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?