Asexuality and the Relationship Escalator

Written for the January 2016 Carnival of Aces, on the theme of ‘relationship stages.’

One of the concepts that I often use or reference when writing about asexuality and relationships is the relationship escalator. It’s a concept that I’ve mainly seen explained in relation to polyamory, specifically in this post on SoloPoly and a follow-on book project on unconventional relationships. (I’ll be referencing these resources quite extensively in this post.) However, there doesn’t seem to be any comprehensive overview of the relationship escalator as it relates to asexuality.* This post is therefore intended as a resource which explains what the relationship escalator is, and how it intersects with asexual and ace-spectrum people. As such, it will be open for revision and addition – let me know if there’s anything you’d like to see added or changed.

What is the relationship escalator?

At its core, the relationship escalator refers to the set of societal expectations around relationships and how they should be ‘properly’ conducted. It’s the default view of how relationships ‘should’ work, from how they develop to what they involve. It’s what we grow up thinking is ‘normal’ and ‘expected’ in a relationship. More importantly, it’s also a way of determining whether that relationship is serious or significant. As Aggie of SoloPoly writes:

The Escalator is the standard by which most people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant, ‘serious,’ good, healthy, committed or worth pursuing or continuing.

In combination with this, the escalator is strictly hierarchical, which means that relationships that reach the ‘top’ of the escalator are valued more than other relationships. The top of the escalator is the ultimate goal: a permanent, romantically and sexually exclusive, and, if possible, legally sanctioned relationship. As Captain Heartless writes in their excellent posts on relationship hierarchies:

Relationships are then valued in how much they resemble the relationship at the top: a relationship that is almost exactly like marriage but without the ceremony is generally valued, but as you move further and further away, (and there are endless ways to not be like a stereotypical heterosexual marriage) the relationship is not valued.

So the relationship escalator is a set of expectations about how relationships work, but also (and perhaps even more importantly) about how they are valued.

So what does the relationship escalator look like? The basic picture is that all significant relationships progress through a set of distinct steps or stages, until they get to the aforementioned ‘top’ of the escalator. If you don’t make it all the way up, you have to start again at the bottom, with another partner. You can’t move backwards, and if you get off halfway, it’s considered either a failure, or not the ‘right’ relationship for you. What those steps on the escalator look like exactly can vary between different societies and cultures. Generally, however, they follow this pattern (using Aggie’s excellent titles, and adapting her explanations):

  1. Making contact: The earliest stage of getting to know someone and starting to be interested in them as a potential romantic and sexual partner. This stage includes things like flirting, meeting for coffee, casual dating, and possibly sex, depending on an individual’s personal preferences.
  2. Initiating the relationship: This is the stage of a relationship where individuals begin to feel emotionally invested in each other, begin to ‘fall in love,’ and engage in ‘romantic’ gestures and behaviours. Sex is being incorporated into the relationship at this point, unless there are religious/cultural reasons for not having sex (e.g. waiting until marriage).
  3. Claiming and defining: This stage is where the relationship usually starts to get named as a serious relationship, and where partners start referring to themselves as a couple, as boyfriend/girlfriend, etc. There is an expectation of exclusivity, both emotional and sexual. Partners begin to prioritise each other over any other interpersonal relationships they have, spending more time and energy on their partner. Sex and sexuality is expected to play a significant role in the relationship.
  4. Establishment: This stage flows on from the previous stage, an sometimes can even be merged with it. In this stage, each partner begins to adapt their own daily life to accommodate the other in most or all areas. Partners settle into patterns of time spent together, such as going on regular dates and sleeping at the other person’s home, and stay in frequent or constant contact via phone or text if apart. There is an expectation of mutual accountability for each partner’s activities and behaviour, and there are hints at a long-term future as a couple. Sex and sexuality continued to play a significant role, and reflect the growing bond between partners.
  5. Commitment: This stage is usually seen as the key indicator of the seriousness of a relationship. Commitment usually takes the form of moving in together, sharing property and finances, and starting to talk about formalising the partnership through engagement, marriage or civil union. Sex and sexuality again are expected to have a significant place in the relationship.
  6. Conclusion: This stage is the culmination of the relationship, the top of the escalator. Usually this stage involves getting married, whether legally recognised or not (depending on laws about same-sex unions, etc.). In the post-marriage stage, couples also often feel social pressure to reach additional ‘milestones,’ such as starting a family or buying a house. Having children is not strictly required, but features in many, if not the majority of cases. The relationship has now reached its peak and is generally expected to stay that way until one partner dies – though divorce is becoming increasingly common. Sex and sexuality may start to become less important at this point.

