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)
The problem with being a newbie is, you’re a newbie. I’ve been exploring ways to talk about asexuality from a historical perspective, hopefully involving my own country. I wanted to contribute to this month’s Carnival of Aces and I can’t. I do not have the experience to feel the weight of some issues over others, or even to get all the facts straight or set up a proper timeline.
Someone already made a timeline, by the way, it’s very cool. Go check it out.
Rather than broaden the scope so I’m regurgitating material everyone can read on the internet, or pretending I’m the expert I’m not… I’m going to change the approach to suit what I have found. The exploration taught me I need to start getting my facts and words straight by getting up to date with the current literature a bit more. As a cisgender white female, sexuality indeterminate, there’s a great deal I’ve never thought about or questioned.
When you don’t speak up, the nice heteronormative sorting hat puts you in with the silent majority, after all. And I’m Hufflepuff, not Gryffindor.
So yes, I’m going to be starting yet another blog post series, this time exploring those things I’ve been getting wrong by being straight-by-default until very recently. If you want to know how far my thoughts on the subject have developed so far, go read blog posts “Dimensions of Sexual Self, Sexuality and Relationships” and “In search of a lexicon”
Since this means that I’m going to mess up the standard neat model view of sexualities I’ve had in my head so far by adding, y’know, messy reality, we’re going to be calling this series Unstraightening My Facts. Because tacky titles make me smile.
So, this month’s Carnival of Aces took some thought… I didn’t know if I’d have something to contribute. But one question got me thinking:
- What unanswered questions do you have about asexual history that you would like to see addressed?
Well, I’d like to know more about what’s happened in my own country, since I found out about asexuality and demisexuality in a very geeky corner of the internet.
It ties in with an awesome occasion, I think. The Dutch Pride is to be held in a month’s time in Amsterdam, and would make a great event to focus on to see how much visibility and attention we get and what ‘lives’ in Holland.
So I’ll be doing some stomping around and then hopefully making a contribution around that topic at the end of the month.
Aven’s Dutch-language forum’s the place I start. It’s been great connecting with people in my native tongue, the past few days there, after I finally dared to write my first post.
15. Have you ever called in to a hotline, warm line, text or chat support network, etc.? What was your experience like? Can you think of any specific ways it could have been better? Would you recommend the service to other aces?
I haven’t ever called a hotline. When I first discovered the concept demisexuality, I did start googling it almost compulsively, returned to do so again every few days, and in the end created this blog and wrote several blog posts in a single day. It was cathartic.
I would recommend other demisexual or asexual newbies at least talk to like-minded people a couple of times or lurk on blogs and forums to get a sense of what it’s like to be ace or demi or grey or -romantic.
That first moment of recognition, identification, as well as subsequent issues, they are moments of such urgent discovery of self, of the world. Especially because asexuality isn’t all that well-known, and how to deal with issues arising from it, in relationships and all, even less. It’s good to share.
Here endeth the series Demisexuality and Mental Health.
14. When people tell you something like “you need therapy” or “get help!”—how do you respond? Have you found any particular method that works well for getting people to stop telling you that?
Be odd, but not aggressively. Make an off-colour joke, stare them down, resort to sarcasm, whatever suits your style, really. I’m not a person gifted with good social skills, much confidence or charisma. I’ve learned that putting people off balance, just a bit, provides a moment to push them in another direction.
Here’s an example: I went to buy something in a market and had to negotiate for the price. The guy opposite me named one that was too high. I didn’t know what to say, so an awkward silence fell. As I stared at him, he seemed to hesitate, repeated the price once more. I finally gave up and turned to go. He yelled a much lower price. Heartened, I turned back to stare at him, now holding back a grin. He lowered the price again. I walked away with the item and a big grin on my face.
I had discovered my negotiating strategy, by accident. Act clueless and socially awkward, on purpose.
It’s a power game, if such demands are made or “suggestions” shouted, so the question is, really, how do you take back power, in your personal life or in the work place? Same strategies apply.
12. Who do you turn to for support? Are there any ways they could more effectively support you? If they’re doing a good job, that’s excellent! What are some specific examples of things they’re doing right?
13. Are you a support person for someone else? What have you learned from being in that position? Do you have any advice for others?
My family, and they did an awesome job. See earlier post.
No… I’m not really in a supporting role for anyone other than professionally. That’s what this blog is for, to explore my sexuality and hopefully provide a starting point for others to find some information and comfort in theirs.
11. What are some coping strategies you’ve developed? Whether with or without therapy, with or without being diagnosed with a mental illness, what is it that helps you deal with your struggles?
The only way out of fear is straight through. Sometimes that means doing something, on purpose, that I’m bad at, and repeat it, until either the fear is gone or I become good at it.
Work actively on increasing your comfort zone, so to speak, but in ways that are enjoyable, like writing, or going to an interesting meeting with strangers… starting a blog to talk about your sexuality when you really daren’t yet in real life.