How many more trend pieces can you stomach on the theme of “Millennials Killed Traditional Dating”? There’s this idea in our culture that this generation has fundamentally changed dating—for the worse. That we’re getting away from “traditional” dating and into some terrible uncharted waters. But a look at the history of dating shows one thing loud and clear: every generation has redefined dating. The idea that there’s a “traditional” kind of dating that’s stayed true for 100 years until the internet burned romance to the ground is just… a myth. Instead, with each new generation, new technological changes, evolving gender norms, and our economy has changed the way we date.
On this episode, we talk about early 20th-century freak-outs over young peoples’ dating lives with Moira Weigel, author of the “feminist-Marxist history of dating” Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating. Also, the founder of Aces NYC joins us to talk about how rising awareness of asexuality is changing mainstream ideas about what dating means. And Ev’Yan Whitney, who hosts the podcast The Sexually Liberated Woman and teaches feminist workshops on taking sexy selfies, interviews someone very special about sex: her mom. Tune in.
THE HISTORY OF DATING NORMS
TALKING TO YOUR MOM ABOUT SEX
DATING AND ASEXUALITY
• You can hear Ev’yan’s whole interview with her mom on episode 19 of her podcast.
• This episode includes a few quotes from Buzzfeed’s video “Ask An Asexual Person.” For more resources on asexuality, check out Aces NYC’s list of videos, meet-up groups, and communities.
• The photo of the asexuality pride flag featured on the Soundcloud of this show is by Trollhare (CC). The other photos are courtesy Ev’Yan Whitney.
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SARAH MIRK: Popaganda is produced non-profit, independent Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is entirely funded by our community. Love our work and wanna pitch in? Become a member. Join hundreds of fellow listeners as a member of the Podcast Pollinators. When you do, you’ll receive a special mug, a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, a snazzy sticker, and Listen Bitch, a brand-new monthly roundup of all of our podcast shows and music reviews, straight to your inbox! Become a pollinator today at bitchmedia.org/pollinators.
This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
Did Millennials Kill Dating?
How Millennials Have Killed Modern Romance.
Millennials Have Finally Put an End to Traditional Relationships.
Why Did Millennials Kill the Dinner Date?
Millennials Are Killing Relationships—And We Should Be Concerned
[laughs] come on! These are all headlines from articles published in the last two years. It seems like there’s some kind of trend going on here. A trend around blaming young people for the way that dating is evolving.
We have this cultural idea that this generation has fundamentally changed dating for the worse. That we’re getting away from “traditional” dating and into some terrible, uncharted waters.
MOIRA WEIGEL: For as long as anyone has done, as young people have gone out and done things that they call dating, their elders have been kind of freaked out about it.
SARA: That, friends, is Moira Weigel
MOIRA: Hi, I’m Moira Weigel. I’m a writer and an academic.
SARA: Moira researches the history of gender, dating, and technology. She’s the author of the sociological history book Labor of Love.
MOIRA: Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating is my first book. I like to say it’s a Marxist feminist history of dating, in case that doesn’t sound fun–
SARA: No, that sounds excellent!
SARA: A look at the history of dating shows one thing loud and clear: Every generation has redefined dating. The idea that there’s a “traditional” kind of dating that’s stayed true for 100 years until the Internet burned romance to the ground is just a myth. Instead, with each new generation, technological changes, evolving gender norms, and our economy have changed the way we date.
That’s what we’re exploring on today’s episode of Popaganda: Redefining Dating. Three stories of how dating has changed with this generation, not, as the headlines would have you believe, because it’s been brutally murdered by millennials. But because people want different things and are expressing themselves differently now.
[“Just One Look”]
♪ Just one look and I fell so hard
In love with you, oh-oh, oh-oh
I found out how good it feels… ♪
SARA: I talked to Moira while she was at an academic conference in Germany. She told me that anxiety around the way young people and technology change dating norms has been around since people started the modern practice of dating. While today we worry about technology like apps and Facebook, 100 years ago, people were writing editorials worrying about the telephone killing dating and the impact of the automobile on sexuality.
One of the big patterns you pointed out in your research and in Labor of Love is how each generation has freaked out about the dating habits of the younger generation. Can you point to some examples you’ve seen in American history of older people freaking out about the way that younger people are dating, about habits or practices that now we’re like, “What? That was a red flag?”
