The Split Attraction Model in Stories

What does it mean to string someone along? In conversation with her friend Jill Stark, Australian feminist activist Clementine Ford is pretty clear. Clementine refers to a tentpole article (“an oldie but a goodie”) by Tracie Egan Morrissey at Jezebel: Dudes Today: The Emotional Conquistador Is The New Sexual Conquistador.

Maybe. I’m fortunate not to have met dudes like that. Or maybe not.

Nothing about this take accounts for The Split Attraction Model of human relationships — a concept which wasn’t much talked about ten years ago, and which remains little known outside queer circles and philosophy.

There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing.

Francois La Rochefoucauld

The Split Attraction Model of Philosophy

American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925 – 2015) divided sex into three aspects:

  1. Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
  2. Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture, but
  3. Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.

The Split Attraction Model is a useful concept when talking about diversity of sexualities, and involves drilling down on what people mean when we think of ‘sexual attraction’, which can include all or some points from the list below. Attraction comes in many forms. Occasionally literature touches on this.

Not that she was striking; not beautiful at all; there was nothing picturesque about her; she never said anything specially clever; there she was, however; there she was.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

But in everyday thinking, we lump all of the following into the basket.

In reality, even within individuals, each of these different attractions can vary on a pretty wide scale. They don’t line up in everybody, and are not necessarily static across a lifespan:

  • Aesthetic attraction: Finding someone beautiful
  • Sexual attraction: Feeling the desire to have sex with someone (sometimes called ‘physical attraction’)
  • Romantic attraction: Difficult to define, since romance is partly culturally scripted. Romantic attraction can be guided by sexual and aesthetic attraction, but not always, and not in everybody. (This is perhaps the most problematic axis of the split attraction model. Romantic attraction is infamously difficult to define. Not only that, notions of romance vary across time and culture.)
  • Touch attraction: not a desire to have sex, but a desire to be close in other physical ways (also called ‘sensual attraction’)
  • Emotional attraction: Feeling deep care for somebody
  • Protective attraction: Attraction to those in your care e.g. children, pets
  • Social attraction: Wanting to be around someone

“Why did you do all this for me?” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”
“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing.”

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

There is the desire to have sex. There is infatuation. And there is emotional intimacy and caring, which psychologists often call the rather clinical-sounding attachment.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen
Edward Linley Sambourne, ’I should like to cuddle you; but I cannot, you are so horny and prickly Charles Kingsley, The Water-Babies A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby 1862
Edward Linley Sambourne, ’I should like to cuddle you; but I cannot, you are so horny and prickly Charles Kingsley, The Water-Babies A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby 1862

THE SPLIT ATTRACTION MODEL IN SIX FEET UNDER

Though Six Feet Under has dated in many ways, this five season show which started at the turn of the 21st century introduced audiences to new concepts even if they weren’t fleshed out (case in point, Arthur’s possible asexuality) and even if the characters were using terminology incorrectly (autism as ‘mental illness’, as described by Claire).

One thing Six Feet Under did accomplish (among many other things) was a scene introducing audiences to the concept of split attraction. When Claire has sex with Evie, the discussion which happens afterwards is a very clear, on-the-page parsing out between romantic attraction and sexual attraction. In the “Coming and Going” episode of season four, these two characters even get into aesthetic attraction. The young women understand that although Claire is aesthetically attracted to Evie, she is not sexually attracted to women. Unfortunately for Claire, despite Evie’s apparent sophistication in these matters, Evie is unable to see Claire again. She is apparently too personally wounded.

THE SPLIT ATTRACTION MODEL AND SHORT STORIES

Me, she said. You see me as a full human being. That’s why you’re not attracted to me.
Yes I am.
Sexually, but not romantically.

from “At The Clinic” by Sally Rooney (the story which led to Normal People).

Using short stories as examples, now I’ll take a look at how readers and students of literature might make use of the split attraction model in character and relationship analysis.

The Traditional Reading Of Stories About Stalled Relationships

Montreal film-maker Sharon Hyman has written a book about the nature of her own long-term romantic relationship. The book is called Apartners: Living Happily Ever Apart. I listened to Hyman interviewed by Jim Mora on Radio New Zealand’s Sunday Morning podcast. The nature of an ‘apartner’ relationship is all in the title but to be clear, Hyman is offering for consideration the idea that not all happy romantic relationships end with partners sharing a house. You can love someone across decades and still not want to share a house with them. This is not a lesser form of relationship.

Sharon Hyman has found that women are more keen on this kind of set up than men are. Of course, I thought to myself. Makes sense. Individual cases notwithstanding, women in heterosexual relationships are still, in general, picking up more than a fair proportion of the housework.

Jim Mora, in contrast, expressed surprise that men would be less keen than women at the prospect of permanent domestic freedom. Why the surprise? Sharon Hyman pointed out that love stories and rom-coms most often convey the idea that women are keen to ‘rein in a man’ while men are highly motivated to remain ‘free’ from the tyranny of family responsibility and a single sexual partner.