All these stages are expected to naturally flow on from the previous stage, or at least within a certain time period. If a relationship stops at a certain stage for too long, it usually turns into a ‘where is this relationship going?’ question, indicating that something is wrong and needs to be either fixed, or the relationship needs to be abandoned. As Aggie points out, ‘break-ups’ are usually characterised as inherently negative and disruptive, and ex-partners rarely end up on good terms. The only way that a relationship can continue to be perceived as serious, healthy or significant is by progressing further up the escalator, until you get to the ultimate goal.

The most important thing about the relationship escalator is that it is presented as ‘normal,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘inevitable’. As such, it’s an incredibly powerful societal script that most people internalise without really thinking about it. As Aggie writes:

Most of us automatically adopt [the relationship escalator] as a roadmap for defining our personal goals for relationships and lifestyle, choosing partners, evaluating our relationships, and judging the relationships of others. Most of us subconsciously buy into the social premise that the Escalator is not really a matter of choice or preference, but a natural and even supernatural force of its own; a mix of physics and magic. It’s just how “good” relationships ‘naturally happen,’ and how they’re ‘supposed to be.’

It’s important to recognise that for some people (even some aces), the relationship escalator does actually work. But for other people, who have or would like to have relationships that don’t conform to the hierarchy and stages of the escalator, it can also become incredibly limiting and invalidating. It’s also worth noting that real-life relationships (even among allosexual people) don’t necessarily always fit the escalator model – but the socio-cultural ideal remains strong. (Although, as Siggy pointed out in his last post, social expectations and ideals can also often seem confusing and incoherent.)

What does the relationship escalator mean for asexual people?

The relationship escalator has a whole range of problems that intersect with asexual identities and relationships, from the way physical intimacy fits into it all, to the way that the escalator devalues all sorts of non-escalator relationships.

Let’s start with the physical side of things, and the role that sex and physical intimacy play in the escalator. As indicated in the explanation for each stage of the escalator above, sex and physical intimacy are both an expected and a crucial element at almost every stage of a relationship. The relationship escalator does not usually differentiate between emotional/romantic and sexual attraction, as most of us in the ace community do. It assumes that sex and sexual desire are a crucial and inevitable part of love.

As such, if two people have progressed too far up the escalator (say, to stage three and beyond) without engaging in sexual activities together, then something is ‘wrong’ with the relationship, because it is obviously not progressing as it ‘should.’ If one partner does not want to have sex, it is often assumed to be a sign that they do not love their partner enough, in line with the ‘don’t you love me?’ question. They also may be told that they’re being unfair to their partner by ‘withholding’ sex. So an escalator relationship assumes that physical and emotional intimacy will always increase in parallel to each other, culminating in regular (usually penetrative) sex in conjunction with permanent emotional commitment. In some real-life cases, physical intimacy may precede emotional intimacy, or progress faster than emotional intimacy; this is usually considered ok. However, the reverse (increasing emotional intimacy without ‘corresponding’ levels of physical intimacy) is not frequently seen as positive or healthy.

It doesn’t take much to see how the relationship escalator’s emphasis on sex at most stages of a relationship does not work for most asexual people. One of the most basic ideas that the asexual community recognises is that sex and love are not always the same thing, and that people can form significant, valued relationships without necessarily incorporating sexuality into them. The relationship escalator, however, doesn’t see this distinction. As a result, we get the countless stories of ace-spectrum people (particularly, but not only, those in mixed relationships) whose partners cannot understand why they don’t want to have sex, but still profess to love them. (That’s just one example.) Even romantic aces who actively pursue escalator-style relationships, but still don’t have sex, are commonly seen as somehow ‘deficient.’