MOIRA: Yeah, absolutely. And I love this question, ‘cause in a way, I feel like this was really why I wanted to write the book. I was dating myself. I was a grad student. My anxious Irish Catholic mother was always sending me those New York Times articles or Atlantic articles that say, “It’s the end of dating because Tinder” or, “It’s the end of romance because of the cellphone” or whatever it was. So as someone trained at looking at cultural history, I was like, these are enormous claims that are being made on behalf of this one app.
SARA: The idea that dating is dead expresses a pattern we see over and over throughout history: Anxiety over dating practices.
MOIRA: I think most people don’t usually even think about something like dating having history. You know, we kind of think of sex as this animal thing or this biological thing, but in fact, it’s constantly changing. And that change is often producing–or always, at every point–produces anxieties, both in people who are dating and in the people who care about them. I think I have yet to find the archive, at least not very many archives or individuals, who’ve said, “Dating is awesome. I’m really good at it. It’s not stressful.”
SARA: And reading your book helps be an eye-opener for actually like, dating has been changing constantly. It’s not like there was some golden era when dating was better, and now it’s been destroyed. So can you give a couple concrete examples of practices or habits in dating that raised alarm bells at the time and now we see with nostalgia?
MOIRA: Yeah, totally. And I would say since this is Bitch, it’s also really important to realize that these moral panics, I would argue, are always about controlling female sexuality or often about anxiety about women entering new kinds of spaces or having new kinds of control over their lives. It’s funny. So the word “date” is first used in American English in print, like the oldest example I could find is from 1896. And it starts to sort of circulate as a popular term around 1900. There are reasons for this. All sorts of young people are moving to cities in the United States.
So think of someone who, on a farm or a Jane Austen novel or whatever would’ve just married the one guy. It’s like a guy moved to town, and then you’re gonna talk to him for a while and then marry him. That’s the set-up of the 19th Century novel. But anyway, think now you have these young women going to work, seeing hundreds if not thousands of people every day. And what was amazing to me, one of the first things I learned in my research that made me really wanna do the book was that the most traditional kinds of dates, like a man taking out a woman and buying her dinner or buying her a drink or taking her to a movie was thought to be completely shocking in the early 1900s. And in fact, vice squads and police would often arrest women if they were caught or found letting a man buy them dinner in exchange for romantic attention or possibility. Because to the police, and it’s so hard for us to imagine now, but coming out of an era in the 1800s where women basically, “respectable” women would never be in public without a male relative. What it looked like when you saw a woman go to a restaurant and let a man buy her dinner and maybe fool around or whatever it was afterwards, was that looked like sex work.
[“The Way You Look Tonight”]
♪ Someday, when I’m awfully low,
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight…. ♪
SARA: In fact, a lot of dating norms that today people call “traditional” or “romantic” don’t come from sweet, romantic origins at all. They’re the result of something much more insidious: The wage gap.
MOIRA: From the very beginning, gender inequality and income inequality is really baked into what dating is. Now it’s like why do the men buy dinner? Why do the men buy the dance tickets? It’s because the kinds of women who were working, the kinds of women who are on their own in the city going out and mingling don’t have money for those things. I’m remembering this one interview I read with a woman from 1915 with a social worker, and she said, “If men didn’t take me out, I would never eat a hot meal.”
SARA: When police matrons were cracking down on dating in the big city, were they cracking down on white women or all women?
MOIRA: I think that–it’s a great question, and I think–then as now, the police use sexuality as a pretext, in a way, to harass and manage and crack down on whatever populations they’re interesting in controlling anyway. So all that to say, it’s indeed disproportionately working class women, immigrant women, women of color. Now, the way Americans think about whiteness and what whiteness is, is different in the 19-aughts and 19-teens than it is now. So for instance, Eastern European Jewish immigrants were often targets of sort of suspicion and harassment. So were Irish women. African American women for sure who moved to the North in great numbers to work in cities during that time. But yeah, absolutely, it’s kind of everyone who’s dating in this first wave of daters is working class. It’s really a working-class invention. And to that extent, they’re all potentially under suspicion from the police. But it’s definitely there is this racialized element as there always is in American history, when it comes to policing sexuality.
SARA: We think of worrying about hook-up culture as a distinctly modern anxiety, but, Moira says, back in the 19-teens and 20s, parents worried about the dating habits of young people in much the same way as they do today, though the language is different.
