Thursday, July 15, 2010

21st Century Dating and the Issue of Label Phobia

You and So-and-So have hung out numerous times, on walks, at movies, at dinners in swanky and not-so-swanky restaurants (and So-and-So always insists on paying). After a few “dates” you finally give in, say, “Well, hell,” and you have sex. It has been a couple of months, and there have been several repeated sexual occurrences. While you may or may not be completely interested in So-and-So, you’re also not the casual sex kind of person. You are probably at least a little interested in seeing where it can go. No one has mentioned the big “R” (whisper: relationship). Although, you did ask one time about a month or so into it all, “So, hey, what is this about?” So-and-So responded in some roundabout, inarticulately evasive manner, of which all you remember hearing is, “I like you a lot. I like being with you.” Now, you are left wondering, “What the f*#@?”

I call this scenario, “An Encounter with 21st Century Label Phobia.” The notion of label phobia is pretty self-explanatory: it describes the intense fear of or aversion to labels, specifically labeling as it relates to the world of romance. (This is related to but shouldn't be confused with what is popularly called "commitment phobia," which describes a general fear of commitment. In label phobia, fear is directed toward labels such as "relationship," "dating," etc. While these labels implicate some level of commitment, I think label phobia stems from not only a fear of commitment but from a general fear of categorization, a mindset that is very characteristic of postmodern 21st century culture.) One could suggest that So-and-So is not label phobic at all but simply a slow mover, trying to take his/her time. Or maybe just your typical jerk. Both of those might be true. But let’s just assume I am right, for a moment. How does this label phobia affect our dating lives? Is this new attitude an improvement or a significant problem in our dating lives?

To the last question, I’d say it’s a little of both, and to the first question I’d say it’s doing a real number on our self-esteem (and I don't mean that in a good way).

In my own life, I’ve found that labels are inescapable, sometimes burdensome and sometimes useful or even empowering. For instance, I can’t escape the labels of African-American (or black), woman, bisexual, Southerner. There’s almost no point in trying to ignore them, in trying to exist as just a human being. I don’t have that luxury of trying to go through the world as just a human being when the rest of world will always see me as black and female for sure and treat me accordingly. As such, I’ve learned to embrace such labels and find power in them.

Avoiding labels in the world of romance is just as futile and impossible as avoiding them in other aspects of our lives. No matter how much So-and-So doesn’t like labeling his/her love life, he/she will eventually come into conflict with a lover who doesn’t share his/her disdain for labels. The reality is that human beings love labels; we need them, in the world of romance and elsewhere. Eventually, if two people (you and So-and-So) have went on dates, talked intimately, had sex, one of the two people (if not both) is going to want to know where he/she stands in the situation. Labels tell us where we stand. They help us understand how we are being valued and viewed by others. And, let’s be honest, our personal sense of self or identity is totally wrapped up in how others value and view us.

Sadly, I’ve noticed that a lot of twenty-somethings (as well as some thirty-somethings I’ve met) harbor a strong dislike of labels, refusing to understand the basic value of those labels to many, if not most, people’s sense of self. Nevertheless, a fundamental disconnect occurs during scenarios like the one described above. When a person seeks a label during such moments, he/she really is seeking out your opinion of him/her, and your refusal to deliver that in the form of a label comes off as a real diss, rather or not that’s how you meant it. Label phobic folks can help prevent these kinds of problems by being straight up in the beginning, before things get intimate, before wasting the person’s time. If you don’t want a label, a relationship or a commitment, just say so before the person gets attached.

Quite honestly, I am tired of running into men and women alike who refuse to label their affairs. If we have a scenario like the one mentioned, I can only interpret the refusal to label as a refusal to commit. (We can get into a huge discussion about what it means to commit. Here, I only want you to understand it as a basic promise to respect the person by refusing to sleep with or pursue other people while you are with said person.) So-and-So’s desire for sex with the person, while at the same time refusing to commit signifies a lack of respect. In this world of disease, the greatest way that one can show respect for a lover is by promising to be monogamous while with that person. But I’ll stop here, before I get off topic.

With all this said, I am mostly curious about why so many people are opposed to labeling their romantic affairs. What is gained and at what or whose expense? How has this issue, if it is one, played out in your love life?


  1. Miss B! I LOVE this post!

    Now to your question as to why so many people are opposed to labeling their romantic affairs? Being without a label in an interaction with someone leaves room to well, be When you are not someone's wife or husband...maybe you can be someone's woman or man (which that label holds different value) - when you are not someone's woman or man...maybe that leaves you open to be their sidepiece, (hence leaving you unable to be labeled as anything else).

