When I was navigating single life as a college and graduate student in the 1990s, a lot of the ideas that would have made sense of my desires and boundaries were not yet part of mainstream discussion. Today I’d probably identify as a demisexual, i.e. a person who only feels sexual attraction to someone when there’s an emotional bond. Back then, I only had a choice between Christian conservative modesty rules or a “sex-positive” feminism that shaded into peer pressure to prove my maturity through sexual availability. The latter was epitomized by the campus therapist I sought out for help coping with my mother’s mental breakdown; she offered her unsolicited opinion that I had a fear of intimacy because I mentioned that I planned to save sex for marriage.
It’s popular to write thinkpieces scoffing at the proliferation of labels for gender and sexuality, but in my experience, having a theoretical framework for your intimate inclinations does two important things. First, it reassures you that being out of step with your immediate social environment is a normal human variation, not a personal failure to grow up, loosen up, or man up. Widening the lens beyond the people who happen to be in your hometown or classroom reveals that there is no single right way to be in your body. You might even find like-minded friends or partners who use that label as shorthand for your shared values.
Second, identity labels give you a way to be clear about your limits without judging other people. Especially for those of us who are read as female, a simple “No, I don’t feel like having sex with you” is often taken by the other person as either a hurtful personal rejection or as an opening to negotiate, not a real boundary. Religious chastity rules served the same purpose, but required me to assert that everyone else was doing sex wrong. Celibate, opinionated, unconsciously queer…I would have made a great pope.
For me, demisexuality means that I can enjoy sexual fantasies about fictional characters or the hotties in the Jockey underwear catalog, but can’t picture myself getting physically close to a real-life guy unless I trust him and feel seen and cared for by him. The prospect of an unloving hookup gave me a dis-integrated feeling, a stifling sense of being consumed and erased. My body can’t relax if the emotions aren’t genuine; contrary to popular ideas of romance, illusion is a real buzzkill for me.
I appreciated this March 2017 article by Katie Klabusich at The Establishment, an intersectional social justice blog: “The Unspoken Problem With College Hookup Culture”. In her review of Lisa Wade’s social science study American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, Klabusich finds a way to critique the callousness and emptiness that have become the norm in this subculture, without slut-shaming. The problem is not the number of sexual partners but the lack of a compassionate and responsible ethic about how to treat one another, whether in short- or long-term relationships.
Wade zeroed in on why dudes freak out and why women are so hard on themselves when they feel a thing — basically, students think that emotionless sex is the desired norm…
But can sex — even casual sex — actually be devoid of meaning? And more importantly, should it be?…
…I have realized over time that I wasn’t defective for wanting even casual sexual encounters to have meaning — even if that meaning was “just” fun, release, and temporary connection.
“Clingy, desperate, and needy are extremely effective insults, invoking all the things that students don’t want to be: weak, insecure, unable to control one’s emotions, and powerless to separate sex from feelings. For men, it’s the antithesis of masculinity. For women, it’s a failure to be liberated, modern, strong, and independent…Students aim, then, for aloofness.”
And this aloofness, Wade says, can engender a vicious cycle. “The idea is not just to not care, it’s to care less. Lack of interest is a moving target and the direction is down,” writes Wade. “So, after a hookup, students monitor each other’s level of friendliness and try to come in below the other person. Each time one person takes a step back emotionally, the other takes two. They can end up backed into their respective corners, avoiding eye contact, and pretending the other doesn’t exist.” Wade cites an NYU alum who calls it “the blase Olympics.”
The problem is that this blase attitude can make it difficult to ultimately establish emotional intimacy. “The skills needed for managing hookup culture…are in direct contradiction to the skills needed to propose, build, and sustain committed relationships,” writes Wade.
Gay Christian activist Kevin Garcia explores the same theme in his interview “Let’s Talk About SEX(ual Ethics) w/ Rev. Jonathan Vanderbeck”, an episode of Garcia’s podcast series A Tiny Revolution. From the introduction:
Sexual ethics (one’s personal practice around about the proper expression of sexual intimacy) is a topic of conversation that happens rarely in church because it’s assumed everyone is waiting till marriage. But, if we’re being honest, this is hardly the case. And have we stopped to ask why we believe this way? Or have we even explored what scripture says about this?
In the hour-long episode, they suggest that “covenant” and “one-flesh” language about sexuality in the Bible could be a foundation for kinder and more respectful hookups. All the people you have sex with become a part of you and vice versa, whether you end up in a long-term relationship or never see each other again. Christian sexual ethics should guide people to bring a loving consciousness to all encounters, rather than shaming people for having diverse sexual lifestyles. The current ideal of monogamy leads to hypocrisy and unkindness as gay Christians and former Christians act out their inner conflict on their partners. Listen to the interview and follow Kevin and Jonathan on Twitter.
Given how long it’s taken mainline churches to approve same-sex marriage rites, I don’t expect a liturgy for sacred one-night stands anytime soon. But why shouldn’t there be? Religious ritual and romantic courtship have traditionally provided transition markers between ordinary life and the liminal, powerful, transformative space where intimacy happens. My marriage-first ethic developed from the dearth of such intentional practices to honor short-term affairs. However, older people who’ve done more spiritual and psychological inner work could create such practices for themselves, as Damien Bohler describes in his 2015 post “Sacred Casual Sex” at the spirituality and mindfulness website Elephant Journal.
I am looking for something very specific in a partner that goes beyond attraction and requires a compatibility of life-path. And yet when I meet beautiful individuals who awaken this fascination within me my body, my heart, my mind, my soul wants to know them even if it is for a short while.
In our conventional models of relating the way to do this is through one night stands, casual sex or perhaps ‘friends with benefits.’ After having experimented in all of them I feel none of these ways of being with another are truly satisfying to me. Inevitably some kind of deception occurs, sometimes we are even both privy to that deception. Perhaps neither of us want something longer lasting yet we are sucked in by the ideas that perhaps, because we have sex or share intimately, that we are obligated in some way to pretend that there is more between us than there actually is. Another thing we might do is hold back a part of ourselves from truly becoming intimate and vulnerable with this other because we are not “in love forever after.”
I want more than that. I want the freedom to show up fully with whoever I am with, and also the freedom from unstated obligations and assumptions. I want to love, adore and cherish even if it is only for a short while.
In the article, he describes how he and one of his lovers crafted a plan to explore intimacy in a caring, bounded, and non-exclusive way. I wonder if any Christian media outlet would publish a similar piece. Are the norms of exclusivity and permanence too embedded in our monotheistic covenant religion? How far will queer Christians be able to develop the tradition in a new direction? Never underestimate the power of sex to spur Reformation–see Martin Luther’s rejection of clerical celibacy.