With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, you may well be planning how you will be spending the holiday this year. Maybe you’re cooking dinner with your romantic partner, maybe you are throwing a (COVID-safe) Galentine’s hang, or maybe you’ve dedicated the day to simply loving yourself. Whatever your plans, February 14 brings up the question of what it means to be in love, and who society expects us to be in love with. On this week’s episode of The Cut podcast, Avery Trufelman explores the role of love and sexual attraction within friendships.
Below, read the full, edited transcript of this week’s episode.
AVERY: I love Valentine’s Day. I truly do. It’s actually my favorite holiday and I’m really grateful to my mom for this. When I was a little kid she actively decided that me and my sister would be into Valentine’s Day, kind of as a feminist exercise. It was this huge holiday in our house growing up and my mom and my sister and I made elaborate valentines with glitter glue and doilies for — quite literally — everyone we knew. Our friends, our classmates, our family friends, our neighbors, our extended family, and of course, a Valentine for postmaster Joe who was always really patient when we staggered into the post office with our massive shipment.
It’s kind of funny to think back on actually, because that’s so not my mom on a normal day. She’s not into crafts or into hobbies or anything — it was just this one day she was like, we’re going all out.
So it became a tradition in my life. I kept going all out on Valentine’s Day but I more or less stopped around college. This one Valentine’s Day, I made my friends mix CDs with custom covers and left them in their mailboxes. I was so excited for them to discover these little surprises, but I just ended up making some of my friends very upset. Go figure, for a second you think you have a secret admirer and then it turns out to just from … me. Your buddy.
It hurt me that my friends were hurt. Especially on Valentine’s Day. because I do love my friends very much. It made me upset that we use this one word “love” to describe this whole range of feelings. From a friend you’d take a bullet for, to a person you want to hook up with, to your dog to your grandpa. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what to make of love, what your expectations and hopes and goals are with someone if you’re not going to sleep together.
ALLISON: With friendship, we don’t really talk about what the thing is. You know, we say to each other, like, you’re my person or, we’re very affectionate with each other … but we haven’t had an official conversation
AVERY: This is Allison Behringer. She’s been producing and editing here at the show. For months now, she’s been thinking of this one friendship with Hannah.
ALLISON: It’s funny because a couple of years ago I was like, am I gay? Do I want to have sex with Hannah? Do I want to be in a relationship with her? Then I was thinking about it more. I don’t want to have sex with Hannah, but I would love to spend the night in the same bed and talk before we go to sleep.
AVERY: Hannah is Allison’s person. Her plus one. The Bert to her Ernie. The Abby to her Ilana.
ALLISON: There’s the kind of friendship that I have with my best friends from home where we talk on the phone and see each other at holidays. But there’s another kind of best friendship, which is just constantly being in a person’s life and like knowing that person is going to look out for you. With Hannah, she’s been my partner in the last half decade of my life. If we were having a potluck with a bunch of friends and I was coming late, I just knew that Hannah would set aside a plate for me and I didn’t have to, call her and be like, “Oh, set me aside a plate.” I just knew that she would. She’s just looking out for me.
AVERY: They’ve been like this for years.
Allison: I met Hannah when I was 22 and we were both going to do the same work teaching abroad in Thailand together. We did everything together. We went for runs every evening. We ate all of our meals together. That year it was one of the happiest years of my life and I feel like Hannah was a big part of that. Then two years later, she moved to New York City. We both got to live in Brooklyn together for five years.
Avery: How often did you see each other? How in each other’s life were you in New York?
Allison: We lived about … probably a mile away from each other. We saw each other multiple times a week, and just like I feel like she … See, Avery, I was worried I was going to cry and I’m already crying.
AVERY: Because this year, for the first year in many years, Hannah and Allison had to be apart.
ALLISON: Hannah leaving has been an inevitability for a while now. She’s a total outdoorsy kind of person. Someone who wants to grow a garden and be near nature and be near family. So I think she’s always been planning to move back out to the Pacific Northwest and I remember last year we were talking about her moving. I was just like I want you to go, you’ve been talking about this for a long time, but I’ll be heartbroken when you go.
AVERY: But then the move happened more quickly than Allison thought it would. When the pandemic hit, Hannah’s family decided to all be together in Washington State.
Allison: At the end of March, I had called Hannah in the morning just to check in and see how she was doing. That’s when she told me she and her sister were leaving that afternoon. A flight had been booked. They were leaving in just a couple hours.I remember I went on the roof of my apartment, called my mom and just sobbed. It was the kind of cry that you can’t catch your breath.
AVERY: Hannah went away for the whole spring and beginning of the summer.
ALLISON: While Hannah was away with her family, that’s when she decided that she was going to move to Portland, Oregon. She came back to New York in the Summer to pack up all of her things and say goodbye to all of her friends.
AVERY: So Allison, as a good friend does, drove Hannah to the airport. It is considered normal, even proper, to uproot your life for someone you love. But really, only if it’s the kind of love where you are sleeping together. So should you drop everything and move for a friend?
