For December’s Carnival of Aces, about staying in the closet, I’d like to write about my own struggles with my fellow Christians. Thinking I should tell them about asexuality, feeling I can’t.
I am a practicing Christian who identifies as neither hetero nor gay, but as demisexual. I’ve explored my sexuality in my mid-twenties. I’m from an open culture and a liberal church and a loving family.
Aside from a few private conversations, I am in the closet. This blog has a pseudonym. Acquintances don’t know and, mostly, don’t ask.
Part of me just doesn’t want it. Sexuality is mine, not for others to know or judge. As a woman, you’re too quickly an object anyway. I honestly love being a sexual subject, undisturbed, not much noticed because of beauty or age or behaviour. Unshamed and as such, unashamed. Not harrassed so far and yes, I’ve been lucky but I can say this for my country: people can just be people.
One drop of acid in all the honey…
I dread to speak of asexuality to my brothers and sisters in faith. At the same time, how the hell are they going to get informed, given a fair chance to be a constructive part of the discussion, if someone doesn’t speak up?
After several hours’ bible study and arguing in prayer, I can only conclude the following: the core of the Christian gospel holds for sexual natures and behaviour as it does for any part of us. In other words, being Christian, you believe you are forgiven any wrongdoing, you believe you are loved. You believe this is a base to build an awesome, joyful life and be a good part of humanity. More to the point, you believe all people are loved, equally, by a God whose say-so you’ve accorded the absolute and ultimate authority.
I felt confirmed in my own faith and practice. I felt the more puzzled by why sexuality, any (a)sexuality should be a problem. I felt the most surprised by my own troubled and continued silence.
Why can’t I come out to fellow Christians, if I believe God Himself is alright with my demisexuality?
Truth is: I’m scared.
I don’t believe most of my fellow Christians obey God. I have seen them exclude, discriminate and commit violence on people with other sexualities. It does not inspire confidence. I have found some of them to be as proud as the Israel chastised by old-testament prophets. I think them to be so far from the truth, sometimes… will I be accepted in my lifetime?
Yes, by some. Not by others. But fear speaks in black and white, not shades of grey.
I have trouble quantifying exactly what my concerns are. I can’t say what would be the correct course, for one community to engage the other. On a personal level, it’s silenced me. It may do for a while yet.
Lighting four candles, one more each week. Reading the story of the immaculate conception… Mary, visited by the angel Gabriel. Mary, the archetype virgin who dared to have a kid. Mary, mother of the gently smiling face of women’s split sexuality. (The other face smirks)
Refreshingly, the pastor remarked that we spent too much time focusing on the virgin bit. It was cool, what she did, but let’s not get obsessed, shall we? I settled in for some original food for thought.
Let’s focus on Gabriel, he said. And then proceeded to sexualise Gabriel’s visiting Mary. Proceeded to call his speech “courting her” to have God’s child and “seducing her” with the image of what she’d do. It got a bit suggestive.
And I just. No.
I could not conceive of an angel being sexual, here. This story, out of all stories, is supposed to be non-sexy. That’s the point. Wasn’t no sex. Why read into it? Why pretend there was some sort of spiritual version of attraction?
And then realised that was the whole point: if you’re sexual you can and do read that sort of thing into it. You can read attraction or sexual tension into any story. Into almost any situation, in fact. That’s how powerful our imagination can be. Whether it’s there or not… ‘s mostly in our mind.
Conversely, we can happily go through life without reading a sexual layer into anything. Nothing need be sexual if it isn’t explicit. Not flirting. Not a romantic movie. Not a gaze aimed at us.
So yeah, even the story of the immaculate conception can have a sexual charge to some readers. And in other cases, what might be sexually charged to one person, is not to the other. At all.
I know that what I find to be sexually charged is far more limited than it is for most people. ‘s why I consider myself to be on the asexual spectrum.
And… it’s alright. It’s all in our minds anyway. Like a lusty angel Gabriel is now in mine.
No, not the one from Supernatural. Unfortunately.
Part two of the three-parter for the September Carnival of Aces.
I could write a thousand posts about future fears or current worries concerning my religion and my sexuality. I could show you a thousand shades of theology and at some point, I will get to examining helpful ways of uniting the discourses of Christianity and asexuality.
