This post was written for the September 2021 Carnival of Aros, where the theme is “Language.”
In the aspec communities I’m originally from (mostly Reddit) and in the vast majority of the educational material I read when first discovering aspec identities, the “split-attraction model” (SAM) is the predominant conceptualization scheme for explaining aspec identities, and its use is largely uncontested. It’s for this reason that I was incredibly surprised when I first came across the ace blogosphere and discovered the many objections some aces have towards it, including the way it reinforces essentialism and identity prescriptivism and its anti-bi and anti-ace origins.
As an aro/ace who at one point identified with the SAM and considered themselves a “SAM aro,” I want to explain my experience with this conceptualization scheme and why I no longer find it useful. Rather than rehash what’s already been said about why “the SAM” can be a harmful concept, my goal is to use the SAM as an example to illustrate the problems with identity prescriptivism and why it’s so harmful to people trying to learn about themselves and explore their identity.
For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to use the phrase “the SAM” to refer to the conceptualization scheme which asserts that “attraction” is the sole determinant of orientation and that attraction can be broken down into roughly half a dozen specific types1. I’m not going to try and claim that “the SAM” is a well-defined or cohesive concept, as it actually conflates and oversimplifies many different and more nuanced concepts, so I’m only going to use “the SAM” to refer to what I personally understood it to mean when coming to terms with my identity2.
When I first started coming to terms with my aspec identity, I found the SAM incredibly helpful for expanding my understanding of sexuality and orientation. Before the concept of differentiating attraction was introduced to me, I didn’t have a conceptual framework to understand my orientation because I didn’t know that things like sexuality, sensuality, and aesthetics could be decoupled from one another. This was one of the major conceptual hurdles I had to overcome in order to start to understand my identity.
Obviously there are other conceptualization schemes built around the concept of differentiating attraction, like the Greek words for love, the primary/secondary/tertiary attraction model, and the triangular theory of love, but the ubiquity of the SAM prevented me from seeing any of these conceptualization schemes as serious alternatives, and I instead only considered them so far as I thought they could be mapped to the types of attraction prescribed by the SAM. I saw the SAM as the “canonical” conceptualization scheme for aspec identities and tried to employ tortured logic to determine whether tertiary attraction is the same as sensual attraction or philía is the same as platonic attraction.
Any time I encountered a case where the SAM failed to account for someone’s experiences—of which there were obviously many—I performed feats of mental gymnastics to rationalize the infallibility of the SAM in my mind. I was so desperate to cling to the SAM as my Theory of Everything that I didn’t just try to use it to explain my own experiences, but to universalize about everyone. The thought that maybe some experiences might be better explained using a different conceptualization scheme never even occurred to me.
I was confused when I first saw some aro people claim to not use the SAM, since nearly all of the aspec educational material I had read—including common definitions of asexuality and aromanticism—were so deeply predicated upon it. If being aro means not experiencing romantic attraction, how could you be aro without a concept of romantic attraction? As a baby aro, I couldn’t conceptualize aromanticism outside the context of the SAM because aromanticism had only ever been explained to me in terms of the SAM. In my mind, being aspec and using the SAM were synonymous.
After initially coming out as aro, I spent considerable time questioning where on the aromantic spectrum I fall. I agonized over the question of whether I had ever experienced romantic attraction—specifically whether emotions I’ve felt were best categorized as platonic attraction or romantic attraction. It never occurred to me that I don’t need to categorize my feelings this way or that this strict romantic-platonic dichotomy might not be the best way for me to understand my identity. I had been taught that romantic attraction is a universally understood concept, even by those who don’t experience it, so I assumed that it must be possible for me to frame my experiences through the lens of romantic attraction. As a result of trying to shoehorn my experiences into the boxes prescribed by the SAM like this, I struggled to understand my identity for a long time.
Once I accepted that the SAM doesn’t fit my conceptual model of relationships, I grew to realize that the whole concept of “attraction” and the idea that attraction is the sole determinant of orientation doesn’t make much intuitive sense to me either. While I do distinguish between things like sexuality, sensuality, and aesthetics, I don’t necessarily think of all these things as “types of attraction.” In fact, I find the whole concept of “attraction” to be very messy and ill-defined, and predicating my identity on it doesn’t really make much sense to me in hindsight. I used to spend a lot of time agonizing over whether I could label certain emotions towards other people as “attraction,” because that would determine my identity. Understanding my identity became much easier once I realized that I don’t need to define it in terms of the nebulous language of “attraction.”
These days I understand my aromantic identity as a rejection of prescriptive relationship norms rather than using any specific conceptualization scheme. Rather than try to shoehorn my experiences into a strict taxonomical identity framework, I’ve sort of a adopted the label “aromantic” to mean that I don’t approach relationships in a conventional way. I’ve found relationship anarchy to be a compelling framework for understanding my identity because it is itself a rejection of prescriptivism in relationships. I also identify with the label quoiromantic as a rejection of the concept of romantic attraction3, although I tend to not use it much because of the practicality issues involved in using esoteric identity language outside of queer communities.
While the prescriptive nature of the SAM is exactly why many aspec people take issue with it, I also think that’s why I found it so appealing for so long. As I was trying to come to terms with my queerness and navigate my newfound sense of identity in an amatonormative world, the structure and rigidity of the SAM gave me comfort. Rather than have to confront and unpack a complicated mess of emotions—a challenging prospect for an autistic person—I could simply refer to this model to tell me how to understand my identity.
I personally don’t have a problem with the collection of conceptualization schemes people collectively refer to as “the SAM,” and if a lot of people find this collection of concepts to be a useful identity framework for them, I’m not opposed to it having a name. My main gripe with “the SAM” is the way it’s presented as the conceptualization scheme for aspec folks rather than one of many. Even among communities that acknowledge that other conceptualization schemes exist, “the SAM” is presented as one monolithic framework that you must either accept or reject rather than a collection of concepts you may choose from individually4. As I hope my experience shows, I think the prescriptive nature of “the SAM” is harmful to people trying to explore their identity, as it forces people to try and understand their identity through a framework that may not suit their experiences. I think this phenomenon is especially worrying considering that aspec communities were originally built around the concept of rejecting the prescriptive identity models that don’t leave room for people like us. It shouldn’t be particularly radical of me to say that people should be free to decide their own identity and not have it decided for them.
Under the SAM, I most often see attraction decomposed into “sexual,” “romantic,” “sensual,” and “aesthetic” types, with “platonic,” “queerplatonic,” and “alterous” sometimes also being included. ↩︎
Some aces object to using the phrase “the SAM” unironically, which is why I want to clarify that I’m only speaking to my personal understanding of the term from the time during which I identified with it. ↩︎
I identify with this label as it was originally defined by the coiner rather than as it has been erroneously redefined to mean not being able to distinguish between romantic and platonic attraction. To me, the latter definition implies that the romantic-platonic dichotomy is a universally understood concept, when I don’t find it applicable in my case. If you’re interested, Coyote wrote a timeline of the origins of this label here. ↩︎