    Like we say at work, if its not in writing, it didn't happen or doesn't exist...same way with any type of relationship to me...if that sucka' isn't label and's not really valid.

    People that do not allow you to have labels in romantic relationships are hesitating for a reason. Maybe they are not sure if they want the label of being your other half or maybe they are satisfied with not being held accountable (= no label), or maybe since the other person is satisfied being 'label-less,' they keep it that way (if you don't care - I don't care either). Either way, its not a one-sided deal. I've been there, done that. Whether its a cut-buddy, boyfriend, or 'Ray-Ray' (LOL!) I always let a man know where he stands with me. If you are clear up front, there will be no confusion later.

  2. I agree with Ms. Qui. People who don't want a label usually have a reason for not wanting that label.

    Being without labels automatically assumes the lesser of the terms. Like for instance, If I'm not being called someones girlfriend, then there is no way they can think I will do things that a girlfriend would do for them.

    Most people will do the bare minimum until they are given that title, then they feel they must achieve the goals of that title.

    Good read as usual Ladies!

  3. Well said, QueenPinky and Ms Qui. People will definitely do the bare minimum if they are allowed to. And while I do think it's important for BOTH people to say what they want upfront, I think we all know that that can sometimes be difficult.

    I really do run into a lot of people who are totally resistant to labels. And they think it's some sort of intellectual achievement or something. I have one friend who's been dating a girl for almost a year and still won't refer (or let anyone else refer to her) as girlfriend. It's weird. And I've had other friends tell me their similar stories about running into these kinds of label-phobic folks, how they never saw it coming.

    I don't know. I do believe in being upfront in the beginning (as this isn't a one-sided issue), but the problem is that that can and usually scares folks off. It's all too tricky.

  4. It is tricky Miss Berneta and I think that may be the 2nd reason that people don't like titles. If a lady asks a man to put a title to there relationship sometimes the man will shy away. I think some people call it "Going with the Flow". They don't want to mess up something that is already going good so they don't even peruse the issue. But using titles can bring a relationship to a commitment and commitment is good! It's a catch 22 sometimes.

  5. @ Miss B - you said, 'the problem is that that can and usually scares folks off.'

    What is the problem with people that BEING UP-FRONT and how I like to put it...HONEST scares people off? That should bring comfort, if nothing else.

    Being uncomfortable with honesty and up-front intentions (in any situation) is a direct reflection on the person who has a problem with it...nothing is wrong with me...but is something wrong with YOU!?

  6. The only time I wouldn't want a label is if I don't want him--RayRay. If he's someone I want to be with, I am going to want to claim him.

  7. @Ms. Qui: You are totally right! But you gotta admit, it does hurt when a prospect is suddenly not one because you scared him/her off by being honest in the beginning. I don't know. Part of me thinks that dating is like some sort of ritual or act the requires a certain amount of concealment/dishonesty(some would call it "saving face") in the beginning. It's an act, which implicates some level of dishonesty. I mean, everyone I've met seems to view dating this way. So, that would obviously make the rare person who chooses to be honest upfront either vulnerable or perpetually alone...or who knows, maybe that rarity would make you highly desirable. But maybe I've just met the wrong type of folks. I do think that you are totally right, though!

  8. Oh, and good point, Brilliance. I definitely agree.

  9. Its all about what you want from So -So.. I agree with Brillance. First off why would you have sex with whomever if your not into casual sex and your on the fence of how much you like the person???? WTF are you doing out here??? See this is where women play themselves right here! if your not into casual sex... then don't do it! Save it for Mr Right or Mr Potiental Right.. whatever and when you find him ...MAKE HIM WORK FOR THE PUSSY! In fact.... don't give it up till u have your title or label or whatever... if he doesn't want to give that too you.. ON TO THE NEXT... that way you can avoid this scenario all together

    If you are into casual sex... then hell... 9 times outa 10 you don't care about a label or a title either... oh yea.. unless it begins with a BOOTY CALL!... ppl are real quick to label you that lol

    But to answer your question Miss B.. its all about what someone wants and will not accept... too many people don't have standards, decide to settle or (and we women are mostly guilty of this) will have a plan for our love lives and not stick to it.... see most of these men out here when they meet you... they already have in mind what they want from you and they stick to the plan!.. and we the women have no idea of what his intentions are!... soo that is why its important to make sure ypu know what you want and don't settle for anything less! These men will only do what you let them get away with.. trust and believe if the guy likes you enough... he will give you what you want... but if you havin sex with dude, you want him to be your man but all he wants from you is sex... hmm.. why would he give you a title? He already gettin the milk... why he gotta buy the cow?

