Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Power of Talking about Intimacy

I think I've broken the ice.

I've been ranting about intimacy for a while now, despite the fact that it's pretty embarrassing, socially awkward and professionally detrimental. I do it because I've had this overwhelming sense for the past five years that the asexual community is onto something, that somewhere latent beneath the everyday assumptions that we make about intimacy there's this ocean of unmet need just waiting to burst out, hit oxygen and and change things.

The human need for intimacy is a deeply, deeply powerful force, from our actions as people right on up to our actions as a species. It drives everything from our family drama to our purchasing behavior to gang violence to the rise of megacities. We don't spend nearly enough time talking about it. The flippedness with which most people conflate intimacy and sex is strong evidence of that fact. And even though I've spent years ranting about it to people, I've had almost no luck getting other people to see intimacy as the fundamental, game-changing force of nature that my gut sees it as. No luck, that is, until this year.

See, a few times a year I give talks on college campuses about the asexual community, 90 minute orientations to how we work and what we stand for. Because they consist of safe, friendly and contained audiences I use these venues to test messaging that can later be delivered to the press, and in the past few months I've switched things up. Specifically I've switched up the way that I talk about intimacy in the asexual community. The results have been staggering. Twice now, multiple people in the room have gone through something akin to a shift in worldview. At a precise point in the lecture something in them shifts, and they start to view their own life experience from a new and profoundly empowering perspective. They thank me profusely and gush about how things suddenly make sense that have been murky for them for years.

It sounds egotistical to write this, and to some extent it is, but I also think I've struck a vein. The last time I got reactions like this it was the start of the asexual community. Now it's in the broader population (sex-positive undergrad students so far, but I'll have to test and see where else this model for talking about intimacy is applicable.) Here's how it works:

I open my lecture giving the definition of asexuality and talking through the specifics of our identity and our breed of sexual politics. Then I delve into three stories from the asexual community, all stories about intimacy.

The first is a story about Winter and Paul. Two asexuals from New York, Winter and Paul met when the community was just starting and meetups in Manhattan were just getting off the ground. They hit it off as fast friends, and as they spent more time together something blossomed. To people who equate intimacy with sex it might be difficult to get what exactly changed, but their relationship suddenly started to feel different. They started spending more time together, more and more of their feelings started bubbling to the surface, the plans and promises they made started creeping skyward. It made sense to call the relationship something else. After dating for a few years they got married, making them the second wedding on AVEN, and settled into a life together.

That's the first story.

The second story is about a monk named Dave. Now, Dave became a monk long before the asexual community was established, starting as a US Navy Chaplan and never looking back. He bounced between the Vatican and far-flung adventures in exotic locales, devouring life experience as avidly as he devoured books and intellectual argument. Eventually he decided to quit the church, and settled happily into the DC gay community where he applied his considerable intellectual muscle to the gay rights discussions of the day. He grew a monumental beard and got busy building himself a house with a generously proportioned library. As Dave settles into his library he'll look back across the journals from his travels, across the dog-eared books that he's spent his life tromping through and the clean, crisp ones he's still ready to devour. Dave is happy.

That's the second story.

The third story is about a girl named Ann and her punk band. Ann is in highschool, but that's ok because Ann loves punk music. She's got this band that tours regularly, and the band vibe couldn't be better. When they get together they can really tap into something, really put a part of themselves out there together and build something powerful with it. That experience trumps most of what Ann has experienced in her life so far, and the same is true for many of her band mates. They've got something. It's deep, it's powerful, and it's build relationships that are just as deep and powerful. The band is together all of the time for practice, and because of that they've become one another's support network. It's always tough to say how these things will go, but for now Ann's punk band is giving her a lot of what she needs in life.

That's the third story.

Now, the important thing to understand about these stories is that in the asexual community they're all seen as equally valid ways of getting at the same thing. The word "single" doesn't really get used in the asexual community, because it implies that if you're not in a romantic partnership with someone you're somehow isolated and your human need for intimacy isn't being fulfilled. In the asexual community you can't really be single, because it's equally valid to fulfill your need for intimacy by focusing on your relationship with yourself and the world around you, the way that Dave does, or by focusing on a close relationship with a community, the way that Ann does. Intimacy still matters. There's no getting away from our need for it, and in the asexual community we challenge ourselves vigorously to pursue it. We just don't think that romantic relationships are the only path.

At different times in our lives it makes sense to focus more on intimacy from a partner, from ourselves or from our communities, but we'll always need a little of all three. Think about these stories. Which resonates most with you and why? Does our culture value these types of intimacy differently?


Annie said...

I was really interested to read your thoughts on this.

Even just reading the opening line, I was immediately thinking of my own concepts of "intimacy" - there's sexual intimacy, and in that I include certain gazes and touches that don't have anything to do with traditional 'sexual' body parts - but there's also just plain intimacy. I'm not asexual, but I can make do without the former and I feel less-than-realised when I don't have the latter.

Um, in answer to your question (if you'd like to hear the answer) - I need connection from others in the wider community, but not intimacy. I definitely need it from my family (and have it, and feel guaranteed it) and, I feel, from a partner - there are certain types of intimacy that aren't sexual but that I still would not feel comfortable exploring outside of a romantic relationship.
Sorry I don't have much relvant to offer :)

Level Best said...

"[It's] equally valid to fulfill your need for intimacy by focusing on your relationship with yourself and the world around you, the way that Dave does, or by focusing on a close relationship with a community, the way that Ann does. Intimacy still matters." That is a particularly amazing passage in a very intriguing post. I think you're absolutely correct.