The very concept of a ‘stalled’ or ‘stymied’ relationship needs questioning. According to the dominant and traditional view:

  • When two adults are close but not basically married by the end of the story, the story is a tragedy.
  • If an adult does not desire a marriage-like arrangement with another adult, there is something psychologically wrong with that person, because they have failed to confront their ghosts. The story is thereby a tragedy.
  • If one person is keen and the other is not, but they keep hanging out together, it is always the case that the person less interested in sex/romance is ‘stringing the other along’.

(Tangentially, there are many songs with first person singers — often women — who are attracted to emotionally distant men. I believe this plays into a gendered fantasy: A man who keeps a woman at a distance is by definition not needy. The fantasy of a distant man is one variation on the fantasy of an independent, fully-rounded, adult man.)

Pine“, a short story by Robin Black, might be read as a tragedy about a woman who experiences sexual attraction but not romantic attraction. If we don’t use the split attraction model, the traditional read goes like this:

She’s not over the death of her husband’ or ‘she is too scared to enter into a new relationship because she fears, deep down, that she might lose this man, too’.

Those traditional interpretations are not necessarily ‘wrong’ (insofar as the hidden psychology of a fictional character in a lyrical short story can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’). But for stories such as “Pine”, I’d like to throw the split attraction possibillity into the mix of possible takes.

KATHERINE MANSFIELD

Analysis on the stories of Katherine Mansfield should not be attempted without queer lenses on. Across all of her writing, Mansfield was queering relationships in all kinds of ways, blurring the boundaries between platonic and romantic, straight and gay.

Psychology” might be read as a story about an unmarried heterosexual woman who manages her desire for sex by flirting with a man then following it up with (queer)platonic hugs with the auntie-lady from next door.

Taking The Veil” might be coded as a story about a young woman who is romantically attracted to her fiance but not sexually attracted.

Bliss” could easily be about a woman who is romantically attracted to her husband and sexually attracted to a female friend. Or vice versa.

LORRIE MOORE

I believe American writer Lorrie Moore regularly writes explores ideas conveyed by the split attraction model of relationships without ever calling it that. Nonetheless, she uses short story characters to explore various attitudes, desires and attraction models.

“Which Is More Than I Can Say For Some People” is a mother-daughter relationship story in which both women offer the reader personal worldviews which definitely fall outside the traditional romance genre boundaries.

First, the daughter:

Of all Abby’s fanciful ideas for self-improvement (the inspirational video, the breathing exercises, the hypnosis class), the Blarney Stone, with its whoring barter of eloquence for love — O GIFT OF GAB, read the T-shirts — was perhaps the most extreme. Perhaps. There had been, after all, her marriage to Bob, her boyfriend of many years, after her dog, Randolph, had died of kidney failure and marriage to Bob seemed the only way to overcome her grief. Of course, she had always admired the idea of marriage, the citizenship and public speech of it, the innocence rebestowed, and Bob was big and comforting. But he didn’t have a lot to say. He was not a verbal man. Rage gave him syntax — but it just wasn’t enough! Soon Abby had begun to keep him as a kind of pet, while she quietly looked for distractions of depth and consequence.

Later in the story, Abby’s mother explains her take on romance:

“Women of your generation are always hoping for some kind of romance other than the kind they have … I never bothered with romantic fluff … I wasn’t the type. I always worked, and I was practical, put myself forward, and got things done and over with. If I liked a man, I asked him out myself. That’s how I met your father. I asked him out. I even proposed the marriage. … And then I stayed with him until the day he died. Actually, three days after. He was a good man. … Which is more than I can say about some people.”

“Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People”

A traditional read on the mother: An older generation of American women married for economic reasons in a world with little economic security for unmarried women. Around the world, many women still marry for economic reasons. Arranged and semi-arranged marriages remain common.

A split attraction read on the mother: This may an example of a character who simply does not experience romantic attraction.

Another Lorrie Moore short story, “You’re Ugly, Too” features another single woman, and one paragraph offers an interesting insight into her possible aromantic identity:

“Are you seeing anyone?” said Evan. “I’m asking for a particular reason, I’m not just being like mom.”

“I’m seeing my house. I’m tending to it when it wets, when it cries, when it throws up.” Zoe had bought a mint-green ranch house near campus, though now she was thinking that maybe she shouldn’t have. It was a hard to live-in house. She kept wandering in and out of the rooms, wondering where she had put things. She went downstairs into the basement for no reason at all except that it amused heer to own a basement.

A lack of interest in weddings is one sign of a possibly aromantic world view. Moore’s “Thank You for Having Me” expresses that outworking of character. The narrator attends a wedding, but she displays no sentimentality about romantic relationships.

Mothers and their only children of divorce were a skewed family dynamic … Perhaps they were more like cruddy buddy movies, and the dialogue between them was unrecognizable as filial or parental. It was extraterrestrial. […] It felt important spiritually to go to weddings…to give balance to the wakes and memorial services.

I’d like to read takes about fictional characters which utilise terminology offered by the split attraction model contributed by queer communities. Now that we have such a model, literature enthusiasts may as well use it.