For today, though, allow me to take you to the real intersection of those identities, where personal faith meets demisexuality, in the heart. The full measure of what the greatest command, love others like yourself, does to me.
I am human. A potential for terrible sin and a potential for awesome goodness coexist inside me, wrapped in a fragile body. In order to be the best flawed mortal I can be, at any given time, I need to be able to accept myself fully, while knowing the worst of what I am. I also strive to do what good I can without crossing my limits or forgetting to enjoy it. I love myself.
If demisexual is what I am, I should discover and accept that part of myself and work to incorporate in into my person and express it honestly.
Everyone is human. Each person a creature of unimaginable complexity and incalculable worth. Each person an agent for good and evil. Each capable of empathy, of imagination, of intelligence and stupidity. Each needing other humans to love and to be loved. Each worthy of time and expense and relationships. Each both powerful and limited by society, by their own minds, by circumstance. Each an other to be loved.
Everyone should be loved and gender and sexual identities should not limit that, as they do now. We should explore all the different ways we can love and practice those that suit us.
Everything is creation. Even the smallest slice of science highlights a reality wondrous beyond our wildest dreams. As much as we say, open-minded as we are, our perceptions are limited and limiting and the greatest and scariest thing is to walk beyond them and discover something new.
Confronted with an unfamiliar aspect to humanity, such as asexuality in all its shades and variations, the best I can do is to discover it and understand its implications.
I am a human amongst others, in a creation vaster than I know. And I know that the best I can do, here, now, is to love others as I love myself. For those I love, it means I need to love them well. For strangers, it means I need to accept them as beings with an equal worth to myself, deserving of the same empathy, the same consideration as I, whoever and whatever they are. For my enemies, it means I can wish better for them and work to mitigate whatever evil is committed.
Loving myself, loving others, is ever evolving, always a work in progress, and always worth doing, always rewarding. I can work up hate over what’s wrong in the world or work to clear the path and appreciate that which is good and strange when it comes my way. I choose the latter.
I am mortal. I cannot do as much good as should be done. I cannot love everyone equally. I have no control over the world, over each group, or even completely over myself.
I will stumble over my own prejudice and privilege, fear others’ disapproval over my sexuality and regularly be tied up into knots over whatever mistakes I made. But when I fall, and I will, there is so much to get up for and discover.
I can love myself. I can love others. I can love all of it and it’s best life I could wish for, whatever shape it takes.
I am demisexual, and if I was thus created, who am I to tell God it’s not good? The same goes for the way others are.
The more Sundays than I want to admit, my attention will drift off several times while a pastor exposits about the moral of a familiar bible story. But sometimes what’s said on the pulpit can be such encouragement. I wanted to share the four best points and how they resonated with me concerning asexuality before we return to the planned post, Gay Pride 2015. Again, asexuality is meant as an umbrella-term for the asexual-spectrum identities.
The central theme was who we are, and what should guide us in our identities. Italics are the paraphrases from the sermon. I’m doing this from memory, so excuse the vagueness. It was based off of the second half of Galatians 5.
Public and private layers of identity
We have layers to our identities, from the outward one, measured by our jobs, status, symbols, to our innermost one, what we feel, what our character is, our souls. We depend in the public domain on our outward appearance for treating people, which can cause friction or even oppose our innermost needs.
We notice this in our social circle when the amount of sex we actually want to have doesn’t measure up to that which we feel we should, or what is considered ‘normal’ in a relationship.
I think we’ve also seen it in the asexual community lately because an intimate subject is the object of public discussion, and that can go very wrong when not done with care and forethought.
It echoes even more in the question, should I come out, does the public have a right to this piece of me. Sometimes yes, to tell a story, asexuality becomes part of your public identity, but not always.
The oldest heresy in the book
In religion, it can be a big-ass mistake to let your identity matter, especially the public layer. The attempt to earn your way into heaven by way of pious behaviour has led many a prominent Christian astray. It bars you from truly following God.
