I told her I was asexual on the getting-to-know-my-patient form.
(Use language they might know.)
It was a test. She passed.
Reward unlocked: basic trust.
She leans forward, in an overstuffed armchair.
I am twisting my fingers, seated on an overstuffed sofa.
“Do you feel like you’re denying yourself anything because of your sexuality?”
I do not feel any less than whole, but…
Non-default sexuality. Limited options.
(There are paths you cannot walk. Choices have consequences even if you’re free to make them.)
“Yes, I do.”
“What, then? What don’t you let yourself have?”
“I don’t know.”
Sex. Love. Relationship. Loneliness. Family. Future. Life. Community. Connection. Status.
I type in mental keywords until I see what’s labeled ‘denied’.
Relief, which ebbs when I realise most results are coloured with doubt (do I want this) and dread (where do I even start) and trepidation (must research alternatives).
“I figure it’ll just be, y’know, harder for me. Or different. Don’t really know how to fit things in my life that I want.”
“I’m not normal.”
“Don’t put yourself down, now.”
“Actually… I like being who I am, a little weird. What it means for my life, though, not a clue. Which kinda brings us back to the whole no-clue-having about my life in general that brought me here.”
What helped, before, upon discovery of my demisexuality, was others who struggled, or didn’t. Their stories.
…must research alternatives…
Find a Let’s Play for asexuality.
My identity: demisexual.
Widen the search parameters, lieutenant.
What I say in my head: not ‘impossible’ but ‘difficult’.
How much have I denied myself, thinking that?
How much, by leaving things undefined, unexplored, chaos.
By choosing nothing, what did I choose?
Lesson from a therapist: a good one will not just accept, but help.
Questioning sexuality included.
Reward unlocked: active trust.
In writing this, I have had to go back and change every ‘we’ and ‘you’ into ‘I’.
False sense of safety in generalities and impersonal language.
How much have I denied myself?
Must research alternatives.
I stick my tongue out at the advertising, after checking the isle is empty.
I buy chocolates.
Quest part the first: Count Your Blessings.
Reward unlocked: family hugs.
I debate whether to post this. Therapy is personal.
It is exactly the sort of story I’m seeking.
I trawl blogs.
I am not alone.
Still comforting, several years in.
I read a book on feminism, women and desire, femininity and sexuality. Another. And another.
My head gets stuck, thinking. I confuse several people with my doubts, speaking of it.
What does it mean, I wonder, I ask the page. For a demisexual. Or cross out demi and insert whatever applies.
Sexual freedom on the asexual spectrum. Liberated. How? What does that even mean?
I realise, exactly that.
Freedom, to be a complete individual with honest desires. No more and no less than what I am.
A shape of desires unique to me. To explore.
The freedom to explore. The myth – until I believe it, until it is fact – that I am worth an exploration. A sort of Grand Tour of the sexual world in words… until I come home.
Where I belong, with words and language that I shape.
To word the shape of myself, this new thing.
Take a bucket list. Cross out what I – only I, not what-I-should-be – don’t want to try. Keep what I do want.
The freedom, to edit later, how I worded myself first. To evolve, too, in the shape of my desire.
The desires I have, not what-I-should-be.
Should. A standard. A standard that is meaningless, if the world still assumes humans are all sexual.
I am free to deny. Liberated to say no. Or maybe. Or a little bit. Or very rarely, with that someone I meet once in a blue moon.
Maybe, in a few years, I’ll desire you that way. I will not desire you now. This is okay.
I am free. Yet.
It is a freedom that is an ideal, itself a desire. A freedom that takes years, to reshape myself gradually after that first break from being sexual.
A freedom that can be lonely, because “no, nothing, thanks, I’ll sit here, quietly” can be easier than a full reshaping of the self until it can be said: “This, this is what I do want.”
To dare say.
But, I want. I want to word myself positively. I want to be free. I want to speak in desires.
I want more than to simply say: I want no sex, I seldom want sex, I want sex very rarely with maybe this person in that circumstance.
I feel I am bursting at the seems with want. For a full partnership, for love, for a future.
