Despite earlier posts, here’s my contribution for July’s Carnival of Aces. Belatedly, I realised I had an answer for one of the questions: “Is it appropriate to speculate about the a/sexuality of individuals who lived before asexuality and sexual orientations were a well-accepted concept?” Yes… because I have one possible answer of what life asexual-spectrum women might’ve chosen centuries before the sexual revolution happened and they had, y’know, more of a say in the marrying and sex-having matter.
For the collection of asexual (pre-)history, I wanted to add something that might otherwise be lost because it concerns Christians, women and the Middle Ages. A combination that calls to mind nuns or witch burnings or ladies courted by knights… not industrious single women living celibate lives. The begijnhoven as they existed in Holland, though varieties could be found throughout Western Europe. Much of the material that follows is a summary from several websites and a Dutch paper1 and Belgian paper2 on this topic that are absolutely worth a read.
- Places: begijnhof, plural begijnhoven.
- People: begijnen.
Start of the begijnhoven
The oldest begijnhof, beguinage in English, that remained in operation the longest, was in Breda3. There is also one in Amsterdam4, should you wish to visit one on your holiday. They were small communities of women in urban areas. The first record, in 1267, shows women in Breda being granted land by the lord of that city, and freeing them from any duties to him, making them essentially yeomen rather than vassals, with their own bits of land, an enviable position back then. They were even granted the right to build their own chapel and cemetery, giving them control over their own religious practices and final resting place as well, confirmed by their next patron and the bishop. By this point, they’d apparently already been established for thirty years, having had an infirmary and several small houses from 1240 onward.
Outside of monasteries lived several communities of religious women who wished to remain unmarried and focus on charity work. The begijnen were among them. They took a vow of celibacy, yes, but only for the time they’d live among the begijnen. They took no vow of obedience except to their leader, chosen from amongst the women. They also never relinquished their possessions, though many donated part of what they had and led sober lives in an increasingly decadent society with an increasingly corrupt church.
Life in a begijnhof
Life as a begijn was initially an attractive alternative to both marriage and a monastic life for rich noblewomen and young women from the urban elite. Soon, rich and poor were drawn to it, because it offered a measure of independence while they could supply for their income either out of their own fortunes or by taking a job with a steady income, occasionally supplemented with gifts from richer women.
A begijnhof was both a protected environment and a place of independence. It operated much like a kibbutz or commune, closed communities of up to 300 women. It was a self-sufficient collection of gardens, vegetable patches, its own church, houses. A school or infirmary if many of the women taught or were nurses. Everyone contributed part of their income and did some of the work inside.
They worked and did a lot of charity outside the begijnhof, which was very different from your average monastery. They sought engagement with the world. They became teachers, nurses and worked in the textile industry, where they competed to the point that they were called a women’s guild. Their celibacy gave them an uncommon freedom of movement in the city while out on errands and visiting people.
This life offered a good alternative for women refusing an arranged marriage or not eligible to donate a dowry to a monastery to enter it. But more than that, women entered the begijnen who were plain uninterested in married life, women who wished to move to the growing cities, focus on their work and maintain some independence in their finances, possessions and daily lives. They were also prolific writers, though their often religious works had the second-rate reputation romance novels do these days.
The movement endured for a long time, the last begijn died in 20135, and it flourished in times when women were relatively free, the late Middle Ages and the seventeenth and eightteenth century, while it suffered in more conservative times, the Reformation and the Romantic or Victorian era. It never recovered during the 20th century, likely due to overall secularisation. By then, women were fighting for an independent if not celibate life in other ways.
Why co-opt this as asexual (pre-)history?
I like to think that women make places for themselves, even in cultures where that’s hard. Assuming that asexuality occurs naturally and a significant part of asexual women had little to no interest in sex, romantic love or marriage back then too, they had to build a different life. No doubt many simply remained unmarried and went on to become content spinsters and eccentric aunts. Others would have been forced into marriage and left the unappealing marriage bed once their husbands allowed them, or perhaps entered a monastery. And yet… this alternative seems to have existed too: a way to live a full life without sex, even way back then, in communities of like-minded women. I do not suggest all or even most of these women were asexual, but I think this life might’ve held significant appeal for women who would have been ace-spectrum had they lived in the 21st century.
It also casts an interesting light on modern-day abstinence/celibacy/[preferred-label]. In words, these women’s choice for celibacy matches that of people preaching pre-marital abstinence or those choosing celibacy for religious reasons. In practice, their lives show parallels with people choosing not to have sex for practical or personal reasons. It freed them from living according to the sexual morale of their time. They had no interest in (waiting for) romance and the married life that followed, but prioritised building a life for themselves. It freed up time and space in their lives for other activities, to an even greater degree than it would today. They were socially engaged to the degree they wished, from recluses to women out and about all the livelong day. And most importantly, they found each other, a supportive community that lived as they did.