THE HISTORICAL ERASURE OF DIFFERENT WAYS OF BEING

There are too many examples of this to count. Velma Dinkley of the 1970s cartoon could have been coded asexual, but modern reboots contribute to hermeneutic injustice by inserting (mostly) heterosexual love interests.

LGBTQ+ AWARENESS HAS CHANGED HOW AUDIENCES CODE QUEERPLATONIC RELATIONSHIPS

Take the historical concept of the Boston marriage:

A “Boston marriage” was, historically, the cohabitation of two wealthy women, independent of financial support from a man. The term is said to have been in use in New England in the late 19th/early 20th century. Some of these relationships were romantic in nature and might now be considered a lesbian relationship; others were not.

Wikipedia

It comes from a novel by Henry James. It is ‘historical’ because people don’t use that term anymore. And even if they do, it seems to be a euphemistic term to describe, from the outsider’s perspective, two ‘in-the-closet’ gay people who live together.

Why ‘The Bostonians’ Is James Ivory’s Forgotten Queer Classic from Film School Rejects

Because contemporary audiences don’t genearlly consider the concept of a Boston Marriage (a.k.a. queerplatonic in lgbtqia+ discourse) this affects how we retrospectively view classic works of literature as well as the writers of those works.

A good example is the modern TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, Anne With An E.

In L.M. Montgomery’s original story, Diana has an auntie called Josephine Barry. She appears formidable at first, but Anne’s sunny disposition wins her over by the end of the first novel. Aunt Josephine is a spinster archetype.

When recreating Aunt Josephine for Anne With an E, series creator Moira Walley-Beckett spoke of how she decided to round out the character of Aunt Josephine:

“Upon reading [the novel] again as an adult, I was wondering about Aunt Jo,” said Walley-Beckett. “In the book, she’s a spinster and she’s just a bit of a curmudgeon, and that’s kind of it. So I’m like, ‘Well, she coming to the Barrys for a month and she’s grieving,’ that’s why I decided to justify why she’s there: Who is she grieving?”

IndieWire

Moira Walley-Beckett gave her a loved one to grieve, and that loved one is Aunt Gertrude. If Aunt Josephine is a spinster in the original, and also seems to be grieving someone, the modern audience assumes one available option: Aunt Josephine must be gay. This reading becomes solidified after the queer soiree in which gay Cole has found his new family with Aunt Josephine.

There is another option for Aunt Josephine, and to me it’s equally likely, given the symbolic absence of all queer concepts at that time: Aunt Josephine could have been in romantic love with a woman companion without any sexual component.

In case it needs saying, there is absolutely nothing wrong with either of those interpretations. I would simply like to keep interpretive options open and avoid aspec invisibility: Aunt Josephine may have been gay, and she may have been equally happy in a Boston marriage.

In the same re-visioning, the makers of Anne With An E give both Marilla and Matthew Cuthburt romantic backstories, with the clear aim of ’rounding’ their characters and making them empathetic to a modern audience. This addition of romance is an amatonormative view of ’rounded’, with the unintentional consequence of completely erasing other, perfectly legitimate and historically present ways of living in the world.

A HURDLE FOR ASPEC REPRESENTATION IN ACADEMIC STUDY

The following is a footnote on a paper called “Unshelter Me”: The Emerging Fictional Adolescent Lesbian by Vanessa Wayne Lee. Lee explains what “lesbian” means and what it does not mean within the paper.

In using the word “lesbian” to refer to something applicable to adolescence, I do not wholly agree with Judith Butler’s quasi-nihilistic theories of gender and sexuality (21) or with Adrienne Rich’s continuum of lesbian identity as including non-sexual friendship (648). Rather, I borrow from Castle’s definition of “lesbian” as “a woman [or, better, ‘a female’ so as to include young adults] whose primary emotional and erotic allegiance . . . is to other females” (15). Casde’s definition is appropriate to a study of young adult literature because it focuses on both the emotional and the physical aspects of sexual desire. Sex is a definitive element of the adolescent lesbian text. Most literature and films for and about adolescent girls focus on girls’ close friendships with other girls, a theme that began to flourish in nineteenth-century school-girl stories and continues in current series fiction such as The Babysitters’ Club or Sweet Valley High; contemporary lesbian texts for and about adolescents distinguish themselves from this pervasive genre by depicting varying degrees of sexual conduct between female characters.

Vanessa Wayne Lee

The paper dates from the early twenty-teens, before the Split Attraction Model was commonly discussed, even within queer circles. The dominant culture’s attempt to erase homoeroticism by ‘downgrading’ it to friendship remains a problem which impacts the present.

But this is exactly the sort of study which would benefit from a split attraction view of human relationships. As it stands, a-spec populations are erased via the hermeneutical injustice of a conceptual hole around homoromanticism. Some self-identified lesbians and gay people feel no erotic attraction to anyone, ever. Their same-sex attraction is valid, in whatever form it comes.

Header illustration: Al Parker (b. 1906) illustration published in the 1950s

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » The Split Attraction Model in Stories