MOIRA: It’s funny. In doing my research, I came across an article–it was from 1922–that was all about moms on the Upper East Side in New York who were worried that the women their sons went to school with were vamping them. You know, were trying to, now we just say, “hook up.” They called it “petting then.”
SARA: What does “vamping” mean?
MOIRA: I think it’s like a vamp. Just, actually, the headline of this big New York Times banner headline, which I just think is funny ‘cause it reminds me of all the “love is over because Tinder” stories today, was “Mothers Complain Young Ladies Vamp Their Sons at Petting Parties.”
SARA: These days, girls run the risk of being labeled “slutty” if they date around rather than wanting one partner. Monogamy is baked into our culture as an ideal in such a big way that it frames our whole paradigm of what it means to date, that having one partner is, ideally, what you should always be striving for. But in her research, Moira found that even this fundamental idea is a rather recent social construction.
MOIRA: You know, in the ’20s or ’30s, often kids would go out to dances, or you’d have a dance card and dance with a lot of different people. Or you’d go on dates with many different people like one night a week with one person, another night with another person. That norm may be returning ‘cause of mobile apps now, but anyway, I think this idea that young people would be in exclusive relationships that weren’t gonna immediately become marriage was extremely shocking and worried people a lot. In, I wanna say, the early ’60s, the Archbishop of Chicago, Alphonsus Stritch [laughs]–that’s his name—Alphonsus Stritch made a public pronouncement saying that going steady, having one boyfriend or girlfriend, was the “intolerable temptation to sin,” and kids could get kicked out of Catholic schools if they were found to be dating just one person. The subtext is if you’re too serious with one person, you’ll waste your youth, and you might have sex. Shh.
SARA: Learning about the history of dating means challenging so much about we take for granted as true. To see how many of our ideas around gender, class, sexuality, and romance are shaped by our culture and our economy, not some basic instinct or our biology. Talking about dating is often seen as trivial, but it actually runs deep.
MOIRA: And emotionally, this is what interested in me in the book. It’s like this whole system of dating, and all these practices, it sounds frivolous. but why it matters is in the end, the culture is saying this is how you have to be if you wanna be loved.
♪ I wasn’t looking for no trouble this time
Where’d you come from? ♪
SARA: Moira Weigel’s book is called Labor of Love. Next up: Interviewing a very special person about sex: Your mom.
♪ I never make you very happy
And when I do, I’m mostly misunderstood…. ♪
SARA: In our current cultural freak-outs over how modern dating is dead, perhaps nothing attracts more derision than selfies. Especially sexy selfies.
You know the criticism:
Selfies show you’re narcissistic
You’re obsessed with getting attention
But Ev’Yan Whitney begs to differ.
EV’YAN WHITNEY: Hi, I am Ev’Yan Whitney. I am a sexuality doula, a person who instigates other people’s sexual awakenings and helps them step outside of shame and into their erotic power. And I also write about sexuality and have a podcast called The Sexually Liberated Woman.
SARA: Ev’Yan fills her Instagram feed with sexy photos of herself, often naked or almost naked, captioned with affirming, body-positive words. She also leads workshops on taking sexy selfies called “Sexting Myself: Radical Self-Love Via Sexy Self-portraiture.” Every workshop she’s hosted so far has sold out.
EV’YAN: When it comes to my own body, I mean, I feel like that is a journey that I’ve taken in terms of taking up space and wanting to not keep my sexuality hidden. Because for so long, I was told that to be a sexual woman and to be very out and proud about that means that you are sinning, or you’re being gross, or you’re not being appropriate.
SARA: A few months ago on her podcast, Ev’Yan did something really interesting: She interviewed her mom about sex. The interview bridged a gap between Ev’Yan, of the sexually empowered selfie generation, and her mom who comes from a very different perspective on dating.
EV’YAN: My mom, she is a Christian woman. She’s pretty Christian. She’s married to a Pastor, and she does her own church work. So I knew that she wasn’t going to be super comfortable with this idea of me asking her, “How was your last orgasm?” Which is a question that I ask all of my guests on my show. So I wanted to kinda stick to just the basics, like her story. Which my mom loves talking about herself. She loves telling her stories, and she loves being able to, I guess, testify [chuckles] about who she is and where she’s come from as a way of inspiring other people. So I asked her about it, just very casually, and I really expected for her to say, “Heck no!” But she said yes.