Last but not least, it’s a boon for Christian women on the asexual spectrum. Enterprising women who managed to express their faith, live in financial independence, hold down jobs and have the safety of close-knit communities with other women even 800 years ago seem good role models. Like an ace-spectrum version of Proverbs 31. Perhaps it could even aid in creating a good discourse for asexuality in the Protestant or Catholic church. An example that, no, good Christian lives don’t ‘naturally’ include sex. And, no, women of faith weren’t just quiet, meek, indoorsy types. And there’s more to the Christian tradition around women than virgins, wives and nuns.
Yeah… let’s just say there’s a hen house and I’m feeling a little foxy.
1. De Begijnen van Breda: een studie over het leven van de begijnen, met de nadruk op hun geestelijk leven, doctorate thesis by Ine Roozen from Tilburg University (PDF)
2. Tussen hemel en aarde: Begijnen in de Lage Landen, by RoSa (PDF)
3. Begijnhof in Breda (website)
4. Begijnhof in Amsterdam (website)
5. Een stad voor vrouwen – Begijnen en begijnhoven in vroegmodern Europa (webpage)
A courtyard and tiny houses built before Columbus sailed or Constantinople fell.
I close my eyes and open my mind. There you sit, sunning yourself after you’ve done your laundry. When your friend comes back from mending clothes at the girls’ orphanage you might have a beer on the porch.
I’ve peeked into your house before, offended, centuries late, that you had to give up what sexual freedom you had in order to gain the freedom of movement this life offered.
You believed in God, but most, you wished for the city, for freedom. So here you came to live amongst other women, each your own house. Your own bed to rise from at dawn, your own meals to cook.
This second visit, I wonder.
Did you feel not quite right amongst friends? Did you wonder about what they whispered behind hands? Given more choices, which would you have made?
When you saw your friends’ courting and their swollen bellies, did you wish for it?
I reconsider… perhaps the celibacy was in itself part of your freedom, rather than a price payed.
In the late Middle Ages, some women lived in an begijnhof or beguinage.
The second installment in the blog series on Asexuality and Christianity, from the perspective of a Dutch Christian demisexual woman. This will be a post on the origin of chastity, where did the Christians go with the idea of not-sex-having and how it can interfere with understanding asexuality. Do keep in mind that with roughly one billion Christians and 70 million asexuals (if that 1% holds up), experiences with sexuality meeting religion may vary wildly. Yes, I am very interested in hearing about your experiences.
Words as used in this post:
Chastity: the Christian virtue of responsible and moral sexual behaviour
Abstinence: the choice not to engage in sexual behaviour for reasons
Asexuality: umbrella term for people with orientations who rarely or never feel sexual attraction.
The Very Holy Text: why bother?
The Bible isn’t a book, today it’d be a fic archive or a story database or a Collected Works of the Christian Religion. It is a series of stories, from various genres and authors, cultures and centuries. Four times the collection was canonised as THE collection of texts that told people about God: originally written by the Jews, added to and adopted by Christians, partially adopted by Muslims in addition to the Qur’an and translated after the Reformation by Christians so they can read it. A lot.
It’s loved, it’s read, it’s memorised. The sermon on Sunday, bible studies during the week and daily moments of meditation all have this purpose. I’ll be quoting from it a lot, because this is the text to which people relate and that they see as the final word on a whole host of subjects.
Here’s the catch: interpretation changes.
A good explanation based on the source text has more authority than a ‘traditional’ point of view. It is experienced as a living text to which people may relate differently based on circumstance, time, culture and yes, faith. What is popular known as “Christian” at the moment, is the type of Christianity that yells loudest in the voices of rich old white dudes from North-America and Europe. Statistically, the average Christian is a poor middle-aged lady from Africa or Asia. So.
Let’s see what the dominant discourse in Christianity says about sex and not having sex, and where it might be a stumbling block.
Chastity, sexual virtue according to Christianity
Here’s a short summary of the thought behind chastity, good sexual behaviour. A Christian follows Jesus’ example, and Jesus didn’t have sex, so sex isn’t inherently good. God created people to have sex, and it begets babies and pleasure, so sex isn’t inherently bad. Paul encourages people not to have sex if it distracts from good behaviour and encourages people to have a legit relationship, to marry, if they do desire sex. I’ll dive into his letters in a separate post, same with Augustine, Christian writer and saint from the 4th century said to have majorly influenced sexual morality in Christianity.1
Roughly speaking, to remain abstinent in the pursuit of God was thought best of all. In the catholic church, it was powerful enough to create a separate social class in the Middle Ages. Monastic life developed over time and chastity was seen then and now as a defining trait of saints, and since they were held to a high standard, it meant staying away from sex entirely. I do not know enough about the orthodox church to comment on their morality. The rest of this post will largely apply to the lay part of the catholic church, and most of the protestant church.
