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.
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.
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.
A group that advocates the need for less sex in relationships… is religious leaders. I am only acquainted with my own, so excuse the Christian bias, here.
Here’s why this isn’t helpful: they still advocate for intimate relationships outside family to include romance, marriage, children and sex, albeit after marriage. Such relationships are elevated in importance over all others. Worst case, relationships with people of other religions and friendships with other genders are actively discouraged.
Aside from the misinformation and social problems this causes, this theory is especially weird when contrasted with practice.
My religious community has provided me with a half-dozen types of relationships, from “habitual greeting on a Sunday, but member of the same community” to “see them every week in small groups and also hang out randomly because they’re cool people” I have no words for outside of that community, because “fellowship” has become a weird and icky word in the Christian propaganda.
It’s a relationship sandbox for people re-entering society after some type of isolation, such a long-term therapy, and sought out either by individuals or by organisations encouraging them to go to church. Social engagement is important, too, whether through volunteer work or by churches cooperating with non-profits and grassroots initiatives.
On top of that, and hardest to explain, is how central and intimate a relationship with God is. I guess with one or multiple gods, or saints, if your religion is different. Prayer is a private conversation. A religious text is a personal diary or a letter as much as it is a history. Science is an exploration into the endless wonder an eternal mind produces. Human variety is an expression of how limitless we can be, not how limited we are.
In other words, a church can provide a feeling of community and a platform for platonic (and yes, romantic or sexual) relationships few other organisations can. Prescriptive attitudes and a bias towards monogamous heterosexual marriages is detrimental to that.
So to this questionaire1 I’d like to add:
- Do you exclude any people or individuals out of principle?
- Have you ever outright told people they were “wrong”?
- Do you have a pro-active anti-discrimination policy?’
- Do you organise activities aimed at socialising?
- Do you encourage or discourage relationships of any kind?
Further reading (and image)
1. Self-evaluation guide for welcoming churches (blog post).
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.
I have tried to quantify what type of relationships I as demisexual could in theory have, besides epic romance1. Since then, I have wished to define my relationships along traditional lines less and less, because I’ve come to appreciate the peculiar freedom of regarding people as a 99.9%-not-a-sexual-person. Much ambiguity and embarrassment have drained from my regard of other adults, even when they put out sexual cues. It’s just… okay to ignore and approach them as person.
Since this is threatening to become a ridiculously long, rather disjointed post otherwise, I’m breaking it up into its different subjects.
So, in morphing from ‘normal’ to ‘demisexual’ in paradigm as well as orientation, I have combined some points of speculation to see if I can see where this redefining of relationships is headed. That’s why the rest of these posts are basically those points laid out, and then the direction they point me in. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the topic, because this is a train of thought in progress.
I crave one or a few intimate relationships. Beyond a circle of acquaintances and friends and relatives, I need a few humans to anchor me. This role is fulfilled by close family, but as an adult I want to share my life. My own inclination leans towards one such partner. I assume other humans have similar (but not identical) desires.
1. An earlier post “Not Just Epic Romance”.