SARA: How do you describe your own sexuality? How do you identify these days?
EV’YAN: Oh, man. I’m queer. I recently discovered–actually, yesterday–I discovered that I am a bratty bottom.
EV’YAN: Which is a new label that I’m having fun playing with and exploring. I practice non-monogamy, and I am also partnered. I’ve been with my partner for almost 11 years, and we’ve created a really solid foundation that enables me to fully explore and express my sexuality within these really free parameters of the relationship that we’ve created together. So yeah, so that’s kind of how I identify.
SARA: How does it feel for you these days when you post a really sexy, naked or scantily-clad selfie on Instagram? What is going through your brain? How does that feel to you?
EV’YAN: Ever since the election, and particularly within the last few months here in Portland, I feel like I’ve been kind of fighting against these really dark and visible forces that are trying to tell me to keep myself small, that are trying to tell me that I don’t belong here. So when I’m posting, I feel so empowered. I feel like, in posting those pictures, I’m saying, “Hey, I’m here. And I’m taking up space, and I’m OK with this body that I inhabit.” I mean, especially being a queer, Black woman, me being able to use my body in this way is a radical act. I mean, me being able to step into this limelight and say, “Look at my brown skin. Look at my almost naked brown skin. I’m not ashamed of my body. I’m not ashamed of my sexuality or the space that it takes up in this world,” I mean, that’s radical. And for me, in a lot of ways, sexy self-portraiture has been a way for me to resist.
SARA: Well, let’s listen to you talking to your mom about sexuality.
SARA: Sound good?
EV’YAN: Yeah, that sounds good.
OK, a quick few things before we get started. My mom and I had this conversation in a fancy hotel suite on the coast of Oregon. So you might hear a little background noise. Another thing: My mom and I touch briefly on her sexual history, which includes non-consensual sex and glimpses of an abusive relationship. We don’t go too deep into it, but if you think that hearing about a woman’s experience of sexual trauma might be too triggering for you, definitely take care of yourself and save this episode for another time. OK, without further ado, here’s my mom. Her name is Simone.
This is so weird to be interviewing you.
EV’YAN: Because you’re my mom!
SIMONE: I just totally love this. I just wanna be a new supporter.
EV’YAN: [laughs] What was your first memory of sex or sexual energy?
SIMONE: What do you mean by sexual energy?
EV’YAN: Well, I mean, like maybe I don’t know. Maybe you had a feeling of–
EV’YAN: Yeah, like an awareness of sex, sure. What was your first memory of sex or your first sort of awareness that sex existed?
SIMONE: I don’t really think that I had much of an awareness for quite a while because it was more taboo. I really don’t think that I really even thought about it until maybe one day, walking in on my parents.
EV’YAN: You walked in on Nona and DadDad?
SIMONE: Yes, I did. And when I did, I was very confused by what I was seeing.
EV’YAN: How old were you?
SIMONE: I probably was about seven, maybe.
EV’YAN: [laughing] Oh my god. I had no idea!
SIMONE: Seven or eight. And I was kind of a panic because I thought that something was wrong, and it seemed as if he was more on top of her. And I heard the heavy breathing, which made me think that he was really in distress, or she was or something.
SIMONE: And so it really didn’t hit me that they were enjoying one another. And then, shortly after that, my sister and I were snooping underneath my parents’ bed while they weren’t home, and I found a magazine of different sex positions.
SIMONE: And so we began to look through the different pages and saw different sex positions. And yeah.
EV’YAN: What kind of sex talk did you have?
SIMONE: We really didn’t have a sex talk, other than–
SIMONE: The only sex talk I had was more about your period, and when you’re old enough, this is what’s gonna happen, and this is what you’re gonna need to do when it does happen. But it really wasn’t any kind of sex talk whatsoever.
SIMONE: I think it came mainly from the upbringing that I had. Sex was very, very private, and it was not something that was seen as beautiful. It was more private, and you always kept it behind closed doors.
EV’YAN: What was your upbringing like? Tell me more about that.
SIMONE: Well, I was brought up in and raised in a very strict Christian home. The majority of the beliefs were Bible-based, but yet at the same time, some of it was also family-based where my family had certain beliefs about certain things. My mom was brought up by her mother who was very, very strict in her beliefs about what women did and what women didn’t do, what women should do, how women should act, and how women should dress, and how they should behave.
