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?