Sex, the thing unwanted, seems paltry.
I do not want to live defined by that.
So, I attempt words. I try to reshape the self. I strive for the positive, for the wanting.
The freedom to desire only what I want. No more, no less.
The freedom for words, for actions, unpunished. Room to speak. Room to grow.
The desire for acceptance, for fulfillment.
A life in freedom.
A self free to desire.
Desires freely worded.
Freely denied, too.
A freedom that only invites and does not demand.
Isn’t that desirable?
I can unite my desires and my freedom. I will.
I want to, to reconcile these, and have words.
For my contribution to January’s Carnival of Aces, I hope to explore how my sexuality impacted my view of my physical self. Sex and gender feature obliquely. A person is much more, and I hope I can delve a little into those deeper layers.
Being demisexual means, to me, that my lust or arousal is triggered very rarely, and always, only, within the context of a pre-existing significant emotional connection, whether the person on the receiving end is real or fictional. On a day-to-day basis, this means I experience the world stripped of all sexual connotations and subtext, the way we imagine only a child can. I know it’s there, the same way I know the planet is round. As an intellectual point of interest only.
Physicality, for the purposes of this post, is the sense or experience of the body. Body image. The experiencing of sensory input. Bodily contact, movement. The material part of myself.
Here’s where sexuality and gender played the biggest role.
As a woman I often saw – see – my body in third person. Subject to the approving eyes of others, which made shopping a harrowing experience when I let the insecurities get to me. I wasn’t particularly aware of it, until a large part of those doubts disappeared.
Redefining my sexuality meant I wasn’t obligated to feel love or lust like others anymore. There was a new normal that gradually asserted itself.
What I didn’t expect was for that ball to bounce back. I stopped imaging my own body as attractive or sexy. It became a (much less sexual) collection of all the features that remained. Healthy, tall, cold or hot, numb or sensitive, tired or brimming with energy.
Other people’s view of me became just that, somebody else’s problem. I sloughed off much of the fear and worry with losing that objectivation. My physical person turned into a tool to experience myself and the world as it was.
If I still step outside myself it is with much more enjoyment. My wardrobe is far, far more varied. Dressing myself has become an exercise in gender performance* or practical consideration or deliberate presentation.
The asexual community was really good for me when it came to deconstructing concepts such as relationships and attraction, how these aren’t simple, how these aren’t the same for us. How they might be different for each individual, in fact.
Thing is, I don’t have much to go on. I don’t feel attraction often, I haven’t a big history of many relationships that I cannot sort into easy categories like “friends” and “family”. So beyond some self-examination and speculation, it’s not a productive place for me to go.
However, I do have a fully functioning body. What’s that doing, then, if it’s not feeling the lust other adults do? Cause I certainly don’t feel frigid, or like a mind in some earthly prison. I am much happier now than I ever was with my body, in fact.
Turns out it’s just… experiencing the world. Sunshine on skin. Fresh food for tastebuds. Physical exercise for stretching muscles and losing energy. Good music for the ears.
I was grounded in my senses like any other human being. It should have been self-evident, perhaps, but it was a revelation. Because once I knew, I could do it more deliberately. And the world is a fantastic place. Who knew?
I feel I have been told: being asexual means you’re less happy because you cannot experience that ultimate completion of the ultimate connection between human beings that is the sexual act for expressing romantic love. Accepting asexuality, or demisexuality, means that – on some level – you will be alone. I feel I have been told a lie.
We probably cannot fulfill – and must redefine – some societal expectations and our normative role, within our cultures. True. We will probably need to be braver to find what we seek, and seek longer than the average Joe. True.
I cannot love more or less for having redefined myself. I do not seek less affection from my peers and my family and my community.
In fact, I seek more. I find more. Because, get this, I finally know what I want. Having my world stripped of all the illusions that came with thinking myself heterosexual, means a haze of confusion that isolated me from others is gone.
For example, I feel (fear?) that I’m rarely going to have a sexual or romantic partner. I also know I want physical affection. Just because repeated experience tells me I feel better for having it. So I dare to cross some of those lines that my individualistic society draws, and hug, and touch, within the context of all the platonic relationships I have. What I find if I dare is, most people respond, often smiling, in kind.