SIMONE: Certain words were allowable; certain words weren’t in reference to sex, in reference to a female’s body. I remember having an older cousin. She was a little older, obviously, and more worldly. And she referred to them as “titties,” and I was like, what the heck is a titty?
SIMONE: I mean, seriously! Why do you call it a titty? Never heard of that before.
SIMONE: So that was kind of my, the naiveté of the situation.
EV’YAN: So you guys used euphemisms to talk about your body.
SIMONE: Yeah, yeah.
EV’YAN: Was it because of mostly like a shame aspect, or did it come from just wanting to be private, like you shouldn’t say those words?
SIMONE: I think we were taught that you should never engage in talking about something that sound like more of a grownup talk.
SIMONE: And sex itself was not considered something beautiful. It was more considered I guess maybe more worldly or more nasty in some ways.
SIMONE: I mean, the vaginal area and women’s private parts were called, at the time it was like, “Don’t let anyone touch your poopoo.” And that was just the way it was.
EV’YAN: Hmm. Mmhmm.
SIMONE: And it was never, “Don’t let anyone touch your breast.” It was never that way: “Don’t let anyone touch your private parts.” So those were very, very– Even with talking about being pregnant, we weren’t allowed to say the word “pregnant.” It was, you have to say, “She’s having a baby.” So there was always certain things. Even calling the word “butt” as your butt, we were taught to say, “Your behind.” And that was part of the upbringing that we were given. Don’t be too grown. Be a child. Be simplistic, and abide by I guess you could say the family rule of being very private with your feelings and things like that.
EV’YAN: Did that ever bother you? ‘Cause like–
SIMONE: No, because I was maybe more naive and didn’t really even know what really existed.
SIMONE: I mean, the very first time I really was even aware of even what an erection was, was when I was about 13,14 years old, and I had no idea what an erection really was. I was dating this guy, and as I was laying my head on his lap, he told me he didn’t like me doing that because it made him have an erection. And I was like, OK, I understand. I guess.
SIMONE: But actually–
EV’YAN: Did you understand?
SIMONE: –I had no idea because I went straight home, and my twin sister and I actually looked up the dictionary of what I thought it was. And I was looking up the word “eruction.”
SIMONE: We were trying to spell it. I mean, I had no idea what he said. I thought he said, “eruction,” and we figured out maybe it was– I mean, we went all throughout the dictionary, and finally we found the word “erection,” and then we were both like in shock that that’s what he said it was causing. It was just mind-boggling to think that that kind of thing actually really happened.
My parents were not really affectionate. So to imagine sex and affection being one or close to the same, it was over my head. It was not something I even really thought about.
EV’YAN: So I assume that you were a virgin until you got married.
EV’YAN: You were not a virgin when you got married.
EV’YAN: So what it sounds like your upbringing around sex was really sheltered, really sort of like it happened to you, like you weren’t an active participant. These were people that were trying to force themselves on you, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s what an erection is.” Or, “Oh, that’s what an erect penis looks like.” How did you develop into a sexual adult based on the– I guess what I’m asking is how did you teach yourself about sex?
SIMONE: Well, can I back back up–
EV’YAN: Yeah, totally.
SIMONE: –in saying that when you asked me was I a virgin before I got married? Hopefully, you knew that I wasn’t.
SIMONE: OK. What I think I need to say to you is that the conversation that I had with your dad was, “Do not admit to your girls that we had sex before we got married because then they would think that it’s a freeway for them to do it as well.” So as much as I wanted to say that we did, he would not allow for me to admit that we had. And basically, it was more him forcing himself on me and me not really wanting him to touch me. Because still, in this respect, sex was not something I really wanted to try. By this time, I looked at sex like it was something deplorable or something that I really didn’t want to experience.
SIMONE: So he thought that he was gonna teach me what sex really was all about and how to find enjoyment in it. So he was my first one. But I was riddled with so much guilt after that time that I remember just crying. Because it was always my aim to be a virgin before I got married, and I felt like he took it away from me. I really, honestly, wasn’t even sure that I liked it. I just remember that it was more painful, and it wasn’t very stimulating to me. It was kinda like, OK, this is what I’ve been waiting for all this time?
SIMONE: I mean, is this it?
SIMONE: This is really what sex is all about?
EV’YAN: So obviously, this is the first time I’m hearing this story. So I lost my virginity when I was 15.
EV’YAN: And when I lost my virginity, you guys flipped out.
