Spoilers for BBC Sherlock, mostly. This post will make no sense if you’ve not read up on at least a basic idea of what relationship anarchy is, and also know that my understanding of it is very basic. i.e., the philosophy that you should form relationships with individuals and only allow them to be shaped by what’s inside of that relationship, no outside boxes or limits or pre-defined trajectories.
I’ve been wanting but unable to write this (late) submission for the November edition of Carnival of Aces because it’s a lot harder to put emotional experience into words than it is theory. I also thought I needed to get out several other stories first.
Then I watched BBC Sherlock‘s “The Abominable Bride” with a rather relatable conversation(1), followed by a documentary on Spock on how characters resonate not because they are perfect, but because they are relatable, first of all. Of which, in this case, Sherlock is a very good example.
The conversation, held between a nineteenth-century Watson and Holmes on their knees at midnight staking out the gothic manor of their client, consists of Watson trying to ferret out Sherlock’s type of women and past sexual experiences, and Sherlock dismissing this out of hand and admitting he doesn’t have any such experiences, he chooses not to.
Thing is, this whole episode is set inside Sherlock’s mind. And I wondered, why have this conversation with the imaginary incarnation of his friend? Answer: because I do too. We have this conversation with ourselves, as well as out loud. We affirm what we are to ourselves, verbalise what we believe ourselves to be in the face of complete disbelief and incomprehension and ignorance.
That’s not to say Sherlock’s is or isn’t asexual, what’s important here is that Sherlock’s trying to express a fundamental part of his personal life to a good friend, who just cannot accept it, even inside Sherlock’s mind. And that, right there, is what I related to. What is, I hope, is the point I’ll make.
We are utterly alien to what most people believe sexuality is, should be. What most people feel. Whether we are gray, aro or any other variation of (or close to) asexual.
(We should not exist.
Yet. We do.)
The sexual revolution took our bodies and our sexual desires, and sought to ensure everybody owned theirs, that people didn’t have their rights and freedom taken away any longer.
Our rights, duties, freedom are still in question. Whether the desire for sex exists naturally in every rational body never has been in question. As soon as people were recognised as fully independent, sentient and equal (let’s not forget that part of the revolution), they were viewed as sexual beings.
(Until now, until us.)
Into this system of parameters, this post-sixties paradigm of sexuality, we are introducing zero. We are inserting so fundamental a concept, we need to reconstruct the complete logical framework of our philosophy. A big part of our community effort has been defining new words. Recognition of our asexuality is often followed by meditation on what that means for us, for our identities, for our relationships.
No wonder, then, that relationship anarchy, completely abandoning the old confinement of relationship definitions formed in a world in which we did not yet exist, as concepts, seems, well, logical.
If we are to make a brave new world in which we exist, recognised, accepted, should we not leave the old one? Shouldn’t we try to imagine? Like Star Trek imagined a multi-species crew in a time of racism? Shouldn’t we reject (delete) what our friends and family try to push onto us? Expectations that fit as ill as a childhood christmas sweater. Paths in life that we will not ever walk, and even if we set foot on them, it’s at a completely new angle.
However, we are not islands. We live in relationship to so many people. Even if, like Sherlock, we choose to have no sex or romance at all, we have friends and family. So we have conversations in our heads. We have conversations in our homes. We have conversations in cafes and at christmas dinner.
You may have noticed that I use my words (sexuality, desire, etc.) imprecisely. That’s because I’m not done verbalising what I am, what I want, exactly. I know it, but I cannot speak it (in woorden vatten), coin the right phrases.
My problem with anarchy in general is this: we make rules about everything, even if it’s arbitrary ones, just so that we can communicate what we’re doing. And also: I want creation after destruction. If we are to live in a brave, new world, I bloody well want the brave new world, not post-apocalyptic nonsense with every man for himself and that only working if everybody is as nice as Jesus (whether you believe him to be God or good, wise teacher).
My problem with relationship anarchy is this: broken down to my essentials I am a social, territorial creature who seeks community, seeks peers, seeks belonging. Seeks security. I must have some path to walk, some dream to envision. I cannot live for a future composed of a chaotic staticy fuzz, trusting blindly that it will resolve itself into some sort of picture eventually.
My problem without anarchy is this: I cannot keep living in the old paradigm. Living in an openly sexual society in which I, by necessity, must also, naturally have desires in that direction, that suits me ill. Would make my collection of desires (demisexuality) at best what it is now, a topic uninteresting, unexamined in social situations, a taboo that hangs over conversations when everybody else compares what they have or what they want and I dig into my piece of pie at birthdays or flee to the bathroom. Since I am more polite and less outspoken than Sherlock.