Also related to physical intimacy is the physical touch escalator, which I’m treating here as a kind of subset of the relationship escalator. Both The Thinking Aro** and The Ace Theist (on two occasions, here and here) have written about the physical touch escalator, so I won’t spend too much time here going into it. The physical touch escalator works in tandem with the relationship escalator, coming into play particularly in the earlier stages of a relationship. Underlying this sub-escalator is the assumption that touch is necessarily ‘progressive,’ and that the ultimate (heteronormative) ‘goal’ of any sort of physical intimacy lower down the scale (from cuddling with clothes on to making out, etc.) is having full penetrative sex. The Ace Theist goes on to explain that:

Within the confines of a romantic relationship, many people believe something similar holds true: if you’re dating someone, you “progress” from early steps, like holding hands, to the eventual goal of penetrative sex.  This is framed as an index of relationship health and intensity.

As with the relationship escalator, there is no ‘going backwards’ on the touch escalator: if a sex-favourable ace, for example, decides to have sex with their partner once, they are expected to continue having sex, because otherwise the relationship would be stagnating or failing. As such, the physical touch escalator is closely linked to compulsory sexuality, as Queenie neatly summarises:

If the first tenet of compulsory sexuality is “When the stars align, you will consent,” the second is, “Once you have consented under a particular star alignment, you will always have to consent under that particular star alignment.”

Many people, aces included, find that they can connect to and enjoy the idea of progressive physical touch, and that’s perfectly fine. In other cases, the physical touch escalator can also lead to problems, because consenting to one kind of physical touch automatically implies a person is also consenting to the ‘next’ level of physical touch. As such, the physical touch escalator can sometimes also get tied up with rape culture. The emphasis on ‘traditional’ penetrative sex can also be problematic for many queer people who don’t engage in that form of sex, because it implies that they will never quite get to the ultimate ‘goal’ of the physical touch escalator.

For many aces (romantic and aromantic), physical touch does not necessarily need to ‘progress’ to a higher level of intimacy. The idea that physical intimacy can be divided up into ‘levels’ or ‘stages’ which inevitably follow on from each other rarely reflects aces’ real life experience. Rather, it’s important to recognise that any one physically intimate activity or behaviour can be completely separate to others. One ace might love to cuddle, but can’t stand holding hands. Another ace might enjoy being naked around their partner, but doesn’t want to have sex. Another ace might not enjoy physical intimacy at all. According to the physical touch escalator, however, all these relationships would be seen as dysfunctional or failing, regardless of the amount of communication and negotiation that has gone on in the relationship.

Ultimately, then, the relationship escalator and the physical touch sub-escalator view sexuality and physical intimacy as inevitable and essential aspects of a relationship. But there’s still more to it. Because the relationship escalator also provides the dominant framework for judging and evaluating the seriousness, health and value of a relationship, this means that a relationship can only be seen as serious, healthy and valuable if sex plays a role in it. Sex/physical intimacy + emotional investment are the markers of a ‘serious’ relationship: if you take sex out of the equation, the relationship suddenly becomes less certain, less serious. Part of the problem here is that the relationship escalator doesn’t create any space for people to have multiple significant relationships; it expects that there will only be one serious, ‘primary’ relationship in a person’s life at any given point in time. (More on this later!) But the escalator also plays into the pervasive idea that if you’re not having sex, your relationship can’t be all that significant. Sex and physical intimacy are central to whether a relationship will be considered valuable and worth pursuing.

What about aromantic aces and non-romantic/non-standard relationships?

Just as the relationship escalator does not recognise the significance or value of non-sexual relationships, it also does not allow for non-romantic relationships, or relationships that are not strictly monogamous or exclusive, to be recognised and valued. This means that aces on the aromantic spectrum and aces who identify as polyamorous (or are in poly relationships, regardless of whether they identify as such or not) are also excluded from the escalator.