EV’YAN: Daddy didn’t speak to me for two weeks.
SIMONE: I remember.
EV’YAN: He was very upset.
EV’YAN: And one thing that I will never forget is him saying, “You should’ve been more like your mom. You should’ve waited until marriage like your mom.” So for me to hear that you didn’t even wait?
EV’YAN: I mean, do you feel guilty about that at all–
SIMONE: Oh, yeah!
EV’YAN: –knowing that I shouldered so much guilt and shame and blame?
SIMONE: Yeah, I do. And the only reason why I, if I had it to do all over again, I would’ve taken that all back because I wanted to tell you. I wanted to tell you with every last bit of my being, “This is not the case. You can tell her all you wanna tell her, but this is not true.” If I could go back to that day when you told us, I would tell you in a heartbeat. I wouldn’t mince anything, any of my words; I would tell you. But–
EV’YAN: Did you feel pressured at that time to be like, “Oh, well, wait. Actually, I had sex too?”
SIMONE: Back then, I think my pressure came from him, and he had much more control of– He was, basically, he was a controller, and I was naive enough to give him that control. I wanted to do so much more than what I did when I was with him. I should’ve protected you, and I should’ve protected your sister differently. I should’ve followed my own mind. But a lot of the time, I did not follow my own mind. I gave him more of what he wanted to hear, more than what I wanted to do.
SIMONE: And now that I’m, of course, not married to him any longer, I see where my own mind should’ve taken me, and I see where I should’ve done things differently. And I should’ve admitted that to you and to Gerry a lot time ago. But at the same time, I was also very ashamed that I didn’t live up to the standards. I thought that you guys looked at me like I was perfect, and to admit that I was not perfect meant that I had to tell you guys that I wasn’t.
EV’YAN: Well, I want you to know I don’t hold anything against you for that. I mean, what I will say is that if you had told me back then the truth, I don’t think that my impression of you would’ve been tarnished or damaged. I think if anything, that would’ve affirmed me and made me feel like you’re human and that you made mistakes, and that the mistake I made wasn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
Well, I appreciate you telling me the truth. That’s pretty major. Thank you so much for talking to me today, Mommy.
SIMONE: Oh, you’re welcome!
EV’YAN: And sharing your heart and these really personal things about you.
SIMONE: Oh, no problem.
EV’YAN: I really appreciate it. And yeah, maybe we can have more sex talks in the future.
SIMONE: [chuckles] No problem. I mean….
EV’YAN: You sound a little hesitant, like I don’t know! I’m not sure if I wanna do this again!
SIMONE: No, I don’t have a problem with it. I just, I’m like, oh my gosh. I just had this major conversation about sex and told my daughter some things about oral sex and all of that, and I just have to digest it all now. And wow.
EV’YAN: Yeah, maybe we should have some more wine.
SIMONE: Oh my goodness!
SARA: Ev’Yan’s podcast is called The Sexually Liberated Woman. Go check it out. You can listen to her whole interview with her mom, which is about twice as long as what we played here. There are some really sweet and funny and honest moments in there.
Next up, for a change of pace, we talk about not having sex.
Popaganda is produced non-profit, independent Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is entirely funded by our community. Love our work and wanna pitch in? Become a member. Join hundreds of fellow listeners as a member of the Podcast Pollinators. When you do, you’ll receive a special mug, a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, a snazzy sticker, and Listen Bitch, a brand-new monthly roundup of all of our podcast shows and music reviews, straight to your inbox! Become a pollinator today at bitchmedia.org/pollinators.
We’re talking today about redefining dating, and in that, we need to challenge one of the biggest assumptions of all: That dating means sex. Like, if you’re not having sex with someone—or working up to the point of having sex with them—then it’s a not “real” relationship. We see this in our language in a lot of different ways: Sex is what makes a relationship “official;” if you’re not having sex you’re “just friends;” that dating is like a baseball game metaphor, where you move from one base to another, and if you don’t progress to having sex, you’re losing somehow.
All of this is challenged by the reality of asexuality.
BAUER: People still often don’t know what it is, and if they do know what it is and are confused, it’s often just a complete disbelief that somebody would not necessarily be focused on having sex.
SARA: That’s Bauer, the founder of ACES NYC, a meet-up group for asexual and aromantic people in New York that now boasts 600 members. Bauer goes by just one name when talking publicly about her relationships because she doesn’t want her private life to get mixed up with her professional life.
So if you’re one of those people who still doesn’t quite know what asexuality is, here’s a quick definition from three asexual people who were interviewed in a video made by BuzzFeed.
[recorded clip, upbeat music]
-Asexuality is an orientation in which the individual does not experience sexual attraction.
-Heterosexuality is attraction to opposite gender. Homosexuality’s attraction to same gender.
- I’m not interested in having sexual contact with a male or female or any gender.
-Asexuality is very much not the same thing as being celibate.
-Celibacy is a choice.
-Planning for the future for someone that you wanna save yourself for.
-Asexuality is a sexual orientation and therefore not a choice.
SARA: I talked to Bauer about how the growing awareness of asexuality is redefining relationships.
Tell me about ACES NYC. What is the group, and why did you start it?
BAUER: We have social meet-ups once a month, sometimes June and July are way more currently. And then sometimes we have discussion groups once a month also that usually have a topic, if somebody remembers to pick one ahead of time. Meaning, if I remember to pick one ahead of time. And I had sort of thought for a little bit that maybe I wasn’t asexual, and then I realized that I really was. Then, I decided if that was what was true for me that I needed a community. And if there wasn’t one– I think I’d been in New York City at this point for six years, and so I said, “Nobody’s done this yet? OK, fine!” So then I started it.
SARA: What are some of the biggest myths and misconceptions you hear about asexuality? When you tell people that you’re asexual or that you run ACES NYC, what are some of the responses you get, where you’re like, “No, that’s actually not true?”
BAUER: People still often don’t know what it is, and if they do know what it is and are confused, it’s often just a complete disbelief that somebody would not necessarily be focused on having sex or being sexually interested in other people. Or like, I don’t know if I am interested in somebody in a way that is different from finding out if you’re interested in being friends with someone. That’s a concept that I don’t understand. I have to find out who somebody is, listen to them talk. I can see them across the room and get faint hints of what they’re talking about and how they’re engaging with other people and then think they’re really cool. But I can’t just look at somebody and decide that I think that they’re intriguing, and that sort of baffles a lot of people sometimes.
SARA: One of the big myths I know around asexuality is that you don’t have relationships at all, that asexual people are–
BAUER: Yeah, that’s another one.
SARA: –like frigid or just not connected to other people. So what does your dating life look like right now? What kind of relationships are you involved in?
BAUER: So I am also poly, and I live with two people who I have atypical relationships with. So I have my romantic partner, who I’ve been with for two and not quite a half years, who lives here. And then also, I have another person who is sometimes we’ve described it as queer platonic relationships. Other times it’s been like we’re best friends. But they’re both very, very significant people in my life, and sometimes we go on dates: Maybe they’re friend dates, maybe they’re more than friend dates. But they sort of create enough intimacy–the two relationships for me sort of create enough intimacy–in my life for myself. And we’re moving together next month, for example. If I were to ever go to another city, I would figure out ways to maintain those relationships and things like that, which I wouldn’t necessarily do with my friends, and I wouldn’t necessarily even do with my best friend or my best friend from high school. That would never have been a thing. I wouldn’t move because she moved to DC, for example.
SARA: So in our culture, dating and sex are so deeply intertwined. We have this concept of dating means having sex with someone or wanting to have sex with them, planning in the future to someday have sex with them. So how does dating look different for you? What does dating mean to you, if you’re not interested in having sex?
BAUER: Yeah, that confuses a lot of people also. I mean, dating for me kind of looks like a romantic comedy that is PG-13.
BAUER: So what you see is what you get. What’s onscreen is available, and there aren’t any additional innuendos. There’s no off-screen scenes and things like that.
SARA: What about from a feelings standpoint, though?
BAUER: I think that I have similar feelings to those who are romantically inclined. I know a bunch of people who enjoy having casual sex without romantic feelings, and so I would say they would be different from those people’s experiences. But I think when I hear about people’s romantic experiences, they’re sort of similar. Like, I get particularly excited to see people and wanna spend more of my time than is reasonable with them and will stay up extra late for the ability to keep talking and stuff like that. And so I think it’s sort of similar, at least from what I’ve heard.
SARA: Do you feel like conversations around asexuality are different now than they were 10 years ago, right before you moved to New York? What’s different these days about cultural understanding of asexuality your own understanding of asexuality?