Oh boy, did that neatly summarise the biggest barrier for the acceptance of asexuality in the church in the future. First, it means people could reject asexuality as a concept, along with other sexual orientations, based on it not being ‘Christian behaviour’ and ‘sinful’. Second, it could lead to the rejection of people and groups based on their not being ‘real Christians’. Third, it means those trying to earn their way into heaven yell the loudest, judge the harshest and bully their way around whatever playground they inhabit, which makes for a rather toxic Christian community.
We become who we are by what feeds our identity. If we are affirmed and loved it brightens our day. When we hear, continually, that we must look a certain way, we’ll try to do that. When we hear we must be the best, succeed in what we do, we will work every second of every day. We think we are free, but we are slaves to the continual demands we face.
Asexuality is invisible. It means most of us cannot find the recognition we want around us. Deeper than that, we seek other relationships, different types of love than our peers, which can be lonely.
What I like, and what is so deeply necessary, is that sense of affirmation, of safety and community within the asexual community. Most of the posts I’ve read and what has touched me helped me become more comfortable with who I am, educated me by offering ever new possibilities for people to be different and were often written by other people searching to shape their particular identity and frame their particular experience. To the point where I am actively seeking to be constructive and offer whatever thoughts I have and ideas I am building in ways that might at least be helpful and not prescriptive.
I know there’s divisions and worry about disrespect and discrimination, but considering that, at least here, the voices who speak up against that are more powerful and numerous than people propagating the poison, I feel pretty good still.
Let it go, let it go
We face fundamental unfairness when we try to shed those chains and try to live well. Why does one person get a bigger piece of the cake than the other? We need to let go of that, if we are to enjoy what we do have. Sometimes it’s hard to cope and we get envious. But that is how mercy works, to let go, turn away and be who you are freely. To let what is good guide you instead of what will gain you approval. Then we are truly alive.
It’s hard to be who we really are, inside and outside. Despite the fact that it’s sometimes hard to face what others think of us because of our asexuality. Despite our searching for our sexual identities, which can be so self-evident to others. Despite it being easier to just pretend at allosexuality, to be defined still by old paradigms and act according to others’ expectations.
Even harder is that inside our community, the cake isn’t cut evenly, or know what to do about it. A big challenge, to face it and overcome it. To be ourselves, never truly defined by even our own terms.
I hope we succeed.
While staying in the US, I’ve had Chick-fil-A’s fresh lemonade and loved it. The trouble is that they are part of a group express a “Christian” philosophy that opposes mine. Much like Hobby Lobby who recently has in court tried to fight for a weird-ass religious freedom1. What’s so bad about it is rather neatly on display in a twelve-minute sermon. Go watch it2 if you’d like and then come back to read what’s so toxic about it for a Christian demisexual in an asexual community, associated with a wider LGBTQIA community.
I’ve commented as I listened. Warning: prejudice and sarcasm.
The first minute is lighthearted stand-up comedy. When he’s established himself as a jovial all-American guy, he starts.
1:13 “I want to sound a warning: there is a war on religious liberty in the United States of America.” First off, no there’s not, there’s freedom of religion. Second, he’s claiming there’s a fight and thus an us versus them with his words right off the bat. Not a good sign. Third, what people spout off in America doesn’t stay in America, but finds its way around the world, especially since English-language material is dominant in the worldwide Christian community, the way what’s said in Arabic finds its way around the umma.
1:28 “This war on religious liberty is targeting people of the Christian faith.” It’s hard for a vocal, affluent majority to be the underdog. Notice that he tries to create enmity amongst the audience with his words before defining the supposed villain.
1:49 “We are on the verge of having our faith criminalised.” After plugging his book and name-dropping Mike Huckabee (? no idea who the dude is, not sure I want to Google him) he digs the hole for the as-yet mysterious enemy a little deeper. By the time he lets them enter stage left they might as well be wearing devil’s horns. And you’re about as far as you can get from persecution, in America. Hell, even in Holland we’re rather privileged as minorities go. Muslims catch the worst of the prejudice.
…I’m going to skip over Miley Cyrus, who he just mentions for pearl-clutching mileage…
2:14 “It was about that time that Phil Robertson, one of my heroes of the faith from Duck Dynasty did an interview with GQ magazine.” Nevermind that this dude from a B-rated TV show is clearly set up as part of the “us”… that interview was controversial to the point where it’s actually on the Wikipedia page of Duck Dynasty when I googled it.3 (and hey look, there’s Mike Huckabee too, mentioned in one breath with Sarah Palin, the world’s most famously clueless Republican. Oops.)
2:25 “Phil Robertson defended traditional marriage.” A marriage in which a man marries a woman to form an alliance between families, gain property and secure legit offspring. A marriage in which a man must have sex to produce an heir and spare, and a woman must have sex because her body is the property of the husband. A marriage which has little to do with equality, love or living a happy life with the partner of your choice and all those other modern things we young rebels wish to have.
…Miley Cyrus again, for bonus pearl-clutching… (“celebrated for her active debauchery” SRSLY?)
2:33 “But Phil Robertson castigated for standing up for the Bible” Notice that our mysterious villain has yet to be revealed and Phil Robertson, too, is first firmly established as a paragon, before it’s said WHAT actually he defended. Now it sounds as if Robertson’s defended the Bible literary, historical or spiritual value. I doubt that’s actually what he said. (Especially since I got spoiled by the Wikipedia page, like a good quasi-millenial)
2:43 “I feel like a Duck Dynasty guy living in a Miley Cyrus world and Washington DC is twerking on all of us.” MENTAL IMAGE… MY POOR EYES… Also, getting close to a conspiracy theory without revealing the subject of the discussion. I notice that the sermon’s been cut for length. I’m glad.
2:56 “I believe that we are just a few short years away from the government imposing their will on Christian churches.” Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the heart of our conspiracy theory, in which freedom of religion will suddenly disappear. Brace for further wild speculating along this line.
3:05 “I believe that pastors could find themselves at odds with the law of the land” Because freedom of expression will suddenly disappear as well??? There are always pastors at odds with the law. They are diverse, like the Christians in their congregations. That’s the point of your freedom. And of redemption. Can’t choose for or against God if you can’t choose.
3:30 “Brothers and sisters, my fellow southern Baptists, the Supreme Court may have redefined marriage, but God hasn’t redefined anything.” Actually, He has. Over the course of the Bible He changed the law by which humanity was supposed to live several times, and it’s subject to further interpretation by way of Bible study and personal revelation according to even the most conservative Christians. The definition of marriage changed as well, as this boy explains in his Bar Mitzvah speech on marriage equality4.
3:57 “On Friday, a mom-and-pop bakery out in Oregon was fined [a lot] for refusing to participate in a lesbian wedding.” What, you want your country to condone discrimination for “religious reasons”? Very, very, very slippery slope. Also, as far as I know you may pick your customer, but you cannot break a contract once they are your customer or then proceed to harass your customer… so what part of the story aren’t you telling me here?
4:06 “[Amount repeated] That was the price they had to pay for standing in the faith.” No… that’s what they were fined for discrimination and thus violating human rights. As Christian, you’re supposed to appreciate every human, actually, and their sexuality, even if you object to it, should be no reason to treat them badly. As Christian with another sexuality, that makes me very scared of what you’d do if I visited your church and spoke up about it.
4:22 – 5:10 Marriage clerks have to resign if they refuse to bless gay marriage, oh the horror. Well, duh. The separation of church and state, advocated by Martin Luther himself 500 years ago, ensures churches a measure of freedom in the management of their privileges, such as blessing marriages, but also means church and state may differ on the subject. It ensures you are free to practice your religion as you see fit while others’ rights are not infringed upon, which may create mild moral dilemmas for people with government jobs. Oh, the horror.
5:18 “The Supreme Court’s decision now means that Gay Rights trump religious liberty.” No, it doesn’t, it means that Christians practicing their religion may from now on not infringe upon one of the basic rights of people because of their sexual orientation. For someone with a non-standard sexual orientation, that’s very comforting. God has not punished Holland with a great flood for legalising gay marriage years ago. Though that flood may still happen, if you keep ignoring environmental change.
5:20 “Churches and faith-based organisations must prepare for the law-suits and government investigations that are on the way.” Yes… if you discriminate against people, then yes. Be prepared for the law to be enforced by the government of your country and God save you from America…oh, wait… Also, did I mention the conspiracy theory?