    I think this is a problem with a very easy answer... just don't let people get awat with what you don't wanna tolerate! Thanks girl for this post!


  10. Mz Kewe, I absolutely agree! It really is a matter of being able to stick to your standards, even if it means being turned down over and over (even by the one(s) you think you really want) and being single for what seems like it might be forever.

    It IS a problem with a simple answer. And, sometimes, I hate how simple that answer is (and the potential consequences of that simple answer.) Damn it. :D

  11. Yuup yuup but I gotta admit... I was a girl in the scenario before... however I actually really did like the guy but I had just come out a long relationship and I didn't kno what I wanted to do from there... fuck up number 1 on my part! I probably shouldn't have been dating if that's where my state of mind was at the time.. I was ok with not having a title or label... I just wanted to go with the flow.. however not knowing what you want comes with consequences.. (in this case.. heartache) and as much as you wanna call him out for taking advantage of a situation.... you gotta take responsiblity for yourself... in putting yourself in that a situation where someone can take advantage of you... if you want a label or title... then get with people who want the same... if your ok with casual sex... then disconnect sex from emotions and do you!... I was younger then and I def learned my lession lol won't do that again! Me and my heart comes first hahahah

  12. Personally, it turned out quite allright for me. I didn't have any labels to begin with but my relationship with my BF just flowed naturally; I guess we met at a time where we were both not looking for something serious and about a month or so, we moved in together. Some might call me crazy but I think it might just have been fate.

  13. Wow, Lovely Bee! I'm glad you found success without label phobia, but I still wonder how often this happens. Do you think the lack of labels played any part in the bond you two developed?

  14. That is excellent LovelyBee! And, honestly, whenever I've been in a labels-free situation, at some point, I always hope it will turn out as your situation did. But your situation, as Marshari implies, seems pretty rare. It just may HAVE been fate. :D

    To answer Mashari's question, I think it rarely happens that way. Sadly. In a fair and just world, it would happen that way. But I'd definitely be interested in your response to Mashari's last question, LovelyBee. Maybe there's something I'm missing...maybe there is some type of unique and valuable bond that can be formed in part due to the lack of labels...

  15. Ehy hi everyone! I'm a polyamorous girl and I'm in a committed relationship with 3 persons who all know and respect each other and each other's role in my life. I was looking for Label-phobia and i surprisingly ran into your blog post. I live in -italy and I'm part of a very small poly community that was born less than a year ago. I'm interested in the subject because in the poly-environment there is a very strong label-phobia and i was wondering where does this feeling come from. Your post partly gave me an answer, but it also left me some perplexities. I met too kind of people in the poly community: the ones that need to define everything precisely and the ones that are allergic to every definition whatsoever, from the male/female to the monogamous/polyamorous to the etero/omo/bisexual.
    Both people have consensually agreed to live a poly-lifestyle (which could vary from the open couple to the committed/closed triad to every other kind of non-monogamous arrangement) and tell their new interest straight ahead, right before hitting on them, that they are poly (the ones that love labels) or that they reject monogamy (the ones that hate them).

    Now, since the "being open" factor has already been faced before the relationship started, why then there are still people that, once they start date, find it so difficult to use word such as "girlfriend" "partner" "relationship" or "love" ?
    Shouldn't it be that, since the fear of labels is explained by some of you as the need to let things "open", this need is already met by the relationship being declared "open" from the beginning?
    (and some of them even refuse to use the term "open relationship"!)

    I have a theory about that: since labels are often used by others and impose from ouside the situation, could it be that what those people really fear is in fact discrimination?
    I keep hearing comments like "yeah being poly is just a nice way to say you just want to fuck around" and comparing polyamorous people to simple sluts trying to justify themselves. but there are really triads who are trying to figure out how to have children and live together and that love each other deeply, just not the same way a monogamous coulpe does.
    I believe that labels can be used as definitions to express what we want in a relationship, but i often find it very tiring to discuss people who completely refuse them, and I'm so tired of being called "slut" just because I'm not married to only one man as our heteronormative society would want. How do we use them without getting hurt by them?
    How do we re-acquire their use instead of seeing them assigned from high-up above?
    Thanks in advance