BAUER: Well, when I moved here, I had never met another asexual person, and now a significant portion of my friends, at least at some point in time, have identified as asexual. And also, when I talk to people in general, more people sort of know what it is that I’m talking about or at least have heard a single-sentence description of it. When I would first come out to people when I came to New York, people would be sort of polite and then ask what that was. And then, if I was out somehow, and it became a little later, like 2:00 am or something like that, then people would be like, “OK, wait. So I know that I said that I understood this, but I kind of really don’t. Can you explain all this all over again to me now that I am a little bit intoxicated?”
BAUER: And so, I mean, that still happens a little bit, but people are a little bit–a little bit–more informed.
SARA: Here’s what I’m curious about, is how do you think that, as we gain more understanding and knowledge about asexuality–both as people who are asexual and who are not asexual, just as a society and as a culture–how is that redefining what people think of as dating and redefining what people think of as relationships? Do you feel like coming to understand and learn about asexuality challenges our norms around dating in some major ways? Or do you feel like it fits right in to the way that our culture at large is already operating?
BAUER: I think that we have to talk about what dating is and what’s OK with us and what our boundaries are and what we’re comfortable with and what we’re interested in by default. We have to. We don’t have a choice, which is also true with the poly community. You have to explain yourself. You have to say, “Hi, I’m interested in you. This is what I’m available for. Does that work for you?” And I think in the same way that asexual community, unless you’re really compromising basically everything about yourself, you have to say, “Hi, this is who I am. This is what would work for me. Is that OK with you,” in a way that heteronormative society can get away with not doing. And I don’t think that that’s healthy for anybody. I think that it’s really important to explain who you are and where you’re at and what you’re interested in, in another person.
And so I think that we have had to develop–and we’ve learned a lot from other communities like the poly community and also the kink community about how to really have conversations. People say, “Oh, you have to talk about it. Oh, you have to communicate better. Oh, you need better communication.” But they often don’t say how do you do that. And I think that it would be beneficial for everybody who interacts with anyone ever, which is basically everyone. That it’s really beneficial to learn how to have conversations like that. I think one of the really big things that the Ace community can do, and we are working on, is that if you think about sex education from an asexual standpoint, it becomes really accessible to people who are younger. So you say like, “How can you talk about consent as an asexual person?” And those things are appropriate for middle school and even elementary school and even Kindergarten, you know? Like making sure that it’s OK to ask somebody if you can hug them or ask them if they’re having a bad time or what would be comforting for them. Or saying like, “Hi, I really had a great time going to the park with you yesterday. That would be a nice thing to do in the future, but I know that you’re interested in this other thing that you asked me about, and I’m not sure I wanna do that. But I would love to go play on the swing set again.”
Those things are sort of very basic tenets of how you initiate relationships with other people that nobody ever really teaches you. But it’s one of the most important things to do, and I think that we sort of inherently have to do that much more so than heteronormative society. And even some sort of mainstream gay relationships where you can end up, or relationships where you can start off by meeting and hooking up, and then maybe you realize you actually like the other person, where you maybe didn’t have to have a conversation about it first.
SARA: Yeah, so since you’re kind of forced to have those kind of conversations to explain your sexuality and what you want and what you don’t want, whereas sort of mainstream heterosexual couples can sometimes let things slide and just assume that they know what the other person wants, when really–
BAUER: You have no idea!
SARA: –they should be having the same kind of conversations too, right?
BAUER: Exactly! Have you ever met two people–or I guess asking a sex therapist would be the most appropriate–but have you ever met two people who want the same sex at the same time forever? No!
BAUER: That’s never gonna happen. It’s just totally unreasonable, right?
SARA: I wish that was real. I always wish it was easier than it actually is [laughs].
BAUER: Yeah, and people just sort of assume that it’s gonna be fine, or it’s gonna work out or whatever. And it’s like no, you really do have to explain what you want from any kind of relationship, but particularly things that people feel uncomfortable talking about.
SARA: That was Bauer, the founder of ACES NYC.
People are so quick to get judgmental about dating, to say, “That’s gross,” or, “That’s wrong,” or, “I wouldn’t do that.” We’re quick to police each other. But people should have the freedom to make the kinds of relationships they want, right? As long as they’re rooted in consent. There’s no algorithm or list of easy rules to create a happy, successful relationship. Good relationships look all different sorts of ways. You have to define what a great date looks like for yourself.
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