This is part 1 of a 2-part entry for the December 2014 Carnival of Aces: Touch, Sensuality, and Non-sexual Physical Intimacy
*content warning: talk of sexual coercion, and sexual harassment*
I like the idea of nonsexual physical intimacy in theory, but oftentimes I’m repulsed by actually going through with it. . It seems like it’d be nice to have in a relationship, as an expression of emotional closeness, though I don’t believe that nonsexual touch should be limited to romantic and familial relationships.
There is cultural variation to this, as in some cultures, hugs or kisses are understood, and accepted as ways of greeting a friend. The Anglophone countries are very restrictive about touch outside romantic-sexual relationships (and outside of familial relationships to some extent too) though, with norms dictating that friends aren’t “supposed” to express much physical affection with each other.
Despite the social restrictions on expressions of it, it is devalued. Society has a lot of restrictions on what is socially acceptable sex too, but even among the hardcore “no sex before marriage” types, they value (marital) sex tremendously. A lot of nonsexual affection, including sensual intimacy, is assumed to be “reserved” for exclusive romantic-sexual relationships, which ties into the assumption that there must be sexual intent behind it. In a relationship, it is devalued by being erased, and is erased by assuming to be sexual. When acknowledged, it’s still devalued as being lesser than sexual intimacy. It may be seen as merely something that must lead to sexual intimacy. With devaluation comes being taken for granted.
Splitting off nonsexual, sensual touch from sexual intimacy is so important, because the societal assumptions that it must be a lead-in to sexual intimacy is very limiting in how people can feel like they can express affection in their relationships. It also makes it harder for people to define, and defend their boundaries. Wanting only sensual intimacy is seen as not being a valid decision, and someone can be accused of “leading on” the other person, leading to sexual coercion. Or it’s assumed that consenting to sensual intimacy automatically means consenting to sex; it’s an extension of the myth that consent to one activity means consenting to all of them.
More generally, taking touch for granted starts at an early age. I briefly mentioned familial relationships, because of the ways relatives are expected to show affection. Remember the times you were told, as a child, to give hugs to, or be hugged by relatives who wanted it, no matter how much you didn’t want to? It doesn’t matter that it’s “just” a familial hug, with no harm intended behind it, but these parents are taking their children’s affection for granted by forcing it. Any kind of affection shouldn’t be forced. It can teach children that their own boundaries, and the boundaries of others don’t matter, and it’s a lesson that gets carried with them, and escalates over time.
Typing this up brings back some unpleasant memories, including some back in childhood. In third grade, one of my classmates stalked me, kept touching me, and chasing me, and I never wanted his attention. It should’ve been obvious to everyone that I wasn’t okay with it, but they overlooked that because he “liked” me. I remember the times I was physically cornered by him. No one stepped in. They thought what he was doing was okay and cute, and a display of affection, not harassment. I thought I had no choice but to endure it. Apparently, respect for boundaries goes out the window if you “like” someone! He was “only” touching me, like poking and grabbing me, but it was a violation of my boundaries that was continuously encouraged. I had forgotten about this incident for more than a decade, because up until then, I didn’t know that what happened was harassment.
On that note, I didn’t even know the difference between flirting and sexual harassment for a long time, and I’ve put up with sexual harassment, because I thought it was “only” flirting, and if it was just flirting, I’d be a tattletale for saying no, or reporting it.
Condoning unwanted touch happens so much, and goes unchallenged for much of our lives. It happens to the extent that a lot of people don’t think to ask before touching their partner, not regarding how they feel about it*. They don’t think they need to, and their partner doesn’t think that it’s worthwhile to speak up against being touched when they don’t want to, because it’s “only” nonsexual touch and intimacy. It seems like this is one of the only times nonsexual touch is acknowledged in a relationship.
Taking nonsexual touch (including sensual intimacy) for granted, the sexual expectations often behind it, and not knowing that there’s a distinction between sensual and sexual, can also be a major obstacle in a relationship. These factors can keep someone from enjoying nonsexual touch for what it is, if that is what they want.
In some mixed relationships between asexuals and allosexuals, the asexual partner likes sensual intimacy for what it is, while sensual intimacy makes their partner more strongly want sex with them, but the asexual partner doesn’t enjoy sex. How they see both sensual and sexual intimacy are at odds with each other. The asexual partner may feel dread for something they want to enjoy, feeling like they have to have sex afterwards, feeling like it’s the “price to pay” for what they want, or the allosexual partner will feel disappointed if the sensual intimacy doesn’t lead into sex.
In part 2, I’ll be writing about the negative impact of taking nonsexual touch for granted in a mixed relationship personally affected me, though I was repulsed by it.
*There are still people who don’t think they need to ask for their partner’s consent for sex. However, there are people who understand that consent is required for all sexual contact, but still don’t think that kissing, hand-holding require consent.