5:43 “Thank goodness there are men of God like your pastor […] who are willing to stand up to the government and stand up for the Word of God.” Don’t worry, no really, you get to choose what happens inside your church, just not outside. And I am a Christian, who together with other Christians went over the Bible rather thoroughly, led by a pastor, and then decided gay marriage should absolutely happen in their church, indicated by a vote from the members and ratified by the church council and included in our rules, completely according to church management as Calvin proposed back during the Reformation. I feel insulted that he accused us of being less than Christian. As a member of a religion who knows her position to be alien to others of that religion, I feel discouraged.
6:13 “Public schools where they are now deconstructing gender, they’re teaching children about gender fluidity.” Oh good, that should be a helpful addition to sexual education that should lessen bullying based on gender and help even cisgender children with being more comfortable with not being very manly or girly-girlish. Inviting a guest speaker would be really good. A pair of representatives from the local LGBT awareness centre answering crude questions from red-faced teenagers really helped prevent bullying based on sexual orientation in our high school and helped me not be totally clueless ten years down the line now I’m exploring my own sexuality.
6:20 “[They’re teaching t]hat there’s no such thing as male or female. That you might wake up feeling like a boy, but by third period you might start feeling like a girl.” Er… you should fact-check. Really, even the five-click google method of research should suffice. (in which you click the top five results after googling a question, fact or word) Here, I’ll help: “God in his eternal wisdom created more than the two simplistic gender roles your limited mortal mind can conceive of.” There you go, I’ve even packaged it in Christianese.
6:27 “And that’s okay.” Yes. It is, if it works like that for someone.
…and we’re skipping his hyperbolic story about a Nebraska school, I feel he’s repeating his mistakes… (“You’ve got to start calling the kids purple pinguins.” SRSLY?)
…and we’re also skipping further ‘anecdotes’ of people being ‘discriminated against’ because of their opinions on LGBTQIA issues, I feel he’s on repeat again and I don’t know the specifics of those cases…
9:15 “Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this. ‘Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.’” You do realise he was protesting his church’s pacifism towards the Nazis and arguing for not condoning the Holocaust, right? Ooooh, Godwin’s law!
9:30 “We have reached a Bonhoeffer moment for every Bible-believing Christian in the United States of America” That’d be why I’m speaking, or rather writing, instead of just punching a wall and yelling at God about your utter stupidity and could He please have a little less mercy on that. And this is relevant for Christians worldwide and especially every asexual spectrum person among them and in touch with them.
…we get our final ‘anecdote’, a boy’s religious valedictorian speech was ‘censored by five government officials’ and he was ‘helped by the holy spirit’… (Ripping your speech in half is ‘an act of civil disobedience’ SRSLY?)
11:00 “They may demand to know the content of our prayers. They may try to shut down our bakeries. They may try to silence our voices. But we will not be silenced. We will not be intimidated. A Chicago pastor said this. We don’t bow down to the Republican Elephant. We don’t bow down to the Democratic Donkey.” I give you some more pearls of conspiracy theory rhetoric. AND THIS BUGS ME, WHO IS OUR MYSTERIOUS VILLAIN??? He has yet to name a concrete person or group the audience is meant to oppose. It’s implied it’s some sort of amalgam of the government and the LGBTQIA community, but MYSTERIOUS VILLAIN IS MYSTERIOUS!!!!!11!!!1!
11:22 “We bow down to the line of Judah.” Oh really? If you want to follow Mordechai’s example from the book of Esther, you’re only to bow down to God, not Jesus’ human patrelineal ancestors. “The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.” Right, that one. Good save.
Aside from a cathartic blog post, I hope this serves as an example of what harm this type of rhetoric can bring if you’re both Christian and part of the asexual community. A short summary.
- These rich, white, heterosexual men and women in power are imaging themselves in the role of victim and underdog, fearing a nebulous mish-mash of government and LGBTQIA activists and promoting that fear. They lash out like cornered cats you really want to avoid.
- The inaccurate and defensive speechifying means there is no occasion for a dialogue or hint of welcome for the strange and unknown, like, say, an often overlooked and relatively new fourth sexual orientation and its diverse expressions in a percent of the population and the implications this might have over the course of their lives.
