Written by Persephone Deacon.
“I am sexually attracted to women, but only romantically attracted to men”.
I often hear women use this phrase when discussing their relationship to love and sexuality. It is said as a kind of ‘justification’ for their straightness, as if explaining why they struggle to find women romantically desirable. There are few blueprints for sapphic romantic love. Or, when this blueprint for queer love does exist, it is fetishised and twisted out of recognition; transformed into a performance for the male gaze. When looking at our culture’s antiquated conception of romantic love, it’s hardly surprising that lots of women find it difficult to see romantic potential with other women, despite feeling sexual attraction towards them.
My argument, I suppose, is how can we say who we are romantically attracted to, really, when we’ve only been shown one image of romance – and that image looks suspiciously reminiscent of protection and possession.
Whilst our culture encourages an almost unconscious objectification of the female body from an early age, it also places harsh limitations on this desire by aligning the nuclear family with romance.
In our voyeuristic society, it is virtually impossible to avoid displays of female ‘sexiness’. Not only are girls taught to identify (and replicate) feminine ‘sexiness’ from an early age, but they are absolutely saturated with misogynistic doctrines of what it means to be sexy, and what steps they can take to achieve this. From overt shampoo adverts to women’s magazines to the presentation of femininity on-screen, girls are practically in training since birth to identify and absorb female attractiveness. In a culture obsessed with the fetishised female body, it makes sense that women are sexually attracted to other women. In fact, they’ve become acutely aware of the female body, and how it can be styled, fragmented, and modified to maximise perceived ‘sexiness’. So, why do so many women struggle to extend this desire into a romantic attraction? It seems that, whilst our culture encourages an almost unconscious objectification of the female body from an early age, it also places harsh limitations on this desire by aligning the nuclear family with romance.
Here, the boundaries of sex and love have been clearly laid out for us. Under patriarchy, women = sexy, and men = boyfriends.
Sex and romance are intrinsically interwoven with gender, and as women are presented as passive objects to be observed and scrutinized, masculinity is, in turn, coded as actively romantic. More specifically, men are the pursuers of romance, and women are the receivers of romance.
“I am sexually attracted to women, but only romantically attracted to men”. The more I hear it, the more it seems to prop up archaic ideas about female desire, and limit our potential for love. According to this statement, love and sex can be broken down mathematically, into a strange, clinical categorisation of desire. It seems bizarrely mechanical, as if sexuality isn’t a fundamentally fluid and ever-changing aspect of life. Sex and romance are intrinsically interwoven with gender, and as women are presented as passive objects to be observed and scrutinized, masculinity is, in turn, coded as actively romantic. More specifically, men are the pursuers of romance, and women are the receivers of romance. Then, when you multiply all this by the infinite amount of social conditioning we’ve all endured throughout our lives through media and everyday discourse, our perceptions of what is ‘romantic’ begins to look pretty fucked.
Our definition of romance has been built on layers upon layers of patriarchal ideals, such as chivalry, courtship and marriage. Whilst these seem almost entirely irrelevant in 2021, our dating landscape remains heavily infused with the residue of these romantic conventions. From fears of being ghosted, to the toxic romanticisation of the ‘jealous boyfriend’, our understanding of romance is still intensely associated with possessive masculinity, and the privilege of being ‘chosen’ or ‘picked’ by a man.
Queer love is not new (despite what the patriarchy might have you believe), but traditional romance balances carefully on a tightrope of heteronormativity. Our definition of romance is still limited by misogyny and homophobia, and inside all our cultural ideas about love and sex, there is still a sinister undercurrent of male dominance and female submission.
Not only is romance dead, but it’s been dead for some time. In fact, it’s debatable whether it was ever born at all. How can something die when it was born out of concepts that are fundamentally flawed and broken?
Even relatively new ideas about love seem to rest on the fragile foundations of traditional masculinity and femininity, and as our outdated concept of gender decays with each passing year, so does our conception of romance. Conventional, conservative romance is interlaced with social expectations of masculinity and femininity, so that when you pull at the strings of gender, our entire definition of what is romantic, and what is not, seems to unravel, leaving a messy heap of outdated language and conventions in its place.
Not only is romance dead, but it’s been dead for some time. In fact, it’s debatable whether it was ever born at all. How can something die when it was born out of concepts that are fundamentally flawed and broken? Not only is heteronormative romance centred around violence, ownership, and women’s ongoing objectification, but when queer love is given space to exist and thrive, it is often remodelled into a spectacle to appease the male gaze. As we move forward as a culture and work towards expanding our representations of sexuality, we also need to expand and diversify our definition of romance.
About The Author
Persephone Deacon is a London-based writer and podcaster. She has a BA degree in English Literature and Film from the University of Sussex, and her work centres around intersectional feminism and women’s rights. She has spoken publicly at International Women’s Day events, and co-hosts the feminist podcast Goes Without Saying with @sephyandwing.
Follow her on IG: @persephonedeacon