A few Sundays ago it was brought home very vividly that the church, as such, offers only temporary refuge as a place where I don’t need to be sexual. I’ve moved, and my current church is more conservative. Since I wanted to be active in ministry, I reached out two of the staff members, because I wanted to be clear on what I could and could not say on the subject of relationships, LGBT issues (since I veer off rather sharply from them there) and sexual morality. I had two lovely, understanding, sympathetic personal conversations about how everybody’s different and how enriching that is with them both, which satisfied me for the next several months. Then… well. The church does not preach any particular behaviour, but rather vocally supports a charity that brought this home…
The dominant Christian (Protestant? Conservative?) consensus about “chastity” (what is correct in regards to sex and decent public behaviour, more or less) is: “Preferably, have no sex before or outside of a heterosexual marriage, don’t even think about it”. Mine is: “Practice responsible and informed sexual behaviour according to your desires and ideals, the general cultural norm of decency and respect others’ human rights.” I cannot reconcile one with the other. Rather, they seem to be growing further apart as time goes on.
“Sexual purity” is the church’s security blanket against a society perceived to grow more sexual, entitled, degenerate and lawless. It’s a blanket that I fear will smother me if I do not step out from under it now.
So. I will be demisexual and Christian and at peace within myself but probably at odds with my brothers and sisters in faith at some point in the future, but that’s a post for another time.
My problem without relationship anarchy would be this: I will very rarely desire to seek out a relationship expected to include sex. I’m demisexual. If my experience holds true, I will be fleetingly sexually attracted to about half a dozen people in the next decade, and one, maybe two, more deeply. I feel sensual, emotional, romantic desire, yes, that well suit the intimacy of sex. Strictly sexual? Nothing. At all.
In the old world, I can only ever be a friend, a relation, an acquintance to people. I would fear to seek out a partner because it’d be unfair, because I might raise expectations I cannot (will not) fulfill.
(I am weird.)
(I shouldn’t be like this.)
(I am. Accept it. Move on.)
Yet, shedding preconceived notions, I gain so much. Because, you see, the repetoire for experiences to satisfy sensual or emotional or romantic desires is far, far wide than only those acts that would also satisfy sexual desire. A body thoroughly warmed and relaxed by the sun on a walk accompanied by a friend could already satisfy the first two, for an easy example.
Familiarity and trust are for me prerequisites to feel even an inkling of a full-on crush that isn’t platonic. By default, I will only grow a romantic relationship out of another, already existing relationship. The current split between platonic and sexual-romantic relationships is, to me, deeply unnatural. Runs counter to my nature.
Relationship anarchy is the only way I can have deeper relationships outside of my family. Accepting that the current system is useless is the only way not to panic. To accept I am not normal is the only way to discover what my norm is.
In other words, in convictions I run counter to my society. In my behaviour I am inoffensive, even rather… chaste.
Does relationship anarchy make sense, then, problematic as it is? Yes, yes it does, because of a humongous potential pay-off, relationships without limits to intimacy, to expression, to levels, to their growth. Wow, what a dream that is.
We’ve truly landed ourselves in a jungle, on a strange, new planet.
We have (given ourselves) such power.
Dif-tor heh smusma.
WATSON (equally precisely): Why do you need to be alone?
HOLMES: If you are referring to romantic entanglement, Watson – which I rather fear you are – as I have often explained before, all emotion is abhorrent to me. It is the grit in a sensitive instrument …
(Watson joins in with what he says next.)
HOLMES and WATSON (almost simultaneously): … the crack in the lens.
HOLMES: Well, there you are, you see? I’ve said it all before.
WATSON: No, I wrote all that. You’re quoting yourself from The Strand Magazine.
HOLMES: Well, exactly.
WATSON: No, those are my words, not yours! That is the version of you that I present to the public: the brain without a heart; the calculating machine. I write all of that, Holmes, and the readers lap it up, but I do not believe it.
HOLMES: Well, I’ve a good mind to write to your editor.
WATSON: You are a living, breathing man. You’ve lived a life; you have a past.
HOLMES: A what?!
WATSON: Well, you must have had …
HOLMES: Had what?
(Watson pauses a little awkwardly, then points at his friend.)
WATSON: You know.
HOLMES (angrily): Pass me your revolver. I have a sudden need to use it.
WATSON: Damn it, Holmes, you are flesh and blood. You have feelings. You have … you must have … impulses.
(Holmes closes his eyes in exasperation.)
HOLMES (through his teeth): Dear Lord. I have never been so impatient to be attacked by a murderous ghost.
