This post is heavily inspired by a variety of posts at Asexual Curiosities and Writing From Factor X. Those links go to the most directly relevant posts I could find, but I’m sure they (and others) have written many more interesting things on the subject, so I encourage checking out their blogs more thoroughly.
America has an intimacy crisis.
Other Western countries probably do too, but America is what I know.
I’ve had intimate friends, of course. In middle school, I used to spend the night with a friend of mind and we’d talk about our lives and the meaning of the universe until 4am. Now that I’m in college, I have several friends that I can grab for a late-night walk around campus when I need to talk about something. But for a lot of reasons, this isn’t completely satisfying.
For one, I can’t really count on my friends being there on any given night. We’re all busy, and there aren’t any social structures making sure we spend time together (well, except for the awesomeness of my dorm common room). It can easily be weeks between running into a particular friend, and no one considers that a problem.
For another, it’s very temporary. In the long run, we’ll all graduate and go our separate ways. In the shorter run, my friends might get involved in a serious relationship, or take up a new hobby or a new social circle, and not have much time to spend with me.
On a more individual level, it’s a very rare friend who is willing to really let down boundaries. Even with my best friends there’s a little bit of face-saving going on. This is exacerbated by the fact that men in our society aren’t expected to show emotion. Sometimes I’ll try to get a friend to open up to me, and they will. But more often, they’ll turn it into a joke.
I don’t have much faith that it’s better for other people in American society. I’m at a really amazing school, in an amazing dorm, with a very solid group of friends. I count myself lucky to have as much social support and potential for intimacy as I do. I would be really surprised to hear that I have it worse than normal.
A lot of my treasured moments with people have to do with sharing some special level of intimacy with them. For instance, I’ve been casually involved with a certain girl for several months, and the most meaningful moment in that relationship so far is when I was allowed to be there during a family crisis. The level of vulnerability and connection shared there was way more important than any of the sexual things we’ve done. For another, in high school I spent several years chatting online with a girl I’ve never met in real life, and there were times where that was my most important friendship, because the situation gave us the possibility of being very open and vulnerable with each other, even if only over the internet. Looking back at my life, a lot of the things I’ve done have been an attempt to squeeze a little more intimacy out of the world around me.
There is, however, a socially sanctioned way of getting more intimacy: a “relationship”. In a (sexual, romantic, monogamous) relationship, you have a lot more freedom and power to gain intimacy. You are supposed to be a scheduling priority, and you can expect a certain amount of regular alone-time. You have some say into where your partner lives, and if the relationship goes long-distance you’re assured of constant communication and visits as frequently as possible. You have both the time and societal permission to really let down your barriers and be emotionally vulnerable. All of this is wonderful. There’s a reason I don’t spend much time single.
But I wouldn’t be writing this post if I thought it was all peachy-keen, now would I?
This structure causes a ton of problems:
- It doesn’t serve the needs of asexual/aromantic people, who may want intimacy and commitment but not the trappings that come with.
- It means that you have a lot of incentive to focus your time on energy on solely the one partner, which exacerbates the problems asexuals face, and adds to the crisis of intimacy.
- It means that your emotional support is very fragile, as it’s based on only one person, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll date that person forever.
- That fragility means there’s a lot of incentive to stay in bad relationships, because being single is worse.
- Paradoxically, that fragility also directly causes bad relationships, because you’re kinda screwed when your main emotional support is also the person who’s currently hurting you. There’s a reason friends tend to stay friends even if they fight, but “relationships” have a reputation for spiraling out of control.
There are also all of the traditional problems with monogamy that my poly friends will recognize:
- It doesn’t allow you to get all of your (many and varied) needs met, assuming you’re a real person dating other real people, who are never perfectly compatible.
- It denies the natural human tendency to form intimate connections with more than one person at a time.
- It often forces you into sexual patterns that aren’t completely fulfilling, due to differences in libido, fetishes, etc.
How do we deal with this?
Polyamory does a pretty good job. It fixes a lot of those problems handily. Having multiple relationships means that you have more emotional support and chances for intimacy, and the compatibility and “singleness” issues become a lot less important.
However, I think polyamory, as currently envisioned, is missing a crucial realization: Relationships are not inherently more meaningful just for being sexual and/or romantic.
This is important for being inclusive to asexuals, who deserving some loving as well, but it also opens up a whole vista of possibilities for meaningful relationship structures. No one negotiates with their platonic best friend about how their relationship will progress… but why not? Platonic relationships can be just as meaningful as the best sexual/romantic relationship, why not give them the same time and energy and communication skills? Why do we assume we have to only be “partners” with people we’re attracted to? If we decouple intimacy, sex, and romance, then we have so many more ways we can make our relationships work for us. Why not have a straight guy and an asexual guy as primary partners, with the straight guy having sex with women on the side? Why not have a triad where only one of the relationships is sexual? If we break down the assumption that we have to sleep with people we’re intimate with, we can start to solve our intimacy problem.
This won’t be easy. If polyamory is weird, this is weirder. You try getting societal recognition for your life-partner-who’s-your-gender-even-though-you’re-both-straight. Not going to happen any time soon. But there’s no reason we can’t change our own lives, whether in small or big ways, to increase our openness to intimacy.
In future posts, I’ll have some ideas on how to do this in practical terms. In the mean time, DJ over at Love from the Asexual Underground has some great posts: