Editor’s note: the name of a student has been changed, which is denoted with asterisk.
“What is love?”
It’s more than just the ubiquitous hook of the 1993 dance-pop jam by Haddaway. To many, love has a plethora of definitions. It can represent a deep affection for another person, an intense liking toward a piece of art or, to put it more broadly, a strong bond between two or more people. However, in our society, love is often associated with sexuality, and the romantic aspect of love is frequently complemented with the sexual aspect of love. This upcoming Sunday is Valentine’s Day, which is known as the national day of celebration of our culture’s version of “love.” For decades, V-Day has commercialized “love” in advertisements, Hallmark greeting cards, presents and even film. People are motivated to spend money on loved ones, whether it’s on a thoughtful box of chocolates or on sexy gifts to spice up one’s sex life. And while the holiday can be rather heteronormative in nature, it is gradually becoming more inclusive toward non-heterosexual couples. Nevertheless, it seems to underrepresent a largely unrecognized group of people: those who don’t identify with the sexual or romantic binary.
Let’s talk about sex (and romance), baby
When it comes to love, sexual attraction and romantic attraction are often paired together, yet they have completely different implications. For people with non-binary sexual and romantic orientations, the concept of “love” doesn’t necessarily mean that sex and romance always go hand-in-hand. University of Michigan freshman Allie Hodge, who identifies as asexual and biromantic, believes that love simply means being intimate with someone, but “in the way where you feel really comfortable with talking to them, where you can share yourself fully and not worry about judgment.”
It may seem unusual that asexuality, which defines a person who feels no sexual attraction, can coexist with biromanticism, which involves romantic attraction toward persons of two or more genders. But Hodge makes a clear point that romance and sexuality don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
“I don’t feel the desire to have sex,” Hodge said. “It’s not something that I find appealing, but I can understand people who do find it appealing. At the same time, I do feel really strong romantic attraction to people, as well as platonic.”
Before Hodge discovered her asexuality in 10th grade, she identified as demisexual, a sexual orientation in which someone feels sexual attraction only to people with whom they have an emotional bond, which seemed more socially acceptable at the time. But once she came out as asexual, Hodge received a range of positive, neutral and negative responses.
“When I do tell people (about my asexuality), I usually get questions like, ‘Have you gotten your hormones checked?’ ” Hodge said. “It’s also a common thing where people say, ‘Oh, you just haven’t had experience yet.’ ”
Regardless, Hodge believes she felt accepted and comfortable once she came to the University. In addition to receiving encouragement from her mother and sister, Hodge has found support at the University and in the “ace” community — “ace” is the abbreviated slang for asexual — particularly in the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), an online resource that strives to create open, honest discussions about asexuality among sexual and asexual people alike. She has also participated in Aromantic and Asexual Awareness Day, which allows people who identify as aromantic and/or asexual to share their personal experiences with their romantic/sexual orientations.
Similar to Hodge, University graduate student Kelly* also feels a certain stigma against her romantic and sexual orientations. Kelly identifies as a lesbian in a non-sexual open relationship with a man. Even though her romantic relationship doesn’t correlate with her sexual orientation, sexuality still plays an important role in her expression of love.
“Even if I don’t want to have sex with anyone, that doesn’t change who I’m attracted to,” Kelly said. “My sexual orientation isn't about who I sleep with; it's about who I love.”
Kelly, who also works as a My Voice panelist at the University Spectrum Center, mentions that she entered her current relationship with no idea of what she wanted or even a full understanding of her own sexual orientation, but that she and her partner are both constantly changing as people, as well as the nature of their relationship.
“Relationships aren’t static,” Kelly continued. “I'm not interested in sex or many types of physical intimacy with my partner, but I still love him romantically.”
Love can be seen as multidimensional, especially in differentiating between sexual relationships from romantic ones. According to Pharmacy student Kevin Sparks, who identifies as gay and gender-fluid and also works as a MyVoicepanelist and GPS Mentor at the Spectrum Center, romantic and sexual relationships each contain distinguishing traits.
“Simply put, a romantic relationship has sex within it, but a sexual relationship has no romance,” Sparks said.
Sparks went on to elaborate the romantic relationship, in that it “involves a deeper level of shared intimacy, even outside of the sexual relationship, and moves beyond companionship and into a shared desire for one another’s bodies and commitment.”
Love comes in many forms. The notion that love comes only exclusively in a singular combination of sex and romance isn’t always necessarily true. When love is specifically related to sex and romance, it doesn’t have to be both sexual and romantic; it can be “either/or.”
Monogamy, polyamory, living in (somewhat) perfect harmony
Monogamy has been the set standard of relationships for quite a while. But even though monogamy is perceived as “normal” by societal means, it really isn’t. Sure, we have been evolutionarily conditioned to attract, mate and live with one person for the rest of our lives. But should that always be the case? For people who identify as polyamorous — being in love or romantically involved with more than one person at the same time — relationships are much more fluid. Hodge talked about the beneficial aspects of polyamorous relationships, since they involve a lot of honesty and rely on a lot of trust.
“Polyamory is often looked at as cheating or being unfaithful,” Hodge said. “But it can also be super healthy, where all these people have this genuine love for each other.”
If you’re not convinced, try watching the 15-minute video made by Elite Daily, titled “A Polyamorous Couple’s Guide To Sleeping With Multiple Partners.” The clip follows Brooklyn partners Caleb and Tran, who both identify as polyamorous. They describe their journeys of having both sexual and romantic relationships with other people, while still retaining their own special relationship as “primary partners.” Throughout the video, Caleb and Tran emphasize the key elements to maintaining a healthy polyamorous relationship, which are openness, honesty and communication. They explain how they constantly discuss their anxieties about jealousy and their developing interests in other people to one another. And because of their relentless candidness, the two are able to maintain their own loving relationship and relationships with others.
It’s easy to just assume that this couple is using polyamory as an excuse to avoid commitment. But the video shows Caleb and Tran weighing in on the costs and rewards of polyamory, as well as their genuine, unconditional love for one another. This isn’t to say that monogamy is a limiting or bad thing (it can also be just as beautiful and dynamic). However, polyamory paves the way for people who don’t fit in the “normal” realm of relationships to explore their own identity and engage in developing strong relationships with people, whether platonic, sexual or romantic.
Embrace the ace (and other non-binary orientations)
So how should our society and culture better represent people who don’t identify in the binary?
While LGBTQ civil rights and representation are increasingly becoming part of mainstream society, a lack of media representation and education still exists for the LGBTQ community and especially for non-binary communities. Over time, sexuality and romance have become prominent in our media — film, television, music, books and specifically Valentine’s Day — and a lot of those mediums often capture sexuality and romance through a heteronormative lens.
“A lot of our society is geared towards sex,” Hodge said. “And even as an asexual, it’s sometimes hard for me to say that I really don’t want to have sex.”
Hodge said that the topic of not having sex is not widely discussed and that when it is, it’s said “in the way that it’s shamed, like, ‘Oh, you poor virgin.’ ”
Moreover, media can be perceived as generating heteronormative content intentionally for the sake of maintaining the normal standard of what a “proper” sexual and romantic relationship should be. Valentine’s Day, in particular, makes this struggle for recognition among the non-binary community extremely difficult, since the holiday caters toward predominantly binary-based relationships.
Sparks believes that the mediums and commercial outlets in our society all “knowingly promote themselves through idealistic, heteronormative, two-person relationships because they believe that will provide them with the most successful outcome and the most consumers.”
“It is not a lack of awareness that causes this underrepresentation,” Sparks continued. “But rather a choice on behalf of a cisgender, heteronormative, binary-seeking person to disengage an integral portion of the community.”
As someone who doesn’t conform to the romantic and sexual binary, Kelly also has to constantly deal with “the assumption that people like (me) don't exist — whether that's because you don't want to be in a relationship, are in more than one relationship or in a relationship with more than one person, are in a nonsexual-romantic relationship.”
While our society has yet to expand its inclusiveness toward people with non-binary sexual and romantic orientations, education can be one essential component in reaching that goal faster. This can pertain to breaking down LGBTQ and non-binary stereotypes, informing people about the variety of terms used to describe LGBTQ and non-binary orientations and general inclusion of people who aren’t heterosexual, heteroromantic or cisgender. Validity is particularly important, as Hodge points out, because “it recognizes that other people are different from you.”
Even the queer community, Hodge continued, doesn’t know much about non-binary terms because they’re not widely discussed. Sparks said he feels a similar way, since for him, it's difficult expressing himself to others, as someone “whose sexual preferences far exceed the ‘vanilla’ standard that is societally acceptable.”
What’s love got to do with it?
Relationships, whether sexual or romantic, are not about always being in one fixed state. Rather, they are about embracing multiple feelings that transcend the binary.
“People aren’t always gonna be on this black and white scale, but rather be (part of the) rainbow spectrum,” Hodge said.
It’s true that our society is progressing in accepting and embracing the LGBTQ community with an emphasis on love and pride. A national milestone was made this past summer on the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn several state laws and statutes banning same-sex marriage, including Michigan’s, legalizing it nationwide. Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime performance was another great example of this as well, as a multi-colored crowd spelled out “Believe in Love,” while Chris Martin of Coldplay, Bruno Mars and Beyoncé belted out a medley. But what our society must continue to strive for is acceptance of people who don’t associate with the traditional idea of love, and once we achieve that, then love can seen not as black or white, but for what it truly is: a rainbow.