WATSON: As your friend – as someone who … worries about you – what made you like this?
(Holmes has opened his eyes and looks at his friend almost sympathetically.)
HOLMES: Oh, Watson. Nothing made me.
(From somewhere to his left, scrabbling claws can be heard together with a sound of a dog whimpering anxiously, or as if it is in pain. Holmes turns his head in the direction of the sound.)
HOLMES: I made me.
Outtake from the script of “The Abominable Bride”, found here: http://arianedevere.livejournal.com/81409.html. Copyright owned by the BBC, props to the writer for the transcription.
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.
So after reading up on sexiness… This post and all those it links: https://luvtheheaven.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/an-exploration-of-not-wanting-to-be-sexy-and-of-never-feeling-sexy/
I realised, I’m unaccustomed to thinking of myself as sexy, and as nice as it is to be appreciated that way… it’s made me rather self-consciousness. Especially since I rarely consider anything visual sexy myself, as in causing the buzz in my mind and lower body that’s a precursor to desire or causing attraction.
So, as celebration and affirmation, here’s a list of what I find sexy.
Minds. Interesting bubbles of humanity. I could be delighted by them and revel in them all the livelong day.
Acts-ideas-agents. The trifecta of the body’s input, the mind’s input and the heart’s input. Done right, any input that works on all three levels and is contextualised as “sexy” can get really intense. Charged.
Sensation. Touch. Just. Works.
So, considering all that, am I sexy? All of the sexiness I perceive is based in interaction, preferably the reciprocal kind. It’s rather hard for me to consider it a personal quality.
Although… If a person is the source of much of it… It does tend to get associated with him. So, perhaps, after being sexy with a person for a while they become it, by association.
“Doctor, I want the female Viagra thingy, Ah-dee-dee-yee. Can you just get me prescription?”
“I generally want to get to know my patients, so let’s… talk first.”
“I’m in a hurry.”
“Please sit down, ma’am. Thank you. Why do you feel you need this drug?”
“Well… to have more sex.”
“What has led up to that?”
“Well, someone I know mentioned in and we got talking… so my husband said we should try it out. There’s no shame in getting a little help, y’know, when you can’t…. get revved up as easily as others.”
“Do you personally desire to have more sex?”
“I – I don’t know… not really, I guess… I mean, I like the activity once in a while but…”
“So you are satisfied with the intimacy as it is now?”
“No. I mean, I’d like more of it. But not orgasms. More… y’know, all the rest of it. Touching each other.”
“You’ve discussed this with your husband?”
“Not really, no. It’s awkward, y’know, talking about sex.”
“More so than having it?”
“Oh hell, yeah. I mean, you stutter and blush and there’s just so many words not coming out of my mouth.”
“Then perhaps… try to learn to talk and see if you can’t fulfill both your desires? It’ll be a lot cheaper and less harmful than chemicals. I can refer you to a good counselor, if necessary.”
“Oh… yes. Right. Yes, of course, thank you. I’m gonna, uh.”
“Have a good day ma’am. Oh, and ma’am?”
“If you’re in need of a mild stimulant, might I suggest a glass of red wine with dinner? It’s actually more effective and has far less side-effects.”
“Oh… right… Thank you. I’ll keep it in mind. Goodbye, doctor.”
“Next, please. Hello, ma’am, please take a seat.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary Doctor, I just need a prescription for that female Viagra I read about in the newspapers.”
“…have a seat, ma’am. Let’s talk about it, first.”
“No, I’m fine, otherwise, really, and I’m on my way to work, so if you could just -”
“We don’t prescribe it ma’am, for some very good reasons, have a seat, let me tell you why, and perhaps we can find a solution to your problem that does work. Alright?”
The newspapers in Holland keep referring to it as female Viagra. Le sigh. I really hope these are prescription drugs, at least, not available over-the-counter.
a.k.a. the (a)sexuality talk for five-year-olds, a contribution for the Carnival of Aces, August 2015.
Because when I thought long and hard about what I’d want for asexuality in the future, and for my own demisexuality, the best answer I could give was “explain it well to a kid, even if it’s just one.” This is written as a demisexual female adult speaking to a female child, feel free to adapt to other genres, sexual orientations and/or genders.
Questions that may start this conversation:
“Aunt, why don’t you have a boyfriend?”
“When are you going to have babies?”
“Mommy says you’re single. What’s single? Why are you single?”
Your gut reaction may be to wave off the question or give a short answer. It could be a good opportunity, if you have time and the relationship, to teach the child(ren) a little bit.
Step 1: Romantic/sexual love
You’ve got different kinds of love.