I know that I want to feel good things, and together with someone. So I simply go do stuff I like, and bring some company. Intimacy and shared experience achieved.
And yes, that’s simplification, but the lesson I am learning remains, which is, I want stuff from people, together with people, and often they’re simple, about touch and company and intimacy, and there are many ways to get those things. And because it’s all about finding ways to love people and be loved, this journey of discovery is in and of itself enjoyable.
I hope I have been able to give you a glimpse of how discovering my sexuality has had – by and large – a positive impact on how experience my body, in relation to itself, the world and others. I am very curious to hear how your sexuality has impacted you, on this and other levels.
It’s a subjective experience, and one that evolves, but I do believe it’s a significant one. For me, at least, it’s meant a lot to have an ace spectrum along which I could (re)define myself. It’s given me back my body in ways I didn’t even know I’d lost it. I hope it’s helped you in some ways too.
*I hope I’m not overstepping any bounds here, but I feel that, even being a cisgender female, there are days when I am, if you will, more or less feminine (and in Dutch female and feminine would be the same word, here (vrouwelijk)). It plays a significant role in what I put on in terms of clothing, jewelry, make-up, hairstyle, how I walk, and yes, sometimes even influences my choice of activity, or is influenced by my choice of activity perhaps, I’m not sure. The biggest deal – for me – was how much of this remains once sexual subtext/connotations were taken out of the equation, and it’s all the more enjoyable for it.
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.
Be warned, somewhat explicit stuff. Third part of the three-parter for the September Carnival of Aces.
A big part of my (sexual) identity’s always been what I read and imagine. Basically, all of the stories I consume and produce, all of the worlds I’ve lived in, however fleetingly. They allow me to be more than what I am in my daily life and experience more than what I’d be into in actual fact.
The first twenty-five years of my life I did not feel sexual attraction. I wasn’t actually sure of or interested in this fact until after I did experience it and became aware I hadn’t before that point. A large part of it is a rise in confidence and emotional comfort. I do believe this is due to my demisexuality, that emotional well-being affects whatever capacity for a sex drive I have and attraction I can feel indirectly. Crudely put, if I cannot put myself out there, I cannot let others in well enough to form the emotional bond that precedes sexual attraction.
I did have a very rich fantasy life. I read far and wide. I imagined all sorts of scenarios. What drew me to them, I think, was the idea of being that close to a person, a craving for physical sensations and new experiences. They did a little for me, sexually, but never gave rise to more than mild arousal.
It has deeply affected how I experience sex now that I do have a libido. Physical stimulation’s mostly window dressing. I depend almost entirely on mental stimulation. I can and have masturbated fully clothed in public without moving an inch while others presumed me to be staring out a window, bored. I’m also far more easily attracted to fictional characters because they give rise to a deep connection almost immediately, especially if they’re the point of view character.
On the other hand, discovering demisexuality and experiencing sexual attraction to a handful of real-life people has started to affect what I wish to read and fantasise about. I no longer crave the idea of being close to people now that I can be for real, even if it’s platonically. The physical sensations seem less important and few concepts are new or stimulating anymore.
Instead, I’ve started to retrace what I could be attracted to in real life. Romantic relationships rich in emotional intimacy. Ensemble stories that explore friendships and being part of a group. Crushes in which the sexual component is small or comes later or even not at all, to see what in the range between platonic and highly sexual I’d ever be interested in.
It’s made for an interesting change in reading material. It’s also made for interesting fantasies that, were they movies, probably wouldn’t even shock a five-year-old. They arouse less, but engage my interest in far more areas at once, which suits me better.
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.
Another multiparter for a Carnival of Aces, this one for the September edition, about living asexuality and experience… so I wanted to share a little of my current experiences as a demisexual, and in the next two posts, about how my Christian faith and avid reading have affected my experience of my sexuality.
