She said to me: “I do not love you in the way that married couples do; instead, I love you [with] the love of siblings…”
Here, Rabi’a explains her own feelings. The reference to love could be taken to mean that she was aromantic, but the other reports suggest that what she wanted to avoid was sex.”
While we could say that Laura glosses over the potential of aromanticism here in order to prioritize asexuality, I would argue that this might be the only way to do it. In context, Jughead and the Riverdale fiasco happened in the past few years. The fact that the creators did not use and engage with the split attraction model is atrocious. But, how can we expect an account from 845 CE to clarify the distinction? The line is blurry and confusing and, unless people know the words, we’re never going to know how they identified. All we can do is recognize possibility, which Laura does her quite well.
We have to conflate asexuality and aromanticism in a way that would be abhorrent in a contemporary context because it may be the only way to properly identify both asexual and aromantic figures and moments in history. We have to think about the distinctions people make in their original context – we could argue that Rabi’a was aromantic because of she loves with “the love of siblings”, but consider the context we are given later in the article, “Celibacy in women has never been considered an ideal; while virginity may be prized, this is only prior to marriage. The ideal Muslim woman has always been understood as a wife, and a wife is expected to be sexually available to her husband at all times” (Laura (ace-muslim), 2015). This is a context in with marriage could be understood as sex, so saying “I do not love you in the way that married couples do” could be simply saying “I don’t want sex.”
The thing is, the possibilities are endless – Rabi’a could be asexual, she could be aromantic, she could be anything else you can imagine. But, if we use the possibility of aromanticism to block the possibility of asexuality (because it doesn’t quite fit contemporary distinctions), that’s just messing with both possibilities.
Let’s return to Catherine Bernard for two seconds. When I started writing that article, I was very careful to say asexuality OR aromanticism, noting that many of the points I were making could be attributed to either identity depending on the perspective. I didn’t want to overlook the potential of aromanticism or suggest that aromanticism and asexuality were the same thing. As I continued writing, it became more and more cumbersome and the more I started tying myself up in knots to deal with the information I had to go on.
And, let’s talk context, 17th century french fairy tales do not discuss sex or sexuality outright (there are innuendos, but that’s a whole other art form, and mainly D’Aulnoy), they discuss “love”. What the actual fuck is love? Sexual? Romantic? Sensual? Aesthetic? Trust me, I’ve read loads of these tales, the one thing that is always true is that it is an overwhelming passion that leads people to make the exact opposite of a logical decision. (Trust me, every time I read “Ines de Cordoue”, I spent the entire time going, “Ines, no! that is not what you want to do! Why do you even think that’s a good idea?”)
Beyond that, we have to accept that all interpretations with contemporary lingo are true. Asexuality and aromanticism are, in this context, the same thing because we do not have a distinction in context. We have to conflate asexuality and aromanticism in order to see a perspective that has no distinction for the two identities.
Laura (ace-muslim), “Potentially Asexual Women in Early Muslim History”, Notes of an Asexual Muslim, 2015 <http://ace-muslim.tumblr.com/post/123560285666/potentially-asexual-women-in-early-muslim-history> [accessed 15 May 2018]
Miller, Nicholas E., “Asexuality and Its Discontents: Making the ‘Invisible Orientation’ Visible in Comics”, Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, 1.3 (2017) <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/679772> [accessed 25 February 2018]