ALLISON: A lot of times I have thought, Why didn’t I just go with Hannah? We could make this beautiful life together. She left in August and September into October, it still just felt really raw, like she had just left the day before. My birthday is in October, so I had friends calling me and wishing me happy birthday. They’d say, “Alison, how are you doing?” I just remember, even though things were very good in my life, all things considered. All I could think about was Hannah and how much I missed her. When people would ask me the question, “how are you doing?” I just wanted to cry. It felt like a breakup in some ways, but you know Hannah and I are still friends and so it felt kind of silly to be so upset because we’re still friends, we’re going to be friends forever. I mean, we definitely still talk on the phone and we also started sending each other those little voice messages. But, I don’t know the contours of her daily life in the same way that we used to. When me and Hannah were living in the same place, it was easy to just take that for granted. You’re my person here. We’re partners here. I think her moving kind of suddenly, it was like a more scary or unknown thing. Just just how committed are we to each other if we don’t live in the same place anymore? What does that mean about our partnership? Is it less than now? Is it not the same? I’ve been having trouble finding my feelings, this like deep struggle, represented anywhere.
AVERY: There is a whole vast genre of breakup music. Breakup movies. There aren’t nearly as many ways to wrap your head around a deep aching feeling that isn’t romantic.
ANGELA: At one point I was trying to think of a mainstream literary fiction, adult novel, that didn’t have a romantic storyline.
AVERY: Angela Chen is a science journalist.
ANGELA: It was so hard, there always was some kind of romantic storyline.
AVERY: But maybe, this is a matter or redefining what we call romance.
ANGELA: I don’t think people explicitly think that we think sex is the same as romance. But, I think we couple sex and romance and sex and passion and sex and desire. They’re not the same!
AVERY: Angela Chen identifies as asexual, or Ace. She is the author of the book Ace: “What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society and the Meaning of Sex”. Angela’s book actually really changed my life because the thing is, whether you’re asexual or not, a lot of our relationships are nonsexual. Asexuality can tell us a lot about what to do with deep, overwhelming love that isn’t about sex.
ANGELA: Maybe you have just a really strong love for your best friend, but because it feels almost too strong for what is supposed to be platonic. You’re like “secretly I have some kind of deep buried feeling for her”.
AVERY: Asexuality opens up a door for new ways to talk about who we love, how we feel, and the way our society is configured. From all my conversations with Allison, it’s clear that she does experience sexual attraction, but many of her deep relationships are asexual. Something asexuality can teach us all — as an identity, as a movement, as a school of thought — is that there are many different layers to this mysterious thing we call attraction.
ANGELA: A little bit of Ace 101, people who are asexual don’t experience sexual attraction, but that’s not the same as not wanting romantic relationships.
AVERY: Angela Chen, again.
ANGELA: The fascinating thing is that it just raises this question of what exactly is romantic attraction? I think for most people, the way that you know you’re romantically attracted to someone is that you want to have sex with them. But for aces, by definition, most of us don’t experience sexual attraction, so then what is it? When you start looking at it, start to break it down, it’s like how is it not just platonic attraction then? I think one of the really interesting things is that asexuality kind of destabilizes what those two are because we think about these as mutually exclusive categories. It’s either platonic or it’s romantic. I think that once we start thinking that romantic feelings can exist without sexual attraction, then it’s an interesting framework with which to evaluate our relationships.
AVERY: What Angela pointed out to me, that I think I knew but never really put to words, is that there are so many different types of desire. We tend to bundle them all together.
ANGELA: Sex is the shorthand for passion. If you Google “passionate” and do a thesaurus search, you’ll get things like sultry, lascivious, sexy. When you have these very narrow ways of describing a feeling these get linked in your mind.
AVERY: Sure blame Dr. Freud, but there is this widespread assumption that everyone is mostly thinking about sex. That it’s guiding all of our actions and secretly shaping our personalities and anxieties. That we would probably like to have sex or talk about sex at a given moment.
ANGELA: If you don’t, then there’s something wrong with you. Just as one example: a lot of people tell me when they go to the doctor and they say that they are not sexually active, there’s an assumption that there’s something wrong with them. Therapy is another example, if you say you’re not interested in sexuality, many therapists automatically are like “what happened to you?” What kind of trauma do we need to uncover to make you love sex the way that all happy and self-actualized people do?
AVERY: So all those widespread cultural anxieties about a sexless life without passion can get in the way of what you actually feel.
ANGELA: I read some review of Magic Mike. Whoever the writer was was talking about how she was so aroused after watching that movie. She felt super horny and I remember being like, what? From a movie? I don’t think that’s ever happened to me.
AVERY: Angela could see that the dancers in Magic Mike were aesthetically attractive, obviously, she just didn’t feel what her friends felt.
ANGELA: When they’re like, “Oh, my body tingles.” I was like, no. I think he’s handsome, but I’m not experiencing what you’re experiencing.