Most people were encouraged not to have sex before marriage, to marry and remain faithful and not divorce. The degree to which sex was regarded as bad varied. Calvin actively encouraged sex within marriage as a means to express love, a view which has become more popular over the last century. Sexual acts outside of the heterosexual zone, whether homosexuality or even masturbation, were generally seen as bad. It affected men more obviously and women more deeply, to the point where we’re only now learning more about how female sexual arousal actual works.2
To be chaste, in the original sense, is to behave according to the sexual moral of the time or to have sex in such a way as is best for yourself and your environment. It is also seen as good to pair sex and love or sex and a relationship or sex and marriage. Obedience to God and being good, being loving is seen as more important than any dictum of society.
Sometimes faith favours the feminists, mostly outside the western world. Christianity can give women space to follow their own ideals rather than submit to their husbands. It can help in encouraging men and women to pay more attention to their marriage as a beneficial relationship rather than a social necessity. It can create a safe space in places where sexual abuse is prevalent.
Other times, it’s used as prescriptive morality. It is used to reject sexualities other than heterosexuality. It is used to promote marriage and marital sex. It is used to preach abstinence rather than provide people with a basic sexual education, even in developed countries. It is used to keep intact all the inequalities that permeate the western world, because all the arguments in favour of those were formulated by Christians in the first place, and more often repeated and better preserved than Christian arguments against the inequalities.
Original sin, what tradition says about sex, sexuality, nature and morality
Sex became bad because lust became a sin. Lust became a sin because it’s a gut reaction rather than a feature of higher reasoning. It is emotional, it crosses social divides, it makes men need women… and that made it evil. These days, rhetoric about sex can go in the other direction, where it’s made out to be awesome because it’s natural behaviour. But what the Bible truly preaches is moral behaviour, based on the “loving your neighbour as yourself” commandment. And that can lead in different directions, depending on what you consider to be morally good.
Let’s look at some of the popular bible verses on the subject, shall we? For transparency’s sake: I selected them from several Bible books, to illustrate how interpretations may vary.
- Matthew 5:28 “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Spoken by Jesus, can be used to:
- Point out that what you think influences what you do.
- Reject sexual objectification.
- Say committing adultery, and even considering it is bad.
- Argue that women naturally lead men astray and should be chastely dressed.
- Say that base desires such as lust are bad and temptation is everywhere.
- 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God;” one of several such urgings written by Paul, which can be used to:
- Reject any sexual behaviour, based on what a person believes to be immoral.
- Tell listeners to control their bodies, i.e. remain abstinent entirely, have sex sparingly or simply to use condoms and not have sex while drunk during orgies.
- Oh the ways in which people can be red-faced, uncomfortable and incoherent while trying to tell inquisitive teenagers exactly what Gentile “passion of lust” looked like in the Roman empire.
- In the ten commandments, “You shall not commit adultery” and “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant,” which can be used mainly to:
- Say adultery is bad… and yes, faithfulness during a relationship is far more important than whether or not you have sex before it.
- Say jealousy is bad.
- Say you need to be honest in your relationships.
- …so mostly, if you’re polyamorous you’re shit out of luck with this bible verse, but funnily enough, that’s not really on most Christians’ radar.
Those were a few of the verses meant to point out some of the more common interpretations to come out of them, and also how different pastors come to different conclusions based on the same text.
In the Christian tradition, what’s emphasised most of all is that there is sin, which humans may commit, that sex leads to numerous ways in which you can harm people, so it’s good to behave in a sexually moral way. What is moral in terms of sexuality… ah, there’s the rub.
Modern-day chastity and why it’s a problem
Chastity has come to mean pre-marital abstinence, especially in the Protestant churches. Individual abstinence is usually celibacy.
Traditional pre-marital abstinence doesn’t work because it’s enforced for women only. Logically, it means men are having sex with some women. Not good, if women are celebrated or doomed based on whether they are perceived to have had sex. That sanctification of abstinence can be taken to extremes. In the catholic churches Mary has become synonymous with Virgin, and her virginity her crowning glory.
In order to be protected women, was the idea, needed to be controlled and protected to a ridiculous degree. From research into sexual harassment in the Middle East3, we see that sexual harassment has a proportionate relationship with the level of restriction women experience, not inversely proportionate, as the “protection” argument would have you believe. In other words, if you don’t want to be harassed, go live in a place where sexual freedom abounds.
There’s a modern-day version of pre-marital abstinence, which puts men and women on an equal footing, at least as far as not having sex goes. This could work in theory, if everyone were heterosexual and everyone ended up in a relationship with their one true love while still of a reasonable age. Since ¼ of adults remain single, sexualities abound and relationships are messy, that doesn’t work. Sorry, Disney.