- They refuse adamantly to consider people who aren’t cisgender or heterosexual as normal or Christian. THAT HAS HUGE IMPLICATIONS. It means they refuse me and any Christian or seeker with an LGBTQIA identity spiritual guidance. It means they refuse us unbiased pastoral aid. It means they refuse us the space to practice our faith in peace anywhere they are present. It means they refuse to recognise us as Christians. And for one Christian to disapprove of another’s journey as follower of God… That hurts. I can be part of a different church and another denomination but… I would at least like for God to judge my worth, not for my fellow believers to sit in judgment when they really should know better.
- They spit this venom not just at Christians with an LGBTQIA identity, but at other Christians who approve of the LGBTQIA rights to be informed, educated, married, etc. and really, at anyone. To put it mildly, that gives me a bad rep by association, okay. I gotta explain that bullshit ad nauseam if I want to identify as Christian in public or people think I think like that too.
- Being American and white and English speakers, they play a large role in determining what the mainstream discourse is, what gets told in churches, in the media and in Christian schools and organisations worldwide. They are a roadblock in the face of myself and other demisexuals, grey-asexuals, asexuals, aromantics and others on the asexual spectrum from finding out about that sexual orientation, from being accepted for it, from being able to integrate it with their religious beliefs and identities. And I think that’s very sad.
Further reading and watching
- Last Week Tonight’s report on Hobby Lobby’s case in court for religious “freedom”. (video)
- Fox News dude Todd Starnes’s sermon “Chick-Fil-A is the official chicken of Jesus” (video)
- Duck Dynasty wikipedia page (webpage)
- Duncan McAlpine Sennet’s Bar Mitzvah speech on marriage equality in Portland Oregon (video)
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)
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.
I’m kicking off the blog post series about Asexuality and Christianity with a discussion of a central concept – love. Several things led up to this. One – I realised I’m guilty of amatonormativity, like most of us.1 Two – The Gay Rights movement was a big deal because they challenged the church on a core concept – love – and won. Three – I experience the church as a good place because it grants more space for love without sex (or romance) than popular culture. Four – well… the beginning is a good place to start.
Since everyone’s free to have sex, the idea of love without sex has been romanticised and squeezed into a too-tight corset. The more conservative – and vocal – side propagate only two scenarios – you become celibate when you wish to serve the Lord (as pious heterosexual or any gay person) and you remain a virgin until marriage, as a girl and as a couple.
That means the not-having of sex is considered a choice – a choice to abstain the way you’d choose to fast during Lent or Ramadan. Old people aren’t discussed. Married and divorced people are rarely discussed. The (disapproving) focus is generally on women’s behaviour and appearance… and people who do not have sex by nature rather than choice aren’t really part of the discourse.
It’s frustrating… when I’ve heard gorgeous sermons combating all of the above, seen elders from literally all walks of life, seen entire church communities reject boat loads of prejudice… yet it’s the ugliness that somehow remains the mainstream Christian tradition the world over.
That’s where the Gay Rights movement comes in… I find it hard to describe the immensity of the impact they had, since I was still a teenager when the churches had their identity crises in Holland. Consider this, though… If God is love, Jesus preaches love, the main commandments are to love God and love other people… and then a group demanded that first their sexuality and romantic love was recognised, and then the right to have the relationships growing out of that love legalised and blessed… It meant each church and each Christian needed to (re)define what love – and marriage – meant to them.
Some accepted, some rejected anything that didn’t match their heteronormative, monogamous romantic ideal. By fighting for that acceptance, the movement created space for others who were ‘different’ in gender and sexuality.2
Here’s what you might not know: romantic love was never the main ‘love’ in the Bible. Platonic love is. The three words in the original Greek text for love are eros, agape and charitas. Eros is what’s at the heart of romance, a blend of love and lust. Charitas is the kind Superman has in spades, what sends people to Africa to help poor people and keeps us from being egotistical shitheads.