AVERY: You can think someone is beautiful. You can think someone is lovely and want to be close to them. You can want to have sex with someone. But these are all these different combinations and iterations of those feelings that we normally bundle together and call attraction. We aren’t given the sort of linguistic tools to parse apart aesthetic desire, sexual desire, and romantic desire.
ANGELA: There’s so many different kinds of really charged, passionate feelings you can have. For example, with a mentor that you really intellectually gel or with a therapist, but because we so often make sex and sexuality kind of the the shorthand for that kind of charge passion, then people are like, “oh, am I actually involved with my therapist?”
AVERY: Think about all the importance we place on the act of Sex. Not only culturally, legally. Angela put it this way: I can’t give my health-care benefits to my sister, but I could go meet some stranger on the internet tonight, marry them tomorrow, and give them my health-care benefits.
ANGELA: Why is it that this supposed romantic relationship I have is considered so much more important than familial relationships or relationships with just a dear friend that I want to give health insurance to?
AVERY: I mean, what if sex was not assumed to be a condition of marriage? Or of partnership? That your dear best friend could be your person. Hell, your sibling or your aunt or … anyone you love, could be someone to buy a house with, or raise a family with. Or move across the country for.
ANGELA: We don’t think it’s weird if someone would move or switch jobs to be closer to the romantic partner, but I think many people would find it weird if people did that to be closer to just like their best friend. Even if the best friend is just as important.
AVERY: It’s really fascinating because Allison Behringer, who works for the show, her best friend moved away and she felt these heartbreak, break up feelings, and she didn’t understand why. What would you say to someone like that?
ANGELA: I guess I would say this feeling of, I know what I’m feeling, but it feels isolating, it feels alienating. I think that’s one consequence of the fact that we so deeply prioritize romantic and sexual relationships in our society. More people can say, I love you and I think more people can experience more things without going around in circles so much. [00:59:20][6.4]
AVERY: The name, the identity asexual isn’t just about a lack of sexuality. It’s about approaching all our relationships with the same thoughtfulness we give sexual ones. It’s a way to see ourselves and our desires in a new framework. It’s almost like asexuality as a school of thought, almost like the Frankfurt school or something. I gave Allison my marked up copy of Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society and the Meaning of Sex. To see if that would clarify anything about her relationship with Hannah.
ALLISON: The book was really interesting and clarifying in a lot of ways.At the same time, I finished reading the book and I still felt really sad. It didn’t take away any of the heartbreak The other night I was talking to one of my roommates, Abigail, we were just eating dinner. We were talking about Hannah and talking about the book. I think I’ve been trying to figure out my feelings from some kind of intellectual perspective. Abigail said this thing to me, it’s kind of obvious, but hearing her say it so plainly, it really stuck with me.
ABIGAIL: I mean, it sounds like how do you learn to let go of what it was? And grieve it.
ALLISON: We’ve been talking so much about how these kinds of intense, intimate friendships go really unacknowledged by our society. They’re not recognized as important. They’re not really given any airtime. The grieving felt really lonely.
AVERY: Do you know how Hannah feels? Does she feel the same way?
ALLISON: I know she misses me. She tells me she misses me and that she loves me.
AVERY: I mean, have you really talked about how hard this is for you?
ALLISON: I guess, not really. We’re so open with each other about our emotions and what we’re going through, but it almost feels like this is one area where I’ve held back.
AVERY: That was, until recently.
ALLISON: I’ve been thinking a lot about how hard it’s been without you here.
HANNAH: Oh now I’m crying!
ALLISON: Oh no! Hannah!
ALLISON: I just wanted to tell you. It’s a thing I’ve been grieving and also simultaneously feeling so happy for you and the things that you’re doing right now and this new job that you have. I’m so happy for you.
Hannah: Thank you. I’m definitely grieving it too. I feel sad that you’ve been grieving on your own.
ALLISON: Thanks Han.
HANNAH : You know, you can always tell me.
ALLISON: When you moved, I just felt myself, I don’t know wanting to talk about that.
HANNAH: Talk about our relationship status?
ALLISON: Yeah kinda!
ALLISON: How do you see the future of our friendship? What do you imagine?
HANNAH: I feel like a necessary component will be meeting up and doing a fun adventure. Or just visiting each other’s lives? I want to come live in your world and I want you to come live in my world. What do you think?
ALLISON: I’d like that too. I thought so many times, especially in the fall, why don’t I just go with Hannah? Why didn’t I move with her? Should I have just said “Hannah, I’m coming with you.”
HANNAH: I didn’t know you would have actually come here!
ALLISON: I’ve really considered that as a serious question. I think that, right now, the answer is, No. I’m not going to move to Oregon. But. I can see a future where if I could move anyway or whatever I say “Hannah, can I move to where you are?”
HANNAH: What a dream! We’re in a very devoted long-distance relationship. I’m committed.
To hear more about the relationship between romance and asexuality, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.