I’ve witnessed couples decide together not to have sex until they were married, and it was beautiful. They had decided to follow a sexual morality that went against the grain of their society, and stick it out together, out of love for each other and as an expression of what they believed. This I had absolutely no trouble with, especially since sex does not have the attraction for me it that it does for people who do desire sex often.
I do feel revulsion every time I hear a private or public appeal for people to abstain from sex before marriage, to the point where I am very skeptical of anyone tackling the subject of sex in a church. I felt hesitant starting this blog series for that very reason, and oddly enough, it was also the deciding factor for me to start writing it, in the end.
Why, I wondered, do I desire to be free to have sex, if I rarely want to have sex? If being abstinent is easy as pie, for me? Why, if the few I’ve desired are guys, have I wanted to punch people in the nose for disapproving of my hypothetically being attracted to women?
The trouble with chastity
The first problem: presumption. If anyone encourages me to have sex, or to abstain from sex, they presume to tell me what to do. My body is mine. My vagina and womb are mine. The desires in my head are mine. I am a rational creature who has full access to information about sex and sexuality. To decide what happens to my body is my right. I have inherited this right from the generation before me, who fought for it. I will not let that right be taken from me. Not even by bending my head to people who presume to know more than I. I consider it proper as Christian, even, to bend my head only to God, and pass on both the freedom and responsibility inherent in that to others.
The second problem: power, and its abuse. I cannot be obedient to any sexual morality outside of my own. By surrendering the choice of what’s right and wrong to anyone, whether well-meaning family or religious leader or community, I give them power. If power is distributed unequally, especially between genders and about sex, it creates systematic abuse of that power. I cannot condone such injustice and still presume to be loving my fellow humans as much as myself.
The third problem: possibility. I didn’t know what I orientation I was going to end up with until my mid-twenties. It’s made me more sensitive to having options closed off. That you can decide how others love and have sex is wrong… it seems even more unjust if it’s potentially about you. If and who you’re attracted to may not become clear to you until your twenties or thirties, especially if you’re on the asexual spectrum, and it’s suffocating to have only one approved road to travel down as you grow up.
The fourth problem: practicality. I’ve grown up in a country where the amount of sexual freedom is very high. I’ve dressed and undressed in front of boys. I’ve been alone in rooms and cars with guys. I’ve been alone at bus stops late at night. I’ve been out on the street at all times of the day. I’ve dressed in all sorts of clothes. We’ve all grown up freely mixing and mingling. It’s just not a problem. It’s immensely liberating to be a person who’s free to go anywhere, anytime to do whatever she prefers to live her life. The restrictions in other countries are exasperating, from needlessly needing to watch what I wear to who I’m with at what location and what time. Especially when you don’t understand what the problem is. People seem better able to control lust, like the Bible preaches, in a liberal country. So why impose rules that hinder women?
The fifth problem: pressure. I didn’t experience it. I have sex if and when I feel desire. I have a relationship if and when I fall in love and it’s reciprocrated. If I feel neither, I need not have sex or a partner. I will not worry my family. I will not be considered less of an adult by society. I can do what feels good and know to be right. The lack of demand to do anything sexual that comes with sexual freedom is ideal, if you’re any shade of asexual. I wish it on everybody.
The sixth problem: exclusion. If having sex is the norm, it excludes people who don’t. That’s exacerbated when there are only a few options not to have sex, such as pre-marital abstinence and celibacy. It masks the existence of asexuality, and can be used as an argument to deny asexuality altogether.
The seventh problem: people versus God. If people are allowed to determine who and what is Christian, it excludes other believers. It also goes against the core of Christianity, that judgment and control and fear of the afterlife are surrendered to God, so that the way is free for you to live a good life you otherwise can’t. So that people might gradually discover how they should live and love. Discover what they consider to be morally good sexual behaviour and act on that of their own free will.
So in less than 200 words…
I believe that original chastity, practicing morally good sexual behaviour, is great to think about and act on. I believe that how it’s currently preached creates more trouble than advantages. I believe it means Christians on the asexual spectrum deal with other problems than other aces in the western world. I believe that a critical examination of the bible may yield a surprisingly supportive narrative for ace Christians. I believe it’s possible to unite Christianity and asexuality as discourses, but it will go against the mainstream ideas about what it means to not have sex in the Christian community.
- Augustine’s view in a nutshell on Christianity Today
- Stuff Mom Never Told You video: Vaginas Get Boners Too!
- Research into harassment women experience in the Middle East and North Africa, PDF.
For a more in-depth exploration about several issues touched on here, go read the Ace Theist’s posts on Asexuality and Religion.