You love your mom and your dad. You love your friends. Some you play with every day, some only at school.
Then there’s the kind of love that makes you want to share your whole life with someone, like your mom and your dad, or a prince and a princess who live happily ever after.
Here’s room to discuss whatever questions or associations pop into the kid’s mind, which might be none, and might be myriad and most likely entirely out of the left field. It’s good to ground the concept of a relationship in their frame of reference, e.g. people they know or movies or series they’ve seen.
Right, so I’m a girl, like you, who can love people in different ways.
Step 2: Sexual orientations
As a girl you can love boys, then you’re heterosexual.
As a girl you can love girls, then you’re lesbian.
As a girl you can love boys and girls, then you’re bisexual.
As a girl you can love no one like that, then you’re asexual.
If a princess wants to marry, they usually marry a prince.
Sometimes they want to marry another princess, or no one at all.
Sometimes they love a prince first, but then a princess.
Here, again, it’s good to pause and answer questions, and maybe explain concepts they’re struggling to grasp. I’m choosing to reference Storms’ model here because it lets itself be divided into four relatively easy to grasp categories.
Step 3: Asexual life
I’m asexual, sort of, so I won’t love anyone like that, except sometimes.
Sometimes, when I’m really good friends with someone, I can fall in love with them.
Asexual people are a little special.
Some of them will marry and have a family.
Some of them only want to kiss, sometimes.
Some of them will live alone and have friends and family.
Some of them just want to live together with someone.
So they can live together like your mom and dad.
They can also live together like really, really good best-friends-forever.
So they can live together almost like a normal prince and princess, except maybe they don’t kiss.
They can also live together like two princesses who just really want to go on adventures together.
I’m handwaving the difference between romantic love and sexual attraction, and between having a relationship and marriage. The older the child, the better these distinctions can be made, but for a younger child, I just really want to get down the basic possibilities: who you can love, how you want to spend your life together with someone.
Here’s room again for questions, adapt definitions as appropriate to fit the audience too. But I do think the steps are important, especially this last one. Don’t forget that they did ask a question:
I don’t know what I’m going to do yet.
I’ll know when I meet someone.
Then we’re going to be friends first.
And then we’ll see.
For now I’m a perfectly good princess without a prince.
Shhh, I am dreaming.
Of a time after we’ve restored the actual relationship to its proper place as the thing that is defined by itself, rather than by some of its probable features, sex, romance, marriage, children…
Of a place where we have no limits to how sex and sexuality works in our minds, and only enough rules to moderate our behaviour by what does not harm others…
Of a culture in which the full variety of friendships and platonic relationships, from quick and companiable to deep and lifelong has been restored and accepted and verbalised…
Of a community in which we can relate as easily to God and other people as we wish, without narrow hoops to jump and big blind spots that hide so many of us…
Of people who are alright in their relationships and can find what intimacy they wish, without restriction or misunderstanding, having the words to communicate what they wish…
I dream of opening the door to the full variety of relationships we could have, that asexuality hints at by its existence. because through asexuality we are crossing out the word “essential” before all of the features we thought intimate relationships should have and replacing it with “possible”, and adding a whole host of features we have forgotten, all of the attractions and intimacies asexuality has barely started to (re)discover and name.
One philosophical point that stares me in the face is the dichotomy between body and soul or mind. Love has become the expression of the soul. Sex of the body. Asexuality says we do not wish for sex and your typical love and relationships with our bodies and minds, as one whole. We need to discuss them as one coherent entity if we are to be accepted.
Traditionally, the sexual drive is seen as lust, a drive of the flesh and therefore worse than the more superior desires of the soul or mind. In modern times, sexual desire is located in the body, the focus of research is on how body is the instrument to both give and receive whatever acts flow from attraction. It is seen as natural, because we’ve all got similar bodies, right? A lack of sexual desire is a physical dysfuntion…. right?
To be asexual is having an experience alien to humans, whether you view it from an old-fashioned or modern perspective about how sex and sexuality works.
Or so we’re told.
But if body and mind are one… if we do not receive signals from others that excite us sexually, and do not put out those signals, if we experience an absence of sexual desire or the absence of a wish to express a sexual drive or even just attraction to any specific partner, or whatever asexuality is, if all of these are seen as coming from the same source, the subject, body and soul, then can it be weird?
Then we can simply be on the asexual spectrum, body and soul, and some signs of that can be perceived through the senses, or through instruments, some expressions of that asexuality occur in our mind, conscious or subconscious, and it’s all part of the same process, no bit invalid, no bit not ours.
After all, by sheer volume, we are a pretty common variety of human beings, not a single anomaly, which means the sexual drive is not an essential feature of the human condition.