I believe the need for intimacy is behind all sorts of different kinds of relating. I am a lifelong introvert, but I've always had a need for intimacy--a need for recognition as a person so that I could fully feel myself to exist as a person. Interaction and/or just proximity to a close relative or friend has been a way of maintaining my integration as a person throughout my life, although I would rather do many, many things other than go to a social gathering in order to seek out validation from strangers.

The Impossible K said...

Wow. Excellent insights.
I think I can relate to all three, to different degrees. I feel like I can really understand Paul and Winter's story now that I've recently made the leap into marriage. There really is a totally different feel to a romantic relationship, something I couldn't explain or comprehend until I was in one myself. But, being an introvert as well, I can definitely say there are times I relate more to Dave's story.
IMO, coupling gets more credit for intimacy than the last two stories- which is sad, because the intimacy they provide IS equally valid.
Thanks for reminding us of this, DJ :)

Anonymous said...

Hey there. A short note from the Dave in question. While your description of me is generally accurate, I hope you will pardon me for correcting some of the assertions/implications. I was a radarman in the navy, not a chaplain, and entered the monastery seven years after leaving the navy. I've bounced through the Vatican several times but mostly as a tourist. I had little to do with DC gay rights discussions but did actively work in that community for asexual visibility. And while I have settled into my library it is, alas, in a house I bought, not one I built. But single and happy? Absolutely!

Or perhaps you had some other Dave in mind.....

Bard of AVEN (ret.)

DJ DJ said...

Thanks for the corrections, BoA! Because I lacked sufficient details I kind of made fairytale versions of you, Ghosts, Winter and Paul to prove my point. I'll give the corrected version in the future.

Anonymous said...

My initial reaction to this post was, "Well, of course". Your three examples seem like common sense to me. The differences in each arise when considering the focus of the intimacy: on a person (1), on a subject (2), on a community (3), or on a combination thereof. All of this seems intuitive to me until the next time I speak with my peers, and then I suddently (re-)realize how broad my concept of intimacy is. It is in these conversations that the "aha-effect" has the most potential to get others to understand intimacy from another perspective.


Bitsy said...

*nod* This post is why I feel like polyamory community and the asexual community might more in common then the realize. They are both re-thinking and redefining what an intimate relationship means. Both are explicitly exploring the link between intimacy and sex, which isn't for most people the link culture says it should be.
As notions of what makes family, or what makes particular types of family worth recognizing (see are starting to be explored, these ideas need to be on the table.

Unknown said...

First off, I think “single” gets used all the time on AVEN. I definitely agree with what you’re saying, but I don’t think the asexual community, in general, thinks this way.

As for my own story there, it’s pretty much accurate, aside from the inaccurate age (just in case people think that punk is something you grow out of… it doesn’t have to be!). But sometimes I think people assume that because I talk about communities/groups of people that I do things with, I don’t focus on individual relationships. That’s it’s like I have this relationship with the band and that’s it – that it’s all about intimacy with a community, and perhaps that doesn’t seem very intimate to people who are used to thinking about romantic relationships or friendships and all that.

I focus on the health of the band I’m in and the broader music community in my area, to make sure it doesn’t get stagnant and die out. It’s very important to me, and has most definitely been a support network for me. But from within the band and the music community, I also form different relationships with the people involved. Having a “community” like a band is a great way to meet different people who are interested in different things, and you can have different types of relationships with them. But of course, when the band gets together and plays music and records and things are just on, and you all get in a van and live together 24/7 for weeks playing shows around the country, it’s something that can be incredibly special and awesome because you all have this tight bond, similar to a family, and you’re all working towards a common goal. In some ways, it goes beyond individual relationships.

But I have all sorts of needs/desires. For instance, I don’t cuddle with the band (ok, well I have, but that’s beside the point) or the local music community, but I do in some of my relationships. And I form different emotional connections in my relationships.

Really, though, I don’t think my situation is all that strange. I bet a lot of people have communities that are important to them and that they focus on while still having all sorts of other relationships. Having a community, like a band or the music community in your area, is like a foundation for me – I know that if things do go sour with a person I’m close to, or if they move away, it may really suck, but at least I won’t be isolated. I have a community that I’m a part of to fall back on.

My way of thinking about this idea of “community-based intimacy” may be a bit different from David’s concept, however, and I think it’s been awhile since I’ve heard about his.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled on your blog and look forward to reading more!

First impression: as a lesbian ex-Catholic, the story of Winter and Paul who decided to get married (and presumably not have sex) brought up bad memories for me, because that's how the Catholic church thinks all gay people should live, as asexual/celibates. I know your story it was the free choice of the individuals involved, although I think it bears emphasizing, especially for same-sex partners, (I don't know if Winter is male or female) that expressing love asexually or sexually are equally valid options.

Belén said...

Hello David,

I am spanish reporter and I am doing a research about AVEN and asexuality in Spain. I would like to interview about it cause I know you were the founder of AVEN. I couldn't find a email to write you so please email me at and we can talk.


Twoo Domina said...

Companionship is so much more important than sex. Used to be able to take sex or leave it, but men were so stupid about insisting that they somehow had a right to my holes it put me off the whole thing. It's just not meaningful to me, and now not worth it to try.

But until reading your post I never understood how I was so very happy burying myself in study and not needing other people to the level I see around me.