The Myth of the Relationship Hierarchy Strikes Again


I was reading an interesting story recently. It happened to be fanfiction, but I’ve had this experience with plenty of mainstream novels. I was enjoying the storyline, the plot was good, the author was hitting some of my favourite tropes and the story was, overall, well-told.

Then: bam. The relationship hierarchy* reared its ugly head.

The victim in the story can only be cured by someone who truly loves them.

By a woman? Yes, as per canon, the female can save him.

By a man? Yes, as per subtext (and he was acknowledged as canonically gay in the show’s final episode, albeit in love with a different male character).

But when another male character says they love the victim, they can’t save him because what they feel is “platonic love”.

So the victim can only be saved by someone who wants to screw them.

This again?

The love you have for a friend? The love between a parent and child? Between siblings? Between any person in your life that you’re not screwing? According to the relationship hierarchy this isn’t “true love”. This love is lesser than love for the person you are sexually interested in.

And it seems obvious to me that the author did mean sex, because it’s rare, even in fanfic, to distinguish between romantic love and sexual attraction.

It’s hurtful to me as an asexual that this idea persists, that sex is somehow the be all and end all of a relationship.

It’s damaging to society to make sex the only marker of affection, to have hierarchies like this.

This made it difficult to finish a story I was enjoying until that point. The instructions given for the cure in the story were “someone who truly loves them” and there was no mention of sex/romance, but of course that’s what it meant because “platonic love” was not enough.

If the story had specified “loves and desires them” rather than “truly loves them” I would have been all right with that. If a spell needs sexual desire to be present, that is not the same as saying desire is more important (more “true”) than other forms of love.


* In essence, this is the idea that a sexual relationship between two people is more important than other relationship in the lives of those people. It fails to acknowledge the love and support of family and close friends, and gives a narrow and insular view of what “love” looks like, excluding sibling bonds, best friends, and even consensual polyamory. The relationship is usually though not exclusively heterosexual and the emphasis on sex excludes those on the asexual spectrum.

You can read more about the relationship hierarchy and the problematic nature of it in articles including:

The relationship hierarchy, or an excuse for extended metaphors about bookcases

The Culture of Hypersexuality and the Erasure of Asexuals and Nonsexual Love ; though there is some valid critical commentary of that post here

More Thoughts on Normative vs Alternative Relationship Structures

The Difference Between Romantic and Platonic Love

Author note: an earlier version of this article was posted to my personal journal and tumblr.

Response to the article has been positive, encouraging me to polish the article further and post it here. Comments on the article included recommendations for media that have other forms of true love, including “Frozen” (siblings), “Aquamarine” (friends), and “Once Upon a Time” (season 1, parent/child).

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