Away from my homeland, I cannot describe the geological age the typical friendship takes to develop in Holland without sounding ridiculous.1 The first year you meet and have coffee, go on outings. The second year you might have dinner together and visit each other’s birthdays. The third year you might go on vacation together or stay over. At some point, you are introduced to each other’s families, love becomes unconditional and you will share all of your sorrows and all of your big life events. When families expand with partners or children, these are absorbed into the friendships. Gender plays no role in these relationships, except that friends tend to be of the same gender and friendships with women tend to be more physically intimate. After growing for a while, friendships settle at a certain level of intimacy and stay there. These friendships can weaken over the years or endure a lifetime.
After my stay in the U.S., I could not describe how I’d experienced friendship there without sounding ridiculous.2 After a first meeting, either a group event or happenstance, you know each other enough to decide you like the person, and from that point onwards, they’re “a friend”. Intimacy, or at least its appearance, immediately shifts to the desired level and will likely stay there. Actual closeness grows more gradually by going through through the motions until they feel natural. None of this makes either the initial wish for friendship or the resulting relationship any less genuine. Nor does its sudden end when people grow out of touch or the instant reconnecting when people meet again. They are the simple effect of a more nomadic existence.
What I describe are abstracts, actual friendships are as different as the people that have them. My point is, the ideas we have about relationships, both platonic and not, are limited by the culture we live in. We follow a certain plan… but is it the best? The American idea for “friend” is different from the Dutch one… aren’t we limiting ourselves?
When we do not prefer a typical relationships that involves romance or sex, aren’t we better off opening the door to a multitude of relationships? And doesn’t that oblige us to explore, at least in theory, the length and breadth of the varieties of relationships we can have, outside of the carrot that’s been dangled in front of our noses all our lives, when we don’t want the carrot?
- The difficulty of making friends in Holland has become proverbial amongst expats, rather hilariously explained in this blog post “How to Make Friends With the Dutch“.
- Americans are sometimes thought shallow, but it’s largely (underestimated) cultural differences, see this article for an intercultural analysis of that impression.
Remember how sexualities were defined in the nineteenth century? And homosexuality actually became a thing, and then a criminal thing, and then a controversial thing, and then a semi-accepted thing? Well, before it was a thing at all, friendships were apparently much richer and more varied than afterwards.1
I do not know what species of platonic relationships we lost, in first becoming aware of and then liberating our sexual drives and orientations, but we forgot. We’ve replaced them with history about uptight prudes and romance novels about grand forbidden passions, sexual love. As enjoyable, as those are, the Victorian era’s become the straw man to our sexual revolution and individualism.
Dare we imagine that they had friendships that satisfied them in ways only our sexual and romantic relationships do? Dare we imagine that they had family and community close enough to them that outside of sexual attraction, they were not unsatisfied? Dare we imagine that even today, we have such relationships, with best friends and close family and more? Relationships with people we cannot define because their existence and the words for them have been retconned?
1. “But Were They Gay? The Mystery of Same-Sex Love in the 19th Century” kept poking at me. Article in the Atlantic by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz.
Defining what intimate relationships people desire outside the norm seems to be hard. For asexual-spectrum people in general, because the lack of sexual attraction somehow demotes both their desire and actual relationships in status. For aromantics in particular, because romance has come to be a surrogate for sexual attraction, in redefining relationships to fit asexuals. Diversity in the asexual community makes it harder still to get a handle on what we could want, rather than what we should want like “normal people”.
Tradition dictates four load-bearing walls for what I call “intimate relationships” in these posts, outside of family (including family-of-choice):
- Romance, the infatuation and attendant gestures to signal the presence of a love and desire for a relationship that differs from the affection felt for family and friends.
- Sex, the act that serves as hallmark for such relationships, for pleasure, duty or procreation.
- Marriage, the ritual that serves as the crowning public declaration and permanent contract for such a relationships.
- Children, the product of the sex, usually preferred after the marriage and aside from creatures in their own right, also the concrete product and immortalisation of such relationships.
Usually, marriage and children serve to hold up the construct. Western society prefers romance and sex. What asexuality implies is that relationship between people itself is all that is needed. The truth everyone ignores is, the four walls, even if all of them are present, would be a hollow construct without it.
That doesn’t help in quantifying relationships, but at least we can shovel some bullshit aside, this way.1
1. I started reading the webcomic “Shades of A” because it looked like a hilarious parody of Shades of Grey. I finished reading it and its sequel because it’s a good and vivid exploration of what it means to have an asexual relationship without all the comfortable limits of a ‘normal’ relationship.