Agape’s the big one. It’s platonic love, yes, but the unselfish type you can feel for any specific person or being. 3 If you’ve heard Gospel (like in Sister Act), you’ve probably thought it’s cheesy love songs. They are. Absolutely simplistic-lyrics goofball-optimism yell-it-from-the-rooftops love songs. People serenading God like Romeo did Juliet. Except it’s not sexual, or romantic.
That type of love is also what you’re mainly meant to feel for others. Not the subservience of a doormat, not the possessiveness of a master or lover. So yes, I’m saying Harry Potter is actually very Christian in its relationships. Twilight is not.
If it’s a type of platonic love that’s emphasised, I think that’s where space is created for asexuality and aromanticism. It removes ‘true love’ as the crowning glory of a person’s life. More importantly, outside of the Western world, it removes (heterosexual) marriage as the be-all and end-all of life, that one act that can make you leave your parents’ house, that one act that means you’re a grown up, that one relationship that defines you. It leaves space for other types of love, other types of relationships.
I believe this is the source of my sense of freedom – that love for family and friends and God is presented as equally fulfilling as a romantic relationship. It means that not having a relationship on one level is balanced out by having relationships on other levels.
Equally, sex is not seen as a necessity. Asexuality is unknown, unfortunately, but the mere fact that sex is not considered always good and always present in adult life… is a step in the right direction. It’s still a very limited picture that’s painted, though. Visibility of asexuality and other sexualities in general still has a long way to go.
I think it also – to some degree – removes the amatonormativity present in our society. If romantic love is simply one of several types to feel, it isn’t so important if you don’t feel it. I believe this is definitely a topic worth exploring by someone who’s both Christian and aromantic.
Do not mistake me – should you wish to be in this space, you’ll have to create it in most churches, but this, I think, is where we might fit.
I’m going to leave it there – hope that gave you guys some food for thought. Several ideas, such as chastity, will be tackled in future posts. Check out the articles in the footnotes too. They’re worth a read. And one article that explores marriage as a lesser relationship in Psychology Today.
I’m also still reading myself, so this blogpost is not written by an expert, but as an exploration of the subject. Points of view may change in the future and comments and questions are very welcome.
- A good intro to amatonormativity as another persistent subconcious prejudice is the Thinking Asexual’s blog post “Take Off Those Romace-colored Glasses”
- The Ace Theist did a survey of churches asking them if they were accepting of people from the LGBTQIA community.
- Wikipedia points out that “filia” also had this meaning, and agape has mainly come to mean both love for/of God and love for fellow human beings in religious contexts.
The first adjustment in my mental card catalogue on sexuality: demisexual is a shade of ace. It seems it’s treated that way in the wider discourse, and I think it’s good to adopt it. Since I’m starting a series on issues related to sexuality that’s not just applicable to my particular flavour, I’ve chosen to speak about “asexuality” rather than “demisexuality” for this series.
My religious and sexual identities conflict. Not because I risk discrimination, since a lesser or absent sex drive is not very likely to offend any parties other than whoever’s trying to have sex with you. But as discourses, the asexuality blog-o-sphere and Christian church express some very different beliefs, especially on the subject of sex. I feel I cannot participate in either openly and sincerely without reconciling what I believe to be true about my faith with what I believe to be true about my sexuality.
This won’t mean I can resolve centuries-old issues about sex and morality. It does mean I feel the two discourses can mesh, and I blog about one individual case in which they do, hopefully.
I will be entering into this discussion with a personal stake, but I believe that might be the only way to talk about a sensitive subject. I think few of us are unaffected by religion, member or not. To be fair, I do write as someone who was raised Christian and in a very liberal country and is comfortable with both these facts.
I wish to explore some of the core areas of contention by taking a closer look at what a few schools of thought or influential people have to say about sex, love and sexuality. I invite suggestions for topics in this series, and I’m always looking for other points of view, so if you’ve read or written about this subject, let me know. And feel free to leave your own questions or ideas for topics in a comment.
The posts planned in this series at this point:
- Asexuality and the Sanctification of Sexual Purity
- Asexuality and American Christians on Lust
- Asexuality and Apostle Paul about the Sense of Sex
- Asexuality and (Saint) Augustine on Chastity
- Asexuality and Space for Abstinence
- Asexuality and Denominational Variations
- Asexuality around the Christian World