I identify comfortably as demisexual, as belonging to the “rarely to never sexually attracted to another person” part of the population. I have constructed a foundation. On it, I can build an understanding of my interest and behaviour towards potential significant others. I can see the consequences of my deviating desires on a personal, social, moral, intellectual and spiritual level.
Building that understanding will continue during my lifetime and beyond, since it happens within a community and orientation only now defining its vocabulary and parameters. Nevertheless, it’s boon to my mind, which demands to know itself, and to my soul, which is relieved to love itself a little more. Most though to my conscience and curiosity, pleased to understand the human condition a little better and thus improved its capacity to act and explore and dream.
I have spoken of my demisexuality to my closest family. I have spoken of asexuality to some open-minded strangers. Living life as demisexual has affected me, even in the span of a few months. I want to look at the changes it’s wrought.
Atypical – I’ve always conceived of myself as part of a formless crowd, where sexuality is concerned. The post-modern open-minded heterosexual, or something. I’m really not, now. I feel I’ve wandered out into a far field, overgrown and only crossed by a few. It’s made my exploration of my sexuality relevant beyond personal discovery, which helps to keep me writing. It’s also scary, to be other, even in a small way, which keeps me quiet for now, but also researching.
Shameless – I’ve shed the need to feel anything when presented with a sexual cue. I may or may not feel something and that’s okay. It means I feel free to act in a sexualised context as I do in any other, which will probably make me a bit weird but mostly makes me more comfortable. It also means I’m leaning more towards indifference about sex than I thought I was. At the same time, it’s allowing me to discover what I actually do like.
Aware – I haven’t felt the need to educate myself as acutely in years. Here were aspects of identity and experience essential to people’s sense of self, and I had no idea. I’m still learning and I’m loving it. All of the new words, all of the new concepts!
Lonely – The largest and most recent discovery, or more an articulation of a formerly indistinct and un-articulated desire: I want. Not sex, but I have a longing for connection and company and intimacy usually associated with sex and relationships with a sexual component. I’m still discovering how I want to fill that gap exactly.
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.
I’ve been browsing for some published works on asexuality. Demisexuality usually leads to “0 results”. The sparse information disappoints, but I’ve found a few treasures I’ll be reading.
One find I wished to share with you in time for the Carnival of Aces on History. I was overjoyed to see asexuality in the glossary of The Routledge History of Sex and the Body: 1500 to the Present. Granted, it led to the “Afterword”, but Lisa Downing used it to share a few good thoughts about asexuality from an academic and historical perspective.
“Bisexuality and asexuality are particularly significant modalities of identity that have arisen in counter- or reverse-discursive forms in recent years, as mode of resistance to dominant narratives of both sexual orientation organized on the principles of binary sexed and gendered attraction and to compulsory sexuality.
“Histories of sexuality have been rather silent on the subject of asexuality, understood in the current sense of an identity or ‘orientation’, rather than historically as a projection onto certain groups and classes of an ‘innate nature’ (such as women in the eighteenth century, following discourses of domesticity, as Kathryn Na[?]burg shows).
“A genealogy of asexuality might show that its discursive progressors are celibacy, a disciplinary practice of clerics, and the medicalized diagnoses of frigidity and impotence. Such a genealogy would offer a unique insight into the ways in which identity formation can issue from the silences, stigmas and stereotypes and would demonstrate an unusual temporal drag.” (‘drag’ as in lapse in time and ‘drag’ as in performance of gender or sex, coined by Elizabeth Freeman, an in-text footnote explains.)
“In parallel cases (e.g. homosexuality and fetish/BDSM), the historical gap between pathologization and the establishment of subcultures is much shorter, making asexuality a unique test case. [… I]t will be important for future scholarship to incorporate these emergent voices, identities and practices into an account of the past and contemporary landscapes of sexuality. It is also instructive to note how those subjects embodying less discursively well-established identity positions can find themselves marginalized even within putatively non-normative spaces such as queer and feminist communities.”
- “Afterword” by Lisa Downing. The Routledge History of Sex and the Body: 1500 to the Present. Ed. Sarah Toulalan and Kate Fisher. Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, 2014. p. 530.
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)