A Rose by Any Other Name: Definitions and Descriptors


A Rose by Any Other Name: Definitions and DescriptorsLast week, between the haze of drunkenness I accrued in the company of my cousins, I was fretting over definitions. After spending a couple of hours weeping onto the arm of one lover, and a full morning alone in bed lamenting the loss of another, I felt conflicted and unsettled, and some part of me decided that what I needed was definition. I needed something that I could point to and describe in as few words as possible. Of course, it doesn’t really work like that. Labels rarely do justice to the thing they’re describing, and whilst they may be useful in conversation, they lack the depth of description. Being able to say “this is Daddy” and “this is my boyfriend” and “this is my fuck buddy” may give a vague indication as to what kind of relationships they are, but really they all still beg explanation.

However, there was – and perhaps still is – a part of me that wants to rely on those socialized descriptors; it is almost as though if I can’t point to someone and say “he’s my boyfriend,” I can’t claim to be non-monogamous. Surely, if none of my relationships bear labels, I’m just sleeping around. And there is something to be said for these socialized descriptors: however superficial they may actually be, we have infused them with meaning. However deeply we may understand these terms to be all surface, no feeling, there is no denying that when you say “I have a Master” to someone, that person also gives the term meaning.

Of course, in the unlikely event that someone were to point at me and claim that because my relationships aren’t defined I’m not really non-monogamous, I would laugh. This idea is as preposterous as claiming that because I don’t have a Dominant, I’m not really submissive. Trust me: I am pretty damn submissive. It is not as though the lack of a dominant presence in my life has ever meant the death of my submissive sexual fantasies, and whilst I may not fantasize about non-monogamy per se, I do approach new people with the image of non-monogamy alive and well in my head. I don’t imagine things to be monogamous until they’re actively not. Therefore, defined or indefinable, it would seem that non-monogamy as well as kink and fetish are all things that live in intention and desire, and are defined by the way we live with them, not the way we fit our realities into society’s often superficial descriptions of them.

Furthermore, leaving relationships unlabeled doesn’t make them any less important. Being unable to tick the boyfriend box doesn’t mean I feel less affection for the people in my life than I would for someone who did fit into the boyfriend model. Regardless of the words I choose to describe the people in my life, I would feel the same amount of friendship, affection, and attraction for them as I do now. After all, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

But then what do I do when someone asks me? There is still a part of me that would like those simple, easy labels, just to save time. So lying in bed a few nights ago, I contemplated this question and came up with a very simple answer: they are all ‘relationships’. And, until something truly begs more, or truly encompasses an agreed, understood descriptor, ‘relationships’ is the only label I will give any of them. When I am asked about my love-life, I can answer “I am in a relationship with…”, and if I’m asked more, I will respond at my discretion. Because at the end of the day, as I mentioned before, no matter how accurate the label, they will always beg explanation, and truth be told I do not owe anyone other than myself an explanation of my relationships. I know what they’re about, and from where I’m standing my love-life, whilst far from perfection, is looking pretty good.


Harper Eliot is a writer and podcaster whose work mainly centers around eroticism and social observation. You can find an archive of work, and links to all her other projects, on her website Harper Eliot. Harper lives in London, but rarely sees her own house, spending most of her time on public transport, listening to podcasts and tweeting too much. Her vices include cigarettes, lubricant, Earl Grey tea, opera, nail polish, and pinwheels.


  1. Lina Catalano on

    You are not alone in this struggle. My partner is somewhere between boyfriend, lover, friend, and husband. I’ve found myself frequently using the term that most accurately describes him in the moment. Sometimes that’s “handyman”…

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