The ideal of the relationship escalator does not work for aromantic aces on multiple levels. Like alloromantic aces, aromantic aces are excluded from escalator relationships first because they do often do not incorporate sexuality in most stages of the relationship. In addition, aromantic aces are also excluded from the escalator model because almost every stage of the escalator is based on romantic attraction and interest in another person. Romantic interest/feelings are inherent and inseparable to the escalator model: without romance, the escalator simply does not work. The escalator also assumes that any romantic feelings will always progress in a linear fashion, so it also doesn’t work for a lot of aromantic-spectrum people whose feelings aren’t always that linear or clearly defined.

As such, the escalator simply does not acknowledge that a relationship that is non-romantic could possibly be significant or valuable. Again, the escalator assumes that emotional connection, romantic interest and sexual attraction are all part of the same parcel, and that any relationship which only incorporates one or two cannot be a ‘proper’ partnered relationship. Even aromantic aces in exclusive, committed relationships are still considered to be lacking essential elements that make a relationship serious, significant and valued. In the escalator model, non-romantic relationships usually only take the form of familial relationships and friendships, both of which are inherently different to partnered, capital-R relationships.

The relationship escalator also excludes those aces who may be in polyamorous or otherwise non-monogamous or non-exclusive relationships. Escalator relationships always take the form of an exclusive, primary relationship, which is inherently considered more valuable and significant than all other interpersonal relationships (usually even familial relationships, and definitely friendships) a person might have. Under this model, a single partner is generally expected to fulfil all their partner’s emotional and practical needs/desires, and a person is only allowed to love a single person at a time. There is no room for multiple partners, or the idea that different partners might play different roles and satisfy different needs and desires, or indeed the idea that you can love more than one person at a time. Falling ‘in love’ with another person necessarily means having fallen ‘out of love’ with another person, and is a sign that the former relationship should be ended. Likewise, if a person feels like all their needs or desires are not being met by one person in a relationship, then it is assumed that something is ‘wrong’ with the relationship, that it either needs to be fixed or abandoned. Being interested in other people romantically, sexually or even just emotionally is considered to be deceptive or ‘cheating.’ As Aggie points out in her post, cheating is actually part of the escalator itself: ‘illicit’ partners are seen as shameful and denied ‘relationship’ status or rights, which reinforces the idea that ‘proper’ relationships must be primary and exclusive.

Summing up and concluding thoughts

What this post has hopefully shown is that the relationship escalator is a powerful social script for what relationships should ideally look like, and how they should ideally progress and develop. That doesn’t mean that every relationship in the (allosexual) world will always follow the escalator’s stages: the escalator is about the widely-accepted ideal, rather than reflecting the reality of relationships. As usual, real life is much more diverse and complicated than any model can represent.

However, I think it’s really important to recognise how incredibly powerful the relationship escalator can be, and how much it influences the way society views and values different relationships. This is something that many of us in the ace community are particularly aware of, because many of us have direct experiences with our own relationships (romantic or non-romantic) not being considered healthy, significant or valuable by others. Others among us struggle to express not being interested in riding the escalator at all. I hope that this post will allow people to more clearly visualise what the relationship escalator is and how it works. And from there, we can hopefully start to dismantle it, and to highlight the validity and value of all sorts of different relationships that are represented in the ace community – and the allo community as well.

* Both The Thinking Aro (previously The Thinking Asexual) and The Ace Theist (here and here) have written specifically about the physical intimacy and the physical touch escalator. The focus of this post is broader than just physical touch, so I’m treating it as a subset of the relationship escalator here.

** A note on this blog: The Thinking Aro’s posts on asexual relationships material on asexual relationships have often been overly elitist and hostile towards allosexual/sex-favourable aces (see this string of replies for critiques), and ace survivors of violence (see here for example). I’m linking to this post because their writing on the physical touch escalator is useful, though the section on asexuality/celibacy is a little iffy. I recommend reading their material critically.

Cross posted to The Asexual Agenda. Thanks to Siggy, Laura and Queenie for initial feedback on this post!

8 thoughts on “Asexuality and the Relationship Escalator

  1. What a great post! Thank you so much for such a clear, insightful walk through the normalized relationship trajectory and the implications/consequences for ace and aro people 🙂

  2. Oh and also thank you for all the great links! It’s so helpful to have people who can find older relevant posts that I didn’t see earlier when they came out.

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